Mario Lanfranchi, living it, has set the scene over time for the family’s former mansion: a country villa with a sober 17th-century body that announces itself through a still Italian garden inhabited by statues.
Beyond the threshold
The entrance gate, with sumptuous golden curls, opens and closes to the notes of “Libiamo” from Verdi’s La Traviata. Attached to the garden, on the left as you look at the facade, is the oratory dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, long used as a warehouse for agricultural implements. It was restored and reconsecrated in 1962 with a solemn mass, sung by the famous soprano Anna Moffo, at the time the wife of Mario Lanfranchi. Today the oratory offers itself as a court theater clothed in a symphony of ancient fragments of liturgical and parade textiles, a first significant testimony to the many omnivorous collecting cravings that marked the Maestro’s life.
The villa announces itself through a still, orderly Italian garden with parterres inhabited by statues. In the dialectic of nature and artifice, the traditional impeccable symmetry of the Italian garden is contradicted by the sinuous forms of a pond with water lilies, singularity of the English garden.
The contrasts accustom us early on to the owner’s philosophy practiced in the sign of living and rejoicing, of satisfying the senses and above all of breaking the rules.
Sculptures and water lilies
The garden’s stone inhabitants populate nature’s little realm of symbolic, mythical and amorous meanings. From their pedestals Ceres promises abundance and harmony, Diana with quiver scans the horizon of her hunting grounds, Venus warns us of Cupid’s traps.
From the low thread of water the silent as well as mysterious Water Lilies evoke more than any other flower the feminine, the exotic and the voluptuous remaining emblems of the hidden and absent woman.
The precious taste of “futility”
Two shapely sculptures, of Ceres and Venus, pagan deities in stone, guard the entrance staircase to the house, promising wealth and voluptuousness.
The interior, opening onto the large central hallway, heralds color, movement and wonder. The atmosphere is solemn and joyous. The eclectic owner, a great devotee of the ephemeral, in defiance of any concept of unified style, has reinvented interiors and atmospheres by abounding in mirrors, fabrics, wrought iron, curious objects, old, antique and new furniture, and works by fine designers, following criteria that are not so much functional to life as to it’s representation.
“I prefer futility: I work by excess never by subtraction”-was a guiding principle of the Maestro, counterpointing his speeches with a masterly note on the state of the art: “In my house nothing can be said to be politically correct.” The symbol of the crossbow returns, t, in multifarious manners, is scattered a little everywhere, a heraldic memory of the lineage of Margherita Balestra, mother of Mario Lanfranchi.
Silvery reflections in the green of artifice
And here is the enchantment of the precious inner garden known as “Of Gleams” or “Perennial Garden.” The Maestro felt the need to always know the author of all things, whether or not they were masterpieces, and not having never had proof of the existence of God, the supposed author of Nature, he found it permissible to create for himself at home a private nature of trees fake and waterfalls of fruits, flowers and vines. The gleams are a sophisticated interplay of lights and lustres created by rays of natural and artificial light passing through furnishings of perpex and crystal to make a collection of precious embossed silver shine.
The historic kitchen among hanging branches
The large house-theater finds a cozy and comforting moment of conformity to tradition in the old kitchen. The room presents itself as the belly of the house as it was in the seventeenth century, with a large fireplace blackened by centuries-old smoke and stowed by a collection of period branches: striking in their poetic repetition are the many pudding molds. Time in the kitchen seems to stand still around a seductive meeting with bowing between two 18th-century chocolatiers.
And it is precisely the kitchen that holds the mystery of the house’s ghost, that of a young woman who died for love.
The passion of challenges, of contests, of games
Fiction and reverie, worship of the ancient and its negation, delimit the scope of research and taste with which the Maestro has interpreted the spaces of his home and constructed a kaleidoscopic world in his image and likeness. And Mario Lanfranchi has not forgotten to make an accomplished portrait of himself through his sporting passions as well.
Here then is the billiard room in which, ritually, one day a week, endless challenges were played accompanied by pleasant conversations. Extraordinary is the cup room in which hundreds of trophies shine on parade to exalt and testify to the countless historic victories of the Maestro, who, however, avoided betting on those who ran in his name in dog and horse races: never tempt fate too much!
Many photos of the overall champion, the greyhound El Tenor, with 102 prizes won on English courses against the previous record of 67. Next comes the monument dedicated to cinema: another passion and artistic endeavor of Mario Lanfranchi, director of films that have entered more than one film history.
Craftsmanship and Art: wrought iron
In one wing of the house is a room ideally named the “Wrought Iron Museum” where, without aesthetic complacency but with playful intentions, a multifaceted collection of utilitarian objects is on display, evidence of the great regard for the Maestro’s craftsmanship of fabrication, which, for the sake of surprise, he found himself saying:
“I love to try my hand at things I don’t love: love makes everything so obvious!”
A trail of memories
A major film collection of over twenty thousand titles fills walls and shelves.
“It is cinema that is the most complete art,” a statement by the Maestro that allowed no replication.
As in a princely court of the past, beyond a door that opens along the staircase, lies a wunderkammer, a small world of the unusual and rare, once visible only according to the mood of the owner, a collection of extraordinary and curious objects. Needless to list them here: to the visitor the pleasure of wonder.
The upper floor replicates the 17th-century layout of the house at the entrance. Renewed is the staging of the grand theater of life and affections with a gallery of marble, bronze and terracotta busts, among which one recognizes, smiling, Lanfranchi himself. Further on stands strutting one of his ancestors: that Balestra lawyer with a favorite-framed face that seems to want to converse with the head of a first-century B.C.E. Roman matron with a distinctive curly hairstyle.
One smiles inside the room devoted to women, an affectionate, playful tribute to many encounters in her life. On the walls a crowd of photographic portraits: grandmother, mother, wife, lovers or even simply actresses who debuted or worked with the director. So many famous faces together with unknown ones, posed beauties that together evoke the fascinating and varied female universe that Lanfranchi nevertheless preferred, even if only for conversation: women who were always more creative and original. And it is no coincidence that the foundation in her name has as its main purpose the enhancement of the female universe.
The dominance of red: bedroom
The large bedroom is a harmonious square room totally swathed in heavy red damask fabric that, with its four-poster bed, evokes both a regal room and Rubens-like atmospheres. The only austere furnishing note is the precious vestry credenza cabinet with riser, while on the wall stands the recognizable angel with scroll, a detail from Raphael’s Madonna of Foligno, a careful 19th-century copy on canvas. The name of the divine Raphael alone is worth a shadow of the past as the great art connoisseur and collector that Mario Lanfranchi was, who, before retiring to Santa Maria, had one of the most important postwar collections of ancient paintings, then sold – at the time of the separation (and division of assets) from Moffo – to the world’s major museums.
The villa for Mario Lanfranchi was also a laboratory of reflection – and action – on the meaning of art, no longer understood as it once was as a reverential worship of the greatest, an extreme need to approach the sublime, the eternal: multiple outcomes, poetics in the creative gesture, craftsmanship, in the relationship with matter. Communicating with the bedroom and boudoir, the room of the house where the Maestro’s directorial intent is most evident, here with the pleasure of the historical reconstruction of a particular nineteenth-century atmosphere among trinkets, powder, lace and embroidery of a lady’s parlor, perhaps even in the manner of Gozzano.
Enjoying beauty everywhere
The immense bathing room, worthy, one imagines, of Pauline Borghese, reveals, amidst cold marble and imperial furniture, a luxury of polished Pompeian decadence, an articulate room that seems to evoke the environments painted by Alma-Tadema.
Among ancient pages of great festivals
The solemn library in the half-light is a place of silence and a treasure chest of precious volumes illustrated with themes, favorite subjects the festivals, ceremonies, shows, in general the most fascinating ephemeral apparatus. Among the papers, precious autographs of great artists of Italian theater such as Eleonora Duse, Ermete Zacconi and Adelaide Ristori as well as Giuseppe Verdi.
By Giuseppe Verdi, being this his land, many opera directions signed by Mario Lanfranchi everywhere in the world, some of them, made for television and cinema still fortunately visible, the best known surely being La Traviata. A visit to the house restores to its visitors a reflected portrait, a sublimated biography of Mario Lanfranchi’s complex and sulfurous personality, an emanation of his spirit under the banner of amazement and delight.