Hidden in the hills of Umbria, between Rome and Florence, is TOMASO BUZZI’S MASTERPIECE of architectural fantasy, LA SCARZUOLA, begun in 1956 around an abandoned 13th-century Franciscan monastary. This decades-long project has become his aesthetic legacy, continued since his death in 1981 by his nephew, who sees visitors by appointment. French writer Patrick Mauriès decodes the esoteric assemblage of symbols and the accumulation of architectural references that comprise Buzzi’s Ideal City.
text by PATRICK MAURIÈS
photography by GIANNI OPRANDI
In the garish light our Google-obsessed culture shines on everything ever written, said or done, it is reasonable to assume that there is nothing that has not already been inventoried, sorted, and aerially surveyed by the all-seeking lenses of our electronic gaze. But there are hidden places on certain maps where you might find a strange collection of architectural constructions secluded deep inside forgotten Tuscan valleys, reachable only via long, twisting roads and footpaths. And — aside from a handful of devoted fans — who knows who created them? Who — aside from a few nostalgic erudites — can tell us about the artistic influence this masterpiece has had?
Tomaso Buzzi narrowly missed being forgotten by history, a faceless architect, an “anonymous Lombardian,” to use the famous reference by Alberto Arbasino (who, coincidentally, referenced the architect in his own work). He focused all his energy on disappearing, wanting to be evanescent, even writing about his “volatility” in his notebook on August 2, 1958, “The title of my memoirs could be The Flying Architect, something like Molière’s Flying Doctor, Anselmo Bucci’s The Flying Painter or perhaps The Flying Whore — as Raffaele Calzini used to refer to me. And it would not be in the least inappropriate, because I’ve flown to all the continents, on commercial planes as well as on private jets owned by Niarchos and Agnelli. And because I am constantly moving, here and there, never stopping, in a sort of modest ubiquity, because I am very quick to decide, to give orders, scrambling up and down the scaffoldings, sketching at a furious pace. And because I like having things, ideas, and points of view that are cavalier, a bird’s eye view, from on high.”
Tomaso Buzzi was born into an upper-middle-class family on September 30, 1900, in Sondrio, in Ticino (which is, not so coincidentally, the region where Borromini was born: “I can see the heritage of Ticino’s stucco workers in Borromini’s work, in the loving way the stucco is sculpted and in the style [palmettos, flowers, garlands, wings, heads]; just as I see it in myself, another Lombardian.”). He died on February 16, 1981, in Rapallo, in the same clinic where Luciana and Fernanda, his two sisters who had devoted themselves to him, passed away in the two years that followed.
After studying architecture in Milan, he earned an engineering degree in 1923 and set off with a bang: although he is rarely credited, he played a fairly significant role on a construction site that is considered important in 20th-century architecture: the Villa Bouillhet (also called the “The Flying Angel”), built in 1926 in Garches, and generally considered to be the first iconic exploit of the great architect Gio Ponti.
Some consider Buzzi to be the anti-Ponti — in the way that each Eros has its Anti-Eros: at once its double and its opposite. Like the creator of the magazine Domus, Buzzi belongs to the Milanese Neoclassicists, representing — among others — an expression of “the return to order,” evidencing as early as the 1920s the first flagging of standardized Modernism. This was a return to the memory of certain shapes, to the culture of ornamentation, countering the previously requisite austerity, the puritan purifying of Functionalism. Ponti and Buzzi shared an appreciation of artisanal skill, of the decorative and applied arts; they did not dissociate the decor from the architecture, or the conception of the furnishings from that of the space, creating objects as diverse as ashtrays, silver picture frames, and small table clocks. In current auction catalogues, it is possible to find many of these creations attributed to Ponti, who tried to get Buzzi to associate himself with the creation of Domus, then of Stile, to no avail.
They did participate together in the competition to build the Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence, around the same time Buzzi created the Brazil Pavilion for the Triennial, which he visited several times. He became interested in gardening and landscape architecture and was also appointed the artistic director at Venini, the great glass-maker, where his impact was long-lasting and significant. It was when he began to work on two decisive projects that he found his way by choosing to disappear.
One commission from the Countess Marina Volpi involved the restructuration of Palladio’s Villa di Maser, the first in a long series of similar projects for which he seemed particularly suited: he had a remarkable spatial awareness, the ability to bring the grand interiors of the past into the modern world, and in his own words, “adapting spaces, no matter how small, by making them appear larger.”
He was able to do this by cleverly reorganizing the living spaces in the Venetian home of Nicoletta Visconti di Modrone, while also tackling the imposing rooms of the Contini-Bonacossi villa in Florence. These three successful projects in collaboration with members of Italian high society helped him line up his future clientele, allowing the flying architect to fly only to the playgrounds of the rich and famous, from Capri to Saint Moritz, Cortina to Forte dei Marmi, Venice to Brazil, and, of course, eventually to Hollywood, where his name was whispered by the Cinis, the Agnellis, the Borlettis — and by George Cukor. He was overseeing their projects and building their refined houses. Cultivated, urbane, a playboy, this affable elf decided in 1934 to retire from the scene and to cut his ties with the principal institutions, with a single exception: he continued to teach drawing at the Polytechnic University of Milan for years, from 1938 to 1954. He was also a bit of a snob, refusing all articles and appearances in architectural magazines, only accepting offers from Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.
However, concealed behind this somewhat frivolous façade were a few secrets. Fascism was on the rise in Italy during this period, and Gio Ponti had already been named the leader of Italian architecture. Buzzi accused Ponti of being a “zealous, self-serving champion” of the regime, someone who had called Mussolini “the complete Italian” — an endorsement some seem proud of today — and someone who was playing with fire, metaphorically speaking. Buzzi was aristocratically and politically on the right but was also a committed anti-fascist, writing “in the manner of Stendhal” this epitaph: Milanese/ Visse, disegno’, amo’/ Quest’uomo detestava/ Il diavolo, Mussolini e l’aglio, meaning “Milanese, he lived, drew, and loved. This man hated the devil, garlic, and Mussolini.” And unlike many of his colleagues, he participated actively in the Resistance, while maintaining his fluttering society life.
Speaking of his high-society lifestyle, the origins of his most visible creation, the most excessive of his genius, La Scarzuola — a “petrified dream” deep inside Tuscany and Umbria — were to be found in a conversation the architect had while vacationing in Acapulco with a certain Marquis Misciatelli, the owner of the Montegiove castle, in the commune of Montegabbione in the Terni region. It was Misciatelli who suggested that Buzzi acquire a 12th-century convent which had been abandoned in the wooded hills near Montegabbione.
Bomarzo and its Monsters’ Grove, the work of French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the exotic landscape garden known as the Désert de Retz, the Postman Cheval’s Palace … this hybrid unicum [a unique object], La Scarzuola, as he has left it for us, evokes many parallels. But as an aesthetic manifesto, a personal anthology, an overview of Buzzi’s entire architectural and decorative œuvre, the estate also belongs to a stylistic movement which, even if it is currently considered somewhat marginal in 20th-century history, will nonetheless one day be recognized. In its breadth, the complexity of its program, and its multiplicity of references, the La Scarzuola project can be compared to another utopic place, the village of Portmeirion in Wales (as well as the entire œuvre of its irascible, somewhat fanciful creator, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis); in its holistic approach, linking furnishings, decoration, and architecture, it can be compared to the various projects of the somewhat unknown Jean-Charles Moreux; in its way of reconnecting with a traditional vocabulary while also distorting it — and going beyond Modernism without ignoring it — it can be compared to the architectural achievements of Pierre Barbé; and in its closeness to “architectures that speak” and ephemeral constructions, it could also be compared to the imaginary world and style of someone like Emilio Terry. We do not know if Buzzi was in contact with these other artists, but together they create a constellation, a subterranean driving force, which one may follow through Europe, lasting from the 1930s to the ’70s.
It is said, and it may be proved, that La Scarzuola is connected to the legend of Saint Francis of Assisi, that it may be of his creation (scarza is the name of an indigenous marsh plant growing on the banks of a small stream there, with which the saint is said to have built himself a cabin, a living illustration of the mythical origins of architecture). Buzzi did not pay much attention to the liturgical reputation of the former monastery, which he cleaned out in order to hang his paintings and install his books and various collections, spending the last 20 years of his life constructing, planning, and developing his “dream of stone” with no heating, electricity, or telephone. The land is a succession of small descending slopes, which in theory justifies Buzzi’s position: “Except for the religious bits, at La Scarzuola everything is theater.” A theater consisting of other theaters opening into each other, like the infinite reflections bouncing between two mirrors. You will find here an astonishing bric-a-brac of reduced-size models, a temple of Vesta, a Parthenon and a Coliseum, the Canopus of Emperor Hadrian’s Villa, some of Borromini’s favorite motifs, the ruined column from the Désert de Retz, the eye inside which Ledoux featured his theater, and the wide-open mouth of the monster of Bomarzo, as well as a “fantastic acropolis of temples,” stacked up on the hillside in the flattened perspective used by primitive painters.
As if this overstuffed anthology might not be enough, Buzzi further complicated it all with multiple allusions and mythological codes, designing several different starting points and pathways. A giant gilded Pegasus as a symbol of the spirit in flight, a theater of Diana and Actaeon, a temple of Eros, Poliphilo’s boat, one of Narcissus’s lakes, a court for Apollo built around the burned-out trunk of a dead cypress tree, a Pythagorean stairway whose steps sing as one climbs them… Nothing was too much for this surprising setting. “Order is the pleasure found in reason, but disorder is the delight of imagination,” wrote Buzzi in French in his notebooks on May 30, 1967, and “I am of course in favor of delight and imagination.” However, nothing was random in this so-called disorder; from Actaeon to Narcissus, from Cyparissus to Amphion, the imagery of La Scarzuola maintained its themes of transformation, fluidity, movement, and metamorphosis.
“I need to find again,” he wrote in November 1967, “the wondrous power of fascination of non finito, which is similar to the fascination with the ruins themselves, both of which give the architecture that fourth dimension, that of time. I would like to do this in the gardens as well, so that both time and movement affect the statues in their future formations.” Unstable architecture, changeable and changing shapes, a dynamic immobility: the images and symbols of the transformation would then be finished, perfect, shown in relief in the Hegelian sense, revealed by erosion and regeneration by natural forces. In Buzzi’s view, this incredibly complicated construction for which he had sacrificed so many decades of meditation and work would only finally make sense as it slowly eroded, fell apart, and disappeared under the growing vegetation and brambles, losing perhaps its definition but finding another one, constantly evolving. (And this is without taking into consideration the nearly fanatic zeal of his nephew, the one-of-a-kind Marco Solari, heir to the estate, a quicksilver character straight out of the pages of Pinocchio, who since Buzzi’s death has made it his responsibility to maintain the estate as it should be, protecting and rebuilding in minute detail the tiniest of Buzzi’s ideas, scribbled here and there on bits of paper.)
The estate offers an oblique perspective, a self-portrait of Buzzi: less in terms of his patterns, predilections, and references than his metaphysics, his deep philosophical choices, and his own vision of existence. It is an ethical postulate overrun by vegetation, an ontological position in the form of a theory of incompleteness, of seeming nonchalance and secret determination, astonishingly close to what Albert Savinio was developing at about the same time in his art philosophy, in his apologia for dilettantism based on his reading of Lucien.
An extraordinary fragment, dated December 17, 1969, illustrates this weltanschauung [particular world view]: “My ‘subtle concern’ would be to adopt a kind of understatement, so that people would not be too envious, even those who are significantly richer than I am, who might be slightly offended by my initiatives. And it is for that reason, in order to avoid any ‘rivalry’ with them, that I try to cultivate modesty, leaving things unfinished, somewhat neglected and incomplete, and that I skillfully display so many clumsy, easily-criticized elements (the disorder being more surface than real: dust coating the objects; clearly valuable things treated as if they were nothing special; nonchalantly, priceless books left open by their readers; books in towering, random piles; paintings stacked together; my own drawings scattered around; priceless objects mixed in with useless ones; richly embroidered fabrics and upholstery piled in trunks, cupboards, and crates; dusty bookcases left open to the elements; sculptures and other marble objects placed haphazardly, serviced in a voluntarily improvised and approximate fashion that is actually quite efficient; architectural elements in continuous construction, seemingly left in ruins — so many objects whose intentions are secret, with deliberately abstruse meanings, a symbology that can be vaguely deciphered; muffled echoes…”
In Italian buzzo means a slight paunch, the soft belly of a cherub (Buzzi himself was short, bouncy, stocky, and charming — exactly as he wanted to be), but oddly, the word can also mean the constant humming and buzzing of the bee, from the English word buzz: “Buzzi only moves when he’s been stung by his own passion.”
So for all the zealots of “buzz” (in its 21st-century sense), please look closely at the multifaceted œuvre of Tomaso Buzzi and share the aura of the man who stubbornly chose to be known as the “posthumous architect.”
Extract from Disparates 1, Fragments d’une forêt by Patrick Mauriès, published by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2013
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