Manfredi della Gherardesca in conversation with Antonio Monfreda
Cabana Magazine, 2016 Issue #1

Antonio Monfreda In what home do you feel most comfortable?

Manfredi della Gherardesca For many years it was London, but now my new house in Tuscany, “La Civetta,” is becoming quite inspiring, and it makes me feel at home…
…and where do you feel most at home?

AM The place I feel most at home in is in my memory! There are corners in various houses that don’t necessarily belong to me where I feel at home, but which I associate in any event with myself and my aesthetic. At the moment, I adore going back to my parents’ home…

MdG So this means that you have a form of residential pluri-polarism! You like a little nook in each place. Isn’t that confusing?

AM Once I saw a book about art entitled Home is the place you left. I thought that was brilliant, because home is somewhere physical, but also very mental. As someone who travels frequently, there isn’t just a single house in which I’m comfortable; I try to adapt to places and to be comfortable in different surroundings. Of course I have some favorites: certain hotels, for example, or the terrace at my aunt’s house on the island of Panarea, where I can spend hours gazing at the sea; the landscape it overlooks has some cliffs, which somehow furnish the sea… like a fixed scenario undergoing constant transformation… it’s absolutely hypnotic.

MdG I see my itinerant life between places in Italy and elsewhere as a collection of comfortable sofas…

AM But upholstered with what fabrics?

MdG My favorite is maybe the one with stiff white canvas at my in-laws’ house at Mustique. On which you can sleep, read, eat, socialize… I could spend hours there.

AM A lot of socializing happens on Mustique!

MdG That living room is a sort of open portico exposed to winds that are almost always gentle. Actually, that terrace is the equivalent of the one you speak of.

AM We all have our own terrace, but at the same time we think about places by the sea…

MdG So holiday places, places to escape to… far from the routine…

AM You were talking about a roof terrace; once I went to a house in Antwerp, where it was very cold. The entrance was a large room, which I can’t really define: it was a sort of oversized portico facing the garden, with an enormous fireplace with a roaring fire that allowed you to stay outside but to keep warm. I’ve never been back… but as I said, there are places of memory. That’s certainly one of them. I dream about building a house with such a room. I like the concept. It is very northern, linked to the need for warmth and light. Like the use of candles in Stockholm, when you walk along the road and see all the candles in rows on the windowsills, which somehow make up for the absence of sunshine and light… how important is light in a house?

MdG Lighting is everything for me, because it totally changes our relationship with the theatricality of a house. Very often, when I’m in a car but not driving, I look into the houses we pass to see and understand what sort of lighting people live with. I’m fascinated by the idea that someone might not understand the enormous difference lighting can make.

AM Speaking with Giorgio Horn, who is our director of photography, he was telling me that a practical exercise at the experimental center (film school) consisted of reading a poem and then designing the ideal lighting for it: its atmosphere, in other words…

MdG The relationship Scandinavians have with light is very different from ours: they need to have as much of it as possible. We live as southerners behind shutters, a curtain or a screen, to protect ourselves from the strong light of the Mediterranean sun.

AM The curtains from The Leopard… which flap, raised by the sirocco wind; the heavy faded brocade curtains in front of the doors of some churches in Rome…

MdG It’s because we have too much light!

AM What happens behind the window… is the view important for you? The importance of the view from a house is a historically recent requirement; in the past it was not an added bonus…

MdG In England landscaping has always been important: in the countryside, houses, whether large or small, have always had very precise organization with respect to their surroundings. The immediate landscape, even if only a few square meters, is almost never left to chance.

AM Even if the architecture is based on Palladian models.

MdG Yes, based on Italian or at least Latin models to counterbalance an otherwise cold aesthetic that needs a strong relationship with light, with an opening; an open, positive, colorful aesthetic.

AM It has also been scientifically proven that light is an antidepressant. What has it been like for you passing continuously from your life in England to America and back to Italy? Is there something Italian, for instance, that you can’t do without in your homes?

MdG My sense of color, which I think is totally Mediterranean, totally sunny.

AM I remember your first house in London: you arrived from your job in New York with Citibank. Every room was brightly colored. Now that’s fashionable, but at the time it was totally pioneering…

MdG Sunflower yellow, mandarin orange, the wine-colored living room… you’ve never been afraid of using color.
Color is the enemy of indecisive taste; average taste aims for chromatic neutrality. Leading to 20 or 30 years of beige, white and gray houses… your house in Rome, Antonio—sorry—is gray and white. But it should be said that there are some colors that match everything better, like beige and gray…

AM Color gives enormous help when you are furnishing a room; you can play with it. It’s a great start. An important input to develop a decorative scheme is the choice of a fabric balancing the color of a wall. Personally I find gray harder, but maybe I’m so visually obsessed that I seek a sort of pause, a white page on which to write. You have never been minimalist and certainly your taste at Castagneto is the opposite of minimalism par excellence.

MdG I have always lived in “full” houses, where the memories of generations have accumulated, and this is perhaps a cultural heritage from which it’s hard to break free. But I think that I have never limited myself to memory, I always create a memory of myself in my houses, which brings a sense of renewal, and of the present. Maybe, in the end, it is something everyone does: some more sparingly and essentially, because some people need to be surrounded by visual peace, while others need to be stimulated visually the whole time. I certainly belong to the second category.

AM I come from full houses, but perhaps I have felt the need to break with this. Life today is incredibly different than it was in the past. Certain objects pursue me; they are important presences. I like houses I can leave quickly, closing them without delay and returning happily because I find that special smell, rhythm and sounds. And of course the objects… Objects are very important to you, aren’t they?

MdG For me, objects are an intellectual exercise that has little to do with actually possessing them.

AM Clearly this has to do with your profession, looking for art, objects and paintings. Buying them for others, for yourself, selling them. Do you find it hard to break free of them? I remember your marvelous collection of ivories that went to Milan; I still miss it when I come to your office!

MdG I don’t know if there are things I’m sorry I no longer have, because I don’t have a physical attachment to things. There are objects that are more important in my life because they represent special moments in my personal development. For example, 25 or maybe 30 years ago I bought a small Orientalist picture from Hotel Drouot in Paris. It was by an unknown painter and was rather abstract, and it has always made me think of a manner of painting between Delacroix and later, non-figurative things. That small painting, which I bought for the equivalent of Euro 500, is one of the things I’m most attached to. A bit like the only item I chose for aesthetic reasons from what my parents left: another small painting that I keep behind my desk in the office. It’s by a Florentine mannerist, and depicts a lady/courtesan with a unicorn.

AM And I’m madly in love with her: she has a perfect bust… the scene is filled with mystery and perfection.

MdG This picture has memories for me associated with my mother, even though it comes from my father’s house. But it’s also a small “cultural” summary of my life as a teenager in Florence. It makes me think of a very rich and cultured late-Renaissance Italian setting. It’s an elegant object and I believe a good example of that excellence we still try to export around the world.

AM Certainly. Now I understand why unicorns recur in your houses: it all comes from that small picture.

MdG As you know very well, it’s something special for me. I have thousands of objects I love more or less, but the mythological appeal of the unicorn is important for me. It is the summary of everything I would like to have or possess or find. I have bought them in London, Florence, Maastricht, Brussels. All over the place.

AM As far as I’m concerned, you’re the most entertaining person to go shopping with or even just window shopping, going to fairs and auctions. I don’t think we’ve missed a Venice Biennale together, and we had a lot of fun. Your curiosity is great fun and very stimulating.

MdG It’s very interesting visiting the Biennale with you, going with someone who is equally stimulated and casts an independent eye on things, with a critical and intellectual approach that comes from an opposite but equally valid, just different hemisphere than my own. This stimulates my own eye and brain. As you said, this happens with some people but not with others. I don’t want to say that everything you say interests me (and the feeling is probably mutual) but it is like a sounding board, a way of re-analyzing one’s own visual and intellectual experience through someone else’s eyes.

AM Comparison is fundamental in every creative process…

MdG I recall some narwhals from an antiques fair in Florence when I was 15. A dealer had 11 of them, all together.

AM You sensed their magic then…

MdG Yes, they have always had something magical about them in history. They were collected in Renaissance times.
If you consider how one came to narwhals, animals living in the Arctic Ocean… it was clearly something very hard to find in the mid 16th century, and since the origin was so remote, these horns were considered mythological objects, even in antiquity.

AM There’s an important tapestry in Paris in the Musée National du Moyen Âge, La Dame à la Licorne. Unicorns certainly have a magical value. In my opinion, this magical element accompanies your work and your sense of the aesthetic. Your houses are rather magical, with an improbable mix that nobody would dare imagine could become explosive and even unique in the end. This is why people want something of your taste that you did not use until a short time ago, but which I think you are now making available to others. Luxury as a concept, compared for example to the great fashion houses, is actually quite distorted; luxury is lived without knowing it, without talking about it, and it is not necessarily tangible. It’s a bit like allure.