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Interview with Salvatore Pisani

Dr. Salvatore Pisani is, from October 2019 until March 2020, a guest researcher at the CRC 1015 “Otium”. During his stay, the habilitated art historian addresses the theme, “Villa, Otium, and Literature in the Modern period” an example of which is the Curzio Malapartes Villa on Capri.

Dear Mr. Pisani, could you please take our readers along on a small, imaginary round tour through Malaparte’s Villa? At which point in the house could we linger in order to experience more from the man who built it?

Your phrasing of an “imaginary round tour” is aptly chosen, because the Villa as a rule cannot be visited. And that on the overrun tourist island, Capri! At the time when it was constructed, around the year 1940, not much was different. Somehow that fact already belongs to the particularity of this villa, which is situated alone on the high ridge of a cliff: to its back is the noise of the world, before it lies the wide open horizon of the sea. With the latter aspect, the strict cube of the villa melts into a meaningful picture for Malaparte, namely that of freedom. One should know that the writer moved back to Capri after he was released from Mussolini-imposed exile upon Lipari. The pyramid-shaped outdoor staircase, which leads to the terrace roof, is a reminder of his exile. It recalls a certain church staircase in front of which Malaparte allowed himself to be photographed as a political prisoner on Lipari. The villa is also a memento of the time without freedom. Malaparte therefore named the building a “house like me”; his trauma, he found, was better expressed through the building than through words. The supposed speechlessness of the writing maniac Malaparte, should be allowed to sink in.

In what way is this villa a place of otium? Or phrased in another way: can we learn something new about the villa, when we view it through the prism of otium research (of the CRC)?

Through its extreme spatial remoteness the villa makes something like a mental invulnerability possible for its residents. Here it is possible to fall out of the world, so to say, especially from a world whose roar keeps us continuously on the go. And what is otium architecture but just that! It is now tricky to think that this place of withdrawal served such a restless person. As a jack-of-all-trades and agitator, Malaparte was someone who loved to break taboos and create confusion. Otium was not his thing. It was for him, however, a game, that is a game of spatial semantics. The CRC has, in a decisive way, opened my eyes to more strictly differentiating between otium as an everyday practice and otium as a symbolic order, that is as a discourse. Thus, Malaparte staged his villa simultaneously as a place of arrival and of departure, with which he could take the idea, handed down since antiquity, of the Mediterranean villa as a place of otium and turn it on its head. I comprehensibly bring this otium-restlessness paradox of the villa under the term of Mediterranean Modernity.

The opportunity to live in a villa and to be able to unfold or even stage an otium-oriented lifestyle is until today linked to a certain socio-economic position. In what way can the history of Malaparte’s villa provide continued findings over the connection between otium and its socio-economic conditions in modern times?

In art, this usually has to do with singularities, which are hardly suited to generalizations. Rather, its power of perception lies in the fact that it is not completely relevant to current affairs. Malaparte was an expert of so-called irrational economics, of the uneconomic economy. Along with this is the fact that one really does not know how he was able to afford the villa. Such a border-crosser escapes what the masses do every day. Differently than in sociology, ethnology, or psychology, I view discourses of the social middle class from the periphery. I understand the Villa Malaparte as the other of the middle. As this ‘other’ so often predetermines, it can become an object of reverence. Surrounding the Villa Malaparte is in fact a pronounced cult in which otium is nearly elevated to a fetish. From this has come, among other things, a recent advertisement from Louis Vuitton, in which the Villa Malaparte dispenses the aura of a luxury product, which many people should acquire. Without fetishes, that is to say, without singularities such as the Villa Malaparte, our society would collapse. Isn’t that so?