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La Malcontenta 1924-1939: Tumult and Order

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Part scrapbook, part memoir, part evocation of Malcontenta’s renaissance, this book may be insubstantial, but it has charm, not least because of the many illustrations, writes Andrew Mead

Deeply moved by seeing Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta when it was derelict in the 1920s, the Romanian architect George Matei Cantacuzino wrote: ‘Overlooking a scene of great desolation, the sole vertical element on these ancient marshes from which the sea has withdrawn, this simple cubic house creates an extraordinary impression on the passer-by, as it rises out of the morning mist or fades in the dusk.’

Built in the late 1550s for the aristocratic Venetian brothers Nicolò and Alvise Foscari (hence also known as Villa Foscari), Malcontenta was a new step for Palladio: a villa that wasn’t the centrepiece of a farm but stood alone as a country retreat and place for entertaining. It was conveniently close to Venice for the Foscaris, on a site beside the Brenta Canal just beyond today’s industrial zone of Porto Marghera, whose flares and fumes make Venetian sunsets lurid.

While Malcontenta hasn’t been a pervasive model like the later Villa Rotonda, it’s the building that Colin Rowe chose to analyse alongside Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein in his famous essay ‘The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa’ (AR March 1947). Raised on a high basement as protection against flooding, it looms temple-like over the water, with its grand Ionic portico flanked by lateral stairs.

From the landing at the top of the stairs, visitors pass into the voluminous cruciform hall at the heart of the house, which is frescoed and filled with light. The villa is tailor-made for the ceremonial reception of guests, a role that happily it regained during the period this book describes.

Its author Antonio Foscari (related to the original clients) is an architect and teacher, who has focused on restoration projects and Renaissance history. His previous books include the fascinating Andrea Palladio: Unbuilt Venice (Lars Müller, 2010) in which Palladio’s plans for the city entailed a rebuilding of the Palazzo Ducale. Although we learn this only towards the end of Tumult and Order, Foscari has a special interest in Malcontenta – he’s its current owner.

A spread of tiny photographs introduces the characters that feature in the narrative, an exotic and eclectic crowd. There are aristocrats with improbable names like Princess Baba of Faucigny-Lucinge, relentless socialites like Cecil Beaton and numerous figures from the arts world–Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse. On one page is Winston Churchill, on another Le Corbusier, but at the centre of the book is the person who brought Malcontenta back to life–Albert Clinton Landsberg, ‘known as Bertie to his friends’.

In photographs and in a sketch by Picasso, Landsberg looks dapper, but his immaculate clothes concealed a curious secret. ‘His body was covered from head to foot with tattoos of quite exceptional obscenity. I cannot recall them in detail because the only occasion when he revealed them to me, on a sultry afternoon in a bedroom of the villa, a fleeting glance was more than enough,’ said the writer Beverley Nichols, an authority on gardening, spiritualism and cats. But with his immersion in Parisian culture in the first decades of the 20th century, there was more to Landsberg than salacious tattoos and a good address book. His sensibility was perfectly suited to rescuing Malcontenta with the lightest of touches after he purchased it in 1925.

Discarding the clutter that remained in the villa, Landsberg concluded that the way to reveal the quality of Palladian architecture was ‘to subtract everything that might interfere with the abstract rigour of the proportions of each space’. Emphasising the timelessness of the interior and keen to preserve its atmosphere, he sanctioned only the most essential repairs, drawing on the knowledge he acquired by exploring old buildings in the region. His recipe for successful renovation was ‘plenty of love, endless time, and very little money’.

In a postscript to the book, Foscari recounts his growing involvement with the property and his eventual acquisition of it. Regrettably, he says nothing about his own restoration of Malcontenta, but he and his wife have clearly maintained its long tradition of hospitality, with Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol appearing in the final pages. ‘Tell me, do you like this architecture?’ Foscari asked Warhol. ‘I can’t say –
I haven’t developed the photos yet,’ was the reply.

Part scrapbook, part memoir, part evocation of Malcontenta’s renaissance, this book may be insubstantial, but it has charm, not least because of the many illustrations shown to advantage in Lars Müller’s elegant, understated design. The title Tumult and Order derives from a book Landsberg published as a youth – the quintessential ‘slim volume’ of verse – but it could equally encapsulate the whole history of Malcontenta. Palladio’s pronounced sense of order was the counterpoint to moments of tumult, whether the frenzy of social activity in the 16th or 20th centuries, or the threat of bombs in the second world war. It’s the order Cantacuzino recognised when Malcontenta was derelict that Landsberg accentuated in his hands-off restoration, and that Foscari seems to have cemented during his own loving stewardship of this wonderful house.

Andrew Mead, writer and former reviews editor of the AJ

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