In Rome, an apartment rich in color and history opens to the public

ONE SPRING EVENING in Rome, filmmaker duo Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine walked into Casa Balla, the former apartment of early 20th-century artist Giacomo Balla, flashlights in hand. The three-bedroom U-shaped apartment, located on the fourth floor of a nondescript mid-20th-century building, had barely been touched since the 1990s, after the death of Balla’s daughters – Elica in 1993 and Luce a year later – both of whom have lived in the apartment their entire lives. Bêka and Lemoine’s lights revealed a long corridor painted with amoebic shapes in bright yellow and green that seemed to dance against a peach-colored background. Dozens of square and wildly colorful abstract paintings have been mounted on the upper part of the walls, concealing exposed water pipes and small lockers.

From there, the couple went room by room, discovering even more curiosities – two-dimensional cloud-shaped plexiglass light coverings. suspended from the ceiling is a yellow-painted chair with an asymmetrical back resting on an expanse of lilac ceramic floor tiles. A second hallway, this one with splashes of brighter colors on a blood-red background, ended in a back wall with small alcoves in which were nestled classic-style white plaster busts. The immersive murals, along with the abstract wooden flower sculptures, the sofas upholstered in fabric with contrasting geometric patterns and many other aspects of the apartment, were designed, with the help of his wife, Elisa, and their daughters, by Balla, who was a key figure in Italian Futurism, an early 20th-century movement that celebrated the idea that art should not only be shown in museums, but should be an integral part of daily life.

Bêka and Lemoine were there to create their own work of art – a film in which they act upon entering Casa Balla as if it were King Tutankhamun’s tomb. “We wanted to convey the feeling of wonder that we felt when we saw the space for the first time,” said Bêka. Thanks to Bartolomeo Pietromarchi, Director of Maxxi Art at the Maxxi Museum in Rome, who has spent much of the past two years working with Balla’s heirs to open the apartment to the public, starting next week on the Gesamtkunstwerk , or total work of art, that is Casa Balla will be available to all to discover.

SON OF A photographer drawn to artistic creation from an early age, Balla spent the first two decades of his life in Turin, before settling in Rome in 1895. At the turn of the 20th century, he painted a mixture of portraits, worker scenes and illuminated night scenes inspired by photography and featuring Divisionism, a technique by which bands of color are created from individual dots or lines. Eventually, he stumbled upon a group of ambitious young artists – Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini and Mario Sironi – who pushed themselves to embrace abstraction in an attempt to capture the invisible energy of light and speed.

In the years leading up to World War I, dissatisfaction with traditional artistic values ​​and modes, as well as general anxiety about the future, led self-proclaimed Futurists to imagine and then insist on a specific route. The movement was born when, in 1909, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an acquaintance of Balla, published what would be the first of many manifestos, in which he praised originality, technology and speed – with an intentionally cheeky tone. and a nationalist bent. “It is from Italy that we are launching to the whole world this manifesto of extreme violence, incendiary … because we want to free our country from the stinking canker of its teachers, archaeologists, tourist guides and antique dealers, ”he wrote. Balla and his colleagues joined in the call to arms, borrowing first from the Cubists to convey a sense of dynamism on the canvas. In 1912, Balla made increasingly abstract studies of light and moving objects, inspired by stop-motion images by English photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The paintings and drawings in Balla’s groundbreaking “Iridescent Interpenetrations” (1912-1914) series, for example, many of which are rainbows of tilted quadrilaterals, were his interpretations of light traveling in electromagnetic waves.

Futurists also put forward the idea that creative energy should be built into everything from furniture and politics to town planning and food. To that end, Marinetti has organized futuristic events and even wrote a futuristic cookbook, warning that pasta makes men lazy and “anti-manly.” This kind of machismo aligned with the Italian Fascist Party, which Marinetti eventually partnered with, although he spoke out against anti-Semitism and often disagreed with the movement, especially once it began to glorify the past, as represented by the Catholic Church and the Roman Empire, rather than the future. Futurism’s closeness and overlap with fascism marred the way it was viewed for many years. Recently, however, art historians have reexamined it in all its complexity. And not all Futurists were fascists. Balla started out as a staunch socialist. After World War I he embraced patriotic and populist ideologies, but by the end of the 1930s he had withdrawn his support from fascist and futurist circles.

Nevertheless, one could argue that it was Balla who succeeded in creating the most complete futuristic universe. As early as 1912 he was designing men’s clothing that would still be considered avant-garde today – an asymmetric lapel jacket covered in a black, orange and fire red geometric pattern with matching pants, for example, as well as decorative pins. in fabric which he called “modifiers”. In 1915, Balla and artist Fortunato Depero wrote their own manifesto, “Futuristic Reconstruction of the Universe,” which went even further, expanding the boundaries of art to include tableware, rugs and toys for children, among other everyday objects. At the same time, Balla began transforming his then apartment, on Via Nicolò Porpora, into a kaleidoscopic environment filled with painted wardrobes and interchangeable patterned lampshades, meant to spark surprise and joy in everyone. those who encountered them. From 1919 Balla opened the apartment to the public on Sunday afternoons. “I don’t know any other artist at that time who advertised in newspapers to publicize his own house, ”said art historian Fabio Benzi, who believes Futurists, and Balla in particular, influenced other flourishing artists from before -guard of the time, from the Bauhaus school in Germany to the Stijl movement in the Netherlands. “If he was alive today, he would love Instagram.”

When in 1929, the artist moved with his family from this house to what is now called Casa Balla, in the bourgeois district of Prati, he remakes his futuristic universe within its walls – with the help of painting and embroidery from his wife and daughters, both of whom were devoted painters themselves. Indeed, according to the three-volume memoir written by Elica, “Con Balla” (1984-86), the family lived there in creative harmony until Balla’s death in 1958.

THE PATH TO preserving Casa Balla has been long and winding. As a first step, the three siblings who inherited it after Elica’s death (they are linked to Balla through her brother) enlisted Banca D’Italia, the central bank of Italy, which helped fund the first research and the installation of electricity. In 2004, the apartment was declared a protected heritage site. But it wasn’t until Pietromarchi and the Maxxi got involved in 2019 that the project was propelled forward. With the support of the Banca D’Italia, the Special Superintendence of Rome for Archeology, Fine Arts and Landscape and the Ministry of Culture, the museum, which now manages the apartment, has carried out a complete inventory of the house and supervised basic repairs which included renovating the floors. .

To co-organize the rooms, Pietromarchi called on Maxxi’s design curator, Domitilla Dardi. “We set out to accomplish two things,” said Pietromarchi. “We wanted to recontextualize the house as a lived experience, not just as an exhibit of historical artifacts, and we wanted to include all the stories, even if they contradict each other.” In the kitchen hangs an oil painting from Elica’s family in which Balla sits in this room with his wife, who reads the newspaper, and Luce, who knits; and there is a table set with plates designed by Balla, as if the family are about to sit down to dinner. In Elica’s bedroom are some of her many paintings of clouds against a blue sky, while Luce’s is hung with her realistic landscapes and portraits. When I visited the house this spring, Dardi pointed out a beautiful sculptural wooden object in the living room which consists of trays of various sizes connected by slender columns and topped by an asymmetrical frame which contains the most delicate textile work. , almost transparent. “It’s an elaborate smokehouse,” she said, “and the fabric is embroidered with multicolored smoke lines.” Designed by Balla, it is one of dozens of original models from the house that embody his vision.

To coincide with the apartment’s reopening on June 17, the Maxxi presents a highly anticipated exhibition, “Casa Balla: From Home to Universe and Back”, curated by Dardi and Pietromarchi. It includes a wide range of Balla’s designs, from his men’s suits to a fantastic yellow wood wardrobe with flowered protrusions blooming out from the sides. Many objects were borrowed from the Biagiotti Cigna collection, which fashion designer Laura Biagiotti and her husband, Gianni Cigna, began to build in the 1980s. Their daughter, Lavinia Biagiotti Cigna, now 42, remembers visiting Casa Balla when she was a child with her parents. “It was like Disney World to me,” she said. “It has filled my life with color and continues to inspire me today.”

Alongside these rarely seen pieces, eight works commissioned from contemporary artists, including Bêka and Lemoine, as well as a series of illustrations by graphic designer Leonardo Sonnoli entitled “Letter to Balla”, which attempts to deconstruct futuristic language and Balla’s visual lexicon, which were inspired by the artist, futurism and the idea of ​​a total work of art. Pietromarchi and Dardi hope that Casa Balla will spark further creative expressions for years to come. The opening seems particularly timely for this summer, as many of us are starting to come out of lockdown and think about how to move forward. “This art-life fusion project is appealing to many people,” said Christine Poggi, director of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts and expert in futurism. “In times of crisis, it helps us understand how we can create meaning. The rooms at Casa Balla are a vibrant testimony to this feeling. Going through them reminds us that we too could reinvent the future, starting by reimagining the smallest things around us.

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