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Conversation with Paolo Portoghesi

Calcata, (conversation)
Monaco, (publication)

While the Mammacaura project was being published in the magazine Abitare la Terra, the editor-at-large Mario Pisani had suggested to Cardillo that he call Paolo Portoghesi to meet him. The text given here is a transcript of his memory of that meeting. A few days later the Master dies. This writing, perhaps, represents his last testimony

Antonino Cardillo converses with Paolo Portoghesi


, with Antonino Cardillo

Paolo Portoghesi receives me in the ‘stanza della deposizione’. I sit on the sofa with William Morris fabric and bring my book Specus Corallii as a gift, a green envelope with my architectural works and an invitation to a lecture. Portoghesi leafs through the book slowly and dwells on the image of a gallery with arches:

PP: “It looks like it is carved on the sheet.”

AC: “I was pleased to see that beautiful new photographs of his project for the Chiesa della Sacra Famiglia[1] in Salerno have been produced.”

PP: “Yes, the photographer [Cédric Dasesson] was very good. He was able to interpret the old age of that concrete. Because old age should be seen in backlight.”

Then he opens the green envelope and observes the ten sheets inside, focussing on the image of the project Akin to a Cinema Set:”

AC: “In all these years you have remained consistent with your vision of architecture. You did not give in, and your works possess an integrity that is very rare today. This makes you one of the few architects.”

So he looks at the invitation to the conference.

PP: “It is the invitation to the conference ‘Anthropology in architecture’ that I will hold with Rita Cedrini on Lévy-Bruhl’s ‘Mystical Participation’. I will talk about how, over time, I understood the importance of a heartfelt participation between client and architect to realise authentic architectural works.”

AC: “In my early works, I also experienced this aspect. Later, when I worked for public commissions, this relationship had faded. The architecture has probably been affected.”

PP: “I think your life was like the history of Italy. The story of a sabotage.”

Portoghesi smiles.

AC: “When I was studying at university, some professors did not speak well of your work. However, I sensed that there had to be something special. Many years later, when I started studying psychology I realised that my intuition was founded. In a way, your work was an answer to a question asked in other disciplinary areas.”

PP: “Yes, it is very important to get out of this little architecture garden, to try to understand more.”

AC: “Studying the Analytical Psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, I have attached a value to your research. What you tried to trace as a path was an instance that Jung had already placed in the 1920s. And while in the same years the Bauhaus mechanised architecture, Analytical Psychology revealed that our Psyche is built from Primordial Images or Archetypes.⁠[2] Then I began to understand your path, which was often not understood by modernists and instead seen as a historicism. While, it was an important response to connect to that request for evocation and integration of the Archaic Images.”

PP: “It was the key to moving from functionalism to a completely different rationalism, based not only on functions, but on perception. So, that was completely missing. Things are important for how they are used, not for how great they are and the idea of capturing man’s relationship with the house through drawings, considerations and knowledge all of a material nature leaves us perplexing. There is a certain point where you have to move on to psychology. There was a very strong closure there. Too bad. In the 1960s, when there was friendship with Bruno Zevi, in those years, few let’s say, we had this interest in common. We turned to the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche to fund a common research… [we received a] completely negative response. It was a research on psychology in architecture, which would certainly absorb the conflict with Zevi, which had been created on a secondary issue. I have a great regret that they did not give us space to do this research. It was undoubtedly a research that should have involved the two camps. It should have had a high tone. Recognition, finally, of a union of two forces, architecture and psychology, which were very important. Unfortunately, nothing was done about it. Then a psychology of architecture was born, but in a very scholastic form. The job we could have done with Zevi was to give it this Jungian imprint. Because it is Jung who really gave the fundamental boost.”

AC: “Last Saturday, Mario Pisani and Lucia Galli came to the inauguration of Open House Roma in the House of Dust and saw my work. I was sorry you were not there. I would have been happy if you had visited one of these spaces of mine.”

PP: “Unfortunately I am very sick, but it may be that with some improvement, enough to move, I can see them.”

AC: “Whenever possible, I will always be available. If you were to be in Rome, near Via Veneto or Pigneto, there would be two works to visit: the Off Club and the House of Dust.”

PP: “I would love to, because the photographs only give an idea. However, even from what you read in the photographs, I must say that a quality emerges, a consistency that is very rare to see. The interesting thing is that there is not only minimalism, there is, also and instead, a raw search for strong things. Because, let is say, minimalism risks putting us to sleep. It is drowsy. While it is obvious that we have to work out a conflict. So, we cannot be too asleep.”

Portoghesi lingers in silence.

AC: “Is it possible to visit your garden again?”

PP: “Unfortunately, I do not move much. But you can. I can also give you a gift of a book.”

I get the book Abitare Poeticamente la Terra.⁠[3]

AC: “The book on the Parco di Calcata!⁠[4] Wonderful. Thank you. I am happy to receive it.”

I browse it, dwelling on the image of a hypogeum with a cellar.

PP: “Yes, in it we talk about the park, how we settled in from a small holiday home. If you happen to come back, there are also guided tours to see the interior spaces.”

Portoghesi goes to the door and we go out. In front of the house, he opens a small gate and invites me to enter the park. I visit the garden shaded by a leaden sky. I linger eager to enter the facade in the form of an open book of the ‘biblioteca dell’angelo’. I go through the star steps and reach the anthropomorphic facades. From above, I see the labyrinth of the Italian garden. Further on, near the decastilo temple, I read these lines at a rose garden:

If your freshness sometimes surprises us so much
blissful rose,
is that in yourself, inside,
petal against petal, you rest.⁠[5]

It is raining and I am going back to the house. Portoghesi opens the door and the voice of his wife Giovanna Massobrio arrives:

GM: “Paolo, show him Apollodoro!”

Through a small passage, I enter a long living room with a trompe-l’oeil façade that frames—inside a perspective of arches—an imaginary landscape. Portoghesi sits on the Liuto sofa designed by him in 1982:

PP: “It is what remains of the Galleria Apollodoro that was in Rome in Piazza Mignanelli.”

AC: “How long has the Galleria Apollodoro been in Piazza Mignanelli?”

PP: “So, from 1985 until 1994. The gallery was capable of involving a lot of people.”

AM: “Perhaps Rome was even more active in the 1980s? Now it looks like a suburb.”⁠[6]

PP: “Let’s say that what the world presents to us today is a great universal periphery, without a centre… However, there is no capital on this Earth. This is becoming a distressing problem, without being physically localisable.”

Leaving the room, I notice a painting placed on the ground:

AC: “This painting depicts Casa Papanice!⁠[7] Is this the image with which you presented the project to the client?”

PP: “No, it is a painting made by a painter who has completely changed the colour of the building.”

AC: “Speaking of this house, I would have a curiosity: when the movie Il Dramma della Gelosia[8] with the actress Monica Vitti was filmed, do you remember that scene set inside the Casa Papanice? You were sorry about that, maybe?”

PP: “Of what?”

AC: “The owner of the house is very vulgar and I think this aspect of the film has disrespected your work.”

PP: “But the director Ettore Scola interpreted very well. His approach was to interpret, as you can say, a disparity of tastes between classes. So there was no disparaging intent.”

AC: “So you were happy?”

PP: “Happy with a house that still had a cinematic vocation.”

AC: “Do you think a restoration can be done, as for Casa Baldi?”⁠[9]

PP: “I think so, it would cost very little.”

AC: “And inside?”

PP: “Inside it is now lost.”

AC: “Maybe it could be rebuilt?”

PP: “Rebuilding the interior space would be easy, though…”

AC: “In my opinion it would be important to rebuild it. It should become a house-museum about your work. A way should be found. Maybe create a foundation that buys the house.”

PP: “A foundation that bought the places of cinema. Among other things, Scola subsequently shot a very interesting film,⁠[10] also with Mastroianni, in a house designed by Mario De Renzi: the Casa Furmanik[11] on the Lungotevere. De Renzi was an intelligent architect. It is an idea, yes. It could be a way to save it. Find someone to buy it.”

AC: “But in your opinion, will it be possible to buy it from the Embassy of Jordan? Is the embassy rented or is it an owner?”

PP: “No, they bought it. But it is a very uncomfortable home for an embassy. It does not really have the level to be a public building and having the residence separate from the offices is a bit problematic. However, someone would be needed to constitute an agreement.”

AC: “It would also be interesting to have a place in Rome that is the interface of your garden here in Calcata, also to schedule visits.”

PP: “We thought of a donation for the MAXXI,⁠[12] so that the garden would become a library of sixty thousand volumes open to the public with a guesthouse to be able to accommodate. Casa Papanice instead could become the guesthouse of a house of architecture. Which it already is, because it is a historic building.”

AC: “That is an important building. Also because it is located in a central place in Rome, easily accessible. It could be strategic.”

PP: “Yes. Then restoring the outward appearance is easy. And also the interior one, because after all the interior architecture was extended only on one floor.”

AC: “If a reconstruction were to be done, how will it be done?”

PP: “But it is a stucco job, very simple.”

AC: “Good. You used colours in space. Are the specifications of these colours preserved in your studio archive?”

PP: “We had chosen them from a catalogue.”

AC: “And is this catalogue preserved? Are the chosen colours marked?”

PP: “Yes. There are, I think, five colours. There are no problems.”

Then Portoghesi comes back silent.

AC: “Professor, maybe you are tired.”

PP: “No, it is that unfortunately I suffer from a disease that I am fighting, I hope to be able to get out of it. Anyway, life must be taken as it comes, respect it. However, thank you for your visit, because I immediately liked your architecture. You are a true architect. Your task is difficult, huh? But in short, this is the intuition.”

AC: “I am honoured by your words. Thank you for your time and for what you said.”

PP: “I hope you can combine this thing for the garden. In the book I gave you there is a functional introduction. Because they are architectures, yours like mine, related to philosophy, related to poetry. So there is a great affinity.”


  1. ^ Paolo Portoghesi, Chiesa della Sacra Famiglia, Via Nicola Buonservizi, 2639, Salerno, 1969–74.
  2. ^ Carl Gustav Jung, Tipi Psicologici [1921], Bollati Boringhieri, Turin, 2011.
  3. ^ Paolo Portoghesi, Giovanna Massobrio, Abitare Poeticamente la Terra, ed. Maria Ercadi, Gangemi Editore, Rome, 2021.
  4. ^ Paolo Portoghesi, Parco di Calcata, Calcata, 1971–2023.
  5. ^ Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Roses, 1927, n. 1.
  6. ^ Phrase pronounced by another person.
  7. ^ Paolo Portoghesi, Casa Papanice, Via Giuseppe Marchi, 1/b, Rome, 1966–70.
  8. ^ Ettore Scola, Dramma della Gelosia (Tutti i Particolari in Cronaca), Titanus, Italy-Spain, 1970, 107 minuts.
  9. ^ Paolo Portoghesi, Casa Baldi, Via Sirmione, 19, Rome, 1959–61.
  10. ^ Ettore Scola, Una giornata particolare, Champion, Italy-Canada, 1977, 103 minuts.
  11. ^ Mario De Renzi, Palazzina Furmanik, with Pietro Sforza e Giorgio Calza Bini, Lungotevere Flaminio, 18, Rome, 1935–40.
  12. ^ Italian National Museum of 21st Century Arts.