by VisionnaireSep 19, 2023
Sometimes sinuous, otherwise fragmented into primary geometries, portions of colour, cross and illuminate the interiors like contemporary descendants that finally managed to visit the mansion of their ancestors during a voyage of time. These are the very first impressions of the six rooms affected by the new arrangement made by India Mahdavi for Villa Medici, which houses the headquarters of the French Academy in Rome since 1803. Originally private apartments of Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici, these rooms from the 16th century are characterised by a series of frescoes by the Florentine Mannerist painter Jacopo Zucchi (1543-1596), to which are added the recently restored wall decorations by the Polish-French modern artist Balthus (1908-2001).
For Re-enchanting Villa Medici, Mahdavi, who is a renowned Iranian-French architect, designer and scenographer, collaborated with the Mobilier National, French service devoted to the national furniture heritage, as well as with another relevant institution related to the crafts field, the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, without counting the many artisans, suppliers and other professionals that contributed to the project. Running her Parisian studio from 2000 and internationally known for her bold style, which perfectly corresponds to the statement she prefers to use to define herself—"polyglot and polychromatic"—Mahdavi gracefully accepted a challenge that is always risky—refurbishing a historical interior that was originally built many centuries ago. In a conversation with STIR, Mahdavi explained how she conceived the project saying, "Villa Medici is a very intimate project, just because of all its history. The whole history of so many illustrious people coming through the villa one of the residents was even Galileo. You suddenly enter history and that's kind of intimidating. When you handle a project like this you have to be humble but you cannot be shy. You need to start a conversation with the building and think about how you have that conversation by being yourself and not being overruled by it. It's really an exercise in balance."
For this project, the designer made a furtherly striking colour selection, choosing among her signature shades, such as pink, yellow and green, adding a few touches of purple. She elaborated on her ideas saying, "The villa is such an aesthetic experience already. For instance, in the bedrooms, which are huge, 70 square meters, 5 meters high, the windows are sort of small and very high and you have the most fantastic view of the road. So that's why we started working on beds with platforms, so you could be high up in the bed, and enjoy the view. It's really thinking about how your body would feel in a situation like this." After the first visual impact, we can notice she included some of her most distinctive shapes, as well exemplified by the iconic and playfully rounded ceramic seat “Bishop”, so recognisable to enter the cinematic imagination thanks to Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's latest film Madres Paralelas (2021).
The textures are often soft, sometimes made of velvet, an invitation to caress these surfaces with our gaze, as we can prove ourselves while considering more in detail some other seats and the carpets. At the same time, Mahdavi also experimented with elements which, at first glance, might seem to be a bit more unexpected: the two beds are, without much doubt, the furnishing pieces that hit our imagination the most. Looking at one of these beds in particular, we realise it is not the very first time that Mahdavi investigates the monumentality of canopy beds, as well as the conceptual value of the bedroom. She further explained, "The one question that I really asked myself is, how do you add to so much without taking anything away from it. And the way I worked on it was to by adding experience and trying to sublimate the experience that you had at the villa rather than trying to be decorative."
In fact, if we compare the beds designed for Villa Medici with another very recent example, the project room Dreams on the rocks (2023), we can observe a shift from mostly gently rounded, almost dreamy, metal shapes, to the highly geometric patterns covering every single centimetre of Villa Medici’s beds, which warm shades of colour might remind us of the second half of the 20th century and, more precisely, the stylistically controversial, yet revolutionary, seventies.
In truth, these beds might also remind of the historical period when these interiors were first created, the 16th century, a time when two peculiar forms of the room became more and more relevant in the European cultural context: the studiolo and the cabinet of curiosities. First appearing during the previous century, the studiolo is considered one of the most relevant epicentres of humanism in the Italian Renaissance, a private space where the political leaders of that time could deepen their intellectual interests and collect objects characterised by a meaningful cultural value.
The most magnificent example of studiolo is probably the one that once belonged to Federico da Montefeltro, still part of Palazzo Ducale in Urbino, on the hills of the Marche region: if we pay attention to the extremely detailed wooden inlays covering this studiolo’s walls, we can recognise some patterns which are very similar to the ones chosen by Mahdavi for the beds at Villa Medici. On the other side, the cabinet of curiosities (also known by the German name Wunderkammer), which directly descends from the studiolo and first appears in the 16th century, might be connected to the project made by Mahdavi with a far more conceptual approach. Very different from the original Wunderkammer, typically filled with extravagant and eclectic collections that crossed the boundaries between art and science, the rooms “re-enchanted” by Mahdavi enlighten us with a new kind of wonder, thanks to the richness of the designer’s cultural and aesthetic references that perfectly fits the ultra millennial and cosmopolitan history of Rome.