In the woodsy Lazio region of Italy is a seventeenth century castle in which, about an hour northwest of Rome, lives Count Raniero Gnoli, who leases apartments in the fortress from another dusty aristocrat, the Marchese Innocenzo Patrizi Naro Montoro.
There, in Castel Giuliano, the count has built a world of his own devising: refusing for decades to have central heating installed, he undertook to build – room by room – an antiquarium of inordinate eccentricity and charm, suited to one of the world’s foremost experts in some of the world’s most arcane things, including Byzantine marble (his 1971 book, Marmora Romana, is an acknowledged classic in the field) and Tantric Buddhism. In the count’s home are many things, but many are verboten: chief among them, electrical contraptions, fax machines, telephones, and the internet. “Beauty is a prime necessity for me,” the count recently explained to Architectural Digest, which published photographs of the castle. “Communication is not.”
Indeed, with regard to the lately inviduous furnace, “the octogenarian prefers to ignore the newfangled machine and, dressed in Shetland tweeds, warm up beside a crackling fire while his cat, Pangasio, purrs on his lap.”
Instead – and, properly, to the exclusion – of modernity, the count has in his closed universe set a firmament of those things he favors, and augmented them: an avid seamster, many of the canopies artfully draping beds in his castle are of his own design and execution, stitched together from salvaged (read: scavenged) scraps and bits of trimming, cadged from friends. He is an unrestrainable embellisher.
The result is impressive, especially given that the count’s residence was once a bustling community of chickens. The castle, for whatever reason families gifted by fortune with castles do such things, had lain abandoned by the Patrizi family for over a century, before the marchese let it to the count. What followed was an aggressive program of restoration, the end of which saw the aristocrat bring forth suitable lodging. “He spent months marbleizing ceilings and brushing on yard after yard of trompe l’oeil wainscot… Numerous watercolors are also his work, notably an allegorical series of monkeys inspired by his readings of Erasmus, the Dutch Renaissance humanist.”
But the zenith of the place is the count’s private museum of natural history, his Wunderkammer: there, a giant prehistoric bird’s fossilized egg hangs from a polished beam, and narwhal tusks and crystals fill bookshelves and scarred cabinetry. In one corner sits an imposing globe, blank and awaiting paint.
As AD reports, “On a recent morning, decorative-arts scholar Alvar González-Palacios was among those in attendance. “Raniero’s home is a paradox,” he declared to several fellow guests gathered in the living room. Inching closer to the glowing fireplace, the scholar added with a tolerant smile, “I can think of few other homes today that abound in such luxurious details—and yet are so uncomfortable!’ “
Maybe so – but decorative arts scholars are not counts, and comfort is not always beauty.