Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Franco Maria Ricci's extraordinary labyrinth

On the fertile agricultural plain surrounding Parma, Italy, you can drive for days while visiting the region's spectacular Renaissance towns, churches and villas (below, the view from the terrace of the Castello di Fontanellato) without ever laying eyes on a single cow that gives the milk that is aged to its glorious Parmesan cheese, nor will you ever see one of the pigs that eventually yield its succulent Parma ham. One dines spectacularly well there, even by Italian standards, but exactly how this is achieved is one of Parma's small mysteries—though an occasional noxious breeze, pungent enough to strip paint, will assure you that these beasts do indeed lurk somewhere hidden in those broad green fields, just beyond sight. 

Franco Maria Ricci, the legendary publisher, lives on his ancestral lands in Fontanellato, which he has transformed according to his own unique aesthetic vision. He is the man who near single-handedly revived the work of the great neoclassical typographer, Giambattista Bodoni, who had made Parma his home in the late eighteenth century. Ricci comes from ancient Parmesan nobility and has dedicated his life to the cultivation and dissemination of all that is extraordinary, remarkable and beautiful, by way of the pages of his namesake magazine, FMR ("the most beautiful magazine in the world") and a host of magnificent publications. Fortuitously, pronouncing his initials in French yields the word ephémère, ephemeral, and it is this aura of felicity and harmony that this most cultivated of men has cultivated throughout his life, seemingly effortlessly.

This past summer, I spent several days with friends visiting Ricci and his charming companion, Laura Casalis, who graciously welcomed us with their generous hospitality. A warm, sunny day was reserved for visiting Ricci's estate, and after traversing miles of sun-struck, open fields with barely a poplar in sight, we passed a simple modern gate and drove down a long, shaded and sun-dappled allée of bamboo to find ourselves in another world—a verdant compound set in a bamboo glade that could just as well be found in Mexico. An old farm building has been converted into a contemporary entertaining space of impressive scale—an aerie looking into the bamboo canopy, with an inky-dark lake to one side. 


The contrast between the sun-struck fields without and the bamboo forest (or perhaps jungle) within was vivid and delightful; Ricci has crafted his own private world—even his own private micro-climate. Further on, Ricci has renovated the ground floor of the crumbling ancestral villa into an elegant suite of rooms with a barrel-vaulted, neoclassical library which houses the largest collection of Bodoni's printed works in the world. Like the vast, Barragan-esque patio compound, the neoclassical grotto beneath the overgrown ruins is a complete, shocking, satisfying surprise.

Further on, some ten minute's walk, lies the most remarkable of all Ricci's marvels, his bamboo labyrinth, covering 17.5 acres, by a factor of five the largest maze in the world. The labyrinth, of course, is an ancient cipher representing man's path through life; its circuitous course, from periphery to center, symbolizes life's journey from ignorance to self-knowledge and enlightenment.

The plan of Ricci's labyrinth, two overlapping squares, evokes Renaissance fortifications, and over a dozen species of bamboo have been planted to form its high, dense allées. Inside its precincts he has constructed a museum and study center which will house his library and collections, as well as a visitor's center.

The compound, built of warm rose Roman brick, is designed in a neoclassical vocabulary and laid out in a series of symmetrical, generously scaled courtyards, perhaps better called atria.

A triumphal arch greets visitors entering the compound, and the main axis culminates with yet another surprise, a pyramidal folly.

The scale of the undertaking is commensurate with the audacity of Ricci's vision. He chuckled when he said, leading us unerringly through the maze, that no one would be allowed to enter the labyrinth without a portable phone, but indeed the rule will be necessary once the kilometres of paths are opened to the public.

On a final note, Rizzoli has recently published Ricci's book, Labyrinths; needless to say, it too is exceptional.


  1. How wonderful...I've an entire collection of FMR...packed away for lack of room, but sad was the day when it changed hands and the new publisher did away with the Black Silk covered gilt edged Agenda books gifted each year for the year. Never have found one so elegant for leaving on my desk at home. I love his books, looking forward to this one, and it's nice to see he is still creating a Legend! I remember years ago talking with Elizabeth Locke the jeweler - she mentioned in her youth that she worked for several years for FMR...SHE ADORED HIM!

  2. Spectacular! Thanks for this tour of the grounds, I look forward to visiting one day when it's open to the public. I just found Ricci's book and was astounded to learn of this maze project as well. Great to see that it is progressing splendidly through your words and photos. What a vision!

  3. Thank you both for your comments, and a very happy new year! Yes, Ricci is a remarkable person with a singular vision, a true Renaissance man in this curious age.