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.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Aux barricades, comrades!
France toys with its next revolution

Mon dieu! Where to begin? the French government, in a bout of historical amnesia, has decided to erect a nationwide network of electronic "éco-tax" barriers straddling its major highways (which have been privatized into corporate-owned toll-roads, but that is another matter) to collect an environmental tax upon the country's long-distance truckers.

Well, apparently this was the tax too far, the impot that broke the camel's back, and Brittany—that poor, agrarian and fiercely self-aware region that French nationalism never fully managed to tame—has gone into open revolt. Red Phrygian caps, or "red bonnets," symbol of the French revolution of 1789, have become all the rage, sported by enraged citoyens who gather to wave the Breton flag and to set fire to these newly erected electronic tax barriers, while the nation's truckers have organized to block the country's major vehicular arteries for the last several weekends.

Open revolt. That, in a nutshell, is what is currently brewing en ce pays-ci, which coincides with record levels of popular discontent with the government and a record-low approval rate for the Président de la République, François Hollande. Hollande has plumbed the lowest depths of approval (and conversely the apex of popular disapproval), reaching 16% overall approval in the latest national polling—just nine percentage points ahead of the US Congress.

In an unprecedented display of public discontent, Hollande was publicly booed and heckled while observing solemn Armistice celebrations at the base of the Arc de triomphe this past November 11. For the moment, civil disobediance and organized arson are reserved for weekends and national holidays, in the French tradition of protest as wholesome family entertainment. However, all this could change with further incitement, leading to an escalation to public strikes—another French tradition that even the leader of the nation's most leftist union has publicly disavowed, fearing to become the spark that sets off a mood that is "explosive all over."

Meanwhile, the country's préfets, akin to county executives, sent a confidential, leaked memo to the Elysée that stated in the starkest of terms that conditions in France are a "tinderbox," that the populace has never been more resentful of the unrelenting onslaught of increasing taxes and stagnating incomes, and that the government had better take heed of, and gingerly diffuse, this volatile situation or face a "fronde sociale," or popular revolt.

So, what did the government do? Why, it also decided to increase the national sales tax, or TVA, come the new year. Bonne année!  Only problem, fully 81% of French citizens find the current tax system unjust and want the country's finances completely revamped.

A few tidbits of history, to put all this in perspective. The last time France had a revolution, in 1789, it was incited by increasingly onerous taxation by a deeply indebted government, culminating with the construction of a physical Berlin wall of tax barriers about Paris, imprisoning the city's populace (we even blogged about it, here).

Also note the uncanny resemblance of President Hollande to Louis XVI, and the uncanny resemblance of his policies to those of the late, beheaded monarch: blind allegiance to the status quo in the face of increasing popular discontent during a prolonged period of deepening economic adversity. One should also remark that Hollande shows none of the creativity or intestinal fortitude necessary to reddress the mounting crisis of confidence in the competence and direction of the French government itself, to say nothing of a fundamantal realignment, overwhelmingly demanded by the citizenry, of its implacably oppressive tax structure. 

Today, the New York Times reports that the populist, far-right Front National is the most popular political party in France, with the Socialist Party of Hollande trailing badly. You do not need to be an oracle or a political pundit to divine that the present moment is about the absolute worst time for the government to re-erect a modern version of the tax barriers that incited the French Revolution. 

Willful amnesia, and déjà vu all over again.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Celebrating Central Park NYC at Librarie Galignani, Paris

We're delighted to announce that Paris' premier bookstore, the august Librarie Galignani on the rue de Rivoli, will be hosting an evening celebrating publication of Central Park NYC on the fourth December--hélas by invitation only, but we hope if you have recieved your invitation that you'll join us then.

We will give a short talk about the book and Central Park, and then be available to sign copies. These are festive evenings that mingle current events and the love of books, and Galignani has created a wonderful authors' program that has made it a center of Parisian culture. Needless to say, we are honored and are looking forward immensely to the soirée.