Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fantasy Runs Rampant: An Artist’s Fantasy Villa and Garden Pay Witty Homage to Palladio and Friends

Artist Carlo Marchiori Creates His Dream House in Calistoga, California

Carlo Marchiori’s three-decade project looks as if it had evolved over centuries. Visions of the Veneto, Capri and pop Palladio animate five acres of Calistoga flatlands.

Calistoga, California:
For those who pine to trip the light fantastic around Italy on a Grand Tour, Carlo Marchiori offers the most complete and witty instant classical education.

The glories of Italian culture are portrayed throughout his wooded domain, Ca’Toga, on the banks of the Napa River in the rocky northern reaches of the Napa Valley.

“I started building my villa and the garden statues over thirty years ago, and I just never stopped,” said Marchiori, 61, who was born near Vicenza, Italy, Palladio’s stomping ground.

“My work is theatrical, but always with a wink,” Marchiori said. Rendered in the finest detail, each sculpture and column is then hacked and sanded and chipped to age it thousands of years.

Beyond gateposts topped with jaunty Pulcinello figures stands Marchiori’s handsome Palladian villa, along with a riverside amphitheatre worthy of Caesar, a nymphaeum with sparkling water from the local hot springs, and enough Corinthian columns and noble statues to repopulate the Roman Forum.

In silvery moonlight, with western hills as a backdrop, the rough concrete Doric temple in artist Carlo Marchiori’s garden looks as if it was hewn from Carrara marble. Fluted columns pose heroically on a crumbling foundation. Soaring high above are elaborate friezes and large stone fragments with the traditional entablature. There’s even a broken pediment. All that’s missing is the oracle.

Marchiori’s bravura living room murals were completed over several years. Through chilly winters, the artist painted every delicate flourish standing on a scaffold for hours each day. Every architectural detail—including door pediments—is painted.

Gods of antiquity are depicted en grisaille, a monochromatic technique that gives the appearance of carved Carrara marble.

Roman and Greek gods frolic around a glimmering pool. Stone heads and limbs lie artfully around, like Lord Elgin’s leftovers.

Perhaps most impressively, Marchiori has improvised all of his temples and grand architecture on “four bucks and courage”, using construction-site cast-offs, broken concrete sidewalks hauled from the nearby town of Calistoga, scraps of wood, flea market finds, road-side cast-offs, house paint, and broken tiles and architectural fragments from dismantled buildings.

“Palladio himself improvised,” noted Marchiori. “Often the noblemen who commissioned him wanted a very prestigious villa, but did not have the money. Veneto villa columns were not carved of solid marble, but built of cheap terrace cotta bricks and stone with layers of stucco.”

An ancient-looking stone grotto glows with the nacreous light of hundreds of abalone shells affixed to the walls. Open-mouthed, a dusty Arlecchino head munches weeds beside the villa. A cracked Pompeiian-style urn and stone plaques (OMNIA VINCIT AMOR) seem unearthed from an archaeological dig.

Carlo Marchiori, pictured above, with a new sculpture crafted from a moose horn and clay, has turned a former weed patch into a dreamscape. Using building site debris, terra cotta bricks, and fieldstone, he crafted a sunny piazza and fountains and ‘fragments’ of ancient monuments crafted in sculpted cement. A charming grotto with a domed ceiling was painted to look like a venerable relic from the Roman Empire. For a magical dinner party, Marchiori sets tables with candelabra and bounty from his garden. Flickering light in the grotto transports guests to another time, another place.

“I originally set out to create a country retreat, not an homage to Italy, but naturally I fell back on the historical architecture and the antiquities I grew up with,” he said. “I have a kind of sacred obsession to create. One column leads to another. I envision a temple, a fountain, a mythological beast, and I have an artistic greed to complete it.”

Marchiori’s magical territory was hard-won. He discovered post-purchase that his rocky acreage was full of black clay and laced with boron from the thermal activity that make hot springs and mud baths a popular attraction in Calistoga. Water for his vegetable garden must be filtered.

“I've trucked in tons of soil so that I can grow pomegranates, grape vines, pines, eucalyptus and roses,” said Marchiori. “That’s one reason I throw my energy into columns. They’re low-maintenance.”

Marchiori brings to his work fifty years of art studies, close observation of Italy’s greatest painters, passion, and his experience as a highly regarded decorative artist, in demand for grand projects around the world. He has completed large-scale murals for hotels such as the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and various Trump casinos and hotels. Recent projects also included a fantasy Tuscan landscape for a Pebble Beach elevator interior, grisaille panels for a Los Angeles house, and the elaborate ceiling of a villa in Napa’s Rutherford appellation.

All of his designs are crafted by hand, with help from a handful of workers and his partner, Tony Banthutham.

“I use only a cranky old concrete mixer, so larger pieces are cast in fragments and then fixed into place,” Marchiori said. “I design them in my head, scramble to figure out the correct proportions, and hope the foundations are strong enough. I keep the finishes loose and never add too much falala.”

A pair of ancient-looking pillar gateways to his riverbank garden were crafted from chipped and broken blocks of concrete dumped by a local building crew. Rustic acorn-shaped finials, which could have been lifted from Palladio’s Villa Barbaro in Treviso, were made with shards of roof tiles bought by the truckload from a local roofer.

“To give them a centuries-old look, I cracked them into even smaller chunks,” Marchiori said. “I use anything and everything to create the illusion of antiquity. I’m not a pedantic academic. ”

A twelve-foot high hollow head of Pan, his wild hair and open-mouthed visage pieced together from chunks of richly-hued fieldstone, juts from a wall in a tangle of vines.

“ I hope some birds make their nest inside this sculpture. I would love to see birds fly out of his mouth,” said the artist.

Marchiori said he also paints and stains and daubs the stones and concrete, tiles, metal pipes, and other building materials, to hasten the aging process.

“My goal is to make harmony out of chaos,” said the artist, with steam from the Old Faithful geyser floating in the distance. “ I am the opposite of those who paint their houses every two years and keep everything face-lifted. I don’t believe in ‘forever young’.”

Nature is his accomplice. Rain, sun, wind and valley dust add a convincing patina of centuries.

“After millions of brushtrokes, I have the euphoria of playing an art trick, turning rubble into gold,” he said. 

Marchiori grew up in the Veneto town of Bassano del Grappa north east of Venice, and as a boy, roamed the region studying the villas and gardens of the surrounding countryside.
The classic proportions of Palladio’s architecture informed his eye from an early age. He headed to school over the Brenta Bridge, one of Palladio’s landmarks, and, in effect, studied Palladio’s work as he pedaled across on his bicycle.

Marchiori came to San Francisco in the late Sixties, by way of Japan, New Zealand, and Canada. His Edwardian house in the Haight Ashbury became a tourist stop after he painted a twenty-foot smiling tiger on the facade.

Disinterested with television, film, even computers, he throws his focus on his art. He seldom travels.

Marchiori spends his day painting, sculpting, shaping walls, preparing canvases, glazing his collection of ceramics, and carving plinths. He seems the perfect embodiment of Flaubert’s aphorism, ‘One should be regular and orderly in one’s life, so that one may be violent and original in one’s work.’

Recent projects includes a glamorous grotto with a chandelier of scallop shells that would be a sensation on Capri, and a small outdoor theatre crowned with shard-topped columns. In his Teatro degli Zanni, Marchiori dreams of presenting the Commedia dell’Arte slapstick plays of his childhood.

Marchiori’s list of projects is never-ending. There are molds to carve for a new series of Pompeiian ruins, Bellini-esque murals to complete, and a series of Corinthian column fragments to paint. 

In a sense, Marchiori never left Italy. Or at least, Italy never left him.

Summers in Calistoga are hot, so the swimming pool was one of Marchiori’s first grand plans. The artist and two assistants built a pool surround of terra cotta tiles, old bricks, and cracked cement columns. Pine trees, all newly planted, add a suitably Roman flourish.

With its ‘marble’ columns, grassy knolls, and elegant statuary, Marchiori’s swimming pool seems worlds away as nearby Old Faithful Geyser spouts plumes of steam and Mount St. Helena stands as a rocky guardian for acres of vineyards. Thanks to geothermal activity in the region, the artist’s cement flagstones have taken on the patina of centuries.

Marchiori’s restless imagination is evident in these bravura technique samples. Pompeian panels, a painted cabinet with Pulcinello figures, and a painted tribute to Arcimboldo with flowers rather than fruit display his artistry.

All photography by California photographer, Adrian Gregorutti, published here with express permission.

Photographer Adrian Gregorutti lives in the Napa Valley, and his distinctive and dramatic photography of wineries, residences and antique barns have captured attention of connoisseurs and clients.  www.gregophoto.com

Artist statement: "I was born in Argentina of Italian descent. I moved to Europe in my twenties. After meeting an American girl, I moved to the US. Since 1995, I have been living in the Napa Valley with my wife, Sylvia, (the American girl), a linguist teaching Spanish and Italian at a private college here in the valley, and my daughter, Nina, 5. Besides architectural photography, I also photograph for the wine industry. From August 6 through October 31 of this year, the Napa Valley Museum will show some of my architectural work in the exhibition titled "Art & Wine, the Expression of an Industry". I also love languages, traveling, food, and, of course, wine."

To visit Ca’Toga:

Carlo gives private tours of the villa and gardens, by appointment: 707-942-3900.
He can be reached at 707-942-0212 or through his Calistoga gallery at 707-942-3900. www.catoga.com

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Majesty, History, Romance and Dreams:

The Supremely Elegant Rambagh Palace Hotel in Jaipur, Northern India

The Rambagh Palace hotel captures everything I seek and adore in a world-class hotel. I’ve been staying there since I was a student traveling around India—and it is more magnificent than ever. You know how much I love India—and the Rambagh is an essential part of the attraction.

I was there recently.

I encountered the great British actresses, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith, along with Dev Patel and Freida Pinto (the lovers in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), and Bollywood megastars, as well as a glamorous Indian bridal couple and their families—all guests of the hotel. But still, this hotel is not at all a celeb hangout. It is so discreet and low-key you might even believe you are the only guest (my ideal). Follow me for a close-up look.

Rapture: See why I love and admire the Rambagh Palace hotel architecture, gardens, privacy, people and setting.

Then I’ll take you along—in the Maharajah’s vintage automobile—to Jaipur’s Gem Palace to view treasures galore.

Peacocks, golden orioles, and blossom-headed parakeets preen and shriek on the lawns, and iridescent golden lilies and magenta bougainvillea spill over the parterres. The hotel is in the center of Jaipur—and the city swirls around with temple bells and klaxons ringing out in the distance—but the grounds feels like a remote country estate with acres of gardens, fountains, a spa, paths to explore, scampering squirrels, and manicured flower beds.

The Rambagh Palace was originally built in a traditional Mughal style in 1925 as a sprawling country retreat for Jaipur’s royal family. It was the private residence of the Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur (see my feature on a visit to Gayatri Devi in THE STYLE SALONISTE archive).

The palace became a hotel under Taj management in 1957 and even today it retains the air of a romantically regal residence.

I love arriving there—to be greeted by tall, majestic, uniformed doorman, so regal, and the perfectly polished male managers and delightful female concierges and butlers and managers.

The elegant Rajasthani decor, newly refurbished, includes opulent brocades and antique carved furniture, and the raj-y mood suits the loyal clientele wonderfully. I like suites with garden terraces where I enjoy breakfast or evening relaxation.

I must tell you that I am very much at home in India, and have immersed myself in the culture, the history, Indian literature and music, design and textiles and architecture. There is much delight. Sometimes it is overwhelming, in a thrilling way, but still the joy can make you jittery! That’s why the calm demeanor of the Rambagh is so appreciated.

After a day exploring the rich tapestry of Jaipur’s bazaars and palaces, guests gather on the hotel’s open terraces or at the Polo Bar surrounded by nostalgic photographs of the handsome Maharaja of Jaipur on the polo field.

I usually avoid—always--any folkloric performance, but I’m mesmerized and captivated by the dances and traditional music presented each evening as guests gather for evening cocktails. There’s also a palm reader! Love it.

A private celebration in the Chinese room, with jade and semi-precious stone-ornamented lacquer walls, should be followed by a specially choreographed show of Indian fireworks in the garden. Traditional handcrafted Indian fireworks are remarkably vivid and full of giddy surprises.

Best accommodations include the Kamal Mahal and Prince’s suites, which have a private porte-cochere entrance. The Maharani suite’s vast Art Deco-style marble bathroom is the essence of luxury. I love any suite that has a private entrance and a terrace. A guest can imagine that this is their own residence. Female guests appear in Loro Piana white linen blouses and linen slacks, and pretty sandals and Indian jewels for evening. The men in classic warm-weather sportswear add Hermes belts, navy blazers for evening.

To reside in a private palace in Jaipur would be heaven, indeed.

Royalty and heads of state and glamorous jet-setters were drawn to the cosmopolitan Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur.

Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, nabobs and Nizams, lords and ladies of the British Raj all visited in the days when the Maharani (whose former Lilypool residence is still nearby) was one of the world’s great beauties, and the Maharajah was a champion polo player.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Rides Elephant

The Taj hotel management company conscientiously updates the hotel, enhancing the luxury without any apparent changes—while protecting and enhancing the essence and timeless soul of the palace. It lavish and authentic.

On a hot spring day the white marble halls and marble-floored suites afford a precious retreat. Sometimes (every day in India) I am fizzy with joy—so marble keeps me cool. Almost.

In the evening guests returning to the hotel pass hallucinogenic wedding parades with caparisoned elephants and corybantic guests and musicians, and the vibrant life of Jaipur all around.

This is life, heightened.

Following a recent renovation, the palace shines even more. And should the maharani’s suite not be available, a suite overlooking the garden, where peacocks preen and strut in the early morning dew, will revive royal glamour in style.

A Visit to Gem Palace and the Kasliwal family

I never want to leave the Rambagh Palace hotel. I can happily spend hours at Mr. Narain Jain’s bookshop there, with its fabulous rare books on India.

I sit on the terrace sipping fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. I rest beneath a neem tree, reading a book, gazing across the gardens. I watch white peacocks perched on a wall. A pony carriage whirls past.

But I have to go to the Gem Palace!

I check with the hotel concierge and arrange to be driven to Gem Palace in one of the current Maharajah of Jaipur’s famous vintage cars. The stately 1937 Daimler, the Maharani’s car of choice, which was my favorite, is not available. It’s in Delhi for repairs.

My driver, wearing traditional tunic and turban guides me to the driveway and into the all-wood interior of the rare and superbly maintained vehicle.

This time it’s a 1948 Plymouth, army green, all polished up and full of vim and vigor. It has a mere 33,345 on the odometer and the back seat is bouncy with bold new springs.

We set off at a stately pace through the cavalcade and chaos of Jaipur’s traffic. This car, air-conditioned, is a traffic-stopper, no doubt.

Like all Indian drivers, my designated driver relies heavily on the horn, this one deep and sonorous and at least a little polite.

It’s an event to drive through the tree-lined streets, past camel-carts and families (babes in arms) on tiny scooters, leathery old men on wobbly standard bicycles, and helmeted hipsters revving aggressive modern motorcycles, and sari'd girls, all jostling for a place on the dusty roads.

This car parts the traffic, glides through the mayhem, keeps a steady course, all with a spotless gleam and clean windows and panache. It’s a lot of fun.

Gem Palace

Jaipur is the place to find, in bazaars and emporiums, the pure cashmere shawls, block-printed quilts, diamond rings, and fine textiles that turn up—at much higher prices—in trend-setting stores from Madison Avenue to avenue Montaigne and Melrose Place.

Munnu Kasliwal, a scion of the illustrious family that has run Jaipur’s legendary Gem Palace for eight generations, is considered one of the leading fine jewelry designers and gem authorities in the world.

His Munnu/ Gem Palace collections are sought after by jewelry collectors and his newest designs are on dazzling display at Barney’s New York in Manhattan and Los Angeles and other Barney’s outposts.

He spills vivid red spinels and pale green emeralds and diamond bracelets and pink sapphires on the table of his private atelier. He takes a maharajah’s turban ornament from a silk pouch and twirls it in his hand. Only in Jaipur are precious jewels displayed with such elaborate grace.

Visit his studio by appointment. It’s a salon for friends and fortunate travelers with connections.

Among the day’s temptations are kundan-set diamond earrings and a maharajah’s trove of Burmese rubies, sapphire and diamond rings.

Munnu’s delights included woven gold belts with diamond buckles, hair ornaments of gold and diamonds, an emerald bead torsade, a bird ring, dazzling emerald earrings, a gold snake bracelet, and a Burmese ruby necklace sparkling with diamond rondelles. It’s all handmade, and some pieces may take as long as four or more years, even a decade, to assemble the perfect stones, and to elaborately craft and piece together with the highest standards.

‘Jewelry should be for the ages,” said Munnu Kasliwal as the fragrance of tuberose swirls in the afternoon air. “It will live on long after us. The best jewelry lives forever.”

At Gem Palace I love to see members of the Kasliwal family, all so talented.

Sudhir Kasliwal is a highly accomplished photographer, often commissioned to shoot significant heritage images of Rajasthan and Jaipur. He published a cookbook with the Maharani of Jaipur of whom he was a very close friend.

Sanjay Kasliwal, so international, runs the shop and greets endless rounds of glitterati (Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were there recently).

For old friends of the family, it is now a delight to see the next generation learning from their fathers, eagerly picking up intricacies and business acumen and discretion from their family. Gem Palace is in good hands, with multi-generations of world-class jewelers taking care of business. Top of the top.

I can’t wait to return.

Photo Credits:

Taj Rambagh Palace hotel images courtesy Taj Hotels and Resorts, and Rambagh Palace hotel. Car and driver image and some exterior images, by Diane Dorrans Saeks.

Munnu/ Gem Palace images: courtesy Munnu Kasliwal, Munnu/Gem Palace, Jaipur and New York. Munnu/Gem Palace jewelry illustrated here is available at Barney’s specialty stores. For more information, Munnu Studio: 212-861-0606.

For more information on Taj international: www.tajhotels.com

Rambagh Palace 

Bhawani Singh Road
Jaipur - 302 005
Tel: (91-141) 2211 919
Fax: (91-141) 2385 098
Email: rambagh.jaipur@tajhotels.com