Italian art: Casa Cuseni

Dec 14, 2019 389

On November 13, 1895, the English writer Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in the Reading prison in London on charges of obscene acts because of his homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, known as Bosie. Three years later Wilde was in Taormina where he took refuge at the Hotel Victoria, attracted by the atmosphere made famous throughout Europe by the photographs of the German Wilhelm von Gloeden. It was here that the painter Robert Hawthorn Kitson (1873-1947), scion of a rich family of Yorkshire industrialists, met Oscar Wilde and Von Gloeden on his first trip to Italy.

On the death of his father Kitson decided, by now very rich, to move to Taormina, to build his own personal Arcadia, starting the design of Casa Cuseni: a villa surrounded by a garden. Kitson involved some of the most famous English artists and decorators of his time. The villa, one of Sicily's lesser-known treasures, was built outside the city walls, in a splendid position overlooking the bay of Naxos and Mount Etna. Kitson, a great traveller and watercolourist, invited his friend and teacher Sir Frank Brangwyn, a well-known representative of the British Arts and Crafts movement and a pupil of William Morris, to decorate it.

This would be enough to give Casa Cuseni to the myth, but the history of the villa will still have fascinating developments. For almost a century, a mystery has enveloped one of its rooms, the so-called Brangwyn's Room, a dining room in perfect Arts and Crafts style, which has remained intact to this day, despite the events connected with the Second World War, when the villa was occupied militarily and Kitson was repatriated. In the years to come the "English room" has become a destination for a secret pilgrimage for many artists, including Salvador Dalí and some say even Pablo Picasso.

The uniqueness of this room designed by the painter and engraver Frank Brangwyn in 1910 lies in the fact that it is the only room in the world conceived by the English artist as a total work of art with furniture, paintings and decorations to have been preserved. Brangwyn at the VI and VII International Art Exhibitions of the city of Venice in 1905 and 1907 represented Great Britain, winning the gold medal with his own total decoration project. And it is probable that Taormina's clientele was born on the wave of Venetian success.

In 1909 Brangwyn was already present at Casa Cuseni as a guest of Kitson, when he started with him and Von Gloeden to portray the disastrous effects of the Messina earthquake of 1908. The dining room of Casa Cuseni is a small room of extraordinary harmony, with the warm color of the wood paneling and the wall paintings. All along the room there is a pictorial frieze with flowering branches and androgynous figures with elegant white and blue tunics that, grouped together in small groups or isolated, seem to be inspired in their classical pose by the figures of draped young men with fruit baskets that appear in the photographs of Wilhelm von Gloeden, taken at Casa Cuseni. In particular, a small group composed of those who appear as two young men, one of whom has a child in his arms, would represent Kitson himself and his companion, the painter Carlo Siligato who, following the Messina earthquake, took a small orphan with them.

The villa houses over 2,700 art objects including photographs (including some by Von Gloeden), paintings, watercolors, furniture and antique collections. A separate chapter deserves the garden on terraces, whose perspective plan was realized by Brangwyn himself. Conceived as an initiatory ascensional path, it is marked by fountains and culminates in a swimming pool on which the volcano Etna is reflected. The garden's decorative elements, on the other hand, were probably added later and clearly of a futuristic style. These are the pebble floors with stylized floral motifs, a decorative panel depicting erupting Etna and Kitson's futuristic portrait. Some say that these are works by Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero who had in Messina a patron like Gugliemo Jannelli, in whose villa they both worked on the decorative apparatus. Depero is known to be present in Messina where he made several works on private commission on site in 1926 and 1927, one could be for Kitson’s villa.

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