The Renaissance of the House Museum

From the recent opening of the Villa Cerruti to Charleston’s new gallery, idiosyncratic museums and collections are flourishing

Snooping around other people’s abodes is part of a long tradition. In Georgian Britain, well-to-do visitors could pay a small fee in exchange for a tour of a stately home. Partway through Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), Elizabeth Bennet arrives for one such tour of Pemberley House. Her good opinion of the proprietor, Mr Darcy, blossoms with every sentimental portrait and arresting view across the grounds. In France, during the era of the ancien régime, anyone who arrived at the Palace of Versailles in clean clothes was permitted to attend the grand couvert, a salon where visitors could watch the royals eat dinner like beasts in a monarchal zoo. 

Today, while we have grown accustomed to waiting for an occupant to die before turning our attention to their domestic arrangements, the popular pastime of reading a life story through a person’s possessions lives on in the house museum – curation’s answer to biography, and a form of cultural tourism currently enjoying a renaissance. In 2018, Charleston Farmhouse in Sussex, former country retreat of the Bloomsbury Group and a site of pilgrimage for those in search of ramshackle modern bohemia, unveiled a new extension. This spring, in Rivoli, on the outskirts of Turin, a provincial home with staggering aspirations to grandeur opened its doors to the public for the first time. In so doing, it brought to light the previously sequestered art collection of the Italian industrialist Federico Cerruti.

Dining room, Casa Mollino, Turin, 2010. Courtesy: Museo Casa Mollino, Turin

Born in Genoa in 1922, Cerruti worked in the family book-binding business, Legatoria Industriale Torinese. In the early 1950s, he made the decision to adopt perfect-binding technology, enabling the company to mass-produce on a scale previously unseen in Italy. A decade later, he commissioned Villa Cerruti to be erected on a scenic plot of land a stone’s throw from Castello di Rivoli: a hilltop castle built for the Savoy royal family in the middle ages, and a museum of contemporary art since 1984. Upon Cerruti’s death in 2015, and in accordance with his wishes, the villa was converted into a museum, under the management of Castello di Rivoli. A photograph in the new entrance lobby shows the collector – a gaunt, unsmiling man with an undertaker’s taste in suits – surveying the view from the building site.

Cerruti originally intended the villa as a residence for his parents. They never moved in. Neither did anyone else. In the late 1960s, while the house was under construction, he made his first acquisition – a small untitled ink and watercolour work by Wassily Kandinsky from 1918. This purchase opened the floodgates: over the next five decades, he bought hundreds of artworks, from medieval illuminated manuscripts and etchings by Francisco de Goya to paintings by Jean Dubuffet. Instead of a home, the villa became a personal museum with a domestic theme. Cerruti is thought to have spent only a single night at the property, restricting himself to Sunday visits. A lifelong bachelor and a deeply private man, he chose to remain off the art world’s radar and rarely invited guests. The bedrooms remain unslept in; the country-style kitchen never properly plumbed in.

Polaroid taken by Carlo Mollino, 1968–73. Courtesy: Museo Casa Mollino, Turin

According to a former assistant, Cerruti claimed that he did not sleep in the property because to do so would trigger ‘Stendhal Syndrome’: a physical condition that allegedly occurs when a person is overcome by the beauty of an artwork. The villa’s stifling atmosphere may offer a less romantic explanation. Given the scope of the collection, the house is relatively small: Cerruti’s palatial ambitions crammed into bourgeois proportions. In the cluttered stairwell, Amedeo Modigliani’s Woman in a Yellow Dress (1918) shares a wall with paintings by Francis Bacon, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger and Joan Miró. Elsewhere, artworks compete with silver tea sets, Louis XV armchairs, porcelain tureens with cauliflower stalks for handles, and walls upholstered in silk and embellished with tassels. The dining room, where metaphysical paintings by Giorgio de Chirico hang on mirrored panels, is the most dizzying of all. The room is also home to a pair of 18th-century tables carved to resemble rams. Stand before the mirrors and you can see the ornamental floor tiles and gilded ovine hooves reflected ad infinitum. Spend more than an hour in the house, and you may find yourself empathizing with Cerruti’s decision to live in a modest apartment near his office in Turin.

Every house museum has a story to tell. Villa Cerruti can be viewed as a work of wishful self-portraiture: a meticulous staging of the owner’s disposition and sensibility, designed to place Cerruti in elevated company. The ground floor music room, where artworks are themed around books, frames his stock-in-trade as an industrial bookbinder within a lineage of distinguished Italian scholarship. Jacopo Pontormo’s Portrait of a Gentleman with Book (1534–35), an oil on board painting of a sonorous man holding a leather-bound book, is believed to depict a member of the Accademia Fiorentina or the Medici court. Given the context, he could also be considered proxy for Cerruti.

Garden room, Charleston Farmhouse, Firle. Courtesy: © Charleston Trust

Some stories are dictated by the erstwhile inhabitants of a property, while others take hold post mortem. Twenty kilometres from Rivoli, on the banks of the Po river in central Turin, is Casa Mollino: a private museum in the former apartment of the architect, designer, pilot, ski-manual author and photographer of erotica, Carlo Mollino. Like Cerruti, Mollino never lived in this apartment. He also kept it secret. Despite only living around the corner, his friend, the artist Carol Rama, was ignorant of its existence, and there are no known written records of his intentions for its use. The mystery has paved the way for an unlikely mythology. Mollino died in 1973, after which the contents of the apartment were sold. When the property passed into the hands of father and son Fulvio and Napoleone Ferrari, in 1999, they set about reconstructing the interior according to the original floor plan. In the process, a famous Egyptologist claimed to have made an important discovery: that Mollino was an occultist with a passion for Egyptology, and the apartment was designed to be his very own home for the afterlife. The white dining table and chairs, Fulvio tells me, symbolize Egyptian philosophy; the markings on a zebra-skin rug, a metaphor for the labyrinth of life; an army of butterflies on the walls, the company he wished to take to the great beyond. Pharaoh’s tomb or not, the enigma of the apartment appeals to a visitor’s inner Hercule Poirot; the speculation has also ensured Mollino remains an individual of interest.

Other historical figures, such as the members of the Bloomsbury Group, have shaped their legacies by leaving behind ample material. ‘The remarkable collective achievement of the Bloomsbury writers and artists’, notes Janet Malcolm in her essay ‘A House of One’s Own’ (1995), ‘is that they placed in posterity’s hands the documents necessary to engage posterity’s feeble attention – the letters, memoirs and journals that reveal the inner life and compel the sort of helpless empathy that fiction compels.’ Charleston Farmhouse, in the village of Firle, is packed full of art produced by the inhabitants and their friends. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – artists, friends and co-parents – moved to Firle in 1918, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. (Grant was a conscientious objector and, according to the terms of his exemption from fighting, he was obliged to carry out farm work.) Today, visitors to Charleston can see the part of the dining table worn down by Virginia Woolf’s nervous elbows, oddball ceramic lampshades designed by Bell’s son Quentin, murals and textiles by Grant, and the bed in which the economist Maynard Keynes slept during his visits.

Duncan Grant's studio, Charleston Farmhouse, Firle. Courtesy: © Charleston Trust; photograph: Tony Tree 

When two new galleries for modern and contemporary art opened at Charleston in 2018, The Famous Women Dinner Service went on permanent display for the first time: a 50-piece ceramic dish set produced by Bell and Grant between 1932–34. Commissioned by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, each plate is painted with a jocular portrait of a famous historical woman. Included among them are Cleopatra, Marie Antoinette and Jane Austen, as well as Bell, Woolf and Grant (the only man to have made the cut). ‘Is Biography an Art?’ a 1942 essay of Woolf’s once famously asked. In painting themselves into history, the residents of Charleston answered with a resounding yes.

Part of the attraction of Charleston is the extent to which the lives of the former inhabitants seem impressed upon every surface. It would not be a surprise to hear Bell’s chair leg scraping against the wooden floorboards or her children tearing down the hallway. In sharp contrast, one of the most compelling features of Villa Cerruti is the extent to which it was unliveable. Cerruti’s ambitions appear to have overwhelmed him, his fantasy home incompatible with the day-to-day life of a reclusive businessman. Perhaps, in the end, Villa Cerruti was always better suited for the afterlife. In death, he can finally emerge from the silk-lined chrysalis.

Main image: Circular room, Villa Cerruti, Rivoli. Courtesy: Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea; photograph: © Antonio Maniscalco 

This article first appeared in Frieze Masters issue 8 with the headline ‘Life, Edited’.

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer based in London. She is an editor at The White Review.

Issue 8

First published in Issue 8

September 2019

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