We owe a lot to the artistic and literary studies of Professor Mario Praz (Florence 1896 – Rome 1982), to his in-depth and accurate analysis, with which he shed new light on so many works of art and literary trends, from Machiavelli’s reception in Britain and the Renaissance emblem books through the conceptismo of the Baroque, John Donne’s texts and Byron’s poems to the dark side of Romanticism or the reevaluation of bourgeois taste in the Biedermeier and Empire home interiors. His writings always move on the – strongly subjective – border area, where literature meets other art forms, to make together more livable a hostile world. By this effort Praz also intended to fill the emptiness of the second part of the twentieth century, which he abhorred, and where he felt completely alien.
One of his most personal books is La casa della vita (“The House of Life”, 1958, enlarged edition 1979), which is an essential document to understand who Mario Praz was, and how he saw himself. In this book he does not conceal the dark sides of his own life and character either. The ambiguous title is also a reference to the innermost and most hidden part of the Egyptian temple, where the secret texts and ceremonies were hidden from the external world. Praz talks along multiple threads about how he constructed his life around his objects, friendships, loves and manias, and behind this becomes clear the melancholic loneliness pervading all his life. As he moves through the rooms of his home, he gradually unfolds the fabric of his life, keeping a delicate balance between the detailed technical description of the objects of a passionate collector, and a highly personal, intimate and self-critical revelation of himself. A fascinating book, unique in its kind. And one cannot put it down: we have read it in a single breath. In the year of its publication it was presented to the Strega Prize, but, to Praz’s misfortune, Lampedusa’s The Panther was also published in the same year. Luchino Visconti drew inspiration and details from this book to his film Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (in English Conversation Piece). But, for a balanced opinion, we should not overlook Cyril Connoly’s judgment, who wrote a criticism on 20 September 1964 for the Sunday Times about the English translation of the book:
“One of the dullest books I have ever read; it has a bravura of boredom, an audacity of ennui that makes one hardly believe one’s eyes […] He has an ant’s eye view of small objects, an overwhelming sense of their importance in relation to himself and viceversa […] his disseminated egotism, his fulminating cliché…”
With which, of course, we do not agree. If nothing else, the magnificent and melancholic report about the vanishing Rome – specifically, Via Giulia and the surroundings of Palazzo Ricci – makes the book worth reading. Mario Praz moved here in 1934, and in 1967 he had to remove to Palazzo Primoli. To date, the remaining objects of his huge collection are on display in the latter apartment. Here he died on 23 March 1982, thirty-three years ago today. A few weeks ago we also went to see “the House of Life”, to pay a tribute in our modest way.
Soon we will also write about Via Giulia, Rome’s most beautiful street according to Annibale Caro, which is “constantly put to shame, ruined and threatened with destruction by the botched intervention which tears apart its unity”, as Roberto Papini says in his review on Ceccarius’ monumental monograph Strada Giulia.