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Escape to the Campagna

Gian Enzo Sperone leaves the cares of the art world behind at his rustic compound.

About an hour outside Rome in the tiny village of Filacciano sits the crumbling palace of the principi del Drago, and about five minutes farther, on the crest of a small hill, is a lodge build in 1910 so that the Drago children might sleep in the countryside when the fullness of Roman summer makes any urban dwelling a prison. Here they would come for days at a time to a building of noble simplicity, its walls a bricky pink, its roof tiled, its gardens surrounding the ancient fountains for which the property is called La Fontanella. At the front of the house the ground drops sharply and there is the infinite vista of a valley — fields of green intercepted by the occasional turns of the Tiber and the villages along its treelined banks. Behind the old house are two more, built over the past several years. Both share the miniature purity of the first one, the sympathy with the landscape, the elegant bearing of houses built as respites from other busier houses.

“Whenever the current prince comes to visit,” laughs Gian Enzo Sperone, the owner of La Fontanella, “he shakes his head and wonders how he could have sold me this land. But it was in fact sold out of his family years ago, and I bought it from someone else altogether.” Sperone is the director of the Sperone Gallery in Rome and a partner in Sperone Westwater in New York. He shows such artists as Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, and Bruce Nauman. But he subscribes to neither the slickness nor the pessimism of contemporary art and has none of that dread gallerist’s quality of the racketeer. When I arrived at La Fontanella, Sperone, dressed in plus fours and a tweed jacket, was working on a decaying stone wall at the periphery of his land. He came out of a mass of shrubbery, his neatly trimmed beard and hair wet from the morning fog, with a pack of white dogs of different breeds barking and rushing about him, some leaping up to place their paws on his shoulders and then on mine, others content to yap about our heels.

We went into the first of the three houses. Sperone explained to me that he has built the others in part to hold his ever-increasing collection of furniture and objects but also for everyone to have a place to go at any time. “Perhaps one day I feel like sleeping at the top of the hill and another like being down below. Perhaps one morning the sun seems too bright in the old house and the light is more beautiful in the new one. Perhaps I need for a few hours to go where the children and the dogs will not come and interrupt me. Or perhaps I have friends staying and want to give them a place of their own. That is why I have three houses here.” We drank clear tea in which there floated nearly transparent slices of a lemon grown nearby and ate slices of a tart cooked that morning and still warm in its pan.

I had assumed that Sperone’s house would be filled with work by the artists he shows, furnished with modern chairs and sofas, and lit by halogen lamps. I could not have been more wrong. Indian miniatures, old-master engravings, fragments of ancient wall paintings, and delicate nineteenth-century watercolors hang at close quarters on the walls, and though there are contemporary works by Mimmo Paladino, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gianni Dessì, they seem to be only a component of a plausibly transtemporal admixture. “If you know the artists as I know the artists whose work I show and if you understand their work as I think I understand it, then to live with their work constantly by you is to live in a sort of suspended anxiety. It is not that I do not love their work, that I do not want it near me. It is not even that I do not collect it, but I do not want it always in my home. And then too, these are houses of small proportions with small walls. A single work by Schnabel would take up the entire wall of this room.”

The houses are filled with a diversity of items such as can hardly be catalogued. There are beds everywhere, some of them campaign beds, many of them from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. They are canopied in white cotton so soft it can barely be distinguished from the air around it, or in bolder weaves whose bright colors seem to glow against the textured dullness of cast-iron frames. “Beds are where we speak to one another and where we dream,” says Sperone. “They are where life unfolds. If I could, I would have a bed in every room.” Other furnishings are frequently Empire or late eighteenth century. Everywhere there are clocks, some dials held by fantastical ormolu figures from myth, others in simple carriage cases, all of them forever chiming. Fragments of Roman sculpture are balanced on inlaid tables beside modern upholstered sofas with big comfortable cushions, and Oriental vases sit on old tables with simple turned legs. Fine jars of Dutch porcelain are side by side with Tuscan cupboards and wardrobes of rough-hewn golden wood.

These objects in unlikely juxtaposition seem as though they had been made for just such placement; each acquires a vividness of form as it lies beside its neighbors. The rooms are all tiled in antique terra-cotta, the walls all simply whitewashed, the ceilings all of local hand-cut wood with beams made of tree trunks. The light is uniform and pale and clear. In it the objects are not like relics — oddments obfuscated by the intervention of years — but like living things aglow with unostentatious beauty and usefulness. Here is what might happen if history itself were to bathe in the fountain of youth, if what has already been could be as urgent as what is now. There is nothing fussy about the arrangements of La Fontanella; the houses are held together only by Sperone’s palpable integrity and unaffected refinement.

Sperone and I walked across the property breathing the fine air of the hills. We went down the stairs of the orangery to a cellar where some of his modern works lean against walls, Warhol’s Jackie Kennedy beside Joseph Kosuth’s typewriter images of words beside yet another cast-iron bed on which to lie and think of modern art. Afterwards we went back to the first and oldest house and had lunch with Patrizia Sperone, Gian Enzo’s wife, and Nana Barbiellini, a childhood friend. We ate pasta and salad and cheese, simples dishes made with local ingredients by peasant women from the village, and we drank a young red wine with a light fruity bouquet. Patrizia Sperone told stories, and well laughed about the idea of beauty and the struggle we undergo to locate it in ourselves and in what is around us. We laughed to think that there is no comedy greater than the way sophistication ends up as a search for world enough and time, the greatest luxuries of all. From where I sat, laughing too, I could see a small clock, an Empire sideboard, a cluster of late grapes still hanging on the trellis outside, and the Tiber winding its ancient course through the valley.