Monday, February 6, 2012

IO VIVO! The Encyclopedic Palace Rises Again

Friends, I wish I had the words to describe my happiness when I learned last week in an article in the New York Times that my grandfather’s great labor of love, an architectural model he called the Palazzo Enciclopedico, has once again been rescued from oblivion and is back up at the American Folk Art Museum – now at their space near Lincoln Center. (Thank you, Tom Hachtman, for that email.)

My grandfather, Marino Auriti, and his “crazy” endeavor meant, and mean, so much to me that it’s hard for me to assemble my thoughts about him.  I tried to write an essay about him at MacDowell in 1998, but merely succeeded in smoking lots of cigarettes, eating lots of carrot sticks, and banging my head against it all summer.  Later still I started a mini-comic about all this and made two issues, but then ran out of steam because of my seriously feeble drawing chops, and maybe more so because of the sadness that comes over me when I think too much about my family.  So please bear with me on this.      

Marino Auriti was born in 1891 in the town of Guardiagrele (provincia Chieti, regione Abruzzo) – I can still hear my grandfather saying ’Uardiagrele, with the world’s fattest U-sound in his dialetto Guardiese.  He was a carriage maker by trade, but had a dreamy turn of mind, and a facility for mechanical things.  Architecture was his great love.  As my mom would tell me when I was a kid, when the Fascists came to power, my grandfather was an outspoken critic – he published in a local paper satirical anti-Fascist poems, which she quaintly termed “bathroom verse” (and geez, one wishes one had a copy of that for the family archive).  As I wrote in my Tresca post, my grandfather really was one of those men who was forced to drink castor oil in the streets by Blackshirt goon squads.  Things got so hot that he and his brother and their families left Italy in the late 1920s.  I remember my mother telling me that the Fascists had taken their house, “one of the best houses in Guardiagrele.”  If it’s the same one I saw in the 1990s and again in 2006, not so much.  Many years after the fact, however, the loss of that house was loudly lamented, a downscaled version of exiled White Russians grieving over the loss of their dacha. 

Although my grandmother, Maria Rachele, was an American citizen (born on Christian Street in Philadelphia in the early 1900s) she was taken back to Italy when she was a baby and was very much an Abruzzese, or to get micro-specific the way Italians do, a PretoreseStill, she could have come back into this country easily, but because of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, the quota for Italians, among others, was tightly restricted – Italians emigrating to the U.S. went from an average of 200,000 per year in the first decade of the 20th century to less than 4,000 after the act was passed – and my grandfather could not enter the country.  The families went to Brazil instead, where my mother was born, in Catanduva, in the state of São Paulo, in 1928.  There my grandfather and a business associate invented something called a coffee thresher, which, family lore had it (the White Russians twisting their pearls again), would have made him a millionaire if the other man hadn’t stolen his patent and claimed the invention as his alone. 

No matter, though, because shortly thereafter, the Brazilian coffee market crashed.  The price per pound fell from 22.5 cents to 8 cents between 1929 and 1931.  I well remember the shock of recognition when I was in college and, in my beloved German film class, I saw the Bertolt Brecht-written film Kuhle Wampe.  At the end of the film, there’s a scene on a train where the characters talk about the tumbling world coffee market and someone cries out, “They’re burning coffee in the streets of Brazil!”  I was sitting there, in the dark in the middle of a lecture room in Fayerweather Hall round about 1988 and I realized:  God, all this really did happen.  These things played out on the world stage, this wasn’t just some piece of secret family history.  All the sorts of abstractions about History became real for me, if at a very late date.   

The family eventually came in through Ellis Island in the 1930s, and settled in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania because, as my mother would tell me, the cypress trees reminded my grandfather of home.

My grandfather built himself a huge garage, and set up an auto-body shop and “artistic framing” business; although I suspect, in the cultural hot spot that was Kennett, he never made any artistic frames for anything but his own work.  On the picture-framing side of the garage was his studio, where he made oil paintings after everything from old masters and photographs clipped out of National Geographic.  He was a pretty old guy by the time I was a kid (he was in his late 70s when I was born) and he’d given up painting by then.  I remember the last, unfinished painting on his easel, its outlines gridded out in pencil, of a Japanese woman eternally lifting a veil to her head.  I remember the wall of mitred frame corners, all so ornate, hanging in upside-down Vs and covered with the thick dust of many years. 

 Me, circa 1976, in my grandparents’ front yard in Kennett. I’m wearing my favorite 100% polyester shirt-and-scarf set, patterned with yellow roses set against a blue lattice background. Note mushroom house across the street. If you’re on the East Coast, check your button mushrooms or your baby Bellas – chances are they came from Kennett Square.

I have my grandfather’s copy after the second-tier Pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Holiday, of The Meeting of Dante and Beatrice (charmingly titled in pencil, in my grandfather’s hand on the lower right-side, “MEETING DANTE AND BEATRICE,” kind of like Eating Raoul or Being John Malkovich).  It’s objectively pretty inept, has little to do with the original, but I worship it.

 The Henry Holiday painting, compliments of the Walker.

 Marino Auriti’s copy.

 And me, in Florence in 2008, by the bridge that was built at that crossing in the sixteenth century, the Ponte Santa Trinità – the same bridge that I note in an earlier post was bombed to bits by the retreating Germans during WWII, and reconstructed with its original stones, dredged from the Arno, in 1958. It’s flanked by allegorical statues representing each of the four seasons; the head of Primavera was not recovered from the river until 1961.

In the garage, on the other side of the studio wall, were hung salon-style, almost floor-to-ceiling, scores of his paintings, all of them, needless to say, artistically framed:  Raphael and Michelangelo he especially loved, and Leonardo, and others I’ve sadly forgotten now. (When I’d see the real version of one of these paintings in books as a kid, I’d say to my mom:  “Pop-pop painted that.”)  But the really cool thing was in the back, beyond the oil-soaked cement ground, the car parts, the enormous chassis of an old, long out-of-commission car (an Edsel?).  And that was the Encyclopedic Palace.

 Marino Auriti in his garage, with his models.

I can only imagine the frustration my grandfather must have felt, living in a town known as the Mushroom Capital of the World, enlivened only by, to hear my mother tell it, visits from the Javella water salesman.  My grandfather was an inveterate tinkerer and was always making things out of wood – cutting boards, footstools, and eventually architectural models.  I remember a tiny, beautiful building that I think was a model of my cousin Emma’s house and, of course, the elaborate, stepped cathedral with gold domes, surrounded by spindly cypress trees.  But it was after my grandfather retired, in the 1950s, when he set to work on his pièce de résistance, the Encyclopedic Palace.  This one wasn’t just a model, though. 

It was a design for a museum, a national monument. He filled notebooks developing its concept; in his statement of purpose, in my stiff translation from his Italian, he called it “…an entirely new concept in museums, designed to hold all the works of man in whatever field, all discoveries made and those that may follow.”  He wanted it built on the mall in DC – and if built at the time, at 136 stories, it would have been the tallest skyscraper in the world.  With its surrounding piazza it would take up 16 city blocks.  He built the model, at a scale of 1:200 meters, out of wood, brass, plastic, and tiny celluloid windows on which he drew mullions; for the tiny balustrades, he cut down hair combs.  And this time, so no one could scoop him, he secured a patent for his creation. 

In his statement of purpose, he proposed a plan for construction consisting of a skeleton of steel and cement; the round form, he noted, would allow the distribution of natural light internally to best advantage (not so much, considering the impossible depth of the building core, but that’s the pragmatic architecture-firm-day-job me talking here).  The building would have twenty-four entrances, 126 bronze statues of “writers, scientists, and artists past, present, and future” and, on the piazza, 220 Doric columns with more statues of writers, scientists, artists.  At each corner would be domed laboratories, topped by statues of allegorical figures representing each of the four seasons, much like the Ponte Santa Trinità. 

Apparently my grandfather wrote letters to find interested parties to fund the construction of the real Encyclopedic Palace (I wish I had just one of those letters) and had the model exhibited at a bank building on Broad Street in Philadelphia in the 1950s.  Outside of this, however, nothing else happened with his dream.  The Encyclopedic Palace, eleven feet tall and encased in a glass enclosure with its brass steeple poking though a hole in the top, sat in the corner of his garage in Kennett Square – the stuff of local myth – until my grandfather passed in 1980. 

After he died, no one knew what to do with the model (or models, plural, because the cathedral was also pretty big).  Both were taken apart and put in it a storage locker in some grim section of Newport, Delaware.  As the years went by my mother would write letters to try and find a home for the Encyclopedic Palace, and only get vague replies, if any.  People weren’t talking so much about “Outsider Art” in those days.  As I got older, after college, I took over this job from her, writing letters and offering to donate the model, until one bizarrely mean response from the Franklin Institute – of all places! And I’d had such fond memories of visiting the Heart there when I was a kid – made me lose heart, so to speak, entirely.

The knowledge that this thing was moldering in storage was always somewhere in my mind though, and in 2001, when my mother’s health got very bad, my sister Poogy and I decided we had to do something about it.  Damian and I went down there and, in the car driving to the storage locker on a miserable, overcast afternoon, we all tried to calculate how much money twenty-two years of monthly storage locker payments had been costing my grandmother’s “estate”…porca miseria.  The key to the locker had long been lost, and so my brawny brother-in-law Jimmy cut the lock.  We opened up the storage locker and, inside…the shit looked terrible.

I was heartbroken. We put a new lock back on the storage unit, and drove away.  This seemed just like another huge piece of folly, like everything else the dreamers in my family touched.

Another year went by, and we rallied.  We went back down there, unlocked the unit, and took out some pieces…I held them up to the light, the clouds parted…and the pieces looked beautiful.  In need of some restoration.  But beautiful.

 Inside the storage locker, after twenty-two years.

 Out in the light...

The American Folk Art Museum had just put up its new building, designed by Tod Williams/Billie Tsien, on 53rd Street, and an architect I worked with was telling me about how among its collection was, of all things, an architectural model of the Empire State Building made entirely from wooden toggles.  They like architectural models, fabulous, I thought!  I paid the museum a visit and…I felt a huge letdown.  It was pure sweet Americana, weathervanes and quilts and Shaker valentines…no old weird America here.  But then, as I went down the stairs to the more modern floors, I saw a painting by the great self-taught Italian-American painter Ralph Fasanella.  It was of his father, an iceman, crucified in a block of ice pierced with pairs of ice tongs.  I looked at this painting, and I felt such a mixture of grief and hope that I burst into tears. 

 Ralph Fasanella's Iceman Crucified #3.    

And then I thought:  this is the place! 

I wrote the main curator there an impassioned letter describing the Encyclopedic Palace and telling her my family would like to donate it.  Amazingly, I got an instant reply.  They sent a pair of art handlers and a curator down to Pennsylvania, and my sister and I drove out with them to the storage locker.  As the art handlers took out pieces of the model – the idea was that they’d bring it to their warehouse in Queens to evaluate whether they could acquire it or not – the curator was, bless this woman, trailing after them picking up tiny celluloid windows and carefully putting them in zip-lock baggies.  I remember Poogy giving me her characteristic look of high absurdity – of course they wanted this thing if they were treating it with such care.       

And, of course, they did want it.  I helped raise money for its restoration, through the company I worked for, and it was unveiled at the American Folk Art Museum as part of its Folk Art Revealed show in 2004.  My grandfather would have been 113 years old that year. 

 Folk Art Revealed, 2004

The Encyclopedic Palace was on display into 2006 or so and then I heard through friends who went there to see it that it had disappeared.  It wasn’t part of the permanent display.  It was put away somewhere, in storage…in some big storage locker in some dim part of the city…. 

Over the last few years, I kept reading about how the American Folk Art Museum was having financial trouble.  As I read increasingly dire articles about it, I kept thinking I should get in touch with my contact there, wonderful Brooke Anderson; then I read she’d left to go to LA MoCA.  Last year the museum went off the rails financially and sold to MoMA the 53rd Street building, for which they’d disastrously overspent.  There was talk of transferring the collection to the Smithsonian or some of it going to the Brooklyn Museum.  Oh, splendid, I thought, now the Encyclopedic Palace has officially vanished.  Polvere tu sei e in polvere tornerai…

So you can probably imagine my amazement and delight when, late last month, I got the email with a link to the New York Times article, with a wonderful write-up by Ken Johnson ("You have probably never heard of Marino Auriti...") with a huge photograph of the Encyclopedic Palace. 

Photo from the New York Times, by Chester Higgins Jr.  

As a child, I remember my grandfather as a dour presence, rarely smiling, never laughing.  He didn’t seem to have a lot of use for English, or America, or the late capitalist twentieth century.  He and my grandmom seemed to always carry so much grief within them – over the loss of their homeland; maybe, for him, the loss of his dreams.  My mother was devoted to her father, and when he died she was in her fifties but she still called him daddy.  The house in Kennett so beloved by us all was sold, without any kind of consultation, by my bumbling father, and the garage was converted into a lousy vinyl-sided hunk of junk.  My mother was so sad over the whole thing.  Then she told me about a dream she had about my grandfather.  She was back at the house in Kennett, and walked out of the kitchen door and into the side yard (how well I remember that yard).  My grandfather was standing there, looking like a young man, and in his hand was a tiny, living tree with its root ball intact.  He looked at her and said:  Io vivo.

I live.       


  1. Dear B. G. Firmani, Thank you so much for your text about your grandfathers Encyclopedic Palace. I have just seen this work in New York and find it extraordinary. I am a curator of contemporary art currently working on a larger exhibition project and I am in that connection very interested in knowing more about your grandfathers Palace. In your article here above you mention your grandfathers note books with sketches of this model and also his statement on the Palace and other writings. Is this notes and writings you have? In which case I would be very interested in seeing it - thinking whether it could be suitable for exhibition purpose. I would love to get in touch with you. My email is Best regards, Helga Just Christoffersen

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    1. Dear Mr. Nutolo -- I was so overwhelmed with all the interest around my grandfather that I'm only writing now, so my apologies in replying so late to your kind email. Your project sounds very moving and laudable, and I wish you luck with it. As far as the Biennale, I think the organizers have everything they need; beyond that, pretty much all of my grandfather's papers were donated to the American Folk Art Museum in 2004. If you'd like to get in touch with me, please email me at Best wishes, B.G.

  3. Dear Ms Firmani,
    I came across, purely by chance, your blog and this fascinating article on your late grandfather the visionary, Marino Auriti, while I was looking up the origin of title for this year's forthcoming Venice Biennale. Thank you for sharing your story, and for this valuable insight into his world of dreams and vision. I read somewhere, the quote -Forgive the First Time, attributed to your grandfather, and wonder if you have any idea of where this originated? Thank you again. Pamela Kember

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    2. Thanks so much for your kind words and your interest, Ms. Kember. I don't actually know the origin of "Forgive the first time" (and it's funny how many people have asked about this) and I've had no luck finding it elsewhere -- maybe it's more common than I know and, because of that, hard to trace. Take care and thanks again, B.G.

  4. Dear Ms. Firmani,
    What a beautiful, beautiful story. I stumbled upon it at 4am last night, scrolling the web when I couldn't sleep. I first saw your grandfather's piece in an article about the show at the Venice Biennale. Then I saw your blog post and couldn't believe my eyes when I read that your grandfather created his amazing sculpture in Kennett Square!! MY family and I currently live in the next town over, West Chester and I teach art part-time at a K-9th grade school in Kennett Square. I know next year I will do a project with my students based on your grandfather's work. Also, I am very curious about the house and studio where he lived because my husband and I are actually looking to move to the Kennett area and we both need studio space. Sorry for this long note.....Thank you for your vision and steadfastness regarding finding a home for your grandfather's work.
    Best Wishes, Caroline Lathan-Stiefel

    1. Dear Caroline - Thank you so much for your note, and apologies for taking so long to reply. What a small world! It's great that you'll be doing an art project with local kids in Kennett about my grandfather - he would have loved that. Sad to say, what was his studio is completely unrecognizable now - I can give you the details of where it is if you'd like to email me directly. Take care and thanks again! B.G. (

  5. Dear BG Firmani,
    My name is Fabiana Gabas Kallás and i was born in Catanduva - São paulo - Brazil in 1966. I'm so thrilled by knowing your grandfather's history in such crosses of coincidence. You and your sister have done a great work keeping such important memories. Please, let me know and contact me if I somehow can contribute to the recovery of these memories.

  6. Dear Fabiana - What a lovely note. I'll reply to your email. Best wishes, B.G.