The Strange Case of Casa Papanice

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

In a genre famed for its extravagant interiors and space age sixties design arguably no other Italian genre film interior captivates its audience more than the modernist residence of Julie Wardh in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (Sergio Martino, 1971) and Martin Hoffmann in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (Emilio Miraglia, 1972). Populated with modernist pop art fixtures, stylishly sleek furniture and an arresting use of colour and space, this location has become synonymous with the 1960s and ‘70s design that would come to define the aesthetic of the Italian giallo to modern audiences. However, despite attracting much in the way of visual interest, little has been written about the stylish apartment’s presence in Italian cinema. By highlighting the design ethos behind this impressive architectural feat, we can come to understand the intersection between cinema and architecture and how this apartment would come to define the visual language of three key films of the early 1970s. 

As is typically the case with cinematic locations, the apartment is presented as a separate location in each of these key films. Whilst the apartment is purportedly located in Vienna in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and Würzburg in The Red Queen Kills Seven Times, its real life location is actually in Rome; as is depicted in Ettore Scola’s Dramma della gelosia (1970). The apartment, located at via Giuseppe Marchi and known as Casa Papanice, was built between 1966-1970 by Italian architect, Paolo Portoghesi in collaboration with engineer, Vittorio Gigliotti. The residence was commissioned by the Italian entrepreneur, Pasquale Papanice hence its given name of Casa Papanice but to locals, it is informally known as villa del macellaio (The butcher’s villa) due to the distinctive building’s setting as the home of “the butcher”, in Dramma della gelosia

As an architect, Portoghesi was heavily influenced by historicism which informed the architectural style of his builds. As a young architect, Portoghesi studied the work of prominent figures in the field such as Bernardo Vittone, Francesco Borromini and Victor Horta. It was through the study of these lauded individuals that Portoghesi developed his own style as a practising architect, deploying the spatial principles typified by the work of Borromini in conjunction with the freer elements of modernism. An interest in the Art Nouveau and Baroque movements also informed the young Portoghesi who was invested in the way that architecture could be used as a communicative tool and how this waxed and waned as various styles came in and out of fashion. Through his study of Art Nouveau and Horta - who specialised in the movement - Portoghesi became fascinated by how the natural world was replicated within architecture and how buildings mimicked organic forms. This led to Portoghesi’s own blend of organic modernism which married aspects of modernism with softer, more natural forms. 

These aforementioned ideas came to the fore in Portoghesi’s design for Casa Papanice; an exercise in spatial flow and organic modernism executed within a private residence. Laid out across three floors, Casa Papanice was designed with focal spaces in mind at key areas of use within the home such as at the fireplace, seating area and dining table. These spaces were emphasised via the use of architectural concentric circles at said focal points which created a distinct and unconventional floor plan and visual interest via layered circular ceilings and poles. The concentric circles were complemented by curved walls  which directed the user towards views of the outside in which they could appreciate the landscaping and trees of the residence’s grounds. Interior design notes such as the green and blue horizontal banded lines on the walls further instilled a sense of circular movement in the space. This helped to achieve the effect of an almost undulating, moving space.

Alongside designing the building itself, Portoghesi was responsible in the design of its interior. In order to complement the striking circular nature of the building, furniture and dressings with a similar shape and design ethos were incorporated into the layout. The most notable example being the room’s curved plush blue and green velvet sofa that is centred within one of the space’s concentric circles. Further circular design features such as a curved fireplace, circular coffee and dining table, curved chairs and a blue Murano glass spherical lamp by Mazzega are incorporated into the design scheme. A colour palette of blues and greens was utilised to reflect the natural ethos of the build and to create a sense of serenity - this can be seen in the aforementioned wall bands, sofa and lighting fixtures. Whilst these natural shapes and references to the outside world are present, modernist features are still prominent within the apartment with white plastic space age chairs, white high glass formica furniture and space age door panels rooting the stylistic origins firmly in the late 1960s. 

The building naturally attracted interest for its innovative design and appeared in several architectural and design publications upon its completion as an example of cutting edge Italian design. Not surprisingly, production designers and directors - who frequently looked to magazines for potential filming locations (see Nanda Vigo) - were impressed by the unusual home and were keen to shoot there. Casa Papanice with its unique blend of organic modernism lent itself to striking visuals - as evidenced in its on screen appearances - making it one of the most memorable apartments in Italian cinema of the 1970s. Casa Papanice’s appearance within the giallo is of particular interest as the building and its interior became a sort of visual shorthand for the ostentatious wealth, taste and fashion emblematic of the Jetset lifestyle that characterised the filone. 

In Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, the apartment is home to diplomat Neil Wardh and his young wife, Julie. Julie is frequently left at home whilst her husband is away on business. The stylish, modernist home feels fitting for a young woman in her twenties and one could imagine her being responsible for such interior design as opposed to her staid diplomat husband. Julie’s character is tormented by a tumultuous past and is frequently shown to be paranoid and isolated in her domestic setting. Whilst, Casa Papanice was designed to be a spacious and social home, in Martino’s film it has an almost claustrophobic feel with the horizontal and vertical lines of the interior feeling more akin to a personal prison than a martial home, heightening Julie’s feelings of isolation and paranoia. This paranoia manifests early on in an introductory scene inside the apartment in which Julie moves from her green and blue geometric tiled bathroom cautiously towards the space age front door where a caller has rung the bell. Looking through the peephole, we see a POV shot from Julie’s perspective of a bouquet of roses (a similar POV shot is also utilised in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times) but the viewer is also given the perspective from the visitor of a frightened Julie which contributes to the overarching feel that Julie is constantly being watched. In The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, Casa Papanice represents the glamorous life of a young diplomat’s wife but it also represents danger as Julie becomes imprisoned in her apartment, scared of the threats presented by the outside world. Even the building’s car park and stairwell become dangerous as the fearful Julie is stalked by a mysterious assailant just outside of her front door. In Strange Vice, glamour is danger and danger is simultaneously glamour, a combination that will become emblematic of the giallo, heightened by the exquisite attention to production design and the aesthetics of Italian mid century design and fashion. One of the most well loved entries in the giallo filone, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh is undoubtedly remembered for Edwige Fenech’s leading performance and captivating on-screen beauty but it’s also a film filled with memorable visuals, stylish camerawork and stunning locales with Casa Papanice being one of the most enduring images from the film. An image so successful that it will be replicated within the genre a year later. 

In Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, Casa Papanice is utilised once again as the home of a central character in a giallo. The Red Queen, alongside Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave (1971) both fused elements of the Gothic with Modernism and shared a production designer in Lorenzo Baraldi. This fusion of Gothic and Modernist stylings makes for intriguing visual juxtapositions that relay ideas about the characters that inhabit the film (to find out more read my Arrow booklet essay on production design in Miraglia’s Gothic Gialli). The film’s central protagonist, Kitty Wildenbrück and her sister, Franziska grew up in an imposing Gothic ancestral castle where Franziska still lives. Kitty on the other hand lives in a modern apartment and works at the chic Springe fashion house as a photographer. While much of the film takes place at the Wildenbrück castle, filled with Gothic crypts and dark recessed stairwells, other scenes take place at the modernist building that houses Springe, but more importantly, we also see another location, the apartment of Springe’s manager, Martin Hoffmann set in Casa Papanice. Hoffmann’s role as the manager of the stylish Springe fashion house means he has to reside in an equally stylish home reflective of his chic career. Here, the apartment of Casa Papanice becomes a sumptuous bachelor pad where Hoffmann entertains his lady friends with model Lulu who disrobes and presents herself to Hoffmann on the plush velvet sofa. Kitty, besieged by a rapist and contending with a serial killer on the loose finds refuge in Hoffmann’s home which provides a modicum of comfort for the anxious Kitty. Hoffmann comforts Bruckner in the apartment’s bedroom - a room we also see briefly in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh - characterised by a white modular bed with built in shelves and a very ‘70s, orange duvet - a colour that visually pops off the screen. One can also note that the blue Murano glass spherical light is relocated to the bedroom for this scene. Whilst Hoffmann’s apartment isn’t the setting for any particularly elaborate set pieces, like in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh it becomes important onscreen dressing, used to attract the visual interest of its film’s audience and to act as a form of aspirational, interior wish fulfilment and escapism. 

In The Red Queen Kills 7 Times we are briefly shown glimpses of the building’s exterior at ground level, however, the exterior of the building is only seen in proper detail in Dramma della gelosia in which the majestic beauty of Portoghesi’s postmodern design is shown in all its true glory. Dramma della gelosia features a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Adelaide Ciafrocchi stands on the structure’s top balcony and looks down below, the camera pointing upwards towards her and capturing the whole building in frame. Here we see that Casa Papanice partially imitates the structure of a plant with balconies resembling the leaves of an organic structure jutting from the stem like building. Metal pipes, which sadly have been removed in present day, line the residence’s fence and balconies - the fence can be seen when Lulu leaves the residence in The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, in The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh a different exterior location is used. Like in the interior of the building, blue and green stripes are featured on the exterior walls, this time in vertical stripes. Once again, these colours are used to tie the building to the nature around it. 

Ettore Scola’s comedy, Dramma della gelosia utilises the building in a different manner to The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh and The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, instead using the zany pop art decor of Casa Papanice as the perfect location for an eccentric comedy with the visual whimsy of the apartment befitting of the humorous nature of Scola’s film. Few changes have been made to the apartment but a large picture of a butcher’s diagram of a cow hangs on a wooden wall to signify that this is the domain of a butcher. Beyond the aforementioned exterior shots of Casa Papanice, we can also see another design feature not seen in the other films discussed - a glass concave window that acts as a vantage point for Adelaide where she sits forlornly on her white fibreglass chair. As she looks up, one can see the circular motif present in a mirrored ceiling. 

Scola, who was fascinated with the intersection between cinema and architecture, preferred real life sets to constructed ones, believing that such iinteriors and exteriors were reflective of the historical and social environments his films were made within and thus reflective of their time. The grandson of Papanice, Edmondo Papanice, recounts his grandfather’s experiences of the shoot stating how enthralled Monica Vitti was with the building and its interior, examining its beauty in great detail. In one scene in the film, slides are shown of Vitti’s character, Adelaide Ciafrocchi, in a fashion shoot, posing against the exterior of Casa Papanice on balconies and on exterior stairs; a striking backdrop that complements Vitti’s striking looks perfectly. 

Like The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, there’s a predilection here with the home and interior design as an extension of one’s own style and personality. The home becomes a sort of fashionable backdrop for those who reside inside, reflective of their contemporary lives. This is typified in the aforementioned films where their respective directors show an awareness of the significance of architecture’s role in cinema and how it communicates ideas about status, class and cultural capital beyond the surface image. In films with a preoccupation with fashion and photography such as Dramma della gelosia and The Red Queen Kills 7 Times, we the audience have a heightened awareness of such aesthetics due to thematic concerns within the film about the role of fashion and the image resulting in an almost hyper stylised overall feel. Red Queen’s production designer, Lorenzo Baraldi, had a particular interest in the mise-en-scène as a means of creating a cohesive cinematic experience. This was illustrated through his own production design work, in particular, The Red Queen Kills 7 Times where the geometric fashions of Springe (provided by seminal designer, Mila Schön) visually coordinated with the interior of Hoffmann’s apartment and clashed with the Gothic interiors and exteriors of the Wildenbrück castle. 

Casa Papanice is a seminal architectural work that displays an embrace of modernism, new ways of living and the expression of creativity and individuality through interior design; concepts expressive of a new cultural zeitgeist in the late 1960s. By setting their productions in this location, Scola, Martino and Miraglia captured the excitement of the age, celebrating Italian midcentury and postmodern design through the cinematic language and scenography of their productions. By understanding Portoghesi’s iconic design, we are given an insight into the daring intersection between cinema, architecture and design that makes this era of Italian film so fascinating and engaging in the present day. 

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