A Trick of the Eye Turns a Luxurious Embassy Inside Out

A Trick of the Eye Turns a Luxurious Embassy Inside Out
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A Trick of the Eye Turns a Luxurious Embassy Inside Out

A Trick of the Eye Turns a Luxurious Embassy Inside Out

ROME – In a city with spectacular offices, Christian Masset, French Ambassador to Italy, has perhaps the most spectacular of all.

Right in the middle of Palazzo Farnese, a masterpiece of the High Renaissance, his workplace has cavernous marble fireplaces and columns, wall-to-wall frescoes and a central window and balcony, both modified by Michel -Ange, which overlook twin fountains made from ancient ponds. Some nights the office lights stay on, giving Romans strolling through one of the city’s most elegant squares a glimpse of its glorious interiors.

So it was no small feat when the French artist JR proposed to block half of the view.

“Yes, that was a long discussion,” said the almost anonymous artist, wearing his fedora, sunglasses and trimmed beard.

He spoke in front of the Palazzo Farnese one recent afternoon to inaugurate his new work, a black and white work of over 6,500 square feet optical illusion mural running like a cut, or a rash, to the facade of the building, or more precisely to the scaffolding installed for the restoration of the palace.

“At first,” JR said, embassy officials told him it was forbidden to “cover any of the offices.”

But he argued that rerouting the mural around the windows would ruin the optical illusion of a crack that worked like an x-ray, revealing the frescoes in the ambassador’s office, barrel vaults and Doric columns. , but also elements of the palace’s past, including a large statue of Hercules which once stood in the courtyard but now stands in a museum in Naples.

JR won the point and the ambassador lost half of his sight.

“I still have a window,” Masset said with a shrug.

JR’s project is part of Open for Work, the four-year restoration of Palazzo Farnese of its facades and roof at a cost of 5.6 million euros, or approximately $ 6.6 million. Flanked by a convent and arguably the fishiest and most Fellinian cafe in Rome, the 16th century palace with sublime manners will be an open canvas during the renovation for contemporary artists playing on its history.

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It began on the evening of July 13, when three large white helium balloons, glowing like moons, suspended a 60-foot cardboard bridge in the air over the Tiber, fancifully making an unfinished project by Michel. -Ange to connect Palazzo Farnese and the gardens of Villa Farnesina, another sumptuous property on the opposite bank.

This work, by French artist Olivier Grossetête, was followed by the inauguration last week of the JR fresco.

Some critics, who find JR’s work more publicity and obvious than inspired and nuanced, fear the venerable building is wearing something it’s too old for, with an unseemly slit in the middle that is reminiscent of its watered-up neighbor’s outfits. its majestic history.

But the French say they breathe life into architectural surgery and help, in a spirit of brotherhood, revive a Romanesque scene that needs a little vitality.

“We gave a big boost. Because I think the Farnese Bridge and this one are the two biggest projects of its kind to date, in Rome at this time, ”Masset said, standing quietly on the sidelines as reporters and photographers shouted around JR.

France’s warm, if somewhat patronizing, helping hand reflects a new political symbiosis between France and Italy under the recently installed pro-European government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who has become the mentor and winger. of French President Emmanuel Macron. This is far from being just a few years ago, when Italy’s nationalist-populist government made a habit of hitting France to proclaim its anti-European and anti-establishment credo.

In 2019, Luigi Di Maio, then powerful Italian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the five-star populist movement, took a road trip to France to meet a leader of the yellow vests protesters who had called for civil war. “Yellow vests, don’t give up! Mr. Di Maio urged, prompting Macron to recall Ambassador Masset, briefly to Paris in protest.

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At the time, Matteo Salvini, once a powerful interior minister and nationalist leader, said France should get rid of its “very bad president”. His League party colleague Lucia Borgonzoni – then, and still now, Italy’s vice-minister of culture – fought to send masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci to France for a major Louvre retrospective.

But on July 14, France’s National Day, and a few hours after the Farnese Bridge project took off over the Tiber, Di Maio, now less than powerful Foreign Minister, attended a celebration at the Palazzo Farnese. Salvini now nominally supports Draghi, and members of Parliament from his League party were among the guests at a party after the July 21 inauguration of JR’s work. They posted selfies with the artist on social media.

Such intoxicating sets are also very far from the origins of JR. He became known in the mid-2000s by pasting his up-close and exaggerated photos of residents of a housing estate in a disadvantaged Parisian suburb. He went on to do huge public photo projects in areas of the world affected by poverty or conflict, such as the favelas in Brazil, the slums in Kenya and the Gaza Strip. Alicia Keys opened his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and last year he designed “La Ferita” or “The Injury,” a similar fault line effect on Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.

But he said last week that few had prepared him for the ambassador’s remarkable office.

“When I walked in, I was mesmerized! ” he said. The palace frescoes were “the kind of mural that inspired me,” he added. “That’s why I do what I do.”

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He prepared for the project by studying the facade of the Palazzo Farnese and hanging out in the piazza incognito, that is, without a hat or sunglasses. But now he was done hiding.

Wearing standard Stan Smith sneakers in France, he made a trademark leap in front of the building to benefit kneeling photographers and his 1.6 million Instagram followers. He spoke Italian well to journalists and said “Super” with a French accent to those around him.

Helene Kelmachter, the embassy’s cultural attaché, looked on in rapture, who wore artistic glasses with swirling F-keys for the temples, a wavy dress made of ruffled blue ripples, and shoes stamped with Wonder Woman’s face.

“Rome is a place of heritage – is a place of history,” she said. “But history can meet the present.”

Switching to English, JR said the art history crowd can learn all about the Farnese Palace, its papal inhabitants, Renaissance architects and amazing frescoes. But his job, he said, spoke and caught “passing people.”

On Wednesday, they came to see him.

“Is that you? Yes it does! I am following you on social media,” said Valentina Ilari, a 49-year-old lawyer who saw JR in the plaza. “Can we take a selfie? would bother? “

“If, if, if,” said JR.

“Wait, I don’t know how to do this,” Ilari said, fumbling with his phone. “I am overwhelmed. “

The ambassador seemed more content.

Standing with folded hands in a navy suit, away from the fray, Masset admitted that, yes, he felt “a little” regret for the way JR’s mural had obstructed his view. “But when you see the result,” he added diplomatically, “I’m very happy.”

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