Extravagant and Scandalous
The stunning frescoes of the Boscolo Palace Roma shed a curious light on the cultural and political tensions in Italy between the wars.
Photographs by Autograph Collection
Step into the Boscolo Palace Roma, and you’re immediately struck by those frescoes. Vintage Jazz Age characters—men in dapper dark suits, flirtatious women in furs—seem to stare right back at you, confronting you with their unapologetic revelry.
In 1926, Milanese industrialist Gino Clerici commissioned artist Guido Cadorin to flood the lobby of
his soon-to-be-opened Albergo Ambasciatori with color. Although Cadorin came from a Venetian family who had been prominent wood carvers and sculptors since the Renaissance, the artist took a decidedly contemporary approach to the frescoes. Charged with capturing the carefree lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties, Cadorin created a feast scene across nine panels, a star-studded party on a terrace given in conjunction with a theatrical performance.
He anointed the walls and ceiling with a veritable vanity fair of Italian society. There are portraits of the design legend Gio Ponti and the art critic Roberto Papini; the latter went on to become director of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. Cadorin included his friends, like the artist Felice Carena and his wife, and the architect Melchiorre Bega, who suggested him for the project. He used the hotel’s owner, Gino Clerici, and members of Clerici’s family, as models for many of the party scenes. According to Fabio Mongelli, a Rome-based architect and art historian who worked closely with the hotel to restore the frescoes, Mussolini’s former lover, the Jewish art collector and journalist Margherita Grassini Sarfatti, insisted that Cadorin include her and her daughter Fiammetta in the frescoes. Cadorin grudgingly obliged, placing the women in a deep background scene. Political pressures also forced Cadorin to include other people whom he did not wish to paint. He simply blended them into the crowds of women wearing their hair in flapper-girl bobs, smoking cigarettes, and dancing.
When the hotel opened in 1927, it quickly became a magnet for bankers, entrepreneurs, and the international jet set. The frescoes, naturally, were a must-see for many in Rome’s elite–except for the man at the top of the political pyramid. When Mussolini inspected the hotel, his reaction was swift and harsh. “In June of 1927, just four months after they’d been completed, the frescoes were covered with a silk sheet and removed from public view,” says Mongelli. “Cadorin’s idea, to include portraits of his contemporaries and members of Rome’s high society, was considered extravagant and scandalous.” Some argue that Mussolini’s removal of the frescoes was a result of a bruised ego: His likeness is nowhere to be found. Mussolini is said to also have been disturbed by Cadorin’s distinctly modern style, unexpected from a painter descended from traditional artisans.
Cadorin, who described himself as a “spirtualist and uncorrupted vegetarian,” worked across a variety of media, including wood carving, sculpture, and painting, until his death in 1976. His ability to straddle ancient techniques and contemporary aesthetics put him in a class all his own. His commissions and friendships are a who’s who of Italian culture in the twentieth century. As a young man in Venice, Cadorin established a bond with the artist Amedeo Modigliani. Later, the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio commissioned Cadorin to create a “stanza dei sonni puri”—a room of pure sleep—at his legendary villa, the Vittoriale. Cadorin’s work also appealed to the Futurist painters, whom he rebuffed.
Today the guest rooms of the Boscolo Palace Roma are modern and refined, and the restored frescoes feel fresh, even so many years later. They give a snapshot of a carefree and decadent Roman society before the Second World War plunged Europe into disaster. “At the time, there weren’t many artists who could execute a real fresco, a technique which had fallen into disuse,” Mongelli says, noting that there are few examples from the twentieth century elsewhere in Rome of such an old medium. “The scene unfolds without a specific section overtaking any others, maintaining this entirely magical atmosphere.” Set in such a majestic space, that magic is only compounded.
Creativity is just connecting things