Franco Maria Ricci 
Reviver of BODONI and DIDEROT
Parma, Italy, 2018

Text by John White
and Franco Maria Ricci

FRANCO MARIA RICCI has an understated and elegant way of maintaining an unadulterated and classical consistency in his work, from his claim to fame in investing in the publishing of his Manuale tipografico, to his republishing of Diderot’s encyclopedia. Ricci lives, alongside his museum, of which he oversaw the design and construction, in Fontanellato, Italy, a tiny village adjacent to Parma (famous for its ham). The day I went to see him, it was the month of August when everything is closed. Nonetheless, we were able to meet Franco, and to get a sense of his sweet, humble, and understated personality. 

From Fontanellato, we asked a few friendly faces at a café if there was any way to the museum.
“No buses,” they told me, “but there was maybe a taxi.” Eventually, with a little help from an old man in a piazza, a taxi brought us to Franco Maria Ricci’s museum. The driver had not heard of the museum, but many people, he said, came to Fontanellato for the “castles.” 

The museum is a kind of complex of buildings which features a pyramid structure surrounded by a maze of various types of bamboo (all clearly labelled, for guests to read, in Bodoni). A beautiful theme masticizes throughout Ricci’s collection of harnessing nice things which have been laid down long ago for our benefit. 
In this, he succeeds, by creating a pared-down, one could even say minimal, appropriation of ancient ideas, mixed with their modern offspring, a collection of art, beautifully printed (and unrivalled in the print world) books, as well as a museum-style layout with at least one restaurant and a gift shop, deffinitely a five-star recommendation to visit alongside the Uffizi, and any other gallery in Italy. An actual sun dial is fastened to one of the walls above the café, which you can peer upon from a lookout at the top of one of the museum’s buildings.

Did you originally purpose the labyrinth to be a museum for people to visit?

When the labyrinth project was born, it was a private matter. I wanted to leave something of myself to the land that had nourished and enriched my family; like the gentleman Vicino Orsini, who translated his solitary fantasies into the Park of Monsters in Bomarzo, or like Vespasiano Gonzaga, who died in Sabbioneta, in the heart of his unfinished dream made of stone.
As time passed, that initial idea was, for the most part, transformed. Now, I've come to think of my enterprise above all as a legacy—as a way of giving back to the Po Valley, which includes Parma, and to its countryside and nearby cities.

Adolfo Wildt, Vir Temporis Acti,
1912/13, marble
Courtesy of FMR Photo archive

Where did the idea come to have a pyramid at the end? In a way, it seems like a temple.

For the pyramid, and for all the buildings, I turned to the great architects who lived during the French Revolution: Boullée, Ledoux, Lequeu, but also the Italian architect Antolini, who presented Napoleon with a visionary project for the Foro Bonaparte in Milan.

Undoubtedly due to circumstances, none of these men have left us with great buildings; however, drawings and projects, dictated by a love of geometry, Egypt, the Greek and Roman world, and a visionary talent, nurtured by the Utopias of the age in which they lived, remind us that neoclassicism was not the classical, but, rather, fertile ground for the modern. That repertoire of shapes continues to serve as models for a new architecture, the knowing heir to a long past.

The pyramid is meant to be a chapel, even if it's not sacred yet. And there is a labyrinth on the floor, just like in the French medieval cathedral, as a symbol of faith and as a reminder of the tortuous path that every man has to walk through to reach Eternal Deliverance.

There was a collection that seemed to all have the theme of mortality (skulls, scrolls, epitaphs), how did you find these artifacts and why did you keep them?

I was still a young man when I first became attracted to these themes, constant in art. I was always wandering around art fairs, like the one in Maastricht or the one in Parma, and always looking for them in the catalogs of the main auction houses.

My purpose was to form a Wunderkammer, a place born to arouse wonder. Wonder that here is also a feeling of unease owing to the many symbolic representations linked to the fragility of life, the so-called Vanitas.

What do you think about religious art and architecture?

Undoubtedly, they're a fundamental part of Italian and European art history, and most of the time they hide true masterpieces. Sometimes, labyrinths too! Like in the Cathedral of Chartres or in Amiens, France or Ravenna and Lucca in Italy.

I read somewhere that you had wanted to be a geologist, but changed your mind? Did you ever feel uncertainty in your career choices?

At first I wanted to be an archaelogist, to tell the truth. Then, I graduated to geology but later, you know, I ended up doing a totally different job. I don’t regret my choices, even if sometimes they were risky or really ambitious, like the decision to reprint the Encyclopédie by D’Alembert and Diderot. I was lucky, because my taste for beauty always helped me make decisions.

Do you think it's important to read any specific books?

I think it's still important to read the fundamental classical texts: from Homerus to Borges, and Dante, Calvino, Joyce…

What books are on your bedside table lately? What’s it about?

I'm always working on new projects and I usually read a lot of books to prepare them. The last ones I read were all about the city of Mantua and the Gonzaga dynasty, because the last volume I worked on is Mantua Classical Utopia (we're printing the English version too), with texts from some of the most important experts on Mantua’s art and architecture and photographs of the most beautiful places of the city. ⁑




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