The architect Pietro Cicognani conjures Italian glamour — and his own enchanted childhood — in his townhouse apartment.
In the living room of the architect Pietro Cicognani’s Rome apartment, a Flap sofa by Francesco Binfaré for Edra and a 1950s walnut coffee table in front of a 1968 Giacomo Balla screen.Credit…Luana Rigolli
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IN 1972, FOR Pietro Cicognani’s 18th birthday, his mother gave him a small apartment on Vicolo della Palomba, a narrow medieval street near Rome’s bustling Piazza Navona. Occupying the top two floors of a 13th-century townhouse with a weathered stucco facade and a rear spiral stairway of stone and steel, the multilevel flat was both a bohemian teen’s fantasy and an excellent investment: intimate, atmospheric and in the middle of the action.
But Cicognani, who was raised in Rome and now practices architecture in New York, never got to occupy the generous coming-of-age gift. Instead, he moved straight from his parents’ palazzo to Manhattan to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the School of Visual Arts and, later, his master’s in architecture from Columbia University. He opened the Midtown firm he still runs, Cicognani Kalla, in 1985. (His co-founder, Ann Kalla, a Columbia classmate, died in 2009.) Rented out for nearly 50 years, the 1,100-square-foot Roman crash pad, furnished with his mother’s antiques, was bruised by a succession of tenants. The income it provided was appreciated — such presents of prime real estate are de rigueur for children starting out in certain circles of Italian society — but, since he was in New York, the apartment was managed by his mother and younger sister. “I never spent a night there,” says Cicognani, now 68.
Three years ago, though, during a period when the long-divorced architect was in a relationship with a woman who lived in his hometown, he decided to reclaim the two-bedroom space as a pied-à-terre, renovating it and decorating it himself (with the help of the local architect Giancarlo Palombi) instead of reaching out to any of the famed designers he has collaborated with over the years, including Peter Marino and Steven Gambrel. Although he no doubt could have traded up for something grander, perhaps with an elevator, such a move would have been out of character. While his work for clients generally calls for classical proportion, albeit with a modern eye, his personal taste is puckish, even zany. His apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side has a bed upholstered in python and a mirrored, illuminated red lacquer-and-steel shoe rack along the ceiling in the study to display his sneaker collection.
On a winter afternoon, amid stacks of books, rolls of blueprints and custom-made racing bikes hung from the rafters in his elegantly disarrayed Midtown office, he seems as though he might break into laughter at any time. “Clients often have an identity that is related to where they live and how they live, and their home represents them,” he says. “But I feel I’m very lucky with my childhood. It made me not care what others think. It gave me the luxury just to have fun.”
His life has been defined by profusion since the beginning, a template for navigating towering personalities and lavish surroundings. His father was a lawyer who represented the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto and befriended the writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini and the author and editor Giorgio Bassani. Cicognani’s mother, Princess Helen Wolkonsky, was distantly related to the novelist Leo Tolstoy and became one of the filmmaker Federico Fellini’s entrees to the world of “La Dolce Vita.” (Her Russian father appears uncredited in the 1960 film.) When the architect was growing up, his closest friend, Carlo Perrone — now the deputy chairman of a group that owns several Italian newspapers, including La Repubblica — used to spend summers with his grandfather the Parisian art patron Charles de Noailles at his estate in Fontainebleau. Cicognani would visit him there a few weeks each summer, where people like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Jacques Grange would come for formal dinners.
In New York, Cicognani’s surrogate parents were the aristocratic Italian photographer Camilla McGrath and her Midwestern-born husband, Earl, a record producer and art gallerist, in whose living room Mick Jagger and Joan Didion mixed with the Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun and the artist Cy Twombly. Cicognani Kalla’s first real commission, in 1985, was an East Hampton beach house for Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone, and his then-wife, Jane. Cicognani and the actor and model Isabella Rossellini, who wrote the foreword to his 2020 monograph, have been friends for decades; together, they remodeled her 19th-century compound in Bellport, N.Y. “I think one reason we are so comfortable with each other is that we both came from households with Italian fathers and foreign mothers, which was unusual in Rome,” he says. “There are a lot of things we don’t even have to say out loud, we just understand.”
SOMETIMES, THE MOST inspired interiors spring from an object or, as was the case in the Rome apartment, two of them: a pair of colorful wooden screens by the Italian Futurist painter Giacomo Balla, which Cicognani bought at auction. Sketched by Balla in 1917, the silk-screened partitions — paraventi in Italian — were never produced in the artist’s lifetime; it was only after the pencil-and-tempera drawing appeared in a 1968 volume that they were briefly made by Dino Gavina, a small-scale manufacturer who specialized in Modernist designs. (Cassina reissued them in 2020.) Balla specified the colors on the asymmetrical panels: sunshine yellow, brick red and two shades of saturated green.
For some, the dividers would have been overpowering, especially in such a small space. But Cicognani asked the decorative painter Marina de Lagarda to adorn the plaster walls in a complementary pattern, albeit in softer shades of pale iris, ivory and cantaloupe, which are surprisingly harmonious with the more aggressive tones of Balla’s palette. De Lagarda sketched the shapes on the wall freehand with a pencil, then numbered the sections “like a Sudoku puzzle,” she says, to make sure the colors would be properly arrayed, adding, “It was very meditative.” At the end, she applied an acid wash over the paintings, giving the walls a chalky, ancient feel.
Though the Balla partitions were conceived much earlier, they evoked for Cicognani the brio of 1950s Italy and, in fact, influenced his other purchases, virtually all made at auction. His apartment is just a few steps from Via dell’Orso, one of the only streets in the city center that is still home to upholsterers, tilers and restorers, whom he hired to do the work. The dining set is by Melchiorre Bega, a midcentury architect and designer who was a confederate of Gio Ponti’s; an array of Henri Matisse’s “Jazz” cutouts, from his limited-edition book printed in 1947, hang above the table. On a nearby wall is one of several 1950s oil paintings by Gianni Vagnetti, from the Cicognani family’s collection. The sill of the narrow horizontal pass-through opening he cut to the kitchen is decorated with a row of bottle stoppers made from brilliantly colored Murano glass and steel. (They render it impossible to actually pass food through to the table but, as Cicognani says, “In Rome, we go out to eat.”)
In the living area, designed around one of the few contemporary purchases — an undulating configurable sofa called Flap by Francesco Binfaré, fabricated by Edra in a custom-dyed celadon leather — are tall bookshelves with candleholders shaped like a cardinal’s miter, a pair of banana bookends designed by Warhol, works on paper by the actor and artist Vincenzo Amato and four painted ceramic, cloth-covered commedia dell’arte Pulcinella figures bought in Naples. Cicognani’s embrace of quirk extends to what he calls the therapy room, up an openwork staircase, where a replica of a fascinus — the winged phallus that the ancient Romans believed would confer upon them divine protection — dangles by a rope over a wooden chaise longue covered in sheepskin.
The bedrooms are equally exuberant: The upholstered headboards and linens are made from hand-screened English cotton with a pattern of brilliantly plumed heritage chickens, a nod to Rossellini, who loves the birds that roam free on her Long Island property. “People would see these things and think I am a little bit crazy,” Cicognani says. His laugh rips through the room, radiating joy. “But don’t you love it? Doesn’t it make you feel good?”