Lo Scarabeo sotto la Foglia: An Avant-Garde Paradise

by Adam Štěch

The northern Italian city of Vicenza is not a very sought-after destination for fans of Italian radical design. However, despite the prevalence of classical Palladian architecture, the area boasts a rare example of experimental 1960s interiors that, luckily for us, has been frozen in time. The nearby town of Malo is the home to the spectacular Lo Scarabeo sotto la Foglia, a residence created between 1964 and 1968 by celebrated architect Gio Ponti and artist and designer Nanda Vigo for the art collector Giobatto Meneguzzo. 

Giobatta Meneguzzo has been a great lover of modern art since the 1950s. An active supporter of the avant-garde movement, Meneguzzo collected the works of prominent representatives of European contemporary art. In 1964, he decided to build his own weekend house in Malo, near Vicenza. Fortuitously, in Domus magazine issue 414 of that same year, he came across designs for Lo Scarabeo sotto la Foglia (“Beetle under the Leaf”), conceived of by the editor in chief of Domus at the time, Gio Ponti. The design of this simple one-story dwelling differed from Ponti’s more famous and celebrated residential creations. Compared to major international projects such as Villa Arreaza and Villa Planchart in Caracas or Villa Namazee in Tehran, Lo Scarabeo sotto la Foglia is an intimate and poetic work that Ponti created solely for himself—and Ponti was offering the published drawings of the house free of charge to anyone who would build it. This challenge was taken up by Meneguzzo, who oversaw the design of the house. In addition to supplying the drawings for free, Ponti did not want any money for the project. Meneguzzo has mentioned that Ponti never visited the site during construction, so essentially the white organic house was erected with little input from its architect.

Fulfilling the transcendent vision of its architect, the house is a celebration of nature and its materialization in architecture. The oval-shaped villa, as the name implies, resembles a beetle lying under a leaf. The curved walls of the house evoke beetle mandibles; its roof is a faithful imitation of a fallen leaf, seen from above. While the exterior is modest and quiet, the interior celebrates the artistic avant-garde of the 1960s. When Meneguzzo propositioned designer and artist Nanda Vigo to design the interior, she was a perfect choice as she was both familiar with Ponti and other modernist architects and involved in the radical artistic scene. 

A pioneer of modern Italian art since the early 1960s, Nanda Vigo’s interdisciplinary practice has included furniture, lighting, and interior design, as well as sculpture and installations. She is affiliated with the movement- and light-based ideology of the internationally acclaimed ZERO group, of which her partner, Piero Manzoni, was a member. Vigo favors chrome-plated steel, artificial fur, and different types of glass sheets to create striking emotional and tactile objects. Her interiors, which she designed mainly for wealthy art collectors, are simultaneously residential galleries and hedonistic celebrations of freedom of the 1960s and ’70s.

Few of these interiors still exist in situ, but one is hidden inside Giobatto Meneguzzo’s house in Malo. While Gio Ponti would more likely have used detailed craftsmanship, pure materials, and modernist elegance, Vigo enlisted a cool monochrome of white ceramic tiles and gray artificial fur. She created a clean yet provocative interior that Meneguzzo filled with his impressive collection of works by Lucio Fontana, Enrico Castellani, Julio Le Parc, Domenico “Mimmo” Rotella, Raymond Hains, Agostino Bonalumi, Turi Simeti, and many others. The house became a living gallery of the most progressive contemporary artworks of the time. Leading European intellectuals including Pierre Restany, Christo, Rotella, Arman, and Achille Bonito Oliva regularly met in the house to discuss and perform.

The house has witnessed many original and provocative performances since then. The villa was expanded to include an underground gallery that is connected with the main house with an impressive spiral staircase, again covered with gray artificial fur. In 1978, Meneguzzo founded his own museum just a few minutes’ walk from his experimental weekend house, La Casabianca, which now includes over twelve hundred works from seven hundred international artists. The museum, with its impressive Achille Castiglioni custom-designed lighting, can be visited during regular opening hours. Now retired, Meneguzzo and his wife reside in Lo Scarabeo sotto la Foglia, while their son, architect Luca Meneguzzo, and his family live next door. 

Adam Štěch is a Prague-based curator, editor, and a co-founder of OKOLO.