Obituary: Renzo Mongiardino

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The Independent Online
Renzo Mongiardino, architect and interior designer: born Genoa 12 May 1916; (one daughter); died Milan 16 January 1998.

Renzo Mongiardino was Italy's leading classic interior designer, and a creator of magnificent theatre and film sets. Sumptuous brocade, faux marble and intarsia, neoclassical stucco work and neo-mannerist frescoes were the building blocks of his stately visions.

It was the theatre that first provided an outlet for his talent and, in the words of one colleague, "helped to free his imagination". As an architecture student in pre-war Milan he had been exposed to the new orthodoxies of the Modern Movement, but, fortified by his childhood in an 18th-century palazzo in Genoa, he resisted their pull.

In post-war Italy an architect who took his inspiration from Vitruvius, Bernini and Palladio had few options open to him outside teaching or restoration. But Mongiardino needed to create. His mother was an airy Genoese beauty, his father a theatrical impresario - and young Renzo took from the one a penchant for romantic dreamscapes, from the other a taste for the stage and a talent for organising people. It was perhaps only natural that he should drift into theatrical and operatic set design.

La Scala and Covent Garden were his practice living rooms. Among his most memorable productions were Tosca (starring Maria Callas) at Covent Garden in 1964, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, La Traviata at La Fenice in 1972, directed by Gian-Carlo Menotti, and finally, in 1995, Eugene Onegin for the Spoleto Festival. He was a perfectionist, preferring stoutly built sets to flimsy facades, and seeing little difference between the creation of an illusion that was to last for 10 performances and the design of a set for living in.

Later he carried the same solid alchemy into the cinema, collaborating especially with Franco Zeffirelli on films such as Romeo & Juliet (1967) and Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1971). Zeffirelli, whose house in Positano he later decorated, remembers Mongiardino as somebody who "spread culture through his work, and taught that luxury could be perfectly simple".

In his introduction to the 1993 book Roomscapes: the decorative architecture of Renzo Mongiardino, Mongiardino dates his career epiphany to the age of 12, when his family moved into their new house, with its vast echoing salon. "How beautiful it is empty," said his mother. "It will be difficult to decorate." But it wasn't: the old furniture fitted in like a dream. "I realised then that, if a room has good bone structure, even an unlikely object will fit into it and enliven it."

A carefully groomed Arts-and-Crafts beard framing his keen, owlish face was Mongiardino's only concession to eccentricity; otherwise, he went about dressed in simple work clothes, with a raincoat that doubled as a carpenter's overall. The same contrast could be seen in his attitude to interior design. His roster of clients sounds like a kidnapper's wish- list: Agnelli, Onassis, von Thyssen, Rothschild, Versace. But, while Mongiardino rarely had to worry about his budget, he was interested in porphyry and damask only in so far as they created a mood. Often faux marble, fake Tiepolo frescos and Oriental wall hangings made out of jute sacking answered the purpose just as well.

Like a Renaissance artist, Mongiardino worked at the centre of a bottega of faithful collaborators. One was an expert at recreating the look and feel of materials such as Cordoba leather with the help of pressed cardboard and felt-tip pens; another - a Bergamese artisan known simply as Il Bergamasco - worked wonders with fake marble and terracotta reliefs.

His interiors reflect an insatiable curiosity, a magpie approach to tradition. One much- imitated design dealt with the problem of an unfeasibly high ceiling by suspending a rich silk pavilion from the centre, "like a Turkish tent I'd seen in a museum in Stockholm". Rubens's house in Antwerp, the Cafe Florian in Venice, a Russian watercolour of the 1840s - wherever Mongiardino travelled, he collected fuel for the imagination. Sometimes the reference was deliberately playful, as when he lined the study of a New York apartment with intarsia panels that recalled Federico da Montefeltro's studiolo in Urbino. Except that, behind the lutes and the classical facades, a forest of skyscrapers looms up.

Mongiardino saw interiors with a kind of anthropomorphic complicity: felice ("happy") was his favourite adjective for a well-balanced room, the kind that needed no make-up. But he was equally sensitive to the psychology of the decorator-client relationship, believing that "arguments and open discord are often more productive than passive acceptance". He leaves a stable of younger disciples like Fiorenzo Cattaneo and Roberto Peregalli, who are dedicated to carrying on the master's work.

At the time of his death, Mongiardino was working on two big projects. One was an ideal city in the tradition of Urbino or Pienza which, with the backing of a group of Italian businessmen, was close to leaving the drawing board. The other was the faithful reconstruction of the La Fenice Opera House in Venice. It would be difficult to find two projects that better sum up Renzo Mongiardino's lifelong fusion of Piranesian fantasy and historical rigour.