Most people in the art world scratched their heads when the title of Massimiliano Gioni's exhibition for the 55th Venice Biennale was announced in March. "The Encyclopedic Palace" takes its name from an 11-foot-tall architectural model built in the 1950s in rural Pennsylvania by an Italian-American mechanic/inventor-cum-untrained artist named Marino Auriti (1891-1980). The wood, bronze and plastic model is the touchstone of Gioni's show, which features work by more than 150 other artists, many of whom also lean toward the self-taught camp.
Two of Auriti's granddaughters—Mary Firmani van Denburgh, a writer in New York, and Colette Firmani McDonald, a high school English teacher in Delaware—spoke by phone and e-mail with A.i.A. last week about the unlikely journey of Auriti's piece, The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, from a small-town garage to the Venice Biennale. All told, it took three generations of Auritis nearly 65 years' worth of letter-writing, phone calls, fundraising and dogged filial piety for the Palace to make its way into the collection of the American Folk Art Museum [AFAM], where it was ultimately noticed by Gioni.
When van Denburgh heard that the piece would go to Venice, she got in touch with Gioni, the associate director of the New Museum in New York, she told A.i.A. "I sent Massimiliano this very well-written e-mail in Italian, that I'd had a friend in Italy check for me. He writes back saying, ‘yeah hey I live in the East Village!'"
Before settling in Kennett Square, Penn., Auriti, who was born in Guardiagrele, Italy, lived briefly in São Paulo, where he met his American-born Italian wife. He built carriages and mail trucks in Italy and, according to family lore, in São Paulo he invented a coffee thresher with a partner who absconded with the patent—and thus Auriti's cut of the fortune. (Van Denburgh has written extensively about the Palace and her family's history on her blog, Forte e Gentile.)
Auriti built a house with an attached garage in Kennett Square, where he had his own auto repair shop. He built models and, van Denburgh remembers, made "bad thrift shop paintings enclosed in beautiful handmade frames" in a studio in the back of the garage. Van Denburgh kept two, a painting of Dante and Beatrice and one of a Roman aqueduct, based on a National Geographic photo. "It's totally hopeless looking, but I adore it."
By the time van Denburgh and McDonald were born, Auriti was in his 70s and no longer working in the garage. "He was a stoic, self-taught architect with a very Roman persona—a real intellectual, even though he didn't go to school past either 4th or 8th grade," McDonald recounts.
Both sisters are resistant to the "outsider" label that has recently started to cling to their grandfather's work. McDonald remains puzzled by an article in the New York Times in which Gioni is quoted describing Auriti'sEncyclopedic Palace as "the crazy dream, bordering between knowledge and madness, image and imagination."
"His dream never struck the family as crazy. I do not see madness in it at all—I see pure talent and discerning vision," said McDonald in an e-mail. She points to Auriti's blueprints, patent and manifesto (handwritten in Italian) as proof that the Palace was in no way a pipe dream.
According to van Denburgh, The Encyclopedic Palace was "inspired by the idea of the ‘memory palace,' a type of ancient Roman mnemonic device that's figurative, not literal. A mnemonist imagines his thoughts as a room and places something in each corner of this room. Then he'll walk into the next mental room and do the same with four more items. And by the time he has gotten to the last room he's memorized everything.The Encyclopedic Palace was a literal memory palace. The idea was that it would be built, with infinite possibilities contained within it."
In the '50s and '60s, Auriti wrote letters to U.S. presidents and others, trying to make his dream of having The Encyclopedic Palace constructed on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., a reality. In the '80s, his daughter solicited several museums and auction houses. "My mother saved the letters and they're heartbreaking," recalls van Denburgh. "She wrote to the Met, who suggested that she try the Folk Art Museum, but she didn't because she thought it was insulting. People didn't talk about outsider art in 1980, '81. She also wrote to an auction house, and they were really dismissive and snotty. She kept getting all these responses like, ‘We don't understand the context of this, this sounds like junk to us, like some crazy guy in the basement building stuff out of toothpicks.'"
When Auriti died, his family sold the house in Kennett Square, and the Palace was moved to a storage locker in Newport, Del. When McDonald and van Denburgh's mother became ill in the late 1990s, the sisters began to oversee the family estate. One of their first orders of business was to start trying to drum up interest in the model.
In 2002, van Denburgh got in touch with Brooke Davis Anderson (then a curator at the AFAM), who agreed to acquire the Palace, bringing it to the museum.
At the time, van Denburgh was working at a firm that designed architectural interiors. "One of the partners, Ralph Mancini, was an Italian-American guy who loved the story," she said. "He tapped all his cronies, who put up some money and we donated $15,000 toward its restoration." A few years later, in 2004, The Encyclopedic Palace was on view in the AFAM's "Folk Art Revealed" show.
In 2012, the Palace appeared in "Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined," at the AFAM's Lincoln Center facility. It was around this time that van Denburgh got wind of the model's potential trip to Venice in a conversation with curator Stacy Hollander, who had organized "Jubilation." "She said, ‘By the way, there's a slim chance that The Encyclopedic Palace might be going to the Biennale.' One of the issues was how to break it down and ship it. At that point, it seemed like pie in the sky." (In late April the AFAM posted a video of the labor-intensive process. The museum also has a blog about the piece's travels,palaceonholiday.tumblr.com.)
A not entirely surprising turn of events involves the mayor of Guardiagrele jumping on the Auriti bandwagon. When the annual Giro d'Italia bike race passes through Guardiagrele ("Citta di Arte e Cultura"), cyclists will see a welcome banner across the entrance to town advertising the Biennale and featuring a photo of Auriti posing with his elaborate model.
How would the philosophical Auriti react to his Palace making its way to one of the world's most important art exhibitions?
"My grandfather would be proud that someone was acknowledging his dreams," McDonald said. "I think it would be the absolute highlight of his life."