The Rose of Franco Maria Ricci. The unrepeatable existence of a contemporary humanist.


Franco Maria Ricci's contribution was fundamental to art and culture. We retrace the existence of the great editor who left us on September 10.

The last image of Franco Maria Ricci was that of a distinguished octogenarian who, having returned to dwell in the countryside of Fontanellato, had discarded the suits he had worn all his life and opted for a green loden jacket, worn over a pair of khaki pants and a striped or blue plaid shirt: this was the “uniform” with which he used to present himself to those who met him in the Labyrinth of the Masone, his most recent endeavor, the fabulous maze (the largest in the world, as every presentation with boast and pride repeats) built at his behest, designed by Pier Carlo Bontempi, and opened to the public five years ago. The one element that had never left Ricci’s outfit was his red rose, which he had worn in the buttonhole of his jacket for decades. It was a gimmick of his: in an interview a few years ago, in Repubblica, he had confessed that the idea of pinning a bakelite rose to the lapels of his jackets had come to him when Ottavio Missoni gave him a pull over. Franco Maria Ricci did not wear pull-overs, however, and said he would take, as a gift, the red rose that closed the package.

But in reality that rose encapsulates the very meaning of his existence, an existence out of the ordinary, visionary, heedless of fashion, secluded. The existence of a humanist who dedicated his whole self to art and culture, of a cultured and refined lover of the arts who was among the few who understood the meaning of true beauty, that which lurks between the contingent and the eternal, in a difficult and precarious balance. FMR, the initials of his name as well as the name of the precious magazine he founded in the 1980s, when read in French sounds like phmre, “ephemeral.” Today, our existences seem to be projected into a perpetual present, we seem to have forgotten that everything is destined to end sooner or later: art is among them, and Franco Maria Ricci was well aware of this. The rose itself is a symbol of vanity and fleetingness, and sometimes, walking through the rooms of the museum that introduces his Labyrinth, one comes across some presence that reminds the visitor of this dimension of Franco Maria Ricci’s world (and ours). In one room, all dedicated to the theme of Vanitas, this presence becomes almost obsessive: a wall, set up with paintings all attached as in a seventeenth-century picture gallery, is entirely covered with still lifes with skulls and bones, among which stands out the horrifying putrescent head by Jacopo Ligozzi, one of the most significant pieces in Franco Maria Ricci’s wonderful collection. A collection that the great humanist made available to all.

Perhaps it is not a gamble to assume that his projects were born to extend the life of finite things, and it is perhaps also for that reason that it becomes difficult to separate the various souls of his activities, since Franco Maria Ricci was “publisher, graphic designer, collector and bibliophile,” as his collaborators who commemorate him today with a moving epitaph published on the organs of the Labirinto della Masone. Even his first undertaking, which seen today appears as an icastic declaration of intent, was already a summation of the many souls of his eclectic personality. It was 1963: Franco Maria Ricci had recently left his job as a geologist for an oil company, with which he had worked for a few months in Turkey. Perhaps not many people remember that his education had been accomplished far from art: he had studied Geology at the University of Parma and had not taken any academic path having to do with the arts. His was pure passion, which the stay in the Mesopotania of the Hittites had increased and cemented, in him who wanted to be an archaeologist and had chosen geology as a compromise, so as not to risk obtaining a title that even at that time there were those who considered it difficult to spend.

Having thus consigned the experience between the Tigris and the Euphrates to memory, Franco Maria Ricci returned to Parma, began working as a graphic designer almost by chance, after having drawn a poster as a joke and having been noticed by a graphic design studio, and it was from this experience that the long-distance encounter with Giambattista Bodoni, the great director of the Stamperia Ducale in Parma at the end of the eighteenth century, and with his Manuale Tipografico, matured. The idea of reprinting it in an anastatic edition seemed to everyone the dream of a madman: and in what other way could one define a twenty-six-year-old boy who decided to gamble a good part of his savings to republish stuff for amateurs, a book that was unobtainable, and yet exerted such a strong fascination on him that it became inexhaustible, enduring, and then a hallmark of almost all his future publications? That madman had, however, matured the intuition of transforming the Typographical Manual into a luxury product, but of an accessible luxury: the idea, as he repeatedly had occasion to declare, was to make it so that even those who could not afford a very expensive book could have access to a high quality edition. The venture succeeded, not least because the fledgling publishing house was able to create a market for itself, in an Italy that felt the values of culture and education were strong and deep.

Franco Maria Ricci. Ph. Labirinto della Masone
Franco Maria Ricci. Ph. Labyrinth of the Masone


And the same yearning for sharing is also perhaps another of the red threads that make up the fabric of Franco Maria Ricci’s unrepeatable existence. Of course, at the basis of so many of his adventures, editorial and otherwise, there subsists that subtle vanity, more or less exhibited (not by him, who led a life always far from media clamor), which is proper to every lover of beauty: but Ricci was a true humanist of our times, and when he had in mind to start the publications of the “most beautiful magazine in the world,” as Jacqueline Kennedy called his FMR, there was at the base also the idea of bringing the general public closer to the art of the past, and not only by telling them about its most known and obvious manifestations, but also by probing the most hidden, but not for this reason less intense and less exciting, folds of art history. Thus a cultured magazine was born, one that lavished on the wider public that elegance which was the hallmark of its founder and his publishing house, and which rested its foundations on an idea as simple as it was revolutionary: to give each subject a monographic slant. FMR stood, therefore, as a middle ground between a book and a popular journal: few articles, usually less than ten, a rich iconographic apparatus with full-page images and enlargements of details, all the more valuable when one considers that at the time the Internet did not exist and it was therefore arduous to obtain a good image of a work of art, which was perhaps not in black and white, and with texts written by illustrious names (one could read there articles by Andr Chastel, Francesco Arcangeli, Yves Bonnefoy, Raffaello Causa, Giovanni Testori, Rossana Bossaglia, Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, Alberto Arbasino, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, and many, many others) and pens by up-and-coming young people (from the very beginning, for example, a 30-year-old and then unknown Vittorio Sgarbi collaborated with FMR). All presented in the most elegant graphic design: for Federico Fellini, FMR was the “black pearl of world publishing.” The reason before FMR, Sgarbi himself had written in an essay for an exhibition in which Franco Maria Ricci evidently recognized himself to the point of quoting it on his website, was to “multiply desires and pleasures, being able to publish from time to time so many articles on different and peregrine subjects instead of a single book that takes a long time and a single subject.”

The editions, meanwhile, had been enriched with volumes intended for bibliophiles, art lovers, cultured travelers, and frequenters of the finest exhibitions. With books always printed in the typefaces derived from Bodoni’s treatises: it was, according to the publisher, a way to revive the past in modernity. A kind of neoclassicism of the neoclassical. Franco Maria Ricci, after all, was not more interested in contemporary art, or at least not in the most avant-garde languages, although even in this field he had exceedingly interesting insights, such as that of investing in a very young Luigi Serafini by publishing, in 1981, the now famous Codex Seraphinianus composed five years earlier: that bizarre encyclopedia merging almost every field of human knowledge into hallucinatory and illegible drawings inspired by ancient codices, and which was commented on by Roland Barthes and Italo Calvino.

The Codex Seraphinianus, another great publishing success of Franco Maria Ricci, can now also be admired in the museum of the Labyrinth of the Masone, another feat of a man who seemed to live in another era, matured after reading the books of his friend Borges. A real labyrinth, open to the public, where not infrequently those who enter it get lost among the intricate bamboo canes that make up its walls: every now and then, some attendant standing at the ticket office has to go and retrieve lost visitors. “The visitor today enters the castles, admires the thematic exhibitions, is attracted by the private collections made attractive by a beautiful packaging,” Ricci had said in another interview with Repubblica, recounting his idea. “Here, the park will allow visitors to spend a different Sunday, to enjoy the works of art but also to have fun. There will be benches, lawns, ice cream makers, accordion players, and then the big labyrinth. I think in an hour and a half you will be able to find your way, but someone might get really lost.” A feat from another era, but not only because no one would think of building a labyrinth today: also because, in the hustle and bustle of the contemporary world, forcing the audience to reason and engage for a full hour in order to find their way out of the maze means cultivating a serious interest in others. A Renaissance man’s mentality well aware, however, of living in the 21st century. A Renaissance man who seemed almost pervaded by a sense of nostalgia that was, however, the flame that ignited his endeavors and enabled him to make a unique, extremely important contribution to art and culture. “Leterno,” he had said in conversation with Gianmarco Aimi for Linkiesta, “is the nourishment we crave, but we are sensitive to the ruins, to the elegances of times gone by, to the testimonies of finished festivals, because we are mortal beings.” His rose, however, will continue to keep us company for a very long time.