A puzzling beauty

The publisher of what Jacqueline Onassis called “the most beautiful magazine in the world”, Franco Maria Ricci, has built a bamboo labyrinth in the Po Valley. Tank gets lost in his life and work

Fontanellato is a small town on the outskirts of Parma, towards Piacenza, in the plains of the river Po, in the region of Emilia Romagna. The town boasts a shrine to the Madonna del Rosario, honouring the long series of miracles that have visited it since 1628. 

Country: Italy
Area: 53 km2 (20 sq mi)
Population: 6,624
Time zone: GMT +1

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Above, Labirinto della Masone.

“Ts’ui Pen must have said once: ‘I am withdrawing to write a book.’ And another time: ‘I am withdrawing to construct a labyrinth.’ Everyone imagined two works; to no one did it occur that the book and the maze were one and the same thing”—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”.

A little outside the Italian city of Parma lies the star-shaped Labirinto della Masone, the largest maze in the world. Its walls are made of bamboo, and, as you reach its centre, a pyramid looms into view. Franco Maria Ricci, editor, publisher and designer extraordinaire, is the man behind this grand folly, which lies on land adjoining his estate in Fontanellato. For decades, Ricci was the man behind FMR Publishing, which produced the legendary art-history magazine FMR and a related series of monographs. 

FMR, a conscious homonym of ephémère (French for “ephemeral”), stood for a dignified and cerebral approach to magazine publishing, unapologetically elitist in its taste – the print magazine running rampant in the glory days of analogue publishing. With FMR, Ricci almost single-handedly resuscitated the use of Bodoni, the late-18th century font designed by Giambattista Bodoni, who lived in Parma, while publishing a series of stunning monographs that married art-history icons with the writing of luminaries like Borges, Roland Barthes, Octavio Paz, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, William Saroyan and many others. Monographs, including Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, created an esoteric canon, drawing subtle parallels between the work of FMR Publishing and the arcana of European Hermetic publishing. A list of FMR’s monographs – the Qajars, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Domenico Gnoli , Aloys Zötl – sounds like an excerpt from a short story by Ricci’s close friend Borges. In 1998, Ricci sold his publishing house and invested the money in the labyrinth, signing off to his readers by paraphrasing Voltaire: “Laissez-moi cultiver mon jardin.”

One can think of a labyrinth as symbolic of the path to enlightenment: the visitor walks the path, progressing on a pilgrimage to salvation or profound knowledge. Like Ricci’s publications, his labyrinth is heavily symbolic. Both are presented as a search for otherwise inaccessible knowledge. At the heart of the Labirinto is a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, that precursor of the museum so beloved of 18th-century collectors. 

Like so many attempts to reconnect with a neoclassical sensibility, both FMR and the Labirinto della Masone represent a sort of guileless postmodernism. Both seem to refer to an original that doesn’t quite exist; both seem at odds with, yet unconcerned by, their lack of historical context. Tank spoke to the great man about his life and work, and what it means to be contemporary. 

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Above, covers from the FMR archive.

People used to talk about having to apply for subscriptions to FMR. Was there a cultivated elitism about the magazine?
Franco Maria Ricci: I always look for extreme beauty and this seems to be a sort of elitism. The magazine shows its exaggerated luxury with its black cover on top of which the clear Bodoni type stands out. FMR’s ambition is to be appreciated by a very small intellectual circle that might be considered as an elite just because of its good taste in choosing a publication like FMR. This is a different sort of elitist publishing: extreme elegance and refinement published in a very broad circulation. 

What are your views on the longevity of the magazine as a format?
I consider FMR magazine to be a timeless work, and I created it that way, as something that doesn’t die. The present is shown in FMR only in terms of its advertising, but the exhibitions and all the artwork inside the magazine are eternal. Another tool that I use to make my magazine immortal is to use only texts by famous writers like Calvino and Borges, or historians.

You are known for your historicist perspective. What is your view or take on contemporary art?
I define myself as neoclassical, but we have to consider that each neoclassicism of the past, from the Renaissance to today, was a form of modernism, and should not to be confused with classicism. My work as a graphic designer and commercial artist brought me to meet the main pop-art artists in New York, starting with the greatest, Andy Warhol. Their actions and processes, in trying to transform mass-market products and show-business images into icons, involved me so much that, while I was presenting the reprinting of Bodoni’s work, I referred to this artistic trend. In my back catalogue one book is totally focused on pop art: the book on Mao Zedong, from 1979.

I decided some time ago not to publish contemporary art any more, not because I don’t like it, but to avoid the pressure of the contemporary-art market that could contaminate my work. I appreciate artists like Julian Schnabel, but it’s very difficult to accept that one of his works could be considered to have the same value as one of [Baroque artist Annibale] Carracci’s. 

What are your current projects?
I have always thought that a 65-year-old man should terminate what he did all his life for work. I need to avoid becoming pathetic; I left the publishing world to dedicate myself to finding the perfect location for my collection. 

Some might say that the best compliment you can give your magazine – its focus on beautiful things – is also a criticism. Did you ever think of looking at the un-beautiful in your publications?
Beauty is the result of a good education and a lot of sensitivity. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis herself described FMR as “the most beautiful magazine in the world”. Fellini called it “the black pearl”. Beauty must produce emotion.

I have always said that the major resource of Italy is beauty.

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Above left, the Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini’s encyclopedia of an imaginary world, published by Franco Maria Ricci in 1981. Middle and right, FMR editions on the bestiary of Aloys Zötl and Tamara de Lempicka. “The exhibitions and all the artwork inside the magazine are eternal.” 

I understand gardening is one of your passions. Have you done books on gardening?
Plants are one of my long-time passions. In 2007 I reprinted an old herbarium book, made by Giuseppe Riggio and illustrated by Emanuele Grasso, with 753 watercolour plates, made in 1811 in Acireale, a city in Sicily. This book, Fiori di Sicilia, contains ancient illustrations and is enriched by very carefully chosen essays. With the proceeds derived from its sale I was able to buy the original volume and donate it to the library in Acireale. 

At FMR, how did you choose your subjects?
I wanted to show unknown and beautiful places, peculiar artists; everything that was curious and not famous attracted my attention. If I were to do another magazine or publication today, I think I would do the exact same thing. §