One late-summer afternoon in Rome, artist Isabella Ducrot – whose vibrant allure, at 91, remains undiminished – was sitting on a red-striped sofa in her living room in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, reading aloud a piece she had written that morning. The text humorously recounts the reckless candour with which, for decades, she created poetically charged artworks – whether on canvas, in mixed media on paper or via woven cloth – in eager solitude.
Except for a select following of Italian critics, galleries and collectors, few people knew her work. Until five years ago – it was then that gallerist Gisela Capitain ‘discovered’ Isabella Ducrot and catapulted her on to the international art scene, with a series of solo exhibitions in Cologne, Berlin and, this October, in Stockholm. And not long after – in March 2023 – her work is due to travel to Sadie Coles’s gallery in London. ‘Who would have thought,’ says a bemused Isabella, ‘that at my age life could hold such surprises?’
Surprise, humour and defiance are the core qualities of Isabella’s home, too; one she shared, until his death last May, with Vittorio (‘Vicky’) Ducrot, her husband of 60 years. A Sicilian gentleman of rare erudition, Vicky, who in 1973 founded Viaggi dell’Elefante, a travel company for the culturally adventurous, was a passionate collector. So when Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj invited the couple to see this apartment back in 2002, Vicky jumped at the opportunity. Perched on the top floor of this striking palazzo, it has a monumental terrace just above the Doria-Pamphilj gallery – one of Europe’s most prestigious private museums – and an enfilade of rooms overlooking the palace’s quiet courtyards.
Vicky envisaged filling these rooms with his multitude of religious-themed Baroque paintings, as well as the hundreds of Indian miniatures he had acquired in Rajasthan (the most complete private collection of its kind in Italy). A voracious connoisseur of roses, he also planned to plant the terrace with cuttings from their garden in Umbria, where the couple tended to 800 different types of roses, 3,000 plants in all, many of which were brought back from trips to the Himalayas. Isabella, however, felt it was ‘ridiculous’ for a couple in their seventies, as they were then, to move into such a large home. Vicky quite agreed – ‘Unless,’ of course, ‘we could fill it with friends and have lots of parties!’
Before the fun could start, however, there was work to do. ‘The rooms were so run-down they reminded me of the shelters I hid in, as a child, during the 1943 bombings of Naples,’ Isabella recounts. She had the rooms whitewashed and the floors scrubbed – which, to her delight, revealed vibrant patterned tiles. Key, for her, was lightness of touch; not an easy feat, given the overwhelming presence throughout the apartment of annunciations, saintly ecstasies and crucifixions. As Isabella observes: ‘Most people wouldn’t want to live with such gloomy pictures.’ It was this, indeed, that meant they could afford works by great old masters – including Artemisia Gentileschi, Battistello Caracciolo and Carlo Dolci – in the first place. The only way she could infuse a touch of quirky minimalism into these rooms, Isabella decided, was by keeping any further antiques to a minimum. Period furnishings they inherited were soon replaced with pared-back Modernist pieces – among them, a set of bedside tables and armchairs that had belonged to Vicky’s grandfather of the same name, the leading Sicilian furniture designer and industrialist who famously decorated Villino Florio in Palermo. The sofas and chairs all had to be reupholstered in cheery 1950s patterns. But nowhere is Isabella’s free-spirited sprezzatura more striking than in the entrance hall. This room, the only one with soaring ceilings, serves as a picture gallery for part of Vicky’s collection of paintings. Such baroque solemnity is delightfully offset by a huge Isabella Ducrot tapestry, ingeniously repurposed to drape across the french windows and staircase leading to the terrace.
Naples, where Isabella was born in 1931, pops up often in conversations: ‘It is the only place where people are constantly reminded of their own mortality.’ Which is why, she suggests, Neapolitans have a great sense of humour and a tendency to live life to its fullest. It was there, just after World War II, that Isabella first discovered the emotional power of textiles. Federico Forquet (WoI Nov 2020), a long-time friend who would go on to become a celebrated fashion designer, had invited her to his parents’ home to look at some drawings he had made for Balenciaga.
‘It was a conventional house,’ Isabella recalls. ‘So when I walked into the living room overlooking the bay of Naples, I could not believe my eyes.’ Federico, just out of teenagehood himself, had costumed all the windows with clouds of shockingly bright yellow taffeta silk that billowed in the wind. ‘It was outrageous, for the time, utterly radical!’ Which leads us to a more discreet, but by no means less precious, collection ensconced in this home: ancient textiles. Inspired by her friend Tatiana Franchetti (Cy Twombly’s wife), Isabella developed a love of fabrics; after decades of eastward travels with Vicky, she had immersed herself in the magical world of handwoven pieces. By the time she moved into this apartment, she had accumulated thousands of rare examples and written prolifically about the myths and histories enmeshed in them. Only a handful of them, such as the fragment of a 16th-century Persian rug where Indian miniatures are hung, are on display; the others are folded and tucked away in jade-green cabinets she designed herself. This textile collection is the subject of a beautifully illustrated catalogue, with accompanying text by Isabella, published by Quodlibet in October 2022.
In the past 20 or so years, Casa Ducrot has become so much more than a beautiful party house. It is an oasis of civilised living, where friends and family of different generations – many of them writers, artists, scholars, museum directors – regularly meet to exchange ideas and welcome like-minded travellers passing through Rome. Though Isabella has kept her own artworks to a bare minimum here (her archive is stored in her ground-floor studio), there are plenty of others by talented friends: a portrait of her by Maro Gorky is in the library; an oil painting by Matthew Spender in the living room; a lotus flower given to her by Cy Twombly hangs in her writing studio; there are sculpture lamps by Orsina Sforza and an oil painting by Giosetta Fioroni, to name but a few.
A recent addition to this bustling array is Ecce Homo in white glazed terracotta by Giuseppe Ducrot, one of her two sons and a respected artist in his own right; his works punctuate many of these rooms. After Vicky’s passing, Isabella asked Giuseppe to place his beautiful sculpture, thorns and all, on to an Alvar Aalto table next to her red-striped sofa. A single note of grief in a home that has seen many flowerings.