ROME — In a city of spectacular offices, Christian Masset, France’s ambassador to Italy, has perhaps the most spectacular of them all.
Smack in the middle of Palazzo Farnese, a high-Renaissance masterpiece, his workplace has cavernous marble fireplaces and columns, wall-to-wall frescoes and a central window and balcony, both modified by Michelangelo, that look out onto twin fountains made from ancient basins. On some nights the office lights are left on, giving Romans strolling through one of the city’s most elegant piazzas a glimpse of its glorious interiors.
So it was no small ask when the French artist JR proposed blocking half the view.
“Yeah, it was a long discussion,” the almost anonymous artist said, wearing his trademark fedora, shades and trim beard.
He spoke in front of the Palazzo Farnese on a recent afternoon to inaugurate his new work, a more than 6,500-square-foot, black-and-white trompe l’oeil mural running like a gash, or a rash, up the building’s facade, or more accurately up the scaffolding installed for the palace’s restoration.
“At first,” JR said, the embassy officials told him it was a no go “to cover any of the office.”
But he argued that rerouting the mural around the windows would ruin the optical illusion of a crack that worked like an X-ray, revealing the frescoes in the ambassador’s office, barrel vaults and Doric columns, but also elements from the palace’s past, including a grand statue of Hercules that once stood in the courtyard but is now in a Naples museum.
JR won the argument and the ambassador lost half his view.
“I still have a window,” Masset said with a shrug.
JR’s project is part of Open for Work, Palazzo Farnese’s four-year, restoration of its facades and roof at a cost of 5.6 million euros, about $6.6 million. Flanked by a convent and arguably Rome’s most louche and Felliniesque see-and-be-seen cafe, the sublimely mannered 16th-century palace will be an open canvas during the renovation for contemporary artists playing on its history.
It kicked off on the evening of July 13, when three large white helium balloons, gleaming like moons, suspended a 60-foot cardboard bridge in the air over the Tiber River, fancifully fulfilling an uncompleted Michelangelo project to connect the Palazzo Farnese and the gardens of the Villa Farnesina, another sumptuous property on the opposite bank.
That work, by the French artist Olivier Grossetête, was followed by last week’s inauguration of the JR mural.
Some critics, who find JR’s work more advertorial and obvious than inspired and nuanced, worry that the venerable building is wearing something that it’s too old for, with an unseemly slit up the middle that evokes the outfits of its boozy neighbor more than its stately history.
But the French say they are injecting some life during the architectural surgery and helping, in a spirit of fraternité, to jump start a Roman art scene that needs a little lifeblood.
“We gave a big push. Because I think that the Farnese Bridge and this one are the two biggest projects so far of this kind, in Rome in this period,” said Masset, standing quietly to the side as reporters and photographers clamored around JR.
France’s warm, if somewhat patronizing, helping hand reflects a new political symbiosis between France and Italy under the recently installed, pro-European government of Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who has become the French president Emmanuel Macron’s mentor and wingman. That is a far cry from just a couple years ago, when Italy’s nationalist-populist government made a habit out of knocking France to trumpet its anti-Europe and anti-establishment credo.
In 2019, Luigi Di Maio, then Italy’s powerful deputy prime minister and leader of the populist Five Star Movement, took a road trip to France to meet with a leader of the Yellow Vest protesters who had called for civil war. “Yellow vests, do not give up!” Mr. Di Maio urged, prompting Macron to recall Masset, the ambassador, briefly to Paris in protest.
Back then, Matteo Salvini, the once powerful interior minister and nationalist leader, said France should get rid of its “very bad president.” His fellow League party member Lucia Borgonzoni — then, and still now, Italy’s deputy culture minister — fought sending Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces to France for a major Louvre retrospective.
But on July 14, France’s national day, and hours after the Farnese Bridge project lifted off over the Tiber, Di Maio, now a less-than-powerful foreign minister, attended a celebration at Palazzo Farnese. Salvini now nominally supports Draghi, and members of Parliament in his League party were among those invited to a soiree after the July 21 inauguration of the JR work. They posted selfies with the artist on social media.
Such heady settings are also a long way from JR’s origins. He came to prominence in the mid- 2000s by wheat-pasting his up-close and exaggerated photos of residents of a housing project in a deprived Paris suburb. He went on to produce huge public photo projects in poverty- or conflict-stricken parts of the world, such as favelas in Brazil, slums in Kenya and on the Gaza Strip. Alicia Keys opened his solo museum exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and last year he designed the 91-foot “La Ferita” or “The Wound,” a similar fault line effect on the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.
But he said last week that little had prepared him for the ambassador’s remarkable office.
“When I walked in — I was mesmerized!” he said. The palazzo’s frescoes were “the kind of wall painting that inspired me,” he added. “That’s why I do what I do.”
He prepared for the project by studying the Palazzo Farnese facade and hanging around the piazza incognito, which is to say without his hat and sunglasses. But now he was done hiding.
Wearing France standard-issue Stan Smith sneakers, he took a trademark leap in front of the building for the benefit of kneeling photographers and his 1.6 million Instagram followers. He spoke good Italian to the reporters and said “Super” in a French accent to his entourage.
Looking on in delight was Hélène Kelmachter, the embassy’s cultural attaché, who wore artsy eyeglasses with swirling bass clefs for temples, an undulating dress made of ruffled blue ripples and shoes stamped with Wonder Woman’s face.
“Rome is a place for patrimony — is a place of history,” she said. “But history can meet present.”
Switching to English, JR said that the art history crowd may know all about Palazzo Farnese, its papal inhabitants, its Renaissance architects and its astonishing frescoes. But his work, he said, spoke to and grabbed “people who walk by.”
On Wednesday, they walked by to see him.
“Is it you? Yes it is! I follow you on social,” said Valentina Ilari, a 49-year-old lawyer who saw JR in the square. “Can we do a selfie? Would you mind?”
“Si, si, si,” JR said.
“Wait, I don’t know how to do it,” said Ilari, fumbling with her phone. “I’m overwhelmed.”
The ambassador seemed more contained.
Standing with folded hands in a navy suit, away from the scrum, Masset acknowledged that, yes, he felt “a little” regret about the way JR’s mural had obstructed his view. “But when you see the result,” he added diplomatically, “I’m very happy.”