Few things in the world fascinate me as much as labyrinths. For as long as I can remember, the idea of a place in which to wander, in which to “get lost” without knowing the way to go and above all, without the certainty of salvation in a way out, is a scenario that, while on the one hand terrifies me, on the other thrills me. In equal measure.
So, when I heard a couple of years ago that in Fontanellato, just outside Parma, Franco Maria Ricci, designer and publisher of FMR, had had the largest labyrinth in the world built just a few months earlier, I couldn’t resist, and one beautiful Sunday morning in October together with three friends, I went to “get lost” or, as the wise men of antiquity used to say, to “find myself” inside a bamboo maze of over seven hectares.
Labyrinth of the Masone: a dream come true
I dreamt for the first time of building a Labyrinth about twenty years ago, during the period in which, on several occasions, I had a friend, as well as a very important collaborator of the publishing house I had founded, in my country house near Parma: the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. It is the largest labyrinth in the world, at least for now, and also one of the largest bamboo plantations, at least in Europe. (Franco Maria Ricci)
Born from the vision and creative genius of Franco Maria Ricci, graphic designer, art publishers and one of the greatest men of culture in our country, the Labirinto della Masone, also known as “Labirinto di Fontanellato” or “Labirinto di Franco Maria Ricci”, was designed by Franco Maria Ricci himself with the help of two architects: Pier Carlo Bontempi and Davide Dutto.
The Masone’s labyrinth: numbers and figures
Covering more than seven hectares of land, Franco Maria Ricci’s Labyrinth is star-shaped, reminiscent of the mosaics of Roman villas, and is composed entirely of bamboo plants. There are more than 200,000 of them, belonging to about twenty different species and ranging in height from 30 centimetres to 15 metres. The path that develops inside this incredible green maze is more than 3 kilometres long. A real garden of nature and culture that also houses over 5,000 square metres of cultural spaces for Franco Maria Ricci’s personal art collection – about 500 works of art including paintings and sculptures ranging from the sixteenth to the twentieth century – and a library dedicated to all Ricci’s typographic and graphic production, with volumes by Giambattista Bodoni, the entire production of Alberto Tallone and that of Ricci himself. There is also the complete archive of all the work of the publishing house. All these treasures are available to visitors, not only can you admire the works of art but you can also browse through the books. For a book fetishist like you, holding one of these precious volumes in your hands was truly an incredible experience.
The arrival to the labyrinth
We arrive in Fontanellato around 11 am: the labyrinth opens at 10.30 am so we took our time. In the large car park, there are already many cars. The main entrance is immediately a source of reflection. The boundary wall, as – we will discover as soon as we enter – also all the structures and architectures built inside it, was built with handmade bricks, a very common material in the whole Po Valley that therefore harmonizes well with the rural buildings of the surrounding landscape. The entrance passage, although monumental in its classical arched form, is not monumental in size. Compared to the linear majesty of the façade, in fact, it seemed small, almost minute, as if the decision to cross it, to go beyond it, had to be preceded by a personal and “conscious” existential choice to enter and walk through the labyrinth. A bit like the pilgrims of past times who reached the cathedral of Chartres in France, they “consciously” decided to kneel down and follow on all fours the path of the labyrinth drawn on the floor of the central nave, as the ultimate spiritual practice to connect their soul to the superior divinity.
Once inside, we head to the ticket office to collect our press credits which will give us access to the maze of bamboo reeds. Although our desire to get lost in the intrigue of green lanes is urgent, we decide to book a table first at the Ristorante al Bambù which is located inside the Entrance Court and is run by star chef Massimo Spigaroli. Although there is also a Cafeteria and a Hosteria where you can enjoy scones and Parmesan food, we prefer to add to the experience of the visit also Spigaroli’s cuisine. And we did very well, because although the bill wasn’t the cheapest, the quality and deliciousness of the tasting menu we ordered was really worth it.
Let’s get lost … Start the visit!
Once we have reserved the table for 1pm, armed with our entrance ticket and the map to follow to find the exit, we enter the labyrinth. We were tempted to go at random, not to follow any directions, to simply choose at every corner the direction to take, to come across closed alleys, green lanes with no outlet. But in the end we chose to follow the route on the map, and already this was not so easy. It may be because I’ve never had a great ability to read maps, it may be because the surreal atmosphere of suspension from time and space that these tall bamboo forests manage to create, but we “got lost” at least a couple of times. And it was beautiful. So much so that we decided that we would retrace the labyrinth a second time, but this time without peeking at the map. In fact, the entrance ticket allows you to enter and exit the maze as many times as you want.
The pyramid at the centre of the labyrinth
Right in the middle of the labyrinth there is a huge square and a chapel in the shape of a pyramid. In the main square surrounded by huge columns, a series of events and performances, both musical and artistic, are hosted every weekend. On the Sunday I was there, an amazing street artist performed, a fire juggler who literally enchanted all visitors with his dance of movements and flames. The pyramid, perhaps the most symbolic architecture of the entire Fontanellato complex – after the labyrinth, of course – was commissioned and created by Franco Maria Ricci, because it is a very ancient symbol of faith, recalling the religious symbolism of the labyrinth itself. It is a real chapel, on the floor of which another labyrinth has been built, reminiscent of the one in Chartres Cathedral. Sitting inside it is a unique experience, almost spiritual, certainly meditative. Coming out of the bamboo labyrinth and entering this “sacred space” is, in my opinion, the final act of the choice that started with the decision to cross the brick arch at the entrance of the complex.
The art collection and temporary exhibitions
After lunch we visited the rooms that house the publisher’s personal collection and the permanent exhibitions that are organized there. An absolutely eclectic collection that inseparably reflects the taste of its owner and which houses works of art spanning over 500 years of history, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Ligozzi, Carracci, Cambiaso, and then Hayez, Ligabue, Savinio: these are just some of the artists whose paintings and sculptures have been collected by Ricci. I must say that also this visit was a bit like entering a labyrinth: not made with plants and hedges but made up of pictorial and sculptural suggestions, citations and stories, objects and mirabilia. This is perhaps the part of the visit that is more “adult” and less suitable for a child. The little ones have a lot of fun inside the labyrinth, but have difficulty in appreciating these cultured and exclusive works. Surely, by showing off his treasures, Franco Maria Ricci has also shown himself and his most precious dreams. It takes courage also for this, a bit like facing an infinite labyrinth.
The labyrinth at night
By the time we leave the gallery that houses Ricci’s collection, the sun is setting, it is past six and the labyrinth closes at 7.30 pm. We hurry to the ticket office because we are afraid we won’t be able to visit it a second time. And instead we discover, to our pleasant surprise, that not only can we still enter it, but that its exploration “at night” is an appointment not to be missed. The labyrinth inside is not illuminated, but each visitor is given a torch to illuminate the street in front of his feet. And this has been the most evocative adventure of the whole day. To “get lost” to “find oneself” in the dark. Nothing more symbolic. Absolutely the experience within the experience. Incredible.
Of this wonderful day, I take home the book “Labirinti” written by Franco Maria Ricci and published by Rizzoli, whose introduction was entrusted to another great Italian man of letters and culture, Umberto Eco, of whom I would like to share a few lines:
“The difference between life and the labyrinth is – on the one hand – that we do not enter life by an adventurous decision but rather by throwing ourselves into it, and – on the other hand – that we do not know what awaits us on the way out, and whether there really is an exit: alas, we have sent billions of explorers on a reconnaissance mission, but we have no reliable reports…”.