THE PERFECT CUBE: Matt Tyrnauer Remembers Gore Vidal’s La Rondinaia

Image via ravello1 /

The most comfortable room I have ever been in was the study of La Rondinaia, Gore Vidal’s majestic villa in Ravello, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The villa is vast, much larger than it appears in photographs, and, because it’s drafty and cavernous, not that cozy a place. Yet Gore’s study — which he and his partner of 54 years, Howard Austen, called “the studio” — was the exception. Gore acquired La Rondinaia in 1972 as a seaside redoubt, away from the bustle of Rome, which he had made his base in 1961. It was in Italy, and in particular at the villa, that Gore wrote some of his greatest books, including Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984).

Nothing prepares you for the beauty of La Rondinaia, its acres of gardens and its views. It can only be reached on foot, along narrow paths from Ravello’s main piazza. The villa’s gate is at the dead end of Via dei Fusco, a path that runs through grape arbors and enjoys panoramic views of the sea. The garden paths beyond the gate — set amid patches of blue hydrangea, groves of chestnut trees, and a cypress allée — lead to a flight of tufa stairs, which plunge down to a forecourt and the arched front door of the villa. La Rondinaia, which means “the swallow’s nest,” is built into a sheer cliff, and, seen from Tyrrhenian Sea 1,000 feet below, appears to cling to the side of a rocky promontory. Because the villa is normally observed from a distance, its proportions are mysterious, until you finally set foot inside. The ceilings on the main floor (there are five levels) are 20 feet high, even higher in the entry hall, which features a soaring, majolica staircase.

Gore Vidal pictured on one of the terraces of La Rondinaia in 1979. He bought the property with his partner Howard Austen in 1972 and sold it in 2004, one year after Austen's death.

Gore hired the decorator Bill Willis (best known for his work in Morocco for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé) to pull the place together, and Willis furnished it simply with antiques from Naples, Gore’s own collection of antiquities, and Baroque paintings. Gore and Howard initially spent leisurely weeks there, with Gore writing on his usual 10:30 am–4:30 pm schedule, and a never-ending stream of exalted visitors passing through (framed photos of the crème de la crème were placed in the guest bedrooms: Johnny Carson, Mick Jagger, George McGovern, Hillary Clinton, Rudolf Nureyev, to name a few.) The house had no air conditioning, so the sea breeze was the usually dependable cooling agent — unless you count the endless tumblers of Macallan 12 on the rocks, which were served in the studio every evening. Gore would frequently send the most junior guest to the kitchen on ice runs, or to fetch full bottles of “mother’s milk.” Then, the junior guest was asked to pour the maestro’s drink. If one tried to use the tongs which were in the cork-covered ice bucket, the maestro would become impatient and command you to use your hands. He carefully assessed how much Scotch was poured into his glass. It was to be at least three-quarters filled, and then topped off to the rim with water.

Gore always sat on the beige-suede chesterfield facing the fireplace, and guests were seated in club chairs facing him. In the winter, there was a fire going. When the company was all male, anyone needing the bathroom was encouraged to relieve themselves over the side of the small balcony (Gore claimed that the streams of urine were raining down onto the roof of a church run by a malevolent priest in the village of San Cosma, a few-hundred feet below). The studio was one of the smallest rooms in the villa, yet it was the room where everyone always ended up. Its attraction was, in part, because it was Gore’s center of operation, where “the Pope of Ravello,”(as Christopher Hitchens dubbed him) wrote and held his audiences. But there was another more basic architectural charm to it. Vidal told me that he had asked his friend, Lord Richard Rogers what it was about the room that made it so attractive and comfortable above all others in the villa. “It’s a perfect cube,” the architect replied. “And, of course, he was right,” Gore told me. “I was amazed I’d never noticed.” You don’t find a lot of rooms that are perfect cubes in houses with 20-foot ceilings. As the best architects know, proportion is the key to harmony, and often to comfort. In this case it helped foster many happy scenes — and sentences — in a great life.

Text by Matt Tyrnauer.

Matt Tyrnauer is a film director and producer. His 2009 documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor was shortlisted for an Academy Award. Tyrnauer is also a writer and a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. His documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood is slated to hit theaters in April 2018.

Originally published in PIN–UP 23, Fall/Winter 2017/18.