Friday 20 February 2015

Interview: Award-winning Art Director Gaetano Castelli in Rome

Where the real and imaginary meet: artist, creative director and set designer, Professor Gaetano Castelli with one of his paintings at his studio in Rome, Italy. Portrait by Paul McDonnell. Click on pictures for full-screen slideshow

One of Italy’s great designers, artist Professor Gaetano Castelli was Director General of Rome's Academy of Fine Arts and works on Italy’s top television programs including the latest show by Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni & 18 Sanremo Music Festival extravaganzas plus winning the Rose D’Argento and two Rose d’Oro awards at the Montreux International Television Festival. Today, he is the creative director of the spectacular, multi-million dollar stage shows at Paris’ Moulin Rouge. Jeanne-Marie Cilento talks to the gallant and enthusiastic designer at his studio in Rome

View across to Villa Medici from the Castelli Studio
STROLLING through the great walnut doors of a grand palazzo in Rome’s elegant Via Margutta you enter another world. The city’s cacophony of people and cars disappear as you are enveloped by a green sanctuary of tall trees and gardens ringed by stately baroque buildings. Like a village within the city, this sanctuary was the place where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck filmed Roman Holiday and today is home to film studios, offices and apartments.

Castelli & Associati is so hidden away up among steep, winding stairs, stone pathways and flowering trees that someone is always dispatched to meet visitors and lead them through this beautiful haven. Today, it is Manuel Bellucci taking me from the enormous entrance courtyard through the gardens to the studio.

Talented designers Chiara Castelli, Gigi Sabbatella & Manuel Bellucci
Inside, the mezzanine space is a hive of activity as the studio team work on their many projects which range from theatre to television and fashion to architectural projects. Chiara Castelli, Gaetano’s beautiful blond daughter, oversees the studio and is a trained artist and designer herself. Like her father who was the director and a professor at Rome's Accademia di Belle Arti, she also taught there as well as working at the studio alongside talented designers Manuel Bellucci and Luigi Sabbatella.

When Professor Gaetano Castelli arrives, he has a commanding presence tempered by a natural charm and grace and perfect manners. Below his leonine mane, he has the smooth, year-round tan and fitness of the avid tennis player. Once we are at his desk, he speaks about his work with great passion in his signature gravelly voice. He travels across the world for his work and seems to spend half of his time on planes visiting projects from Paris to Macao where a new version of the Moulin Rouge show will open in 2016.

Gaetano Castelli with his wife Gail Milissa Grant 
Married to soigné American writer and former diplomat, Gail Milissa Grant, the United States has also become a frequent stop in his peripatetic life. The couple have a beautiful home in the heart of Rome which displays some of Professor Castelli’s paintings which have been exhibited in Italy and London.

Growing up in Rome, Gaetano Castelli knew from an early age he was interested in art. His father was an art director and his mother was one of the first women in Italy to work at a bank. “When I was a young boy my uncle suggested I become an accountant,” he says. “But I realized I was made for an artistic career. My mother helped me to follow my dream, she said to me ‘I want you to do what I could not do which is to follow what you love'.”

Minimalist set for Roberto Benigni's 10 Commandments, December 2014 
Professor Castelli’s career bloomed immediately as he began not only teaching but also working as an assistant set designer on television shows. “I started teaching and working in TV at the same time. I began to teach when I was very young at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma. By the time I was 24 I had already started creating the sets for major television shows and I was travelling across Italy to work especially to Florence and Torino." 

 A dramatic moving set for the TV program Fantastico 1980-90 
His career took off as he became the art director for Italy’s highly popular Saturday evening variety shows. “I was art directing most of the Saturday variety programs at the Teatro Delle Vittorie such as Fantastico and Roberto Benigni’s shows. As a performer, Benigni captures the attention of viewers as he is a great entertainer and he is very expressive and satirical. He is not only talented by also a humble and sensitive person and always calls me personally to thank me for the design of his shows.

“I worked at the Teatro Delle Vittorie for 15 years when it was the peak of variety television in the 1980s. At that time, the Saturday night shows were a ritual for many people. They wanted to watch something interesting after dinner, commenting with family and friends, singing the songs and admiring the dancers.”

Sculptural creations for the TV program La Sai L'Ultima 1990-2000
Professor Castelli designed and created the sets for numerous other television shows including Canzonissima, Fantastico, La Sai L'Ultima, Carramba Che Sorpresa, Stasera Pago Io, Studio 80 and Palcoscenico along with the first news programs for Italy’s state broadcaster RAI and haute couture fashion events such as those for Rome’s Alta Moda as well as museum exhibitions.

Creating the streamlined design for TV show Fiorello in 2011
By the 1980s, Professor Castelli was also being asked to design the singing and dancing spectaculars for the famed Parisian theatres, the Lido and Moulin Rouge. Today, the Castelli team work for five years designing each multi-million dollar production creating not only the enormous and technically complex and elaborate sets and lighting but also every detail of the famed dancers’ costumes. Once the design of the Moulin Rouge shows are finished they are on stage in Paris for more than a decade.

Painting by Gaetano Castelli Rome, 2007
“In 1984, I started to work at Moulin Rouge and for the Lido. The new show for Moulin Rouge is set to open in 2017 and takes years of work to produce. It’s very important to create harmony between all of the different elements of the design from the lights to the costumes. Everything must work together to create the right atmosphere, there must be coherence in the lights, scene and costume.”

Gaetano Castelli has created beautiful drawings and paintings of costumes and his capacity to not only see the big picture of the set design but also to focus on every detail of the costumes is one of his outstanding talents. “I see the dresses of the dancers like pieces of architecture with particular lines, curves, perspectives and diagonals which are all designed to create a strong visual effect," he says. "I also try to imagine the face of the person who wears the costumes and express the soul of the dancer through the design. Costumes should make you dream.”

Designing the La Dolce Vita set for the Sanremo Music Festival in 2011
It is hard to overstate the importance of the historic Sanremo Music Festival as one of the biggest events on Italian television for more than sixty years. For a week in February, everyone watches and follows the show and the singers, if only to fiercely criticize them. The Castelli studio has worked on eighteen of them and each time Gaetano Castelli tries to come up with something new and outdo all of the previous shows.

A colourful retro design for the Sanremo Festival in 2004 
“Working on Sanremo I look back at what I have done to make sure that I don’t repeat the same look or theme again. And I keep up with the latest technology in computer programs and lighting so our designs are also cutting edge.”

A technically complex, clam-like shell featured at Sanremo 2012 
When he was the director at Rome’s Art Academy and teaching set design he worked with students from around the world and has travelled across Europe and China to take workshops on the art of graphic and set design.

“I love working with students from across the globe," he explains. "My advice to young designers is to be open to everything and prepared to work on a range of things from the set of a movie to designing a business card or the cover of a music album. It is important when you are young to start with small jobs not with something too big. The artist needs to emerge step by step and be appreciated and recognized for his talent then he gains the trust of great directors."

Hand-drawn sketch for the set of  TV program Rock Politik 
Set design has been very important in the history of theatre and opera since it was created on canvas and paper. "When I started, everything was still painted by hand and the set designer had to learn how to create small, important details that catch the attention of the audience," Professor Castelli says. "An art director must be very skilled in a lot of fields from painting, drawing, printing, perspective and be ready to also work without a computer. “

Painting by Gaetano Castelli Rome, 2005
Although the Castelli team use complex animation, graphic and engineering software to design colossal systems of lighting and moving sets, Professor Castelli prefers to create the original designs by drawing and painting.

“I don’t ever tire of my work and I always enjoy designing each new production,” he says today. “Whenever I go on holiday I really miss the work as it is very creative and gives you so much energy.”

Click on pictures for full-screen slideshow

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