Casa Cuseni, designed and built by Robert Hawthorn Kitson between 1905 and 1907 below the Rocca of Taormina, is one of several fine villas built by Englishmen who chose to add to the beauty of the town whose prospects of Mount Etna and the local coastline had captivated them. Alexander Nelson Hood, Duca di Bronte, completed the Villa Falconara a few years before and C.R. Ashbee designed the Villa San Giorgio, now a pension, in 1907 using a rather similar plan to Kitson's. Casa Cuseni has several claims to significance in Italy's architectural heritage. It represents an outstanding example from a short period when British domestic designs were a great influence in Europe, and when Italy had taken up the Stil Liberty for her own use, most notably in Sicily by Ernesto Basile and Louis Ducrot.
In 1905 and 1907 Sir Frank Brangwyn provided the interior designs for the British International pavilion for the Venetian Exhibition, now the biennale. A close friend of Robert Kitson, Brangwyn not only visited Casa Cuseni, but designed much of its furniture, and the whole of the dining room for which he painted the figurative frieze 1909-1910. Casa Cuseni is unique in preserving the only complete domestic interior designed by this important artist who contributed to some of the greatest decorated civic and business halls of London, the U.S.A. and Canada just before the First World War.
Robert Kitson worked closely with his Master Builder Don Siligato the father of the local artist Carlo Siligato, his cabinet maker Don Ragusa the father of the equally renowned Giovanni Ragusa, and his garden builder "U surdu" Bucalo.
A guiding principle of the arts and Crafts Movement was this close collaboration between design and craftsmanship. Although Kitson had many traditions of building in Taormina. Casa Cuseni is therefore a significant Sicilian project as well as a foreign one. The plan is essentially Palladian, with a double-cube salon flanked by the single cube sitting and dining room. A tall loggia and deep terrace enable all the main rooms to enjoy the views across Taormina to Mount Etna.
Casa Cuseni has been a haven for artist, through whose work Sicily has been presented to the world, not least by Robert Kitson, an accomplished painter in watercolours whose work was regularly exhibited in his home-town, Leeds, at the Royal Academy in London and at the British Academy of which he was an elected member, as well as in Rome and Catania. His confident draughtsmanship and rich colour leave a memorable image of Italy and the Mediterranean as well as North Africa, which he visited every year.
In addition to artists from his own family, visitors included several of the artists who were active in forming new models through the New English Art Club, Sir Alfred East R.A., who painted the landscape in the dining room, Sir George Clausen, R.A., and Wilson Steer, one of the most influential English painters at the beginning of this century. As a result of these sketching visits, Brangwyn mounted a large exhibition of etchings and watercolours at the Fine Art Society in 1910 which presented the devastation of the recent Messina earthquake in a most compelling way. Another close friend of Kitson was the artist C.A. Hunt a vice-president of the Royal Watercolour Society. They went sketching together almost every year.
Casa Cuseni, with its gardens, furniture and paintings is a Casa Museo, a significant contribution to Italian architectural design which has uniquely maintained its associations with the arts in England and Italy at the beginning of this century. The house was Robert kitson's primary residence for forty years, and represented part of his devotion to Taormina. A sign of his value in the town was the urgent request for his return to the commune after Second World War, when he was appointed president of the commission established to supervise the reconstruction of the bomb-damaged town. That the Corso and piazza of old Taormina still preserve so many of their historic features, which Kitson's own art celebrated, may therefore be associated with him no less closely than his great contribution to the town, Casa Cuseni and its gardens.
It is of great importance to the history of Taormina as well as the architectural and garden heritage of modern Italy and Sicily that the significant collaboration between England and Italy is preserved in this historic site. Casa Cuseni and its gardens are of great historic as well as artistic importance in our European community.
By David Boswell
The Open University
Faculty of Social Sciences
15 February 1994