Idanna Pucci, from Florence to Bali Part II: Life’s journey

Idanna as she looks up to the painted ceiling of the Court of Justice in the former royal palace of Klungkung in Bali, which was the subject of her first book, The Epic of Life: A Balinese Journey of the Soul. (Photo by Rio Helmi courtesy of Idanna Pucci)

IO – Who would not wish to be born in a palazzo in Florence, that great Italian centre of the arts where people gath­er from all over the world to immerse themselves in the enlightenment of culture? Idanna Pucci belongs to a noble Florentine family which has had an active role in the political and eco­nomic life of the city for centuries. And yet it seems as in all good fairy tales the great Hindu kalpataru tree of wishes never grants good luck without problems of equal measure.

Idanna Pucci at the age of 8. (Photo courtesy of Idanna Pucci)

When she was a child Idanna’s parents separated and her mother left Florence to live in South Africa. So, the little girl grew up without a mother which is probably one of the heaviest burdens a child can be made to bare. Of her father, Idanna remembers that he was not very present.

In the second half of the 16th cen­tury the Pucci family hired the emi­nent Tuscan architect, Bernardo Buontalenti to design Palazzo Pucci. Her uncle Emilio, and also her grand­mother occupied one large part of the palazzo, while her father lived in the remaining most ancient part. After the Second World War, her grandparents placed the burden of the palace on her father’s shoulders with the responsi­bility of restoring and maintaining it. Idanna says that her father was a dy­namic and active person with regard to this – and very positive – but when it came to his two children he was very strict.

“We were extremely disciplined. As a child I could not be one minute late. My bath was precisely at 7 pm every evening. And every day, I had to polish my shoes and do my homework alone. And we had a very strict governess to oversee our daily life. At times, I would lock myself in my room to try and pro­tect myself …”

Her grandmother was a lovely lady. She had been struck by polio as a child and there was a certain sadness to her. She was a very devout Cath­olic and went to church every day. She loved Idanna and her brother but could not provide a joyful nurturing. Idanna says, “I knew I had to fend for myself and that I could not depend upon the cosiness of a warm family life but this was my grace! If I had had the normal family life of the chil­dren in my circle, I would never have left and seen the world. I would not change my life now with many of my childhood friends. They see Florence as the centre of the world because in a sense the world comes to Flor­ence. They feel they have everything because people want to visit from ev­erywhere and dream of spending time in their city. So Florentines in a way are very spoiled, with little curiosity for the big wide world outside.”

Idanna entering the front door of Palazzo Pucci.
(Photo by Terence Ward)

However, there was a special pres­ence in the palace: her uncle Emilio. He was a fashion designer, who was making his name internationally, and whose colourful patterns were ground ­breaking after the War. He invented colours, such as “hot pink” and “lime green” and fabrics like silk jersey.

Silk scarf with Emilio Pucci’s interpretation of the Garuda, Java 1960. (Photo by Tim Street Porter)

He was also the first who brought Indonesia to Idanna’s attention. He travelled the world and would regale his niece and nephew with magical stories. In the late 1950s, he stayed in Bali as a guest of the Tjokorda of Ubud. One of his first fash­ion collections, which brought him suc­cess and fame, was heavily inspired by arts and nature of Java and Bali. He gave his different designs Balinese and Javanese names. This of course, fascinat­ed Idanna very early on, and inflamed her imagina­tion. Later she found a copy of National Geographic on Bali and Java which she managed to read completely. She was nine years old then.

Sometimes, during the fashion season in Florence, she would help out the photographers. She would also give a hand to dress the mod­els for the fashion shoots in an open loggia on the rooftop of the palace. “It was all surreal and yet so real for me. It was all a fantastic spectacle, and I was lucky to have a front row seat!” remarks Idanna.

Baptistry of Florence wrapped in a Emilio Pucci stylised design of the same baptistery on the occasion of Pitti Immagine, Florence fashion week. (Photo by Terence Ward)

However, she says that slowly she realized that the world of fashion did not really interest her. “And yet,” Idanna muses “I knew that I was so lucky to be confronted with beauty and creativity at a very young age. Even if I did not have the comfort of a loving family life, this forced me to be curious and open.”

At the age of 12 she was sent to boarding school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Florence as her father could not have the children around for he had to do major res­torations of the palace. Her life was again a very disciplined life, with morning prayers and little heating in the winter. It was not easy but she had no alternative but to accept it. Perhaps a symbol of her loneliness and sadness is that every year from the age of 7 till 17, she wrote a will, and yet strangely she did not suc­cumb to melancholy or depression. Idanna says, “I had a sad childhood but it did not affect me psychologi­cally. I was able to turn the negative to positive and that is a gift from the sky! I was aided of course by my basic curiosity.”

Idanna as a young girl, with her uncle, Emilio Pucci, the fashion designer. She’s wearing a dress designed by him. In 1960, Emilio went to Bali and stayed as a guest of Tjokorda Gde Sukawati in the palace of Ubud. His collection of 1962 was completely inspired by Bali and Java. (Photo courtesy of Idanna Pucci)

At 17 Idanna graduated from high school and was finally free. She went to work for her uncle Emilio Pucci in New York. He was known as the “Prince of Prints” and she learnt and experienced a lot during that time. But then, when she felt that there would be a change in fashion and that it would become corporate, she knew she had to leave and continue with her own journey of exploration in another way, following the pull of her saving graces: curiosity, and a pas­sion for writing

“At that time especially young peo­ple in central Europe liked to travel to Asia overland, through former Yugo­slavia, Turkey, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan and then the Far East.

 The Beetles were amongst the first to tell young people that they must head east. It was only in the 1960s and 70s, after war broke out between Israel and Egypt, that it began to be difficult to go overland.

“Many of my friends left for Asia and Australia. Myself, with my first husband, Hugues de Montalembert, I travelled through Southeast Asia, writing for French and Italian pub­lications about whatever struck our interest,” observed Idanna, describ­ing a different age when the planet was open and still not polluted, and reasonably safe.”

Idanna first arrived in Bali in January of 1973. The airport had a small bamboo hut like those seen in the rice fields and there was no paved road to Sanur. Idanna recollects, “A full moon and a white sand road with silhouettes of the palm trees. I saw a pristine island when I arrived. There were only two hotels in Sanur. One belonged to Wija Wawo-Runtu and his Tanjung Sari Hotel and the other to Donald Friend, an Australian artist and diarist living in Bali at the time. The only other hotel was the Cam­puhan in Ubud while the Hyatt was just being built. The Balinese arts and crafts were still for self-consumption. When Queen Elizabeth arrived on the QE II in Benoa they built a jetty for her and Donald sent his car to pick her up and they made the road to Pengo­sekan for her. Before that we always had to walk through the rice fields. So, I have such vivid memories of the end of an era.”

Idanna remained for a year in Bali and was then based in Singapore for another couple of years. She explored on her own many islands in the Ar­chipelago, recording for a Singapore publisher, the living traditions of In­donesia, hitch hiking and travelling with small fishing boats, always alone but perfectly safe in a way she would not have dared to have done in Italy. “It was incredible. Everyone treated me with enormous respect and care.”

Idanna in the house in Iseh, Sidemen, formerly the home of Walter Spies and later Theo Mayer. She leased it from the Tjojorda Gde Dangin (third from left of Idanna), residing there from 1984 to 1995. On Idanna’s left is Pak Nyoman Oka, a very prominent scholar of his own culture and guide to Queen Elisabeth on her first and only visit to Bali in 1974. (Photo courtesy of Idanna Pucci)

After leaving Bali Idanna returned again in 1984 and took over the studio in Iseh, near Sidemen, that had originally been built by Walter Spies, the foreign art­ist who had so much influence on Balinese art and theatre. His studio had later been taken over by Theo Meyer, and when Theo moved to Thai­land, Idanna rented it from its owner, the Tjokorda Gede Dangin of Side­men. It was in a terrible condition, with a leaking roof and beautifully carved poles filled with termites. She destroyed it, placed the poles in the river to rid them of the termites, and then rebuilt it as it was before, and lived there until 1994. In 1996, she bought a piece of land nearby, and with her current husband, Ter­ence Ward, built a new house. Idanna then traveled back and forth from Florence to Bali. The house was sold two years ago but she remains attached to Bali, in part because of the deep friendships she has made over the years.

Silk Scarf with EP design of Baris and Legong Dances, Bali 1960. (Photo by Tim Street Porter)

It was during her time in Sidemen that Idanna met Dr Djelantik, who helped to further open Balinese and Indonesian cultures for her. In her interview with Susan Forrest Castle she says, “Traveling throughout the archipelago, observing different be­liefs, customs, and traditions, and later living among the Ba­linese people, immersed in the culture, provided me with a whole new frame of reference — a less emotion­al, less impulsive, less Med­iterranean way of being… It gave me an education for life!”

With her great curiosity about the world, about di­verse people, and ultimate­ly about life itself, Idanna Pucci became a writer and a filmmaker. Many of her books and films are not about Bali or Italy. The Lady of Sing Sing is about her American great-grand­mother, who started the first campaign against the death penalty in 1895 to save the first woman sen­tenced to the electric chair, an Italian immigrant who killed the man who had raped her. Among the doc­umentaries, she directed and produced was Eugenia of Patagonia which is about her leg­endary aunt who became the mayor of a vast region at the end of the world in Southern Chile. Idanna says that the presence of her husband Terence, also a writer and filmmaker, “transforms even the most strenuous task into a poetic experi­ence”. Together they have produced documentaries such as Black Africa White Marble, based on Idanna’s book Brazza in Congo: A Life and Leg­acy (Umbrage, 2009). It tells the ex­traordinary story of Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà after whom Brazzaville is named. Another is Talk Radio Tehran about Iranian women who manage to fulfil their aspirations in spite of the gender apartheid practised in their country.

Terence Ward seated under Idanna’s portrait. The portrait is by Fabrizio Ruggiero. (Photo by Terence Ward, courtesy of Idanna Pucci)

While pursing her studies in New York at Columbia University, Idan­na immersed herself in Balinese myths and oral traditions, and re­searched the ceiling paintings of the Kertha Gosa or court of justice in the ancient royal palace of Klungkung. Her book, The Epic of Life, depicts the story of Bhima Swarga where the Hindu hero Bhima from the Ma­habharata journeys to rescue his parents from hell and bring them to heaven. It shows the gruesome pun­ishments of hell and the sweet re­wards of heaven. It reminded Idanna of Dante’s journey into the afterlife. Her latest book is The World Odyssey of a Balinese Prince, which recounts the adventures around the world of Dr. A.A. Made Djelantik, whose father was the last Raja of Karangasam.

“In life, we may experience dis­tress from a broken heart, grief, be­trayal of a friend or great injustice. It happens to all of us sooner or later,” Idanna says, returning to her central theme. “But if you are curious about life and people, then stories will come to find you. They will lead you to do research, which is always a challeng­ing kind of ‘treasure hunt’. In times of grief or distress, this will distract you and lift you to another plane. You will then forget for a while your own personal story or ego and you will feel as part of a larger world and this will help to heal your heart…” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

A detail of the Baris dance, Bali by Emilio Pucci 1960. (Photo by Tim Street Porter)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about Idanna Pucci by the same writer:
Part I :
Part III:
Part IV :