Lanfranco Cirillo, architect and interior decorator to the Russian elite, is shaking his head in horror. ‘Absolutely not. No.’ He is answering my question about whether he put a gold toilet and even a gold toilet brush into a villa he built that the Russian opposition says belongs to President Vladimir Putin – and which they call ‘Putin’s palace’. At one time, protestors used to taunt Putin by waving gold-painted toilet brushes. Cirillo says the whole thing is a calumny. ‘I don’t like gold, first of all, I like marble. And I’m Italian. For an Italian to make a toilet in gold is really anti-historical, anti-cultural. No, no gold toilet, no gold toilet brush.’
It is a categorical denial, but then Cirillo also denies that the building has anything to do with Putin, despite some convincing circumstantial evidence to the contrary. Either way, his gilded existence in Russia began to crumble after he designed and built the lavish, neoclassical villa on the Black Sea. Now he is being prosecuted in Italy on charges of tax evasion and ‘self-money laundering’. The trial opened last month without Cirillo, who speaks to me on Zoom from his office in Moscow, a handsome man in his sixties with a full head of black hair turning grey. A portrait of the Russian President looking serene is visible over his shoulder. ‘I became famous all over the world for this palace. It destroyed my life.’
A Russian businessman revealed the project in 2010, before fleeing the country, claiming a billion dollars had been stolen from the state budget, and taken in bribes, to pay for it. Then two years ago, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny got hold of Cirillo’s designs and made a slick video showing what the building would look like.