'MANY of the artists I have dealt with on this house have been very, very difficult to work with, but not Julian,'' said Gianni Versace, trying to coax a smile from the unyielding lips of Julian Schnabel, the plate-smashing painter and film maker known for his perpetual scowl.
Mr. Versace was leading Mr. Schnabel and a visitor around his palatial town house on East 64th Street. Its giddy grandeur -- neo-classical on steroids -- could inspire a grin. But Mr. Schnabel did not smile on cue. Not even for a man who commands a self-made global fashion empire that now takes in an estimated $970 million a year. Or who, like a modern-day Medici, has commissioned monumental works of art from him (and from Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Taaffe, Francesco Clemente and Frank Moore) for his walls to keep his 18 Picassos company. Or one who sent architects scurrying to add two extra stories to his newly overhauled mansion -- in advance of city building permits.
Still, as Mr. Versace led the way through the second-floor master bedroom of his 11,000-square-foot pied-a-terre last week, he seemed exultant at all he surveyed. ''It's a genius, no?'' Mr. Versace said, gesturing toward a two-ton emperor-size bronze bed designed by Mr. Schnabel. Dauntingly capacious, it is positioned below a vast brown-and-white Schnabel canvas so that, from certain positions, the bed's occupants can make out the word ''Paradis.''
Mr. Versace is not one to hide his pleasures and palaces under a bushel. He has just published ''Do Not Disturb'' (Abbeville, $75), a promotional travelogue of the designer's other homes (Milan, Lake Como and Miami Beach). Fantastical in scale and extravagance, the rooms and gardens are strewn, for the photographs at least, with mostly naked youths and resplendent supermodels.
If, as he lies abed in New York, Mr. Versace's eyes ever tire of the contemporary, he can also gaze up to the newly installed 19th-century panels taken from a Florentine palazzo depicting Elysian scenes or at a Picasso portrait of Dora Maar.
Or he can smile on his family and friends in an array of framed photographs by his bed, a collection that includes what must either be a very early or very late Christmas card from the Princess of Wales with a glossy picture of her taken with her two royal sons, signed ''With all my love, Diana.''
''When Gianni bought the house two years ago, he told everyone he was so thrilled because all it needed was a bit of work on the bathrooms,'' said one fashion editor at a small party last Wednesday given by Mr. Versace and Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor in chief, at which Elton John performed at the piano as an after-dinner treat.
But a few tons of Italian marble, Medusa mosaics and a series of gleaming bidets replete with gold taps and spouts seem not quite to have quenched Mr. Versace's imperial lust for building.
In order to satisfy his growing taste for the downtown art scene, Mr. Versace, 50, added a 3,600-square-foot two-story addition to the top of his 1950 house. ''I think of it as my New York loft,'' Mr. Versace said. But not every loft owner takes the trouble to fly in master craftsmen from the five-generations-old Fantini Mosaici company in Milan. Among Italy's most celebrated artisans, they achieved the nonchalant look of industrial concrete by mixing pigment with crushed marble, no less. They also created the bacchanalian mosaic floors in the house and at his new six-story megastore on Fifth Avenue at 52d Street.
Since Mr. Versace and his sister and design partner, Donatella, plan to use the house several times a year when they come for fashion shows and to oversee work on their advertising campaigns carried out by Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton, their court photographers, the house should pay for itself within, say, 400 years.
WHY does Mr. Versace feel impelled to lavish so much money and time on so many houses? ''I need a project all the time,'' he said. ''I have been in the fashion business now for 35 years, and it's very important for me to reinvent myself. Each house represents a different part of my life and a different mood. And working now with the artists on my house gives me an incredible inspiration for my work.''
He thrives on the clash of cultures at home. ''My roots are neo-classical,'' he said. ''And I try to abosrb the American culture.'' In the dining room, for example, there will be five paintings by Mr. Moore, including portraits of such vernacular beasts as the buffalo and the eagle.
How is Mr. Versace as a client? ''He wants perfection,'' said Rocco Magnoli, a founder of the Milanese architectural firm of Laboratorio Associati, who designed the two-story addition to the New York house and who has worked with Mr. Versace on more than 200 stores worldwide. ''He always wants more, and he wants to see everything. All the details.''
Unique challenges abounded. ''One day he handed me a Versace scarf and said, 'I want a mosaic floor like this scarf,' Mr. Magnoli recalled. (He's no stranger to imperial requests: his company is currently building a royal palace in Doha, Qatar.) Mr. Magnoli went on to explain how he worked painstakingly with Massimo Camoli, Mr. Versace's personal interior designer, and the artisans of Fantini Mosaici to achieve the required effect for the fifth-floor bedroom: white stars specially fabricated in plastic inlaid in a black terrazzo floor.
Others associated with the project spoke of countless disruptions when Mr. Versace and members of his family blew into town during the 18-month-long renovation and insisted on staying in the work-in-progress. Neighbors described the comedy, as furniture was shipped in and out of storage for each visit.
Arne Glimcher, the chairman of the Pace Wildenstein Gallery, through whom much of the artwork in the house was purchased, observed one of Mr. Versace's mercurial changes of heart. ''One day,'' he recalled, ''we were sitting in the kitchen, which had just been finished after months and months of work, and Gianni said: 'I hate this room! It has no style. I rip it out!' I couldn't believe it. So they ripped it out and moved the kitchen to the basement and created another incredibly beautiful new room in no time at all. Meanwhile, I'm still fixing up my own apartment.''
And having lavished so much effort on his second-floor bedroom, Mr. Versace has now decided to move to the skylighted fifth floor instead, annexing a new bedroom, library and television lounge to suit his evolving tastes -- a space whose futuristic, art-gallery appearance is enhanced with dove-gray finishes for walls and ceilings inspired by Venetian plaster. It will be a backdrop for a collection that includes a collaborative painting by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Another, more leisurely house tour was led by Antonio D'Amico, Mr. Versace's companion, who designs the Versace Sport collection and will inhabit his own third-floor suite (rooms here are slightly smaller than Mr. Versace's, as befits a prince rather than an emperor).
Mr. D'Amico led the way into an adjacent bathroom to show off a newly installed shower so generously equipped that four people can be splashed upon simultaneously. When asked if this arrangement indicated that he might be expecting company, Mr. D'Amico smiled enigmatically. ''We also have that in Miami by the pool,'' he said. ''It's fun, no?''
He lingered in Donatella Versace's pink-and-gold bedroom suite. ''Donatella likes very much the pink,'' Mr. D'Amico said. So she has a Picasso to match, a 1954 portrait of the artist's daughter Paloma as a young girl. In one corner stood a distinguished-looking older couple, Francisco and Maria Cavalheiro, who were working assiduously with a brush and cloth to insure that Ms. Versace's closets remained dust- and lint-free. Mr. D'Amico explained that this process was more or less constant. ''I'd love to know how many lint brushes she goes through in a week,'' he said.
One morning last week, Mr. Versace grew reflective as he gazed peacefully into his trellised garden, at a marble fountain whose spurts tumbled prettily into a reflecting pool lined with a classical band of leaves painted in gold leaf.
''I am very lucky that my house is so quiet,'' he said.
His neighbors, however, do not count themselves so fortunate. ''I love Gianni, but the construction noise has been unbelievable for two years,'' said Ivana Trump Mazzucchelli, who lives across the street. ''They work until late at night, and it drives me crazy.''
Peering from the still-undressed windows of Mr. Versace's bathroom, visitors are afforded a view of the drawing room of Ms. Mazzucchelli's town house across the street, with its crimson brocade wallpaper and Plaza Hotel-style chandeliers.
And from their fourth-floor bedroom, Ms. Versace's two children, Allegra and Daniel Beck, can peek into the domain of Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump across the way. In one window, what appeared to be two petite white doves languished in a cage.
Susan Gutfreund, another of Mr. Versace's socialite neighbors, said that she had called Mr. Versace's office in the spring to ask whether earsplitting construction could be halted for two hours while she gave a lunch for Friends of the New York Public Library. At her entreaty, work ceased.
But the roar of construction on Multimillionaire's Row -- the Edgar Bronfmans are also on the block -- is likely to last for another two years. Work is about to begin on the demolition of two town houses immediately adjacent to Mr. Versace's urban palazzo in preparation for a new headquarters for a foundation.
''I think it's maybe a problem for the rich,'' said Mr. Magnoli, the architect. ''If you want to live on this grand street, you have to accept that other rich people around you will want to build their palaces. And perhaps you have to suffer a little.''