Saying Goodbye to a Legendary Milanese Palazzo

SECRETS AREN’T EASILY kept at Casa degli Atellani. From his pied-à-terre on the top floor of his family’s three-story Milanese palazzo, the Italian interior designer Nicolò Castellini Baldissera, 55, who lives there with his partner of eight years, the American writer and editor Christopher Garis, 36, can see past the courtyard into his aunt Anna’s apartment. His aunt Letizia resides in a different wing. Castellini Baldissera’s father, Piero Castellini Baldissera, an architect and co-founder of the textile company C&C Milano, occupies the ground floor of the rambling 15th-century building, which was once the residence of Piero’s maternal grandparents, the influential rationalist architect Piero Portaluppi and his wife, Lia, the daughter of the industrialist Ettore Conti, who had commissioned Portaluppi to restore and renovate it — tearing down walls to combine two neo-Classical buildings — beginning in 1919. Long before that, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, had gifted the land to his squire Giacometto di Lucia dell’Atella, whose family held onto it for generations and from whom Casa degli Atellani got its name; Leonardo da Vinci spent time there in the late 1490s while painting “The Last Supper” across the street.

Over lunch this past April at the property’s on-site cafe — parts of the estate became a museum in 2015 — Garis says, “It took a little while to adapt to this sort of communal feeling.” Castellini Baldissera offers a blunter assessment. “The walls have ears,” he says. “But you can let them know what you want them to know.”

When Castellini Baldissera left Milan at 18, he thought he’d never return. As a child, he didn’t quite fit in. He collected antiques and listened to waltzes by the Austrian composer Johann Strauss II; his classmates at school — “too vulgar,” he says archly, to even locate Vienna on a map — preferred the pop songs of Olivia Newton-John. London, where Castellini Baldissera eventually settled down with his then-wife, Allegra Di Carpegna, an art therapist and former actress (with whom he has two sons), offered an antidote to such provincialism. “I wasn’t running from Milan because I was the son of the king,” he says. “But it is such a small place.” In 2019, owing in part to Britain’s looming exit from the European Union, Castellini Baldissera — who also has residences in Tuscany and in Tangier, Morocco, where he met Garis — returned to a city that had become so vibrant it felt almost foreign. But if Milan had evolved, so had he. “What I hated as a teenager is now reassuring,” he says. “I don’t mind that people know my business. It’s easier.”

One thing that hadn’t changed in his three-decade absence was the house itself. When the pair moved into Casa degli Atellani two years ago, they took over a 900-square-foot one-bedroom apartment previously occupied by Castellini Baldissera’s nanny — a woman he refers to as “very religious and particularly pious.” During the 12 years she lived there, the walls remained white and sparingly decorated with dried flowers and crosses; today, the entrance is covered in leopard-print wallpaper. A 12-inch alabaster penis has been prominently positioned on a side table next to a ceramic pig and some preserved monkeys. “Every time my aunt peers out her window at night, she must think she’s looking into an Amsterdam brothel,” says Castellini Baldissera. Partly as a gesture of kindness, Garis frequently draws the curtains.

IN SOME WAYS, Castellini Baldissera and Garis — who co-own Casa Tosca, a custom furniture line, and have collaborated on a few design books — are perfect foils. Castellini Baldissera describes himself as neurotic, creative and moody; Garis, on the other hand, “takes care of the logistics and finances — all the stuff I’m hopeless with.” When they were deciding how to decorate the space, the couple happened to rewatch the 1993 film adaptation of John Guare’s play “Six Degrees of Separation” (1990). Although aspects of the story reflect their own — a gay outsider descends on an extravagant New York apartment — one scene especially captures their dynamic: As an art collector presents both sides of a bilateral work attributed to Kandinsky, one wilder than the other, his wife replies, “Chaos, control. Chaos, control.” Garis, who suggested they paint their walls red and pink like those in the movie, says, “It’s a lot of fun to propose something to Nicolò and see how he interprets it.”

From the narrow foyer, whose floor and ceiling are also covered with leopard print — “That one-square-foot entrance was of no interest whatsoever until we made it ridiculous,” says Castellini Baldissera — one descends a few stairs into the warm dining room, which is just spacious enough for a few potted palms and a circular wood-and-marble table made by Portaluppi. (The marble-paneled bathroom behind the dining room was also his design.) Castellini Baldissera, who ate at that table every Thursday afternoon from the age of 6 until his great-grandmother’s death in 1978, says he sometimes yearns for those Venetian recipes. As he looks out a window onto the garden below, he recalls childhood birthday parties with potato-sack races and white peacocks roaming about.

Across from the dining room, most of the furniture in the living area has been designed by Castellini Baldissera: a mustard velvet sofa with purple piping (the scalloped edges of the Castellino, as it’s called, evoke Portaluppi’s signature style), a round poplar coffee table with a rosewood veneer (also inspired by Portaluppi) and an octagonal rattan side table. The space’s assorted objects and artworks create the illusion of having stumbled into a wunderkammer: Amid plenty of taxidermy, there’s a pink wool rug with bursts of purple by Fedora Design; a Picasso drawing; a malachite obelisk; and a stack of books by Oscar Wilde.

The walls of the bedroom, which can barely contain the couple’s 18th-century Genovese wrought-iron bed, are painted the color of a sun-faded plum. “The bedroom was green initially, but it was just too intense,” says Garis. “Not that purple is any less so. But somehow it just works.” Hanging above the headboard, among a cluster of framed artworks, is another example of Castellini Baldissera’s theatrical rebellion: a marble fragment of a beefy male nude that could be mistaken, at first, for a crucifix.

THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, Casa degli Atellani closed its doors to visitors for good. For about a year, there’d been rumors that the French luxury tycoon Bernard Arnault — whose multinational conglomerate, LVMH, had acquired Italian heritage brands such as Loro Piana and Bulgari — was buying the landmark building. At first, the family implied that the property, which had belonged to them for over a century, wasn’t for sale. But it wasn’t long before the museum closed, and residents — including Castellini Baldissera and Garis — began to vacate the premises.

In November, from his townhouse in Tangier, Castellini Baldissera sounds relieved. “Look, that house had no future,” he says over the phone. “It wasn’t a place that could be divided up more than it already had been. We were lucky to have held on to it for six generations.” According to Castellini Baldissera, the Paris-based billionaire made them an offer too “astronomical” to refuse. Although Arnault’s plans for the property aren’t clear (he declined to comment), popular theories are that it’ll become either a private residence or a hotel. For his part, Castellini Baldissera hopes that Arnault will restore his great-great-grandfather’s apartment to its original splendor.

Shortly before the deal went through in December, Castellini Baldissera and Garis started renting a slightly bigger home about a mile away, on Via Borgonuovo, next to Giorgio Armani’s place. Meanwhile, many of their former neighbors — Castellini Baldissera’s aunts, along with three of their adult children and some grandchildren — have moved around the corner from Casa degli Atellani into Casa Portaluppi, a severe six-story structure built by the architect in the 1930s. “They’re all crammed up in there,” says Castellini Baldissera. “For me, it’s a nightmare.” But for them, it’s business — everybody’s business — as usual.


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