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.
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