Palazzo of dreams


Not many people can say that they share an address with Leonardo da Vinci, but Massimo Alba can. The fashion designer’s Milan apartment is part of the Casa degli Atellani, an elegant palazzo and one of the city’s most celebrated museums. It is also home to the vineyard gifted to da Vinci by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza, in 1498.

“Every time I come home, I feel privileged to be living in this terrific place, surrounded by good energy,” says Alba as he leads the way through the museum to the garden where the Renaissance artist tended to his vines.

Alba’s home, which he shares with his wife Marilena and their 14-year-old son, Nicolò, is situated on the first floor, but our tour starts in the sun-dappled gardens. Alba is keen to highlight the harmonious juxtaposition between past and present that inspires not only his work but his apartment, too.

The 59-year old designer and his family moved here shortly after their home on the island of Ischia was destroyed by the 2017 earthquake. They had already sold their other two properties in and around Milan to raise capital to set up his eponymous label, so when the Casa degli Atellani’s current owners, the Portaluppi family, suggested Alba rented one of the storied dwellings, the family saw it as an opportunity to start their next chapter.

“You don’t really own things [in life], only emotions,” reflects Alba, explaining that no longer being a proprietor – much like running his independent brand – makes him feel, “in a funny way, free”.

The apartment is peppered with mementos from the past. When you step into the apartment you’re met with a treasure “from a lifetime ago”: an exquisite Tibetan chest that sits beneath a high ceiling. Beyond is an open-plan kitchen, dining room and living area with a retro floor-to-ceiling shelving system that acts as a room divider.

Taking centre stage, the shelving unit is covered in dog-eared paperbacks piled high, unframed canvases, souvenirs, family photographs, hand-written notes, candlesticks, paperweights and small vintage lamps picked up at markets and auctions. It acts as a captivating storyboard of lives spent and shared.

So, too, the artwork that covers the walls. Black and white photography and abstract oil paintings by Lillian Bassman, Kenro Izu, Evelyn Hofer and François Berthoud sit on floating shelves along one wall that stretches the length of the apartment. Meanwhile, giant scenes by French fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier and the Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna stand side by side on the floor next to a small sculpted chair by Tom Dixon.

On the opposite wall, giant windows frame the view of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church across the road where da Vinci, commissioned by Sforza, painted The Last Supper in 1498, where it still hangs to this day.

“In a certain way, our home is a melting pot, everything is slightly different, from a different place in time,” says Alba. As with the collections that he and Marilena design to be seasonless, comfortable and worn with everything else in your wardrobe, his home is a holistic extension of that. “We never look at each item; we look at the way items work with other items. We don’t want to change every season – we want to follow our inner voice and instinct.”

Many of the pieces have sentimental value. Midcentury chairs by Danish and Italian designers including Hans Wegner and Gio Ponti are decorated with cushions Alba had embroidered by his friend, the artist Roberto Reale. They read: “Happiness is not in another place but in this place, not in another hour, but in this hour,” and “Hello there.” A lampshade also features needlework by Reale that reads: “M’illumino d’immenso.” It translates as: “I flood myself with the light of the immense,” and is a quote from the late Italian modernist poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, whose poetry Alba’s son was recently studying at school.

Tibetan rugs, which overlap each other across the floor, have been hand-painted by Alba – himself a keen artist whose line of painted handkerchiefs has become a signature of his brand. Beds are draped in blankets he designed with the Scottish cashmere company Begg & Co. The kitchen, where I’m told generous servings of pasta and wine are served up for regular dinner-party guests, is decorated with classic Sicilian head vases, vintage mismatched glassware and family relics passed down from parents.

“Personally, I like it when things from different times become friends and live together – something from the 50s, something from the 30s,” explains Alba. “I really feel it’s home. I feel close to everything I like.”

Warm and inviting, it’s a home that is lived in, not looked at; the kind of space that speaks style and whispers “well-travelled” with a curiosity in every corner and a cup of coffee on the table.

It’s kept feeling cosy by the walls and ceilings which are the same shade of matt grey throughout. They were done this way, says Alba, so that the rooms not only “become circular” and create intimacy but also complement the view of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It brings the outside in – as do the pots of Monstera deliciosa, along with unidentified succulents and vases of wild eucalyptus.

One of the most memorable pieces from Alba’s home is a glass sculpture of a salmon by the glass artist Hugh Findletar, which Alba says he was drawn to “because salmon swim against the tide”. In creating this very personal space inside this world-famous landmark, Alba and his family have created a Renaissance of their own.


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