Veni, Vidi, Vinci
LEONARDO AND PORTALUPPI. ART, WAR, LOVE AND THE EVER-CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF HISTORY. AN INCREDIBLE TALE OF BEAUTY THAT BEGAN FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, IN THE HEART OF MILAN.
«The wine was dreadful. Pure vinegar », Piero Castellini recalls with a smile. The family drank it at Christmas. He shows me the steps that led to the dark cellar and now access bedrooms, for when his children come to visit. Things change, homes change. The vineyard, the wine, no longer exist. But Casa degli Atellani is still there, with its history. Late 1400s. Ludovico Sforza, known as «il Moro», surrounds himself with courtiers. Frenetic, decisive years. It is also a time of parties, the best of which were given precisely by the Atellani family, on whom Ludovico, in 1490, bestowed a house that once belonged to the Dukes of Piacenza. Leonardo da Vinci reached Milan in 1482, conscious courtier of a powerful, sly, ferocious master. Leonardo does all he can to curry favor; he designs irrigation systems, paints Ludovico’s lover Cecilia Gallerani, the Lady with an Ermine, develops military machinery, and the world’s largest equestrian monument, never built.
But Leonardo has a hard time of it. The Sforza patronage doesn’t cover the support of three assistants, two servants, maybe the mother as well. On the 26th of April 1499 Ludovico grants Leonardo ownership of the vineyards extending from Porta Vercelliana to the backyard of Casa degli Atellani, but he only has the chance to see one harvest. On 6th of October 1499 the city is taken by Louis XII. Leonardo f lees and starts to wander. The grapes keep growing, for centuries. The vineyard gradually shrinks. Houses are built. Casa degli Atellani is a ruin, filled with chickens. It comes 1922. Ettore Conti is the owner of an electrical utility, supplying energy all over Lombardy. By his side is Piero Portaluppi, an equally up- and- coming architect, who married Ettore’s niece. When Conti wants a house suitable for a man of his acquired rank, he opts for 65 Corso Magenta. He buys two houses in the big complex; one for himself, one for Portaluppi. He assigns the renovation to the latter, and it becomes a revolution. Portaluppi remakes the facade, moves four terracotta windows inside, alters the volumes, invents shiny new columns that look as if they have always been there. Then he moves in. The house changes: new steel parts, imposing gray doors, ceiling vaults, new colors, green marble, rounded cabinets with triangular drawers. But it also keeps its lightness. Piero Castellini is the son of Portaluppi’s daughter. He lives here, in a portion of his grandfather’s home. Houses had to be rebuilt over the debris of World War I. Only a garden remained. He was bit of a brat, not much of a bookworm. So he had to spend summers here, at his grandfather’s place, cramming for make-up exams. In the meantime another war came. Bombs struck the house and the nearby basilica. Portaluppi’s son, Oreste, was killed; he was in the Navy, then he was gone. Things come to an end: Portaluppi closes up all his colorful neckties in a closet. And his architecture becomes more austere. But a portion of his folly survives in Casa degli Atellani. He buys a collection of 1600 Roman works in marble, from all over the Mediterranean. He continues to make sundials, and draws a large, complicated one on the ceiling in the parlor. Castellini, in the meantime, decides to become an architect, studying at the school where his grandfather is the dean. When Portaluppi dies Castellini takes a degree. In the end, things do continue. I realize this on the way upstairs; on the stairwell there is a grating with the intertwined double P (Portaluppi’s symbol), but also a fresco by Valentino Vago, commissioned by Castellini. The vineyard is gone, but there is still a garden. «We dug », Castellini tells me. «The vineyard walls are 60 cm below ground. The roots are lower, but they found them. We are working on it, to try to plant them in time for the Expo». I’m about to take my leave when Castellini insists on giving me two neckties. I accept them because that is what he has taught me. Now they are mine, but they will always be a little bit his. That’s how stories and everything goes; you have to conserve them, but then you also have to give them to somebody else
«THE HOUSE CHANGES: NEW STEEL PARTS, IMPOSING GRAY DOORS, CEILING VAULTS, NEW COLORS, GREEN MARBLE, ROUNDED CABINETS».