A Milanese Apartment Is Restored, Then Renewed
By stripping the space to its bones and filling it with antiques and heirlooms, a couple create a home that speaks to their past as well as their future.
By Nancy Hass
Photographs by Anthony Cotsifas
When Carlo Alberto Beretta and Jacopo Venturini, veteran fashion executives who have been romantic partners for over 20 years, went looking for a new Milan apartment six years ago, they were seeking some history and a bit of charm. Their search wasn't easy in a city heavily damaged by Allied bombs during World War II, then rebuilt and renovated, not always thoughtfully, in the decades afterward.
At first, the flat in a four-story 1920 building near the Arco della Pace hardly seemed to be what Beretta, the general manager of Tod's, and Venturini, the C.E.O. of Valentino, were hoping for. While the structure had good bones — Italian Belle Époque architecture, with a central curved staircase featuring original polished gray plaster walls and a handsome wrought-iron balustrade — the apartment's interior represented all the worst aspects of Milanese modernity. Indeed, the space, complete with dropped ceilings, a maze of drywall and a murky sea of wall-to-wall industrial carpeting, was being used as a sales office, occupied by a dozen people beavering away at their desks. "You had to use your imagination," says Venturini.
After cutting through a tiny section of wallboard and carpet to see what was hidden underneath, they discovered that the drab office was merely a facade obscuring what had once been the 3,200-square-foot parlor floor of a majestic single-family dwelling. Descendants of the original owners had sold off other floors by the 1990s, but the matriarch had continued to live in opulent style on the salon level. After she died in the early 2000s, Beretta says, the government agency responsible for protecting cultural heritage granted landmark status to the entire floor; when her heirs converted her former dwelling into an office, they were obliged to carefully cover and protect all the important historic elements.
Beneath the temporary material was a sumptuous shell from the period when Italy's scrolled Liberty style was giving way to the modern era — a perfect backdrop for Venturini's and Beretta's broad-ranging aesthetic sensibilities. While it may be stylish these days for decorators to create new homes that seem to have belonged in aristocratic families forever — a palimpsest of just-bought heirlooms and antique furniture — the two men actually grew up in such environs. Venturini, 53, and Beretta, 57, are from families that have been in Milan for more generations than they can count. They have a longtime friendship with a renowned antiques dealer in Milan's Brera neighborhood, Maurizio Epifani, who found them ancient bibelots, as well as rare 20th-century Italian furniture and lighting. "We always want the Italianness to be pulling it together," says Venturini.
Minimalism, often the lingua franca of contemporary Italian design, holds little appeal for them. Instead, the apartment is laden with beautiful objects, from the giddily rococo and Orientalist to the polished Art Deco and Modernist, all of it meticulously arrayed and moodily lit. The apartment's denlike warmth and cabinet de curiosité density is in keeping with what Venturini calls Milan's "hidden" character, a quality that makes the city difficult for an outsider to fully comprehend. "It can seem like just a cold place for business but, once you’re inside, it's like a box, opening," he says.
The home unfolds slowly, each room telling its own extravagant story, all connected thematically by a 59-foot-long corridor with its original faux-marble walls and mosaic tile floors exposed (now illuminated by a row of hanging glass lanterns by Ignazio Gardella). In the library, beside a leopard-print cushioned chair by the Italian rationalist architect Giuseppe Pagano on which the men drape their overcoats after work, looms a 12-by-15-foot carved 19th-century walnut bookshelf from a pharmacy in Antwerp, Belgium. On a waist-high green marble center table stand more than two dozen of Venturini's collection of larger-than-life German and Italian anatomical plant models, created for botanical study at the turn of the 20th century in papier-mâché, glass, wire and wood. (Sometimes they were made even more tactile with bits of fur, hair or feathers.) "Some are quite terrifying," Venturini says, pointing to a Venus flytrap-like flower that seems to be salivating. "I like to collect things that scare me," he adds.
The two adjoining salons each offer their own atmosphere. In one, a deep green velvet sofa and two boxy light green Art Deco armchairs surround a group of small tables pushed together, including one that evokes the wheat sheaf side table that Coco Chanel kept in her still-intact Rue Cambon apartment in Paris. The other living area is a chinoiserie-infused refuge — a black lacquer-and-gilt 18th-century secretary the pair found in Turin reveals a blood red interior, and a crimson parchment-covered Parsons-style coffee table sits in front of a down-filled armless settee with cushions made from Ottoman-era tea towels and antique toile de Jouy fabric. On the walls are vintage prints of parrots and insects.
Because the apartment has limited outdoor space, the dining room, with its large arched windows, has been made to conjure a winter garden. There are potted tropical kentia palms and a giant custom-forged iron chandelier that resembles a bower of black leaves swept up by a gust of wind. On the walls hang a vast grid of framed pages from a 19th-century hand-drawn botanical guide that was passed down in Beretta's family. At the periphery are two chairs (of eight placed throughout the apartment) from a suite of inlaid 1920s rattan furniture that came from a hotel in Palermo. With burnt umber mohair upholstery and geometric seat backs contoured like the silhouettes of high-cut gems, they provide the romantic interior an edge of Constructivist modernity.
Unexpected contrasts also abound in the bedroom. There, instead of relying on a calming neutral palette, the couple have hung on the wall behind their bed an intense black-and-red 1940 Uzbek suzani; there are vividly striped rugs on the floor. A multibranch candelabra on a dressing table is draped with the chunky necklaces and pendants Venturini sometimes wears. Here, too, there's a mix of personal objets: A 19th-century pencil portrait that Beretta has had since childhood leans against an ornate 18th-century church kneeler that once belonged to Venturini's mother; together, the couple have amassed the collection of contemporary black-and-white photographs that hang on one wall. "It's not just about beauty," says Beretta. "It's about recalling the moment when you first saw something, or when it was given to you or when you decided together to buy it." It's why the apartment has such soul: It's alive, and it never lets you forget it.
Production: Christopher Garis
Nancy Hass is a writer at large for T Magazine.