Never judge a book by its cover, as the adage goes, but can you judge a writer by her bookshelf? In Cristina Sivieri Tagliabue’s case, it would be a safe bet. On her floating floor-to-ceiling shelves, among the tomes on empowerment and feminism, can be found some of the Italian journalist and activist’s own.
Her study on the desire in young Italian women to have plastic surgery, her collected stories on gender equality and her political biography of Emma Bonino all sit proudly on the 11-shelf structure.
“When I look at my books I look at myself,” she says over the phone. “The house is a mirror of all the things we are.”
Like many who want their aesthetics to reflect their ethics, the rest of Tagliabue’s Milan home, which she shares with her partner Luca and their three-year-old son Leone, strikes a confident autobiographical tone.
In the living room and stairwell hang imposing female portraits by the British artist Melissa Moore that Tagliabue “fell in love [with] immediately. I love this way of seeing women; the way [the subject] is not in front of you, instead you look at the back of her and you look at her head in a strange position. It reminds me of the strange nature of women and our desire to be seen and to be hidden,” she explains.
In the library, one of German designer Ingo Maurer’s famous Zettel’z 5 lamps with its clip-on paper messages dominates the space. “The idea is that you write on things that are important to you – maybe something or a drawing made by your child at school,” she says.
And elsewhere, the 48-year-old journalist’s long history in print media and love of photography can be found on the walls, where instead of frames hangs trompe-l’œil wallpaper from the studio of contemporary designers Wall & Deco.
“The wallpaper was the very first thing I looked at [when designing the house],” she tells me. From ancient porticos in the library to a relief-sculpture effect above the bath, the idea was to contrast old against new. “It reminds me of an old Roman palace,” she says.
The space may not have such noble credentials, but its story is one of note. Located in the salubrious Zona Magenta neighbourhood of the historical centre, the house is more of a hideaway than the classic condominiums normally found in the Lombardy capital. It can, in fact, be found nestled in the internal courtyard of a large five-storey building where bikes and buggies are usually kept. “It’s so hard to describe – it’s like a secret house,” says Tagliabue. “You’d never know it was there.” It was once, she explains, an 18th-century coach house, attached to the main building by a bridge.
“I always had this idea to buy a house similar to the little villa I grew up in as a child near Monza, so I was looking for something like this,” says Tagliabue, who has spent the past 20 years buying and renovating properties alongside her journalism. “Then I found this strange little house that was a bit destroyed; but I decided to go and have a look because the location was extraordinary.”
It was love at first sight and after enlisting the expertise of architect Arcangelo Selvaggio and interior designer Sophie Wannenes (founder of the popular gallery-cum-shop PalermoUno in the city) the trio set about its restoration.
The kitchen was moved from the basement to the ground floor and the basement was transformed to include a sauna; walls were erected to provide structure to the formerly open-plan space; parquet floors were put down; and the dominant wrought iron entrance where horse-drawn carriages once passed through was closed up.
“That was difficult because we had to ask permission from the Comune di Milano and in Italy it’s very hard to change stuff,” she laughs, “but we did it just in time for the birth of my son.”
The home now provides creative space for Tagliabue and her family. “I feel very secure in this place,” she says. It also plays host to her current projects: the digital start-up Le Contemporanee, which fosters talent in young women; and the lobby movement Il Giusto Mezzo (The Half of It) which aims to get more Italian women back into the workplace.
Then there’s the new book she is co-writing about the importance of civic education in Italian schools. “I became a journalist to create information that helps people fight for the rights of women,” she says. And, in doing so, build a bookshelf to be proud of.
Styling and production by Sophie Wannenes