Walking into the painter Luca Pignatelli’s cavernous home and studio in Milan is like contemplating history on a treadmill that goes backward, then forward, then backward again. His huge paintings are stacked everywhere. Many of them start with classical imagery—a statue of a Roman emperor or an antique marble bust—and lurch toward the present with a shove from Pignatelli. Why does that Roman emperor have a camera plastered to his breastplate? How come the Greek god Hermes has kitchen knives stuck into him? (The answer is, he has been transformed into Saint Sebastian.)
It’s not just the artwork that feels steeped in history; the whole place looks like it’s been pieced together from the sediment of Italy’s past. Pignatelli found the hand-painted 17th-century ceramic tiles in Palermo. The pale blue 18th-century doors in his dining room are from an old palazzo in Marche. Flanking the massive fireplace are two delicate modernist side chairs made of chrome and leather. They once belonged to the collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, who owned a distillery around the corner. Years ago, after the distillery had been sold off as the site of the future Fondazione Prada, Pignatelli was picking through some of the old stuff that Panza’s son Giovanni, an old friend, was discarding, and among the refuse were the two chairs. “They turned out to be by Luigi Caccia Dominioni!” Pignatelli says, marveling at his luck in scavenging pieces by the renowned midcentury designer and architect.
Pignatelli has been in this space for close to 20 years—and yet, until now, it has remained something of a secret, hiding in plain sight. He found the workshop while tooling around Milan on his motorcycle, as he likes to do; he noticed the wide glass skylights of what was then an industrial machine shop. “I went inside,” he says, “and the cement walls were black. It looked like it belonged in Berlin. I said to myself, I want to work here.” It took him four years to get the place reasonably fixed up, although, not surprisingly, he left much of the industrial skeleton exposed.
He started using the raw space as his studio in 2005, before he had even managed to install heating. The furnishings came later. Pignatelli has been up and down Italy’s boot many times, and this is where he stashes the treasures he finds along the way. “The whole archaeology of Italy is here. I put it all together piece by piece. I only chose things that could go together, but in all their multiplicity. What I wanted was to express the genius loci,” he says, using a Latin phrase that means, roughly, “spirit of the place.” The only thing that might seem out of place in this antiquarian bazaar is Pignatelli himself, who may as well be tattooed with the writer William Faulkner’s old chestnut: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Pignatelli is 57, but he bounces around his domain like a much younger man. “For me, all art is contemporary,” he says. “Time doesn’t move in a straight line; it moves in a circle. Dan Flavin or Donald Judd are, like, 2,000 years ago for me. And the pyramids? What could be more contemporary than that?”
Pignatelli’s father, Ercole, is also a painter. He’s responsible for the small, brightly colored oil of birds in a tree that hangs in Pignatelli’s bedroom; he painted the moodier self-portrait displayed downstairs when he was 15. Growing up, Pignatelli loved to climb the stairs to his father’s studio. “Even when I was 3 or 4 years old, I was always drawing. It was imprinted on me.” Still, when it came time to pick a field of study, Pignatelli chose architecture. He completed his studies but never got his degree; at a certain point, he started submitting drawings instead of written essays. Finishing books has always been difficult for him, and he only recently discovered that he’s dyslexic. “In the contest between reading and looking, I chose looking,” he says. “I was hungry for images.” The transition from architect to painter was quick and seamless. Milan’s Antonia Jannone gallery had mounted a group show of architects who also painted, like Aldo Rossi and Massimo Scolari, in 1984, and three years later the gallery gave Pignatelli his first solo show.
At a recent auction, Pignatelli stumbled upon a small drawing, depicting a classical torso and buildings set against a rocky landscape, from that exhibition. He bid on it and bought it back. Looking at one of his first works now, you can see the embryo of the artist he was to become. His current paintings are much bigger and more ambitious, but still explore themes that have preoccupied him for decades. Walking around the studio, for instance, you can’t help but notice the German bombers from WWII, which he’s been drawing since he was 7. He remembers listening, as a kid, to recordings of bombs being dropped on Milan, which a friend of his family’s played during a show at the Cardazzo gallery in which his father also participated. Pignatelli makes the whistling sound of a falling bomb, followed by that funny mouth explosion that every kid makes. Then there’s the New York skyline—but an old one, from back when the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building dominated lower Manhattan. That forgotten New York might as well be an ancient Greek or Roman city for Pignatelli—a place of layered history and people arriving in waves. “I don’t know why, but I’m always painting Pompeii and New York,” he says. “New York is like a costola of Europe—a rib.”
Just as important as what he paints is what Pignatelli paints on—he loves the idea of transforming surfaces that had an active life before he found them. The most monumental examples of this process are hanging on the surrounding walls. Pignatelli takes old, threadbare Persian carpets—10 feet by 13 feet—and sprays onto them images of marble portrait heads that he then reworks with a knife. A recent exhibition at Florence’s Museo Stefano Bardini juxtaposed these pieces with the museum’s collection of Renaissance masterpieces; neither looked out of place beside the other, and suddenly Pignatelli’s credo that all art is contemporary made perfect sense.
The neighborhood around Pignatelli’s studio is changing fast. When he moved in, it was out-of-the-way and slightly run-down. And then, in 2015, the Fondazione Prada opened its complex of old and new buildings on Largo Isarco, about a five-minute walk away. Soon after, one of the project’s architects declared that he hoped the surrounding neighborhood would stay the same. Fat chance. By all accounts, the Fondazione is exerting a potent gentrifying effect; already there is a massive co-working space going up right behind it. Still, one thing you can be sure won’t change is Pignatelli’s place, and its aura of an undead past that can never be bulldozed away. Pignatelli himself will make sure of that.