Maddalena Tabasso's cabinet of curiosities is one of Milan's best kept secrets, an emporium of unique, often bizarre, objects and unexpected finds in the heart of the city. Sara Piérdona meets the creative duo behind the store. 



Maddalena Tabasso, Milan © Filippo Pincolini


In the heart of Milan, just a stone's throw from Cabana HQ, lies one of the city's best kept secrets: the wonderful store of Maddalena Tabasso. Judging by its single, eye-catching window, this charming emporium could be an antiquarian's gallery, a cabinet of curiosities, or a restorer's workshop. Inside, its elegant, softly-spoken proprietor, Maddalena, is as memorable as her shop, and full of stories about the nature and provenance of each object. There are surprises too. Some objects - extraordinary, seemingly museum-worthy - are recent reproductions, while others - strangely modern and precariously balanced on a shelf - turn out to be 300 years old.

When Cabana meets Maddalena, she is the epitome of chic, wearing a red velvet trouser suit and a spider-shaped brooch, the kind that would have appealed to sculptor, Louise Bourgeois. By contrast, her artist husband, Paolo Londero, is in workwear, knowing he will soon be rushing to restore a fresco or finish a sculpture. Maddalena will soon be joined by her mother, Ninì Piva, who inherited the shop, and passion for antiques and curiosities, from her father, Maddalena's grandfather.


© Alberto Feltrin

Maddalena in her store © Alberto Feltrin 


“Of seven brothers, four became antiquarians,” says Maddalena. “My mother [did the same] by overcoming the opposition of her family, who claimed it was a male profession. She was stubborn and did well, because she found a way to express her impeccable taste and passion for art. Now that she is elderly and moves around very little, even her house has begun to look like a miniature museum. There are plates hanging everywhere, even on the doors or ceilings”.

I ask Maddalena to share her favorite pieces, the items she'd keep for herself if she could. “Of everything you see, only two items are not for sale," she reveals. One, a small silver chicken bone, holds Maddalena's business cards - "it's a good luck charm" - and the other, a small ceramic jug, was sourced by her mother. It features an Italian inscription, 'Tiremm innanz', which, in English, translates as, 'Let's keep going'. "These days, it seems the right motto for an antique shop,” she admits.

Maddalena's inventory, and selective eye, has changed steadily over time. Twenty years ago, she was still buying large pieces of furniture, and buyers were receptive to a certain style of self-ironic, grandmotherly 'kitsch' that has now fallen out of favor. So, gradually, she began to specialise in curious, out-of-the-ordinary objects.

This summer, she and Paolo spent three weeks in France rising at 5.30am every morning to trawl the country's brocantes. While Paolo frowns, recalling the interrupted sleep, he is clearly supportive of his wife's vocation."My husband's presence helps me a lot, when buying," Maddalena says. "By nature I am not a brave buyer. Even today, after all this experience, I often need a gentle push!"

The pair are not always in agreement when it comes to buying, however. As an artist, Paolo tends to focus on the construction and craftsmanship of a piece, rather than on the object as a whole and its commercial potential, Maddalena says, describing how he can become "enchanted" by certain pieces of cabinet-making or certain inlays on semi-precious stones, which reflect a more niche aesthetic. "In that case, I'm the one who gives him a warning look!" she laughs.


© Filippo Pincolini

Collected treasures at Maddalena's store in Milan © Filippo Pincolini


Paolo's career began in advertising, painting backdrops for filming, but as the marketing industry changed, his endeavors became more artistic: "I started restoring frescos, or making them from scratch." During the pandemic, he started working on the restoration of a villa in Piacenza, Italy, living "like a hermit for two years, without heating, completely immersed in the work". It was hard - some areas of the house was structurally unsafe and the ceilings had to be rebuilt before they were repainted. "I was practically sleeping among the rubble," he says.

Prior to lockdown, Paolo had shown works at an important, but short-lived, exhibition, displaying papier maché creations embellished with pure gold and whimsical Les Lalanne-esque sculptures with a touch of irony: huge, hyper realistic cabbages visited by columns of ants made of translucent lacquer, or triumphant hens accompanied by their golden eggs. Paolo does not shy away from a challenge.


Ceramic cabbage by Paolo Londero © Sofia Londero


"Sometimes clients ask me to propose something, and I show up with extremely complicated sketches, which I have drawn in a feverish state, caught up in the eagerness to do something beautiful," he says. "So it ends up that when they confirm the job, I panic! Because I don't even know if I will be able to realise it... but then some solution is always found."

Restoration is one of the best ways to cultivate imagination and appreciation of beauty, Paolo says. By working on antique objects, made by great masters, one notices every detail of craftsmanship - thus cultivating a critical eye - yet is also forced, with today's techniques, to find the most appropriate tools with which to work on and restore these objects. This triggers the imagination, he says. Does he restore Maddalena's objects? "Of course," he replies. "So she can't complain too much if our living room and bedroom are invaded by my tools and works in progress."


Vintage parakeets sourced by Maddalena © Cabana Vintage


Currently, thanks to Paolo, various zoomorphic presences can be seen in Maddalena's shop: a hen-shaped table hand gouged out of noce nazionale wood; a papier-mâché wolf's head; a narwhal tooth indistinguishable from an original. The next project is a full-size bookcase in the shape of an ostrich. Paolo's sculptural bestiary coexists peacefully with a collection of antique animals found by Maddalena: a terracotta fawn moulded by an early 20th-century Spanish artist; a candy-carrying rabbit, used 100 years ago in Germany to cheer Easter; a copper washbasin, in the shape of a triton; a prissy little dog, painted in a soft Impressionist style.

"A strange thing happens with Paolo's works," says Maddalena. “[Anyone who] comes in and notices one, spontaneously heads for all the others, even if they are made of completely different materials and may not have much stylistic similarity.” Paolo considers Maddalena to be his most valuable critic. "She never intervenes during the creative process. Only at the end does she point out to me if there is something wrong... and I never get angry, because in the end an artist always knows in his heart if his work has flaws. It's just a matter of admitting it'.

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