Sofia Cacciapaglia likes to root around in the garbage. For the 35-year-old Italian painter, the flattened cardboard boxes that are discarded by Milanese shop owners near her studio are the gift that keeps on giving.
Cacciapaglia is something of a regular on the international art scene—unusual in a country where young creatives can struggle to emerge much before their forties. Unlike her peers, she moved to New York City right after graduating from Milan’s prestigious Brera Academy of Fine Arts in 2006. A year later she had landed her first solo show at Industria Superstudio in Manhattan, which made galleries and curators back home take notice. In 2011, at age 27, she was the youngest artist to have her work, an oil painting, selected for that year’s Italian pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale.
Her studio is part of a handsome 18th-century property in the city’s buzzy Navigli district, a sort of Milanese East Village centered on a network of canals that stretch all the way to the Po River. At one time, these waterways brought in agricultural produce, including cheese from the dairy farms around Lodi and Pavia, some of which was stored in the space where Cacciapaglia now works.
The studio floor, paved with typical Milanese flagstones, lies a few feet below ground level. Cool in summer and never too cold in winter, the studio sits between the property’s two verdant inner courtyards, giving it, the artist says, something of a rural air despite the urban setting. The apartment Cacciapaglia shares with her British partner enjoys the same double-courtyard view from two floors above. The ocher walls along the staircase have over time taken on a burnished sheen (the artist calls them le scale d’oro, “the golden stairs”).
For many years, the subject of Cacciapaglia’s work was a kind of ideal sisterhood made up of ethereal young women’s bodies, faces, hands, and feet. But in the fall of 2018, she surprised herself by beginning to paint lush images of meadow flowers on large sheets of cardboard. With echoes of Klimt and Monet, but also Pompeiian frescoes and the lawn at the feet of Botticelli’s Primavera, these works soon demanded, she realized, a larger canvas. They needed to fill her studio—quite literally.
Luckily, Milanese shopkeepers throw out a lot of boxes. Though many of her works are oil paintings on canvas, Cacciapaglia has long used cardboard as a base for acrylic paints. “I’ve always liked it,” she explains, “because it has this natural camel-color base that’s very elegant, and the corrugated texture gives an incredible poetry and vibrancy to the work.” She took the salvaged cardboard, nailed it to her studio walls, and began to paint on it. Five months later the result was an installation called Locus Amoenus (“pleasant place” in Latin). Cardboard and paper covered almost every surface in the space. “Right toward the end,” Cacciapaglia reveals, “I realized it needed to be a vortex of painting that sucked up the stairs and doors too.” Even the electricity meter got painted over.
She opened the installation to the public in May 2019 (it’s still available to see by appointment). Cacciapaglia explains that the work conveys “an environmental message about spring, the season of rebirth, which gives new life to this throwaway material.” The eddies and swirls of painted vegetation that fill Cacciapaglia’s studio are intoxicating and a little disorienting—it’s like standing in the middle of a flower tornado.
Her upstairs apartment is a much calmer place. The artist and her partner moved there in April 2018, a year and a half after she started renting the studio and had fallen in love with this secret rural-urban retreat. When the couple first saw the apartment, it had been unoccupied for nearly five years, and the owners were apologetic about its slightly dilapidated look. But Cacciapaglia loved the mismatched floor tiles and the age-worn doors and windows. She limited herself to a fresh coat of white paint on the walls and furniture that brings out the apartment’s light-filled, summery nature, beginning with the kitchen, with its woven garden chairs and table. “I just like the idea that when you want a coffee in the morning you come into a space that’s almost like an Italian bar,” she says.
Both the apartment and the studio have a playful lightness to them—a quality, the artist says, that she is always striving for in her art. Appropriately, this is perfectly summed up in a couple of lights that hang from the apartment’s ceiling. Their bare bulbs are covered by lampshades that Cacciapaglia made from sheets of cardboard, painted “to pick up the light blue of the door and window frames,” then rolled into cones. It’s something that goes to the heart of the artist’s practice—creating things of beauty out of simple materials and delicate, spontaneous gestures.