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Villa Carlotta abloom! Lake Como bellissimo

A view of the Villa Carlotta and picturesque botanical gardens last Friday morning, April 29, as our boat from Menaggio approached Lake Como’s most iconic landscape where, even before Edith Wharton and Henry James, aesthetes from London, Paris and Berlin came to revel amidst its more than 15-acre transcendental wonder.
Villa Carlotta abloom! Lake Como bellissimo
By Augustus Mayhew

Years ago, I lived in a wonderful villa in Florence, a former Strozzi hunting lodge transformed into a classic 19th-century villa set amidst a tree-filled park. Back then, I never found myself attracted to the allure of Italy’s Lake District. Instead, my youthful springs meant Luxor, Mykonos, Crete and Marrakesh; not Lake Maggiore or Lake Como. But, I have always regretted never having spent time there, especially spring. Thus, when the opportunity arose to visit during the last two weeks of April, and a friend, an avid birder, indicated an interest in going, we were booked. Soon after, we were lulled nightly by the Alpine air and the sound of icy waves from surely the most unearthly of beautiful lakes. Here are some snaps of our morning at Villa Carlotta on Lake Como.
As our boat was about to dock, a view of the Villa Carlotta’s façade, front Italian garden, entrance gates, and water-steps, looking more country house than palazzo.
The 19th-century ducal barge departing from Villa Carlotta’s water-steps, manned by oarsman wearing “green sashes,” according to one account.
An early 19th century painterly view of Villa Carlotta. The villa’s gardens became renowned during the 19th century’s era of the Grand Tour. Beginning in the spring, travelers would “ring the bell and ascend the stairs… paying the garden attendant one-half franc for entry into the gardens, resplendent in full bloom."
The villa’s signature iron ornamental entrance gates.
The Italian garden fountain. The staircases zigzag onto terraces.
The Italian garden and formal gated entrance.
The Italian garden, a view from above.
The Ente Villa Carlotta kindly permitted me to photograph the villa’s interior for NYSD.
Upon entering the villa’s piano nobile, a history of the villa and a floor plan.
Before the Ente Villa Carlotta foundation acquired the villa in 1927, insuring Villa Carlotta’s future as a museum and botanical garden, it was owned by several prominent Italian families. In 1690, Milanese textile magnate Giorgio II Clerici began building a villa in Tremezzo that would reflect his family’s immense success. It was first known as Villa Clerici; later, Villa Sommariva before becoming Villa Carlotta.

Giorgio’s principal heir, his grandson, Antonio Giorgio, Baron of Sozzago & Marquis of Cavenago, would complete the construction of the impressive estate. In 1801, the Clerici family sold the villa to Gian Battista Sommariva, a lawyer, politician, and art collector. When the villa was sold, the Sommariva family retained access to the family chapel, where funeral monuments were entombed. In the mid-18th century, Princess Marianne of the Netherlands paid 780,000 lira for the villa, more than ten times what it had sold for forty years previously. She bought it for her daughter, Carlotta, as a wedding present on her marriage to the ducal George II of Saxe-Meiningen. The Saxe-Meiningens did not make any substantial structural changes to the villa’s interior but sold the remains of the original art collection with the exception of some statues and paintings. They focused on enrichment of the garden, introducing a great variety of rare and exotic species. George II was a botany enthusiast. Carlotta died at age 23 in 1855. The villa remained in the Saxe-Meiningen family until around WW I. Later, it was deeded to the Italian state when the foundation was organized.
Mars and Venus. Luigi Acquisti (1745-1823), sculptor. The Neoclassical sculpture is the centerpiece of the Main Salon on the piano nobile.
The villa’s flooring offers a variety of geometric marble patterns.
Amor et Psyche, c. 1792. Antonio Canova, sculptor. Juliet’s last kiss from Romeo. Francesco Hayez, artist. 1823.
A ceiling detail found on the piano nobile.
Detail, bas-relief frieze.
Bertel Thorvaldsen’s work is featured in the “Gessi Room.”
The time was Lake Como’s golden age of villas.
Portrait of Constantin Sommariva. Eliseo Sala (1813-1879), artist.
Portraits of the Sommariva family.
In 1819 Antonio Canova’s statue of Palamede was installed at Villa Carlotta.
The Empire room or Sala Napoleonica.
Ceiling detail, Empire room.
The Napoleon-styled Empire room.
The second floor Galleria center hall.
The Galleria’s ceilings have artful touches.
“Love conquers all.”
The mural is one of a pair that flank the second level hall leading to one of the view balconies.
Detail, Galleria mural.
Carlotta’s bedroom was on the northwest corner of the second floor.
Banners line the wall of the second floor billiards room.
The ceilings feature artful trompe l’oeil.
A view from the second floor towards the west gardens.
A 1901 travel article in Century magazine described Villa Carlota as “a landscape as tiring as a gallery of masterpieces. It is too perfect.”
A late 19th-century Baedeker travel guide referred to the gardens as "a crack showplace of all the petits-paradis on Lake Como."
A view to the east across Lago di Como.
The landscape slopes sharply down to the lakefront.
A Villa Carlotta springtime close-up.
Banks of azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons cover the mid and lower portions of the north garden filled with giant magnolias, myrtles and cypress trees.
A kaleidoscope of color.
A waterfall and stream run through a skyline of towering hardwoods.
At the tippity tippity-top, a Zen-like forest of bamboo.
Two hours later, at 11:45 a.m., we departed Villa Carlotta’s magic kingdom.
Villa Carlotta
via Regina 2
22109 Tremezzo, Como
www.villacarlotta.it


Photographs by Augustus Mayhew

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