Borromeo Baroque: Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella & Isola Madre

Featured image
Social distance, Old World. Borromeo Islands, Isola Bella, foreground, Isola Madre, background. Afar, the towns of Suna, Pallanza, and Verbania on Lake Maggiore. For several centuries, the Borromeo family has owned these islands as a summer palace and retreat from their Milan villas. The family opens several rooms on the ground floor to the public during the spring and summer, keeping the remaining living areas for family members.

With Italy facing one of its most perilous challenges, here is a look back at Primavera on Isola Bella and Isola Madre where timeless architecture and fantastic landscapes personify the enduring Italian spirit, the art of nature, the splendor of the past, and the promise of Spring.

Whether inspired by the Gothic spires of the nearby Duomo of Milan or obsessed to formulate an imaginative pyramidal Italian version of Versailles, the Borromeo family’s island showcases, Isola Bella and Isola Madre, make for Lake Maggiore’s unrivaled architectural and botanical wonders. Isola Bella’s grandiose palazzo and over-the-top gardens are in stark contrast with the more reserved Isola Madre, an Arcadian showcase for some of Europe’s most extraordinary species of trees, flowers and shrubs where for the past several centuries its magnolias, myrtles and rhododendrons have all ‘exceeded their maximum growth.”

Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore. As it was then and as it is …

While Lake Como’s shoreline of splendid classic villas and gardens express a more conservative Italian tradition, the Borromeo’s ambitious tour de force, a 17th and 18th century-styled Hearst Castle of sorts with Alice-in-Wonderland gardens, still captures the Baroque era’s insatiable preference for folly.

L. to r.: Unlike our own Astors, Belmonts, and Carnegies, Italy’s wealthy nobles, like the aristocratic Borromeo family, have the potential for becoming cardinals, bishops, popes and saints. As much as Anderson Cooper toils at “keeping them honest,” his efforts may fall short of ascension into the realm of recognized saints, as the Borromeos were able to achieve.; St. Carlos Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan, is ensconced in a see-through tomb at the Duomo of Milan.

A former Tuscan family exiled to Lombardy during the Quattrocento, the Borromeo family rebuilt their fortune and power during the following several centuries, acquiring vast swaths of land around Lake Maggiore. In 1632 Count Vitaliano Borromeo began developing islands in the lake, turning once unembellished natural escarpments into palatial picturesque environments, reflecting the Borromeos’ incomparable social stature. Thus, among several of their endeavors, Isola Bella and Isola Madre were transformed into grand residences, while a third island, Isola Pescatori, was left as a fisherman’s island.

Isola Bella

A La Belle Epoque circa 1890 view of Isola Bella, much as it looks today. Library of Congress.
During the past several centuries the Borromeo family engaged notable architects and botanists for their magnum opus, creating on Isola Bella what was intended to replicate the form of an imaginary galleon — the dock represented the vessel’s prow, the palazzo was the bow, and the garden’s colossal raised terraces were the ship’s bridge. During the late 19th-century Carlos Borromeo IV’s daughter Carolina spent summers on the island with her husband architect Guiseppe Bagatti-Valsecchi overseeing additions and restorations. The four-story palazzo was designed in what can be described as the Lombard Baroque style. Radiating around a domed Great Hall with crystal chandeliers and view balconies, the first-floor rooms include the usual array of palace showrooms, among them, a neoclassical ballroom, music room, and a tapestry hall, all decorated with paintings, furniture, and artful plasterwork. The most inventive part of the palace, however, can be found underground: six natural grottos decorated with dark-and light-colored pebbles and shells in designs reflecting nautical themes.

L to r.: A view of the courtyard where guests would disembark along the water steps. Monogrammed canons lined the terrace.; Today, the ferry boats land further down from the palazzo, allowing visitors to pass by souvenir stands.

The wall lining the palazzo’s entrance staircase features the family’s coat of arms.
In 1935 these first floor principal rooms were the setting for a major conference where political leaders from France, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy convened to try and settle an armaments crisis.
The palazzo’s flooring has rococo touches.
Napoleon and Josephine stayed at the palace for several days, according to several reports. When Premier Benito Mussolini was invited to stay in the Sala di Napoleone, he was said to have refused, again as reported by several sources.
A view of Isola Pescatori, also known as Isola Superiore, from the palace. The nearby island is no longer owned by the Borromeo family. A local artist tends to his brushwork.
L to r.: Another view of the Isola Pescatori; What is a palace without a neoclassical ballroom.
The palazzo was built atop these elaborate underground grottoes composed of lake pebbles and stones where it was said the Borromeos sought refuge in the summer and, in case of attack, could be completely contained.
Today, the grottoes showcase various exhibits.
The Tapestry Hall leads into the formal gardens.

The Gardens at Isola Bella

A view from within, overlooking a design of the family’s logo shaped into the word “humility.”
The entrance leading up to the formal gardens.
On our visit, the weather was glorious and the gardens were otherworldly.
A lower terrace view towards Baveno.
The multi-level amphitheater is the centerpiece for the formal gardens, adorned with niches, reliefs and statues representing the various triumphs of the Borromeo family.
There does appear to be a unicorn at the top.

The upper terraces offer panoramic views.
The view from the top.
Keeping up with other European aristocrats took little effort for Italian royals like the Borromeo family whose more-is-more interpretation of a formal Italian garden on the family-owned island of Isola Bella has served for centuries as Lake Maggiore’s most prominent attraction.
The tower on the right is a bookstore.

Wisteria line the seawall. The café is in the tower.
Isola Bella’s operatic-scaled gardens are spread across ten terraces that form a pyramid ornamented with balustrades, hedges, obelisks and statues.
L. to r.: The top figure holds the Borromeo crown with the family motto spelled below, “humility”; “Just how did they mold this?” wondered my travel companion. Indeed, everything looked as if it had been clipped five minutes before we arrived.

Borromeo Baroque: Isola Madre

On Isola Madre, a pergola of wisteria forms a shaded path to an upper terrace.

While the gardens at Isola Madre were always a part of the Grand Tour, the island’s villa was not opened to the public until 1978. Today, it is a recreated house museum, its rooms filled with the Borromeo family’s furniture, paintings and tapestries retrieved from several resources.

Isola Madre’s 20-acre English-styled park holds some of Italy’s most impressive and well-preserved plantings.
Isola Madre’s rare plants and exotic flowers are extraordinary although Edith Wharton, the lioness of Lenox, decreed that the island has “no special interest except to a horticulturalist.”
Isola Madre is the largest of the Borromean islands on Lake Maggiore although its villa is more reserved than the showplace on Isola Bella.
At the boat landing, visitors disembark and follow a winding path leading up to the villa.
Visitors should be aware that the climbs both in the garden and in the villa can present obstacles for the physically-challenged.
A glimpse of the villa’s entry.
The villa’s Cypress Loggia contains what is believed to be Europe’s oldest cypress tree. Since a tornado struck the island in 2006, every effort has been made to save the Cypress of Kashmir in its original location.

Isola Madre’s collection includes several remarkable tableau.
As well as some more artificial presentations.

Teatro delle Marionette

In today’s virtual digital world of flat screens and reality shows, the fascination with marionette home theaters may seem alien. In Italy, marionettes were popular. For aristocratic families, like the Borromeos, by the end of the 18th century having an elaborate at-home miniature theater capable of producing commedia dell arte productions with atmospheric events and mechanized puppets was commonplace.

For me, the family’s marionette collection, the stage, the richly-detailed costumes, the scenic designs, are most interesting aspect of the collections and reason enough to visit Isola Bella and Isola Madre. Sensational.

Much of the collection has been moved from Isola Bella to Isola Madre.
A painted curtain drop.


Isola Madre, The Botanical Garden

For more than 50 years, Count Vitaliano IX Borromeo imported plants from every greenhouse in the world, sparing no expense to add to his collection, as well as populating the island with peacocks, parrots and pheasants.
Museum-quality azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias blanket the gardens.

The neo-Gothic terracotta-trimmed chapel overlooks a circular pond filled with lilies and irises.
The chapel’s interior.

A golden pheasant.
Out for a walk.

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew

Recent Posts