Although two of Lake Como’s best known gardens are located only a few miles apart, they are separated by several centuries of divergent landscape principles and aesthetic values. Villa d’Este’s polished and complex garden is admired for its elegant decorum. While retaining its Renaissance-styled tribute to the glory and grandeur of ancient Rome, the garden is further enhanced with 18th and 19th century Baroque, Neoclassical, and Romantic flourishes. In contrast, Villa Monastero’s more informal botanical garden is less systematic, composed of weathered architectural tableaus, a variety of landscape motifs, and countless plant species, best appreciated as the backdrop for spectacular views and its romantic interpretation of bygone pastoral Italy. However dissimilar their perspectives, each captures aspects of Lake Como’s enduring appeal.
The Garden at the Villa d’Este
Via Regina, 40 – Cernobbio
Having visited several of the Italian Lakes’ splendid gardens, among them, Villa Carlotta’s kaleidoscopic azaleas and rhododendrons, Villa Olmo and Villa Melzi’s idyllic retreats, and the operatic spectacles at Lake Maggiore’s Isola Bella and Isola Madre, none rival Villa d’Este’s extraordinary artfulness. During my last visit several years ago, it was raining and I was unable to spend time in the gardens. My friend had lost her sunglasses, resulting in an afternoon search through Cernobbio. Later, she was certain she lost them on the boat.
Portions of Villa d’Este’s garden can be traced back to fresco artist and architect Pellegrino Pellegrini’s original 16th-century plans although a lower lakeside oval-centered park bordered with ornamental seasonal blooms adjoining an outdoor dining terrace appears more inspired by The Regent’s Park.
From there, the garden becomes a series of ascending terraces beginning with a double winding staircase that leads from the lower park into Pellegrini’s Nymphaeum enriched with fountains, bas-reliefs, statues, and marble-chip mosaics. An alley of cypress, magnolia and holly trees frame dual rows of granite basins catching a cascade of water that spills from a hillside temple grotto that shelters a waterfall and a colossal 18th century statue of Hercules.
Perched high above the hotel, benches allow the visitor to contemplate Lake Como before setting out on footpaths across bridges and bluffs. A downward sweep of rolling lawn, more common to 19th-century English gardens than 5th century Rome, leads past a simulated Spanish fortress, added in 1809 by the widow of Marquis Calderara who had remarried Domenico Pino, a Napoleonic general. The battlements were the stage for after-dinner entertainment, mock combats staged by military cadets that were followed by fireworks. On the lower slope, a Temple of Telemachus contributed a decade later by the next owner Princess Caroline of Brunswick who is credited with the landscape narrative’s early English influences.
Nymphaeum, detail Mosaics & Bas-reliefs
Villa Monastero & Garden Viale Giovanni Polvani, 2/4 – Varenna
Built on the site of a 13th century Cistercian convent, Villa Monastero is a result of “continued restructuring,” rebuilt during the 16th century and completely refashioned in the 19th century. The existing villa is an expression of the era’s aristocrats who wanted “… to live in the 18th century, dine in the 16th century, and bathe in Pompeii …” The multi-terraced lakefront garden extends for two kilometers from Varenna to Fiumelatte. The garden’s design and assemblage of artifacts are more of an early 20th century creation as were the additions of a waterfront loggia and a Moorish pavilion. The existing grounds feature more than 1,000 indigenous and exotic species.
Following the closure of the 13th century monastery, the property had several owners before it was bought in 1569 by Paolo Mornico who rebuilt the monastery into a luxurious villa. The Mornico family owned it for several centuries. In 1897 German industrialist Erich Walter Jacob Kees acquired the lakefront indulgence, enlarging and remodeling the villa as well as adding the present-day garden. The Italian government took over the property until 1925 when it sold it to Milanese naturalist Marco De Marchi, a hummingbird expert.