Italy restaurato! Villa Pliniana revived!

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Villa Pliniana, Torno. When Villa Pliniana's magnificent restoration is completed within the next few months, Lake Como's most legendary villa will have been transformed into one of the world's ultimate destinations.

Northern Italy’s wintry fog has lifted and its breathless summer is still months away as artisans brave the spring wind and sun to repair, reconstruct and restore what still must be done before the blitz of travelers arrive — a centuries-old seasonal cycle as much a part of the Lombardian panorama as its daily afternoon siesta. During my recent stay at the Palace Hotel in Como, the entrance changed almost daily with the front desk assuring the work will be completed within the month.

In addition to the summer swarm, Milano Expo 2015 opens in May to throngs of international visitors as hotel staffs and cultural major domos dash about making everything look postcard perfect.

Among Lake Como’s more than 250 significant villas listed on the Lombardy Cultural Heritage’s website, there is none more storied than Villa Pliniana, an incomparable 16th century palazzo secluded on 18 lakeside wooded acres where a colossal restoration and redevelopment are nearing completion. When I heard of the venture, I contacted a representative of the owner, PIR Group – La Petrolifera Italo Rumena S.p.A., and asked if I could photograph the villa’s preservation-in-progress for NYSD readers.

With the heliport and boat docks still under construction, I arrived overland on the stradale high above the main villa. The construction trail to the main villa was a steep drop. Without rappelling gear, I proceeded cautiously, walking sideways down the stone road holding onto a side rail as I passed construction cranes and work sites at several of the surrounding buildings. There were moments I thought I wasn’t going to make. Finally, the main villa was in sight. A representative of Studio Leonardo, the notable Bologna-based company directing the villa’s restoration, issued me a hardhat. When I stepped inside the courtyard and looked out over the views of Lake Como, I experienced the thrill that has been Villa Pliniana’s incomparable allure for the past five centuries.

Here is a look at some of Northern Italy’s ongoing preservation projects and a glimpse inside Villa Pliniana’s work in progress.

Villa Pliniana, work in progress. In one of the Grand Halls, a mirror awaits placement.


Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Corso Magenta, 15. San Maurizio’s façade is shrouded by a pictorial show curtain illustrating how the altar frescos will look when restoration is completed.
Santa Maria delle Grazie, Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie at Corso Magenta. With a major restoration underway, scaffolds occupy the church’s cloister designed by Donato Bramante (1444-1514).
Duomo. Spectacular views of the Duomo’s spires wrapped with scaffolds are offered from Rinascente department store’s seventh floor dining terrace.
Villa Necchi Campiglio, via Mozart, 14. Located near the fashionable Via Montenapoleone, Villa Necchi’s rebuilt tennis pavilion is being funded primarily by Giorgio Armani.
One of the world’s oldest shopping malls, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (1865-1877) is undergoing a major restoration with scaffolds located at the entrances. The ironwork and murals are being restored.
Galleria Vittore Emanuele II, detail. Restoration completed.
Sant’ Agostino Piazza. Milan undercover.


In Varenna, stone workers restore one of the town’s ancient walkways.


Palace Hotel – Como. At this otherwise splendid retreat, cement mixers were spinning in front of the lakeside hotel while carpenters occupied the rooftop.
At Villa Olmo on Lake Como, the fontana grandissima was being cleaned.

Villa Pliniana
Via Cesare Poggi – Torno

Too often, Lake Como’s visitors are focused on People magazine personality George Clooney’s villa in Laglio, overlooking Villa Pliniana, regarded as one of the lake’s most monumental sites. Isolated in a secluded cove on Como Lago’s right bank, Pliniana’s commanding presence goes largely unnoticed.

Of a Roman’s feverish day
Pliny loved to seek this bay.
Sheltered from the world’s decay …
The villa still enchants, through years of night”
Salve Pliniana! — Elinor Maitland, Poems, 1863.

Pliny the Elder described the spring in his Naturalis Historia: “In an area close to Como, near the banks of the lake, there is a copious source that always waxes and wanes nearly every hour.” After Pliny died in 79 AD, a victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii, his nephew, Pliny the Younger, also speculated about the origin of this amazing spring. Contrary to that described by Pliny the Younger and Leonardo, the source ebbs and flows at irregular intervals, meaning that the most plausible hypothesis is that the intermittency is caused by the principle of the siphon. – Lombardia Beni Culturali.

When Villa Pliniana’s redevelopment is completed by late spring or early summer, the legendary Renaissance palazzo will house a multi-purpose 21st century luxurious compound. For those seeking privacy who have no need to be seen in Villa d’Este’s lobby or dining terraces, Pliniana will be available as a secluded residence with 19 bedrooms situated within a secured 18-acre woodland. Or, its various settings and sizable grand halls will facilitate the most memorable wedding, family gathering, corporate reception, or special event.

In addition to the palazzo, the enclave features the three-story Casa Shelley and Casa dei Plini, and the two-level Rifugio da Vinci. The Canarisi chapel offers a serene respite for reflective moments. The separate spa facility provides a swimming pool with Jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath, solarium, and a lounge mezzanine. All the villas have lake view rooms equipped with complete kitchens, state of the art security systems, and Internet/satellite communications capable of instant contact with a Hollywood agent, Wall Street broker, or Abu Dhabi banker. A jetty will accommodate boat moorings.

Villa Plinian’s courtyard features a plaque engraved with Pliny’s letter to Licinius explaining the phenomenon of the spring waters.

At the property’s entrance to the grounds a heliport will connect with area airports. An underground garage will store guests’ vehicles with suitable transports provided linking the compound’s numerous sites. As much as these amenities afford incomparable comfort and security, Villa Pliniana’s extravagant history may well be its most unrivaled feature. Variously described as “mysterious, seductive, and filled with spirits,” the villa’s guests and lodgers have included Napoleon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Stendhal, Liszt, Bellini, Alessandro Volta, Ugo Foscolo, and Francis II, emperor of Austria. Along with scandalous love affairs and political intrigue, Pliniana was the setting for poems and operas, where Rossini composed Tancredi.

In 1574 Count Giovanni Anguissola bought the Lake Como site to build his palace. The count named it for Latin naturalists Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, natives of Como, who first described the unexplainable phenomenon of the property’s intermittent cascading waters. The baffling wonder of the ebb and flow was of such interest that Leonardo da Vinci was said to have visited the site in 1498.

Unfortunately, Count Anguissola died in 1578, a year after finishing the house. Following the settlement of Count Anguissola’s estate, the villa was sold to Pirro Visconti Borromeo who made it “magnificent, luxurious and famous.” The following century, Francesco Canarisi moved in, decorating the main villa with historical plaques, steles, tombstones, portraits. Canarisi renovated the existing chapel, dedicating it to St. Francis of Assisi.

By the early 19th-century, Pliniana had fallen into neglect, thus attracting the era’s most renowned English Romantic poets and travelers. Then, in 1840 the villa was revived by Prince Emilio Barbiano di Belgioioso d’Este. Two decades later, Villa Pliniana was left by inheritance to the Belgioioso-Trotti family. Later still, it was inherited by the family of Valperga di Masìno e Caluso that re-opened the villa during the 1960s. The villa’s original furnishings were donated to a cultural museum. In 1983, it was bought by the Pliniana S.r.l. company.

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, the Villa became one of lake Como’s most popular and visited places. Percy Bysshe Shelley was so captivated by “once a magnificent palace, now in ruins, the Romantic poet incorporated the villa into the poem Rosalind and Helen, as Rosalind’s home. Mary Shelley was entranced by “large halls hung with splendid tapestries and paved with marble …”

Villa Pliniana — 2015

Villa Pliniana’s remote setting, 16th-century architectural expressions, and Venetian-like ambiance make for an exceptional presence. “In front, among the cypress trees, the lake’s sovereign superb memories, appears the Plinian” is how Shelley described Villa Pliniana. ” … As if it came from the clouds, descends a cascade of immense size,” wrote Shelley of the villa’s famous waterfall.
One of the several terraced staircases leading off the estate’s stone roadway down to the main villa.
At one of the secondary buildings, the work crew moves a skylight pane into place.
Architects Rosario Picciotto and Luciana Bassan (ARPLAN, S.r.L.) conceived the preservation and redevelopment plans. The artful restoration is by Studio Leonardo S.r.L., Bologna (
Paint swatches (lower left) depict the palette for one of the secondary villas.
In 1827, when Seth Stevenson wrote his impressions of Lake Como’s “succession of pleasure houses,” Villa Pliniana was owned by Marchioness of Canarisi. Stevenson described Pliniana’s “objects impressive in sight and interesting to associative thought … the villa looks more like a fortress than a palace … a parallelogram … where a torrent flings itself from a height of one hundred feet … orchards of mulberries, groves of laurels, chestnuts, pines, and poplars.”
The main villa’s façade is punctuated by four orders of windows with the main floor topped with broken pediments; the upper level with square pilasters.
Set back from Lake Como’s main channel, Villa Pliniana’s unique Doric loggia affords “scenery of astonishing grandeur,” wrote poet Lord Byron. To the north, the Swiss Alps; to the south, the sweep of hill towns fronting the lake.
The view from the loggia. “At this point Lake Como becomes darker and wilder and the mountains descend almost vertically in the water,” wrote Stendahl, the 19th-century French writer.
High above the main villa’s courtyard, work continues restoring one of the picturesque sites.
Villa Pliniana, courtyard. The fabled cascade of water flows below the unfinished columned grotto into a channel on left and into the lake.
Villa Pliniana, courtyard. A central courtyard with the famous grotto and fountain divides the piano nobile with a triple arched lakeside Doric loggia connecting the Great Halls.
Villa Pliniana, courtyard. This epic grotto structure is still under construction.
Villa Pliniana, historical plaque.
Villa Pliniana, loggia. View leading into one of the Great Halls.
Villa Pliniana, loggia ceiling. Work in progress.
Great Hall, work in progress. The octagonal ceiling panels are part of the villa’s original décor.
Great Hall, work in progress.
Great Hall, work in progress. Under the direction of Studio Leonardo, a craftsman prepares to install the mirror.
Great Hall, mirror detail.
A craftsman works on finishes in one of the Great Halls.
The octagonal coffered ceiling and decorative bands bring back Villa Pliniana’s Renaissance spirit.
The panels reportedly depict Pliniana’s owners and renowned guests.

Great Hall work in progress.
North Great Hall. The hall borders depict mythological scenes.
North Great Hall, ceiling detail.
The Great Hall’s blue coffered ceiling is banded by sixteen stucco oval tableaus depicting mythological scenes.
North Great Hall, detail.
A ceiling panel in one of the villa’s smaller rooms awaits restoration.
View from the courtyard through the loggia to the lake. A statue of Neptune with trident flanked by a dolphin was positioned at the center of the original courtyard fountain separating the loggia from the grotto.
Villa Pliniana, work in progress.
Villa Pliniana., crown molding. Work in progress.
Villa Pliniana, work in progress.

Photography by Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland – Reflections on Palm Beach.

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