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.
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.
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.
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.