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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Isola Bella, Beautiful Island -- A Little Background

In 1690, this is what Isola Bella looked liked from Stresa. Stresa is much changed; the island, not at all.

Isola Bella, beautiful island... It is, hands down, the main attraction to see when visiting the Stresa/Borromean Gulf area, and yet, ever since its construction in the late 1600s, it has received some pretty horrible reviews. There were some harsh critics, even then, here's what a few of them published about the island in their travel books:

Danish writer Friederike Brun, who visited in 1795, likened Isola Bella to a mushroom emerging from the water, and the garden to an "oversized cake."

William Hazlitt, in 1826, wrote he was "Utterly disappointed in the Borromean Isles. Isola Bella resembles a pyramid of sweetmeats ornamented with green festoons and flowers."

Joseph Woods wrote in 1810, "Isola Bella contains a magnificent villa of the Borromean family, in sublime bad taste both inside and out. "

Jacques Augustin Galiffe, in 1816, "Isola Bella is altogether artificial, and contains a large but ill-looking palace in the worst architectural taste..."

And take a look at this excerpt, written by Richard Bagot, in his 1908 book, The Lakes of Northern Italy:


Wow. But these descriptions, while certainly the opinions of the individual writers, for the most part can be said to be true. From a distance or close up, the palace and the gardens are completely out of scale, they seem to overflow the island on all sides. In between, where the Borromeans never succeeded in purchasing the land, the original medieval village still exists, wrapped over the palace as if it grew there, although in reality it was the palace that grew around the village.

Isola Bella looks today exactly as it did 300 years ago.

In this aerial view, the medieval village can be seen on the left, seemingly climbing up the palace.

The plans for the island began simply enough:

Carlo Borromeo the Third bought the city of Stresa, and with it, some of the land on the island called Isola Inferiore, in 1630. A plan drawn in 1631 has this note written by him in the margin, "Plan of a small house, on Isola Inferiore in Lago Maggiore, and thus from now on the island will be called Isabella, since it is made to create a delightful garden of citrus and flowers and a residence for the pleasure and recreation of my lady the Countess Donna Isabella."

It was when Vitaliano the Sixth took over though, that the current vision began to take shape. And here's the thing, the thing that redeems the island, that takes it from garish ostentation to whimsy and, if not quite beauty, then at least fascination. The creation was always intended to entertain. Okay, certainly also to demonstrate the money and power of the Borromeo family, but its primary purpose, as thought out by Vitaliano, was to be a playground for the many noble guests who would visit it. It was meant to be a vision, an idea, over the top. It was he, working with noted architects of the day, who thought up the shell grotto, the ten-tiered garden, and the addition of the many symbolic and fanciful statues. In fact, it was decided that certain statues should be larger than originally intended, so that guests would have a more impressive approach to the island and recognize the statues sooner. Then, a further thought, it wasn't acceptable that guests would see only the backs of statues depending upon where they approached from, and at this point it was decided to increase the number of obelisks and spires, symmetrical from all sides.

Statues high atop the garden wall wave and welcome visitors arriving by boat. The unicorn, with his rider Love, is at the top.

Maybe some of those early travelers missed the point? Maybe I'm missing it? Non lo so. I don't know. My first impression of the island, palace, and gardens, was, and still is, that of a fairy tale, or of Alice in Wonderland. It's a place far removed from reality, and since that was its purpose and original goal, in this way I think it has succeeded quite admirably.

A tour of Isola Bella begins by going through the Palazzo Borromeo, continuing through the grotto, and then into the gardens. The palace contains family hierlooms and treasures, and things of historic note, such as the tapestries in the long Sala di Arezzi, but the objects in the house, while interesting, are of the more normal and expected sort. The garden, with its layers, its tropical plants, its strange pseudo-greek-god theme, its white peacocks, and of course, rising above them all, the unicorn statue, ridden by Love, is the true star.

This is the view that one is greeted with after emerging into the gardens from the grotto passage.

In my mind, perhaps it was Charles Dickens, after visiting in 1844, who summed it up best:

"For however fanciful and fantastic the Isola Bella may be, and is, it still is beautiful."

White peacocks roam free and unafraid in the gardens.

This Dickens quote is used on the official tourism site for the island. On the site, you'll find information on tours, hours, and other facts about this very unique place. The Palazzo Borromeo is open to visitors from late March until the end of October. And it is a must see.

These other posts are related to Isola Bella or the other Borromean Islands, and may be of interest:


Web site: www.borromeoturismo.it

All photographs property of Dana Kaplan or the Borromeo Turismo Web site.
1690 view is a black and white photo of an oil painting by Gaspar Van Wittel, View of Isola Bella from Stresa, West Side, 1690. Painting and photo property of Gallery Carlo Orsi, Milano.

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