NOTHING YOU’VE READ ABOUT THE HORDES OF PRICELESS ARTISTIC AND ARCHITECTURAL TREASURES (OR SPECTACULAR JAMES BOND MOVIE SETS) CAN PREPARE YOU FOR THE GOLD-ENCRUSTED HALLWAYS AND GRAND GARDENS OF LAKE COMO’S MOST PRESTIGIOUS VILLAS.
Where the Lombard plains rise into the Alps, northern Italy is dotted by a series of breath- takingly scenic lakes. For the past 800 years they have provided the favourite summer playground for both the local Milanese rich and Italy’s wealthiest merchants, noblemen and industrialists.
These patrons of the arts have, over the centuries, invested unimaginable fortunes building and decorating hundreds of summer villas around the shores of the majestic lakes – sumptuous retreats which combine the riches of the finest royal palaces with the artistic and sculptural treasures of the world’s leading museums and the magnificent colours and floral splendour of the globe’s most spectacular gardens.
In more recent times Italy’s richest citizens have been joined in this floral and architectural indulgence by a constant stream of kings and queens, barons and dukes and their aristocratic entourages from all over Europe.
For many visitors to Italy’s legendary lakes district, Lake Como (Lago Di Como, also known locally as Lago Lario) is the favourite of them all. Marie-Henri Beyle first set foot on the shores of Lake Como as a 17-year-old conscript under Napoleon.
Years later, as celebrated French writer Stendhal, he declared in La Chartreuse se Parme that the blue-green waters of the lake and the grandeur of the Alps made it the most beautiful place in the world.
The town of Como (population about 90,000) is situated at the southern tip of this immense and enchantingly beautiful body of water. It offers a good base from which to plan daily excursions around the lake.
Como’s main square Piazza Cavour overlooks the lake, and tourist boats (ferries, hydrofoils, etc) depart from both in front of the piazza and prominent wharves along the shore.
The funicular railway – providing a 15-minute ride up the steep cliffs to the mountain settlement of Brunate and a panoramic view across the southern reaches of the lake – is at the eastern end of the harbour front. Al the western end is the magnificent Villa dell’Olmo.
The site upon which Villa dell’Ormo was erected is described by Pliny The Younger in Roman times as a dense forest of elm trees, from which the villa took its name. A monastery was built on the spot by the Umiliati Order early in the 12th century, with an adjoining church Santa Maria del Vico.
However, centuries later a member of the Order shot at the feared Archbishop of Milan, San Carlo Borromeo, when it became known he was considering reforming the Order. The Archbishop immediately retaliated by closing both the monastery and the Umiliati Order.
In 1618 the Order of the Minors of St Francis da Paola obtained possession of the monastery. A century later Marco Plinio Odescalchi paid the church a reputed fortune in exchange for a permit to erect a “suburban house” on the site. His famed architect Simone Casati completed the project in 1789 and, for the inauguration of such an important landmark, Napoleon himself was invited, along with his wife Josephine and sister Elisa.
In 1882 the villa was bought by the Visconti di Modrone, thus ending its private ownership. In 1927, on the occasion of the Alessandro Volta celebrations, it was opened to the public for the first time as a municipal monument – and remains so today, especially as a centre for major cultural displays.
First stop on a boat from Como wharf is the celebrated Villa d’Este at Cernobbio. This monumental 16th century villa – made famous around the globe during the 1960s by Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes’ cinema advertising campaign depicting the world’s “rich and famous at play by the lake” – is now a hotel for the mega-rich and internationally renowned.
The villa was built to plans drawn up by the architect Pellegrini for Tolomeo Gallio, the immensely wealthy Cardinal of Como and powerful Secretary Of State to Pope Gregory XIII.
The current name of the villa dates back to 1815, when purchased by Caroline of Brunswick, first wife of George Frederick (then Prince Of Wales and later King George IV of Britain). Caroline believed she was a descendant of the ancient lords of Ferrara, the Este clan – in this she was encouraged by the abbot Bellini, who described her as “the fairest blossom of the Este family”.
Comfortably installed in the villa, Caroline allegedly led a life of infamous leisure and pleasure – so much so that wild rumours of her supposedly disgraceful and libertine habits filled the royal court in London, and led to a notorious trial which shocked Europe’s nobility. The Princess was eventually acquitted, but was forced to leave the villa and it was sold to the Orsini family of Rome.
In 1833 it became the property of Baron Ippolito Ciana, a rich and cultivated agent and envoy of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour (the man who forged the Kingdom of Italy, designed the constitutional structure of the unitary state and served as its first prime minister ) – and for the ensuing 30 years the villa became the centre of political intrigue through the most turbulent years of Italian history.
From 1868 the villa was the residence of the Empress Fedorowna, mother of Czar Alexander II, and bloomed again as a centre of fashion and high living. Then in 1873 new owners decided to concert it into a luxury hotel – and it remains today among the most famous in the world.
On the picturesque ferry ride to Tremezzo, visitors pass Isola Comacina, Lake Como’s sole island, where lombard kings took refuge from invaders.
But as soon as Tremezzo comes into sight, so too does the legendary Villa Carlotta, with its world-famous gardens. The big “C” atop the ornate entrance gate in the Via Regina refers to the Clerici family who built the villa in the early 18th century. Giorgio Clerici was President of the Senate of Lombardy, a grandee of Spain and recipient of many honours.
The villa was later inherited by Claudia, who married the leading lawyer Giovanni Battista Sommariva and passed it to him as her dowry. (Hence during the 19th century the name Villa Sommariva was often used.)
Francesco Melzi d’Eril was in the meantime completing his villa directly across the lake at Bellagio. The splendour of his structure proved a constant irritation to Sommariva, who was determined to outdo his rival – and spent a fortune attempting to do so both inside and outside the villa.
Later in 1856 Villa Carlotta and its magnificent parklands were given as a wedding present to Charlotte of Nassau upon her marriage to the Prince of Saxe- Meiningen, and that family owned it until confiscated by the Italian Government in 1915 upon declaration of war against Germany. After the war it was transformed into a public museum, which today displays art treasures including: Canova’s Cupid & Psyche, Palamedes, Venere Italica and Magdalene; Acquisti’s Group Of Mars & Venus; Thorwaldsen’s frieze depicting the Entry Of Alexander The Great Into Babylon; Appiani’s Apothesis Of Napoleon; several works by Hayez; tapestries by Audran; furniture pieces by Maggiolini; plus the spectacular centrepiece for the table by Giacomo Redaelli (an unparalleled example of neo-classical table decoration where diners could help themselves to salt, oil and vinegar from a miniature Roman Forum).
Outside, Villa Carlotta’s magnificent gardens are a mass of vivid red, rose, violet and bright yellow azaleas and rhododendrons, intermingled with carefully clipped hedge-rows and manicured walkways all leading to the decorative front gates on the edge of the tranquil lake. Behind these famed gates, a majestic fountain and large decorative staircase rise to Carlotta’s imperious entrance hall – a setting recorded for posterity by Longfellow’s reference, upon visiting Tremezzo’s splendid palace, to “Sommariva’s garden gate . . . Is there a land of such supreme and perfect beauty anywhere?”
When the lawyer Sommariva was engrossed in embellishing the Villa Carlotta, he would gaze across the lake – his vanity boiling – and try to guess the next lavish construction intention of his arch rival Francesco Melzi d’Eril (Duke of Lodi, personal friend of Napoleon and Chancellor of the Kingdom of Italy).
Melzi, immensely rich, employed the renowned landscape architect Giocondo Albertolli to extend his Bellagio villa in the opulent neo-classical style introduced in the first decades of the 18th century. In summary, it extended “ostentatious monumentalism” from Europe’s most lavish palaces and villas of the rich and major public buildings.
Massive earth removals resulted in a unique garden planned in every detail. Highlights include: a spectacular avenue of plane trees; a small Japanese garden; a special area of statues and little temples upon the shore of the lake; and another enclosure featuring an original Etruscan cinerary urn, a pond with numerous statues, marble terrace parapets and the imposing family chapel.
The interior boasts works by Rubens and Van Dyck, frescos by Giuseppe Bossi (brightest of the neo-classical painters of Lombardy), ornaments by Alessandro Sanquirico (the famous scene painter of La Scala) and Appiani’s celebrated portrait of Napoleon.
Today the owners are the Gallarati-Scotti family. (Duke Thomas Gallarati-Scotti was Ambassador to Madrid and London immediately after World War II.)
Bellagio, considered the “pearl” of the lake, sits on the point where the western and eastern arms of Lake Como split and head south. For road travellers or enthusiastic walkers, the 30km trip from Como is truly inspirational.
In ancient times Pliny The Younger owned two villas on Lake Como – one in an inlet of the Lario and the second on the Bellagio promontory. But after the Roman era, Bellagio lost its residential status and assumed strategic and militay importance. It was the battleground of the Vandals against the Goths; and Theodoric himself (king of the Ostrogoths from 471, who invaded Italy in 488 and completed the conquest of virtually
the entire Italian peninsula and Sicily by 493, making himself king of Italy until 526) reputedly built the famous fortress upon Bellagio’s high-ground. The castle remained more or less unaltered until Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, ordered its destruction to get rid of outlaws who used it as a refuge. Destroyed and rebuilt several times, the Bellagio fortress remained for centuries an observation point and defensive structure, and messages were sent from its tower – by flags during the day and fire at night – to the other major centres around the lake.
During the Renaissance, Bellagio gradually reduced its fortifications. The young Marquess Stanga, whose family boasted immense wealth, purchased the promontory and built a palace on the exact spot where the Villa Serbelloni now stands.
Pio Francesco Sfondrati was later granted the shores by Emperor Charles V, and he rebuilt the villa. (His son Nicholas later became Pope Gregory XIV.) The villa remained the property of the Sfondrati family until 1788, when it passed to the Serbellonis.
During the 20th century, the villa passed from one owner to another. Princess Torre e Tasso lived there until 1959, when it became a venue for cultural meetings of the Rockefeller Foundation of New York.
Villa Monastero at Varenna, known today around the globe as a centre for high-level scientific meetings, was erected by the Cistercian Order
in 1208 as a monastery – originally as a convent for missionaries and dedicated to St Mary Magdalene. Following a scandal in the middle of the 16th century (whispers of midnight liaisons between certain nuns and local merchants reached Rome), pope Pius V ordered the convent closed immediately. Paola Mornico, a nobleman from nearby Valsassina, then purchased the vacant villa in 1569 and his son Lelio spared no effort nor expense in making his father’s house one of the finest landmarks on the lake.
In the middle of the 19th century it was acquired by a wealthy German family, who significantly enlarged and embellished it before seeing its confiscation by the Italian Government in 1915, upon the outbreak of war with Germany.
As a handsome war prize, the villa was granted to Marco de Marchi in 1925. He in turn entailed it to the Italian Government in 1936 and it became the Italian Centre of Hydrobiology & Lake Geomorphology; the Institute duly placed it at the disposal of the province of Como as the Villa Monastero Authority, and it has remained a venue for international scientific and literary meetings.
Today it is also famous for its magnificent parklands, featuring hundreds of landscaped garden beds – especially roses and cinerarias; plam, camphor, eucalyptus and 300-year-old magnolia trees; and tangerines, grapefruits, bigarades and rhubarbs – all set amid scores of little temples and ancient wells.
Villa La Gaeta
In the spring of 2006, the memorable final scene in the James Bond movie Casino Royale (when Bond, played by Daniel Craig, shoots and meets Mr White, then utters the famous words “Bond . . . James Bond”) was filmed in front of the breathtaking Villa La Gaeta on the shores of Menaggio.
The villa, boasting one of the most beautiful views across Lake Como, sits on 4,000 square metres of gorgeously manicured grounds and is surrounded by a beautiful park with paths, benches and a lit fountain. Apartments inside this villa are available for rent, and come with a boat dock for those who decide to explore the lake by boat. Guests can also enjoy the lake from the villa’s own private beach, while the Menaggio golf course is just 10 minutes away. AMP