In addition to millions of tourists, the Borromean Islands also enchanted Stendhal, Liszt, and Mendelssohn. Dumas recalled them in “The Count of Montecristo”, Turner and Corot represented them in oil paintings and watercolours, D’Annunzio even tried to rent one. Just across from the town of Stresa (in Italy), the archipelago is easily accessible in just few hours by ferryboat from Locarno or Ascona. It consists of three islands: Isola Bella with its grandiose mansion and terraced gardens, Isola Madre with its luxurious English park, and Isola dei Pescatori, a picturesque fishing village boasting an ancient atmosphere.
For these splendid places we have to thank the Borromeo counts, whose descendants are, to this day, the owners of Isola Bella and Isola Madre. Originally from San Miniato in Florence, the Borromeo family was exiled to Milan in mid-14th century and there they became very wealthy bankers. They also held several prominent public functions in the service of the Visconti and then the Sforza families, who rewarded them with some land on Lake Maggiore and a noble title. The Borromeo Family was also represented in the higher echelons of the Church as bishops and cardinals, including Cardinal Federico, portrayed in The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi – the most famous work by Alessandro Manzoni), a pope, Pius IV, and even a saint, San Carlo.
Isola Madre was purchased at the beginning of the 16th century and Isola Bella during the first half of the 17th century, corresponding to the start of the transformation of the two islands. Soil was transported to cover the rocks palaces were constructed and gardens ornamented. These works took three centuries to be completed with the contribution of dozens of famous architects, painters and sculptors, including Ticino-born Vincenzo Vela.
Isola Bella boasts the most grandiose mansion, a mixture of Baroque and Neoclassical styles, built by different architects, including Fontana, who was called out from Rome. The futile peace conference between Italy, France and England was held there in 1935. Its rooms, including the magnificent hall designed with the assistance of Bernini (one of the most famous 16th century Italian architects), house treasures of Italian and European art from the 17th to the 19th centuries that include paintings, sculptures, furniture, chandeliers and tapestries. The cool caves lying beneath the mansion at lake level boast a stunning sleeping Venus, reminiscent of the famous "Sleeping Nymph" by Canova.
The scenic garden spreads out over ten hanging terraces and culminates in the Teatro Massimo (a theatre) and the panoramic terrace, where Stendhal loved to linger.
Isola Madre is a luxurious English-style park featuring a large variety of rare plants and exotic flowers. Here visitors can stroll along shady, scented paths, while admiring free-roaming peacocks and pheasants. Legend has it that Napoleon rested under its majestic Kashmir cypress, the largest in Europe and perhaps in the world, while his soldiers were shooting terrified pheasants. The puppet theatre inside the richly art-adorned palace intrigues all newcomers. Giacomo Casanova, who visited the island along with a friend and two beautiful sisters from Lugano, stayed in one of the two guest-bedrooms known as the “Yellow Bedroom” and the “Green Bedroom”. “It is impossible to perfectly describe these fortunate islands – he wrote – you simply must see them. They are very beautiful and the climate is absolutely wonderful, an eternal spring”.
Isola dei Pescatori is a quaint, small fishing village characterized by narrow winding streets populated by countless souvenir shops and picturesque restaurants offering excellent lake fish specialties. The small island which only measures 300 metres in length and 100 meters in width, is also home to the romantic Hotel Verbano.
Massimo d'Azeglio, Italian Prime Minister at the time of Cavour and a talented painter to boot, portrayed the island in some of his oil paintings, reaching it by boat from his nearby villa in Cannobio. Piero Chiara, who celebrated his beloved Lake Maggiore in novels and short stories, wanted his remains to rest forever in this small patch of paradise.