THE picture of the promontory of Bellagio is so beautiful as a whole that the traveller had better stand off for awhile to admire it at a distance and at his leisure. Indeed it is a question whether the lasting impressions which we treasure of Bellagio are not, after all, those derived from across the lake, from the shore-fronts of Tremezzo, Cadenabbia, Menaggio, or Varenna.
A colossal, conquering geological lion appears to have come up from the south in times immemorial, bound for the north, and finding further progress stopped by the great sheet of water in front of him, seems to have halted and to be now crouching there with his noble head between his paws and his eyes fixed on the snow-covered Alps. The big white house on the lion’s neck is the Villa Serbelloni, now used as the annex of a hotel, and the park of noble trees belonging to the villa forms the lion’s mane. Hotels, both large and small, line the quay at the water’s edge; then comes a break in the houses, and stately Villa Melzi is seen to stand off at one side. Villa Trotti gleams from among its bowers farther south, on the slope Villa Trivulzio, formerly Poldi, shows bravely, and Villa Giulia has cut for itself a wide prospect over both arms of the lake. At the back of this lion couchant, in the middle ground, sheer mountain walls tower protectingly, culminating in Monte Grigna.
The picture varies from hour to hour, from day to day, and from season to season. Its colour-scheme changes with wind and sun, its sparkle comes and goes from sun-rise to sunset; only its form remains untouched through the night and lives to de-light us another day. As the evening wears on, lights appear one by one on the quay of Bellagio, until there is a line of fire along the base of the dark peninsula. The hotel windows catch the glare, the villas light their storied corridors, and presently Bellagio, all aglow, presents the spectacle of a Venetian night mirrored in the lake. By this time the mountains have turned black and the sky has faded. It grows so still on the water that the tinkle of a little Italian band reaches across the lake to Cadenabbia, a laugh rings out into the quiet air from one of the merry little rowboats, and even the slight clatter made by the fishermen, in putting their boats to rights for the night and in carrying their nets indoors, can be distinguished as one of many indications that the day is done.
When we land at Bellagio by daylight, we find it to be very much of a bazaar of souvenirs along the water-front, and every-body determined to carry away a keepsake. There is so much to buy: ornamental olive wood and tortoise-shell articles, Como blankets, lace, and what may be described in general terms as modern antiquities. These abound from shop to shop; even English groceries are available. Bellagio’s principal street is suddenly converted at its northern end into a delightful arcade, after the arrangement which constitutes a characteristic charm of the villages and smaller towns on the Italian lakes; moreover, the vista up its side street is distinctly original. This mounts steeply from the waterside, like the streets of Algiers, is narrow and constructed in long steps to break the incline.
The headland of Bellagio would seem to have been marked by a fortress of some sort, even in Roman times. The villa of Pliny the Younger, which he called ” Tragedy,” is, as already stated, supposed to have stood somewhere on this tongue of land. In the fourteenth century there could be seen there a keep, used by a band of robbers who came from Val Cavargna, over by Menaggio, but it was destroyed by order of Gian Galeazzo Visconti. Then the Marquis Stanga built a mansion there, and after that had been torn down, a Duke Ercole Sfondrato built an-other in 1591, and this is the building, of course much altered to suit the tastes of successive owners, which passed into the hands of the Serbelloni family of Milan, and which now serves the peaceful purpose of a hotel annex.
Of Villa Serbelloni one may say that its pride lies in its park and in the rich diadem of views circling from that centre. It was a Duke Sfondrato who planted the headland with groves of trees and gave it that fanciful resemblance to the head and mane of a giant lion when seen from the Tremezzina shore. There are five principal groups of trees with five special view-points, whence the eye can range at will over the two branches of the lake, or northward to the snow-clad Alps, or south upon the peninsula itself, rising in rich slopes and terraces, from garden to vine-yard, from orchard to green fields and to forests of chestnut and walnut trees, where country-houses, farms, and hamlets present an appearance of fruitful ease.
In this famous park of Villa Serbelloni there is a lavish and luxuriant display of foliage in extraordinary variety, made accessible to the visitor by woodland paths. Here are dainty oleanders and giant cedars side by side, laurels, myrtles, palms, cacti, lemon, and even banana trees, amid sudden glimpses and glances over the unmatched splendour of lake and mountain. Take it all in all, there is surely no spot on earth better favoured than the Serbelloni park, nor is there a forest more redolent with the perfume of noble trees or resonant with the song of happier birds. Surely there is special provision here in the way of scenic beauty of a profuse and, withal, of an exalted type. Here as elsewhere in the region of the Italian lakes the key-note of admiration is pitched for us by the startling contrast between the exotic and the arctic, by the simultaneous sight of sunlit waters and everlasting snows, by the olive-trees set off upon a back-ground of distant mountain pines, by the sudden transition from the limpid notes of the nightingale, hidden in garden bowers, to the shrill cries of wild birds fresh from their eyries on the frowning crags of Monte Crocione, Cima di Pelaggia, or Monte Grigna.
Villa Melzi is significant as much for its architectural grandeur, and the artistic and historical treasures it contains, as for its beautiful grounds. There is an air of superb sumptuousness about Villa Melzi, which is enhanced by its costly marbles. The building with its two wings was erected in 1815 for Count, later Duke, Francesco Melzi d’Eril. There are copies of antiques made by Ca-nova, and medallions by Thorwaidsen, also busts of Lætitia Bonaparte and Josephine Beauharnais by Canova; on the lakeside ter-races a famous marble group of Dante and Beatrice by Comolli attracts attention.
And so sightseeing on this extraordinary tip of land multiplies apace. The hours lengthen into days and easily gather into weeks, full of new delights. When the costly works of art in the villas and the de-lights of their gardens have satisfied the visitor, there are trips by water in every direction and excursions close at hand along unfrequented shores or into secluded heights. Perchance the way may lead as far as the unsophisticated villages of the Brianza.
Off the beaten track broad smiles and genial willingness on the part of the people make up for shortcomings in the way of board and lodging. The walk to Civenna, back of Bellagio, recalls in some of its aspects the road from Capri to Anacapri, as that develops its wider views with every zigzag, discloses a growing perspective of land and sea, and, finally, with a sweep of the hand presents us with the wealth of colour and multifarious outlines of the whole Bay of Naples. So there is something about this road that mounts from Bellagio to Civenna, which tempts to a comparison with the Capri road, for it shows the Bay of Bellagio lying below in a veritable superabundance of natural beauty.
At Bellagio it is interesting to read what Ruskin has to say on the subject of the villas on Lake Como. In The Poetry of Architecture ” he thus clearly characterizes their tendency as regards situation :
” The villas of the Lago di Como are built, par préférence, either on jutting promontories of low crag covered with olives, or on those parts of the shore where some mountain stream has carried out a bank of alluvium into the lake. One object proposed in this choice of situation is, to catch the breeze as it comes up the main opening of the hills, and to avoid the reflection of the sun’s rays from the rocks of the actual shore; and an-other is, to obtain a prospect up or down the lake and of the hills on whose projection the villa is built: but the effect of this choice, when the building is considered the object, is to carry it exactly into the place where it ought to be, far from the steep precipice and dark mountain to the border of the winding bay and citron-scented cape, where it stands at once conspicuous and in peace.”
Ruskin then cites Villa Serbelloni as an example of such a situation. As to the characteristic form of these villas, Ruskin writes:
” It is generally the apex of a series of artificial terraces, which conduct through its gardens to the water. These are formal in their design, but extensive, wide, and majestic in their slope, the steps being generally about one-half foot high and four and one-half feet wide (sometimes, however, much deeper). They are generally supported by white wall, strengthened by unfilled arches, the angles being turned by sculptured pedestals, surmounted by statues or urns. Along the terraces are carried rows, sometimes of cypress, more frequently of orange or lemon trees, with myrtles, sweet bay, and aloes intermingled, but always with dark and spiry cypresses occurring in groups; and attached to these terraces, or to the villa itself, are series of arched grottoes, . . . built (or sometimes cut in the rock) for coolness, frequently overhanging the water, kept dark and fresh, and altogether delicious to the feelings.”
As illustrative of this form of building, Ruskin cites Villa Sommariva (now Villa Carlotta). In ” The Poetry of Architecture ” Ruskin also describes the form of Villa Porro (now Villa Balbianello or Villa Arcomati) .
Tremezzo is little more than a sunny arch-way with villas attached.
Take a handful of houses made of stone and mortar, tint them with the usual colour-scheme of an Italian lake-front, then dispose them in a line along and over the water, build out some little harbour jetties here and there, scoop out a few convenient hollows under the houses where little boats may lie, throw in bowers with trees trained to give shade, splash the house walls and parapets with wistaria vines and fill up all the unoccupied space with myrtle, rhododendron, and camellia bushes, and you have Tremezzo seen from the water. And since the place must have some kind of a street, take a fair-sized auger and bore a passage through the first floors of all the houses, regardless of consequences, cut openings in the outside walls, so as to give an outlook upon the lake, and the result is a beautiful little archway, giving shelter from sun and rain and open on the waterside.
As the single street of Tremezzo is kept down to the dimensions of a bridle-path, and as there is a sign at the entrance of that single street which warns the public that bicycles and consimili (such things) must be led by the hand through the archway, it is evident that official action has been taken in order that nothing obstreperous may intrude upon the idyllic quiet of the little place. No noisy auto, train, nor trolley, not even a carriage with prancing steeds may come that way; the narrowness of the path from Argegno protects Tremezzo on the south and Villa Carlotta stands guard on the north. The nearest approach to a vehicle the writer can recall was a strolling organ-grinder’s cart, drawn by a donkey. Tranquillity reigns, a peaceful remoteness pervades the place, the atmosphere is sequestered and restful to a degree, yet even in its seclusion the archway of Tremezzo is next door to the big world, and is busy in its own cosy, homelike way. It has a provincial life of its own on a minute scale, only for most visitors Tremezzo is so sheltered and watched that it presents all the appearances of a private establishment or enterprise and gains thereby in their affections.
Of an evening it is a good plan to lean your elbows on some parapet of Tremezzo in order to see that the sun sets as it should.
Young girls go by, clinking their wooden clogs in the cobbled archway. A boat bell rings musically, and presently the paddles of an approaching steamboat beat a rapid tattoo on the water. Little wavelets lap the base of the parapet. Down at the dock the great excitement of the day is taking place with the arrival of the last mail and per-chance also of guests for the hotel.
When this gentle turmoil has subsided, and the quality of the atmosphere is once more merely contemplative, a new note makes you turn your head toward the shrubberies of the villa gardens. It is a note you may never have heard before. If your home is overseas, it is quite unlikely that you have ever had the opportunity. The sound is of a quiet little warble, sweet and tentative. It is answered by another from the laurel bushes. There is a pause. Then comes a response from the myrtles. The warble lengthens into a mellow, fluty cadenza, soft and velvety and given with a gentle assurance. Soon the nightingales are busy singing to each other, to the mountains, to the silver trail of the moon on the lake, to all outdoors. At such times it is well to take a rowboat and creep noiselessly alongshore, listening to the singing birds, past the noble water gate of Villa Carlotta, along the little shaded quay of Cadenabbia and its brightly lighted hotels toward Menaggio, skirting the walls, the lake steps, the jutting terraces, and the grand villas. Those placid nights full of balm will long be remembered even after the red camellias and the purple wistaria, which may have been pressed as souvenirs in your guide-books, have faded and grown yellow.
It is worth while to approach Villa Carlotta by rowboat, just to be able to land at its noble water-steps. At these steps the modern world must perforce drop away from our recollection, for the particular grace of their sweep belongs to an age which knew nothing about applied steam or electricity, but laid its lines for leisure. As our boat approaches the villa, its lakeside balustrades, enormous hedges, cacti and palms, are seen to be set off by a background of severe and Oriental aspect, the bare strata of Monte Crocione.
Perhaps, when you land, an old man, as in years gone by, may still be sitting by the steps carving wooden spoons so dexterously and patiently. Once in awhile he used to take his siesta on the parapet in the genial sun, and once in a great while he would sell a spoon.
The villa exterior is simplicity itself. The building looks more like the country-house common to the continent of Europe than like a show-place palazzo. There is a big central clock and homelike green blinds. Once past the great ornamental ironwork gateway, however, and within the vestibule of Villa Carlotta, it becomes evident that we have entered no ordinary country-house, but a choice repository of art, full of historical association. Here Canova and Thorwaldsen have left some of their distinctive work. Especially famous is Canova’s sculpture, entitled ” Cupid and Psyche,” which stands in the marble hall, and is a work of art known and shown the world over in a multitude of plastic reproductions or photographs. Youthful charm and innocence mark this piece of sculpture and make it a sort of a modern classic, universally liked. The walls of the marble hall are covered with Thorwaldsen’s reliefs, entitled ” Triumph of Alexander,” running as a frieze and depicting the conqueror’s entry into fallen Babylon. This work was originally ordered of the sculptor in plaster, to be placed in the Quirinal in Rome on the occasion of the visit of Napoleon I. Later on the emperor commissioned Thorwaldsen to execute the work in marble, but the fall of Napoleon I. put a temporary stop to the sculptor’s plans. Finally the latter sold the whole series to Count Somma-riva, who acquired the villa in 1802 and housed these marble treasures within its walls. In 1843 a princess of Prussia bought the villa and named it after her daughter Carlotta.. Through this daughter the villa came by inheritance into the possession of the ducal family of Saxe-Meiningen, the present owners. If you are very fortunate, some day, when you are walking on the shaded quay which binds the villa to Cadenabbia, you may even be in time to see the grand ducal barge with its liveried oarsmen and handsomely polished appurtenances wait at the famous water-steps, and presently you may witness the ducal party issue from the iron gateway, enter the big boat, and then glide over the water as the barge is propelled by a beautiful sweep of the oars. The oars-men wear green sashes and what look like tam-o’shanters, and a green and white flag floats from the stern.
The garden of the villa virtually fills in the space between Tremezzo and Cadenabbia and rises in four great terraces from the water up the slope. Giant magnolias and myrtles are shown by the attendant, also a trellised walk of lemon-trees, and exotics of every variety fill the air with pleasant per-fumes and provide deep, shadowy, silent nooks whence the sparkling lake looks doubly brilliant.
There is no doubt that the nightingales have chosen this glorious garden for one of their chief abiding-places in their search for seclusion. Hidden under the canopy of the thick foliage, they warble undisturbed morning and night, paying the compliments of the hour to dawn and dusk, and singing sweet sayings to each other. Their voices spread a harmless flattery over the entire lakeside and tend to multiply every grace of bird and flower, man and beast. Surely the very fish, floating balanced under the hollows of the lake shore, must hear and rejoice.
Cadenabbia and Menaggio
The English have colonized the water-front of Cadenabbia, and there is very little else to the place. English seems to be the prevalent language on the quay, and is spoken at a pinch even by some of the bold, brave battellieri, who wear fancy sailor suits and look like man-o’-war’s-men fresh from the stage. Their straw hats have ribbons decorated with the names of the hotels they serve, and some go so far as to wear gay and gaudy red sashes.
Among Longfellow’s ” Poems,” in the division headed ” Birds of Passage,” are some delightful verses called ” Lake of Como.” These same verses also appear in a series of volumes, edited by Longfellow and entitled ” Poems of Places.” In that series the verses are called ” Cadenabbia.” The MS. poem written by Longfellow himself hangs in the Hotel Belle Vue in Cadenabbia. The following are some of its lines:
“No sound of wheels or hoof-beat breaks The silence of the summer day, As by the loveliest of all lakes I while the idle hours away.
” By Somariva’s garden gate I make the marble stairs my seat, And hear the water, as I wait, Lapping the stones beneath my feet.”
Other verses refer to:
Bellagio blazing in the sun ”
Varenna with its white cascade.”
These verses have doubtless done something to popularize Cadenabbia among English-speaking peoples, for the place now shares with Bellagio the affections and attentions of the majority of such tourists.
Beyond Cadenabbia a carriage road skirts the lake to Menaggio, and a series of magnificent villas range themselves along it for the view over lake and mountain. It has been reserved for the owner of one of the finest of these villas to strike a highly successful note in making his castellated dwelling seem really to spring from the very ground. The colouring has been chosen to match the noble rocks of San Martino at the back, as well as the gray-green tint of the gentle olive-trees that soften the straight lines of the terraces.
The pretty village of Griante smiles from its vineyards upon the slope above ; the bare sides of Monte San Martino invite a climb for the superb view over the three branches of the lake. A depression in the rock near the white church of San Martino is, according to the peasants, the very place where Noah’s ark rested after the flood. It is interesting to know that shells and various marine deposits have been found in the rock at that altitude, as though to confirm current tradition about the ark.
From somewhere along the road between Cadenabbia and Menaggio, though nearer the latter place, there may be seen a well-defined profile upon the mountains of the opposite shore of Lake Lecco toward the southeast. It is called the face of Napoleon, although it bears no particular resemblance to that well-known physiognomy. The head appears to lie back, there is a chin, a nose, a slight depression for the eye, and a sloping forehead. There is also a queer downward line which makes this ” old man o’ the mountain ” look decidedly grumpy.
Menaggio, in contrast with Cadenabbia and Bellagio, presents the appearance of being more than a mere traveller’s home. It has a large silk factory and maintains two boat-landings, one to connect with the steam-tram that ascends over the mountains to Porlezza on Lake Lugano, and the other boat-landing for the northern end of the town. Of the trip to Porlezza, it may be stated that for those who have not the time to learn in detail of the charms of the Bay of Bellagio, this ascent by steam-tram gives them a superb bird’s-eye view. As the tiny train moves up, it is as though a shifting of colossal scenery was going on, the fore, the middle, and the backgrounds acting and reacting upon each other, bringing out views of changing contrasts and startling combinations, wherein the villas of the rich and the hamlets of the poor occupy the same stage. We mount through fig-trees and cypresses to forests of chestnut close to the sullen rocks above, while the lake lies below placid in its widest expanse of delicious blue. A sail barge lies becalmed upon it, or a steamboat makes a wide mark over its surface. Then presently the train dips down over the crest of the pass toward Lake Lugano.
The only landward connection between Menaggio and Aquaseria used to be by a bridle-path similar to the one from Argegno to Tremezzo, only bolder in its peregrinations. It went meandering and romancing up and down the rocky mountainside, around the Sasso Rancio, or orange rock, in a most irresponsible way, and gave the French much trouble when they found themselves obliged to use it in 1799. Indeed they used it to their cost, for at the orange rock many a horse and rider plunged into the lake below. To-day the usefulness of this path is re-placed by a grand new carriage road, such as the Italians know so well how to build, the Strada Regina Margherita, with the usual assortment of tunnels and cuts. No one should complain of the change, for the old path was really exasperating at times in its splendid audacity, and some of the corners had very sheer edges dipping down to the compact blue of the lake beneath. And yet the lizards used to bask very comfortably on the protecting wall of the old path, the cherry-trees ripened especially early there under the influence of the heat reflected from the rocks, the laburnum clusters were profusely yellow, and in the branches the nightingales sang pretty much all day to the glimmering waters below, undisturbed by the rare wayfarers or by harmless little donkeys carrying burdens from village to village.
Completing the garland of fair places on the Bay of Bellagio, but situated on the eastern shore of the lake, lies Varenna, unique and Oriental of aspect, with dark cypresses matched against a pale gray cliff. Not long since the place was but a primitive lake hamlet, but the railroad from Lecco to Colico has necessitated a station, and there is quite a fine steamboat landing, with a hotel omnibus in waiting to take guests up the incline. The ruined tower surmounting the great cliff of Vezio, high above the town, was once a fortress belonging to that same family of Sfondrato, to which reference was made under the heading of Bellagio, and a member of which established himself where Villa Serbelloni now stands.
Varenna, facing south, lies in the full track of the rays of the sun, as they search the mountainsides, and are reflected from the surface of the lake at its widest expanse. The view is down two of the arms of the lake and up the third. Lizards find Varenna especially attractive, and scurry among the cactus plants, the oleanders, the orange and citron trees.
Near Varenna the picturesquely named torrent of Fiume Latte (Stream of Milk) falls into the lake in a series of cascades from a height of almost one thousand feet. During the winter months it generally disappears entirely, shows itself occasionally after rain-storms in summer, and is most copious in spring with the melting of the snow and ice in the heights above.
If the call of the mountains makes itself heard, a trip up the Val d’Esino to Monte Grigna is in order from Varenna. This will take us away from the floating population of the lakeside, which has come from the ends of the earth to delight in the shifting spectacle of Lake Como, and will lead us to where the great white clouds trail over the solitary upland pastures. There a few herders live remotely, yet they need but look over the brinks of. their lofty precipices to see, set out below, picture-maps of close cultivation and close habitation, of wealth and fashion, of a strange mode of living, with which they are brought into actual contact only through the milk and butter they sell.
And doubtless, when the cattle have been milked for the day and the spare bite of polenta has been taken, they can sit for a while in the twilight, watching certain curious jets of piercing white light dart from the obscurity of Cadenabbia and Menaggio and cast corresponding reflections upon the water. These jets are electric lights, and they stand for the very acme of luxurious lowland extravagance in the eyes of the good people of the mountains.