Italian Lakes – The Boromean Islands

THESE islands constitute a challenge from the tropics thrown with full force into the very faces of the stern, arctic Alps. It is not possible to stay at Pallanza, or the other lakeside resorts of lower Lago Maggiore, without desiring to pay a visit to those won-der islands that beckon so constantly from the blue gulf. They excite curiosity, surprise, and admiration, and irresistibly draw the sightseer for a nearer view.

Therefore some morning, when the birds are calling to each other from bush to bush in the fair Italian garden of the hotel, and are telling each other much good news in liquid musical phrases that transcend any Leitmotiven, even of the greatest masters, when the water sparkles invitingly and not too vividly, emitting a sense of youth, freshness, and enterprise, then let the boatmen who are waiting eagerly for the chance row you out to these islands, justly famed among lovers of the picturesque for uniqueness in structure, site, and adornment. Moreover, they are quite different, one from another, and thus provide material for several excursions.

The Borromean Islands are four in number and derive their name from the family of the Counts of Borromeo, to which three of them belong, Isola Bella, Isola Madre, and the little Isola San Giovanni, close to Pallanza. Isola dei Pescatori is reported to be owned by the fisherfolk, who inhabit it as an hereditary freehold. Of the whole number Isola Bella is the most noted for the exuberance and opulence of its artificial ornamentation. Isola Madre is the largest in point of area, Isola dei Pescatori is the most populous, though also the simplest in point of ornamentation, and Isola San Giovanni the smallest. The visitor can take his choice among these several attractions, and while he is being rowed across the lake it may be interesting for him to know some-thing of the history of these islands.

In her exquisite book, ” Italian Villas and Their Gardens,” Miss Edith Wharton calls attention to the fact that, ” On the walls of the muniment-room of the old Borromeo palace in Milan, Michelino, a little known painter of the fifteenth century, has depicted the sports and diversions of that noble family . . . against the background of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean Islands.” This is artistic testimony to the early possession of the island by the family whose name they bear.

L. Boniforti in his excellent little guide to the islands mentions a document of 1397, issued by Emperor Wenceslaus, in which the islands are recorded as belonging to the county of Angera, of which the family of Borromeo became the partial feudal rulers in 1441. These islands received the particular attention of successive members of the Borromean family, and were by them beautified until they have become famous the world over. The work of adornment on Isola Bella was begun in 1632 by Count Carlo Borromeo, the third of that name, who built a small villa there. It was a Count Vitaliano, the fourth of that name, who conceived the idea of building a large château and giving that island its present marvellous aspect, calling to his service artists and architects and covering the barren rocky surface with fruitful soil. The work occupied the years from 1650 – 71.

Isola Bella

As the boat glides out into the deeper portions of the Bay of Pallanza, the water that laughingly laps the bow grows richer in colour and we seem to have ventured forth upon some inlet of the Caribbean Sea. Presently Isola Bella looms up in all its startling originality, a huge palazzo partly unfinished, at one end, and gardens of extraordinary fantasy at the other. Lines of age, reinforced by the never ceasing caress of plant life, have happily broken what might seem to northern eyes an excessive artificiality, and the foliage of superb exotics has softened the extreme regularity and straightness of stone terrace and balustrade. As we land at the great water steps, the centuries roll back and we become the guests of an open-handed magnate of the seventeenth century, whose hospitality is exhibited in a display of all that the arts of his day, big and little, could do to make his island villeggiatura splendid and sumptuous. Certainly he and his helpers succeeded in wresting from the climate an assent to all the changes, transformations, and vagaries they could invent, and in turning the alpine non possumus into a silent permission. As guests we delight in this characteristic of our host and proceed to enjoy our further explorations in his domain with redoubled zest.

An obliging guide will give the student visitor all necessary details of the grand palazzo, and a catalogue of the pictures is provided, which contains the names of painters and copyists, as the case may be. For the many tourist visitors, comprising all nationalities and tastes, a general survey of the palazzo will doubtless suffice.

From the grand staircase we are ushered through a bewildering succession of rooms, serving all manner of purposes and decorated in all manner of styles. There is a dining-hall, a throne-room, a royal bedchamber, a picture-gallery, a grand ballroom, and a variety of rooms devoted to conversation, billiards, music, besides many bedrooms, among these also the one in which Napoleon I. once slept. Though the picture-gallery is poor in masterpieces, the apartments are full of objects of value, and many of the rooms are rich in Genoese or Florentine furniture, costly marbles, Venetian glass, and a great profusion of medallions, vases, busts, and coats of arms.

The grotto galleries underneath the château are particularly curious and fantastic. Whatever may be the verdict of the visitor upon the shell patterns to be seen there, the imitation stalactite caves and the novel fancies of the designers, still there is room to admire the persistent enthusiasm of the builder of the château and of his assistants, who, together, so successfully set at defiance all the difficulties they encountered, in their determination to make of Isola Bella a beauty-spot according to their ideal, — and sui generis. In passing out of the building into the gardens a corridor is used, the walls of which are hung with seven Gobelins setting forth mythological subjects, and said to be unsurpassed by those of any other collection of Gobelins for richness of colour.

And so we find ourselves in the far-famed gardens of Isola Bella! They constitute a veritable park into whose restricted area the original designer sought to crowd so much of horticultural and sylvan beauty, that per-force he was obliged to cause the island to bulge up in the centre and rise into a pyramid to the height of over one hundred feet above the lake surface, in ten tiers or terraces. The gardener had so much to say in his art and way, that he had to invent this method of expressing himself. Not otherwise can one explain the profusion of super-imposed parterres and piazzas decorated with statues, rotundas, and belvederes, one more elaborate than the other, each with distinct characteristics, — and each determined not to be outdone by the others. There is the grove of Diana, the piazza of Hercules, the exotic garden, the grove of love, the grove of pines, the palm garden, the rose garden, the grove of Julia, the plateau of New Holland, and the grove of Elise. It is as though all these proofs of Italian garden-art were vying for some point of vantage, in order the better to be seen, and thus to be in position to give a louder and more conspicuous welcome to the visitor of the hour.

A mass of little paths carefully bordered lead maze-like from wonder to wonder. Here are tree-like camellias and oleanders, gigantic magnolias, myrtles and laurels, stately cedars and cypresses. Orange and lemon trees abound, and sprinkled about, so as to profit by the green background, are vases, grottos, and fountains. It is related that Napoleon I., strolling in the park, when he halted at Isola Bella on his way to the Italian plain, cut the ominous word bataille into the bark of a giant laurel-tree. Time has happily obliterated with its weather stains such effects as might once have seemed garish. If there is much vagary in the construction of Isola Bella, there is at least surprising merit in having hung these opulent gardens against the sky-line of the barren Alps and caused the naked rock to bloom.

Isola dei Pescatori

This ” fisher-island ” is exactly what its name would indicate. It contains neither palazzo nor hanging gardens, but this fact does not prevent it from being a favourite with the painters. It contains a medley of fishermen’s homes of many colours, yellow, pink, or terra-cotta, that jostle each other to the very water’s edge at the eastern end of the island. The shore is generally lined with fishing-boats, painted black for the most part, though the writer recalls seeing one in bright blue. Fishing-nets are spread to dry on the grass at the western end of the island, which is reserved for them. A cream-coloured church tower rises above the brown-red roofs. Thus the fisher-island presents all its simple attractions at once to the eye, and is the rough diamond, the natural jewel, among the islands of the Bay of Pallanza. We wish it well in its lowly occupation and pass on knowing that the water-colourists will not overlook it.

Isola Madre

The ” mother island ” derives its title from the fact that it was the first of the Borromean island possessions to be laid out in gardens of any description. It is not only the largest of them all, but also lies nearly in the centre of the Bay of Pallanza, thus enjoying a particularly commanding and conspicuous position. Here the same desire as on Isola Bella, to express much of the gardener’s art upon a relatively small area, has resulted in the building of five terraces, surmounted, in this case, by a little-used palazzo whose chief charm is its view over lake, shore, and mountain. Less artificial in arrangement than the gardens of Isola Bella, those of Isola Madre are generally found more in keeping with natural beauty as northern eyes are accustomed to see it. They are less crowded, and their orange and lemon trellises, the walled gardens, the cypresses, laurels, and pines have spread more at ease over a wider surface. The island is greatly admired by artists and, because not accessible by steamboat, draws to it particularly those who rejoice in its simple tranquillity.

Writing to his mother from Baveno (a favourite stopping-place of his), on August 24, 1854, Ruskin stated: ” Architecture I can draw very nearly like an architect, and trees a great deal better than most botanists, and mountains rather better than most geologists, and now I am going actually to draw some garden for you, out of Isola Madre, and study some of its bee-haunted aloes to-morrow morning, if it be fine: it is sweet to see the aloe with two or three hives of bees about it, making its yellow blossoms yellower.”

From the high-placed palazzo of Isola Madre, as a point of vantage, the interplay of lights upon the water can be watched to particular advantage. Out beyond the borders of the island, an afternoon calm has enamelled the water a gentle turquoise blue, upon which the passing boats paint streaks in tints of green. There is a silken gloss of white where the sun strikes with full force. The wash of water-colours is in evidence rather than the solid look of oils. On the fresh water of the Italian lakes there is no habitual tumble of surf, no roar along the seaweed, for the water can be counted upon to stay pretty much at the same level, except at long intervals of time or in seasons of catastrophe. Hence there are no stretches of unsightly mud exposed by receding tides, but the well-trained water dances up to the lake walls and terraces, — splashes prettily, but advances no farther.

Isola San Giovanni

Familiarly known as an isolino, because it is so small and clings so closely to mother land, San Giovanni presents little of special scenic interest to the tourist who has visited the larger islands of the group. Its vegetation is luxuriant and it possesses a small villa. Historically it is of importance, because it was the site of a Roman castellum and of an early Christian church, and was the home of the nobles De Castello Barbavara, to whom, as already stated, the island along with Pallanza was ceded by Emperor Barbarossa in 1152.

As the boat glides homeward-bound, the fresh-water, soft-water look of the lake is unmistakable in the purity, clearness, and limpid placidity of the Bay of Pallanza. Later on it will be time enough for the regular breeze to draw down at close of day from distant heights of snow, through ravine and valley, into the great plain of Lombardy. On the way it will pass over Lago Maggiore and ruffle its surface, first into silvery streaks and then into kindly wavelets that mean no harm to men and things, but brighten the evening with the promise of a cool night. And about that time the nightingales will begin to sing their loveliest in the wonder gardens of the Borromean Islands.