Isola Madre Diary

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View from Isola Madre

On a tour of the Italian Lakes, we spent the last day at Lake Maggiore, visiting three Borromean islands – Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella.

First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. In fact, the Borromeo clan still owns the islands, except for Isola dei Pescatori, today. They first gained control of the islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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View from Isola Madre

First, we took a small covered boat from Stresa to Isola Madre. This island was the largest of the three and featured a botanical park with exotic plants and flowers as well as a palace that boasted an intriguing collection of 16th to 19th century furnishings and paintings as well as marionettes and puppet theatre sets. The palace especially showed off 17th century Lombard paintings.

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I did justice to the five-terraced garden before entering the villa. The rare birds were a real treat. White peacocks proudly strutted on the grounds. The flowers were striking. I spotted rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias, for instance. There was an entire section of camellias, a kind of flower that has been nurtured on the island since 1830. I loved the pond adorned with water lilies. It reminded me of the Monet paintings I had seen at The Orangerie in Paris so many years ago, on that warm February morning, shortly after it first opened following a lengthy period of reconstruction.

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I also saw a banana tree that measured more than three meters in height. Palm trees appeared in the lush park. On the Gobbi Lawn stood a conifer tree that was still rather young, only about 200 years old. These types of tree can have a lifespan of 4,000 years.

Perhaps my favorite sight in the park was the Cashmir cypress tree because it had a fascinating past. The cypress tree was brought here from the Himalayas, presented to the Borromeos by an acquaintance in 1862. Initially a packet of seeds, the tree grew and grew and grew, finally weighing a total of 70 tons and becoming the largest of its kind in Europe.

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Fate would put an end to the tree’s claim to fame. During the tornado of 2006, the cypress fell. Still, it was not destroyed. The tree was pulled up again, thanks to cables and winches. It is truly an amazing sight that astounded me.

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Later, I would read in depth about the history of the island, which was the first of the three to be populated. (No one lives there anymore.) A document from 846 provides written evidence of Isola Madre’s existence. It is not clear why the name Madre was chosen. Perhaps it was because the island was the first one that people called home. It is also possible that the name refers to Count Renato Borromeo’s mother. The appearance of the island has changed little since the end of the 18th century.

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Then I entered the palace with a double arcade that made it look light and airy. The furnishings of the palace had been transported there from homes owned by the Borromeo family. I noticed the mannequins dressed in intriguing uniforms from several centuries ago, attire relating to their professions.

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The Fireplace’s Room included Milanese paintings from the 1600s and octagons decorated with portraits of kings, but what I really liked were the two Lombard cabinets, intricate and detailed craftsmanship on display. The front panels looked like they were made from semiprecious stones, but it was actually a visual effect of the scagliola technique, which involves using a substance made with colored plaster. They hailed from the late 17th century.

Scagliola was also present in the Room of the Four Seasons in the form of an octagonal table dating from the 17th century. Its intricate decoration awed me. The Collector’s Room included impressionist landscape paintings that caught my eye. My favorite style was Impressionism, my favorite genre of painting landscape. I noticed some Buddha figures, too among the many, various artifacts.

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The Green Bedroom did not disappoint with its scagliola-adorned tabletop, hailing from the 17th century. The Yellow Bedroom was named after its four-poster bed with yellow damask lining. There was also a cradle shaped like a boat and a strange sculptural grouping on a table made from silver-plated terracotta. A baby, fast asleep, had placed one hand on an hourglass, symbolizing the countdown to death. The other hand was touching a skull. The 17th century object seemed so macabre, but the macabre had been in fashion during that era, I mused. It reminded me of the grotesque Cycle of Death frescoes at Kuks, a former hospital, which showed off many skeletons. The Baroque era was fascinated by death.

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Then we came to my favorite rooms, the three displaying puppet theatre settings, puppets, machinery and plays. In the first room, the curtains and wings did a good job of hiding the machinery from the audience. The stage seems much more spacious than it really is. The wings and backdrop were created by Alessandro Sanquirico, a scenic designer who created stage set for more than 300 productions for La Scala Opera House in Milan. His sets were made in the Romantic style. He even designed the decorations for the crowning of Ferdinando I of Austria as king of Lombardy and the Veneto and was responsible for some ceiling adornment in the cathedral of Milan.

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The next room focused on marionettes and machinery. One puppet had a metal head, allowing it to breathe fire through its mouth like a grotesque attraction of a circus performer or a mythical dragon. Some creative machinery included pipes that could simulate fog and lamps that were used for fire, lightning and thunder. It fascinated me how such objects could simulate sounds used in plays. It was ingenious to use these contraptions to make the sounds seem real.

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The stage setting in the third room was grotesque, to say the least. Dragons, devils and skeletons all made appearances in this ghoulish design. There also was an organ with three pipes that served the purpose of creating terrifying noises. I could easily imagine the audience being frightened by a play with this hellish stage set. I wondered about the plot of the play for which it had been used. Maybe it was for something Dante-ish in which the marionettes wound up in Hell.

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In the hallway, I saw more stage sets, including one of a Chinese temple and another showing a Renaissance building.

Because I had studied theatre in college and often went to the theatre in Prague, I was very interested in the history of theatre on the islands. The drama tradition of the islands can be found in writing as far back as 1657, when a theatre – for people, not for puppets – was built in the gardens of Isola Bella. Then a theatre building where comedies were presented was constructed in the garden. The thespians put a halt to their theatre activities in 1690. The puppet theatre tradition was initiated at the end of the 18th century.

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I soon came to Federico VI’s Bedroom. While other Federicos in the family had become cardinals and archbishops, this one contributed to the cultural sphere in Milan during the 1700s. Playwright Carlo Goldoni even dedicated his play The Antiquarian’s Family to Federico. The room included a 17th century four-poster bed, but I found Federico more fascinating than any of its furnishings.

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The Dining Room was elegant. I loved the delicate decoration of ivy leaves on the 19th century set of Viennese china adorning the long table. Some paintings included three landscapes of architecture that showed off ruins and neglected terrain.

In The Family Drawing Room, there were portraits of the dignified Borromeos. The portrait of Gilberto Borromeo and his wife Maria Elisabetta Cusani featured the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. It made me think back to my fortieth birthday, when I walked to St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset. Seeing the sun rise over the dome was stunning and gave me strength to be positive about turning forty and to look ahead and move onward rather than look back and get depressed. Another portrait that caught my eye showed four children and dog, the kids immersed in a game of backgammon. It brought back memories of playing board games – Monopoly, getting a get out of jail free card or buying up hotels and chess, which I took up briefly to impress a boy I liked in grade school. The room itself was not without impressive décor. Lunettes at the top of walls showed off allegories of youth, old age, honor and nobility, for instance.

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Besides the puppet theatre rooms, my favorite was the Venetian Drawing Room. The painted decoration on the walls made it resemble a pavilion with columns sporting plants and flowers. The door panels were adorned with vines as well. Even the mosaic flooring boasted a detailed pattern. The Rococo décor gave it a certain elegance. It was a light and airy room, perfect for morning tea, pondering over daily life and setting the world to rights as well as jotting notes for a new story or essay. It was a tranquil space where one could relax and get away from the stress and problems of the outside world. It was a sort of haven in which only my dreams and I existed.

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In the gardens near the palace, I also peaked into the family chapel, simple yet elegant. The small space included only one room, yet it had a certain charm and appeal.

I walked through the garden to the exit and joined my friend at a café with a terrific view of the lake. Throughout the gardens I had seen breathtaking views of other islands and the calm waters. I had a pistachio gelato while we waited for the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, a fishing village that now was filled with shops, stands, restaurants and cafes.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, proofreader and writer.

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View from Isola Madre

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