View from one of the grottoes in the palace
While visiting the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore, our tour guide saved the best for last. Named after Carlo III Borromeo’s wife Isabella d’Adda, the luxurious island had its name shortened to Isola Bella. I had heard there were ten terraces of gardens built in the shape of a truncated pyramid and that the island was shaped like a boat. Before experiencing the magic of the lush gardens, I entered the magnificent palace, which featured painting and other decoration that left me in awe.
The Medal Room astounded me with its stucco and gilded adornment, alabaster statues and Murano chandelier. Ten medallions showed scenes from the life of Saint Charles. Two cabinets featured columns and richly decorated black stone.
The large Throne Room showed off Lombard Baroque art, a ribbed vault ceiling and stucco with shell and plant decoration. Of course, the highlight was the throne, a gilded, wooden structure from the 18th century. It had an embroidered silk canopy. I also admired the red marble pilasters that added to the regal atmosphere. Two large cabinets from the 18th century had been made with tortoiseshell and included designs of landscapes. I admired the intrinsic detail of the craftsmanship.
The biggest space in the palace, the Reception Room was lighter in atmosphere than the other rooms. The monumental pillars were decorated with putti and emblems, including a camel with a crown and a unicorn. A model of the palace and garden in the center of the room reminded me of visiting my Dad’s office on weekends as I gazed at all the architectural models and wondered if and when they would be built or if they had already been built. Statues and busts added to the adornment in the space. The circular pattern and dome added to the elegance of the space. There was plenty of white stucco décor. I saw the coat-of-arms symbols of the Borromeo clan on the walls. The brave unicorn that did not seem to shun a snake caught my attention.
The Music Room has historical significance as the Stresa Conference was held there from April 11 to April 14, 1935. Representatives from Italy, Great Britain and France were concerned with Hitler’s violation of a section of the Treaty of Versailles. Little did they know that the following year the Italo-Abyssinian War would put a halt to their April negotiations calling for peace.
What I liked best about this room were the 80 some paintings by Flemish artist Pieter Muller the Younger, who had acquired the nickname of The Tempest because he often created stormy landscapes. There were also two portraits in the room, the only portraits that The Tempest had ever created. The Tempest had lived an intriguing life. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for murdering his first wife in 1679, but the Borromeo clan used their influence to get him released. Other items of interest in the room included a Florentine safe that was masterfully carved. A harpsichord in golden cypress wood stood out in the center of the room. The Murano chandelier added to the décor that I found almost overwhelming.
The Napoleon Room got its name because Napoleon and his wife slept in the bed on display after his army defeated Italy. The canopy included damask and silk with silk braid. However, this was not Napoleon’s only stay at Isola Bella. He and his wife first spent the night here in 1797. I noticed that much of the furniture was in Empire Style and was reminded of the plethora of furnishings in that style at the Bohemian chateau Kačina. I admired the beautiful stuccoes as well. A Murano chandelier from the 18th century captured my attention as well.
The Luca Giordano Room featured three large canvases by that author. One, the Rape of Europa, showed Jupiter as a bull. Another pictorially described the Judgment of Paris. But the room was not only awe-inspiring due to painted decoration. There were Japanese vases and even an ivory saddle from the 15th century that also astounded.
The Zuccarelli Room was dominated by landscape paintings that Francesco Zuccarelli had created. His paintings emitted a sense of joy. I was already happy, but I felt even happier looking at them. Peasants, shepherds and mythological figures punctuated his works. I particularly liked the rendition showing the property and castles owned by the Borromean clan. I loved tapestries, and this room showed off three 16th century tapestries made in England. The velvet upholstery on the divans was another delight.
In the Conversation Room, one piece of furnishing caught my attention the most. The top of a round table was made of colored marbles depicting a vase of flowers. It took 18 years just to gather marbles in the right colors! That’s how detailed and intricate the work was. It had been a gift to the Borromeos from Pope Leo XII in the 19th century.
The rectangular Ballroom combined neoclassical features with Empire style décor. The divans were in Empire style while the marble sculptural grouping depicting the Rape of Persephone was made in neoclassical form. The stuccowork and imitation marble decoration had me in awe. I admired the flowers, fruit and garlands in circular frames that punctuated the room. The big mirrors had trompe d’oeil frames.
I also saw six grottoes in the palace. This is where the Borromeos came when it was unbearably hot in the summer because the grottoes were cool. Black and white pebbles, tufa, stucco and stones were used for impressive decoration. Out of the stones were created figures of dolphins, seashells, bees and flowers. The last grotto included a fountain with a dolphin figure in the middle. It dated from the 18th century. The grottoes seemed depressing and dark to me, but their decoration was intricate and admirable. Still, I much preferred the light Reception Room that radiated joy due to its lighting.
Next came a corridor of mirrors set at angles. They multiplied images in such a way that I was able to see many strange perspectives. That is one of the main reasons I travel, I mused – to gain new perspectives on life and the world.
The room that perhaps was dearest to my heart was the Tapestry Gallery with six Flemish tapestries on display. A lioness, tiger and unicorn fought a tough battle while starving ostriches roamed in the wilderness, ravenously hungry. An otter was savoring a fish. In one tapestry a monkey, pheasant, elephant and two giraffes did battle with a rhinoceros.
The Italian Baroque gardens were next on my list. The truncated pyramid had ten terraces, fountains and sculptural decoration. I stared at this gem for a long time, astounded at its beauty. White peacocks strolled by, acting nonchalant. The Camphor Garden showed off rare and exotic plants. The Theatre of Amphitheatre Garden’s architecture was intricate, taking the shape of a shell. Pillars, statues and obelisks stood out, especially the statue of a unicorn – the main symbol of the Borromeo clan – and the statues representing the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The statue of fire was notable for the anvil in the back of the figure. Statues of the four seasons also made appearances. Winter donned a hat made of metal feathers.
The Upper Terrace offered magnificent views of the lake and mountains beyond as well as the other islands. Egyptian papyrus, a banana grove and azaleas made up a beautiful Flower Garden. I loved the pool dotted with water lilies – it triggered thought of my favorite painter, Monet – in the Garden of Love. The many statues and spectacular views added to its splendor. There was a stunning greenhouse, too.
I wound up sitting at the outdoor café, taking in the amazing view and drinking some much-needed water on this unbearably hot day. Then I followed the path out of the garden and eventually came to some shops and an intimate chapel. On the embankment were many stands with souvenirs, clothes and other items.
Soon it was time to get the boat back to Stresa, located in the center of the Gulf of Borromeo. I admired the grandeur of the large hotels there. The Hotel des Iles Borromees had hosted kings, princes and politicians. Ernest Hemingway had written about the place in his novel Farewell to Arms. I didn’t see any of the churches or the park with zoo. I also didn’t have time to go the top of Matterone at 4,892 feet. Instead, I walked leisurely through the center, admiring the small cafes and shops selling magazines, shoes, purses and handmade greeting cards. Then I had dinner at an outdoor café and later met a friend at a café. Then it was time to go to the bus and make our way back to Prague.
Church on Isola Bella
My last day at the Italian lakes had been delightful with impressive and awe-inspiring sights, full of memories that would last a lifetime. Each island had its own unique character. My favorite was Isola Bella with its luxurious palace and lush gardens. Isola Bella was an incredible place, that was for sure. Then again, all the Borromean Islands had been incredible.
Views from garden
View from palace
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.