Villa del Balbianello
I get asked a lot about what to visit in the area of the Great Lakes of Northern Italy by friends and by clients. There is so much to see that they want recommendations of what they should prioritise since it’s impossible to cover the whole area properly even in several trips. It’s not an easy question, I admit it, but my most common answer is always Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como, that you can easily visit from Milan (only 37 km away), together with one of the beautiful towns scattered on the lake shore, just in a day, leaving comfortably in the morning and being back for dinner.
A celebrities heaven
Lake Como is an all-time favourite of aristocrats, writers, artists, royalty, politicians and more recently Hollywood stars. Stendhal found here its inspiration for The Charterhouse of Parma; the lake inspired Wordsworth and Shelley; Verdi composed La Traviata on these shores, Bellini conceived Norma, Litz wrote Après Une Lecture de Dante that I am listening now while writing, Puccini and Rossini found also the atmosphere particularly fertile for their creativity.
The Gold Coast villas hosted Churchill on a painting holiday in 1945, before him among others, the Grand Duchess Catherine of Russia, Lady Chamberlain and after him the kind of John F. Kennedy. Alfred Hitchcock, the first of the many directors to fall in love with this lake, used Villa d’Este, the lake’s best hotel, for his first movie, The Pleasure Garden. The same hotel is rumoured to have been one of the considered locations for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitts’ wedding. Today’s celebrities as Bill Gates, George Clooney and Tom Cruise are known to love the area as well.
An explorer’s dream and vision
There are many extraordinary places when it comes to the lakes of Northern Italy. Lake Como is indeed special: a glacier lake, shaped like an inverted Y, described and made famous by the words of Alessandro Manzoni in The Betrothed: “quell ramo del Lago di Como…”, running beneath the Italian Alps, its shores dotted with little characteristics villages and a very special atmosphere given by the light reflecting on its stunning blue waters. And there are many crazy beautiful villas in the area too: Villa Melzi in Bellagio, however only the gardens are open to the public, Villa Carlotta near Tramezzo, Villa Monastero and The Gardens of Villa Cipressi in Varenna, just to mention a few.
So, why I always choose Villa del Balbianello? Certainly, I have a soft spot for it. Its last owner, Count Guido Monzino, even before being a very successful business man, was an explorer at heart, who guided the first Italian expedition to the North Pole and to Mount Everest and had a keen eye for collecting treasures from all over the world. Yet, Villa del Balbianello is also one rare example of the miracle we can witness whenever manmade creation competes in beauty and perfection with nature and, at the same time, both live in perfect harmony, as they were meant to be, from the very beginning of time.
The Villa’s architecture and extraordinary garden, perfectly blends in the lake gentle and serene landscape. Its grandeur is more in the details than in size or will to impress. There is a kindness in this relation, admiration and respect, a rare combination of perfection and alignment, that just makes it exceptional and well worth a visit. It must not be only my opinion since the Villa is the most visited among the 52 properties of FAI, the Italian National Trust.
“Yet, Villa del Balbianello is also one rare example of the miracle we can witness whenever manmade creation competes in beauty and perfection with nature and, at the same time, both live in perfect harmony, as they were meant to be, from the very beginning of time.”
Villa del Balbianello sits on the wooded promontory of the peninsula of Lavedo, so offering a wide panorama, almost 360 degrees on the enchanted lake and the surrounding mountains.
The Villa is a conversion from the original building of a Franciscan Monastery dating back the 13th century and whose campanili (bell towers) have been included in the new body of construction and are still visible as the two towers you can find on the property. Unable to buy the nearby Isola Comacina, the Villa was built from the very beginning with the arts in mind by Cardinal Durini in the 18th century, who bought the property as a summer house. He wanted to host here exclusive literary retreats. Guido Monzino restored its original vocation since he bought the villa with the intent of making it its residence, but also a school for explorer and a museum for all its collections of ancient and primitive objects, he was then acquiring from the most prestigious auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christies and for his books, maps and all sorts of explorer’s tools. Everything is still there, available to the public as per his will when he bequeathed the house to FAI, at his death in 1988.
Located in the municipality of Lenno, on the western shore of the south-west branch of Lake Como, Villa del Balbianello has been stage of many important events. During the early 1800s, it was a meeting point of the Carbonari, the place where the unification of Italy was discussed and planned. Probably the most illustrious guest of this period was writer and patriot Silvio Pellico. Later, the villa became property of the grandfather of the great Italian movie director Luchino Visconti. We can still admire the emblem of the Visconti family, a serpent with a man in its mouth, on the balustrade in front of the church. Famous guests of these years were Giovanni Berchet, Alessandro Manzoni and the artist Arnold Böcklin. After the Viscontis, the villa was owned by an American business man until Guido Monzino bought it and redecorated completely with English Georgian and French antique furniture form the 18th and 19th centuries, tapestries and oriental carpets. Monzino also added a series of secret passages throughout the villa, worried of being a possible target for kidnapping during the Red Brigade years.
Guido Monzino made 21 expeditions during his lifetime, including Patagonia, Equatorial Africa, Greenland, the North Pole and the Himalaya. Some of the treasures we can admire today, were sourced during those trips, like the collection of Inuit sculptures, the most important in Europe outside Greenland, the dog sleds used during the 1971 expedition to the North Pole, a collection of Aztec and Mayan figures and his African tribal art in the Sala dei Primitivi.
Where home and museum meet
But don’t get the wrong impression. The house doesn’t look and feel like a museum. Most of the collections are just part of the furnishing of the house and they display their beauty and glory in a lively form, as objects being used and not specimen of academic interest. This provides a completely different atmosphere and feel to the visit. Books and maps are in the library, containing more than 40’000 volumes dedicated to geography and travel, the Ming collection adorn the sitting room and French and English antiques are mixed in the various rooms to create a sophisticated and tasteful décor.
The lake is visible from every room, being always the main protagonist and bringing in its calming and soothing light, a soul balm conjuring the dreamy sense of unreality of the lake right inside every space.
The two most stunning and peculiar art pieces are certainly the Inuit carvings, sort of Voodoo dolls carved in walrus teeth and the reverse painting on glass collection dating back the 18th century. I had personally never seen these painted artworks who demonstrate exceptional skills. The glass is painted following an opposite logic to what a painter would normally do. You start from the details and then add the rest in a carefully layered technique. This is because the paint is applied on one side of the glass but the image is seen turning the glass over and looking through at the image. So everything must be done reversed. There is no room for mistake here since you cannot cover it while you are adding layers and details to the painting and this is what made these painting rare and exceptionally valuable at the same time. The quality and the wealth of details of them, particularly the collection kept in Mr Monzino’s mother apartment, left me speechless.
Villa del Balbianello’s garden is one of the most romantic and unusual I have ever visited. I am not crazy about Italian, manicured and geometrically designed garden, preferring the natural, wild beauty of the English style ones, but this one is an exception. There is a geometry to it and definitely everything is carefully designed and placed in the mastermind design that arranges everything within a scheme, but there is a natural gentleness that comes with it, that even the unusual shaped trees cannot disrupt, probably also due to the steep and irregular grounds that didn’t allow a conventional geometrical Italian garden.
Candelabra-shape pruned trees are one of the images that I will always associate to the villa. Particularly if you visit in winter. Wisteria would probably be the protagonist of Spring, yet every season would make this garden look magnificent. Hedges of box and laurel, holm oaks, magnolias, cypresses, calycanthus plants, azaleas and rhododendrons, amidst roses and blooms of all sorts dresses the place enchanting the visitors.
Walking around the avenues lined with statues, between scenic terraces and exotic blooms, you can enjoy two different panoramas of the lake, thanks to the Loggia, that was added by Cardinal Durini in 1787. The Loggia dominates the upper part of the garden. Looking out from one side you can see Tramezzina, centre of the Lario, reminiscent of Stendhal descriptions. From the other side, you can admire the Durini’s bay, stretching towards Comacina Island.
Villa del Balbianello has not escaped the keen eye of Hollywood’s location scouters and the Villa has been chosen as film location for several movies including the classic Piccolo Mondo Antico by Mario Soldati (1940), La Certosa di Parma by Christian-Jaque (1947) and the most recent: Jackpot by Mario Orfini (1992), A month by the Lake, by John Irvin (1995), the second episode of the Star Wars saga (2002) and 007, with Casino Royale by Martin Campbell.
The Villa is very active as a wedding and event venue as well and it’s common to come across a bride and groom, their couple portraits being taken by a crew of photographers while you walk in the garden. Waiting time for a wedding here is about 2 years!
The villa is reachable by water and you can catch a boat back to the parking after the visit if you wish. You can also reach Lenno from Bellagio, on the side of the lake, by boat or ferry, so you can have your car with you to continue with your journey. There are many passengers ferries going around the lake and that can be an easy and fun way to hop around if you have the time.