by Roderick Conway Morris

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Villa Balbianello
Villa Balbianello on Lake Como

Strolling Around Lovers' Lake

By Roderick Conway Morris
BELLAGIO 21 March 1997


'I know of no other spot more obviously blessed by heaven,' wrote Franz Liszt to an author friend in 1837, having eloped here with his lover Marie de Flavigny (who had left her husband the Comte D'Agoult to live with the composer), urging him, if he were to write about two happy lovers, 'to set the story on the shores of Lake Como'. The upshot of all this heady romance was Cosima, who later married Wagner.

This little town's charm has miraculously survived to the present day, its position at the crux formed by Como's inverted 'Y' giving it lake views in almost every direction and its ethereal light effects, especially when a pearly mist lingers on the surface of the waters, lending the place a sense of enchanted unreality - the reason, perhaps, why this part of the lake has long exerted a powerful spell not only over artists and aesthetes but also some outstanding and cultivated eccentrics, some of whom have left remarkable monuments behind them.

The miniature mountain that forms the tip of the Bellagio peninsula was converted in the late 18th and early 19th century by Duke Alessandro Serbelloni into one of the world's most spectacular gardens. He spent phaoronic sums on a permanent squad of uniformed gardeners the size of a small private army, who terraced and planted the mountain's sides and built 18 kilometers of carriageway so that he could go on a good long drive, admiring the ever-changing perspectives without ever leaving his property. The Villa Serbelloni estate was bequeathed to the Rockefeller Foundation in 1959, and the still wonderful grounds are open to visitors between about Easter and mid-October. Numbers are strictly limited, however, so it is worth booking in advance.

The typical Como garden is characterized by the luxuriance and variety of its trees and flora, and the lake's shores become a riot of color in May and early June when the tens of thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas are in bloom.

In contrast, the Villa Serbelloni gardens, designed more to enhance the appreciation of the majestic surrounding scenery, with their predominance of cypress and olive trees and box and yew hedges, though enlivened by bright splashes, grottoes and statuary, are relatively restrained. More typical at Bellagio of the classic Como parkland to be found at Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo and elsewhere, are the grounds of the Villa Melzi (open late March to late October).

Bellagio also has one of the last golden age grand hotels, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, which has resisted radical updating and has maintained its old-world atmosphere (while discreetly tucking away in an annex such innovations as saunas and a fitness center). Its owner, Gianfranco Bucher, is the great-grandson of the Swiss Franz Joseph Bucher, the 19th-century self-made accommodator of the well-heeled, who built a dozen grand hotels, including the Semiramis in Cairo, and half a dozen mountain railways. Like most of the hotels in Bellagio, the Hotel Villa Serbelloni is open only from Easter to mid-October, as are two other comfortable and welcoming, but much cheaper, establishments next door that also have good lake views, Hotel du Lac and the Florence.

Bellagio is the ideal base from which to visit Villa del Balbianello, Como's most beautiful and unusual villa, and Isola Comacina, the lake's only island, where there is a curious and amusing trattoria. Both of these are on the opposite side of the western branch of the lake and can be got to by the regular public boat services that run from Spring to Autumn.

Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, an accomplished composer of Latin verse, onetime overseer in Malta of the papal fleet's operations against the Barbary pirates and the Vatican's Nunzio to Poland, decided in 1787, while in his early sixties, to retire from the public stage and devote himself to the good things in life in the company of his learned and literary friends. Having failed in his bid to obtain possession of Isola Comacina, he acquired the modest 16th-century villa and small Franciscan church on the nearby headland, Dosso di Lavedo, which is isolated from the mainland by steep slopes and dense forest. Durini made of the promontory an exquisite complex of buildings and gardens, the appearance of which has changed little since the Cardinal's death in 1796.

The inlaid inscription that still greets visitors at the foot of the steps, leading up from the Villa's own tiny harbor, Rabelais' 'Fay ce que vouldras' (Do what thou wilt), well reflects the style of the epicurean refuge the Cardinal created for himself here, far from the prying eyes of his nearest neighbors. Outwardly the Franciscan church, with its twin belfries, still looks like a place of prayer, but Durini had its interior converted into well-equiped kitchens, the towers providing convenient chimneys. The villa on the level above has secret passageways leading from the Cardinal's bed chamber to one of the guest rooms, and to the magnificent Loggia on the high ridge of the promontory.

The Loggia, with its breezy, arched central area has sweeping panoramic views to north and south of the lake. The surrounding gardens, with their winding paths, lawns, terraces, pollarded trees and exotic plants, are perfectly-molded into the natural contours of the headland, and on three sides cliffs plunge dramatically into waters as pellucid as those of the Aegean, below which a mirror garden of bright green aquatic plants sways to the motion of the gentle currents.

Villa del Balbianello's last private owner, Count Guido Monzino, made of the villa's attic a museum to his expedition to the North Pole in 1971 (the sledge he used is here complete with his gentleman-amateur's Gladstone bag), and his ascent of Everest in 1973.

On his death in 1988, Monzoni (whose ashes are enshrined in Cardinal Durini's subterranean ice-house carved out of the solid rock) left the Balbianello to FAI (Italy's National Trust), with his contents and its considerable collection of antique furniture, Chinese, African and pre-Columbian artworks, and extensive library of books and illustrations of mountaineering and polar exploration. The gardens and Villa - the latter by prearrangement only - can be visited between April and October, by taking a boat from the nearby port of Sala Comacina.

Isola Comacina can also easily be reached from Sala Comacina and by the public boats that regularly navigate the length and breadth of the lake. Above this pretty wooded island's landing stage is the Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, run by Benvenuto Puricelli and his family for nearly 40 years.

Throughout this time the menu - which includes smoked ham, a superb range of vegetables and salad, grilled lake salmon-trout, fried chicken, Parmesan cheese and slices of peach or orange with ice-cream - has remained as invariable as 'the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not'. The pace is relaxed, everything is perfectly prepared and the meal eventually ends with a barmy coffee ritual designed to allay the evil spirits that supposedly inhabit the island, for which Benvenuto dons a woolly hat (the significance of which seems lost in the mists of time).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023