My first sight of Isola Bella was on our first evening in Stresa, as my sister and I walked along the lakeside, soaking up the warmth of the balmy dusk and watching the sun slip behind the mountains. The next day we made our way across Lago Maggiore on a little taxi boat that misted the view with its spray. From a distance the island seems to float serenely on the surface of the water like a tiered wedding cake. As the boat gets closer this impression is only emphasised when tall statues, white obelisks and pink roses come into view, festooning the tiers like filigree decorations.
The gardens of Isola Bella were a labour of love. Count Carlo Borromeo commissioned them for his wife Isabella d’Adda, the namesake of the island and it took 40 years (1631-1671) to transform the craggy, uneven landscape into the stunning baroque gardens that gives the island its characteristic pyramid shape today.
You enter the garden through the Tapestry Room of the Borromeo Palace, which leads out onto a connecting courtyard where a statue of Diana stands over a lazily bubbling fountain pool. Two curving flights of stairs, darkened by ceilings of climbers, flank the goddess in her alcove, leading up to towering bay hedges, which deny any glimpse of the garden beyond and enclose the space, giving the impression the visitor is standing in a green-walled room, more hall than atrium. It is as if the garden beyond is a palace in its own right and Diana is receiving her guests in the hall, welcoming them into the her domain.
With the goddess presiding above the pool, one cannot help but think of another who encountered Diana in such a sylvan setting, as the layout vividly recalls the landscape described in the story of Actaeon, who wanders too far into the woods and stumbles upon the goddess bathing:
Now picture a valley, dense with pine and tapering cypress, called Gargáphië, sacred haunt of the huntress Diana; there, in a secret corner, a cave surrounded buy woodland, owing nothing to human artifice. Nature had used her talent to imitate art: she had moulded the living rock of porous tufa to form the shape of a rugged arch. To the right, a babbling spring with thin translucent rivulet widening into a pool ringed round by a grassy clearing. Here the goddess who guards the woods would bathe her virginal limbs in the clear, clean water.
– Metamorphoses 3. 154-163
The virgin huntress is enraged when Actaeon is discovered and splashes him with water from her pool, transforming him into a stag who is hunted down and torn to pieces by Actaeon’s own dogs. Fortunately for us, Diana of Isola Bella was fully clothed and seemed welcoming, so we passed her without any such trouble, up one of the vine-covered staircases and through great iron-wrought gates shadowed by the branches of an enormous Camphor tree, into the Piano della Canfora. Cinnamomum camphor can grow up to 30m tall and this particular specimen is the largest in Italy, planted by Vitaliano IX Borromeo in 1819; camphor oil is extracted from its wood and its leaves are used in perfumery.
From the Piano della Canfora you step out onto a vast piazza, flanked by rectangular parterres, and are faced with the immense Teatro Massimo, a shell-shaped water theatre so imposing you seem to grow smaller and smaller as you approach – like Alice taking the ‘Drink Me’ potion, shrinking to enter Wonderland – until you stand dwarfed beneath and blink up at the figures silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight.
The majority of the statues were made between 1667-1677 by the Milanese sculptor Carlo Simonetta. They reach up to the sky or hold the weight of pillars on their backs, while others lounge in pebble-studded alcoves bordered by crimson hydrangeas and sprays of viburnum. At the pinnacle of the theatre is a rearing unicorn, symbol of the Borromeo family and taken from their coat of arms, ridden by a winged figure, representing Honour, or Love. Either side are statues symbolising Art and Nature and below is Verbano, personification of Lago Maggiore, along with the rivers Ticino and Po flanked by shells and dolphins. The colossal statues at the sides represent the four elements: fire and earth to the right, air and water to the left.
Twin flights of stairs lined with terracotta pots of rounded box lead up to a vast, empty terrace, 37m above the the level of the lake. Bare and stark comparison to the rest of the gardenscape, with the sun glancing off the stone beneath your feet, it is a desert in the centre of this lush oasis. When you look out across the lake the reason for its emptiness becomes clear as your eyes are filled with Lago Maggiore in all its breathtaking beauty and the terrace fades into the background: it is merely Borromeo’s banquet table, serving his guests with a feast for the eyes. The rose-wreathed terraces sloping down towards the lake guide your eyes South across brilliant blue waters to Stresa stretched out along the headland; to the West the haze-covered Mottarone mountain rises skywards among the Alps, and to the East is Isola Madre, the largest island on the Borromeo Gulf.
It is not hard to imagine lavishly dressed guests at one of the Borromeo’s parties, surveying lake, shore and mountains with from this high and heady vantage point in the evening light, dizzy from the climb and tipsy from fine wine, drinking in a view that allows the beauty of the outside world to be enjoyed from the comfort and safety of rose-scented gardens.
It was hard to leave the top terrace, but the promise of a closer look at the sumptuous garden below beckoned and we walked to the East side of the garden overlooking the Parterre delle Azalee, which in spring is blanketed with the great clusters of white azaleas and snowy drops of fuscias, but in summer is dominated by immaculately manicured hedges of yew, holm oak, bay laurel, holly and box in bold shades of green. Above stands an aviary full of chattering lovebirds and a shady walk walled with lemon trees in terracotta pots border the spectacular view over the Lombard coast and offer a temporary reprieve from the riot of colour found elsewhere in the gardens.
A belvedere leads to the South of the garden, its walkway flanked by stunning hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis, which only flowers for a single day) and a medley of blazing scarlet blooms entice you along the path through the octagonal Torre dei Venti, leading to the Giardino d’Amore.
As you step into the Giardino d’Amore the first glimpse offered is an understated one, you cannot yet see the tranquil waters of the lake stretching out into the distance or the ten magnificent flower-strewn terraces towering above. Instead, you are faced with an unassuming wall of espaliered lemons and the crisp scent of citrus intermingled with the warm headiness of jasmine boasts of the garden’s glory and beckons you in.
Standing beneath the terraces one is again reminded of a tiered wedding cake, but as well as festoons of pink roses, oleanders and hydrangeas wreath the pyramid, edged by box and cone-shaped yew trees. The statues that were faceless from a distance can now be recognised as the four seasons, each identified by the plant they bear that flowers in season, evoking Ovid’s vivid description:
…youthful Spring with her wreath of flowers,
Summer naked but for her garland of ripening corn ears,
Autumn stained with the juice of trodden clusters of grapes,
And icy Winter, whose aged locks were hoary and tangled.
– Metamorphoses 2. 27-29
The crowning glory of this garden, however, are the starry Nymphaea, exquisite waterlilies of reds, yellows, pinks and whites sitting elegantly on the shining surfaces of mirror-like ponds, confident in their bright beauty, not unlike Isola Bella herself.
Making your way out of the garden through the Torre della Noria and along the west side of the pyramid, another olfactory feast awaits: espaliers of citrus trees cling mural-like to its base, lining the wall as far as the eye can see, their fresh and zesty scent pervading the warm air. These golden fruits would not look out of place on a fresco and are reminiscent of those depicted in the Garden Room fresco of Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta (pictured at the top of the blog). Green and gold pomelos, sunshine yellow grapefruits, gigantic lopsided lemons and tangy citrons climb the side of the pyramid, including the strongly aromatic Citrus limonimedica ‘Florentina’ and ‘Maxima’, whose fruits can weigh up to 3kg.
As if this was not enough, to the left is the Viale di Ponente where pomegranates and palms frame the Western view and lead to a path of rare and exotic plants: breadfruit, coffee, cacao, gum, endangered ferns and finally an exquisite rare orchid behind glass, suspended in mid-air.
But even as you exit the gardens through a greenhouse walled with tufa and lake stones, bursting with tropical plants, it is the striking citrus trees and their intoxicating scent that clings to you and seems to follow you out, or at least, you wish it did.