Art historian Marco Mansi explores the extraordinary Isola Bella, a storied island on Lake Maggiore, replete with a 17th-century Baroque palace, extensive Italian-style gardens and six incredible shell-encrusted grottos.




The Oxford Dictionary defines paradise as a place that is extremely beautiful and seems perfect, like heaven. The term entered English from French, but its origin comes from an Avestan word that the Greeks modified into parádeisos to describe the enclosed royal gardens of ancient Iran. During the Middle Ages, the term also acquired the religious connotation we know today. However, it never lost its ability to connote places of earthly delight.

The 16th-century Italian Jesuit, Paolo Morigia, must have been well aware of this blurred semantic border. In his Historia del Lago Maggiore (History of the Lake Maggiore), published in 1603, he describes the little island as an enchanted place where the climate is neither warm nor cold, the air is pure, citrus trees grow in abundance, flowers have an inebriating smell, and one can admire numerous species of rare birds like on Noah’s ark.

When seen from a distance, the Isola Bella looks like a richly trimmed vessel, the Borromeo palace occupying the bow and the luxuriant gardens protruding into the stern. The island was no more than a little rocky crag dotted with fishermen’s cottages and a church until the seventeenth century. In 1630, Carlo III Borromeo inherited it from his father Renato I, and asked the Milanese architect Giovanni Angelo Crivelli to turn it into a place of delight for him and his family. Crivelli envisioned a scenic Italian-style garden with a casino (little country house) at its centre.

Works started two years later, but the original plan was never not fully implemented. Carlo’s son, the financially wise Vitaliano VI, opted to restore and extend a pre-existing old house on the northern tip of the island instead of building a brand-new residence. Francesco Catelli and later Andrea Biffi were responsible for redesigning the palazzo and creating the faux façade which hides the fishermen’s village and the Atrio di Diana (Diana’s Hall). This theatrical open space connects the palace to the gardens.



After Vitaliano’s death in 1690, the works on Palazzo Borromeo halted for almost a century. Giberto V revived his predecessors’ ambitious project in the late 18th-century. The neoclassical Ball Room and the Grotto Apartment on the lower ground floor (pictured above, and background) were completed at that time.

The six grottos are among the most extraordinary rooms of this kind in Italy. Vitaliano wished to create a suite of fresh and cool rooms accessible from the gardens where he could find respite from the summer heat. The walls are entirely encrusted with pebbles, glass, fragments of mica stone, and shells to mimic the look of natural caves. Black, red, and white mosaics featuring Borromeo’s heraldic badges embellish the floors.



The Borromeo conceived the Isola Bella as a fusion of architecture, art, and nature from the beginning. The gardens play a central role in this Baroque ensemble and still preserve the original Italian-style design that Crivelli planned in 1631. The most extraordinary feature is the so-called Teatro Massimo, a ten-tier pyramid embellished with statues and fountains. Over the century, many exotic and rare trees have found safe refuge here thanks to the gentle microclimate of Lake Maggiore.

The Isola Bella is a little Eden on Earth. If the Ancient Greeks ever had a chance to visit it, they would have described it as a paradeisos.

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Marci Mansi is a London-based writer, curator and art historian, and a regular contributor to Cabana | Follow Marco on Instagram: @marco_mansi_ 

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