Today I promised you a look into a rarefied world we seldom see – the Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous and let me start by stating that the 1980’s US Television series of the same name didn’t even touch the surface of the Family Borromeo way of life. While the American “Great” family dynasties such as the Astors, The Vanderbilts, The Rockefellers (actually the Rockefellers do have a part in my review of the Northern Lakes of Italy in a future post) Mellons, DuPonts, etc all achieved enormous wealth, political and philanthropic success, they could never aspire to the apex of the Borromeo’s stature: sainthood. A little background on the family before I proceed, but please look at the above family emblem, which is found all over the villa on Isola Bella in Lago Maggiore, is critical to understanding the family (Fellow Classic Journeyers, don’t give it away yet).
BACKGROUND – During the 13th Century bankers from Northern Italy, collectively known as Lombards, gradually replaced the Jews as money-lenders to the rich and powerful. Many cities grew wealthy and Florence was at the top of this heap. Success also created envy, greed and disputes over control – unfortunately the Borromeos were on the losing side – after a failed rebellion against Florentine rule in 1370, Filippo di Lazzaro Borromeo was hanged as one of the ringleaders and the family fled the Tuscany area to find refuge elsewhere, landing in Milan. Through the latter half of the 14th Century to midway in the 15th, the Borromeo family fortune was established and many estates were bought around Lago Maggiore forming a compound around 1447. The building of the magnificent palazzo (or is it now a villa since it is seasonally used?) as well as the gardens of Isola Bella were begun by Count Vitiliano VI in 1632 as he began changing the islands in Lago Maggiore from natural escarpments into palatial environments in order the reflect the immense power and social stature of the family Borromeo. While Isola Bella and Isola Madre became the homes of grand palazzo, the third island, aptly named Isola Pescatori was “humbly” left as a simple fisherman’s island.
There was no such simple idea for the grounds of Isola Bella, however as the Borromeos hired top of the line architects and landscapers to create an area that would replicate the form of a galleon (a large sailing ship) — the dock represented the vessel’s prow, the palazzo was the bow, and the garden’s colossal raised terraces were the ship’s bridge. The interior of the palazzo as you will see in pictures below is opulent+++, – no holds barred. N.B. during our tour of the palazzo, we were not allowed to take pictures, but I have searched the internet for examples of the magnificent rooms:
The first internet picture of a model of the Isola Bella is a bit blurry, but I think it gives you an idea of the galleon shape just discussed
The architectural style is baroque – common in the 17th and 18th centuries, featuring many decorative parts and intricate details: In fact, the furnishings were so sumptuous, that it is rumored that Napoleon lifted a few items to keep during his stay (don’t think he was asked back again):
Even the grotto, where the family would go to cool off during the hot summer – is a wonder. Six rooms, which provide a connection area between the palazzo and the ten-tiered gardens (which you will see in a moment) are ornately decorated with shells and took over 100 years to complete. Our very funny guide – seriously she could have done standup – said that this area was a “spa.” See if you can catch the joke:
Hint: She’s a sleeping nude – not a customer waiting for a massage.
Onto the gardens which are so massive, so luxurious, so ornate, filled with magnificent statues and live pure white peacocks – that I am going to let the pictures speak for themselves. We were very fortunate to have arrived late afternoon on a rainy day so there were virtually no other tourists to mar our picture-taking (these are all mine, by the way):
Just. Wow. But I still owe you the story of the Saint, and the answer to the mystery of the Borromeo family emblem. In the mid 1500’s Gilberto II Borromeo, who was the governor at Lago Maggiore, married Margherita Medici di Marignano. the sister of Pope Pius IV and Gian Giacomo Medici, Duke of Marignano (pretty exalted circle, right)? One of their sons, Carlo Borromeo (1564−1631), became a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church as well as archbishop of Milan, A commission from Pope Pius taxed Carlo (Charles) Borromeo to reform a penitential order, that had strayed from its original precepts of charity, mortification and simplicity of life. Borromeo worked to cleanse the order – he emptied the cathedrals of ornate tombs, rich ornaments, banners, and arms and the monuments in an effort to bring back the piety, purity and humbleness implied by the order’s title (and similarly, his family emblem). Charles Borromeo’s efforts were so lauded that upon his death, he was canonized as a saint. Not many families can claim that.
St. Charles worked ceaselessly to bring to life the embodiment of his family’s emblem – worked so hard that his life was often threatened and he did indeed die an early death. The Borromeos over time have grown even more popular and still are exalted today.
What is this Borromeo emblem?
HUMILITAS – HUMILITY
I will leave you to ponder this paradox.