The enchanting Borromean Islands take their name from a Milanese family, whose surname is derived from “buon romei” (good Roman). This Borromeo family, whose name designated in the Middle Ages those who came from Rome, settled in Milan where they became powerful bankers.
In his capacity as treasurer of the powerful Lombard Visconti family which took the title of Duke of Milan in 1395, then of the Sforza family which succeeded it in 1450, Vitaliano Borromeo received Arona as a fief and then was made count.
A family of influence, the Borromeo never ceased to forge links with the Visconti, the Medicis, the Sforzas and the Barberinis to consolidate their power. The alliance of the three families Borromeo, Visconti and Sforza is symbolized by the astonishing Borromean knot, an emblem that adorns the palaces of the Borromeos, especially on Isola Bella.
When it comes to knot theory, what are called “Borromean rings” constitute a web of three circles which cannot be detached from each other even by deforming them, although the removal of any circle frees the two remaining circles. I wonder which family should have been left out of the equation to free the other two.
The Borromeo family experienced a long period of power and prosperity, until Duke Francis II Sforza bequeathed the duchy to Charles Quint.
The Borromean Islands is a group of three islands and two islets (Isolino di San Giovanni and the Rock of Malghera – which cannot be visited).
Isolino di San Giovanni
Rock of Malghera
Isola dei Pescatori, also called “isola superiore” is the island of fishermen and its narrow streets and small houses are highly picturesque. It is the only one of the three islands to never have belonged to the Borromeo family, it is also the only one to be permanently inhabited throughout the year.
100 meters wide and 350 meters long and inhabited by around fifty residents, it shelters along its narrow streets simple fishermen’s houses, equipped with long balconies formerly used to dry fish. Its simplicity contrasts with the displayed luxury of the other two islands.
Isola Madre, formerly called “isola di San Vittore” then “isola maggiore”, is the largest of the islands and is covered over 8 hectares of gardens famous for the diversity of their rare plants and exotic flowers. The first crops date back to the beginning of the 16th century when the Borromeo family, noting the exceptionally mild climate of the place, had citrus fruits and vines planted there. During the 19th century, the orchard was transformed into a botanical garden, thanks to the passion for botany of Count Vitaliano IX Borromeo, who never ceased to enrich his collections of exotic plants from all over the world.
Isola Bella is the most remarkable for its 17th century baroque castle. Isola Bella was known as “isola inferiore” or “isola di sotto” (lower island) until 1632, when there was a small fishing village there. But in 1632, Count Carlo III Borromeo commissioned the construction of a palace in honor of his wife Isabella d’Adda. The work, interrupted by an epidemic of plague, was not completed until 1652 by the sons of Carlo and the terraced gardens were not inaugurated until 1671.
The palace and gardens represent an imaginary vessel: the palace acts as the front deck and the higher terrace acts as the rear deck.
The four-storey palace is typical of the Baroque style.
The most interesting rooms are located on the first level: the hall of honor with its grandiose architecture with its interior balcony and its dome and around which the neoclassical ballroom opens, the music room with its precious musical instruments, the “delle medaglie” room, so called for its gilded wooden medallions representing various periods of life of San Carlo Borromeo, the gallery of tapestries which exhibits precious 16th century Flemish tapestries in silk and gold as well as many other rooms decorated with paintings, decorated with furniture, stucco and crystal chandeliers.
The bed where Bonaparte invited Josephine to spend the night during the Italian campaigns is still there.
In the basement is the most original part of the palace: six caves adorned with pebbles. The water is not far away and it is wonderfully refreshing.
The Italian garden is divided into ten terraces which draw the shape of a pyramid decorated with balustrades, hedges, obelisks and statues.
The upper terrace is the panoramic point of the island.
On the intermediate terrace is the elegant “giardino dell’amore (garden of love) adorned with a pond of water lilies and magnificent flowerbeds embroidered with boxwood.
The “teatro massimo” (the amphitheater), which represents the triumph of the Borromeo family, is an elaborate ensemble on three levels with walls decorated with natural stones, niches, reliefs and statuettes.
The fame of Isola Bella went beyond the borders and the European nobility jostled to attend its festivals.
In fact, the family motto “Humilitas” may make one smile gently, but the wonder provoked by so much beauty wins out.
August 4, 2023