|The Borromean Islands: Isola Bella|
Looking across from Stresa to Isola Bella today it is hard to believe it was once a rocky island, home to a small community of fishermen. However until 1630 Isola Inferiore (as it was previously known) was a world away from the splendour that the Borromeo Family created.
In 1630 Carlo III Borromeo took the first steps to changing the island. He hired an architect to design a castle-type building where the palace currently stands and a more elegant casino at the highest point of the island. Carlo also decided to name the island after his wife, Isabella D’Adda, and it became known as Isola Isabella (later to be shortened to Isola Bella).
In spite of Carlo’s plans it was to be his sons, Vitaliano VI Borromeo and cardinal Giberto III Borromeo who really transformed Isola Bella. Abandoning the original architect’s plans and dropping the idea of a casino they planned the palace and gardens. Their vision was that Isola Bella should appear to be a ship sailing across the lake.
And so work began on the palace and the terraced gardens and although the palace was basically finished in 1670 and the gardens were inaugurated in 1671, work continued well into the 19th century. As recently as 50-60 years ago Vitaliano X Borromeo was still completing the finishing touches such as the tree lined “jetty” that extends towards Isola Pescatori and the “Salone Grande” (Great Room) in accordance with Vitaliano VI’s original plans.
Visiting the palace today you will find sumptuous rooms filled with paintings and ornate furniture which make it easy to imagine the parties and balls that were once held there. The palace was also the venue in September 2004 of the wedding reception for Lavinia Borromeo and John Elkann (grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli and Vice Chairman of Fiat).
Particular highlights of the palace are the domed “Salone delle Feste” (Party Room), the “Sala da Ballo” (Ballroom), the “Sala della Musica” (Music Room) which houses valuable musical instruments and the six grottoes. The walls and ceilings of the grottoes are studded with shells and pebbles and are a cool retreat on hot summer days.
After visiting the palace you enter the spectacular gardens which are on ten terraces and include an open air theatre which has statues depicting the four elements, the “Giardino del Amore” with geometrically designed hedging, water-lilies and citrus trees the Azalea Garden and the “Piano della Canfora” which is named for the 150 year old laurel tree growing there. In English style garden, the “Giardino dei Fiori” you will find lotus flowers. At the highest point of the garden you will see a great unicorn which is the symbol of the Borromeo family.
The original church stood at the summit of the island and before the transferral of the parish seat to Isola Bella and it was dedicated to San Nazaro. In 1663 Vitaliano VI Borromeo bought the land containing the church and at his own expense had the church moved to its current position. Thus in 1665 the Provost of Baveno came to witness the laying of the first stone for the new church which was dedicated to SS. Vittore and Carlo. When it was completed the original church was demolished so work on the gardens could continue. The church, with a Baroque façade, is said to contain the reliquary of San Vittore, the martyr soldier in an urn under the main altar, however it is probable that only a fraction of the skeleton is original.
The Extra Gallery contains previously un-displayed 15th-17th paintings from the Borromeo Family Collection and was inaugurated in 2008. Included in the entrance to the Extra Gallery is the Throne Room.
The palace and gardens of Isola Bella are open from the 18th March 2016 to 23rd October 2016 from 09.00 - 17.30 (last entry). In 2016 tickets for the Palace and Gardens cost € 15.00 for adults, € 8.50 for children (6-15). Children under 6 years and RHS members are free.
Combined one day tickets with Isola Madre are available, costing for 2016 € 20.50 for adults and € 10.00 for children (6-15) which is a good saving if you intend to visit both islands on the same day.
Audio -guides are available for Isola Bella Palace at the ticket office and cost € 5.00. They are available in Italian, English, German and French.
Visitors who have walking difficulties or who rely on a wheelchair are advised that between the Isola Bella boat landing areas and the entrance to the palace and gardens there are lots of steps. The Palace and gardens are not suitable for wheelchair users.
Photos and video for personal use are only permitted in the gardens.
Picnics and dogs are not allowed.
It takes approximately 1½ hours to visit the palace and gardens.
There are plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants on Isola Bella.
The local ferry service runs frequently to and from Isola Bella and there are also taxi boats available from Stresa, Stresa Lido and Baveno.