Thanks to its botanical variety and strong exotic imprint, Flaubert called it ‘the most sensuous place I have ever seen in the world’.
This is Isola Madre.
Situated right in the centre of the Borromean Gulf, halfway between Baveno and Pallanza, … km away from Borgomanero, the island is mainly occupied by gardens.
In ancient times it was dedicated to San Vittore, but its name later changed to “Isola Maggiore”, then to Isola Madre.
The English Garden
One of the oldest botanical gardens in Italy, the present English garden-style park was landscaped in the early 19th century. It is home to rare plants and flowers from all over the world, which have adapted to the mild and favourable weather conditions.
The protea terrace, for example, is unique. Protea is a prehistoric flower that is a symbol of South Africa and has found its ideal environment here.
The 200-year-old Cashmere Cypress is extremely rare. It arrived in 1862 in a bag of fresh seeds from the Himalayas and is now the oldest tree in Europe of its species, which is on the verge of extinction in its native Tibet.
But there is also wisteria, rare subtropical plants, exotic flowers and brightly coloured birds. Visitors may also come across colourful parrots, Chinese pheasants or elegant peacocks with white feathers. This, combined with the care taken to preserve the environment, conveys the illusion of a tropical location.
In the Isola Madre Palace, the Borromeos decided to create a more intimate and familiar atmosphere. The tapestries, furniture and paintings that can be admired here come from various historical residences that the Borromeo family owned in Lombardy.
Among the most important rooms are the famous Sala Delle Bambole (Dolls’ Room), the Sala Delle Stagioni (Seasons’ Room) and the one dedicated to the exhibition of ancient Marionettes, a real theatre with mechanical devices to create fire, fog and stage sounds, used by the Borromeo family to entertain their guests.
The collection on display is among the largest and best preserved in the world. Backstage and backdrops were made by Alessandro Sanquirico, the set designer of La Scala theatre in Milan, who worked for the Borromeos in the 1830s.