The Mother Island

It’s a short ferry ride from Isola Bella to Isola Madre.  It hasn’t always been called the Mother Island.  Neither for that matter has Isola Bella (last week’s post) always been called the ‘Beautiful Island’ .  Before the count with his lovely wife Isabella came along, it was known as Isola Inferiore, a name which is even more bizarre when you consider that the tiny fishermen’s island next to it was called, at the time, as it is now, Isola Superiore dei Pescatori.  The only thing I can think of is that the early settlers must have believed the tiny island lay a bit to the north of the other – much like the way Lake Superior, which although, as all Canadians who have made it through Grade 4 know (or at least at one time knew) is the largest body of fresh water in the world, wasn’t named for its size, but rather for its location. (If you don’t like the etymology, blame the French – they were the ones who christened it lac supérieur, the ‘upper’ lake.)


Approaching the landing on Isola Madre.

As we got closer to the landing, I heaved a sigh of relief.  My eyes weren’t going.  Those really were palm trees and a Eucalyptus.  Isola Madre is at 46° N.  That’s two whole latitude degrees north of Toronto, where there is going to have to be a lot more global warming before we’ll be able to plant any of these trees in our gardens.


Like the ancient Romans, at the beginning of the 16th century, the first of a long line of Borromeo’s was drawn to the island’s mild climate.  They immediately recognized the potential for transforming the island into  a luxurious, private refuge.  But there was one problem.   On the island, which was then known as Isola di San Vittore, there was a chapel dedicated to the saint, and the byzantine church laws of the time didn’t allow for both a chapel and a pleasure palace to co-exist on the island.  Lancellotto Borromeo must have been very persuasive, because it wasn’t long before the Curia gave the go-ahead for the chapel to be disassembled and rebuilt on Isola Bella (where presumably it wouldn’t be a hindrance to future Borromeo ambitions.)


With only time for a quick glance as you make your way along the narrow plank, it looks as if this Agave has gone wild and started sending out rogue Bougainvillea shoots

From the landing a walkway leads to the right along the Viale Africa, the hottest part of the island.  Right away my plant ID skills were challenged.


This looked like something I might have drawn in my crayon days.

I took a photo of a plaque near the base of the tree.  I’d look it up when I got home.


But when I eventually looked it up, something was wrong. I had seen quite a few carob trees in my travels around Italy – including an especially gorgeous one just a few months earlier in Sicily.  Its distinctive seed pods make it easy to identify.


In May the seed pods on this tree near Siracusa in south-eastern Sicily were a light green. As they ripen they will turn dark brown.

I didn’t recall seeing a single seed pod on the tree on Isola Madre.  I checked my photos again.  Whew! Memory still good.  Not a seed pod in sight.  The planting around the base of the tree was pretty thick.  Maybe the label was for another plant.  Maybe it was a Redbud, the only tree I know that has flowery things growing out of the bark.  But I couldn’t find any images of Redbud showing anything even vaguely similar.  Of course!  Apart from spring, when it looks spectacular, it isn’t really much to look at.  I decided to have a closer look at my photo, only this time I’d try to ignore the intriguing bits coming out of the bark and concentrate on the leaves.  And then, well aware that the definition of stupidity is to do the same thing again and expect different results,  I decided to have another look at the images of the Carob tree.  And guess what!  It was a carob.  There were no seed pods because it turns out that while a few carob trees are hermaphrodites, most of them are dioecious – had to look that one up too – either male or female.


A pod-free, male Carob tree.

By the time you reach the Viale delle Camelie, it’s clear that what is going on here is worlds apart – horticulturally speaking – from the Baroque extravaganza nearby.


Eucalyptus, Lantana, Brugmansia. As if we’ve been transported to an island in the tropics.

For some reason, even though the Borromeos were obviously big fans of the Baroque style in all its (brash) splendour, and even though they took great pleasure and pride, no doubt, in throwing lavish parties on Isola Bella for their many illustrious and powerful guests, they never seemed to have had any interest in what modern day developers would consider an obvious, not to-be missed opportunity to turn Isola Madre into an Isola Bella II.  Instead, they left Isola Madre in a bit of a time warp, as a place where the restrained elegance of the Renaissance endured.  A place where the glories of nature – rare and exotic plants, brought back by friends and horticultural explorers from all over the world – replaced those of man.   A kind of 17th century detox retreat where they would go to restore themselves after all the festivities were over.


Even though they had long finished blooming, these plants had a strange beauty. The dead petals hanging from the flower stalk made a kind of cobweb-like fountain. What were they?

Part of Isola Madre‘s extraordinarily mild climate – it is even warmer than Isola Bella – is due to a quirk of geography.  By mid-afternoon in winter the mountains along the lake’s south shore begin to cast their long shadows over Isola Bella, while Isola Madre basks in full sunshine all day throughout the year.


A week later I saw the plant again, in full bloom, in a wonderful garden close to the Austrian border.  It’s Kahili Ginger.


Why do we bother with big, expensive pots when obviously all Arum needs is an oversized saucer?

Once the chapel was gone, the island’s old name obviously had to go too.  One of the counts, Renato Borromeo, wanted to call it Isola Renata.  Maybe he wasn’t very popular.  Maybe naming an island after your wife was OK, but before the era of vanity plates and people naming towers after themselves, naming an island after yourself was pushing the self-glorification just a bit too much.  In any event Isola Renata didn’t take and by the early 1700’s people started calling it Isola Madre.  Some say it was in honour of the historical importance of the island – the first to be settled.  Others prefer to think it was in honour of the count’s mother who, perhaps unlike her son, was of a benevola disposizione and loved by all.


From the north shore of Isola Madre, a view of the town of Pallanza on the mainland. Around the tip of the peninsula, lies the third garden on Lake Maggiore – Villa Taranto.


In a grassy area on the west side of the island tree roots create a spooky effect.


On my previous trip a peacock had been poking around the bamboo. Was the mesh to protect tender shoots?

This time there were no peacocks in sight and I was fiddling with my camera, trying to capture a clump of black bamboo without overexposing the ‘normal’ green bamboo in full sunlight further along the path, when I was distracted by a commotion behind me.


Phyllostachys nigra. Black bamboo and an (over-exposed) clump of the more common, green variety.


The bamboo was no competition for this flashy creature and since I couldn’t very well smash my way through the thick hedge it disappeared under, I rushed along the walkway until I reached a cross-path which opened onto the Piazzale dei Pappagalli.


There were two of them!

It’s called the Piazzale of the Parrots, but there was a full menagerie of plumed creatures, some wandering around in complete freedom and others in cages.


I watched, incredulous, as this Chinese Golden Pheasant – I had to look it up of course – displayed its remarkable ‘cape’.


Nearby, the peacock, as if disdainful of the swollen-headed antics of the pheasants, gazed haughtily off into the distance.


But when one of the pheasants proceeded to walk through the crowd of adoring fans, it was apparently too much for the peacock…


.. who decided to do a little showing off of its own.

It was well past lunch time, but there was still more of the island to see.  I dragged myself away from the birds and headed towards the villa.

You don’t have to be a gardener to know that Nature can be cruel.  On June 30, 2006, at 2 a.m. a violent tromba d’aria (trumpet of air) ripped through Isola Madre, essentially destroying the western part of the island.  But the most devastating loss of all occurred just metres from the villa, which apart from a few broken windows, was left intact.  Which brings to mind a word Italian weather forecasters sometimes use when they get tired of the same old words for storms – burrasca, temporale, tempesta.  Instead they refer to brutto tempo as il fortunale.   Derived from fortuna, it seems an odd word for ‘ugly’ weather, but then again, perhaps it, more than all the other words, captures the capricious nature of these storms.

Prior to the tornado, the well-loved symbol of Isola Madre had been a Kashmir Cypress which towered over the loggia next to the villa.  Planted from a packet of seeds brought back from the Himalayas in the 1880’s, it had grown into the largest and oldest Kashmir Cypress in Europe.  Despite its enormous size – the trunk is over 25 feet in diameter – the violent winds lifted the tree, roots and all, into the air and then let it crash to the ground.  Garden experts from all Italy and from abroad rushed to the site and with the aid of helicopters and other heavy machinery did the impossibile to save the tree.

A quick scan through my photos was all it took to find the one I had taken of the cypress on my last trip.  Even in thumbnail format, the bedraggled tree was easy to spot. But when I enlarged it, I saw something I didn’t expect to see and didn’t remember seeing at the time.  Crocus – fall crocus – at the base of the tree.  Now it just so happens that while I’ve been working on this post, among the pile of books I have been reading is one with the eyebrow-raising title, ‘How to Fly a Horse’.  Not the kind of title that would normally lead me to even pick up a book, but I had turned on the radio one day mid-way into one of those fabulous CBC author interviews.  A fellow  was talking about how we create things.  How we really create things and what he was saying had a lot to do with hard, painstaking work and very little with flashes of genius bestowed upon a chosen few.  I borrowed a copy from the library and then liked it so much I bought it.  And what does all this have to do with the crocus blooming around the base of the Kashmir Cypress?  Cognitive dissonance, which, according to Kevin Ashton, is a big hurdle to creativity. It comes up whenever ‘what we know contradicts what we believe’.  This, unfortunately, occurs quite frequently and when it does, thanks to our very flexible and very resourceful brains, we apparently go one of two ways.  We either change our beliefs to fit the facts, or, more often, we yield to a primitive and surprisingly strong urge for self-preservation and change the facts to fit our beliefs.  Until I saw those crocuses, I was convinced the last trip I had taken to northern Italy had been in the spring.  Now I was faced with either accepting the reality of those fall blooms, which meant also accepting the unpleasant fact that I had somehow forgotten an entire trip, or I could change the reality to suit my beliefs and not worry about incipient cognitive decline.  Maybe they weren’t crocus.  Maybe they were…


The Kashmir Cypress, September, 2010. Looking a bit bedraggled and held upright by guy wires, but just four years after the tornado, with all that new, lush foliage, its future looked promising.

(While the book of course has nothing to do with flying horses, it does have a lot to do with man learning to fly something else, the clue to which is conveniently provided on the cover of the book just below the title.  But if you’re like me, you’re going to be well into the book before you figure that out.)

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A plaque describes what happened that terrible night.

As I climbed the stairs to the Loggia del Cashmir I got my first look at the tree.  There was a bare area on one side, but there was also a lot of very healthy-looking foliage.


And as I continued around the base of the tree it became clear that all the rescuers’ hard work had paid off.



September 2015. View from the first floor of the villa, the same spot I had taken a photo five years earlier.  There was no longer any doubt that Isola Madre‘s Kashmir Cypress was going to make it.

A staircase off the east side of the villa (which is private, so no photos allowed), overlooks  the Piazzale della Cappella (chapel).


As I explained in some of my earliest posts, the Renaissance was all about emulating the ancient Romans.  And since all the best gardens of ancient Rome had a nymphaeum aka grotto, no Renaissance garden of any repute was without its own ‘playground of the nymphs’.


Two cherubs stand watch over the small, but charming grotto hidden below the ivy-covered staircase.


The chapel is a fairly recent addition as things in Italy go.  It was commissioned in the mid 19th century by the then residing Borromeo Count, who decided it would be nice to have a family chapel on the island.  Save them the trip to Isola Bella.  He wanted something that evoked ‘il linguaggio Bramantesco o anche Bizantino’.  Given the limited space and the linguaggio – which usually refers to ‘language’ but in this context refers to style – of everything else on the island, fortunately the architect managed to tone down the count’s original aspirations.


The Family chapel.  A toned-down amalgam of Bramante and Byzantine influences.


View from the grotto to Stresa on the far shore.


On the way back to the landing. Just imagine what this path will look like next spring when the wisteria is in bloom!


The peacock strolling along the Viale delle Palme fits right in with the colourful border along the south wall of the villa.


On the ferry to Isola dei Pescatori, the ‘snow’ has finally lifted from the mountains.


Finalmente.  Approaching Isola dei Pescatori – and lunch.


One of the benefits of arriving really late for lunch – a water-side table vacated by previous diners on a tighter schedule than mine.


Antipasto Misto, Fisherman’s Style. Delizioso!

Next – One Man’s Dream Garden





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2 Responses to The Mother Island

  1. LMSantarossa says:

    What a wonderful posting. And those pheasants!! Too amazing. I am now putting this on my bucket list!

    • donnafenice says:

      The pheasants – and the gardens – truly were amazing. A great addition to your bucket list. If you can, I’d recommend going in May or June when there is even more in bloom – rhodos and azaleas for starters – and the days are longer.


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