‘What is your favourite garden?’ is one of those impossible questions I’m often asked. Another is ‘What is your favourite region in Italy?’ I’ve even been asked, as I was towards the end of this trip, ‘Which country is your favourite – Italy or France?’ More on that later when we get to the Veneto, but for now, after a bit of fumbling around I came up with some vague comment about how they are very diversi (different) and mi piacciono tutti i due (both are pleasing to me). And that is what I say when people ask which is my favourite of northern Italy’s big lakes – Lake Maggiore, Lake Como or Lake Garda. For bodies of water that are so close, geographically speaking – from Lake Maggiore in the west to Lake Garda in the east is only 200 km – it really is remarkable how different they are. Which is what makes visiting this region – Lombardia – so much fun. But for people who are not comfortable with such woolliness, I think it’s fair to say that for many people the most beautiful is Lake Como – aka Lake Clooney. And, in the same spirit, the most beautiful village on the lake is Bellagio.
Years before I had stayed in one of the hotels that are spread out, front door-like, along the east shore. Although I’m not a fan of ‘the most beautiful’ this, that or other thing, I have no qualms about declaring Bellagio the quintessential, picture postcard village – gorgeous setting, charming centro storico and lots of places along the shore where you can have a meal or just a drink and rest your inevitably weary legs while you take in the view. The thing about being IN a beautiful place is, you can’t actually see it, so this time I’d decided to stay across the lake in Cadenabbia, which although significantly less charming, offered fabulous views of the ‘jewel’.
The other thing in Cadenabbia’s favour is that it’s a 15-minute walk to Villa Carlotta, which may, perhaps, possibilmente, be the most beautiful garden on the the lake.
Following the advice of someone known to have had an eye for beauty, I had visited Villa Carlotta years ago in June. Lake Como has been a popular venue for weddings for some time, especially in May and June, when the gardens along its shores are in full bloom. The effect is so enchanting that after attending a wedding one lovely June day in the 15th century, one of the guests wrote to all his friends urging them to come at that time of year.
As beautiful as the gardens would have been when that 15th century wedding guest saw them, the highlight of the gardens today in May and June would have been nowhere in sight. It wasn’t until the 19th century when foreigners were first allowed into the interior of China that intrepid plant explorers discovered and started bringing back the rhododendron.
I knew that in late September the rhodos would be long past blooming, but I figured there would still be something to make a return trip worthwhile. I also figured the temperatures would be pleasantly warm – maybe in the low 20’s during the day, mid-teens at night. What I hadn’t figured on was what happened overnight the day after my arrival.
Always a morning person, I came down to the breakfast room early on the off-chance I might be able to get a cappuccino. I was standing by the window, gazing out in disbelief, when Paola, who runs the hotel end of the Alberghetto Marianna – her husband, Ty, is king of the kitchen – arrived. She looked at me and said one word – Impressionante.
Impressionante has none of the upbeat connotations of ‘impressive’. Instead, it is a dark word, all about dismay and disturbances of the soul caused by unusual forces. Paola’s daughter, who lives in Milan, had called to say things weren’t any better there – Faceva un freddo da cani. It was a cold fit for dogs. (If we can say things like ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, I guess the Italians can say what they like about the cold. I once had a student who, clearly exasperated by idiomatic expressions like these, would refer to them as espressioni idiotiche. I had to admit he did have a point. He still had to learn them.)
I wasn’t at all keen on the idea of returning home with a card full of gardens framed by dark, brooding clouds like those from my last trip to Tuscany. I didn’t care how ‘dramatic’ they were. I wanted clear, blue skies and dappled sunlight. But when Paola checked the forecast – she used a Swiss site – more reliable than the Italian one in her experience – things didn’t look much better for the rest of my stay, so as soon as it stopped raining – one thing I refuse to be a good sport about is visiting a garden in the rain – I set out for Villa Carlotta.
The villa was built in the late 1600’s by a member of the straordinariamente (straw-or-dee-nah-ree-ah-men-tay) rich Clerici family. As time passed the property was handed down through the generations until the only heir left was Antonio, the 21 year old great nephew of the original owner. Like many a young man before and since, Antonio proceeded to engage in a life of legendary fasto – one of those weird words, at least to an native English speaker’s ear, that has nothing to do with speed or deprivation and everything to do with extravagant pomp and splendour – and by the time he died had managed to dissipate most of the fortuna colossale he had inherited.
The next owner was one of the many men of low social stature, but great ambitions, who thrived in the profound social and political upheaval that followed the French Revolution. From relative obscurity Gian Battista Sommariva had crawled his way up the social ladder, accumulating vast wealth, political power, important friendships – Napoleon among them – as well as the prestigious titles of Count and Marquis. He cemented his high social standing in 1801 with the purchase of Villa Carlotta. But his meteoric rise came to a screeching halt barely a year later when his erst-while friend, Napoleon, passed him over for the position of Vice President of the newly created Republic of Italy, choosing Sommariva’s arch rival, Francesco Melzi, instead.
His political career over, Sommariva set his sights on regaining his social stature by other means. As Cardinal Ippolito d’Este had done a few centuries earlier at Villa d’Este in Tivoli after being passed over for the Papacy (A Cure for Road Rage and Other Modern Ailments, March 1, 2015), Sommariva reinvented himself. He started collecting art and in a remarkably short time had amassed enough works of art to attract Europe’s richest and most powerful to his door once more. And to create a sufficiently opulent setting in which to greet his guests, he sent plant hunters to the newly opened frontiers to bring back rare and exotic plants for the spectacular garden surrounding the villa.
Wandering around the garden today, it is hard to imagine the intense competition that was the real driving force behind its creation. While Sommariva sought to impress his illustrious guests with his exotic plants and statuary, even more important to him was to create something that would eclipse Melzi’s efforts on the opposite shore. It was a bitter rivalry that not even death could put an end to. They each commissioned elaborate mausoleums where they lie, in a kind of defiant, eternal face-off.
Given the snow-capped mountains all around, the piante grasse (fat plants) in the Giardino Roccioso looked totally out of place. They are transferred to a greenhouse for the winter, but maybe, with all the strange, new weather patterns, the gardeners will have to start transferring them earlier.
As time went by the Sommariva clan was struck with the usual vicissitudes and in 1844 the property was sold again, this time for rather a bargain, to the Prussian Princess Marianne. It was to be a wedding gift for her daughter, Carlotta, who married a German Duke. Strangely, there is no mention in the English translation of the guide, that this was a marriage of love, with none of the political or power allegiances typical of such unions at the time.
Unfortunately the love-struck couple’s happiness was short-lived. Like many of her era, princess Carlotta died in childbirth a few years later, when she was only twenty-four.
On the west side of the villa is the Giardino Vecchio. The Old Garden. I expected to find the geometrically clipped boxwood hedges, central path and symmetry of the classic Renaissance Garden.
I don’t usually buy much as I travel around, but if they’d had some miniatures of this giant slug in the gift shop I would have picked up a couple. The perfect gift for garden friends.
It started to drizzle as I was strolling around the unusual, old garden so I headed back to the villa.
Since it didn’t look like the rain was going to let up any time soon, I made my way down the oddly named scalinata a tenaglia – tenaglie are pincers – towards the exit. As I was leaving a group arrived.
In the end, I lost one and a half days (out of four) of my stay on Lake Como to rain. Luckily it didn’t rain the whole time and although I wasn’t able to make it to one of the gardens I had hoped to revisit, I did visit three others. Villa Melzi was one of them.