When you visit Lago Maggiore, one of the three major lakes in northern Italy, you’re visiting the princedom of the Borromeo family. Yes, “princedom”. The Borromeo heirs hold the titles of “Prince” and “Princess”. How cool is that?!
A few weeks ago I took an hour-long train from Milan to Stresa, one of the main towns on Lago Maggiore and a true tourist town in every sense. Regal resorts line the shore, each one boasting an incredible view of the water and of the islands that are the lake’s main tourist attractions. If you (or your pocketbook) aren’t prepared to spend a few hundred dollars a night on accommodation, though (I know I wasn’t), there are an array of cute alberghi and inns closer to Stresa’s main piazza, in the middle of a small network of narrow streets that take the curious wanderer from cute restaurant to cute wine shop to cute bakery to cute knick-knack store. The piazza itself is a beehive of activity, lined on all sides by cafés and filled with tables and umbrellas.
From the lakefront, where a wide stretch of green runs along the water, you can see the Borromeo islands in the distance: Isola Bella (where the Borromeo Palace and its garden dominate), Isola Superiore (otherwise known as Isola dei Pescatori, Fisherman’s Island, which has kept its quaint character even while transitioning from a working island to a lunch destination) and Isola Madre (”Mother Island”, a large garden island, from what I was told – unfortunately ferry service to Isola Madre was temporarily suspended while I was there).
I quickly realized that, before doing anything else, I needed to understand who the Borromeo family is and why and how they came to be “princes” of this part of Italy. Visiting their palace on Isola Bella was like visiting Windsor Palace, for goodness sake. I hadn’t expected to find anything like this in modern-day Italy.
The first Borromeo to come to prominence was Filippo Borromeo who, in 1367 and with the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, led a revolt in Florence against the Guelphs. His five children took refuge in Milan during this time and wound up staying there, as in 1370 Filippo was captured in Florence and beheaded.
One of Filippo’s sons, Giovanni, established a bank in Venice with branches in Milan, Rome, London and Bruges. Not having any descendants of his own, he adopted one of his nephews – a young man with the unfortunate name Vitaliano Vitaliani – as his heir. Vitaliano (now) Borromeo moved the main branch of the bank from Venice to Milan and opened two new locations in Barcelona and Burgos, Spain. He was granted official citizenship in Milan and, in 1418, was made the treasurer to the Duke of Milan.
Through the 1430′s the Duke awarded Vitaliano with various territories outside of Milan including Ancona on Lago Maggiore, with which property also came the title of Conte, Count. Over the years political affiliations gained the family even more land and another title of “count”, this one for Vitaliano’s son, Filippo.
On December 25, 1559 one of the Borromeo descendants was elected Pope Pius IV. The following year, the newly established Pope made one of his Borromeo nephews a general in the Vatican army and made another, named Carlo (“Charles”), who had already started an ecclesiastical career, the archbishop of Milan. He asked Charles to stay in Rome, however, to perform duties similar to that of a Secretary of State. Charles wasn’t happy there, though, and when his uncle the Pope died in 1565 he returned to Milan where he led a holy life of compassion, renunciation and asceticism. He sold the family’s property and titles, walked among victims of the plague and staunchly carried out the reforms put forth by the Council of Trent. He died in 1584 and was canonized St. Charles Borromeo in 1610.
Charles wasn’t the only holy member of the family to leave a legacy, though. Federico Borromeo was made Cardinal in 1587 at the tender age of 23. He had a truly exemplary ecclesiastical career in Milan where he established the city’s first museum that was open to the public – and still is to this day! – the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.
At some point during the 16th century the Borromeo family acquired the three islands in the middle of Lago Maggiore and, in 1650, Vitaliano VI Borromeo began construction of the palace and gardens on Isola Bella.
It wasn’t until the 1920′s, however, that King Victor Emmanuel III restored the princely title to the Borromeo family that St. Charles had sold off a few hundred years before. And so the Borromeos are princes (and princesses) again, and the flag in the courtyard of their palace informs guests when the family is in residence. Even when they’re not there, however, their signature white peacocks welcome guests in the terraced gardens. But that’s another post… Read about Isola Bella by clicking here.
(View of Isola Bella from Stresa)
(View of Isola dei Pescatori from Isola Bella)
(The rooftops of Stresa in the morning)
(Riding the ferry across Lago Maggiore)
(Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso)
(Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso)
(View over Lago Maggiore from Belgirate)