The island is a natural treasure made even richer by human intervention; it has always been one of the favorite visitor attractions of Lake Maggiore, not to be missed if you want unparalleled views of the lake and its surroundings. Isola Bella is dominated by its sumptuous Baroque palace, along with a luxuriant Italian-style garden, which reaches a height of 37 meters and is laid out on ten terraces. Many parts of the palace are open to visitors: richly furnished rooms and opulent salons embellished with priceless artworks.
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.
The garden is full of flowers and exotic plants of great rarity, which grow thanks to the particularly mild climate of the Borromean Gulf. Everything on the island has been designed to create a scenic effect, including the “Theatre” constructed at the end of the superimposed terraces, dominated by a statue of a Unicorn, the heraldic emblem of the Borromeos, which is flanked by statues representing Nature and Art. The huge, extraordinary garden is further decorated with ponds, fountains and a plethora of statues dating from the second half of the 17th century. The white peacocks that wander over the manicured lawns add their grace to this enchanting spot.
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).
Recently reopened to the public for the first time since the 1930s are the Sala del Trono (Throne Room), a rococo riot centered upon a gilded throne carved in the 18th century and backed by a canopy of pink silk; and the equally over-the-top baroque Sala della Regina (Queen's Room), where King Carlo Felice and Queen Maria Cristina of Piemonte sojourned for September, 1828.
The Sala di Musica is the most famous room, housing a collection of antique instruments along with, on the right walls, landscapes by Pietro Tempesta donated by the artists after the Borromei gave him refuge here in 1685 while he fought off some trumped-up murder charges. The left wall has The Forge of Vulcan by Jacopo da Bassano, but the art isn't what makes this room famous. It was here, on April 11, 1935, that Mussolini met with Pierre Laval of France and James Ramsey MacDonald of Britain in the so-called Conference of Stresa, a last-ditch attempt to stave off World War II by allying together against Hitler.Negotiations failed because the France and England refused to recognize Mussolini's recent conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini later found Hitler's overtures to be more in tune with his own delusions of grandeur, and Italy entered World War II on the side of the Axis.