Sumptuous and fairy-tale Palazzo Borromeo was built on Isola Bella (Bella Island) over the centuries. The marvellous outdoor Italian gardens and succession of richly furnished rooms inside make it an irresistible tourist attraction.
Works were started by Carlo III Borromeo (1632) who entrusted them to Milanese engineer Angelo Crivelli, who was assisted by other artists such as Pietro Antonio Barca and Francesco Maria Ricchino. Works at the site stopped towards the middle of the century due to the plague epidemic raging through the dukedom of Milan. Works were only enthusiastically resumed towards the last decades of the 17th century thanks to Carlo’s son, Vitaliano VI.
In reality, the Palazzo was really only finished right after the war when Vitaliano X (1892-1982) had the north façade and the large harbour at the upper end of the island completed, and especially because he terminated construction on the great hall based on the designs and large wood model created in 1871.
The aspect the island was intended to have - a vessel on the waters of the lake - was pursued and completed despite the lengthy works. Indeed, the overall complex on Isola Bella (including the Palazzo and the charming Italian gardens) is elegant and harmonious.
The Palazzo was built on the north-west point of the island and is characterised by a majestic façade some 80 metres long, in the middle of which is the Salone d’onore (Hall of Honour). It develops as a curvilinear projection two floors high. The structure then extends towards the middle of the island perpendicularly to this portion, the whole thus taking the shape of a T.
All the main halls are on the first of the four floors making up the building, and unwind about the Great Hall, whose dome-shaped roof and decorations were only completed (based on the original project) between 1948-1959.
The noble floor - an area dedicated to receiving and representation - is the location of the neoclassical dance hall, also known as the Sala delle Colonne (Hall of Columns) or Sala della Musica (Hall of Music), which owes its name to the valuable music instruments displayed, and to the Sala delle Medaglie (Hall of Medals), where 10 gilded wooden medals are kept representing the most important events in the life of San Carlo Borromeo. Also on this floor is the Galleria degli Arazzi (Gallery of Tapestries), which contains six valuable 16th-century Flemish tapestries. Its barrel vault is decorated with gold ceiling roses against a white background. In past times there was also a theatre (later destroyed) to entertain owners and guests, where comedies and dramas were performed.
Lastly, the artificial grottos (access to which is through a 17th-century helicoidal stairway) are very interesting as they evoke marine environments. One of the rooms has the prehistoric dugout canoe found in Angera at the end of the 19th century.