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16 January 2020

Vitaliano VI Borromeo: an exhibition on Isola Bella celebrating the genius and aesthetic sense of its founder

Isola Bella celebrates its founder Vitaliano VI Borromeo with an exhibition looking back over his life, and above all his work – the vessel that emerges from the waters of Lago Maggiore – still a source of admiration and amazement today to visitors from all over the world.

From 20 March to 2 September 2020 in Palazzo Borromeo the exhibition opens entitled “Vitaliano VI. The Invention of Isola Bella”, curated by Alessandro Morandotti and Mauro Natale and devoted to its inventor 400 years from his birth and in the year of Piedmontese Baroque.

Staged in the grand hall completed by his descendant of the same name Vitaliano IX in 1956, in its first section the exhibition looks back over the main phases in the life of Vitaliano VI, the real author of the renewed good fortune of the family in the second half of the 17th century, through painted portraits, sculptures, medals and documents. It then continues by reconstructing the stages of the project for the Palazzo and the Gardens of the island, where some of the best Lombard designers were active, from Andrea Biffi to Filippo Cagnola, in constant dialogue with Ticino architect Carlo Fontana. Finally, it concludes with an exhibition of paintings, sculptures and furnishings conceived for the decoration of the interiors of the Palazzo, works commissioned by Vitaliano VI, some never exhibited to the public previously. The furniture and the original paintings that are still to be found today exactly where the Milanese noble wanted them can be identified in the rooms on the museum route.

Thus one of the most extraordinary examples of Baroque style in north-western Italy is brought to life.

Count Vitaliano VI, born in 1620, was an important personality in the history of the Borromeo family. When still just a young man he embarked upon a military career and obtained important diplomatic assignments that led to his engaging in extensive correspondence with the key personalities of his period. A cultured and inquisitive man, in 1650 he took over the management of the works on Isola Bella and, looking at Rome with a spirit of great independence and autonomy of choices, he took in hand the project begun by his father Carlo III in around 1630 to create a garden on the island known as Isola Isabella. Vitaliano transformed this idea into a grandiose Baroque set design, adding a majestic palazzo to it. Thus Isola Bella took on its definitive form.

In his correspondence, conserved in the Borromeo Archive, are letters written to the architects and workmen supervising the works and above all his epistolary exchanges with his brother Giberto III, a Cardinal in Rome, with whom he discussed the project and the decorative choices involved, at times sketching his ideas on the margins of the sheets of paper.

Over the centuries the Palazzo has been supplemented with new figurative contributions, but the Baroque core created at the wishes of Vitaliano VI can still be seen to a large extent in most of the rooms, where the original decoration is still present. A passionate collector, he created a genuine Wunderkammer full of rarities such as stones, marbles and alabasters, mostly painted with floral compositions, paintings with countryside landscapes and perspectives, frames decorated with rock crystals, agates and lapis lazuli. The Garden was also embellished with stone architectures covered in mosaics, statues, fountains that, together with the hedges, created genuine theatres in the greenery.


The exhibition is part of the project “L’essenziale è Barocco” [The essential is Baroque] promoted by Regione Piemonte. For more information

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