Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella came about as a building for the family to holiday, but also as a place to entertain illustrious guests.
The house documents list in detail the comings and goings of crowned heads and princes: Emperor Leopold II of Habsburg-Lorraine in 1791, the King and Queen of Sardinia, Carlo Felice and Maria Cristina, in 1828, Queen Victoria of England in 1879, the king and the queens of Italy and of Belgium, and even Charles and Diana in 1984. There has also been no shortage of visits by the greats of literature: Goethe, Stendhal, Dumas and Hemingway, and artists, Cavalier Pietro Tempesta and Élisabeth Vigéè Le Brun, and even Wagner.
The great predilection that the most famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had for the Isole Borromee is well known. Indeed, he established the shores of Lago Maggiore as the land of origin of the protagonist of his book Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which he wrote following his trip to Italy.
Stendhal, who wrote The Charterhouse of Parma here, loved to repeat: “if you have a heart and a shirt, sell the shirt and go and see the shores of Lago Maggiore”
Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, struck by the splendour of the Isole Borromee, set the final chapters of his novel “A Farewell to Arms” here.
The protagonist in fact tells of crossing Lago Maggiore heading towards Isola Bella, considered the most enchanting of the Isole Borromee.
On the left, "A Farewell to Arms", The Hemingway Library Edition; on the right, the young Hemingway in uniform, 1918
I rowed towards Isola Bella and I approached the walls, where the water suddenly became deep and you could see the wall of rock going obliquely down into the water, and then I climbed up towards the Isle of Fishermen where there were boats pulled dry and men mending nets.
Among the episodes that have left an indelible mark on the rooms of Palazzo Borromeo, the visit by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797 is perhaps one of the most intense historical moments experienced on Isola Bella. It only lasted two days, 17th and 18th August 1797, but it created a genuine upheaval in the calm life of the island.
Returning from his triumphant victory in the Italian campaign, General Bonaparte, on his way back home, wanted to visit the Isole Borromee. He arrived suddenly, without any warning, coming by boat with no less than 60 people in his retinue.
We know every detail of this historic visit because we still have the letters that the administrator of the palazzo sent to Count Gilberto V Borromeo to keep him closely informed of the unusual situation created on Isola Bella.
First it was necessary to make ready the alcove (still existing in the room known as Sala di Napoleone) for the general and his wife Josephine Beauharnais, who “was much more polite than the great hero”, to spend the night.
Then a lunch for thirty was hurriedly prepared in the Medal Room, while tables were prepared in the garden for the rest of the party. Because of the north wind, however, they all came into the house to shelter, expecting, the administrator wrote, “to be served there and then”.
The next day Napoleon asked to have lunch in the Apartment of Grottos, to then go to Isola Madre to admire the pheasants. But he could not resist the temptation: he had one of them shot and took it away with him as a souvenir.
In the evening the general and his cumbersome retinue departed again by boat for Laveno and reached Milan the day after.
The staff of the house were shocked at the intrusiveness and rudeness of the guests, who left the rooms “dirty and smelly”.
“Nevertheless, we can thank God that the stay was brief, otherwise this house would have become a real soldiers’ barracks”.
Napoleon I did not return to Isola Bella, whereas his wife Josephine, who had become Empress of France, returned in July 1806: for that occasion, a grand lunch was prepared for her arranged on seven tables.
The year later, in 1807, it was the turn of her son Eugène, Viceroy of Italy, in honour of whom the waterworks in the garden were set in motion. On that occasion, however, silver chandeliers and various items of precious fabric from Flanders disappeared from the building.