OF THE BORROMEO
The Borromeo family, headed today by Prince Vitaliano XI Borromeo and his wife Marina, has an ancient history that verges on legend.
Vague chronicles relate that a certain Lazzaro – the first presumed exponent of the lineage –went to Rome in 1300 to complete a pilgrimage to mark Holy Year.
On his return he was assigned the name “Bon Romeo” – in other words, “good pilgrim who has been to Rome”– and the family surname is supposedly derived from this nickname.
On the other hand, history tells us that the Borromeo family originally came from the town of San Miniato al Tedesco, which they abandoned in 1370 following a revolt against the city of Florence.
The family was forced to disperse around a number of different Italian cities, such as Milan, Padua, Venice, Pisa and Genoa, dividing into numerous branches.
The siblings Andrea, Borromeo, Alessandro, Giovanni and Margherita went to Padua, where the latter married the powerful Giacomo Vitaliani.
Borromeo Borromei was the first to move to Milan.
In the 1430s the family’s fortunes continued to improve.
In 1439 Vitaliano I obtained the enfeoffment of Arona and acquired vast properties around Lago Maggiore (including the Rocca di Angera), laying the foundations for what would become a vast landed estate, called “Stato Borromeo”.
He also forcefully guided the family’s mercantile and banking activities and, in the first half of the 15thcentury, occupied key positions at the Milanese court of the Visconti.
He was Treasurer General of the Duchy, supplier to the army, exclusive licence-holder for the transportation of salt from Genoa to Milan, and supported Duke Filippo Maria Visconti economically, obtaining land and privileges in exchange.
In those years bank branches in London, Bruges and Barcelona were also opened.
On the left, safe-conduct granted to Giovanni I and Vitaliano Borromeo to reach Venice, with an entourage of armed men, by Duke Filippo Maria Visconti (1418) – ABIB, Cassettiere, P107
All his children married leading members of the main Milanese noble families, completing the full integration of the family into the Lombard political society of the time.
It was these important bonds of kinship that inspired, for example, the spectacular decoration of the monumental staircase, characterised by large heraldic coats of arms belonging to great European families such as the Habsburgs, the Medici of Marignano, the Farnese, moulded in stucco by sculptor Francesco Maino starting from 1680.
Vitaliano I was also responsible for the construction and enlargement of the Milanese palazzo, as is also documented by the accounts registers of those years that are conserved in the Borromeo Archive on Isola Bella.
Due to unusual historical circumstances, today the ark of Vitaliano I Borromeo is found in the apse of the Palatine Chapel, the Borromeo family’s private church, annexed to the palazzo on Isola Bella.
Diplomatic and prudent, between the 16th and 17th centuries the Borromeos became one of the most important families of the Milanese duchy, thanks above all to the eminent figures of the two Archbishops of Milan, Carlo and Federico Borromeo.
From the left, Portrait of San Carlo Borromeo, Giovanni Ambrogio Figino, c. 1600 (Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan);
Portrait of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, Giulio Cesare Procaccini, 1610 (Diocesan Museum, Milan)
Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), nephew of Pope Pius IV Medici, an ordained priest and a consecrated bishop, moved to Milan in 1564.
Renouncing many privileges and transferring the rights to a part of the family’s property, he spent extravagantly on the poor people of the diocese and steadfastly defended the reforms of the Council of Trent. He was proclaimed a Saint in 1610.
The cousin of San Carlo, Archbishop Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), immortalised by Manzoni in I Promessi sposi [The Bethrothed], left an important cultural legacy to Milan: the Biblioteca e Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, which was opened in 1609 and is still in operation.
Cardinal Federico Borromeo’s older brother was called Renato I (1555-1608). In 1583 he regained possession of the islands on Lago Maggiore.
On the largest of these islands – baptised Isola Renata by him – the noble had a palazzo with terraced gardens built.
In the 18th century the island changed its name to Isola Madre, perhaps to recall the fact that it was the first island of the archipelago to be inhabited by the Borromeos.
One of the younger children of Renato I, Carlo III Borromeo (1586-1652), received the Isola Inferiore as a dowry.
On this island, then little more than a rock emerging from the lake, with a little church, some gardens and fishermen’s houses – in around 1630 Carlo III made plans for a Baroque terraced garden, having this designed by architect Giovanni Angelo Crivelli.
He named the island Bella in honour of his wife Isabella d’Adda.
In 1650 Vitaliano VI Borromeo, a cultured and inquisitive man, took over the running of the works on Isola Bella and, considering Rome with a spirit of great independence and autonomy of decision-making, took in hand the project begun by his father Carlo III to create a garden on Isola Bella.
Vitaliano transformed this idea into a grandiose Baroque scenography, adding a majestic palazzo.