THE APARTMENT OF GROTTOS
In Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella there is modern flight of stairs going down to the lower floor, at the height of the lake, which leads to a fascinating sequence of six “whimsical” rooms imitating natural grottos, conceived and imagined by Vitaliano VI Borromeo.
The ambitious idea of the «grotto-like» apartment was conceived by Count Vitaliano VI Borromeo starting from 1662 when, in a letter to his brother Giberto III, he floated the idea of «rooms for the summer looking like grottos, as I have seen designed in the Duke of Mantua’s Palazzo della Favorita».
Thanks to its position almost at the waterfront, with windows looking out directly over the lake, it invited those present to enjoy the panorama and the cool breezes.
This project probably also referenced two other examples in Lombardy: the grottos of the Visconti Borromeo in Lainate and those of Bartolomeo Arese in Cesano Maderno.
It was only in 1689 that the project was entrusted to Filippo Cagnola, a Florentine architect, whom the Borromeos themselves had sent to Rome to study with Carlo Fontana.
Designs by Filippo Cagnola
The six rooms on the ground floor, which are accessible directly from the garden, are entirely covered in pebbles, tuff, lava, coal residues, «shiny stones» (marbles), fragments of mica and small pieces of marble from Candoglia. All this is embellished with stucco ornaments on the theme of water: shells, nymphs, mermaids, dolphins, fishes and turtles. The floors are covered in red, white and black river pebbles from the lake, with which the Borromeos’ heraldic devices are designed.
When Vitaliano died, work ground to a halt and only resumed in 1758 under the supervision of architect Giulio Gallori.
The First Grotto
The «room of the four pillars» was the first and probably only one to be completed as regards the vault and the walls in accordance with Cagnola’s designs, and it immediately aroused great admiration. On 16th October 1689, Carlo IV Borromeo Arese, Vitaliano’s nephew, wrote:
“Your Lordship will be designed with the most beautiful thing on the island”.
The Second Grotto
The second grotto primarily makes reference to the theme of shells; a work of Neoclassical sculpture is also present: the marble bust of a soldier created by Giovan Battista Monti. The display case contains a group of shells and algae fossils arranged to represent a mysterious still life.
The Third Grotto
The third grotto, on the other hand, has marble fragments with red and white colour tones.
At the centre, the delicate, seductive statue of the Venus asleep by Giovan Battista Monti stands out. The soft sculpture, natural size, created a certain embarrassment for Gilberto V Borromeo, since one visitor had protested about the excessive realism of the statue, so that the prince was on the verge of deciding to sell the “scandalous” statue.
Fortunately, the beautiful sculpture remained where it was and can quite justifiably be considered an absolute masterpiece by Giovan Battista Monti, one of the main protagonists of Neoclassicism.
The Fourth Grotto
The fourth grotto is decorated with motifs of shells, bees and dolphins, and has a sculpture of Flora, the divinity of spring and plenty. In this room we also find display cases containing compositions of algae and corals, while exhibited at the centre is a model of the Bucentaur, the state barge of the Doge of Venice, created at the beginning of the 19th century as a reminder of the original vessel, which was unfortunately burnt during the Napoleonic occupation of Venice.
The Fifth Grotto
The fifth grotto is the largest in the summer apartment. It is supported by four pillars and, like the other rooms, is decorated with stone incrustations, black marble slabs, stuccos in the form of shells, turtles, sea divinities and amusing mascarons.
It was completed in 1690 and in 1772 the waterworks were installed; these were designed by Carlo Croce, an architect and hydraulic engineer, «to employ the new fountains in the mosaic», intended to amaze the guests on the island, which sadly are no longer in operation today.
The Sixth Grotto
The sixth and final grotto, decorated with a fountain from 1772, hosts a spectacular series of saddles, caparisons and harnesses for horses, decorated with the coats of arms of the Borromeo, Barberini and Odescalchi families, which were used by the Borromeo family on the occasion of solemn cavalcades.
From this last grotto, via an access passageway embellished by an Indian statue from the 11th century representing the goddess of water, you reach the helical staircase created in the 17th century to connect the various floors of the building alongside the hall.
Left untreated, with the granite steps fixed directly to the wall as though they were large shelves, it is a small masterpiece of engineering.
The charm of these locations, which supposedly prompted Abbot Jerome Richard to exclaim in 1766:
those islands seem enchanted by Alcina or Calypso, by those Fairies whose seductions were so powerful
had also attracted Giberto III, who gave his brother Vitaliano shells, which he had no hesitation in defining