When Principessa Bona Borromeo deigns to meet a reporter, it feels more like a royal audience than an interview. That’s already clear at nine o’clock on a summer morning when a sleek motorboat bearing the three rings of the Borromeo crest nears Isola Bella, a tiny but magnificent island in Italy’s Lago Maggiore. Junior members of the Borromeo family are standing on the dock, like diplomatic envoys. Though the sun is blazing, the Principessa’s elder son, Count Vitaliano XI, 49, is in a suit and tie, while his wife, Marina, and sister-in-law, Lucrezia, are clad in conservative dresses. (Her other son, Federico X, 46, has been detained in Milan.) After exchanging polite greetings, we enter the grand courtyard of a vast 17th-century palazzo and make our way through mazelike hallways to an Empire-style salon, where a butler appears with espresso. Then the Principessa strides in. A slightly stout, white-haired lady in her 70s, wearing a bright magenta tunic over pants, she has a forceful aura that seems to put everyone on their toes, even her husband, Principe Giberto VIII, a genial gentleman in a finely tailored tan suit who enters a few steps behind her. Though the island has been in his family since the 1500s, he, like the rest of the clan, defers to his wife, to whom he was wed by Cardinal Montini, later Pope Paul VI, at Milan’s Duomo, in 1958. A moment later, several adorable young grandchildren scamper in to pay their morning respects to their nonna. “Baci!” she commands, and the youngsters comply by proffering kisses.
A true dynasty, the Borromeos trace their origins to the 15th century, when Vitaliano I, treasurer to the Duke of Milan, began amassing a fortune and accumulating enormous amounts of property. For the better part of the 16th century, a large chunk of what is now North Central Italy was known as the Borromeo State, and the family had full political and military power. In the center of this fiefdom, Lago Maggiore is not only geographically strategic—wedged between the Alps and Lombardy—but also breathtakingly beautiful, with azure waters and lush vegetation surrounded by snowcapped peaks.
Less than an acre in size, Isola Bella was once just a barren mount of sharp rocks. But through a marvelous combination of imagination, engineering and wealth, the 16th-century Borromeos transformed it into a bijou fantasy. While their gray stone palazzo houses a magnificent collection of paintings, the real attraction has long been the garden, a series of 10 terraces that rise like a pyramid and are accented by statues, niches, pinnacles and other fanciful constructions. Recognized as a masterpiece of baroque garden design, the confection remains miraculously intact.
For centuries Isola Bella was an obligatory stop for aristocrats on their grand tours. Artists and writers flocked there too. In 1904 Edith Wharton devoted an entire chapter of Italian Villas and Their Gardens (recently republished by Rizzoli) to the property. While singing its praises, she also noted a shift in prevailing opinions. In the 1600s travelers were “unanimous in extolling the Isola Bella,” she wrote, seeing it as a paragon of “audaciously remodel[ed] nature.” By the mid-1700s, however, the fashion for English natural gardens led many visitors, who were searching for, as Wharton derisively put it, “sham Gothic ruins,” to consider the place too artificial. Wharton concluded that the Borromean gardens—“anchored in a lake of dreams”—were so unusual that they should be compared to Renaissance poetry, not to horticultural works.
In Wharton’s time, respectable visitors needed only to tip the head gardener for the pleasure of a stroll around the grounds. Today tourists line up during the summer months to buy tickets that grant them access to the gardens—where the family’s signature white peacocks still roam—as well as the palazzo’s state rooms. With three floors remaining completely private, however, and a walled garden maintained just for the family, tourists rarely impinge upon the Borromeos’ daily life. “We don’t see them,” says the Principessa. “We are very organized.”
Born in Milan to a wealthy family, the Principessa has proved to be a model chatelaine. “It’s not a burden; I enjoy it,” she says of the responsibilities of running the place. “There’s always something to restore, something to do.” Although the rest of the family is present as we chat, she is clearly the designated spokesperson.
Its grandeur notwithstanding, Isola Bella manages to function as a fun summer getaway. A bit later, the grandchildren are screaming with pleasure while waterskiing on the lake. Still, Maggiore maintains a quieter and less crowded air than Como, its glitzier, more celebrity-filled neighbor to the east. “That’s George Clooney—those people,” the Principessa scoffs. The annoying buzz of a helicopter overheard soon draws her ire. “Berlusconi?” she wonders aloud. Rumors are that the prime minister has just bought a villa on the shore.
If Silvio Berlusconi isn’t welcomed with open arms by the Borromeos, he wouldn’t be the first potentate to get the cold shoulder. When Napoleon invited himself for a visit to Isola Bella in 1797, “Count Borromeo did not receive him,” says the Principessa. A few years later, perhaps not coincidentally, the Emperor’s troops destroyed a Borromeo castle on the mainland, where the family saint had been born. Carlo Borromeo (1538–84), archbishop of Milan, was a leading reformer in the church, for which he was canonized in 1610. Within Italian clans, a saint in the family is the ultimate status symbol. Hence, one sees Carlo’s motto, humilitas, seemingly at every turn of the property, even clipped into a topiary hedge. Carlo’s good deeds included selling off, for the benefit of the poor, the princely title the family had been given in the 16th century. For more than 300 years, the Borromeos reverted to being counts. In the Twenties, King Victor Emmanuel III made them princes again.
Because the palazzo is unheated, the family spends time there only during the warmer months. The rest of the year they live in Milan, where Vitaliano and Federico work in the steel and real-estate industries, respectively. Nieces Lavinia, who is married to Agnelli heir John Elkann, and Beatrice, who is the girlfriend of Pierre Casiraghi, Princess Caroline’s son, are mainstays of the European social scene. (Both are the daughters of the Principe’s younger brother, Carlo, who occupies a neighboring island, Isolino di San Giovanni, where he resides in a much less elaborate home, a former convent.) But the Principe and Principessa and their offspring prefer not to discuss their personal lives or dwell much in the public spotlight. When she refuses to allow her grandchildren to pose for a portrait for this story, the Principessa refers disapprovingly to “people who are photographed.”
“The family has prospered for so long because we’ve stayed away from politics and gossip and remained neutral,” she declares. And who are we to argue?