Italian Lakes (2013)

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Long before the Côte d’Azur came into vogue, the Italian Lakes were the haunt of the European elite and a staging post on the Grand Tour – the appeal lingers on, even if Byron, Bellini and Goethe have given way to George Clooney and the celebrity set.

The Italian Lakes, nestling in the southern foothills of the Alps, have long cast a spell over jaded visitors. Virgil, Pliny and Catullus lavished praise on their homeland, whose villas and gardens represented Roman rest and recreation in an era which celebrated similar pleasures to our own. Henry James rightly praised the lakes for making urbanites feel “out of the rush and crush of the modern world”.

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The lakes were advertised in many elegant early 20th-century posters.

Corbis

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The first train to go through the Simplon Tunnel, 1905.

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The uptight Victorians loosened a few buttons on the lakes: the Murray guidebook to the area, published in 1842, swept enraptured visitors around the sights, from the Borromean Islands on Lake Maggiore to Villa Carlotta and Villa d’Este on Lake Como, creating a Grand Tour of the lakes that remains popular today, admittedly lacking the grumpy innkeepers and unreliable ferrymen of yore. The lakes only fell out of fashion in the 1950s when beach holidays became a badge of sophistication. But now the lakes are again a celebrity magnet, their charms sufficient to lure movie stars and media moguls to seek permanent moorings on the waterfront.

Crossing the Simplon Pass

The Simplon afforded a breathtaking descent into the Lombardy lakes but, for many Grand Tourists, crossing the pass to the lakes was a journey from purgatory to paradise. The French writer Théophile Gautier, who made the crossing in 1850, reported: “Travelling from the cold air of the high Alps into the warmth of Italy, carriages lurched and lumbered along vertiginous routes carrying travellers clutching their Baedeker, Bradshaw or Murray guidebooks, which hastened to reassure them that the world ahead was free of the ‘perils of precipices and robbers’ presently surrounding them.”

The Grand Tour

The lakes first became fashionable wintering grounds in the early 19th century thanks to their mild climate, the opening of the Simplon Pass and the growth of ferry services.

The Simplon was barely passable in 1800, when Napoleon blasted a trailblazing route through the ravines and chasms to Italy. While Wordsworth had been consigned to perilous mule-tracks in 1790, Napoleon’s route made the lakes a migration path for the Grand Tourists, like swallows heading south. Byron and Shelley flew this way, delighted to leave the highwaymen behind. English carriages, reported Byron, were regularly “stopped and handsomely pilfered of various chattels”.

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The Villa d’Este became Queen Caroline’s new and happier playground.

Leonardo

Among the early travellers came Caroline of Brunswick, later Queen Caroline, wife of George IV. As the estranged wife of the Prince Regent, she sought a fresh start on Lake Como, in the palatial Villa d’Este, where, in 1814, she installed her Italian lover, a Napoleonic general, and scandalised polite society before dying in England.

Artists in residence

A clutch of writers and artists soon followed, from a youthful Henry James, who walked part of the way in 1869, to Turner, who painted and sketched his way through Italy. Turner, the master of atmospheric effects, lapped up the lakes, which inspired his dreamlike landscapes, such as Sun Setting over a Lake (1840). The critic John Ruskin visited the lakes in 1844, the same year Charles Dickens swept in, accompanied by his wife, five children, their servants and even the family hound.

The composer Franz Liszt wrote his Dante Sonata on the shores of Lake Como, supposedly inspired by a statue of Dante and Beatrice in Villa Melzi, one of the finest villas on the lake.

As for continental writers, French novelists such as Stendhal tended to prefer Lake Como, although Balzac loved Lake Orta, whose soft, dreamy landscape was likened to “a grey pearl in a green casket”. For the Austrians, Lake Garda was the fashionable choice. Considered a Mediterranean hothouse, the northern part of the lake flourished under Austrian rule, between 1815 and 1918, when Riva became a stylish resort, attracting such intellectual heavyweights as Kafka, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann. The aristocracy and bourgeoisie of Mitteleuropa flocked to the sanatoria around Lake Garda, while Lake Lavarone, just north, was where Sigmund Freud sought inspiration every summer, using his therapeutic lakeside strolls for psycho-analytical musing.

Operatic Lake Como

The musical links on the lakes resemble the “five degrees of separation” game. On Lake Como, Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula , Rossini Tancredi , and Verdi Act II of La Traviata . The composers looked no further than their neighbours: Giuditta Pasta, the Maria Callas of her day, and her husband, the tenor Giuseppe Pasta.

Villa Melzi, one of Como’s finest waterside villas, captivated singers and composers, including Franz Liszt, forced into Italian exile after a troubled love affair. What first inspired him was the Moorish coffeehouse standing sentinel to the lake, a bold folly with lofty vistas edged by banks of camellias. Fittingly, it was on Lake Como, on Christmas Day 1837, that Liszt’s daughter Cosima was born, the future wife of Richard Wagner, to whom Isola Bella conceivably conjured up Kundry’s enchanted garden in his opera Parsifal . Also on Isola Bella, “La Grissina” sang for Napoleon, who conducted a tempestuous affair with the celebrated diva. In the 19th century, the atmosphere on Lake Como was so operatic that even the unlyrical Henry James found himself “fairly wallowing in a libretto”.

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The romantic gardens of the Villa Cortine Palace, Sirmione.

Neil Buchan-Grant/Apa Publications

Grand dukes and divas

Ostensibly less operatic, Lake Garda’s northern resorts became winter watering holes for the musical Austrian grand dukes in the 1870s, including Emperor Franz Joseph and his cousin Albert. The resorts of Riva and Arco revelled in Belle Epoque balls, interspersed with health cures and carriage rides to exotic villa gardens and olive groves. It took the outbreak of World War I to put an end to the lake’s aristocratic heyday.

Lake Garda’s musical revival was left to Maria Callas, “La Divina” , who lived in Sirmione at the height of her powers in the 1950s. The diva, married to an Italian but besotted with Aristotle Onassis, became as celebrated for her operatic affairs as for her lyrical perfection. As in the finest operatic scores, her love affairs had tragic endings, a poignancy at one with the spirit of Sirmione. Villa Cortine, opposite Maria Callas’s villa, became a battlefield hospital, Nazi High Command and Allied headquarters before becoming a hotel where Princess Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, retreated after the death of her daughter, seeking the solace she failed to find on her small Scottish island.

Como and the A-list

Despite Garda’s operatic grandeur, Lake Como, in mood, if not in reality, is the lake most swept up in the days of grand dukes and dowager empresses, of fin de siècle balls before the chill winds of democracy swept away the doomed, cobweb-encrusted carapace. As the most glamorous lake, it has been a retreat for weary urbanites for several thousand years. Pliny the Younger, poet, orator and senator, sang the praises of his two waterside villas, retreats from the cares of the world. Named Comedy and Tragedy, the porticoed villas saved him from the stress of life in ancient Rome. If Villa Comedia is traditionally sited in Lenno, where the young poet fished from his bedroom window, Villa Tragedia straddled a ridge in Bellagio and boasted superlative views of the Alps. Here, as in most of the lakes, the sights are subordinate to the mood. Bellagio is a summation of all the clichés, yet somehow rises above it.

The Literary Lakes

The sight of sluggish steamers and snow-clad peaks stirs something deep in most visitors, but especially in the souls of poets.

Henry James’s heart lifted as he left Switzerland for the Italian Lakes: “On into Italy we went – a rapturous progress through a wild luxuriance of corn and olives and figs and mulberries and chestnuts and frescoed villages and clamorous beggars and all the good old Italianisms of tradition.”

It is little coincidence that two of the most romantic Roman poets, Virgil and Catullus, came from the lakes, and were inspired by the seductive setting. Virgil lavished praise on the lakes, while Catullus chose Sirmione as the place from which to write lovesick verse to Lesbia, his fickle lover.

“This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty,” declared Shelley of Lake Como. Shelley, exploring the lake in 1818, was stirred by Villa Pliniana, a Renaissance palace linked to a site beloved by Pliny. Like the Roman poet, Shelley waxed lyrical over the vast waterfall, “broken by the woody rocks into a thousand channels to the lake”, but, with typical British acquisitiveness, wanted to rent the crumbling pile. Novelist Edith Wharton, visiting in 1903, was intoxicated by the Romantic poets’ visions of brooding lakes, especially Shelley’s “glens filled with the flashing light of the waterfalls”.

Romantic inspiration

The German poet Goethe was drawn to Lake Garda by its classical resonance, even if it was the lemons rather than the literature which won his heart: “What I enjoy most of all is the fruit,” he wrote in his journal in 1786. Goethe had less fondness for Malcesine, where the Austrian police, spotting the poet sketching the castle, arrested him on suspicion of being a spy.

Since the 18th century, Lake Garda’s summer villas have lured such luminaries as Byron and D.H. Lawrence, who lamented a way of life that was passing, with the shift from plucking lemons to plucking tourists. Lawrence adored Limone, overlooking “a lake as beautiful as the beginning of creation”. In 1912, having left England for the first time in his life, he travelled to northern Italy and spent almost one year at various picturesque localities on the shores of Lake Garda. D.H. Lawrence and Italy published in 1916 is his nostalgic collection of travel essays on his Italian journey, with one of its parts “Twilight in Italy” solely devoted to Lake Garda. This is a very specific travel book in which the author of Women in Love ponders not only landscapes and nature, but also – on a more philosophical plane – mankind, human fate and religion.

Ibsen and Vladimir Nabokov concurred, even if their preference was for grander Gardone Riviera, which was also Winston Churchill’s favoured resort, where he combined painting watercolours with journal-writing.

“One can’t describe the beauty of the Italian lakes, nor would one try if one could,” wrote Henry James, on catching sight of Lake Maggiore. Such outpourings of purple prose, particularly from writers fleeing northern climes, are part of the lakes’ legacy, but look elsewhere for great literature.

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The Romantic English poet Shelley.

Public domain

Como’s icing on the cake comes in the form of Villa Carlotta and its gorgeously saccharine gardens. This central stretch of the lake, embracing Bellagio, Tremezzo and Varenna, is the most seductive. Near Varenna, the brooding woods and wild limestone peaks inspired Leonardo da Vinci to use the shadowy landscape as the setting for his Virgin of the Rocks . Stendhal, based in Milan, partly set his masterpiece The Charterhouse of Parma on these shores, which offered a clear-sighted look at love and the pursuit of happiness.

Longfellow immortalised the resort in verse in 1872: “The hills sweep upward from the shore, with Villas scattered one by one upon their wooded spurs, and lower Bellagio blazing in the sun.”

Naturally, the locals claim John Kennedy romanced Marilyn Monroe on Lake Como. But even in Henry James’s day, it had a reputation for seduction: “It is commonly the spot to which inflamed young gentlemen invite the wives of other gentlemen to fly with them and ignore the restrictions of public opinion.” Ever wise, James was the first to sanction snatching happiness where you may: “Lake Como is the place to enjoy à deux – it’s a shame to be here in gross melancholy solitude.”

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Detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, inspired by the landscape near Varenna.

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Princes and potentates

By contrast, Lake Maggiore has long been a mecca for potentates, politicians and plantsmen. Still fabulously wealthy, the powerful Borromean dynasty have produced patrons of learning, cardinals, popes and even a saint, and have had their powerbase on the Borromean Islands since medieval times. Their Isola Bella was the picturesque setting for the doomed 1935 Stresa Conference at which Italy, Britain and France failed to agree a strategy in the face of Hitler’s rearmament. Stresa itself is still considered the noble part of the lake, and commands a place in the hearts of former heads of state of a certain vintage, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl.

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Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh on holiday in Lake Garda in 1955.

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Snobbery certainly plays a part, as the residents are delighted to have hosted royalty. Carlo Pisoni, archivist for the princely Borromean clan, detects a keen sense of history among lake-dwellers: “If you mention Queen Victoria to people in Baveno, they’ll talk about her as though she was here yesterday.” Although well past its prime, this dowager resort once found favour with the crowned heads of Europe. In 1879, Queen Victoria visited Baveno, staying in the turn-of-the-century Villa Clara, which Edward Hutton dismissed as “a replica of the Wimbledon or Putney residence of a retired tradesman”. Yet on the neighbouring shore, in Villa Taranto, a Scottish soldier, Captain Neil McEachern, turned his back on social climbing to devote his life to planting his exotic gardens.

Thinking of this lake, Henry James noted: “The most striking feature of Italian scenery seems to be this same odd mingling of tawdriness and splendour – a generous profuse luxuriance of nature and the ludicrous gingerbread accessories of human contrivance.” In his inimitable way, James may be referring to the ornateness and sumptuousness which struck many a British and American visitor.

The simple (celebrity) life

In the past, romantic lakeside views and lush Mediterranean vegetation drew visitors of a certain sensibility. Their dreams were fulfilled by the profusion of villas and gardens set amid azaleas, giant palms, camellias and rhododendrons. Whether rich, rakish or rebellious, their concerns were scenery, climate, a release from social responsibility and a sense of surrender.

Historian John Pemble describes the typical Victorian and Edwardian exiles as “eccentrics with oversize personalities, whose voices, gestures and passions required high ceilings, strong light and stupendous views”. Little has changed, except that the ceilings have got higher and the staff quarters bigger. The curious point about contemporary stars is that their motivations remain unchanged: the lakes represent a realm of enchantment and repose, where they can potter in privacy. Today’s movie star seeks simplicity and, like Pliny, wants to feel he can fish from his bedroom window or enjoy what Liszt called “the melancholy murmuring of the waves lapping against the boat”.

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George Clooney boards a yacht on Lake Como.

Corbis

Villas for the rich and famous

For all its cultivated simplicity, Lake Como could claim to be Europe’s tightest power nexus: Rupert Murdoch owns a waterside estate in Blevio and, ironically, has Silvio Berlusconi, his rival media magnate, in the villa opposite. Fellow tycoon Richard Branson has plumped for a property in nearby Lenno, not far from several secretive Russian billionaires and Michael O’Leary, the Irish owner of Ryanair. Footballers have now caught the Lake fever: Lionel Messi has bought a house on Como and both Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham are rumoured to be looking for their own houses in the area, too. Paradoxically, the common quest for privacy could degenerate into a deal-making frenzy of snappy power brunches on the powerboat.

Many Milan-based Italian fashion designers also own villas in the lakes, but since film star George Clooney bought Villa Oleandra, Lake Como has been bathed in Hollywood glamour and it has featured in such films as Ocean’s Twelve and Casino Royale . Villa Oleandra is where Clooney entertains friends, from Brad Pitt to Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, when not playing tennis with the locals or roaring round the hills on his Harley motorbike. The star’s popularity was briefly dented after his purchase of the neighbouring villas and beach provoked a local backlash, resolved by Clooney smoothly presenting Como with a new public beach.

Hollywood star George Clooney loves the laid-back lifestyle of his Lake Como home: “Italians have taught me how to celebrate life,” he once said.

The waters are calm once more, as Como strives to provide camouflage for publicity-shy residents. Hollywood stars are also regular guests at Donatella Versace’s villa retreat in Moltrasio, where Gianni Versace is buried, and where extravagant fashion shoots are staged. The 18th-century mansion is a dreamy affair, with a lily pond and dancing fireflies. This is where celebrities come for peace and quiet, keener on gossip and grilled lake fish than on fashionable column inches. It is hardly surprising that Clooney prefers sleepy Lake Como to the hip Hollywood Hills.