Photography by Francesco Arena
It is a house, a museum, and a garden. Villa del Balbianello combines nature, architecture and history in what is a true state of balance and grace. It enshrines pure beauty, overlooking the water of the Lavedo promontory, a green peninsula between the two broad gulfs by the village of Lenno. The historic 18th century villa has one of the most magical views of all Lake Como. It is a must-see destination for the thousands of visitors who flock here every year, over 116,000 in 2018 alone, as well as being the location for Hollywood sets in such films as Casino Royale and Star Wars, and venue for millionaire marriages.
Villa del Balbianello embodies the virtues of fine architecture and the landscape that overlooks the lake, with a loggia of twisted columns surmounted by the Arconati crest, the unfolding of magnificent rooms, and its soft and meticulously tended gardens. It should come as no surprise that this location was once a place of worship. Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini, its first owner, created a 'small and wonderful' refuge here. On the death of Durini the villa became the property of Count Luigi Porro di Lambertenghi, who restored it and annexed to it the Franciscan monastery and the small church of San Giovanni. It was then bought by the Marquis Arconati and later by the Anes family of Boston, who owned it up to 1974, when Guido Monzino brought new charm to Balbianello by reviving its architecture and bringing in an airy lightness to the rooms.
Monzino gave the villa back that sense of being a place of retreat and of literary leisure that were so dear to Durini. He turned it into a place of wonder in which he housed the memories of his adventurous life. He was in fact the first Italian to reach the summit of Everest, an entrepreneur, a collector and a traveller. Records of much of his explorations can be seen in the Shipping Museum where there are his maps, travel instruments, books, and furnishings. The rooms are also a refuge for ancient and primitive art objects collected from China, Africa and Colombia, as well as the 4,000 books on mountain and polar expeditions, artfully mixed with 18th century furnishings and fine wallpapers. The exhibits can be seen atop marble mantelpieces and on the rooms’ boiserie.
On his death, in 1988, the FAI, the Italian Heritage Association, took over its management, preserving Monzino’s concept, spirit and interior arrangements. There is still the ever present tricolour, symbol of an all-Italian treasure, the virtues of the carefully conceived garden, the precise green path with panoramic terraces, blooms, statues, the characteristic domed holm oak, camphor tree and the festoons of ivy. Silvio Pellico described this place as “romantic, poetic, and magical”, and it can fill every day with wonder and beauty still to this day.
Villa del Balbianello is part of the iconographic history of beautiful villas on Lake Como, some not seen before, and published in Grand Interiors of Lake Como. The book tells its story in sequences of images that reveal the interiors of the most seductive of the lake’s residences, where the boundary between past and present is stretch thin and touches its history. The book is the first in a series on the Lake published by Wonderlake Como, and can be found in all bookshops in the area.