“For however fanciful & fantastic the Isola Bella may be, and is, it is still beautiful¨
– Charles Dickens, 1844
Isola Bella, or the “Beautiful Island” is one of the Borromean Islands located on Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy. The Borromean Islands also include Isola Pescatori (Fishermans Island) and Isola Madre (Mother Island) The islands are situated in a small gulf on the lake, known as the Borromean Gulf, with Isola Bella being only 400m (1330ft) from the lakeside town of Stresa. Although quite small, the island is the second largest in the group at 320m (1000ft) long by 400 (1330ft) wide. The island is known for its incredible beauty of its location as well as the wonderful palace and gardens which adorn it.
Up until 1632 the island, then known as Isola Inferiore or Isola di Sotto, was a small rocky outcrop occupied by a fishing village with several churches and sprinkled with vegetable gardens. It was in that year that Carlos III, of the Borromeo family who had owned the island since 1501, decided to construct a palace dedicated to his wife, Isabella D’Adda. It is from Isabella that the island gets its name. The Milanese architect Angelo Crivelli took on the challenge to not only design the palace but the gardens also. With the works well underway, everything was suspended as the plague swept through Europe including that of northern Italy. Carlos’s sons, Cardinal Gilberto III and Vitaliano VI, resumed the work on the palace using another Milanese architect Carlo Fontana who completed Berthiers’s Gallery, Salla della Regina, Sala del Trono and the Sala della Medaglie.
Upon completion the palace and gardens became a meeting point for the nobility of Europe with visitors including Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais and Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of King George IV of England. Legend has it that Caroline fell in love with the palace and the island as asked if she could buy it or Isola Madre. The request was turned down so she eventually built Villa d’Este at Cernobbio on Lake Como.
Napoleons visit is remembered today with the Sala di Napoleone (Niche Hall), the room which he stayed along with his wife, was remodelled and named after him. Works continued until 1948 when the Salone Nuove (New Salon) war built along with the great docks.
On April 14 1935, the Hall of Music in the palace with setting for a meeting between the French President, Pierre-Étienne Flandin, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald and the Italian prime Minister, Benito Mussolini that would later become known as the Stressa Conference. It was attempt to stop the growing presence of Nazi Germany in Europe as Hitler was increasing his, army, navy and air force.