How Lake Maggiore became a land of gardens and mansions

Thanks to its large size, Lake Maggiore, like all the major water bodies, ensures a mild weather to the surrounding region. But, because of the scarcity of flat land (most of its shores are mountains throwing directly into the lake), agriculture has always been scarce, except for a small amount of olive oil produced up to a couple of centuries ago.

Villa San Remigio
Villa San RemigioOn the other hand the distance from big towns like Milan or Turin prevented for a long time to promote Lake Maggiore as a "resort" area, suitable for the construction of summer villas and gardens; only Prices Borromeo (the largest landowners of the lake) for several generations devoted to building the baroque phantasmagoria of Isola Bella, creating a palace and a garden that are unique. Exactly.
The situation changed suddenly in the nineteenth century with the industrial revolution. The presence of water and timber in abundance, as well as waterways that connected Switzerland to Milan, suddenly wrenched the area from its marginality. The first steam loom installed in Italy was built under Napoleon right here in Intra (today Verbania-Intra), which was soon dubbed the "Manchester of Italy." From that moment, manufactures multiplied for over a century and a half, attracting investors and workers.

A new class of entrepreneurs was rising, partly composed of Swiss, German, English, etc., who wanted housing appropriate to their condition.

Taking advantage of the fact that the coastal area remained sparsely populated until then, many of these homes could be surrounded by gardens often considerable, and sometimes immense. And the trend was such that even the Mother Island was transformed by Borromeos, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, from an olive plantation into the present botanical garden.

Villa San Remigio - lake MaggioreThe increasing traffic brought a growth in the number of tourists, who found extraordinary the natural beauty and the climate of this area, making it one of the "Grand Tour" destinations in the early nineteenth century. This of course stimulated tourism, which in time would become the main economic activity of various locations, the best known of which is now Stresa.
Being increasingly appreciated as a holiday destination, in eighteenth and early twentieth centuries Lake Maggiore saw the rise of hundreds of villas along the entire perimeter of its shores, of course preferably in the areas uncontaminated by industrial activities.

And if they initially was fashionable for these villas a funny "exotic" style that recalled the Swiss or Alpine chalets (of which survives today a few examples), later a more elegant style prevailed, in pace with the artistic trends of the moment: from Late Neoclassical to Umbertin eclecticism, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, to the rationalist style and contemporary artistic trends.
Villa San Remigio, Agostino Rossi

Twin villas

During the culmination of the passion for mansions surrounded by large gardens full of flowers, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries two of the most famous villas were built, almost competing with each other, in Pallanza, which was already considered a top tourist resort.

The creation of these villas, true masterpieces of garden arts, was possible thanks to the experience accumulated in previous decades of trials and successes. But in the case of Villa San Remigio, it was also a sort of dream of Romance, the fruit of a lifetime that two spouses (the Marquis Silvio della Valle di Casanova (1861-1929) and his cousin and his wife, Irish-Italian Sophie Browne (1868-1960), devoted to the construction of the villa and garden, designed as a work of art, as well as their private "love dream".
These are Villa Taranto, which is now a botanical garden known throughout the world and open to visitors, and Villa San Remigio, which borders with the Villa Taranto, in practice constituting a single, huge park that covers most of the hill called the "Castagnola" (chestnut hill).
The Marquis of Casanova at the piano (Bechstein) in his villa San Remigio Musikzimmer

Lake Maggiore gardens

The first gardens at Lake Maggiore were created by wealthy entrepreneurs and "foreigners", who had brought with them from their earlier villas expert gardeners, which immediately triggered a local tradition of gardens and nurseries that continues in our days. By the mid nineteenth century over Lake Maggiore thrived nurseries of trees and flowers, run by local families who work both for the gardens of the area and for export and could also offer rare and exotic plants.

The mildness of the climate was too tempting not to try and use nurseries and parks as "naturalization gardens", filled with plants from the five continents never grown before, as well as rare European species. The gardens competed in exhibiting specimens of new precious plants, better if unusual, even including palms, banana trees and subtropical ferns ...

The soil proved ideally suited to the cultivation of acidophiles like camellias, azaleas, magnolias, gardenias and rhododendrons, which were at that time "discoveries" sent in a continuous stream across Europe from the rest of the world, and that acclimatized so well to become a characteristic feature of the spectacular gardens of Lake Maggiore, as well as a sought after item of export.

The chapel of Villa San Remigio.

Also the church of Villa San Remigio dates back to 1898. Originally founded as a private Catholic chapel. The building was located at the edge of the park of the villa, from which it was later separated by the construction of small road that runs along the lake. (The road, which connects Intra to Pallanza, now includes a bike path and can be used for jogging).
The church of San Remigio in a photo of the '40s

More precisely, the construction was inspired faithfully, almost to the plagiarism, by a chapel of the Sacro Monte of Orta not far (namely, the eleventh) attributed to the school of Alessi.

On the death of Marquise Browne the chapel was deconsecrated, spun off from the rest of the property of Villa San Remigio, sold as a private residence and transformed into the cottage overlooking the lake that you can see today. The rest of the Villa went instead to the first daughter of the Della Valle couple and finally, in 1977, to the Piedmont Region, which then assigned it to the Province of Verbania to house its offices. In December 2011 it was put on a list of public properties to be sold and should return to private hands.

In the course of events and changes in ownership the former church underwent several tampering (such as the construction of a concrete balcony on the front), while the park went through a period of neglect and wild.

The restoration of the chapel completed in 2009 restored the exterior and demolish the additions, thus restoring the church to its original state, under the supervision of the Superintendency of Arts. The interiors were rebuilt to a modern standard of comfort and taste.

The park has been restored and renovated, preserving the existing and centuries old trees, making accessible again the lookout with a pergola and a garden terrace with an ancient circular stone bench.

Likewise, it was finally restored the access that leads to the lake private beach the marquise Browne loved to attend.

Villa San Remigio

Actually, the construction of Villa San Remigio had already started before the birth of the couple, dating back to 1859 and 1866, when their families began to buy land on the "Castagnola" and build an ever-present "Swiss chalet".
In these properties the two cousins were brought up, spending much time together. And a plaque placed at the entrance of Villa San Remigio by the couple (who married in 1896) proclaims that the villa is the concretization of a dream they begun to dream together as teenagers.
Sophie Browne on the beach of our villa
When they received their inheritance both spouses exchanged with their co-heirs the properties located outside Pallanza, both in Italy and abroad, concentrating in their hands all the land of the Castagnola in possession of various branches of their families. They added more adjoining land, purchased to reach the current extension.
In 1898, felled the existing buildings, began construction on the villa and the park, which took its name from the lovely Romanesque church that shares the top of the hill with the Villa.
Work proceeded swiftly, but for a long time, due to the search for an aesthetic that aimed at perfection, causing great turnarounds and continuous changes. And at its peak, the maintenance for the park alone employed thirty full-time gardeners.
The main achievement is the Italian (ie, geometric) garden, with patterns and drawings inspired by the Baroque era and adorned by statues from Baroque and Rococo gardens, from the antique trade. Given the hilly nature of the plot, to level and smooth the land extensive and expensive work was needed.
Next to this section there is another organized as an English garden, of Romantic taste, lined by trees and crossed by paths.i.
Boccioni: portrait of pianist and composer Busoni in Villa San Remigio (1916)
At the top of the hill towers the villa, a large building of eclectic taste which, following the taste of the early twentieth century, blends nonchalantly Baroque to Neoclassicism. Among its many rooms, an atelier for artistic activities of Browne, who was a painter and a sculptor and the study of Marquis della Valle, who was a poet and a writer.
Umberto Boccioni at villa San Remigio paints the famous portrait of composer Ferruccio Buson
The house quickly became a meeting point for international artists, and was often visited by prominent persons both elegant, like the queen of Romania, and cultural, as the writers Hermann Hesse, Hugo Wolf and Gabriele D'Annunzio, the composer Ferruccio Busoni, the painter Umberto Boccioni and the pianist Clara Wieck (wife of Robert Schumann), to mention only the most famous among the many guests
The sculptor Riccardo Ripamonti, the Marquis, the composer Busoni and painter Boccioni on the terrace of San Remigio (June 1916)