Ladies of the (Italian) Lakes

Ladies of the Italian Lakes

According to historian and gardener Robin Lane Fox, it is the gardens of Italy with their captivating mix of rigour and informality (think neat parterres, clipped hedges of box and citrus, grand statuary and playful fountains set against flower meadows and ornamental vegetables) that underpin much of what we think of as the essential elements of formal garden design.

Some of the very best of these gardens can be found on two islands in Lake Maggiore.

Isola Bella lake maggiore

Isola Bella

Now regarded as one the most famous and best-preserved Italian-style Baroque gardens in the world, Isola Bella was commissioned in 1632 by Count Carlo Borromeo, governor of the Lake Maggiore region. Having inherited this rocky island, the Count decided to turn it into a garden which he named after his wife, Isabella d'Adda. All the soil was brought over by boat from the mainland and Isola Bella took 40 years to complete.

The result is an elaborate fantasy. The Borromeo family motto might have been ‘Humilitas’, but their garden is a celebration of extravagance. Arriving from the palazzo, you pass through huge wrought iron gates and step out into a grassy piazza in front of  the vast shell-shaped water theatre crowded with statues, putti and enormous scallops. At the top of it all stands the largest statue of all, Unicorn Ridden by Love – the symbol of Borromeo power and glory. In his Italian Gardens TV series, Monty Don described this operatic concoction as "a tipsy drag queen of a garden ready to party all night long, and the next day too!" 

Baroque it might be, but Isola Bella is also a horticultural gem. The soil and mild climate enabled plants and trees rarely found in this latitude to thrive, and this was the first garden in Europe where camellias, rhododendrons and vast camphor trees became acclimatised.

The camphor have their very own terrace and the showpiece is the colossal Cinnamomum camphora. Planted as a sapling in 1819, it is now one of the largest of its kind in Italy.

The main terrace, 37 metres above the lake, is planted with a scented profusion of espaliered roses, hibiscus, oleanders and citrus. It is also the best place to appreciate the geometry of the Italianate garden with its parterre hedging of low-growing box (Buxus sempervirens), giant yew trees (Taxus baccata) clipped into cones and strategically placed potted citrus trees.

The planting is now looked after by a team of 16 gardeners, and it is spectacular - don’t miss the giant yew spiral off-set by another free-growing yew and a luscious Camellia hedge. Inspiration is guaranteed!

Isola Bella lake maggiore


Isola Madre

Described by Gustave Flaubert as “the most voluptuous place I’ve seen in the world,” Isola Madre's English-style botanical park was created in the early 19th century and has been a showcase for flora brought back from trips to far-off lands ever since.

The mild climate has allowed these rare flora to thrive: there is a unique terrace of proteas, the prehistoric flowers that are the emblem of South Africa, for example, while other highlights include magnolia groves; perfumed pergolas of wisteria; espaliers of citrus fruit; parterres of ancient camellias and rhododendrons; pools blooming with waterlilies and lotus flowers, and beds of hibiscus, morning glory and bougainvillea. Europe's largest specimen of the rare Kashmir cypress can also be found here.  Planted in 1862, it was uprooted in a tornado in 2006. However, it was quickly replanted and is growing still, supported by special cables.