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The International Writers Magazine:Italia

A Legacy for Lake Como     
Bill Gilpin
‘James Bond…. Er…Casino Royale. Here!’ said our Taxi Boat driver. He was interrupted by his mobile phone which he grabbed excitedly. After a brief ride we were being docked at the jetty, rope in one hand phone in the other. ‘Star Wars… er… here as well.’


We climbed ashore and it was like walking onto a film set. The driver called after me,’ Oceans Twelve... here,’ pointing to the ground and then returning to his caller.
‘Grazie,’ I said sheepishly as he sped away.

There were lighting gantries being erected by technicians in uniform sweaters. The lady taking our entrance fee explained there was a wedding in the evening, hence all the activity.
‘Welcome to Villa del Balbianello. The villa is owned now by the FAI or Fondo per l’Ambiente, like your National Trust, and as members you are entitled to a reduction.’ She spoke fluently and explained about our visit and the English guide that will be available. As we climbed the steep slope into the gardens, the total splendour of the place was beguiling. I could make out three buildings with the Loggia at the highest level which was being prepared for the wedding and looking even more splendid decked out with flowers.

 The gardens are neatly manicured and set out with precision. The grass, the paths and each single tree were in pristine condition. I could identify Japanese cedar, Cypress and Camphor trees and a wide variety of others. All the different shapes and symmetry framed interesting views in all directions across the lake towards the lifting blue haze mountains. The odd sailing vessel glistened in the bright sun, contrasting with the deep blue that stretched for miles and provided a sense of space and distance. With the guide we headed for the Loggia which is the central feature. It was built in the eighteenth century by a Cardinal Durini and provides a dual perspective of the lake in two directions. There is a decorative facia made by the Visconti family showing their coat of arms.

villa interior The villa has a chequered history having been owned by numerous religious officials and aristocrats. The previous owner, a Milan businessman turned explorer and adventurer, Guido Monzino bought the villa in 1974. He has renovated, restored and developed Balbianello, and according to his wishes, when he died it was given to the Fondo per l’Ambiente, along with a large amount of funds to continue its upkeep.

He was disposed to collecting valuable artefacts and there is a large collection of works of art, antique furnishings, historic books and souvenirs from the explorer’s travels around the world. The loggia has a library on one side and a ‘map room’ on the other. Here is a large collection of literature, charts and maps that relate to geographical and mountaineering expeditions. Both rooms have impressive décor, oak panelling and shelving and an array of photographs and pictures. There is a door to a ‘secret passage’ in the library.
This passage, dug through solid rock and leading down to the quay side, was a security measure by the explorer who had felt threatened by possible kidnapping in the seventies. The explorer’s name was on a kidnap list of the ‘Red Brigade.’ He also had an alarm button under his desk in his study. Certain rooms in the villa show the prevalence of a  taste for English style furniture, including a chest from HMS Victory and many valuable items, other rooms, like the bedroom, demonstrate his penchant for French décor and furnishings from the Louis XV and XVI period.  He had built a modern kitchen which is situated in what has been a small chapel. There is also an elevator, again tunnelled out of the rock very determinedly but offering comfortable access to the house. The eighteenth century panelling in the ‘Smoke room’ is made with Swiss stone pine which nullified the smell of smoke, a habit Monzino had described as one challenge he could not overcome. In the expedition room are accounts of the challenges he had achieved.
In addition to the evidence of a resolute organizer and talented leader there is an indication of his concern for the safety and well being of all that joined his expeditions. He took along tons of provisions and ample support He had one hundred and eighty husky dogs on the North Pole expedition to share the load and not risk exhaustion; all dogs returned plus some puppies. In the expedition room are more of the the collection of valuable objects he liked from around the world, also equipment and photographs and information about his various adventures. In his study there is a silver paperweight made of rocks, a souvenir of climbing Everest. There are a number of anthropomorphic figures carved in ivory by Inuit’s brought from Greenland. Monzino had, with the help of an expert, built up a large collection of African, Pre-Columbian (Mesoamerican cultures) and Archaic (Cycladic) art objects. There are also collections of Mayan and Chinese art items. We were particularly interested in some statuettes of the Chinese Tang Dynasty dated 618 -907. There are one hundred and fifty oil on glass paintings in the villa that show Monzino’s admirations for this unique and technically demanding craft.

Monzino never married and had no heirs, and although his companions on his expeditions had described him as a loner that chose the privacy of his tent, Monzino did enjoy entertaining guests at the Villa and this is evident in the elaborate guest rooms. All fitted with modern style comforts such as air conditioning and valuable furnishings. He had also built a hi-fi system around the villa with speakers in the gardens. When his guests arrived by boat in the small harbour their national anthem would be played. As they stepped from the boat they would see the inviting motto, ‘Fay ce que voudras’ (do as you please) inscribed on the portico above the harbour.

There was no such ceremonial departure as we left. It was an interesting and absorbing visit to Villa del Balbianello. After returning to Lenno we shared a coffee with local resident and guide Danielle. She shared her thoughts about this ‘legacy’ of Lake Como and I asked her about the wedding. ‘This one is a wealthy Russian family today. The music will be provided by Gloria Gaynor. The FAI hire the villa to have added income I guess. Many wealthy people have villas around Como. Just along the lake is the villa of George Clooney. He bought the villa from the Heinz family, who made the beans. Every day you see young women sunbathing close by, trying to catch his attention. I don’t think he is even there. Richard Branson has bought a villa here and also the footballers Rummenigge and Chev Chenko. Many rich and famous have villas. But this one,’ she nods towards the promontory, ‘it belongs to not just Italy, but to everybody, and I like that better.’
© Bill Gilpin October 2011

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