Isola Madre is a tiny little island, a place of some mystery almost completely covered by lush gardens. It is the most remote of the islands of Lake Maggiore, and can be reached and visited by public boat or water taxi. Flowers, age-old trees, song birds and a gorgeous villa dominate the landscape and are the beauties to be enjoyed there.
Historical sources indicate that in the mid 9th century there was already a church here with a square apse and also a cemetery.
It is thought a small military area may have been set up here, similar to the one with the Sant’Angelo castrum on the tiny island of San Giovanni, or St John. It is certain that there were olive groves here, whose production was probably used for sacred purposes.
Cultivation of citrus groves
Starting in 1501 Lancillotto Borromeo, one of the five sons of Giovanni III and Cleofe Pio of Carpi, introduced the first cultivations of citrus fruit on Isola Madre which were brought in from Liguria together with a gardener (“hortolano”) who was to look after them.
He ordered the construction of a first nucleus of patrician residence, which was later enlarged in Renaissance style by Renato Borromeo in the 1580s. These are the years in which a dynasty of Hortolanos or gardeners, the Della Torre family, took care of the gardens and lived on the island until the beginning of the 1800s.
Starting from 1823-1825, thanks to decisions taken by the counts Giberto V and Vitaliano IX Borromeo Arese, the areas under orchard were converted into romantic English gardens, to this day still considered to be among the very finest examples in Italy.
The Palazzo Borromeo was built in the 16th century on the ruins of the primitive church. The cemetery and the English garden over 8 hectares were designed around a previous citrus grove which had been productive right up to the end of the 1700s. The patrician chapel, unlike the one on Isola Bella, contains no cenotaphs or funeral monuments. The “Staircase of the Dead” however is famous and in the last decades has been enhanced by an important collection of wisterias