Gardens of the Italian Lakes


The Italian Lakes are a favourite travel destination with gardens around Lake Como and Lake Maggiore being among the most popular in Italy and admired throughout the world. Sandy Felton reviews a new book exploring the gardens of the two Lakes and discovers the Romanticism and history of this delightful area.

One of the happiest days of my life was spent on Lake Maggiore visiting the Borromean Islands of Isola Bella and Isola Madre. We were blessed with a beautiful day and as the boat came in to nestle against the little pier on Isola Madre, I knew that I was in for a horticultural feast of unprecedented proportions and I was not disappointed.

side-Gardens_of_Italian_LakesSo I was obviously delighted when I opened ‘Gardens of the Italian Lakes’ – a new book by historical gardens specialist Steven Desmond – to discover that he had included both Islands and their gardens. His descriptive prose and historical context perfectly captured for me the memory of that day and the delightful photographs by award-winning photographer Marianne Majerus, took me back once again to those two very distinctive gardens.

On Lake Maggiore visitors tend to do Isola Bella and Isola Madre (pictured above) together. The ferry which plies the lake conveniently calls at both islands so the garden aficionado can compare and contrast what are indeed two very different gardens. As Desmond points out, the atmosphere on each island is very different – on Isola Bella, such a short distance away, “all is splendour, nobility, state and parade,” where by contrast on Isola Madre (pictured below) it is “carpet slippers and afternoon tea.”  Isola Bella with its combination of  “swagger, scenery and brilliance” is an experience I will never forget. Surely, this is why we have such an enduring love affair with Italian Gardens. As the reader moves through this excellent book, the desire to see these romantic landscapes and experience the pleasures of these unique gardens just grows and grows.

The author has divided the book into two parts – the first covering the gardens on and near Lake Maggiore and the second part the gardens on and around Lake Como. Both lakes are lined with the towers, villas and grand hotels that speak of a complex history including key events in Italy’s struggle to achieve nationhood, inspiration for a string of illustrious writers and composers and a long line of distinguished visitors.


Capturing the magic of the area perfectly, Desmond takes us on an armchair journey of unsurpassed delights encompassing gardens not only significant for their horticultural heritage but also for their role in history including a galaxy of personalities, aristocrats, Milanese grandees and Napoleonic men of affairs as well as expatriate pleasure-seekers. I was hooked!

Many of the gardens included can be visited but others can only be viewed tantalizingly from a passing boat which makes their coverage in the book all the more interesting.

An exception to the rule is the Villa Melzi, an easy walk from the centre of Bellagio along the Lungolago on Lake Como. Its gates stand open to the public at reasonable hours to invite visitors in to this English landscape garden, which was doubtless an early trendsetter of this style in the area. Then there is the Villa Del Balbianello, which became a significant seat of radical republican activity in the 19th century, with its triple-arched loggia, decorated with shoots and leaves of a single plant of the creeping fig. Little has changed here down the centuries and Guido Monzino’s creation with its neatly pollarded trees and accurately dished slopes of turf and box, still delight to this day.

The photography by Marianne Majerus is both stunning and jaw-dropping in equal measure, perfectly encapsulating the landscape, atmosphere and personal appeal of each garden covered. The photographs, taken specially, are interspersed with period engravings and paintings to set these famous gardens in their rich historical and cultural context.

The author, Steven Desmond, takes us on a journey through each garden so that we easily visualize and experience something of the personality and history of each setting quickly becoming absorbed in the atmosphere and sense of place of each garden.

middle-Gardens-of-the-Italian-Lakes_5Among the gardens included are: Villa Melzi, Bellagio – an early 19th-century romantic park on the lake shore;
Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia – a terraced 17th-century property with woodland; Villa del Balbianello, (pictured above) Lenno – a famously picturesque loggia;
 Villa D’Este, Cernobbio – a 16th-century cascade garden with royal connections’ and Isola Bella, Stresa – a well-known island garden
 and Isola Madre, Stresa – an island retreat of flowers and birds.

Steven Desmond is a gardener, writer and lecturer with a special interest in the historic gardens of continental Europe. Marianne Majerus is a prestigious and prolific international photographer and winner of the Garden Media Guild Features Photographer of the Year Award in 2013 as well as the CMG Photographer of the Year in 2010.

There is no doubt that ‘Gardens of the Italian Lakes’ will become a standard work on these gardens, appealing to both the specialist preparing for a long-anticipated visit and to the visitor looking for a superbly illustrated and authoritative book that combines a broad and deep level of information in an approachable style.

‘Gardens of the Italian Lakes’ by Steven Desmond with photographs by Marianne Majerus, is a coffee table book published by Frances Lincoln at £35.00.