Lake Como is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful spots I know, having visited on several occasions, including my honeymoon. Despite its popularity, and oglers trying to catch a glimpse of George Clooney at his villa, it still remains a place of exquisite natural beauty dotted with amazing architectural specimens. So when friend, photographer John Simoudis, mentioned that he had just returned from Italy and had some nice shots of a villa on the lake, I couldn’t wait to see. As it turned out, it wasn’t just any villa, but Villa del Balbianello, one of the most beautiful on the lake.
Built for the Franciscan Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini in 1787, the villa stands on the edge of a wooded peninsula on the western shore of the southwestern leg of the lake, almost opposite Bellagio. After several owners, it had fallen into a state of disrepair and was rescued in the early 1900’s by an American military officer and politician Butler Ames, who renovated the villa and its magnificent gardens, with majestic views overlooking Lake Como.
But it was its last owner, Count Guido Monzino, who brought the villa to life. A Milanese entrepreneur and explorer (he led the first Italian expedition to climb Mount Everest), Monzino purchased the villa in 1974, continuing the restoration and decoration of the villa and gardens and filling it with collections and artifacts from his adventures. The top floor of the villa is now a private museum housing his collections, such as this one of ancient Inuit objects made of rare whale tooth, commendations and medals he received from the Italian government.
The villa is well known for its gorgeous gardens. John explained how there is a fantastic fig vine that grows throughout the property, emanating from a single root. Trained throughout the exterior of the main villa, it can even be seen from the dock below.
There is evidently also an amazing camphor tree that is trimmed by hand by the villa’s gardeners while they stand on stilts within the branches. The villa itself sits high on a breathtakingly steep promontory above Lake Como, affording amazing views.
Inside, the first floor drawing room was extended by lowering the floor of the adjoining room to accommodate wood paneling the Count had bought from a chateau in France. Collections of Chinese, African and pre-Columbian art sit comfortably with 18th century English and French furniture.
In the count’s bedroom, a square bed (not seen), voluminous curtains and a rock crystal chandelier add to the luxuriousness of the interior.
A lovely corner in the guest bedroom, featuring a convertible desk, overlooks the garden, framed by sumptuous silk curtains.
In the lower section of the main villa is a small apartment that, for several years, belonged to the Count’s mother. The 18th century French and Italian art includes eglomise paintings that John says are stunning pieces in vivid color.
The apartment boasts some of the best views of the Lake Como and opposite shore. Visitors arrive by boat at a dock not far from the apartment so perhaps, John conjectured, “the count wanted his mother to be able to see who was arriving at the residence.”
When Monzino died in 1988, he left the villa to the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the National Trust of Italy, with the only proviso that he be buried there. He got his wish and is interred in the cellar. From mid-March to mid-November, the estate is open to the public and over the years has appeared in many movies including Star Wars (Episode II Attack of the Clones) and Casino Royale, the Bond film from 2006.
If you reproduce or pin these images, please include a credit for the photographer, John Simoudis