Count Francesco of Melzi d’Eril was Duke of Lodi under Napoleon and vice president of the Napoleonic Italian Republic. He was Lord Chancellor when the republic became a kingdom.
Work started on the his simple villa at Belaggio in 1808, iced in white stucco and accompanied by a chapel and an orangery (now the museum, the only building open and a much welcome offering of shade in the heat of the summer).
There are no railings between the garden and the lake, one seamlessly joining the other.
Givanni Battista Sommariva of Villa Carlotta was Melzi’s rival in gardens and politics, as he too coveted the title of vice-president that Napoleon gave to his rival.
The rivalry was played out via the gardens, with new species such as Rhododendrons being planted as one tried to out-do the other. This took the Italian gardens out of the usual formal structure, meaning bushes developed and the usually regular lines of the Italian garden became more blurred.
Sommariva added a metal roof to one of the structures in his garden with the intention it would reflect the sun and obscure Melzi’s view, a mean bid to sour Melzi’s enjoyment of his garden.
Melzi would buy the rarest trees available and plant them right on the edge of the lake so that his rival would have to look on, green from jealousy.
Today, Melzi’s garden frontage is framed with clipped squat trees along the lakeside, offering snippets of shades into which I joyfully leapt.
Carlotta has many ‘separate’ gardens: wooded areas, bamboo, terraces, fruit trees, and “rooms” with ponds inside. In contrast, Melzi is an open space, crisscrossed with concrete paths up the steep hillside. When I visited, it was July and hot, and so getting to the top took some commitment. However, there is a spot of cool in the form of a Japanese garden at Melzi, which in this part of Italy was a nice treat.
Whereas Villa Mezli crawls down to the lake, Villa Carlotta is segregated from the waterside by the perilous lakeside road.
Both gardens are now mature and offer gardens within gardens.
Villa Carlotta itself is open to the public in faded glory, outshone by the terraced gardens, but at Villa Melzi the focus is firmly on the garden and the shutters and doors are tightly closed.
Each garden boasts its own stars – at Melzi the Japenese Garden and at Carlotta the bamboos and woodland garden.
The one thing I wish I knew is the identity of the low-growing underplanted grass found in both gardens; it grows under and around all the trees and bordering the paths. It seems to grow regardless of heat or drought and I would like some. I’ve asked English gardeners but haven’t tracked the particular species down – a question for next time I see it.
For my money, Carlotta wins today. The house is open and the gardens are much more compartmentalised than at Melzi, which lacks shade on its steep paths. However, Melzi does offer the cool of the water and when I was visiting George Clooney had hopped over from his Villa to celebrate 4 July – shame it was one of the biggest storms I’ve ever witnessed that night.
For further reading/viewing I recommend Monty Don’s series and accompanying book “Great Gardens of Italy”
Villa Balbinello – Luke Skywalker on Lake Como
Alas, there is another gem on Lake Como, this time owned by Italy’s version of the National Trust – FAI.
While FAI doesn’t own as many properties as the NT and its website can seem impenetrable, it is worth consulting as entry to its properties is free for NT members under its reciprocal membership terms. It can also take you to parts of Italy en-route to destinations that you would never otherwise venture to.
I booked our hotel on Lake Como in walking distance of Villa Babilinello, which can only really be accessed on foot from Lenno or via a small boat.
While only 20 minutes walk from Villa Balbinello our hotel, the Hotel Lenno, was also on a road lower than the main Lake Road (which is very busy) and directly opposite a ferry stop/the shore of the Lake. A week could be enjoyed there without car, hopping along the shore of the Lake. We also walked to Villa Carlotta in 40 minutes (although took the boat back).
I really like Lake Como and it’s made all the better for having three easily accessible villas and gardens on its shores.