There’s no doubt that Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, is totally and utterly over the top. What’s much harder to work out is how it gets away with this. It charms you into suspending discernment. You find yourself loving it precisely for its outrageous extravagance, and yet can’t help but feel like you’ve been taken in. Bewitched.
Certainly, I’m enchanted beyond my ability to explain.
I’m back there for about the sixth time, and my first time in mid-summer. I’ve seen it in late spring, late summer, and mid-autumn, but never now. It’s possibly not the ‘best’ moment for anything, except, perhaps, the oleanders (which, curiously, flower-like they’re on steroids, but then go fully ‘over’ as the summer progresses, unlike at home, where they take seasonally longer to get started, but then just keep going). But it’s as good as ever.
There’s a couple of natural advantages that need to be acknowledged from the start. Firstly, islands are imbued with an undeniable charm. It’s that separation, the isolation, the ‘otherness’. And then there’s the wider setting which, for which the most prosaic and modest adjective applicable would be ‘stupendous’.
But as for the garden itself, one of the great and undeniable geniuses of the place is the near-perfect extent to which the architectural detail is overrun with planting – really good planting, and good planting that is beautifully and expertly tended. We were on a funicular this morning (the day after visiting the garden) and, by chance, with another group of Aussies. One middle-aged bloke, while overlooking Isola Bella, said to the other ‘Wouldn ya just cut that tree down, if you were sittin’ in that tower?’. Only that morning I’d said to my wife that I loved how overgrown that turret was. From the other end of the crowd, I just stated ‘You’re not touchin’ that tree, mate’. He turned, and without the slightest trace of humour evident on his face, tried to work out who’d made the reply.
I doubt that the 17th-century designers of the place ever imagined it so heavily and exotically planted. The era of rich-man plant-collecting was yet to begin, and it’s likely that the intention was to have everything formally clipped in line with the fashion of the times. But to our eyes, the sense of plants leaping playfully and irreverently over such a soberly powerful structure is magical.
Then there’s the quality of the horticulture. The pots are fabulously planted and watered and fed to perfection. Plants that we’d never bother to train, such as hydrangeas (both mop-head and paniculata types) and Hibiscus syriacus are structurally disciplined to climb walls and then allowed to romp until next winter’s pruning.
I could go on and on. But it feels a bit like deconstructing love.