The island is on at least its third name so far. In the ninth century, it was named after San Vittore, a big saint in these parts, whose ancient chapel, now lost, stood here. A century later it was changed to Isola Maggiore, the ‘bigger’ or ‘main’ island, reasonably enough in comparison with the others. It has only been Isola Madre, the ‘mother island’, since 1713, and nobody really knows why. The island came into the Borromeo family in 1501, when Lancillotto Borromeo added it to the family’s possessions.
By 1542, it was covered with 550 grapevines (Vitis), with smaller plantations of walnuts (Juglans), figs (Ficus), olives (Olea), chestnuts (Castanea), cherries (Primus), quinces (Cyclonia), pomegranates (Punica) and apples (Mains). This interesting combination of fruits of both north and south shows that the accommodating qualities of the lake’s climate were already appreciated. Before long, the family realized this might be an ideal spot for a summer residence with ornamental grounds, so that by 1568 the owner has ‘built a sumptuous palace, and ornamented it with an agreeable garden’. Pheasants make their first appearance in 1591; decorative terracing is added five years later. Already, by 1600, things are beginning to look the way they do now.
In the seventeenth century, all the action was concentrated on the big push of the Isola Bella project, and Isola Madre was left to its rural seclusion. Occasionally, it is mentioned in passing, and we realize that this apparent rustication is not quite what it seems: Conte Federigo Borromeo was accused in 1769, for example, of having a secret and inexhaustible source of wealth, so great was his expenditure on the estate, though this may have been idle flattery. The more telling remark seems likely to have been Carlo Amoretti’s in 1794, when he observed that the gardens were subdivided into groves of wood, collections of trees, and orchards. This steady evolution from a productive estate to a pleasure ground can easily be felt by any modern visitor.
The final chapter of this extended makeover was written in the first half of the nineteenth century. Just as Isola Bella’s character was gradually adapted at that time from a ‘stone garden’ of grey and green to a more varied backdrop of planting in tune with the rise of Romanticism, so Isola Madre was finally transformed into a plantsman’s paradise, in which the foreign visitor could step ashore and imagine himself — like Joseph Banks in the South Seas – walking through groves of unfamiliar trees and shrubs with exotic birds wandering innocently across his pioneering path.