Isola Madre – Mountains, Seaside And Relaxation

This new style, suited to the changed mentality which valued individual specimens over the pictorial scenery favoured by the previous generation, was begun under the expert management of the Rovelli family, a famous name in these parts. Two brothers, Alessandro and Giuseppe, began their great work here in 1802, and the family remained successively head gardeners until 1851. Thereafter, they ran a highly successful nursery at Pallanza on the nearby shore. The island route takes you to the house. When I first saw it some years ago, it was something of a surprise.

In the courtyard immediately in front stood an immense Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana), so vast that the enormous house behind it was completely invisible. This famous tree arrived as a seed from a Borromeo-sponsored plant-hunting expedition in 1862. It is easy enough to imagine its elegant young form in the centre of the courtyard, with its weeping, blue-green branches the very cynosure of mid 19th-century garden taste. Nobody could have expected that it would achieve such monumental dimensions, still less that it would retain its unique appearance.

It was a famous object and the pride of this place. But the great storm of 2006 blew it flat. It might have been worse, because if the Kashmir cypress had landed on the house, that would have been that.The monster lay on the ground like Goliath, surrounded by cries of disbelief and despair. But then Prince Borromeo decided it could be saved, lying there, like many trees do when blown over, attached by a hinge of the rootplate on one side. So he hired a helicopter, which attached a cable to the fallen tree and pulled it upright.

Further cable-braces were then stretched out on all sides as if it were an enormous flagpole. Now this is all very splendid and marvellous, not to say unheard-of, but my immediate reaction was that it would all end in failure, since conifers cannot regenerate their severed limbs. However, as the years go by, the tree has gradually regained its glory, and I am obviously wrong. Having said that, all the steel cables are still in place, and it is difficult to imagine the day when they can safely be removed.

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