Lake Como’s Villa d’Este begins its 150th season in 2022

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Villegitimate is Italian for something that takes a lot longer to say to non-Italian speakers – “a summer holiday in a country residence” – and for centuries no Italian villa hotel has attracted more summer (and spring and fall) vacanzieri as Villa d’Este, in the hamlet of Cernobbio on Lake Como. It was built in 1586 by architect Pellegrino Pellegrini as a summer retreat for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio, a centerpiece to entertain politicians, intellectuals and clerics. The word spread. In 1615, the Sultan of Morocco arrived with his retinue to see for himself the splendours of the villa.

Guests in the ballroom of the Villa d’Este, photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1933.

ullstein bild Dtl. Getty Images

Wealthy, powerful, and eccentric landlords and residents would follow, succumbing to the luxury of the villa. In the early 1800s, a Vittoria Pelusa, a former ballerina, built a series of miniature forts on a hill adjoining the gardens so that her young and handsome second husband, a Napoleonic general, could amuse himself by staging mock battles, instead of getting into other kinds of trouble. Caroline of Brunswick, the future Queen of England, bought the property in 1815 to escape a loveless marriage to her first cousin, George IV. Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III, booked it for two months in 1868 and stayed there for two years.

When the villa became a hotel in 1873, an uninterrupted procession of illustrious people began to arrive, politicians, actors, artists, industrialists. They came, they saw, they were killed by: the villa’s unrivaled location on the shore of Lake Como, surrounded by Alpine foothills; the classical proportions of the building; Old World service, both formal and familial; the interior decoration, full of art and antiques, handcrafted silks and brocades; and the 25 acres of garden, which, along with the villa itself, was declared a national monument in 1913. (Pictured above is the 16th-century nymphaeum, or mosaic wall.)

sala of villa d'este flora lake como italy
Sala Flora of the Villa d’Este. All the rooms are filled with handcrafted antiques, paintings, silks and brocades, giving the place an air of palatial authenticity.

Fani Kurti

Alfred Hitchcock, who was a frequent visitor, shot many scenes for his first film, The Pleasure Gardenon the ground, apparently as enchanted by them as Edith Wharton was in 1903. “Almost everywhere else,” she lamented in Italian villas and their gardens, “the ancient magic of the garden has been driven out by the fury of modern horticulture.” In a first novel, Vladimir Nabokov, who visited Cernobbio in 1968, has a character say that he likes places that resonate with an atmosphere from eras other than the one you are in, which sums up the seduction of Villa d’ Esté time travel. It refuses to give in to the whims of fashion (“immune to fashion,” as one regular put it), opting instead for a wise renovation nella tradition with updates as needed: a helipad, a superb spa and sports club, two swimming pools, four tennis courts, an 8,000 square foot kitchen (installed in 2017).

the villa d'este of lake como
For centuries, Lake Como’s Villa d’Este has been a playground and sanctuary for the cultural and social elite.

Tyson Sadlo

March marks the start of Villa d’Este’s 150th season. Since November 1, it has been closed for an annual rite. Each of its 152 rooms has been emptied: mattresses piled up, furniture moved, Murano chandeliers dismantled, lampshades removed, barware packed, carpets and curtains rolled up, works of art maintained by restorers. On March 1, everything will have been put back in place: polished, cleaned, repaired (and some rooms completely renovated).

grand staircase in cardinal building of villa d'este, lake como, italy
The grand staircase of the main cardinal building of the Villa d’Este.

Alberto Novelli

As a friend who has often witnessed the aftermath of this revival put it: “That’s why this place is timeless. If you can’t do better than what you already have, why change? But there is something new on the horizon. As part of its anniversary season, the Villa d’Este will be open, for the first time, for the coming Christmas and New Year. And in the evening the band will play, as it has been doing for decades in summer, on the terrace in marble overlooking the lake.

This story appears in the March 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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