The painting gallery at the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella open to the public

1. View of the galleria dei quadri
Photo : Amministrazione Borromeo

19/1/10– Museum – Isola Bella, Palazzo Borromeo – On 27 June 2008, after several years of restoration work, the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, reopened to the public and a large part of the important painting collection (around 3,000) belonging to the family is now exhibited in the Galleria dei Quadri.

Starting in 1652 Prince Vitaliano VI (1620-1690) decided to remodel and extend the old family castle ; the work was directed by different masters until it was taken over by the architect Andra Biffi (1645-1686), who travelled to Rome to show Bernini his projects and followed some of his advice. The tapestry gallery (housing an exceptional 16th century Flemish piece), linking the building to the artificial terraces, was completed in 1674, whereas the Alcove Gallery, the Throne Room and the Queen’s Room were built between 1679 and 1684. It was not until 1958 that the castle was entirely finished with the completion of the Rotunda salon, at the tip of the island, according to Biffi’s original plans.

2. Daniele Crespi (1598-1630)
Portrait of a man
Isola Bella, Palazzo Borromeo
Photo : Amministrazione Borromeo

The Borromeo Princes decided to “reorganize” [1] their palace on Isola Bella to welcome Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1984 and, notably, to restore the Galleria dei Quadri (ill. 1). They chose to reestablish its condition before the war (that is the one corresponding to the incognito visit of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson in 1938, although the Duchess did not describe the Palace in her Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor, published in 1956). This gallery thus presents part of the family collection, with the rest hanging in the private apartments or in the family’s other residences. The choice of paintings reflects art knowledge of the period between the two world wars, or what is known as “connaisseurship” : next to paintings which are still considered very important (Boltraffio, Crespi, ill. 2, Bergognone, for example), visitors will see works which were considered originals at that time (by Correggio, Luini, Gaudenzio) and which are now judged to be fine copies or workshop collaborations [2].
The gallery also presents copies of famous works commissioned specifically by the family from the “pittor di casa”, Paolo Cazzaniga, who lived in Modena from 1678 to 1681 in order to copy the Correggio masterpieces in the Este collection. Like in the famous Doria Gallery in Rome, the walls are entirely covered with paintings hanging in sumptuous frames of sculpted and gilt wood, the ceiling is decorated in polychromatic stucco thus forming a luxurious ensemble which has been enhanced by the recent restoration. It is important to remember that, besides the beauty and importance of certain paintings, this is the only private gallery outside of Rome which is open to the public, probably one of the rare few still in existence in Northern Italy.

3. Camillo Procaccini (1555-1629)
The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes
Isola Bella, Palazzo Borromeo
Photo : Amministrazione Borromeo

4. Luigi Scaramuccia (1616-1680)
Virgin with Child
Isola Bella, Palazzo Borromeo
Photo : Amministrazione Borromeo

5. Francesco Bassano (1549-1592)
Christ driving the Moneychangers from the Temple
Isola Bella, Palazzo Borromeo
Photo : Amministrazione Borromeo

Originally from Tuscany, the Borromeo family settled in Lombardy in the 16th century and soon became one of the most renowned families in the region, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries ; the collections therefore are made up essentially of Lombard artists, or painters from Northern Italy (ill. 3, 4 and 5) [3] (there is a beautiful group in the Galleria dei Quadri by Paris Bordone). One of the gallery’s most original characteristics is that it ends in an alcove where General Berthier (1753-1815) spent the night during the summer of 1797 and, since then, this Galleria dell’alcova or Galleria dei Quadri is often called the Galleria del Generale Berthier by the Borromeos themselves [4]. On leaving the palace, visitors, overwhelmed by the virtuosity of the stucco work, the glitter of the stones, the gilt frames and the furniture, will no doubt have forgotten that the family motto was “humilitas” but then should walk over to the artificial terraces in the gardens where the famous white peacocks, very professionally, spread their feathers in front of the cameras [5]. From here, they can admire the Lake Maggiore, and finally pay tribute to Nature and the Creator as Saint Charles, the most illustrious of the Borromeos, did every day.

Link to the website

Jean-Christophe Baudequin, mardi 19 janvier 2010


[1] We have translated from the preface to the Gallery guide written by Princess Bona : Isola Bella, La Galleria dei Quadri. La nuova ala del palazzo aperta al pubblico, guida storico-artistica, testi di Alessandro Morandotti e Mauro Natale, Silvana Editoriale, 2008.

[2] A catalogue raisonné of the paintings on exhibition in the gallery is being prepared, under the supervision of Alessandro Morandotti and Mauro Natale. It should appear in spring of 2010.

[3] To better understand the makeup of the Borromeo collection, readers should consult the catalogue of the exhibition Capolavori da scoprire-La collezione Borromeo, Milan, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, 2006-2007. They can also see Les Iles Borromée et la Rocca d’Angera. Guide d’histoire et d’art, Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2000, which offers a dictionary of the most important artists who worked for the family, passages from descriptions of the islands by visitors, and views of the family’s other properties.

[4] For other aspects of artistic patronage by the Borromeo family, readers can consult the important work by Alessandro Morandotti Milano profana nell’età dei Borromei, Milan, 2005. More specifically related to Isola Bella, see Scultura Lombarda del Rinascimento : I monumenti Borromeo, under the supervision of Mauro Natale, 1996, highlighting the monumental tombs of the palace chapel. For the two most famous family members (Saint Charles and Cardinal Federico), see the catalogue of the exhibition La luce dei Borromeo nella Milano spagnola, Milan, 2005-2006.

[5] Visitor information is available on

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