One could spend years visiting the villas and adjacent gardens around Milan and the lake region in northern Italy and still not see them all. However, where there’s a will, there’s a way. First stop- Villa Arconati!
Located in the town of Bollate northwest of Milan is Villa Arconati. Built in the grand Baroque style over the 17th and 18th centuries and considered to be a Milanese homage to Louis XIV’ Versailles, the Villa now functions as a museum and a host for tours, events and meetings.
In its day, the Villa was largely a summer haven for the Arconati family, their friends and honored guests who would travel here from Milan and throughout Europe for rest and escape from the city heat, all while being entertained by music, theatre and outdoor recreation.
The medieval castle and surrounding land that existed before the Villa was built were acquired in 1610 by Galeazzo Arconati, a wealthy man and relative or friend of Cardinal Federico Borrromeo. Arconati was an admirer of Leonardo da Vinci. At one time he owned the famous Codex Atlanticus which is a 12 volume, bound set of drawings and writings by da Vinci. The contents of the Codex cover many subjects, from flight to weaponry, to musical instruments, math and botany. Arconati later donated it to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan (a museum we have visited, where paintings, drawings, and models of military and other inventions of da Vinci can be observed).
Arconati’s admiration of da Vinci and his works is evident in the 12 hectacre gardens surrounding the Villa, which gardens were formulated in 1621 with water features influenced by da Vinci’s drawings and writings, showcasing statues that contained water fountains (such as the one pictured here of Hercules) hidden within the maze of tall rows of trees and hedges.
The garden area also includes an icehouse where ice and snow from the winter would be stowed and used for lemon and orange ice cream treats (to the delight of their visitors), and to preserve food for the summer.
Arconati was also an admirer of Rome and ancient Roman art. With Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Rome, Arconati visited frequently while Rome was undergoing excavations which unearthed sculptures and ancient ruins. On one of these trips, Galeazzo acquired an ancient Roman statue that he and others thought was of Pompeius Magnus (legend had it that Julias Caesar was killed under this statue). It is now believed to be a statue of Emperor Tiberius, dating from the 1st century AD. It is housed in the Villa’s “Museum” where the Arconati family displayed other works of art over the years, including works of Leonard da Vinci.
The Villa is currently run by the Fondazione Augusto Rancilio (“FAR”) which hosts private tours and educational visits in the Villa. The FAR even owns several Picasso glass pieces on display in the Villa. The gardens and the Villa are open to the public on Sundays from mid-March to mid-December (10 euros), with brunch and happy hour available on Sundays as well. A train from Milan gets you to Bollate, but then you need to rent a car service or take a taxi to the Villa. The drive from Milan by car is approximately 45 minutes (according to my friends who met us at the Villa by car. http://www.villaarconati-far.it
It was a wonderful way to spend a day, and I look forward to my next villa visit!