MAINTAINING A NOBLE HERITAGE. Prince Vitaliano Borromeo is the head of the ancient aristocratic Borromeo family who are still extensive landholders around Italy’s Lake Maggiore, mostly on the Piedmonte side, and in Milan.

Vitaliano Borromeo, as well as being Prince of Angera you have several other titles, and the Borromeo family can trace its aristocratic heritage back for many centuries. How and why did the family settle in Lake Maggiore?  

The Borromeo family started its fortune being a banker to the Duchy of Milan, to the Visconti family and the Sforza family afterwards. They gained the land around the lake in exchange for financing the Duchy of Milan, and the main purpose of owning the land around the lake was to defend the Duchy from Swiss mercenaries. This is the reason for the Castle of Angera, the Castle of Arona, and the Castle of Cannero that we are restoring and which will be open for the first time in 2025.  

The family acquired beautiful islands in Lake Maggiore. Isola Bella, where you have your palazzo is the most important, and there is also Isola Madre, and recently you acquired Parco Pallavicino. Are you actively trying to grow tourism on Lake Maggiore? 

Yes, because on Lake Maggiore there are only around 2.8 million visitors per year, while on Lake Garda there are more than 9 million, and Lake Como too is much more famous. This was dramatically demonstrated when Louis Vuitton came to Isola Bella last summer and their most important guests slept on Lake Como because the hospitality industry on Lake Maggiore is not up to a standard to receive luxury guests. Our hope is to improve the quality and the quantity of tourism on the lake, but especially the quality, so we are making several new investments to upgrade the situation, and with decent success. We are developing the majority of the old fishermen’s houses on Isola Bella into high level bed and breakfasts for visitors who want to stay for longer on the lake. Tourists travel for three major reasons: culture, food and shopping. For culture, between Isola Bella, Isola Madre, and Rocca di Angera we have more than enough. For food, we have opened restaurants and  various options for our guests to taste the typical Italian street food like “piadina” and ice creams.

Isola Bella is structured as both a museum and a private house.

Vitaliano Borromeo

The unicorn on Isola Bella, sitting atop the garden, with its magnificent view of Lake Maggiore.

Photo Courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo, when people visit your palazzo on Isola Bella they can see the many wonderful works of art, including paintings by Correggio, Raphael, Titian and Guido Reni. Do you live there? 

Isola Bella is structured as both a museum and a private house. That is not very common nowadays, but besides being a museum it is exactly the same as in the beginning of the 1600s when it was built. Living there, we can give a totally different flavour to the experience. We have the masterpieces of these painters, and it’s one of the few baroque painting galleries in the northern part of Italy that is untouched. The house was first opened to visitors by my grandfather after World War II, at the beginning of the 50s.  

Extraordinary gardens flourish in the special climate of both Isola Bella and Isola Madre. Are you linked to important botanical institutions around the world?  

We have two totally different kinds of garden. Isola Bella is a formal, Italian kind of garden, where architecture Is more important than the botanical side, even if we have a lot of very important botanical assets. Isola Madre is an English kind of garden, and very important from a botanical point of view. We are a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, and tens of thousands of students and youngsters visit the islands. We expertly organise their teaching and entertainment, with special guided tours and experiences. For example, in Parco Pallavicino, Stresa, they learn how to live with animals.  

You recently acquired the Villa Pallavacino, where there is also a zoo? 

Yes, the zoo was created by the mother of the Prince Pallavacino who sold me the park, and I have improved it and diversified the animals. We now have more than 60 different kinds of animals, usually more or less domestic. I have an interesting collection of strange chickens, goats, alpacas, llamas, zebras, kangaroos, and different kinds of birds.  

Is it difficult to run a zoo?  

It’s very difficult because in Italy everything is difficult, but running a zoo is even more difficult, because you have to respect the very strict parameters that are needed to allow interaction between tourists and animals.  

Do you support endangered species? 

First, we’re trying to help wild animals who have a problem, so we have a connection with a group of vets that help local wildlife in distressed situations. We are nursing an owl right now. Second, we are trying to teach children how to live and interact with animals; because of being used to live in town they do not have a clue. In Parco Pallavicino there are ten gardeners and eight people tending the animals, and we also have an interesting collection of beehives, because I love honey!  

Why is the climate on the lake special?  

It is very special because of the specific location. It’s very mild, and this is one of the reasons why we have so many important botanical plants of every kind.  Besides having about 30 gardeners taking care of everything.

The Castle of Angera is the first Borromeo castle, and the one to which your princely title is linked? 

Yes, and my mother opened an interesting toy and dolls museum there. It is one of the biggest European museums for toys and dolls. She has collected them from the past up to nowadays.  

Can you ski in the local mountains during the winter?  

The mountain is my problem because we own about 500 hectares on top of Stresa and Omegna, We are trying to transform this mountain into a family park, with biking, trekking and, and an adventure park. Unfortunately, I also bought the ski resort. The problem is that there is no longer any snow, so it will be developed into something especially for the summer. 

Another development project is the Castle of Cannero on its own island? 

Cannero is a little further up, near the border with Switzerland, and many years ago we started rebuilding the 1500s castle. Part of the castle will be open to the public as a museum next year. The museum will show how people lived in a castle in the 1500s.  

Our ambition is to improve the quality of Lake Maggiore as a destination as much as possible

Vitaliano Borromeo, it is clear that as well as the beauty of Lake Maggiore there are many activities to enjoy. Do you need more hotels for visitors to all these attractions?  

The lake is already full of hotels, but we need to improve the quality of the hotels to attract the high-end luxury visitors. Today it is still a bit too much mass tourism, which is important but not sufficient. The idea of proposing so many things from a cultural point of view – a zoo, or the castle at the top of the lake or the castle on the Lombardy side of the lake – is to convince people to spend more than just a couple of days on Lake Maggiore.  

When someone comes to visit the lake how do they get around? 

All the islands are easily linked to land, whether by private or public boats.  

Do visitors to Lake Maggiore swim, fish, and sail?  

There is not a lot of sailing because the wind is not as good as Lake Como or Lake Garda, but many boats go around. However, harbours in which to moor private boats are somewhat lacking at Lake Maggiore, but the Swiss side of the lake is better organised. Swimming is now certainly possible, because the quality of water has improved over the last years.   

And the fishing? Is it true that when someone goes fishing in the lake they pay a tax to you?  

It’s not exactly like that, but it is true that, even before the islands were built, we owned the fishing rights on most of the lake. After seven centuries we still own these rights, and the fishermen do pay a little something, but it is not economically significant, and in exchange every year we replenish the fish in the lake. This is not easy, because we have to buy small fish that are produced locally, because otherwise we would create an environmental mess. So, we buy locally produced trout and perch, and we help repopulate the number of fish in the lake. There are two kinds of fishing: those that are doing it professionally – who now are very few – and live on the island next to Isola Bella called the Fisherman’s Island (Isola dei Pescatori), or those that do it mainly for sport.

You must spend a lot of time pursuing your interests on the lake, but do the local people and politicians help you make improvements?  

We interact with public authorities, because it is important to work together with the other  entities active on the lake. There is a strange relationship between the public and us, and for many years we were involved in totally different things, but in the last ten years we are all much more present and on top of things. This is the only way for there really to be a force to improve the situation on the lake, which is probably the most interesting of the north Italian lakes to invest in, because real estate prices are still very low compared to Lake Como or Lake Garda.  

Why, when you have such amazing islands, beautiful gardens, and wonderful landscapes?  

Lake Maggiore has fallen behind because up to now the people working on the lake have not totally realised the possibilities of creating something more luxury minded. Our ambition is to improve the quality of the lake as a destination as much as possible, together with the local authorities, because being alone is difficult. The most important thing that they’re now doing is improving the possibility of going around the lake by bike, which has already been done on Lake Garda. They are building a cycling road , connecting – Stresa, Baveno and Fondotoce and this is going to be  significant game changing factor for tourism.  

Has Lake Como always been more famous and glamorous than Lake Maggiore? 

No, it has not been always like this, but Lake Como has had a very important hospitality industry. The quality is very high, and George Clooney bought a very nice villa there. The problem is that nowadays it is almost overcrowded, and in the next few years that should help improve the situation on Lake Maggiore, where the Louis Vuitton event last summer had a very important worldwide effect in showing the beauties of the lake. In 2024 we expect a major improvement in the number of visitors.  

Are you going to build new luxury hotels at Lake Maggiore?  

There are two new luxury Five Star hotels. One opened at the end of 2023, and the other one will be open in 2025, in Baveno with a very nice spa. And I’m now working with a company to develop a unique accommodation experience with spa. 

Is there a great advantage in your location, which is close to Malpensa, the most important airport in the north of Italy, so people from multiple countries have easy access?  

The lake is very well placed. In a one-hour drive, you arrive from Milan. In 35 or 40 minutes, you arrive from Malpensa airport. From a connection point of view it is perfect.  

 

Vitaliano Borromeo

Isola Bella – Teatro Massimo. Photo Courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo

Isola Bella. Giardino d’amore. Photo credit Ursula Di Chito.  Courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo

Isola Bella. Palazzo Borromeo. Galleria Berthier. Photo Courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo

Parco Pallavicino. Photo courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo

Castelli di Cannero. Photo Courtesy Terre Borromeo

Vitaliano Borromeo

Rocca di Angera. Photo Courtesy Terre Borromeo

“This May we are going to host the G7 Finance Ministers on Isola Bella.

Vitaliano Borromeo, a few years ago Italy legislated important tax advantages for expats. Are there nice properties for sale in the islands or around the lake?  

Italy offers important fiscal advantages for expats, and there are very nice properties still available for sale at incredibly cheap prices compared to those on Lake Como or Lake Garda. In the next few years I’m expecting these houses to be revamped, because up to now they have been fragmented between old fashioned Italian families. I’m pretty sure that soon there will be property buying foreigners arriving on Lake Maggiore. I follow the real estate market, but usually I don’t sell, I buy.  

How many people work with you altogether?  

During the 8-month long season, almost 200. Every year it is goes up a little. As I was saying before, there are around 30 gardeners and 10 people looking after the animals, then 56 in food and beverage, 20 guides offering to guests a specialised tour of the houses, and the others are involved in cleaning and maintaining and of course administration, sales and marketing. 

You said that you were restoring the 1500s Castelli di Cannero further up the lake, and part of it will be a house for one of your sons. Do your sons have your interest in the traditional work of the family?  

My oldest son Giberto, who will be the next prince, works with me developing new projects on the lake and around Milan, and the second one is working in real estate. The family has always been involved, but up until today, there were not that many things to do. Instead, if you start to offer sports events and ideas for enjoyment, youngsters will come to the lake with more pleasure.  

You and your wife run your enterprise as a successful family business. Have big hotel companies or groups like LVMH tried to buy this from you?  

I for sure am not the one who is going to sell the places. As I said, instead of selling I’ve bought Villa Pallavicino, and I hope my sons will follow the same path. I’m 100% sure that the big luxury chains will come on the lake, because the real gold of Italy is its possibility to entertain guests with amenities and unique places. And this May we are going to host the G7 Finance Ministers on Isola Bella.

The Borromeo name is everywhere in Milan, where you have the very famous Pinacoteca Ambrosiana with masterpieces by Caravaggio, the Almo Collegio Borromeo which is the oldest meritocratic university residence in Italy, founded in 1561 by Saint Charles Borromeo. There are plenty of Borromeo squares, streets and palaces in Milan. Are you Milanese or are you from the islands?  

I consider myself Milanese, because the origin of the family is Milanese, and in Milan I live in the same place that my family has lived since 7 or 8 centuries. After the 2015 Expo, Milan has changed totally. It has become like the other major cities in Europe, like London, Paris or Frankfurt. It is an attraction for the rest of the world, and today there are probably more tourists in Milan than in Rome, and for sure Milan is not as nice as Rome, but Milan has the advantage that it is also very important from a financial point of view and from a university point of view.   

You are a prince who in this modern age achieved a business doctorate and then worked as an industrialist in the steel industry. What do you consider yourself to be?  

I prefer to consider myself a businessman. I have three main businesses. One is tourism on the lake. The second one is developing trophy assets in real estate in downtown Milan. And the third one is being involved in private equity. I’m one of the older investors in a wee-known European private equity company for industrial investment, where we work very closely with the Bonomi family, our friends since we were very young.  

Are you into sustainability?  

We try to be as sustainable as possible. We are studying how to produce power with photovoltaic panels on Mottarone, but we have to be very careful not to disturb the animals running around free on Mottarone.  

Are you pleased by what you do? 

I like very much what I do. Besides being something that I had to do, it is also what I like to do, and that is a major advantage. There are not too many families around still owning what they used to own a few centuries ago, as we do. I hope it’s also going to be the same for the next generation. 

Since the early days as bankers your family has been good at keeping what you have or making it bigger, and also very much involved in charitable works. Do you keep on doing that?  

We keep on doing that. I choose the charities that I prefer, usually the Cancer Society, because I think it is one of the most important things, or diseases. Or, I help, as I said, the environment around the lake.  

And the Borromeo college?  

The college is a strange thing because the Collegio Borromeo in Pavia is the first example of a campus. It is a wonderful place. Now there are 137 kids and girls, and we have no more bullying problems. In the past, bullying was a big problem, but it was stopped 4 or 5 years ago, mainly by myself, because I decided that having been created by Saint Charles Borromeo and being for the most capable students it was not getting along with bullies. So I did whatever was possible to get rid of it, and now it is the best place in Pavia to live for the kids. My mother did quite a lot of things for the islands, and built the toy and doll museum in Angera, so she also did quite a lot of good work.  

It’s true that every generation is trying to improve things, one way or the other?  

Every generation up to now, yes.  

Thank you very much for being with us today and good luck for your projects.  

Thank you very much.

All images courtesy of Terre Borromeo.

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