How a Franciscan Monastery Became One of Lake Como’s Iconic Must-Sees
One of Italy’s greatest explorers also left the country one its greatest gifts: his home.
Count Guido Monzino, a twentieth-century Italian explorer and mountain climber, first summited Cervino (the Italian name for the Matterhorn) in the 1950s which ignited his vocation in adventure. Then many years later, he led the country’s first Everest expedition and became the first person ever to summit Torres del Paine. By the end of his career, he led 21 extraordinary journeys from the North Pole to Sub-Saharan Africa.
Monzino became an Italian national treasure and gained many accolades including the title, Grand'Ufficiale dei Cavalieri Crociati (Grand Official of the Knights of the Crusades). His professional accomplishments aside though, his personal pride and glory was his renovation and ownership of the Northern Italian property: Villa Del Balbianello.
Located in the Lombardy region of Italy is the snazzy, flashy, and sophisticated destination that you may have heard of, Lago di Como, or Lake Como. A popular tourist region for the rich and famous (George Clooney has a home on the expansive lake), the upside down “Y” shaped lake flanked by the foothills of the Alps contains some of the most expensive real estate in Italy. One villa, in particular, is the crowning jewel to visitors of the region for its superb location, romantic architecture, and lush (almost tropical) gardens. Villa Del Balbianello isn’t only one of the most visited tourist attractions on the lake, but it is one of the most sought-after wedding venues in the world and has been featured on the silver screen in movies like Star Wars I and Casino Royale.
The charm of one of the biggest and deepest glacial lakes in Europe is undeniable — there is traditional Italian ease perfectly combined with a transcendent natural landscape. It indeed is La Dolce Vita. The lake has been a popular location since the ancient Romans, which gives Lake Como remnants of medieval stone villages juxtaposed with opulent lakeside estates. The lake boasts dreamy views of olive trees, rolling vineyards, vintage wooden speed boat wakes, gardens with flora and fauna crated in from around the world, and to top it all off, distant snowy alpine peaks. Dreaming of the golden-age of Lake Como is mandatory just by looking around, and the Villa del Balbianello is the crème de la crème in both location and architecture. There is no question why Monzino lusted after the estate.
Unlike most of the estates on Lake Como which were commissioned by aristocrats, Villa Del Balbianello was initially built as a 13th-century Franciscan monastery. The work was ordered by Cardinal Angelo Maria Durini who later added the earliest ideation of one of the main features of the property, the Loggia built with a 19th-century frieze supported by a balustrade. The Loggia offers a dual perspective of the surrounding lake: The Tremezzina Bay to the north and the Isola Comacina to the south. The property is made up of different structures flanked by Italian gardens of the highest esteem.
In 1796 when the Cardinal died, the house changed many hands until it reached the Arconati Visconti family who is most likely responsible for the current style of much of the property. In 1919 the manor was sold to the American general Butler Ames. Monzino had admired and desired the Ames version of Villa del Balbianello since he was young—he would fish with his father on Lake Como during World War II. Once the Ames family heirs placed the villa on the market in 1974, Monzino snagged the property as soon as he could.
Guido Monzino was born in 1928. His father, Franco Monzino founded the popular Italian supermarket chain Standa. Due to his family’s success, during the hard times of WWII in Italy, the Monzino family stayed at their vacation house in the town of Moltrasio on Lake Como. During these years, Guido fell in love with the tranquil days fishing on the lacustrine landscape flanked by lush mountainsides. A known ambitious introvert, Guido Monzino traded his family business for a life of intense adventure at the age of 30 when he started rock climbing and leading expeditions in the name of Italy. Once purchasing the Villa del Balbianello, he put everything he had into painstakingly renovating the complex until the facades were impeccable, the gardens were lush, and the interiors lavishly decorated. He always viewed the refurbishment of the villa to be the 22nd great expedition of his life.
Monzino died prematurely in 1988 at the age of sixty from lung cancer — likely due to his smoking habit. In Monzino’s own words, “Giving up smoking was the only undertaking I failed to achieve in my life.” Since he was unmarried and without any direct heirs, he donated the villa to FAI (Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano—the Italian National Trust) along with a large sum of money for its upkeep. His last wishes were to have the villa be his final resting place. He was buried in the estate’s underground icehouse in the garden.
Monzino’s adoration for Villa del Bilbaino is felt as a visitor to the property. The villa is accessible by boat or through a kilometer-long trail beginning in the town of Lenno. Ticketed entrance to the property includes an interior tour of the villa in Italian or English, but you’ll have to wait your turn as only 15 people maximum are allowed to tour the villa at a time.
Arriving by foot you are greeted by quintessential tiered-Italian gardens. As you explore the property the feeling of ease is forced upon you just like carbs are when traveling to Italy. It’s easy to find a quiet alcove in the garden to admire the elegant 18th-century architecture, romantic manicured nature, and to imagine the amazing story of Count Guido Monzino and those that lived there before him.
Viewing Monzino’s artifacts from his expeditions around the globe, you realize that Monzino has seen the most beautiful and dramatic sights the world has to offer yet chose to settle at the very villa at Lake Como—it’s hard to think that there’s a more perfect place on earth than the Villa del Bilbaino.