On the traces of St Francis and Napoleon at Isola del Garda

On a recent warm summer day I traveled to Isola del Garda by boat. While remembering the island from my childhood days I always wondered what would lie behind that magnificent palazzo building in the midst of that crystal clear water. Now I finally discovered more about the rich history. 

Currently the Garda Island is owned by the Cavazza family, but over the centuries it had various names which were nearly always linked to the different owners: insula Cranie, island of Monks, Lechi island, Scotti island, de Ferrari island and later Borghese island. ​

Some Gallic-Roman tombstones found on the island prove the inhabitancy of it even during Roman times. The first historical mention can be found in a decree by Carloman in 879, which documented the donation of Isola del Garda to the monks of San Zeno di Verona.

Around 1220 St. Francis of Assisi visited many areas of Northern Italy, on his return from the Orient through Albania and Dalmatia, including Lake Garda which in ancient times was called Benàco. St. Francis believed the island to be an ideal place for his monks as it was so far from the world and made a simple hermitage in the rocky part to the north.

Thereafter the island became an important ecclesiastic centre for meditation, which hosted illustrious religious personalities, such as Father Francesco Licheto from the noble Lechi family from Brescia, who in 1470 instituted a theology and philosophy school on the island.
The death of Father Francesco Licheto marked the beginning of a period of decadence for the religious community of the island. From 1685 to 1697 it was a convent for novices where the monks went into retreat.

In 1797 the by now outdated monastery was suppressed by Napoleon and later became property of the State. In the following years it had various owners including Count Luigi Lechi from Brescia (1817). Luigi Lechi ordered important restoration and construction work to then pass it on twenty years later to his brother Teodoro, ex general of the Napoleonic army.

Finally, in 1860 it was dispossessed by the State and given to the army. The idea to build a fortress was though abandoned and sold at auction; the property was awarded to Baron Scotti who sold it to Duke Gaetano de Ferrari of Genoa and his wife, the Russian Archduchess, Maria Annenkoff.  

Between 1880 and 1900 the new owners dedicated their time to planning and realizing the park, building containment walls towards the lake and importing fertile earth and planting exotic plants. The palace was enriched by Italian garden terraces with elaborately designed hedges and flowering bushes. Architect Luigi Rovelli built the villa in Neogothic-Venetian style between 1890 and 1903.​

The façades are decorated by acutely arched windows and in the south-west corner stands a tower crowned with crenellation in stone and flowered neo-gothic style decorations. After the death of the Archduchess, the island passed to her daughter Anna Maria, wife of Prince Scipione Borghese of Rome. Anna Maria loved the island very much and made it her home until the end of her life, taking care of the park and the family memories.​

In 1927, after the death of the Prince, the Island passed down to her daughter Livia, who married to Count Alessandro Cavazza of Bologna and kept it in an excellent state to leave it to his son Camillo who in turn left it to his wife Charlotte and their seven children. Today they continue to passionately look after the park and the palace where they live.​ Their children keep using boats in order to go to school.

Click here to find out more about Isola del Garda.

Photo credits: Judith Bradlwarter. ©

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