In the middle of a lake in the northern most part of Italy, with the surrounding mountains watching as sentinels, stands the most perfect promontory. The juxtaposition of water and mountains always makes for a pretty picture. But in this spot, this spot where the land is surrounded on three sides by the water and the elevation at its topmost suggests alignment with the ridges of the Alps, pretty is an adjective that does not begin to do justice.
The lake is known as Laga di Como, and the picture perfect headland sits above the little village of Bellagio
The idyllic place is a picture perfect location on Gods’ earth whose beauty is unveiled anew in each season. Spring, summer, winter; seasons cannot dull Bellagio, but instead only highlight the varying shades of her beauty. Midway up the hill sits the Villa Serbelloni, and on her eastern face by the water are her two sisters, Frati and Sfondrata.
Settlement on the promontory dates back to Roman times, with remnants of Roman architecture and medieval ruins dotting the entire peninsula. Once a stronghold of the Guelphs and many a Milano prince, all that remains of that chapter are ancient stone walls at the very top of the promontory. Walls that shelter a chapel that has no doubt housed its fair share of prayers and petitions over centuries.
The property has been home to hundreds if not thousands over its fifteen hundred year history. At different times in her past she has been a medieval fort, a princes’s palace, a monastery, a working farm and even a Nazi officer’s command center. Each layer of that rich history is experienced when one explores the grounds. A marble statue here, a hidden grotto there, caves carved out of rock and Romanesque pillars that shoulder up roads winding down impossibly steep hillsides in the shade of age old cypress and olive trees.
The trees are a testament to those who have lived here and loved its beauty. History tells us of Helle Comneno who was the secretary of the last private owner of the property who was allowed to stay during the Nazi occupation and secretly imported firewood to the estate in order to save the centuries old flora that has graced these hills. Visitors today have her and many others to thank for the outstanding beauty they nurtured.
In the last fifty years the property has established a new standard of exclusivity. Instead of royalty, princes and principessa’s, the Villa has become home to the world. Today, admission to this place of beauty is by virtue of the depth ones’ ideas and not the longevity of their lineage. Now home to poets and physicians, musicians and mathematicians, writers and historians, artists and activists, the Villa Serbelloni has been transformed into a serene harbour of ideas. A place of both nature and intellectual nurture.
The Villa invites individuals to take advantage of her tranquil surroundings and offers them in exchange – time. Most precious time, interwoven with peace and beauty that is hers alone. To these humble yet most important of visitors, the Villa provides quiet retreat spaces where they can write, muse, plan or compose for a fortnight or a month or more. Using ancient buildings transformed into modern day studios they have come – writers, musicians, scientists and scholars. And as they breathe in the crisp air they cannot help but exhale onto paper, music sheets or keyboards, their thoughts, their opus, odes and ideas unleashed for the benefit of us all.
Each evening the Villa’s residents meet in dining rooms designed for royalty and reflect, argue, internalize and debate. An African fiction author has been known to change direction on account of what the Brazilian agronomist suggested over cocktails. Sometimes the lost muse of the Sumatran classical musician returns on account of the fountains that sit outside his studio and even the elderly American lawyer here to write his memoirs has found the peace that passes all understanding.
The beauty of the Centre at Bellagio is both transformative and enchanting. Past residents include Maya Angelou who famously went into the kitchens one evening and cooked up a Thanksgiving dinner for her fellow residents, gumbo and all.
But the Bellagio Centre is not just for the famous. It is a home for anyone who has a deep desire to create a better, more informed, kinder, more tolerant world. Its visa cannot be purchased, as it is the weight of the change one wants to nurture in its hallowed halls and not the weight of ones’ pocket that determines entry.
The last individual owner of the this estate that sits on fifty three acres of wooded lanes and manicured gardens was the Principessa Della Torre e Tasso. Born Ella Walker to a wealthy family in the northeast of the United States, the Principessa gained title through a marriage to an Italian prince and purchased the property in 1929. She was fondly remembered as a natural philanthropist. Faced with the opportunity to leave a legacy to endure for the ages, in 1959 she began to think about ceding the estate to an institution instead of leaving it to her family. There was one proviso though. That the property must be used for the promotion of international understanding and in essence be of benefit to the world.
Dean Rusk, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation decided to take on the monumental task of transforming the private home of the Principessa to a Centre that supported her vision. The Centre opened its doors in 1960 to scholars and artists, residents and practitioners who would never have to worry about the financial burden of being at Bellagio. Completely free to residents, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre is philanthropy at its best. It is openly supportive, free from barriers, democratizing access to all for the sole purpose of birthing and midwifing ideas. The property has undergone significant investment and upgrading since it first opened its doors over five decades ago, completing the transformation from a private home replete with a barn, farm animals and even a resident peacock, to the well manicured picture perfect Centre that it is today.
Although the halls of the Villa Serbelloni are reserved for individuals and small groups of collaborating scholars and artists, the Centre also opens its doors to the less genius amongst us. Two facilities – the sisters Frati and Sfondrata are conference centers each providing meeting spaces for up to two dozen participants. The sisters have played host to collections of people from around the world, from urban planners to crowdsourcing IT coders, global health heroes to agricultural aficionados; and the problems they come to solve.
The serenity of the spaces on the lake with their large lounges in time honored abbeys, surrounded by cypress and wisteria that’s centuries old is unparalleled. It’s no wonder that the Centre has birthed ideas, movements and new practices across myriad disciplines in its time.
Practitioners gather together enjoying Italian fare and wrestle with each other intellectually in an atmosphere that declares that anything is possible. Everything and anything can be birthed within these walls and judging by what has come out of the Centre – the Forum for Women Educationalists, the Global Alliance for Vaccines to name a few, it seems that the promontory indeed has finally come full circle.
From the adages of Pliny to the disruptions wrought by modern day residents, this most perfect promontory continues to be a welcome harbor for curiosity and an irrefutable port of progress.