Recent archive researches have revealed an interesting story which we are about to narrate. An old cadastral map dated 1721 drawn up under the government of Charles VI of Hapsburg represents the “Territorio della Pieve di Bellagio cioè li tre Comuni del Borgo, di Mezzo, e delle tre Ville” (“Territory of the Township of Bellagio that is the three Municipalities of the Borgo, of Mezzo, and of the three Ville). The district or borgo is designed with a great graphic skill. It develops on the bank of the branch of Como with the typical system of parallel and perpendicular roads, densely built up and inhabited, described in the property specifications as supported by the register of the owners.
At that time and even up to about 1900, the town developed with the buildings and underlying porticos directly on the lake. The houses which overlooked the harbour were enclosed between the Castello del Capitano del Lago to the north (where today one can find Hotel Florence) and a small cluster of buildings jutting out over the lake to the south. One of these is described in the eighteenth century cadastral register “Map no.1015. Proprietors Castelli Francesco, Priest Bartolomeo and Rocco son of the late Giovanni Battista. A house with the use of a letting inn, value L.153”. It is evident that the place was opportune to offer a stop and refreshment: sheltering the building were the southern walls of the town, opening in an arch which is still visible today, in those times one of the three gates of the small town. One must not forget that Bellagio was somewhat isolated overland, very difficult to reach till the construction of the carriage road at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, and to the wayfarer arriving to Bellagio along the mule track which from Brianza went up through Erba, Magreglio, Civenna and Guello the welcoming of the old inn must have been very much appreciated.
If the supposition of a medieval origin of the inn given its strategic position is permitted, on the other hand, it is certainly the starting point of the future and comfortable first hotel of Bellagio, the ancestor of our hotel. In fact, yet again, the Register of the owners of immovable properties of the Teresian Cadastre, informs that in 1788, the property of the abovementioned map no.1015 was passed over from Francesco Castelli to Abbondio Genazzini “(“Si leva di contro partita e si trasporta a Gianazino Abondio fu Pietro”). Here is the eponymous personage of the hotel: the Genazzi surname will accompany the activity of the hotel for almost two centuries, even in the formal changes of ownership. In the following three generations, the inn becomes Hotel Genazzini amongst expansions and embellishments, passing directly from father to son up to 1867, when the property passes to the descendants of Abbondio Genazzini’s wife, Elisabetta Boraschi. The daughter Amalia marries the administrator of the hotel Melchisedecco Gandola and the property, which is inherited by them, is registered in the documents as “Casa che si estende sopra la strada pubblica. Possessori Boraschi Amalia fu Giuseppe e Gandola Melchisedecco fu Francesco coniugi. Denominazione: alla riva del Lago, Casa ad uso albergo, piani 4” (A house which extends itself above the public road. Owners Boraschi Amalia daughter of the late Giuseppe and Gandola Melchisedecco son of the late Francesco, husband and wife. Denomination: on the bank of the Lake, a House used as a hotel, 4 floors)(1867). In these years the concession is acquired to occupy “a section of the beach to construct a stairway to be used by the hotel” which from the terrace descends to the water’s edge (1871).
A photograph of that period shows the beautiful building with the covered porch overlooking the lake, wide tents to shade the terraces of the first floor and a thick grove on the southern side. Its nocturnal scenery must have been remarkable when, starting from 1888; the hotel (among the first ones, with the Grande Bretagne born in 1861, and the Grand Hotel, later Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, inaugurated in 1872) replaces the gas system for illumination with the great novelty of the electric lights. In the year 1900, in coherence with the monumentalism which everywhere characterises the hotel industry of that time, the hotel undergoes a more significant transformation rising by one floor, almost doubling its accommodation capacity and assuming the present definitive appearance. The work is carried out in connection with another important urban intervention which interests the town: the filling up of the old harbour which almost touched the porticos and the northern side of the hotel becomes necessary to avoid the less romantic floods documented in the historic photographs, and transforming the expanse of water in today’s functional large square. The registers report the new denomination of piazza Vittorio Emanuele on the site of the pre-existing harbour (now piazza Mazzini), and, in relation to our building, “a building for the use of a hotel with garden and terraces, 5 floors”. It will be called Hotel Genazzini Metropole.
A last change in the years 1957-58: the Gandola hand over, and the English wife of the new owner, the gentle Madam Brebner, contributes to increase the international clientele of the historic hotel. In a few lines the long story which intertwines a living place and a place of work, happenings and sceneries, culture and characters have been summarised. The rest consists in current events: the present management, in the awareness that it is continuing a tradition which has deep roots in the past centuries, intends offering a particular service and quality, different from the present concepts of the large hotel chains born to ensure the same treatment everywhere in the world to a distracted traveller who excludes change and surprise. Recently the Hotel Metropole has undergone a careful restyling in which attention has been paid to give lustre to the beauty which was already in existence: the plastered ceilings and the Liberty style glass doors of the panoramic dining hall, the old floor in tiles of local Pognana stone of the terrace overlooking the lake, the balustrades and the floral gratings. Leaving untouched the covering, the furnishings of the halls, of the rooms and the bathrooms have been revisited, mixing repetitions of the tradition to operations of design.
THE GENIUS LOCI OF BELLAGIO
It is difficult to describe exceptional places: since the more beautiful they are in real life, the more when being described end up being represented with the most obsolete idiomatic expressions. Even if so many beautiful pages have been written about the extraordinary variety of the landscapes of Bellagio, rupestrian and refined at a time, Mediterranean and Alpine at the same time, designing the identity of this place through the biographies and yesterday’s and today’s stories which have been interweaved here is easier to convince ourselves of the presence of a genius loci, a simple expression with which the Latins recognized something unique and extraordinary tied up to a place.
From the end of the Eighteenth Century and all through the Nineteenth Century, Bellagio was one of the most frequented sites by the Lombard nobility, and these patrician villas in a wonderful position overlooking the lake (Villa Melzi, most of all) accommodated many distinguished names of the time, artists, writers, politicians, crowned heads, intellectuals and scientists and also some heroes of our Risorgimento: a nostalgic Ippolito Nievo writes from Sicily to his beloved countess Bice Melzi “I would pay twenty-four hours of Bellagio with a month of Palermo…”. But in these few lines, there is no intention of renewing the long list of celebrities; we only like imagining that maybe during the idling walks far away from the luxurious buildings even they stopped to refresh themselves at the old inn later the hotel of Abbondio Genazzini.
For example, a person who was a connoisseur of the humble and the aristocrats, abbot Giuseppe Parini, a tutor with the Serbelloni Dukes who from Milan used to enjoy coming to Bellagio and staying in the luxurious Villa Sfondata, later Serbelloni: sometimes, to break off from the satirized nobility of the Giorno, will have come down along the alleys of the village to mix with the common but genuine people of the only “inn with rooms”. In the Nineteenth Century, the French writer Henri Beyle better known as Stendhal, author of the novel The red and the black can be counted amongst the famous foreign and sincere devotees of Bellagio. Stendhal fell in love with Italy when in 1800 he arrived at Milan with Napoleon’s army, and later returned for a period of seven years between 1814 and 1821. “The music, the paintings, the society and love” were the reasons for his choice of living in Italy, choosing Milan as the favourite city. He frequently travelled to Como Lake, considering it to be “in nature that which the Colosseum ruins meant for architecture and the San Gerolamo del Correggio meant for painting”. At Bellagio he was the guest of the Melzi d’Eril, from whose villa he wrote these enthusiastic lines: “I isolate myself in a room on the second floor; there, I raise my look from the most beautiful view existing in the world, after the Gulf of Naples…” (from Rome, Naples and Florence,1817). After him, another distinguished Frenchman, Gustave Flaubert, was struck by the “Shakespearean scenery” which he enjoyed from the height of Villa Serbelloni, convinced that “on voudrait vivre ici et y mourir” (Notes of a trip, 1845).
Such emotional and passionate feelings render concrete the extraordinary attractive force of Bellagio, exercised for a long time on many exceptional personalities who have drawn inspirations for their works from this place.
We are pleased to point out two distinguished men of culture who long time ago have chosen as a place of residence exactly our hotel; two personalities to be remembered as extraordinary cameos in the general and varied coming and going of a cosmopolitan hotel.
The first one was the great Hungarian musician Franz Liszt, who arrived at Bellagio in the autumn of 1837 with the learned and charming Madame d’Agoult, protagonists of one of the most famous love stories of the romantic era which extended itself, with turns of events, up to 1844. We are transcribing some excerpts from the vast collection of letters written by Liszt on the banks of the town: “When you write the story of two happy lovers, set it on the banks of the Como Lake. I do not know of any place which is more demonstrably blessed by heaven; I have never seen another one where the charms of a life of love can appear more natural” (Bellagio, 20th September 1837). “From the beginning of September I live retired and in complete solitude on the Como lake, at Bellagio, in a small delightful hotel” (October 1837). And still: “Till now at Bellagio I could enjoy the most complete anonymity even though I beat with all the energy on a Viennese grand piano deprived of almost all its chords; nobody could be bothered to give me the slightest bit of attention…But today while coming back home, I meet the police commissioner who greets me; my hotelier inquires with concern if I am satisfied of the meals and I realise that my barber while shaving my beard makes the soap foam with a more important and respectful air than usual. The puzzle is quickly solved. While going through the Gazzetta di Milano, I see that my friend Ricordi, desirous to sell my compositions, announces to the happy Italy, unaware of this fortune, that it is accommodating in my person the foremost pianist of the world….”.
From Bellagio Liszt and Madame d’Agoult left for Como, where they gave birth to their daughter Cosima born, who as adult will marry another great musician, Richard Wagner. The second memorable guest was the humorist and American writer Mark Twain, who stayed at the hotel Genazzini with a group of compatriot friends in a stop at Bellagio during the trip in Europe in 1867. A page of his book The Innocents Abroad is dedicated to this recollection “Our hotel was at the water’s edge, or at least the front garden was at the water’s edge. We used to idly spend the time walking among the specks of brushes and smoking in the twilight. Our look wandered far away up to Switzerland and the Alps seemed so immense that, looking at them, we felt an indolent desire not to look so closely. We were satisfied with the contact with water: we used to go down the small steps, we immersed ourselves and swam in the lake, sometimes we used to board a sweet little boat and sailed around among the reflection of the stars…..Our evenings used to end up with a lively billiard game on one of the usual old and dirty tables. At midnight we used to eat our second lunch in the spacious bedroom; a smoke on the porch which overlooked the lake, the garden, the mountains; this was the last activity of the day. Then everybody went to sleep between the scented sheets, drowsy but excited by the agitated alternation of different sceneries which used to crowd in our mind….”
If the scholars are the cultural circle which with the greatest intensity has entertained prolific relationships with the small town, Bellagio has nonetheless inspired painters and designers with numberless pictorial versions of its unmistakable landscape. And the sceneries of Bellagio have been the background for a large number of films: the most beautiful garden of Villa Giulia was chosen in 1937 by the French director Julien Duvivier to set in it Carnet de bal, the lakeside for the famous Rocco e i suoi fratelli by Luchino Visconti, the park of Villa Melzi for A month by the lake by John Irvin, and finally the splendid panoramic views for Ocean’s Twelve, a huge world success with its parade of stars.
All this is a natural consequence to the inexhaustible charm of Bellagio: in very recent years an American architect has projected the Hotel and Casinò Bellagio for the incomparable city of Las Vegas being influenced by this small town! But its genius loci has remained: the spirit cannot be transferred.