La Colombaia, Luchino Visconti’s Ischia Oasis

Imagine an emerald green island rising out of the sapphire blue sea, covered in wild landscape, and dormant volcanoes, hidden thermal springs, and capricious myths and legends. This is Ischia, and for Luchino Visconti, father of Italian Neorealism, it was love at first sight.

Auteur, dilettante, connoisseur, acclaimed writer and director, Visconti was charmed when he first visited Ischia in the 1940s and discovered an oasis practically untouched by the outside world. In between films Senso, Le Notti Bianche, Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli, Il Gattopardo and Sandra, Visconti spent his vacationing and exploring the green island, studiously searching for his own personal hideout, a private getaway which would eventual become the hang out to the brightest intellectuals, artists and auteurs of the 1960s.

Perched on the Zaro promontory between Forio and the Bay of San Montano, the stark La Colombaia stands out as a fortress reigning over the sea. Originally built in the late 1800s, the villa was a modernised medieval castle, complete with crenellations, gothic vaults, turrets and look outs. In the 1950s, La Colombaia became Visconti’s obsession. After a chance encounter with a friend the villa, Visconti pursued its owner the eccentric Baron Fassini for half a decade trying to convince him to sell the estate. Fassini eventually ceded and, in 1965, La Colombaia became Visconti’s.

Working with architect Giorgio Pes, Visconti renovated the interior with Liberty-era decoration sourced from the very best dealers in London and Paris, and ancient tiles scavenged from abandoned villas around southern Italy. Visconti transformed the villa into a salone culturale, a centre of social and intellectual exchange for the curious and cultured, and a happening space. On site was a projection room, photography archive and showroom, gallery space, performing and recording areas, and an outdoor amphitheatre.

La Colombaia

By the 1960s, Ischia was “discovered” thanks to a laser-focus investment in tourism by publishing magnate Angelo Rizzoli and it quickly became a destination for the elusive jet set and a cultural crossroads for the glitterati and literati like Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Sellers, Truman Capote, Wystan Hugh Auden, Alberto Moravia and Elsa Morante. La Colombaia was its epicentre.

The following decade, the white castle on the hill was home to family and friends, artists and colleagues, playwrights and directors, and actors, aesthetes and lovers, like Claudia Cardinale, Anita Ekberg, Maria Callas, Romy Schneider, Annie Girardot, and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, directors and playwrights including Franco Zeffirelli and Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, and actors, oh the actors, Alain Delon, Burt Lancaster, Renato Salvatori, Romolo Valli and Helmet Berger.

Seaside view of Mezzatorre and La Colombaia. Photo courtesy of James Widegren

In 1976, Visconti passed away, and La Colombaia became a heated family dispute, abandoned and then destined for a future incarnation as the Luchino Visconti Museum. Just a five-minute walk from Mezzatorre, the lure and legend of La Colombaia still resound. The stark white manor overlooks the sea, but long gone are the performances, the parties and the four magnificent ceramic mastiff hounds who stoically guarded its grounds.

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