The Villa San Carlo Borromeo is situated on a man-made hill, the site of a Celtic settlement in the VIIIth century BC. The Romans subsequently built a stronghold, used by Julius Caesar, upon the same ground.
Then came the Longobards, who turned it into a fortress of their own. Upon these ruins, the Visconti family erected the present-day “palace”, then enclosed on all four sides, in the fourteenth century.
It was the subsequent owner, Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) who had one side knocked down in 1629, opening up the front of the building.
In 1630, he gave shelter to the best theologians of the time at the Villa, to save them from the plague raging in Milan.
Further alterations were carried out by Giberto Borromeo (1671-1740), when the present-day ground floor was still the first floor. Giberto also added furniture, chandeliers and beautiful works of art to what Federico had already placed inside the Villa. In his will, Giberto bound his heirs to respect both the restoration he had ordered and supervised, and the integrity of the furnishings.
In 1911, Fausto Bagatti Valsecchi (1843-1914) oversaw another lot of restoration work, according to the criteria of the time. It was commissioned by Febo Borromeo d’Adda. During the Republic of Salò, the Villa was occupied by the SS, who caused serious damage to it. After they withdrew, two stars of David were put on the facade of the St. Ambrose Museum, at one of the entrances to the Villa.
Over seven centuries, many famous figures have recounted having stayed at the Villa, from Leonardo da Vinci to writers and artists of the Sforza period, from St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) to Ippolito Pindemonte (1753-1828), from Denis Diderot (1713-1784) to Stendhal (1783-1842), from Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) to Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), from Antonio Rosmini (1797-1855) to Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944), from Giovanni Verga (1840-1922) to Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) and, more recently, from Eugène Ionesco (1912-1994) to Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and Elie Wiesel to Shen Dali.
The Second Renaissance International University purchased the Villa and grounds from the Borromeo family in 1983. These had been neglected for over twenty years and were close to ruin. The terrace had collapsed, the roof was damaged, the door and windowframes were ruined, ivy had eroded the external walls, and the grounds were completely overgrown, rendering them inaccessible. Hence the first substantial restoration work aimed to save the premises. Without it, the snowfall of January 1985 would have caused the building to collapse.
Restoration has continued until today along strictly conservative lines, with the help of experts, consultants, technicians, historians, philologists, engineers and architects, all under the supervision of the Department for Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Milan.
It has concerned:
1. the grounds, including the reintroduction of plants that have disappeared over the last two centuries, according to strict philological criteria;
2. the main building (roof, terrace, attics, fireplaces, statues and stones, bas-reliefs, balconies, door and windowframes, stairs and stairways, rooms, bathrooms, reception rooms, artistic internal walls and ceilings, semi-basements and basements);
3. the three Museums in the grounds (St. Ambrose Museum, St. Eustorgio Museum and San Protasio Museum);
4. the Ice-House Museum, which is almost like an underground cathedral;
5. the fish pond;
6. the boundary wall and three entrance gates.
Two other ice-houses and the underground area beneath the grounds leading off beyond, with its magnificent arches, are still to be restored.
Painstaking and in-depth historical, archaeological, philological, geo-physical, statics, architectural and pictorial studies have been carried out, discovering the specific linguistics of this restoration in each case: sculptures, fireplaces, arches, gates, coats of arms, statues, door and windowframes, balconies, doorways, doors, marble facings, drawings and paintings.
Engineering, lighting, telematics, furnishing, works of art and furniture have all been chosen and defined as an integral part of the restoration, conceived as restitution in terms of quality. What has been achieved is a genuine enhancement of the property, which today stands as:
1. the icon of the second Renaissance,
2. the Palace of Cultural and Art Tourism,
3. the intellectual, entrepreneurial and financial salon of Milan,
4. the headquarters of the Second Renaissance International University, of the publishing house Spirali and of various socio-cultural foundations and associations,
5. the venue for conferences, courses, seminaries and convivial meetings of public and private bodies, both Italian and foreign,
6. the site of a permanent Museum and a Museum for visiting exhibitions.
The Villa also houses the five-star, luxury Hotel Villa San Carlo Borromeo, the San Carlo Restaurant and the Borges Cafe. These offer an extremely wide range of services, including catering, which brings the superb cuisine of the Villa into homes, companies, offices, consulting rooms and institutions.