In Italy, One Artist’s Ode to Lake Como Comes to Life

The artist Nancy Cadogan first visited Lake Como in 2002 with her boyfriend, Edward Guinness, whose family—heirs of the brewery founder—own a waterfront villa there. Ed is now her husband, and every year Nancy returns with him and their three children.

For Cadogan, 45, the lake has become more than a refuge. It is her subject. An exhibition of her paintings, “Stanza,” opened in May at the Torre delle Arti, a medieval tower that has been converted into an art center in Bellagio, the aptly named beautiful town that is close by her villa. “I find this place extraordinary and transformative,” she said. “I hope the paintings conjure some of that and allow the viewer to go on a similar journey.”

As light penetrates the moving clouds and bounces off the water, Bellagio changes constantly. Historically, too, the town and the lake are a moving picture, bearing an overlay of imprints of the writers who have recorded their impressions of the place—Stendhal, Wordsworth, Longfellow and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, among them. “The ego of an artist is an exhausting thing,” Cadogan said. “To tune into other people who have done it before and better is comforting. What this landscape does for people is it allows you to reconnect.”

The colorful streets of Bellagio.

Courtesy of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

Adding to that tradition of reflection, Cadogan creates her canvases as recollections, not on site but in her studio in London, where she spends most of the year. “These are all painted from memory and imagination,” she said of the 21 pictures in the show, which runs until August 5. “It echoes what I’ve been looking at for a long time.”

Like so many fabulous destinations, Bellagio is besieged by tourists, their pressing presence undercutting the location’s fabled tranquility. A town with fewer than 4,000 residents, Bellagio is the most frequented spot on Lake Como, which attracts 1.4 million visitors a year. One might ask why it needed as an additional magnet an art exhibition gallery, which opened in 2012 for local artists and, with “Stanza,” for the first time is showing a foreigner.

An installation view of Nancy Cadogan’s “Stanza” show at Torre delle Arti in Bellagio.

Courtesy of the artist

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“Tourism interested in culture is a higher quality of people,” explained Luca Leoni, president of the Hotel Association of Lake Como and the owner of the Hotel Du Lac, a Bellagio hotel dating from 1880 that his father bought in 1955. “The only problem we have is how to face the overcrowding of people who come for the day.”

Cadogan’s paintings conjure the soothing romance of the lake. No signs of modernity, let alone tourists, intrude on these lovely views—only books, wine glasses, swans, blackbirds, and roses. When electricity invades the scene, it appears in the form of an antique lamppost, with lights that dangle from an elegant metal arabesque. “I want these paintings to allow the viewer a moment of respite,” she said.

With her brightly colored, boldly patterned, meditative images, the painter whom Cadogan most resembles is Henri Matisse. Philosophically, too, she is aligned with the great French artist, who once remarked, “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”


Nancy Cadogan, Listen to the Song, 2024.

Courtesy of the artist


Nancy Cadogan, By Day, 2024.

Courtesy of the artist

At times, when perambulating the lanes of Bellagio, which are especially overpopulated in the middle of the day, one feels a need to actively seek out and hang on to that figurative armchair. Nowhere is that possibility more inviting than in the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, a family-owned hotel that commands a glorious position on the lake and last year celebrated its 150th anniversary.

With salons boasting crystal chandeliers and gilded furniture, the Serbelloni harkens back to an era when Bellagio was the exclusive domain of wealthy visitors. Yet beneath the venerable veneer, it hums with 21st century panache. At its restaurant, Mistral, you can order spaghetti flambéed with lobster prepared at tableside, much as it would have been done a century ago. Yet if you opt for gelato for dessert, it will also be made in front of you, but in a thoroughly modern way, as the waiter pours fresh cream and chills it with liquid nitrogen in a flash.

A lakeside view of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio.

Courtesy of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

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Like Cadogan’s paintings, the Serbelloni spins a dreamworld, evoking a Bellagio that still exists if you look past the commotion of summertime tourism—the gorgeous lake, the picturesque gardens (its own, but even more, those of the Villa Melzi, a short walk away), the scudding clouds, the warbling Eurasian blackcaps. Escaping into the luxurious cocoon of a five-star hotel is one way to preserve the magic. A more affordable alternative is to walk over to the Torre delle Arti and regard how Cadogan has distilled the beauty of Bellagio into art.

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