My Favourite Plan

Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy

Simon Ward
Isola Bella site plan by Georges Gromort, The Landscape of Man by Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe


My favourite plan is of Isola Bella, affectionately known as the Italian Galleon, which lies a few hundred metres off the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. I discovered it as a student in the early 1980s when reading Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe’s The Landscape of Man (1975), and it was one of many reasons I wanted to become a landscape architect. In his book Jellicoe described it as ‘perhaps the single greatest surviving achievement of the Baroque art of romantic affinity to the environment’.

Until 1632, the island was just a rocky crag occupied by a tiny fishing village, but that year one of the locally influential House of Borromeo began the construction of a palazzo dedicated to his wife, Isabella, from whom the island takes its name. The island is just 320m long x 400m wide and was conceived as a floating galleon, a jewel to adorn its beautiful lake setting. The gardens were finally inaugurated in 1671.

One of the main reasons I love this plan is the clarity of vision, but it is also the labour of successive generations, including architects, landscape architects, artists, engineers and designers, effectively a Rococo version of the modern day multi-disciplinary design team.


This plan possesses the hallmarks of many artificially created but beautiful places, with a captivating structure which occupies every inch of its rocky skeleton with perfectly proportioned elements.  There is a lovely eloquence in the sequence of the spaces created and the balance of weight between open courtyards, built form and the densely planted areas. It is both complex and alluring in plan and just makes you want to drop down into the site to explore its dynamic, exhilarating and flamboyant content. It cannot boast any social value, but it is a cameo of what can be achieved when a place is designed to reflect the culture that created it and a site’s dramatic surroundings.

There is great ambition in this plan, which is inspired by creative geometry and in particular the emerging (at the time) cult of the axis. It promotes the importance of variety, intensity, and attention to detail, and was clearly designed to enchant, captivate and inspire its visitors. It is a love story and perhaps a paean to extravagance and self-indulgence, but it also teaches us to be bold, imaginative and to dare to be unfettered by constraints.

URBAN DESIGN 158 Spring 2021 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 158 Spring 2021

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Urban Design Group Article - Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore, Italy by Simon Ward

Simon Ward

Current position
Atkins UK, Head of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, leading a team of around 80 landscape architects and urban designers in seven regional hub offices.

Worked on numerous projects including nationally significant infrastructure projects, city squares, station redevelopment, public realm, education, leisure, green Infrastructure and climate resilience. Led design teams to numerous short listings on national and international landscape and urban design competitions organised by RIBA, Places Matter and Landscape Institute.

BA Hons Landscape Design Dip LA in Landscape Architecture Fellow of the Landscape Institute Recognised Practitioner in Urban Design.

Creating distinctive and engaging places and overseeing their delivery on the ground.

To continue to promote and celebrate our brilliant profession to the widest possible audience and strive to create exceptional places which can transform people’s lives.