My novel Concerto is set on beautiful Lake Como in Italy, which is well-known for the historic and picturesque villas situated on the lakeside (see my article ‘The magnificent villas of Lake Como’). Of these, one of the oldest is Villa Pliniana.
Built in 1573, the villa was named after the Roman senator Pliny the Younger, who loved the lake. The list of notable guests at the villa is long and includes Holy Roman Emperors, Napoleon Bonaparte, the writers Byron, Shelley and Stendhal, and the composers Rossini, Liszt, Bellini and Puccini. Now a luxury hotel, Villa Pliniana is an impressive building – and a rather imposing one. Which stirred my imagination…
In Concerto, Catriona takes a tour around Villa Pliniana while it is undergoing restoration, with Giacomo, Umberto’s cousin. He is keen to share with her the long and colourful history of the villa, and tells her one of the legends associated with it:
‘There are many tormented souls in the history of Villa Pliniana. Maybe the most enthralling period traces back to the times of the Milanese prince, Enrico Belgioioso, who had a secret love affair with Anna Berthier, Princess of Wagram and consort to the Duke of Plaisance.
‘Every night, after the clock struck midnight, the two lovers would wrap themselves in a white sheet and climb down from the balcony overlooking the lake. Their love affair lasted eight years, until the day when Anna unexpectedly abandoned her lover, leaving him all alone in the palace.’
‘What happened to Enrico?’ asked Catriona.
‘Literally grief-stricken, he died in Milan in 1858. After that, Villa Pliniana passed to the Belgioioso descendants, who resided there for another century before moving to the castle of Masino in Piedmont. From then on, the villa lay abandoned, haunted by the ghosts of memories and shadows of illustrious visitors who had stayed there in its heyday.’
Catriona thinks this is nothing more than a story to attract tourists. But when she reaches the villa, she can’t help but feel uneasy.
They walked in silence a short distance, and then they were there. The setting was breathtaking, despite the fact it was clear that building works were going on. Villa Pliniana’s severe and imposing structure stood in a secluded corner of its own cove, the foundations firmly rooted in the depths of the lake. In the shade of an overhanging cliff, the building was framed by cypresses of an astonishing height, which seemed to pierce the sky, and backed by a forest of chestnuts. It looked more like a fortress than a palace. Although the setting was awesome, to Catriona the place felt austere and gloomy.
Giacomo tells her:
‘Credimi, believe me, this malaise you feel is the souls of the dead unable to find rest. Another thing it has in common with Villa Monteverdi, if you ask me.’
Villa Monteverdi is Umberto’s home, and this isn’t the first insinuation Catriona has heard that the place is haunted. More specifically, in fact, the woods of the Gufi Reali that lie behind the villa – the woods that back onto the lodge where she is staying, where just the night before she felt an eerie presence.
Catriona tells Giacomo:
‘I assure you I’m not afraid. I don’t believe in ghosts. They’re only the stuff of stories and legends, made up chiefly to alarm ignorant people.’
‘That is a dangerous statement, Dottoressa. Spirits get upset when they’re not acknowledged. From experience, I can assure you they do exist and when you are sceptical, that is the very time they come to haunt you, to prove they are real.’
Catriona is a practical woman, a psychologist who knows only too well what tricks the mind can play. And yet, can she deny entirely that, as Hamlet told his friend Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy? Is this shore haunted, and if so, by whom? And why: what tragic secret has been buried there?
One thing is clear: whatever presence may linger, only the truth will set it free. Will Catriona and Umberto find that truth, and a way to move beyond the past at last, into a brighter future?