Two of the three small islands facing Cannero have always appealed to people wishing to dwell there, either for peace and security, or for domination purposes: i.e. in the XV century, the cannobiese brothers Mazzardi, trying to impose their rule on the area, or in the XVI century, Ludovico Borromeo, wishing to protect his lands, and later his successors, for more peaceful purposes.
Beyond their practical significance, they are to this day an integrant part of the lake’s scenery, shifting appearance through seasons, weather and light.
Although known as “Castelli di Cannero”, they never belonged to Cannero as such and are now part of the common cultural and historical inheritance of the regions surrounding the lake, Lombardy, Piemont, Tessin and consequently Italy as well as Switzerland.
The present ruins date from the second fortress, built in 1519 by Ludovico Borromeo.
The previous one, called Malpaga, dated from the time of struggles between emperors and popes. Although probably much less impressive, its strategic position was nevertheless such, that Filippo Maria Visconti, third duke of Milan, in 1414 had to dispatch a small, but well organized army to submit the rebellious brothers and level their fortress.
About 1402-1403, the Mazzardi brothers had taken advantage of the weakness of the Milanese dukes, seized Cannobio and subsequently shaped for themselves a fief including also Traffiume and Carmine, forcing the inhabitants to render to them all services normally due to feudal lords, including building the fortress.
When the Borromeo family took over the lake area, count Ludovico’s belligerent attitude towards the emperor and his Spaniards, as well as the French, made him choose as dwelling the two small islands, where he could build a new stronghold.
When all struggles ended, the fortress was rented out, first, in 1645 to the vicar of Cannero, who hid in it a clandestine mint (sic!), later on, to more reliable tenants bound by contract to breed rabbits or grew citrus fruits.
Since the XVIII century, the place having lost any practical interest, no real maintenance was tendered to the buildings, which started decaying, but exerted nevertheless a romantic fascination, not least on foreign travelers, such as Caroline, Princess of Wales.
In 1815, separated from the future king George IV, she considered settling down in the fortress, but ended opting for the Isola Madre, its palace being surrounded by a luxuriant park. In the following time, the ruins were used as occasional shelter by whoever chose to do so.
Their last guest of renown was Giuseppe Garibaldi. In 1848, during the wars for uniting Italy, defeated by the Austrians in Lombardy, he rested in them for a few hours on his way back to Piemont. Some decades ago, a statue of the Virgin by the sculptor Castiglioni was placed on the westernmost island, so far regrettably the only positive act in the Castelli’s modern history.