Today is the start of the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este. This is an annual gathering of vintage cars and motorbikes along with their owners and admirers. In most previous years this event has mainly taken place within the grounds of Cernobbio’s renowned luxurious hotel – the Villa D’Este, voted by Forbes in 2009 as the best hotel in Europe! This exclusive – literally pertaining to exclusion – location on the lakefront offers an opportunity for wealthy owners and admirers to lavish mutual yet discrete appreciation on these elegant survivors from a former era.
Villa D’Este was built in the renaissance style by Pellegrino Tibaldi from 1565 to 1570 for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. Following a number of changes of owners and uses, it became in 1815 the home of Caroline of Brunswick, the separated wife of UK’s King George IV. It was converted into a hotel in 1873. Apart from the Concorso D’Eleganza, the hotel also hosts the annual Ambrosetti Forum – an international conference for politicians, financiers and business leaders. Alfred Hitchcock was particularly fond of this hotel returning most years for a holiday here and on the lake where he proposed to his wife. More recent celebrity visitors include the ubiquitous George Clooney whose lakeside home was just along the water in Laglio.
In the past, the locals have been allowed a very partial participation by viewing a form of car catwalk as they are paraded on the last day of the weekend through Cernobbio from the hotel to Villa Erba – the neighbouring lakeside villa that was once the summer home of neo-realist film director Luchino Visconti . Not so this year since the public are now given access throughout all three days of the Concorso, not however to roam willy-nilly through Villa D’Este, but to participate in a series of activities at the nearby Villa Erba.
An additional factor this year is the biennial auction of up to 70 vintage cars by Sothebys. These cars (and some vintage motorbikes) are all on view in the gardens of Villa Erba on Friday. Entry on this first day is free. The auction takes place on Saturday evening and so the cars are also on view throughout that day alongside an exhibition of vintage motorbikes and a special feature on vintage BMW coupes in the main pavilion. There is an entrance fee on Saturday (€10) and Sunday (€16) although tickets do cost less if purchased online.
This ‘democratisation’ of the Concorso may be due to its growing popularity or to the marketing policies of its primary sponsor – BMW – whose presence over the weekend is marked by an endless shuttle of large, black BMWs to and from Como and Cernobbio or to and from Villa D’Este and Villa Erba. It is odd that the vintage cars mainly come from an era when bodywork was in pastel or bright shades whilst the current masters of the universe prefer big and sombre black.
Sunday is the day when judges make a variety awards and then all cars and motorbikes take part in a pageant’s procession before the grandstand set up in the gardens of Villa Erba.
The Concorso D’Eleganza was first set up in 1928 at the Villa D’Este. It has not been held consistently since then due to interruptions during the second world war after which it was again suspended in 1948. This was due to the scandal of that year when the Countess Pia Bellentani shot her philandering lover, silk industrialist Carlo Sacchi, at the end of a fashion show held at the hotel. She had borrowed her husband’s revolver for the murder hoping also to kill herself immediately after. However there was only a single bullet in the chamber. She was subsequently committed to a mental asylum. The annual Concorso was not resumed until 1995 under the sponsorship of the men in big, black cars.
The cars are undeniably beautiful with some immensely stylish examples from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Porsche and even BMW! For me, the top prize in the cars listed for auction must go to the stunning Talbot taking pride of place at the end of the pavilion and near to the equally stunning Riva motorboat. It is also true to say that the Villa Erba forms a great backdrop for them with its park overlooking the lake.