Max Emden and the Brissago Islands: the story continues

Max Emden with his lover Renata Jacobi

The First World War also changed the state of play for the Brissago Islands: compelled by debt and finding herself in a precarious situation, the Baroness Saint-Léger sold the islands to a rich merchant from Hamburg in 1927.

However, Max Emden did not have the same love of botany and gardening as the baroness. A financier, doctor of chemistry and mineralogy and the owner of a chain of shops in Germany, he instead cultivated opulence and the art of living on Isola Grande. He was responsible for building the palace we can admire today, sacrificing the construction built by the baroness and the small church of San Pancrazio. He also added the Roman bath, the orangery and the dock. The palace was built using precious materials and Emden should be recognised for not making any substantial changes to the baroness’s garden; he also arranged for the villa to be adapted so that it was keeping with the splendour of the garden

Thanks to his encouragement, a world that worshipped splendour and feasts evolved, bringing new people and life to the Brissago Islands in a way that was not unlike the patronage of the baroness. But if back then the atmosphere had been populated by those who produced art, until 1940, the islands were the realm of those who instead bought art: the new, wealthy Germans of the post-war period.

Emden died in Muralto in 1940, aged 66. After the Second World War, his son Hans Erich, who had been persecuted in Germany as a Jew, returned to the Brissago Islands but discovered that some of the furniture had been stolen and a number of the works of art were missing.

In 1949, the Council of State of the Canton of Ticino received an offer for the sale of the islands. The Canton of Ticino acquired 50% of the property, while the remaining 50% was split between the three municipalities of Ascona, Brissago and Ronco sopra Ascona, the Swiss League for the Defence of National Heritage (now Heimatschutz Svizzera) and that of the protection of nature (now ProNatura).

The following year, on 2 April 1950, the gates of the Brissago Islands Botanical Park were opened to the public for the first time.

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