The all-powerful Borromeo family were Lombardian aristocrats who loomed large in Milanese politics and religion for 200 years. They regarded the vast tracts of land around the southern end of Lake Maggiore as their personal fiefdom, where they built castles, monuments, and palaces. The family spawned several archbishops of Milan, including Federico (1564–1631) and Carlo (1538–1584), a singularly wily individual who was canonized in 1610 for his support of the Counter-Reformation against papal infallibility. A great bronze statue of Carlo stands in Arona, looking out across the lake to his former family home, Rocca Borromeo at Angera.

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