Just east of Lake Como, nestled against the forested mountains of Cortenova, sits an inarguably haunted house. Villa De Vecchi, alternately nicknamed the Red House, Ghost Mansion, and Casa Delle Streghe (The House of Witches), was built between 1854-1857 as the summer residence of Count Felix De Vecchi. Within a few short years of its completion, the house witnessed an inexplicable string of tragedies that would forever cement its gothic legacy.
Set within a 130,000-square-meter park, the great mansion boasted a blend of Baroque and Classical Eastern styles and was outfitted with all the modern conveniences of the time including indoor heating pipes, dumbwaiters, and a large-scale pressurized fountain. The walls and ceilings were decorated with painstakingly detailed frescoes and friezes, and a larger-than-life fireplace presided over the main parlor where a grand piano stood at the ready. Extensive gardens and promenades rounded out the already picturesque surroundings, and an equally impressive staff house was built.
Alessandro Sidioli died a year before the villa was completed, and many would later view his death as the first ill omen. Nevertheless, the Count and his family made Villa De Vecchi their home during the spring and summer months, and by most accounts lead an idyllic—if brief—existence.
Sometime in 1862, the Count returned home to find his wife brutally murdered (some sources claim her face was disfigured) and daughter missing. Discussion boards across the web exchange theories, from a home invasion to deliberate act of revenge against the Count, and even the unlikely possibility of his daughter being suspect. The Count put out a lengthy search for his daughter, before committing suicide that same year.
The villa was then passed on to Felix’s brother Biago, whose later renovations oversaw the removal of much of the estate’s Eastern aspects. Biago and his family continued to live on the grounds up until WWII, after which they vacated for good. The house made the rounds of owners and prospective buyers, but by the 1960’s was left permanently uninhabited—and, as of today, officially uninhabitable.
In the years following, the infamous Red House has seen extensive foot traffic, for better and, in my leaning opinion, for worse. While the natural elements began their assault early on, the majority of the house’s irreversible damage has been done by humans. Nazi, pornographic, and Satanic graffiti cover the walls, and anything capable of being marred has been given its due makeover.
The grand piano said to be played at night by a ghostly entity, has sadly (and predictably, though I repeat myself) been smashed to pieces. A small comfort, some locals claim that music can still be heard coming from the house.
The grand piano
Bad boy occultist Aleister Crowley allegedly spent a few nights at the villa in the 1920’s, which naturally led to a rise in fan pilgrimages. Rumors of ritualistic orgies, sacrifices (both animal and human), suicides, and murders abound.
Having trekked to the villa several times since moving to Italy, the individuals I encountered were quiet, camera-toting, and disinclined to disturb anything. But the blunt truth is that people have done their worst to Villa De Vecchi, and therein lies the real tragedy. There was a lot of potential in that exotically imagined mansion, now confined to the fate of a decaying wedding cake ditched in an isolated and presumably indifferent terrain. People might have embraced the opportunity to collectively take the house’s fate into their own hands and turn it into something worth preserving and sharing. I know a place like that requires an astronomical amount of money and commitment, but it’s hard not to wonder what might have been had a more communal attitude been put into practice.
Though I suspect most of the damage was done by bored teens, a visit to Villa De Vecchi doesn’t exactly cast human behavior in the most flattering light. Yes, it’s a haughty relic of the aristocracy, and there’s enough politically charged anarchist graffiti to draw the cause-and-effect correlations. But it’s also a surreal thing of beauty in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself from the inside out.
In certain instances, the house feels more enchanted than haunted. Do you remember Cocteau’s La Belle et la bête, how the Beast’s castle was a living entity, watchful and shimmering just beyond Beauty’s waking vision? That’s Villa De Vecchi. Upon entering, one immediately senses eyes following them, neither welcoming nor malevolent. It’s as if the house is holding its breath, waiting to see where you step and what you’ll do, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that as soon as you depart it will come to life again. (A visiting friend commented on the pictured frieze over an entryway: “He looks like he got caught mid-yawn and now has to hold it until we leave.”)
As most urban explorers will reflect, we humans are fascinated by death and deterioration. What’s more, who doesn’t love a good mystery? The tragic tale of the Count is only half the appeal; the other half lies in the blank space left behind, the unfinished sentence that is every abandoned building. And despite all efforts to bring about its demise, Villa De Vecchi persists. An avalanche in 2002 wiped out all of the nearby houses, while the villa remained untouched. It makes you wonder if the house really is under some kind of spell that is finally coming to an end.
Now for the nitty-gritty:
Second, and maybe even more importantly, the house IS falling apart, and faster than ever. A little more than a month ago one of the upper floors gave out, taking a woman with it. The stairs are rapidly deteriorating, and bits of ceiling regularly rain down. I’m not suggesting hard hats and knee pads, but be cautious and maybe avoid the upper levels altogether.
Last, and this is just a personal plea: please be gentle. I know, sometimes it just feels good to go all crazy Bacchanalia but Villa De Vecchi’s not that place. It’s truly a magnificent piece of architecture and example of one man’s vision that surpassed typical McMansion standards. The Count’s palatial getaway was of an era we frequently romanticize about but are seldom given the opportunity to step into, albeit in a more macabre fashion. No doubt the villa holds its own otherworldly kind of magic, and perhaps even a spirit or two. I’m doubtful of the latter, the way I doubt any of us linger in one dimension after hopefully moving on to the next. I’d like to think what’s left of the Count and his family is supernatural debris, without consciousness and uncondemned to the source of so much pain and suffering.
For further reading, check out Emily's addition to Atlas Obscura: