To misquote John Le Carré’s anti-hero Bill Hayden in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “I believe that archives are the only true expression of a nation’s character”. Having spent many years in archives where, to be frank, one often has the impression that some archivists hate nothing more than people wanting to consult documents or show not a flicker of interest in the most fascinating aspects of their collections, this doesn’t reflect well on their nationality.

However, the archivist whom I recently consulted at the Archivio di Stato di Verbania, Debora, was the most knowledgeable, helpful, simpatica, custodian of official records that one could hope to meet.

Though we have yet to strike the gold which we are searching for – the original design for the gardens at Villa La Scagliola, and the identity of the actual designer – we unearthed a number of leads and facts about the house’s history which were hitherto unknown.

For instance, although the land was bought in 1880 by Catherine Forbes Ashburner, the house wasn’t completed until 1884, meaning that, sadly, she was only able to enjoy it for six years before her death in 1890. It was resold in 1899 by her family to the German Hermann Friedrich Messtorff for 100,000 Lire.

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