In the woods near Lake Como – a playground for the rich in northern Italy – a once-lavish villa crumbles into ruin. Some people call the building the Red House thanks to its now-peeling paintwork, while others refer to it as the House of Witches. It is best known, however, as simply the Ghost Mansion.
On a dark night, you can certainly imagine phantoms flitting through the broken-down manse. Once the summer home of a count – who gave it its official name – the Villa de Vecchi now hosts only ghosts. And locals say that when listening closely, you can still hear the specters tinkling on the old piano.
Apparently, the ghosts are said to be restless spirits provoked by tragedy. For the Villa de Vecchi has a history of rumor – about murder, suicide and even satanic rituals and orgies. Altogether, such whispers combine to form the myth of this ruined mansion – left to the elements since the 1960s – as perhaps Italy’s most haunted house.
Yet the true story of the Red House, although perhaps more prosaic than the myths, is equally fascinating. There are answers to the questions surrounding who built it, what happened to the aristocrats who owned it and possibly even why people believe it to be haunted. The tale begins with the beautiful countryside around the town of Cortenova, which forms the setting for the Villa de Vecchi.
Ever since the Romans ruled Italy, the Lake Como area has been a favorite not just for the rich, but for tourists too. Vacationers flock to this part of Italy, nestled deep in the region of Lombardy, to indulge their love of art and culture. And one piece of this cultural tapestry that appeared during the mid-19th century was the Villa de Vecchi – which was built by an Italian aristocrat named Count Felix de Vecchi.
The place that Count Felix de Vecchi chose for his lavish home was Cortenova – a small town that lies just a few miles north of the city of Lecco. Cortenova sits in the hills to the east of the lake, with the house itself to be found down a lonely road. And at a glance, it all looks like a site of faded glamor that a traveler might see when passing through the mountains.
The house, then, has stood in Cortenova for more than 160 years. Construction on the property began in 1854, and it would take three years for the work to be completed. Yet it seems to have been time well spent. For Count de Vecchi, Cortenova was the perfect spot in which to have his summer residence. After all, its location isn’t too far from the regional capital, Milan, and lies in an area with which he had become familiar.
Now to help him create his dream home, the count enlisted the architect Alessandro Sidoli. De Vecchi wanted the residence to resemble the buildings that he had seen while traveling in the East when he was younger. So, Sidoli drew up plans for an ornate and beautiful home that would incorporate Eastern architectural ideas.
However, in the first of what some would see in later days as a string of bad omens attached to the home, Sidoli was destined never to see it finished. That’s because he unfortunately passed away a year ahead of the building’s completion. And yet the villa would nonetheless become a fine summer residence for the count and his family.
De Vecchi’s love for the East had actually been kindled on a long journey that he took while in his 20s. He and his companion Gaetano Osculati had traveled through Turkey and what was then Persia to India before returning via Egypt. And de Vecchi didn’t just do sightseeing; he also kept a detailed journal and drew many of the places and points of interest that he came across.
Then, once back in his native city of Milan, de Vecchi again started to feel the urge to travel. So it was that he set off around Europe, visiting France, Holland and the U.K. And after he had subsequently married in 1844, the count took off on a honeymoon. In fact, he and his new wife, Carolina Franchetti di Ponte, toured throughout Italy.
The count’s drawings and writings about the places that he saw attracted some notice, too. And this led to him returning to some fame when he came back to Milan. In particular, he had shown a love of the mountains. So it was perhaps no surprise that he wanted the Grigne Group of peaks to form the backdrop for his summer home.
Now on top of his love for Italy’s scenery, de Vecchi held a patriotic dedication to the Risorgimento – the movement to unite Italy as a nation. The count struggled against the Austrians in the cause of unification, at one point being forced into exile from Milan. Then finally, in 1861, he would live to see his beloved country born with the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy.
A united Italy was, however, still a dream when de Vecchi’s home at Cortenova was built. The villa sat in parkland spanning more than a million square feet that was adorned by gardens and walkways. And amidst this greenery, partygoers would frolic through the summer nights. Nearby, the count also had a house built for his staff, and this too would stun observers.
Meanwhile, inside, the villa sported the best decor that the day could offer. Pipes in the walls kept the home warm – an amenity common today but a novelty for the 1850s. Serving hatches allowed food to be transported up from the kitchens. And while nibbling on gourmet snacks, the count and his guests could enjoy the sight of a huge fountain – powered by water that gained pressure from running down the mountain.
Ornate and finely worked frescoes decorated both the ceilings and walls of the home, which showed touches of Eastern and Baroque styles. In the main sitting room, an enormous fireplace would keep out the chill that rolled off the mountains. And those who sat in the space could enjoy the entertainment afforded by a grand piano.
Even today, from observing the ruins, it’s clear what a stunning home the Villa de Vecchi must have made. The de Vecchis lived in the property during the warmer months of the year – before escaping to the hills from Milan as the temperature rose into the 80s. However, the family wouldn’t enjoy the tranquil delights of the Cortenova area for long.
To this day, rumor and legend swirl around the count, making it difficult to discern what really happened to him and his family. But it’s said that one day in 1862 he came back to the villa to find that his wife had been killed in a horrible manner. And, making matters worse, the nobleman’s young daughter had supposedly disappeared and was nowhere to be found.
The story goes that for weeks afterwards the count searched the forests of Cortenova, hoping to find his missing daughter. But we’re told that he had no luck – and, wracked with the pain of losing her, he would end his own life. And the ghosts, it seems, have their origin in this tale of tragedy and loss.
However, it appears that the true story of Felix de Vecchi is a little less dramatic. Struggling with liver disease and caring for his sons, the count reportedly split his time between Milan and his summer house. And he passed away at his Milan home in 1862, aged only 46. There’s no record of any suicide, either, and the aristocrat had apparently been a widower before the first stone of the villa was even laid.
In any case, upon the count’s demise, the villa was inherited by his brother Biago. And Biago, for his part, was seemingly not a great lover of the East. Certainly, by the end of the 1860s, the brother had ripped out a lot of the house’s Oriental features. Biago even remodeled the staff house, removing a dome and replacing it with mere plain stone.
Despite the changes, though, the villa would stay in the de Vecchi family for many decades. They lived there right up until the 1940s, in fact. But during this time, the family were forced to abandon the second floor of the home. You see, leakage from the heating pipes had caused too much damage to make using the upstairs viable.
Finally, then, the last of the de Vecchis left the property, and the descendants of Biago put it up for sale. But 20 years of the house being passed from hand to hand had left it unloved, and it was eventually abandoned. So, by the 1960s no one lived in the villa anymore, and to this day it has been left to rot.
Perhaps, then, the building would have faded into total obscurity. That is, if it weren’t for one notorious name with which it became associated. You see, the alleged satanist Aleister Crowley is supposed to have stayed at the Villa de Vecchi for a handful of nights in the 1920s. And Crowley – dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the media of the day – may also have partaken in some high jinks while at the villa.
Among his other cavortings, Crowley famously loved to indulge in sexual rituals involving the color red. So given one of the villa’s nicknames, the Red House, it’s somewhat apt that he allegedly performed such rituals there. That said, it’s actually not certain that the occultist visited the mansion – let alone what he got up to if he ever did.
This uncertainty definitely didn’t prevent Crowley’s fans from visiting, though. And along with them came a host of stories about the wilder side of the cult surrounding him. Orgies, sacrifices and all sorts of witchcraft and devilry formed the substance of rumors that arose about what the alleged satanist’s followers got involved in at the villa.
But whatever the truth, the abandoned home certainly still attracts phantom chasers – who seem quite sure that there is something haunting the villa. Meanwhile, the building itself is uncared for and gradually sliding into total ruin. What’s left only hints at the Villa de Vecchi’s previous grandeur as time and the elements gradually destroy its beauty.
From the outside, the structure has kept some of its charm – and from a distance, the decay is not immediately visible. Closer up, though, the ravages of nature become more noticeable. The paint has worn away and become patchy, and where once there were windows, now holes gape in the façade.
Sadly, the once-glorious fountain has disappeared, too – although this may be a blessing if, as legend has it, the water feature began to pour out blood. The grounds are still picturesque, at least, with the setting among the mountains inspiring the sense of romance that intrigued Count de Vecchi in the first place. However, entry to the building is barred these days.
Inside, rubble litters the floors as the walls and ceilings begin to crumble. And the delightful frescoes have become largely hidden from view, with vandals having covered practically every surface with graffiti. Of course, now that the home is abandoned, there are no furnishings, either – and the count’s grand piano suffered a sad fate.
Somehow, you see, the piano became broken into bits. And yet local people say that you can hear the old songs drifting from the house as a specter runs its ghostly fingers across the ivories. More gruesomely, some claim that you can, upon listening closely, hear the screams resulting from the nefarious deeds of Crowley’s dark following.
Are such claims true? Perhaps we’ll never know. What is certain, though, is that the mystery of this haunted house was boosted in 2002 when disaster struck the Cortenova region. An avalanche sent massive rocks tumbling down the mountainside, crushing the houses that stood nearby. However, the Villa de Vecchi stood entirely unmoved by the landslide, which in the end didn’t quite reach it.
Yet despite the wild rumors that circle the villa, one man has a more mundane explanation for the ghost stories. Giuseppe Negri is the descendant of men who were gardeners at the villa, and he himself spent his childhood on the property. Moreover, Negri has a revelation about the supposed ghosts.
You see, in 2018 Negri revealed to Atlas Obscura that he, in fact, had been the so-called ghost. As he said, “The reality is there are no ghosts… The ghost was me!” While still a youngster, Negri had apparently donned a bed sheet and roamed the villa’s environs to scare people who’d been lured by the Crowley story.
Negri explained that the tale about the occultist was nonsense – but that those who had come to the house in his purported footsteps had damaged the place. “It’s all crap made up by crazy people!” Negri explained. And to discourage the nocturnal visits of ghoul hunters, Negri and his brother-in-law had, it seems, come up with a cunning plan.
Apparently, while Negri had waited by a door, his brother-in-law had concealed himself upstairs. Then, the latter had reportedly driven visitors towards Negri – who chuckled when he recalled what had happened next. “Bam!” he cried. And as he recounted the sounds of the people’s boots on the floorboards as they skedaddled, he noted, “It was a blast!”
The fate of the visitors was, however, gentler than that of one man who had worked for Negri. As Negri explained to Atlas Obscura, he had stumbled across his employee in the house at night. Then, it appears, he had lashed out, punching the man in the face. And yet despite the splash of humor of this story, Negri is left with a sense of sadness.
Negri told Atlas Obscura that he could no longer bear to see the house in its heartrending state. He revealed, “To me it was heaven on Earth, and I want to remember it like that.” So anyone who visits today will not encounter the real “ghost of Villa de Vecchi.”
Certainly, the graffiti makes it obvious that people do visit the house – despite the signs warning against trespassing. But padlocks and boards now keep people out – apparently to help keep them safe. At one point, an upper floor collapsed, injuring a woman who had been upstairs. So it’s not only the ghosts that sightseers must beware of.
One visitor to the house was photographer Jeff Kerwin. The shutterbug had been attracted to the architecture of a bygone age and the charm that the villa still holds. And judging from his words to the Daily Mail in 2018, it’s clear that Kerwin believes the ghost stories have at least some grain of truth. He said, “So the sad fate of the house reflects the tragedy that fell upon this family.”