Como: The Potential for Cultural Tourism

Como Companion supports slow tourism – the sort of tourism that takes an interest in the culture and history of the places visited. This is why I started a new section under Culture called Cultural Itineraries. These itineraries suggest walks through the city following a specific cultural theme. The latest itinerary covers part of Como’s modern architectural heritage by focussing on the rationalist buildings in just one section of the city. But here I would like to expand on why Como is so well suited to developing cultural tourism with a potential that to this day remains underdeveloped.

Como RIP 2

The death of culture in Como? Before the start of the Covid pandemic, there was concern about the city council’s commitment to supporting cultural activities. Demonstrators left this coffin in front of the Teatro Sociale to symbolise the death of culture in the city. Fortunately the council now seem more supportive of the arts but we are yet to see if they can respond to the opportunities provided by cultural tourism.

Como’s cultural patrimony is immense but not made immediately obvious to any temporary visitor, or even to many long-term residents. With the one exception of Alessandro Volta, Como seems singularly reticent about celebrating the achievements of its other remarkable sons and daughters. While we all celebrate the stunning beauty of the city’s natural setting, so many other aspects of local interest can get overlooked. The city’s true potential can so easily be unlocked with a concerted and co-ordinated push to promote cultural tourism. 

What Is Cultural Tourism?

“Cultural tourism ….. enables people to experience the different ways of life of other people, thereby gaining at first hand an understanding of their customs, traditions, the physical environment, the intellectual ideas and those places of architectural, historic, archaeological or other cultural significance which remain from earlier times. (ICOMOS Charter for Cultural Tourism, Draft April 1997)”

Ca Morta Funeral Carriage

Funerary Cart, Ca’ Morta circa 450BCE, Como Museum of Archaeology

With archeological interest ranging from the Golasecca communities on the Parco Spina Verde, through the Roman remains to the ex-industrial sites associated with silk production; with architectural interest starting with the Romanesque craftsmen in the Middle Ages to Rationalism in the last century; with art represented by Paolo Giovio’s first European collection of portraiture,  Lombardy Baroque and the Astrattisti Comaschi; with a history starring Julius Caesar, Frederick Barbarossa, and Mussolini; with a musical tradition encompassing Vincenzo Bellini and Giuditta Pasta; with the scientific heritage of Alessandro Volta; with its overall geopolitical significance as a border town on a major route across the Alps ….. Como’s cultural capital lies ready for exploitation.

The Advantages of Cultural Tourism

teatro sociale

Como’s Teatro Sociale matches the splendour of its interior with the quality and imagination of its productions.

The economic challenge for local tourism is to extend the time visitors’ stay on the lake. A survey in 2018 revealed that the average visitor’s stay in Como was 3.32 days, below the Lombardy average of 3.64 days. However for foreign visitors it was a mere 2.6 days. Meanwhile Brescia and Lake Iseo achieved an average stay of 5.72 days. A longer stay per visitor means a greater return per euro spent on marketing or infrastructure. And the difference between us and Brescia just shows Como’s potential gain if it could just advertise its cultural credentials as well. Brescia’s act of inspiration was to put itself on the international cultural map by hosting the massive Floating Piers art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Caude on Lake Iseo in 2016.

Floating Piers

The Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo gained international publicity for Brescia and its province boosting the average length of visitor stays.

Cultural tourism is also a sustainable form of tourism, not requiring the development of the complex infrastructure required to cope with massive visitor  numbers –  just the investment needed to encourage the current number of visitors to extend their stay by a few more days. Cultural tourism, as opposed to mass tourism, enhances visitors’ understanding and appreciation of where they are visiting and seeks to protect the local culture and folklore. Mass tourism or purely recreational tourism tends to subvert local culture through its tendency towards simplistic and cliched presentation of local attractions. 

religious art

The local churches around the lake are mostly always open to visitors and house great works of art such as this life-sized tableau of the Last Supper in Dongo.

Additionally it is not just visitors who profit from cultural tourism since residents will also appreciate an increased awareness of their cultural patrimony while not having to suffer from the inconveniences imposed by purely recreational forms of tourism. 

Como in 5 Days

The official Como website ‘Como Lake Experience’ includes two short videos promoting visits to Como – ‘Como in 24 hours’ and ‘Como in 48 hours’. Both videos include mention to many cultural attractions such as the museums, the art gallery, the Volta memorial and some of the key architectural gems such as Villa Olmo. The 48 hour overview extends its scope to mention the city walls, the main villas on the lake, Isola Comacina and the attractions of hiking and cycling. Of course both videos  also mention the recreational delights of a trip on the lake, an evening aperitif and dining alfresco, or a trip up to Brunate – the balcony of the Alps. 

pliny younger

The naturalist Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were from Como. Pliny the Younger had a villa in the city and another on the lakeside. He dedicated a library ro the city of which no trace remains. However there is plenty of other evidence of Como’s Roman origins. The Pliny statues sit either side of the main entrance to the cathedral

Baradello

The Castle Baradello stands sentinel over the southern approaches to Como – part of the city’s defences strengthened by Federico Barbarossa in the 13th century.

But what could a promotional ‘Como in 5 Days’ include? How about a reference to Roman Como, its Praetorian Gate and the other Roman sites. Or that, in addition to the Roman carvings and mosaics, the Archeological Museum contains an impressive collection of local prehistoric artefacts. Or that the Art Gallery includes a whole series of early Renaissance portraits curated by Paolo Giovio and originally housed in a gallery which inspired the Medici to establish the Uffizi in Florence. Or that the Pinacoteca also includes fine works by the Como group of abstract artists. Or that Cernobbio once had the largest silk factory in Europe and, while this is now an archeological site, the silk industry in Como is still alive and well. Or that it was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who in the 13th century commissioned the Baradello tower and strengthened the current city walls as a defense against attack from Milan, and that his arrival in the city is re-enacted in an annual festival. Or that there are three long distance hiking trails to be enjoyed around the lake and a series of mountain-top refuges offering food and accommodation. 

The Cultural Challenge

On August 21st, 2019, local journalist and poet Pietro Berra published the following challenge in Como’s ‘La Provincia’ 

[If the problem] …is the inability to keep tourists for more than 2 days in a city that is home to 12 festivals, appears in over one hundred films, has been eternalized by another hundred internationally renowned painters and writers, is the cradle of Romanesque, Futurism, Rationalism and Abstractionism, is a candidate for Unesco Creative City for silk, has a network of over 600 km of pedestrian paths studded with natural and architectural pearls, it means that it is essential to create a system that engages the different skills of tourism operators with those of cultural experts helped by a public administration acting as facilitators and promoters. It is time to invest in the  ideas, projects and skills needed to change the current narrative, perception and use of our area, to move from the “fragmentation of the museum network” to the extraordinary uniqueness of an open-air museum city teeming with a creative energy that enhances it.

Como’s Cultural Innovators

poets way

Como’s Poets Way starts in Maslianico and ends above Brunate. Along its way you find selected quotes from many of the literary figures who have visited Lake Como.

Pietro Berra’s challenge was directed at the  local authorities to take the initiative in coordinating and consolidating the cultural offer. There are many associations and organisations contributing to that offer but their consolidation and a consistent and far-reaching promotion of that offer remains undone to this day. For example, Pietro Berra himself and the association Sentiero dei Sogni have created a Poetry Way which leads walkers along a route marked by relevant literary quotes and cultural references. This is just one example of the number of initiatives from a variety of local associations, businesses and individuals that enrich an appreciation of Como’s cultural and historical heritage.

monumenti apertiOther examples include the initiatives of  Iubilantes, a local cultural association that provides an app Camminacitta with multi-lingual guides to various walks around the city of Como. Since 2018 they have also embarked on  leading a cultural initiative in Como and Cantu called ‘Monumenti Aperti’ –  a national project that educates secondary and tertiary students, in  the knowledge and sustainable and social development of the cultural and environmental heritage of the area in which they live. As a result  these students will in turn be able to communicate their knowledge and appreciation of these local features to other interested residents and visitors, safeguarding this patrimony for years to come.

missultin

Missoltino – pickled lake fish – served with polenta.

Similar initiatives abound in most other areas of local culture. In particular, there is a growing appreciation of the area’s culinary heritage with different festivals throughout the year focussed on the traditions of individual communities. While visitors to London can select restaurants on an ethnic basis, here they can take the time to appreciate the differences in regional cuisine, and come to appreciate the influence of the lake and mountains on culinary tradition. 

Conclusion

Given all this local potential, the enthusiasm of so many local associations and the support of the Como and Lecco Chamber of Commerce,  there would just seem to be one vital coordination element missing. The city already possesses a beautiful and imaginatively managed theatre and a variety of museums. The remaining infrastructure needed is already in place. There is no reason why visitors should not be spending any less time in Como than in Brescia if they were only made aware of all there is to see and experience here. Lets hope that Como’s post-Covid renaissance includes revived eforts to promote cultural tourism.

villa olmo

Villa Olmo at dusk – a council owned property which has remained underused over recent years but which is now hosting musical festivals and art exhibitions. A hopeful sign of things to come!

Posted in Architecture, Art, Culture, Itineraries, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como

dick mallaby book cover

The story of Dick Mallaby is meticulously researched and presented in this book by Gianluca Barneschi, also published in English under the title ‘An Englishman Abroad’.

Dick Mallaby, an Englishman brought up in Tuscany, is said to have inspired Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero, James Bond. Mallaby was on ‘His Majesty’s Secret Service’ when, as a trained ‘licensed to kill’ agent he parachuted down into Lake Como on 14th August 1943. He was caught almost immediately and, with Italy still allied with Germany, he faced summary execution as an enemy spy. 

Mallaby’s drop into Lake Como was a first in two respects for Britain’s wartime ‘dirty tricks’ division of the Secret Intelligent Services (SIS) – the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was the first time an SOE agent was parachuted behind enemy lines, and also the first time SOE had attempted to place a UK national to serve as a wireless operator and sabotage expert into hostile Italy. 

The mission was fatally flawed from the start – Mallaby landed almost straight into the arms of the awaiting Italian authorities. However our gallant hero would prove to have luck on his side. His capture happened at a fortuitous moment for Mallaby resulting from Italy being in the midst of a major political and constitutional crisis following the King’s dismissal of the Mussolini-led fascist government back in July. Through a mixture of quick creative thinking and exceptional luck, Mallaby was to find himself in the crucial role of aiding the new Italian government negotiate a peace deal with the British and American allies. With his clandestine wireless transmitter and his signals training, he offered  the only means of providing confidential communication between all parties. The centrality of his role in establishing the armistice meant that he would eventually be accompanying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Badoglio as together they boarded the boat that took these leaders to Brindisi and to safety in the newly liberated area of Italy. But this fortuitous end would have seemed beyond all possibilities as he languished in Como’s San Donnino prison unaware that fate was about to offer him a chance to avoid execution.

Casino Royale Gaeta

Lake Como is no stranger to either factual or fictional secret agents. Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royale – filmed on location at Villa Gaeta in San Siro (seen above) and Villa Balbianello in Lenno.

What was SOE?

Special  Operations Executive was a secret organisation created in 1940 on similar lines to the American equivalent forerunner of the CIA  – the OSS. SOE agents were trained to support resistance groups, maintain communications with headquarters, and undertake sabotage while operating behind enemy lines. Life expectancy of SOE agents was measured in weeks since they were invariably executed if caught on active service. Financed by secret funds and not given any official recognition, SOE came to be called ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ or ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. By 1943, they had established clandestine operations in France and the Balkans but were only just beginning to develop activities on the Italian mainland. Although SOE did coordinate activities with the American OSS in other countries, they were keen to establish themselves as the more dominant organisation in Italy – a situation that was to be reversed by the end of the war. 

sabotage

Sabotage activities, use of explosives, support of resistance groups with arms, money and clothing and providing wireless communications were key activities for SOE and its agents in Europe.

SOE Agents were members of the British Army. They were subjected to a rigorous training covering sabotage techniques, unarmed combat, survival, silent killing, how to resist interrogation and torture, parachuting, wireless telegraphy and ciphers – a programme that could well have suited James Bond himself. They even had their own ‘Q’ department not quite up to modifying Aston Martin DB5s but certainly with the imagination to come up with exploding rats. The idea was for SOE agents to position dead rats whose stomachs had been stuffed with explosives inside enemy facilities. The hope was that the rats would then be collected  up for incineration whereupon they would explode.

Aston MArtin DB5

‘Q’ provided our fictional James Bond with the famous Aston Martin DB5 with extras. SOE also developed special gadgets along with some absurd ideas like the exploding rats.

Who Was Dick Mallaby?

dick mallaby

Dick Mallaby, born in Sri Lanka, brought up in Italy speaking perfect Italian and English as well as French and German.

Dick Mallaby was born in 1919 and died prematurely on 1st April 1981. It was back in 1939 aged 20 that he left the family home in Tuscany for London to enlist in the allied war effort. He joined SOE in 1942 as the need for fluent Italian speakers became more obvious following the campaigns in North Africa and the imminent allied invasion of Sicily. He was a reckless, courageous adventurer like many of the young men who seemed to be heroes straight out of ‘Boys Own’ magazine. He was a multilingual athlete who had already qualified as both a paratrooper and a wireless operator when first recruited into SOE. However he was not originally selected to work behind enemy lines in spite of his perfect Italian and knowledge of the country due to his Nordic good looks. His key identification data put on file for Agent D/H 449 in February 1943 describes him thus:

Sergeant Cecil Richard Mallaby, unmarried, not interested in politics, able to speak perfect English and Italian, very good French and also good German; completed schooling in Italy and England.

REAL AGE: 23

APPARENT AGE: 21

HEIGHT: 1.79m

WEIGHT: 70kg

FACE: Long. Fresh, clear complexion

FRONT PROFILE: Oblique and irregular

EYES: Sky blue and deep set

NOSE: Straight. Nostrils visible

MOUTH: Full

CHIN: With a light dimple, well defined and clean shaven

HAIR: Straight, combed back, blond but credibly brown for operational purposes

DISTINCTIVE MARKS: Scars on the right cheek, right elbow and both shins. Heart-shaped tattoo on the left forearm, red spot on the right thigh. Walks in a very upright manner.

SOE  wanted to establish a clandestine wireless operator in Northern Italy to team up with what they believed to be friendly resistance groups. Their previous candidates proved either unsuitable or unwilling and so the opportunity was passed to Dick Mallaby who assumed the codename of Agent Olaf and started preparing for Operation Neck. 

The purpose of  Operation Neck was to make contact with so-called Agent 900, an Italian national,  and then provide Agent 900 with communications support. Agent 900 had apparently arranged a safe house for Olaf in 1 Via Borgo Vico, Como. The problem was that Agent 900 was in fact a double agent of the Italian secret services – the Servizio Informazioni  Militare (SIM) – who had managed to gain the unquestioning confidence of SOE bosses. In this way Agent 900 and SIM (judged to have been the most efficient of all the European belligerents’ spy agencies) had perverted all of SOE’s understanding of the resistance groups they had decided to support. These groups were entirely fictitious as was the safe house in Como where Dick’s contact was yet another double agent of SIM. When Dick climbed aboard a Halifax plane on 13th August 1943 with Lake Como as his destination, his mission was doomed from the very start. 

Dropping Into Lake Como

Pognana 2

Looking down lake Como south from Pognana. Dick dropped into the lake between here and Faggeto Lario. His intended drop was near to Torno.

Dick’s flight from Blida in Algeria left at 10.02 pm on 13th August and set a course over Minorca, South-Eastern France and then Lodi in Lombardy before approaching Lake Como from the south west. The flight had not been easy in that it faced flak above Savona and searchlights around Pavia. 

At 2.48am on 14th August 1943, Dick Mallaby bailed out at 600 metres above Lake Como on a clear, moonlit night. His target had been Torno where it was hoped the lakeside would be in darkness and no-one would be around on the ground. However lights were shining brightly from all the villages around the lake and the sky to the south was bright due to an intense allied bombing raid on Milan. The lakeside was actually full of refugees avoiding the heavy bombardment of Milan over the previous days. And the Italian anti-aircraft batteries were on full alert thanks to Agent 900’s prior warning. Dick’s parachute was spotted by Domenica Aquilini from her balcony in Carate Urio as it descended into the lake between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. She raised the alarm.

carate

Carate Urio, on the western banks of the Como leg of the lake. Dick was spotted landing in the lake by observers in Carate Urio.

Four men from Carate Urio then set out in a rowing boat to look for whoever had just parachuted into the lake. They came across Dick Mallaby in his inflatable dinghy off the coast at Pognana. His attempt to explain himself came to nothing when the English lettering on his dinghy sonn gave him away.  An eyewitness, Annamaria Rusconi – a young girl at the time – remembered  the night well and stated the following in an interview published in La Provincia in 2016. 

‘He was wearing a camouflage suit which they stripped off him and found something. He was hidden away for a day but I don’t know where.’

annamaria rusconi

Gianluca Barneschi was able to interview some of the original witnesses to Dick Mallaby’s parachute drop including Annamaria Rusconi who was a young girl at the time. She went on to teach in the local Elementary School and run the local library.

He was taken to the Carate Urio town hall and interrogated by the Como Commander of the Carabinieri. Incriminating materials including parts of a wireless transmitter and code books were soon found and his captors immediately realised they had an important prisoner.  He was then transferred to counter espionage services in Milan while remaining incarcerated in Milan’s San Vittore prison. His capture was made public on Wednesday 18th August when the Milanese newspaper, ‘La Sera Il Secolo’ published the headline ‘The Man Who Fell from the Skies was Betrayed by Moonlight’.  Following more allied bombing of Milan, Dick was transferred back to Como’s San Donnino prison while SOE headquarters tried to work out some means of getting him out.

During subsequent interrogation Dick was able to fabricate a story that fortunately fitted into the political confusion of the time and which did not contradict whatever SIM’s double agents including Agent 900 had been able to learn about the purpose of his mission. Additionally he managed to interest the Italian security services sufficiently for them to refrain from executing him. In any case, SIM was not a purely fascist organisation. Its ultimate loyalty was to the king and Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III had dismissed Mussolini’s fascist government twenty days earlier on 25th July.

Landing Within a Political Maelstrom

armistice

King Vittorio Emanuele III and Pietro Badoglio in a newspaper article declaring the peace agreement with the allies. Dick was to play a crucial and central role in facilitating the negotiations for this armistice.

King Vittorio Emanuele III had supported fascism from its inception until 25th July 1943 when he dismissed Mussolini and appointed one of Mussolini’s senior generals, Pietro Badoglio, to head a new government. The allies were left uncertain as to whether Badoglio would sue for peace with the allies or continue the fascist policy of partnership with Germany. With German agents completely surrounding the Italian government and royal palace in Rome, it was very hard to make contact with Badoglio or sustain confidential communications. Thus, Dick continued to fester in San Donnino whilst the uncertainty over what Badoglio intended to do continued. 

san donnino

The forbidding exterior of the old San Donnino prison in Como’s old town.

Little did Dick realise that his salvation was on its way thanks to the secret mission of Italian Brigadier General Giuseppe Castellano to Portugal.

Castellano had been tasked with negotiating a peace with the allies without the Germans learning about it. Badoglio’s government had decided its future policy – to dissolve their partnership with Germany with as little harm as possible and without getting into a fight with them. Once secret negotiations kicked off in Portugal, there then followed the need to continue discussions and clarify details with communication between Rome and the Allies’ base in Algeria. But the only way these negotiations could remain confidential and undiscovered by the Germans was through the use of a clandestine wireless set and an operator well-versed in cryptography. The Commander in Chief of Allied Forces, General Eisenhower insisted on this and charged UK’s future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with organising it. Macmillan turned to the head of SOE who informed him that the very man they needed was currently languishing in Como’s San Donnino prison. 

On 30th August 1943, Dick Mallaby was released from San Donnino and transported down to Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, having been previously and unknowingly promoted by SOE to second lieutenant. 

From Como to Rome

Regina Coeli Prison

Regina Coeli Prison, Rome

Dick Mallaby knew nothing of the crucial role he was about to play in the historic peace negotiations between the new Italian government and the allies. After all, he had only exchanged one dismal lodging in Como for an equally dismal cell in Rome’s Regina Coeli. But he knew something was afoot when the next day a luxury car came to escort him to Palazzo Vidoni, the headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Italian Army. He was immediately introduced to Brigadier General Castellano who gave him the wireless transmitter provided by the allies with a curt order to immediately contact the Allied Forces HQ in Algeria. Mallaby at first refused stating he could not take orders from any other than a British officer. He was then shown the authorisation from the SOE Director. It was then at around 4.00pm on 29th August 1943 that he sent his first coded message to SOE headquarters in Algeria, as follows:

‘Sergeant C.R. Mallaby to Allied Forces HQ North Africa: I have been instructed by General Castellano to establish radio contact between the Italian Government and Allied Headquarters. I request instructions.’

He received the reply: ‘Proceed. Continue transmissions.’  Which he duly did, from an office in Palazzo Vidoni only metres away from the number of German and Italian VIPS forever in and out of the building. He was given the codename Monkey and Allied HQ responses were codenamed Drizzle. These communications were the ONLY means in which the Italian government was able to communicate with the Allied leaders. The  full set of Monkey-Drizzle communications have now provided historians with the most accurate, complete and verifiable record of the negotiations leading up to the signing on the 3rd September and the subsequent publication of the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943 – the day before the Americans were to make their beach landings at Salerno and when it was also hoped they would be able to make a landing to liberate Rome.

Palazzo Vidoni

Palazzo Vidoni, headquarters during the war of the Italian Supreme Command. Dick was transmitting messages to Allied HQ in Algeria while German officers were constant visitors in the adjoining rooms.

Announcing the Armistice

The timing of the announcement of the Armistice was not to the liking of the Badoglio government who believed they had until 12th September by when they hoped the Americans would have liberated Rome. Eisenhower was intent though on forcing Badoglio’s hand possibly fearing that the Italians were not seriously intending to surrender. Badoglio though was concerned about making the surrender public while the German army was still in control of Rome. Dick Mallaby’s communications were still the only means of contact between the two parties throughout this tense period. Eisenhower would not allow for any further delay in publishing the armistice commenting in a message earlier on September 8th to Badoglio via Dick Mallaby that there were sufficient loyal Italian troops in Rome to ‘ensure the momentary security of the city’. Eisenhower then announced the armistice at 6.30pm Rome time. Badoglio then made the following broadcast via radio to the nation at 7.42pm:

‘The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the unequal struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, in order to spare the nation from further and more serious disasters, has requested an armistice from General Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Anglo-American forces.

The request was accepted. 

Consequently, every act of hostility against the Anglo-American forces must cease by Italian forces everywhere.

However, they will react to any attacks from any other source.’

The Germans interpreted that very last phrase to mean that the Italian Army was from that moment an enemy force. They set about the immediate imprisonment of all Italian military within their areas of occupation. They subsequently captured and disarmed over one million Italian soldiers, half of the entire Italian army. Of those one million, 196,000 managed to escape during deportation and 13,000 were killed while being transported from the Greek islands. Only 94,000 accepted the immediate offer to fight alongside the Germans leaving 710,000 imprisoned as slave workers in German concentration camps. A further 103,000 in the camps later agreed to fight with the Germans leaving between 600,000 and 650,000 slave workers. Of these it is estimated that about 40,000 died during their time in the concentration camps. 

Meanwhile the situation back in Rome for King Vittorio Emanuele III, Badoglio and his government and Dick Mallaby had become highly dangerous.

From Rome to Brindisi

Early in the morning of 9th September, King Vittorio Emanuele and Badoglio fled from Rome by car towards Pescara on the Adriatic coast. Dick was told to pack a suitcase and his wireless transmitter and go immediately to the airport where he boarded a cargo plane with an unknown destination. That very same day, the British landed in Puglia as previously planned with the Badoglio government to take over control of the Italian Royal Navy in Taranto and Brindisi. 

Mallaby’s destination was Pescara. On landing he was instructed to set up his wireless transmissions from within the airport and recommence the Monkey-Drizzle links so the allies could resume contact with Badoglio and the King. He was soon told to pack up again having been told their destination was now to be Taranto. He and the group from Rome travelled by car down the Abruzzo coast to Ortona where he was told to await boarding ship. 

Corvette Baionetta

The Corvette Baionetta left Pescara with the Admiral of the Italian Royal Navy and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio on board. It stopped at Ortona to pick up King Vittorio Emanuele, his family and Dick Mallaby

Amongst total confusion at the port with a crowd waiting to board the corvette Baionetta, Dick realised he was standing  just behind the royal party. Gathered on the dock and also waiting to board was King Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife Queen Elena, Prince Umberto and the Supreme Commander of the Italian Army, General Vittorio Ambrosio.  They and Dick all boarded to join Pietro Badoglio and the Chief of the Italian Royal Navy who had embarked in Pescara. Spaces on board were limited with no space for Dick until General Ambrosio ordered his embarkation since Dick was ‘by now part of the Supreme Command’s nucleus’. The ship then left Ortono with its VIP list of passengers just after 01.00am on 10th September. Dick was the only Englishman amongst the other 56 passengers. 

Their ship was met by a light cruiser, Scipione near to Vieste on the Gargano peninsula which accompanied them down to Brindisi. Dick, the King, the senior officers of the Italian Armed forces and the leaders of the Italian government docked in Brindisi at 2.40pm on 10th September.  Meanwhile a few hours earlier back in Rome, Italian troops had surrendered to the Germans commencing their occupation of most of Italy. 

Brindisi

Brindisi

On landing, Mallaby yet again set up his wireless transmitter choosing to base himself in the grounds of the castle overlooking the harbour. Allied HQ in Algiers were relieved to be back in contact and to learn news of whatever had happened to the leaders of the Italian government over the preceding 24 hours. They seemed completely unaware of the King and Badoglio’s escape and the subsequent fall of Rome. 

Conclusion

faggeto

Faggeto lario – Dick had travelled the length of Italy since dropping close to Faggeto on Lake Como on 14th August 1943

It had just been under a month since Dick dropped into Lake Como between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. His mission had gone disastrously wrong at the start but he had used his training to keep his interrogators interested in him and delaying any possible execution. Events then seemed to fall in his favour and he just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. He found himself as the most critical facilitator of the highest level of negotiations between the allies and the leaders of the defeated Italian nation.  

His achievements did not go unappreciated. General Eisenhower himself recognised the importance of the negotiations that Dick had so ably facilitated stating he played a part in:

‘ …negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys of secret agents and frequent meetings in hidden places …plots of various kinds were hatched, only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances … if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama.’

Dick received more formal and individual acknowledgment on 7th December 1943 when he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation talks of him ‘dropped alone into lake of Como by parachute…in conditions of unexpected difficulty that tested his courage…handcuffed and beaten… (demonstrating) exceptional coolness, perseverance and devotion to duty.’ 

His exploits also won the SOE considerable gratitude from Winston Churchill and the British General Staff since, as mentioned in his citation, if it was not for his role ‘the Allied landings on the Italian mainland may have been made with Italy still an enemy.’

Just as James Bond  always ends his cinematic escapades with a well deserved scene of rest and ‘recuperation’, so we can imagine Dick, in a new clean officer’s uniform, recovering in a bar overlooking the Brindisi seafront, and thinking back over one amazing month in his wartime career.

Villa Balbianella

Daniel Craig as Bond and Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios in a ‘romantic’ scene from Casino Royale in the gardens of Villa Balbianello

Postscript

SOE was to establish its first base on Italian soil in Brindisi. Dick stayed in Italy and was occupied over the next two years in training up other agents to be dropped off behind enemy lines to support partisan groups in occupied Italy. However he had not seen the last of Lake Como. 

With his incredible sense of critical timing, he set off on secret mission from Lyon in France on 15th December 1944 in the company of some of the most senior leaders of the Italian Committee of National Liberation. He crossed the Swiss border into Italy on 14th February only to be arrested the following day having crossed Lake Como to Varenna. From there he was transferred to Como where he faced interrogation first by the Italian fascists and later by the Chief of the SS, Karl Wolff. And herein lies another extraordinary escapade since Dick just happened to be back on Lake Como when equally momentous military and political upheavals were developing. The last months of the war in Italy are shrouded in deep mystery and the role of both the American OSS and British SOE in the secret negotiations with Karl Wolff and their possible involvement in the death of Mussolini remain highly ambiguous. Dick happened to be there – but that is all another story. 

Acknowledgments

This article is based on the research undertaken by journalist and independent researcher, Gianluca Barneschi and published in his excellent account of Dick Mallaby’s SOE service entitled ‘An Englishman Abroad’. The book is available from Amazon and in Kindle format in both English and Italian. It is a great read.

Further Reading

In addition to Gianluca Barneschi’s meticulously researched book cited above, I can recommend the official history of the SOE in Italy written by David Stafford and entitled ‘Mission Accomplished – SOE and Italy 1943-1945’. This is also available from Amazon and in Kindle format.

Posted in Events, History, Lake, People, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como

the smuggling game

Dominioni Libri publish a ‘Gioco del Contrabbandiero’ in which players follow the routes across the Swiss borders as smugglers (spalloni) seeking to avoid the attention of the border guards (finanzieri)

Throughout most of the twentieth century local communities around the lake told stories of  their rebel heroes conducting an illicit trade in smuggled goods in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The so-called era of ‘contrabbando romantico’ only came to end in the 1970s when the role of these locals was supplanted by more organised criminal syndicates from afar.  In those days the profits made from the dangerous game of smuggling supported many communities along the Val D’Intelvi from Argegno to Lanzo, and along the lake from Tremezzina  to Dongo or across the water in Lezzeno. The nearby border, which divided two distinct territories with their different currencies and levels of taxation, provided the opportunity to earn extra for those with the strength and courage to face the dangers and discomforts of a rebel life. Smuggling was common along the entire length of Italy’s northern border but particularly prevalent around the lakes so much as to become a key element in local folklore.

Cats and Mice

smuggler

A ‘spallone’ (smuggler) with his ‘bricolla’ (back pack) ltypically loaded with up to 35 or even 40 kg of goods such as cigarettes or coffee.

All family members played their part in the smuggling trade but the major role was taken by the young men who developed the strength and agility to manage the large backpacks loaded with up to 35 to 40 kilogram of goods. These packs were known as ‘bricolle’ and the smugglers as ‘spalloni’ meaning ‘large shoulders’ due to the weight they had to carry. Spalloni were also known as ‘sfusaduu’ in the local dialect. A trip over the border from a town like Colonno, just north of Argegno, would take about three hours following the least-used mountain paths to find gaps in the netting. These trips would invariably be undertaken by night throughout all seasons. They would load the bricolle from stores kept in mountain sheds just over the border from where they would make the three hour trip back home seeking to avoid border guards along the way. Once back at base, the bricolle would be stored safely away to await either onward shipment across the lake to Lezzeno or opened for immediate distribution.

Monte Generoso

The view over Lake Lugano in Switzerland from the border on Monte Generoso, a route taken by many smugglers in the Val D’Intelvi.

The spalloni’s foe were the border guards – the Guardia di Finanza, known as the ‘finanzieri’ or ‘burlanda’ in local dialect. The life of a finanziero on duty in any one of the barracks posted along the border was hard. They earned little and had to undertake long periods of duty in their isolated outposts facing the dangers of patrolling throughout all seasons and in all types of weather. They were recruited primarily from the poor regions in the south attracted in spite of the hardships and severe discipline by the guarantee of a steady if modest salary and by the respect gained back home from donning a state uniform. More than 30,000 southerners were recruited over the century to settle permanently with their families in the Como area. 

Fresco Bar Sport Lella

Illustration in the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacino owned by ‘Il Cimino’, a retired smuggler made famous by singer songwriter Davide Van De Sfroos.

Both spalloni and finanzieri were armed but shots were only exceptionally exchanged. If a patrol did manage to intercept the smugglers they would shout the command ‘Molla!’ and be content if the smugglers then abandoned their bricolle and ran off into the darkness. The spalloni for their part tried their best to avoid having to sacrifice their loads and the most legendary were known for their daring break neck descents down steep paths still carrying their massive loads. 

Rifugio Murelli

The Rifugio Murelli on the hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani – one of the line of finanzieri barracks along the mountain border from Cernobbio to Lanzo D’Intelvi.

The local spalloni had the initial advantage of their detailed knowledge of the mountain paths and the various weak points along the border defences. The finanzieri also developed a similar knowledge over time. Both sides used this knowledge during the Nazifascist era after 1943 to help Jews, partisans, allied prisoners of war and antifascists avoid the German and fascist militia to escape over the border. The finanzieri around Como were so prepared to aid this clandestine emigration that Mussolini eventually banned them from patrolling the borders.

In spite of the romantic image of this game of cat and mouse, the dangers of death and injury were real. A number of both spalloni and financieri died from falls, avalanches or gunfire amounting to about 3,000 victims in total over the years.

il gioco del contrabando

Il Gioco del Contrabbando showing the labyrinth of smuggling routes around Lake Como.

The Goods

Dog smugglers

Dogs were used by both smugglers and finanzieri.

The direction and content of the smuggling trade changed throughout time as political and economic circumstances evolved even if the main direction of travel was from Switzerland into Italy. In the Napoleonic period from 1803, a monopoly was applied to the provision of salt, tobacco and gunpowder encouraging their illicit import from the Swiss Federation. Loose tobacco became an even more favourite commodity during  Austrian rule when the Swiss established a tobacco and cigar factory at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore in 1848 posing a threat to the monopoly factory in Venice. Tobacco smuggling remained a key export from Switzerland until relatively recently. 

group of spalloni

A group of spalloni likely to have been carrying tobacco or coffee from Switzerland.

Wartime in particular saw major changes in the direction and nature of trade. We have already mentioned the smuggling of people during the last war. There was a similar trade in people smuggling in the Great War but the subjects were the host of secret agents and Italian counterspies needing passage over the border to monitor the political manoeuvres and each others’ clandestine negotiations in the spy capital of Europe, neutral Lugano. 

finanzieri

The Guardia di Finanza (finanzieri) in the Province of Lecco display bricolle abandoned by spalloni when intercepted in the mountains.

Peace time brought about a return in the regular flow of tobacco, coffee, chocolate and other luxury items into Italy from Switzerland with another change of direction brought about in the last war. Switzerland suffered major shortages of basic foodstuffs during the conflict caused partly by the allied blockade on ports such as Genoa as well as by the Swiss Federation’s attempts to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Strict rationing was applied at below subsistence levels on goods including flour, pasta, rice, cooking oil and flour. The Swiss closed all border posts in 1940 and increased the penalties for smuggling. However the local people took immediate advantage of the porous borders with all family members carrying over chestnuts and flour. Even live animals such as piglets were smuggled over having firstly been drugged with grappa to ensure they remained silent.

Wire fence

A wire fence was erected along the length of the border dividing Lombardy from Switzerland. This has now been mostly dismantled. Here Guards are patrolling in the Province of Varese.

The war time trade became ever more anarchic after the 1943 armistice with even the Nazifascist state engaged in smuggling salt from the Venetian lagoon as well as rice, pasta and flour in exchange for Swiss currency, gold, watches, cloth, coffee, car tyres and shoes. Those involved included the X Mas Naval division based in Porlezza, the German command in Colico, various local fascist Prefects and even Mussolini’s own secretary.  

spalloni

A band of spalloni in the Province of Lecco

With the war over, the Swiss withdrew their hardline border guards and were happy to turn a blind eye to the clandestine export of coffee and tobacco. After all, the more goods were bought in Switzerland, the more duty was collected to fund the federation’s social services. Conversely, the more smuggled goods were sold in Italy, the less duty was gathered to pay for Italy’s social security programmes. The Swiss saw no reason why purchasing products in their country and transporting them into Italy should be deemed illegal. Additionally, the gradual postwar increase in Italian standards of living increased the demand for coffee and for American-style cigarettes.  The continual devaluation of the Italian lira next to the Swiss franc and the imposition in Italy of high levels of duty served to maintain attractive profit margins for the spalloni.  All was set for a golden age of ‘contrabbando romantico’ that would last for a further thirty years – a time when all visitors to Como would return home with a cheap packet of coffee and a carton of cigarettes. 

The Heroes

robin hoodNo romantic era can be without its heroes. Folklore has turned many morally dubious bandits into warriors against oppression fighting for the poor and for a more just distribution of wealth. Such heroes have also emerged from the ranks of the spalloni who operated within the Val D’Intelvi and Lake Como.  They shared that mix of qualities common to peasant leaders from Robin Hood to the present day. They possessed a detailed knowledge of the local  physical environment common to all peasant communities combined with an entrepreneurial flair and the capacity to lead. Their safety was dependent on retaining the respect and support of their local communities who, for whatever reason, retained a greater loyalty to one of their own rather than to the state at large. 

Il Ment – Duke of the Mountains

clemente malacrida

Clemente ‘Il Ment’ Malacrida, born 1900 – the so-called Duke of the Mountains

Our first hero is Clemente Malacrida born in 1900 and brought up in Pellio Intelvi close to Lanzo. He originally applied his knowledge of the mountains and the lesser known paths  across the border to assist the various secret agents wanting to reach Lugano. After the Great War ended he supplemented his income as an intermediary in the sale of cattle by smuggling in tobacco, chocolate and coffee from Switzerland. He soon became recognised as chief of the smugglers earning the title  ‘Il Ducato dei Contrabbandieri’. 

By the 1930’s Ment was constantly on the run from the Guardia di Finanza, the Forestry Police and the Carabinieri. His heroic status was secured when, on the 10th August 1933 while participating in the local celebration of San Lorenzo Day at a big feast at the Rifugio Venini on Monte Galbiga, he helped his lifelong friend ‘Il Gal’ escape from a trap set by the Carabinieri. They made their escape together by descending the Val Perlana down to the Monastery of San Benedetto above Ossuccio. 

San Benedetto

The Monastery of San Benedetto in the Val Perlana above Ossuccio

He gained national renown the following winter when he led a massive convoy of a hundred smugglers bringing coffee across the snow-covered mountains. Bad weather had caused a prolonged halt to the regular crossings since tracks in the snow made detection by the finanzieri easy. The situation had become critical with investors impatient at seeing the build up of goods awaiting collection from the clandestine stores just across the Swiss border. The decision was taken to organise a mass column of spalloni and the only person who could be entrusted to lead it was Il Ment assisted by his friend Il Gal.  However on this occasion Ment was betrayed by one of the spalloni who talked too much. The column was intercepted at the Cima di Bove along the Val Mara leading to Lanzo D’Intelvi. The incident was famously represented on the front page of the ‘Domenica del Corriere’ who under the title ‘2 Against 100’ claimed the column had been halted by a mere couple of finanzieri although in reality they had been intercepted by up to five patrols. Ninety seven of the bricolle full of coffee had to be abandoned to allow for all but one of the spalloni to escape capture. For Ment, the publicity ensured he became a heroic symbol of subversion. Efforts were redoubled to seek his arrest.

Domenica del corriere (1)

The edition of the Domenica del Corriere featuring the exploits of Il Ment and Il Gal leading a band of 100 spalloni carrying coffee from Switzerland

A year and a month later, he and Gal were captured on Epiphany Day, 1935 by Carabinieri from Castiglione D’Intelvi at Blessagno.  They faced trial a month later with both receiving lengthy prison terms. Ment did however manage to escape from prison in the summer of 1936 but was quickly rearrested, beaten up and left to die of his wounds  a few days later when back in prison. Gal served his term and on release from prison in 1943 immediately returned to the mountains as a partisan taking up arms against the nazifascist regime.

Ment could have avoided the life on the run but his determination to avoid arrest during his career was born out of a rebel spirit.  His refusal to compromise with authority seemed to exemplify the independent spirit of the Val D’Intelvi and his example went on to inspire future generations of spallonii.

Val D'Intelvi

The Val D’Intelvi with the Swiss Alps in the distance

Il Cinto – Captain of the Lake

Colonno

The small town of Colonno north of Argegno where the sense of ‘omerta’ kept the spalloni safe from betrayal to the finanzieri.

Our next hero, Il Cinto, was born and lived in Colonno – a small lakeside town north of Argegno where smuggling had for years provided a supplementary income for a male population accustomed to seasonal migration into Switzerland as construction workers. For their part Colonno’s women had developed a specialism in producing local butter adulterated with margarine from Lecco which proved popular in Como, Brianza and Milan for cooking. So strong was this local clandestine tradition that Colonno developed a sense of ‘omerta’ amongst its people as unbreakable as in any mafia-controlled township. 

Il Cinto’s outlaw career started from the moment he was demobilised from the army in September 1943 following the armistice of the Badoglio government and the subsequent Nazi occupation which established the nazifascist regime in Northern Italy. He immediately took to the mountains as a partisan member of the communist-led  52nd Garibaldi Brigade with ‘Novara’ as his nom de guerre. One of his first actions was to seize arms from the Guardia di Finanza barracks in Argegno where many of the finanzieri themselves wished to join the partisans. He also participated in the raid led by the royalist partisan leader Captain Ugo Ricci on the Porlezza barracks of the X Mas Naval Division. His last major action was to provide rearguard cover for the failed attempt (in which Ugo Ricci was killed) to kidnap Guido Buffarini Guidi, the nazifascist Finance Minister who was residing at the time in Lenno. After this he dedicated himself fulltime to smuggling. 

bricolle

Four spalloni make their way back into Italy with their bricolle

The period between 1945 and 1948 was one in which the supply of smuggled goods went both ways over the Swiss border. The arrival of the well provisioned American troops offered a source of goods in desperately short supply in Switzerland. In addition to the shortages in foodstuffs, the spalloni now carried over bicycle and lorry tyres, parachute fabric and even condoms. The risks taken by the spalloni were considerable since the Swiss had supplemented their normal border controls with soldiers recruited from the German speaking cantons who had no hesitation in shooting at anyone ignoring their cry to ‘Alt’. However by 1948 the demand for these goods declined, the Swiss border guards were retired and the  Swiss decriminalised all traffic crossing their territory into Italy. Il Cinto was now ready to take full advantage of this return to normal trading and to welcome in a golden era for local spalloni.

Lake Como from Colonno

Looking south down Lake Como from the mountain path linking Argegno to Colonno

Traditional custom had determined that groups of smugglers travel in a single convoy. Il Cinto however developed his own particularly successful method. He travelled with a trusted band of eight to nine spalloni but divided the group in two with himself taking the lead alongside two of the fastest and strongest members of his gang. He would carry a bricolla loaded with only 15 kilograms of goods. The other five or so members would stay well back from the lead group. If the lead group encountered a patrol of finanzieri, the other members of the group would remain hidden until the patrol had been drawn away in pursuit. The lead group would at worst have to abandon just two of their bricolle to aid their escape. Il Cinto on principle never abandoned his own lighter load. 

Corniga

Corniga, an alpine hamlet above Colonno

Il Cinto also saw the sense in forming allegiances with other smugglers, in particular with the spalloni from Dongo. Those from Dongo did not need much persuading of the advantages of initiating their cross-border incursions from Colonno. A journey from Colonno to the stores held just over the border took about three hours rather than the six needed from Dongo. Il Cinto also teemed up with smugglers based in Lezzeno directly across the lake from Colonno. Onward transport of the cigarettes and coffee from Lezzeno to the major market of Milan was a lot safer from there than from the western shores of the Como leg of the lake. They faced fewer controls by the Guardia di Finanza and had more alternative routes to Milan. 

Cecco Bellosi

Cecco Bellosi, ex leftist militant of the armed struggle and author of books like ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ depicting the life of Il Cinto and other local rebels.

With the introduction of his new methods, the ongoing spirit of Colonno omerta and the level of trust he established with all parties, Il Cinto assumed the leadership of a successful criminal enterprise. He became known as the Captain of the Lake. His custom was to preside every Monday evening to settle accounts and plan the following week’s activities at the bar beside Como’s bus station – the Osteria San Donnino. Here all three parties would meet, namely the transporters from Lezzeno, the spalloni from Dongo/Colonno and the store holders from Switzerland. Lezzeno would first pay Colonno for the number of bricolle delivered to them. Colonno would then pay the Swiss for what they had carried away from over the border.

While Ment’s renown was gained from the publicity provided by the Domenica della Corriere, Il Cinto’s fame is more due to local author Cecco Bellosi who has immortalised his exploits in books such as ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’. 

Il Cimino

Cimino

Sergio Bordoli aka ‘Il Cimino’ made famous as the subject of the ‘Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by Davide Van De Sfroos

Our last hero brings us up to our own times. Il Cimino is the subject of a ballad entitled ‘La Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by local singer songwriter Davide Van de Sfroos. The ballad recounts one of the exploits of Sergio Bordoli, the joint owner with his wife of the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacina.  He was nicknamed Il Cimino after Leonardo Cimino, a criminal from Rome briefly famous towards the end of the 60s for a couple of daring robberies. In his youth, Il Cimino was a smuggler following the routes led by Il Cinto from Switzerland to Colonno and across the lake to Lezzeno. 

You may well wonder how a local singer could have a name which appears to have originated from Holland rather than Tremezzina. In fact Van de Sfroos is the stage name for Davide Bernasconi, born in Monza but brought up on Lake Como in Mezzegra, one of the districts of Tremezzina. His adopted name is taken from  ‘laghee’ dialect for smuggling. The spalloni from Colonno were known as ‘sfrusaduu’ and so Van de Sfroos is dialect for ‘gone to smuggle’.

Van de Sfroos and Sergio Bordoli

Davide Van De Sfroos and Sergio ‘Cimino’ Bordoli in Sala Comacina with Isola Comacina in background

Sergio ‘Il Cimino’ Bordoli was born after the last war into a family of ten. At the age of 14 he asked his mother’s permission to start smuggling –  to ‘van a sfrosare’. She readily agreed seeing how the family desperately needed his additional earnings. On one occasion in the early 60s, he was tasked with uncovering bricolle full of cigarettes that had been hidden close to the lakeside near to Brienno and to load them into a motorboat for the crossing to Lezzeno. Unfortunately an armed  patrol of the Guardia Di Finanza with dogs intercepted him. To avoid capture he threw himself into the lake near to the restaurant Il Crotto dei Platani and swam underwater until he surfaced under the cover of a jutting cliff. There he waited his time until the finanzieri gave up any further search for him. Dripping wet and having lost his Lacoste shirt, trousers and wallet, he climbed up onto the road dressed only in his underpants and wearing his Superga trainers. 

Conclusion

motoscafi

Cigarette smuggling during the era of contrabbando romantico has been replaced by an industrial scale operation run by organised crime using high powered motor boats pursued by the Guardia di Finanza also in boats or helicopters.

By the mid 1970s the era of contrabbando romantico was coming to an end. Cigarette smuggling was passing into the hands of organised crime with the centre of its operation in the Mediteranean.  Il Cimino gave up smuggling when he reached twenty in the early 1970s. After a period working in Switzerland, he came back to Sala Comacina to set up the bar with his wife Lella. By the mid 1970’s the Guardia di Finanza had abandoned their string of barracks along the crest of the mountains from Cernobbio to Lanzo allowing them now to be turned into mountain refuges offering food and accommodation for hikers. The wire netting of the border was left to fall into disrepair. Now we can all cross the border in the mountains as often as we like – unless we are one of the illegal immigrants trying to make our way into Northern Europe via Switzerland. For them another type of smuggler now exists, the so-called ‘passatori’ but they have little interest in crossing over mountain paths. In any case the border is now under the surveillance of drones and helicopters.

Standards of living have definitely improved for those on the lake, as have the work conditions for the finanzieri of the Guardia di Finanza but the success of the Van de Sfroos ‘Ballata del Cimino’ points to a nostalgia for the recent past and to an important element of local history which has undoubtedly shaped aspects of the local culture. Cecco Bellosi has done much in his books to ensure the heroes of past times are not forgotten and I share his enthusiasm for celebrating and maintaining his and their spirit of rebellion.

Further Information

There are two small museums dedicated to the era of contraband. One is in Erbonne – a small town in the foothills of Monte Generoso. It is called the ‘Burlanda e Sfusaduu’ Museum and is open by appointment by contacting Sig. Sfefano Agnese on +39 333 23 84 179.

The other museum – The Museo Svizzero Delle Dogane – is in Gandria. Call +41 79 512 99 07 for opening times.

There are a number of hiking trails that follow or go near to the old smuggling routes. For example, see sentieri-contrabbando.it for details of hiking trails around Cernobbio and Maslianico. The long hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani passes by the string of ex-barracks of the Guardia di Finanza.  Follow this link for information about the trail and details of the ex-barracks now open to trekkers as mountain refuges. There is also ‘un percorso al contrabbando’ that starts in Casasco D’Intelvi and crosses Monte Generoso over the border.

Via dei contrabbandieri erbonne

The percorso al contrabbando runs from Casasco D’Intelvi via Erbonne to cross the border

The Contraband Game (Il Gioco del Contrabbandiere) is available online from dominionilibri.it  for €24.

Davide Van de Sfroos’ ‘Ballata del Cimino’ is available on Youtube and a translation of the lyrics from laghee dialect into Italian is available at http://testicanzoni.mtv.it/testi-Davide-Van-De-Sfroos_63920/traduzione-La-ballata-del-cimino-3243351

Cecco Bellosi’s book ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ is available in Italian on Kindle.

Sentee la Culman

The Sentee La Culman is a steep path used by smugglers to climb from Moltrasio to the side of Monte Bisbino. It now forms part of a gruelling alpine run held once a year with its route marked out by yellow markers.

Other articles in Como Companion that may be of interest include:

Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust

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Hollywood, Gucci and Lake Como

On 17th March (this Wednesday) Hollywood will descend on Lake Como for a day of filming at the Villa Balbiano. They will move on the following day to a nearby location on the lakefront at Azzano di Mezzegra. Both locations are within the Comune of Tremezzina. They may also shoot some footage along the coastal road between Argegno and Colonno. The subject of the film is the Gucci dynasty with an inevitable focus on the most infamous chapter in that blighted family’s history – the murder of Maurizio Gucci on the doorsteps of his office in Milan on 27th March 1995.

arrest of Reggiani

Patrizia Reggiani arrested on January 31st 1997 for commissioning the murder of her estranged husband, Maurizio Gucci outside his Milan office on March 27th 1995.

The director of the film is Ridley Scott, a veteran Hollywood director with such titles as ‘Gladiator’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Thelma and Louise’ to his credit. The film also boasts an array of Hollywood stars including Lady Gaga (whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), Adam Driver, Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. The targeted release date of the film with the working title of ‘The House of Gucci’ is 24th November this year.

Maurizio with Paola Franchi

Maurizio Gucci seen with his girlfriend Paola Franchi. Both he and she had divorced their respective partners to clear the way for their own marriage. The completion of the divorce may have been what instigated Patrizia Reggiani’s plan to murder her husband. She claimed that their daughters’ inheritance would be compromised by the second marriage.

The story of the Gucci dynasty would seem tailor-made for a cinematic epic assuming the plot skips over most of the complex financial arrangements, share dealings and takeover battles that brought the family into internecine conflict right from its foundation in Florence by Guccio Gucci at the turn of the last century.  Instead we can expect the focus to be on the era in which Gucci became one of the world’s leading brands of luxury goods helping to establish Milan as a centre of fashion thanks mainly to the design genius of Tom Ford. As the Gucci brand went from strength to strength at that time, the Gucci family itself actually lost control of their family business. Maurizio Gucci was the ill-fated family member who, in spite of his powerful vision for success, could not convince his financial backers of his ability to realise it. Perhaps of even greater interest to the film’s scriptwriters, he found himself in mortal conflict with his estranged wife and the mother of his two daughters, Patrizia Reggiani nicknamed Lady Gucci or the ‘Joan Collins of Monte Napoleone’. It was Patrizia Reggiani who paid for the assassination of her former husband back in 1995, arranged on her behalf by her good friend and personal clairvoyant Pina Auriemma. In 1997 she received a twenty six year sentence for commissioning the murder leading to her release from Milan’s San Vittore prison seventeen years later. 

Pino Auriemma

Pina Auriemma then at her arrest and now on release from prison. Pina was Patrizia’s longterm friend and confidante but during her trial Patrizia tried to claim that the murder of Maurizio was entirely Pina’s idea. The court found Pina responsible for organising the murder but found Patrizia responsible for commissioning and paying for it.

The full story of the Gucci dynasty has been set out in an excellent book by Sara Gay Forden entitled ‘The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed’ – an irresistible cocktail as the book’s subtitle suggests for Hollywood’s scriptwriters. However, in spite of all the glamorous locations cited in the book, there’s only one mention of Como and that is in relation to the silk scarf known as the Flora commissioned by Rodolfo Gucci for Princess Grace of Monaco from local silk printer Fiorio – a business which is now part of the Como-based Canepa Group. In spite of this, Hollywood have decided to include Lake Como as one of the exotic locations where the domestic drama of the Gucci dynasty was played out, to the delight no doubt of all those promoting the lake as an exclusive destination for a luxury holiday or a romantic wedding. 

Fiorio silk scarf

There are no images available of the original Flora foulard designed by Gucci for Princess Grace and printed by the Como company, Fiorio. This example shows Fiorio’s skills in producing sharp colour differentiation when printing on silk.

The two hundred strong production unit along with the director and his actors arrived in Rome and then moved up to Milan where Lady Gaga, playing the part of the young Patrizia Reggiani, visited the hairdresser and became a brunette. They moved to Gressoney in the Val D’Aosta presumably to reconstruct the scenes that took place in reality at Maurizio’s and Patrizia’s Saint Moritz home. Adam Driver is playing the part of the luckless Maurizio who had tried to deny Patrizia access to this second home which she had come to love dearly. 

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga

A publicity shot of Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci) and Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani) taken on location in Gressoney, Val D’Aosta.

Filming then moved on to the streets of Milan where the director will need to try to recreate the atmosphere of the city in the period between the mid eighties to 1995 when Maurizio was killed. This was a very particular era in Milan’s modern history which has come to be called ‘Milano da Bere’ after a TV ad for the alcoholic drink ‘Ramazzotti Amaro’.

Milano da bere

The TV advert for Amaro Ramazzotti which captured the arriviste culture of Milan in the 80s and early 90s.

This ad seemed to capture what was a new found feeling of general well-being aided by a  consumerism and confidence as the city became a fashion capital. In this optimistic period following (more or less) the end of the string of terrorist attacks and kidnappings known as the ‘anni di piombo’, social acceptance was automatic if you had the money and presented a ‘bella figura’. This was the era when Milan’s growth provided the base for Bettino Craxi’s political power financed through his system of demanding paybacks on the granting of all construction contracts in the city including from Silvio Berlusconi for his satellite development known as Milano 2 financed with Sicilian Mafia money. Maurizio’s murder followed on from the collapse of the Craxi system once brought to light in the series of Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) trials.  Both events marked the definitive end of a particular phase in the city’s socioeconomic development. Let’s hope Ridley Scott can evoke that period as effectively as Federico Fellini did in earlier times for Rome in ‘La Dolce Vita’ – a film title that itself became the catchphrase for  a specific time and place.

Villa Balbiano (1)

Villa Balbiano originally built for the Giovio family but passed on to Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in the late 16th century.

It’s not clear why Lake Como or the Villa Balbiano have been selected amongst the film’s locations beyond their obvious photogenic attraction. Unlike Gianni Versace who had a holiday villa directly on the lakefront in Moltrasio, Maurizio Gucci preferred his mountain retreat in Saint Moritz. However Villa Balbiano, on the border between Ossuccio and Lenno, is gloriously located away from the main road and directly on the lakefront. It was originally built for the Giovio family at the end of the sixteenth century but was immediately handed over to Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. It was later bought by Cardinal Durini in 1787 who then commissioned the building of a sister villa, the Villa Balbianello, on the nearby Lavedo promontory.

Gylfi Sigurdsson wedding

Villa Balbiano is a popular location for luxury weddings as in the case of footballer Gylfi Sigurdsson seen here marrying Alexandra Ivarsdottir in 2020.

Villa Balbianello has since become the much better known of the Durini properties due to its use as a location in films such as Star Wars and Casino Royale. The Villa Balbiano is however no stranger to publicity having hosted a number of celebrity weddings over the years.

Inglesina museo barche lariane

For the scenes to be shot on the lake at Azzano di Mezzegra, the film crew have hired three ‘Inglesine’ – the traditional oar driven water taxis of old. This example is housed in the Museo Barca Lariana in Pianello del Lario.

The other chosen location for this week’s filming is the lakefront at Azzano di Mezzegra, also in Tremezzina, for which the production has ordered three ‘Inglesine’ – the traditional man-powered Lake Como water taxis – to be in attendance and a large smoke machine to produce an ethereal mist over the water. 

Grand Hotel Cadenabbia

The Grand Hotel Cadenabbia will open early this season to provide accommodation for the film’s 200 strong production crew.

The arrival of the Hollywood entourage has come as a gift to some of the local hoteliers who have of course suffered a dreadful time due to the pandemic. The Grand Hotel Cadenabbia will open its doors earlier than normal this year to host the 200 strong production unit. Meanwhile the stars of the film have chosen to stay in the ‘exclusive’ enclaves of the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio. Rumour has it that Lady Gaga may copy Jennifer Aniston in staying at the hotel’s Villa Cima annexe. Rumour also suggests that Al Pacino, playing the part of Aldo Gucci, will occupy Robert De Niro’s favourite corner suite on the Piano Nobile of the main building. No rumours surround where Jeremy Irons or Ridley Scott will sleep but I do not expect they will be required to share.

Villa Cima

Villa Cima, an annexe of the Hotel Villa D’Este, in the foreground with the main villa behind.

Films on Lake Como

Lake Como has itself been the star of a number of Hollywood films over the years. Mention has already been made of the Star Wars episode and Casino Royale while recently in 2019 Jennifer Aniston (when not occupying a suite at the Villa D’Este) and Adam Sandler zoomed around the lake overturning a red Ferrari in the whimsical piece of nonsense ‘Murder Mystery’. There is the threat they may return to the lake to make a sequel. In times gone by Alfred Hitchcock used the Villa D’Este and other locations on Lake Como in his 1925  film ‘The Pleasure Garden’. He then came back to Como in December 1926 to spend part of his honeymoon at the same hotel to which he returned on a number of subsequent occasions. 

Innamorato Pazzo

Adriano Celentano and Ornella Muti in the 1981 film ‘Innamorato Pazzo’.

Nor have the attractions of Lake Como been ignored by Italian filmmakers. One of my favourite films is ‘Innamorato Pazzo’ from 1981 starring Ornella Muti and Adriano Celentano. It includes a scene filmed on location in Como’s Villa Olmo in which Celentano, playing the part of a bus driver, is assisted by the bus depot’s musical band in serenading La Muti playing the part of a Princess. Years after Celentano admitted to having a brief affair with La Muti during the production of this film. This was at the time a devastating admission given how Celentano is known for his long standing stable marriage. Celentano, now aged over 80 and still happily married, decided to make Lake Como his home in 2020 by purchasing a villa in Galbiate close to Lecco.

Celebrities Depicting Celebrity

Patrizia Reggiani

Patrizia Reggiani today following her release from prison.

Of course Celentano is not so well known as George Clooney who, in spite of owning numerous properties, still finds time to take up seasonal residence in Laglio where he manages to carve out some sort of life within the confines of his celebrity status. It may be too early in the season for him to be at home to entertain our current batch of celebrity visitors.  They will have to amuse themselves within the confines of the Villa D’Este if they are granted any time away from filming. All of the main ‘celebrity’ locations such as the Gatto Nero in Rovenna are closed due to Covid restrictions nor are they likely to be able to take a casual stroll into Cernobbio unless armed with their ‘autocertificazione’ to present if challenged by the police. 

Celebrity must at times be a hard burden to bear with the limitations it inflicts on personal liberty. Celebrity is also at the heart of the Gucci story. It will be interesting to see how Ridley Scott uses his own band of celebrities to present the life of the ill-fated Guccis. Behind Maurizio Gucci’s celebrity and the image of success lay fear of failure and inadequacy, constant financial anxiety, estrangement from his two daughters, and a jealous wife hell bent on revenge. For the rejected wife Patrizia Reggiani it meant seventeen years in a Milanese prison before being able to return to her husband’s luxury apartment on Corso Venezia that had been originally decorated for the benefit and to the orders of her rival, Paola Franchi. 

Further Reading

The Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio was itself the setting of a celebrity murder that gripped the Italian media in the post war era. Read about it in Murder on the Dance Floor- Italy’s Crime of the 20th Century on Lake Como

The area of Tremezzina, Ossuccio and Isola Comacina holds many attractions for visitors. Read more in:

Ossuccio to Lenno: Up and Down the Perlana Valley

Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina

For me some of the best Italian films depicting the ‘Milano Da Bere’ era are two of the comedies starring the Milanese actor, Renato Pozzetto. These are ‘Un Povero Ricco’ and ‘Il Ragazzo di Campagna’ both available on Youtube in their original language. You can also find ‘Innamorato Pazzo’ on Youtube but, in spite of the use of Villa Olmo as one of the settings, the film is resolutely urban Roman.  Search for ‘Milano da Bere‘ and you will even find the original Ramazzotti advert on Youtube 

Sara Gay Forden’s book ‘The House of Gucci’ is available on Amazon.

Documentaries have also been made of the life of Patrizia Reggiani and can be tracked down on Google.

Gucci stores still exist around the world for those with sufficient disposable income. Fake Gucci bags can still be had from itinerant sellers assuming the beaches will open up again in the summer season.

Filippo Ninni

Filippo Ninni then and now. He was the detective whose investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Patrizia Reggiani, Pina Auriemma and the other accomplices to the Gucci murder.

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Two Local Poets for International Women’s Day

alda merini

Alda Merini born Milan March 1931, died November 2009

Lake Como has inspired poetic sensibilities throughout the ages including those of two of Italy’s most renowned poets of the 20th century – Antonia Pozzi and Alda Merini. Both these writers’ works are available in English translation giving also us the opportunity to appreciate their creativity. See below for details. They shared an almost mystical appreciation of nature gained through a prism of existential social pressure and isolation. Alda suffered years of mental illness in which she was incapacitated from writing. Antonia tragically cut her own life short when only twenty six due in her own words to ‘mortal desperation’. All of her work was published posthumously.

Antonia Pozzi portrait (1)

Antonia Pozzi, born in Milan Feb 1912, died Dec 1938.

Antonia and Alda were both from Milan but had  close associations with Lake Como. Antonia spent at least three months of the year in the family’s country villa in Pasturo, a small town in the Valsassina on the Lecco leg of Lake Como. It was the wild nature of the valley that inspired her poetry which contains not a single reference to Milan. Alda took more inspiration from her urban environment but was deeply attached to Brunate, the small town above Como where her paternal grandparents lived. 

Antonia Pozzi

Antonia was born in 1912 into an aristocratic family with literary antecedents. Her mother was the granddaughter of Tommaso Grossi, the writer and friend of Alessandro Manzoni. Her father was a lawyer well-established within the Fascist hierarchy. She attended the Liceo Manzoni in Milan and went on to study languages and philosophy at university. She was an excellent  photographer as well as a poet. Her first poems were written at the age of seventeen. She went on writing,  keeping both her poems and letters within a series of notebook diaries. 

Pudore

An example taken from Antonia’s notebooks which formed her original manuscripts. This poem ‘Pudore’ (Modesty) was written in 1933. 

Here is a translation of ‘Pudore’ by Nicholas Benson:

Modesty

If a word of mine

pleases you

and you tell me

even just with your eyes

I open wide

in a joyful smile –

but I tremble

like a young mother

who even blushes when

a passerby tells her

her little boy is handsome.

___

1 February 1933

One of her tutors at University was Antonio Banfi, a philosopher who propounded a ‘rationalist’ aesthetic in literature deploying simple and accessible language. She describes her own style of writing as a ‘desire to reduce the weight of words to the minimum’. In this sense, she was fully aligned to the modernist and rationalist philosophies also evident in the architectural and design theories of Como’s Antonio Sant’Elia and Giuseppe Terragni and in the fine art produced by the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’. The equivalent school of poetry was known as ‘Crepuscolarismo’ – a movement that originated at the start of the 20th century based on a rejection of the grandiose and heroic in favour of the spirit found in everyday life expressed in simple free verse. As with Terragni’s architectural rationalism, this movement had grown out of Italian Futurism. 

Valsassina

Antonia spent her summer months in the family home in Pasturo, a small community in the Valsassina running off the eastern leg of Lake Como.

One critic has commented: “Her Modernist verse is lyrical and experimental, pastoral and erotic, powerfully evoking the northern Italian landscape and her personal tragedies amid the repressive climate of Fascism”. Unfortunately for Antonia, her father’s strong commitment to fascism with its misogynistic anti-feminist creed created conflict at home. The family’s obsession with maintaining their social standing and reputation led her father to deny Antonia access to her lover and later on, to censoring the publication of any of her poems deemed inappropriate. Her escape was walks in the mountains around the family’s summer home in Pasturo. 

Pozzi family villa

The Pozzi family home in Pasturo

 

Pasturo_Villa_Pozzi_P6A5219

Antonia’s study in Pasturo. The house is now in private hands and the collection of manuscripts previously on display has been moved to the Universita dell’Insubria in Varese.

In Antonia’s words “poetry has this sublime task: to take all the pain that foams and bounces in our soul and to appease it, to transfigure it into the supreme calm of art, just as rivers flow into the celestial sea.” However her ability to appease the pains in her everyday life was to prove beyond her. On top of the oppressive atmosphere at home and the dispiriting climate of the fascist regime, Antonia found the passing of the anti-semitic Race Laws in September 1938 a final blow. She declared at that moment “forse l’età delle parole è finita per sempre (maybe the time for words is over forever)”. Four months later she committed suicide out of ‘mortal desperation’ aged just 26.  She took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down to die in a snow-covered field overlooking the beautiful Chiaravalle Abbey to the south of Milan. Her parents gave pneumonia as the cause of her death.

Up to that moment only a few close friends knew of her poetic output. Her father, Roberto Pozzi, undertook a strict censorship of her poems and paid for the private publication of this collection entitled ‘Parole, Liriche’.

Portofino Antonia Pozzi

Photograph entitled ‘Portofino’ by Antonia Pozzi

The initial print run for the book was for 300 copies published in Milan by Mondadori in 1939. However Antonia’s full poetic output was only truly revealed in 1986 thanks to research undertaken by Sister Onorina Dino who is now the established curator of Antonia’s poems.

onorina dino

Suora Onorina Dino from the Congregazione delle Suore del Preziosissimo Sangue di Gesu in Monza. She is the official curator of Antonia Pozzi’s manuscripts which have now been entrusted to the Universita dell’Insubria.

Suora Onorina compared the poems in Antonia’s notebooks – her original manuscripts – with the versions printed in the 1939 edition. She discovered that Antonia’s father had modified some of the poems by altering both the metre and vocabulary in parts. He had also penned over some of the poems and cut out pages to censor those he did not like. The nun’s diligent research led to finding a secondary source of these missing works passed on from a close friend of Antonia who had been entrusted with handwritten copies.   

 

It was only in 1989, on the publication of the unadulterated and complete works of Antonia Pozzi, that critics could make a true assessment of their literary value. Maria Corti, a much respected commentator on contemporary Italian literature who died in 2002 wrote:

“Her spirit made us think of those mountain plants that can only expand at the edge of crevasses, on the edge of the abyss. She was hypersensitive, with a sweet creative anguish, but at the same time a woman with a strong character and a beautiful philosophical intelligence; she was perhaps the innocent prey of a paranoid paternal censorship of life and poetry. No doubt she was in crisis with the closed religious family environment. The beloved Lombard land, the nature of plants and rivers certainly consoled her more than her peers.”

Antonia Foto

Another photograph by Antonia Pozzi of the mountains close to Pasturo

Antonia has been compared with Emily Dickinson and some may well see similarities with Sylvia Plath but ultimately she is an Italian rationalist poet born into the Modernist period with a spiritual dimension unrelated to any belief in God but more to an interest in the idea of God. She is also very much a product of her geographical background with an almost mystical appreciation of nature perhaps arising from the sharp contrast between her urban upbringing in Milan and those idyllic months spent in the foothills of Le Grigne above the shores of Lake Como. 

Pasturo Valsassina

Pasturo, its people, their work and the surrounding countryside inspired Antonia’s poetry.

Her source of inspiration was the countryside around the family villa in Pasturo where she is buried in the town’s cemetery. To honour their famous daughter, the local council have defined a poetic walk (Percorso Poetico) so visitors to Pasturo can themselves appreciate some of her works within the setting that inspired their creation.

Alda Merini

Merini Poem

The footpath from Como to Brunate has been named ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in recognition of her links with the area. Examples of her works and those of other poets are posted along the route.

Alda Merini was born in Milan in 1931, just seven years before the untimely death of Antonia Pozzi. She died in 2009. Her paternal grandfather was from an aristocratic background but had been disinherited on marrying Alda’s grandmother who was from a peasant family. Her father was supportive of Alda’s education but tried to discourage her from becoming a writer on receiving early encouragement from her tutors. Her mother felt all ambition for her daughter to be inappropriate and urged her into just accepting a future based on marriage and motherhood.  She applied to study at the same secondary school as Antonia Pozzi, Milan’s Liceo Alessandro Manzoni, but was rejected ironically due to her ‘poor Italian’. Her early promise as a poet was interrupted in late adolescence by the onset of a severe bipolar condition which plagued her until better managed in later life. In spite of this she enjoyed rich periods of creativity resulting in being put forward twice for a Nobel Prize – in 1996 by the Academie Francaise and in 2001 by the Pen Club Italiano. 

Alda Merini’s paternal grandparents lived in Brunate and Alda took much inspiration from the mountains around Como. The footpath from Como to Brunate has now been named the ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in her honour. Small excerpts from her poems have been posted along its route forming part of the initiative by Sentiero dei Sogni of creating a Poets Way from Maslianico on the Swiss border to San Maurizio above Brunate .

We have not given as much space to Alda in this article not because she does not warrant it but because we have already featured her and her poetry in our article entitled Poets’ Way: Como to Brunate.

Conclusion

Pozzi foto

Photograph by Antonia Pozzi

Both these local poets display exceptional talent. While Antonia Pozzi came from a literary background, Alda Merini was more proletarian yet they shared many aspects in common.  Both were brought up in Milan but were strongly drawn to the countryside around Lake Como.  Both displayed acute poetic sensibility at an early age with accompanying mental fragility.  Both adopted a deceptively simple and highly accessible writing style. Both had to deal with paternalistic societal pressures seeking to limit their creative expression. Both have achieved posthumous recognition of their talents in spite of life’s obstacles. Both are admirable women. 

Further Reading

percorso poetico

The ‘Percorso Poetico’ in Pasturo has been created to honour the town’s famous poet, Antonia Pozzi.

For a bilingual collection of Antonia Pozzi’s poems and letters, look for Breath: Poems and Letters by Antonia Pozzi translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Wesleyan University Press. This book is available on Amazon.

For our articles on Modernism, Rationalism and the Como School of Abstract Art, refer to the following:

Como’s Internationally Renowned Urban Visionary

‘Rationalism’ – Open Days from 15 to 17 April

The Como Group of Artists – ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’

 

 

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Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

View from Bugone

The view from the Rifugio Bugone down on to Lake Como.

This walk, from lakeside to the crest of the mountains on the Via dei Monti Lariani and then down, is rewarding but not for the fainthearted. The first section climbing up from Carate and past Monte di Urio requires stamina but the well-defined path offers changing views over the lake as you climb higher. You are at your highest altitude when you reach the Colma del Crinco to join the old military road which now forms the Via dei Monti Lariani. We turn left here to enjoy a level walk to the Rifugio Bugone. From the rifugio we descend down to Moltrasio following the old smugglers’ route now used for an annual alpine running competition described as a ‘killer’ and called La Culman. This is a route favoured with nearby mountain retreats offering food, drink and accommodation. You can easily divert from our suggested route to the Rifugio Murelli or to the Vetta Bisbino. You can also make this a circular route by following a small section of the Via Verde through the narrow streets of Tosnacco back to the Santuario Santa Marta in Carate.

la Culman

La Culman is a particularly tough annual alpine running competition ascending the path on which we descend, but then continuing back down to Moltrasio only to climb again to the Rifugio Murelli.

Starting Point, Santa Marta in Carate Urio

Via Santa Marta

If arriving at the lakeside, take the Via Santa Marta shown here with its Via Crucis which goes under the main road and ends at the Sanctuary of Santa Marta.

The steepest section of the walk is the old smuggler path called  La Culman which reaches a 70% gradient towards the Rifugio Bugone. I prefer to descend rather than climb such steep slopes so I chose to start the walk from Carate Urio and end it by following La Culman down to Moltrasio. So, taking either Bus C10 or C20 from Como, you can either get off at the San Marta bus stop if you are on a ‘via panoramica’ bus (the route that keeps to the high road up from the lakefront) or at the Urio Genesio bus stop down on the lakeside.  The Santa Marta Sanctuary is on a slight promontory looking south towards Como and surrounded by an olive grove on well maintained terracing. Head out south on the so-called Via Verde which is marked out by painted green spots on the stone paving. After at most ten minutes you cross a mountain stream that flows down to the Church of San Quirico and Giulitta in Urio and you arrive at the gates of the Urio Cemetery.  Facing south and to the right of the cemetery’s entrance are two paths. The one on the level is the continuation of the Via Verde while the other rising steeply to the right is our path going to Monte di Urio. 

Climbing to Monte di Urio

Monte di urio sign

Signposts direct you off the Via Verde to start your ascent to the right of the Urio Cemetery.

The path to Monte di Urio is steep but well maintained passing through woods which provide shelter from sun in summer and views over the lake in winter. You arrive after one hour of hard climbing at the small alpine community of Monte di Urio, 800 metres above sea level. From here there are marvellous views to north and south along the lake. Paths diverge at the small chapel at the heart of the village with the option of taking the direct path to Rifugio Bugone on the left or to carry on to the Colma del Crinco by following the sign for the Rifugio Murelli. 

The route towards Rifugio Murelli is possibly less steep overall than the climb up to Monte di Urio but it is still somewhat challenging in parts. However, after following the path north for about 2 kilometres, you make a decisive turn to the left and will then see that you are not too far from the crest of the mountain. It comes as quite a relief to reach that crest and, leaving the view of the lake behind you, look over towards the twin peaks of Monte Generoso and Switzerland. 

Monte di urio

The alpine village of Monte di Urio is 800 metres above sea level.

You are now on the old military road now called the Via Dei Monti Lariani, a long distance hiking path that starts from Monte Bisbino and continues along the Val D’Intelvi before crossing the valley to continue on to the north end of Lake Como. 

Monte Generosa

Once on the Via dei Monti Lariani your views are over towards Monte Generoso, the Sasso Gordona and the Swiss Alps.

Via Dei Monti Lariani

Colma del Crinco

You join the Via dei Monti Lariani at the Colma del Crinco at 1,160 metres above sea level. Turn right for a 20 minute walk to Rifugio Murelli or left in a slight descent to the Rifugio Bugone.

There is the option on reaching the Colma del Crinco of turning right and continuing for around 20 minutes to reach the Rifugio Murelli. This rifugio was, like Rifugio Bugone, one of the string of barracks built to house the guards deployed to prevent smuggling (somewhat unsuccessfully) across the Swiss border. They were occupied by members of the Guardia di Finanza, many of whom actively helped Jews, partisans, allied soldiers and others escape across the border during the last war.  They now offer walkers with food, drink and accommodation but it is advisable to check if they are open before setting out if hoping to stop for refreshment.  Murelli is usually always open but call  +39 335 843 4493 to be sure. 

The Colma del Crinco is at 1,167 metres above sea level which is the highest point on our walk. If you were to divert to the Rifugio Murelli, you would only climb a further 33 metres but if you turn left rather than right towards Rifugio Bugone, you will descend by 50. The path is well maintained and clearly signposted taking you through woods that offer views over to the Sasso Gordona and Monte Generoso on your right before arriving at the Rifugio Bugone.

Rifugio Bugone

The Rifugio Bugone is open all week during the summer and at weekends through the rest of the year for food and drink. You are however advised to use the contact information to check on opening before setting out on your walk.

The Rifugio is open every day during the summer but only at weekends for the rest of the year. However, it is always best to contact them to check either by emailing stones roberto.rifugiobugone@gmail.com or calling +39 031 0350027.

The views from Bugone point down again over Lake Como. The Rifugio is on a hiking crossroads with the option as you face the lake of taking a sharp left turn down to Monte Liscione before reaching Tosnacco. You could also continue on the Via dei Monti Lariani to Monte Bisbino or take the path between these two options signposted for Monti di Lenno. For our route, we start off by taking this latter option. 

Start of la Culman

Look out for the yellow markers on stone and tree that mark the start of the La Culman trekking path leading left off the path for Monte di Lenno. If conditions are slippery, I advise you continue to descend via Monte di Lenno.

Descent to Moltrasio on La Culman

la Culman 1

The route of La Culman marked out for the annual alpine running challenge starting off in Moltrasio.

As you follow the path signposted for Monte di Lenno, look out after about 150 metres for yellow painted stones that mark the start of the steep descent to Moltrasio on the old smugglers’ path known as La Culman. This path is particularly steep at the start of the descent and is far from being well defined. However the way down through the rocks is clearly marked out with splashes of yellow paint. These markings are designed particularly for the competitors in the annual alpine running competition. This race, openly described as a ‘killer’, takes place in October with runners ascending from Moltrasio up to Bugone through the trees and the rocks following a route used by local smugglers in the past. The yellow markings are designed for those climbing rather than descending so, if you find yourself unable to pick out the next marking, just look back to orientate yourself.

la Culman 2The path gradually becomes more clearly defined as it eventually joins a disused mule path. This in turn leads you down to the southerly end of Tosnacco on Via Colombo from where you can either descend further to Moltrasio or continue north on Via Colombo to go through the labyrinth of Tosnacco’s narrow streets towards the Via Verde.  Follow this to return to your point of departure at Santa Marta in Carate. Another option is to turn right on arriving at Via Colombo to pick up the Sentee di Sort which starts close to this point and continue walking on to Rovenna above Cernobbio.

Santuario Santa Marta

The Sanctuary of Santa Marta in Carate seen from the Via Verde as you return from Moltrasio,

To return to Como you can take your luck finding a C10 bus at the bus stop across from the pharmacy on the main road or increase your options by going down to the imbarcadero on the lakeside. Here you can choose either the bus or the boat to get home.

Returning to Santa Marta

Urio

The Church of Saint Quirico and Giulitta in Urio looking down from the Via Verde. It’s possible to see Como’s Villa Olmo in the far distance just to the right of the bell tower.

The time added to the route for returning you to your point of departure is not included in the summary below. You will however be pleased that the additional two kilometres are not onerous since the Via Verde is mostly on the level. It also takes you through the delightful medieval centre of Tosnacco before continuing on a path paved with Moltrasio stone around the headland to Carate. 

Summary

Rifugi

Distance: 8.6 Kilometres

Time: 4 hours 10 minutes

Climb: 900 metres

Descent: 1000 metres to the lakeside

Difficulty: Good fitness required and sure-footedness. I do not recommend descending on La Culman if the ground is wet.

Rifugi profile

Note the sharp gradient at the start of the descent. An alternative descent is to stay on the hiking path for Monte di Lenno from the Rifugio Bugone. 

Torno Moltrasio

View as you descend the La Culman path of Torno across the lake and Moltrasio in the foreground.

 

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Cleaning Up Como’s Tax Office

Agenzia delle Entrate

The offices of the Agenzia delle Entrate on Viale Cavallotti whose director was arrested in July 2019 following an investigation of corruption at the highest level of the organisation in Como.

Key officials in the Province of Como’s tax office (the Agenzia delle Entrate) have been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for heavily discounting local businessmen’s tax bills. The state has lost out on over €2 million in tax revenue as a result of a system for defrauding the authorities hatched by the actual chief of the tax office in league with one of the most prominent accountants in the city. To this date sixty people have been arrested linked to thirty five individual cases of corruption. These amount to six senior officers of the Agenzia delle Entrate including the previous Director, its Head of the Legal Office and another official from the Milan office. The scale of the scandal, first exposed in July 2019, has uncovered an institutionalised system for obtaining massive discounts on the tax liabilities of businesses or individuals in exchange for illicit cash payments. Such backhanders are known here as ‘tangenti’, made famous in the ‘tangentopoli’ scandal centred on Milan in the 1990s which brought about the fall of Bettino Craxi and Italy’s First Republic. Como’s scandal is a provincial rather than a metropolitan ‘tangentopoli’  and thankfully does not involve politicians. Yet it is similar to the Tangentopoli trials of the 1990s in revealing a murky side to supposedly respectable society. It has cast an unfavourable  light on a particular strata of Como’s provincial society piercing through layers of social pretension to reveal greed and corruption. 

What Is the Agenzia delle Entrate?

Agenzia delle Entrate logoAn office of the Agenzia delle Entrate exists in every Italian province forming part of a national structure of public administration under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance. All residents will have had to apply to it to obtain the all-important ‘codice fiscale’. Property owners will have greater contact since the office determines the level of all property taxes including those incurred through changes of ownership including inheritance. They have overall responsibility for the administration and collection of both local and national taxes including VAT payments. They identify errors in tax returns and call upon the help of the Guardia di Finanza to investigate and prosecute cases of tax evasion. It is therefore more than ironic that Como’s Guardia di Finanza ended up investigating its own Agenzia delle Entrate and arresting the Director, Roberto Leoni, and its Head of Legal Office, Stefano La Verde on charges of corruption. 

Rotten Apples in Como’s Tax Barrel

Casa del Fascio

The headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza in Terragni’s Casa del Fascio. The Guardia di Finanza undertake many of their investigations on behalf of the Agenzia delle Entrate. This time they found themselves ingestigating the agency itself.

The easiest way to establish a system of corruption is to have it initiated and promoted from the very top of the organisation. Roberto Leoni was the Director of the tax office in Como.  He actually moved from Como to take over as boss of the Varese office six months before his arrest in July 2019. However by that time he had established a system of corruption alongside other executives such as Stefano La Verde. No doubt he would have instituted a similar corrupt regime in Varese given enough time. But Leoni and La Verde have now been sentenced to four years imprisonment. The Head of Personnel at the Milan tax office was subsequently arrested for advising Leoni that he was under investigation. 

‘Creative’ Accounting

Antonio and Stefano Pennestri

Stefano and his father Antonio Pennestri. Antonio Pennestri is said to be the author of the system of fraud linking accountants to corrupt executives within the Agenzia delle Entrate.

One way to become one of the leading groups of accountants in Como was by going well beyond legal tax avoidance advice.  For an enhanced fee, the Studio Pennestri could guarantee you the full cooperation of the tax office in accepting  a significantly reduced calculation of your tax liabilities. You could also add to your unique selling point by promising to give your clients forewarning of any likely visits from the Guardia di Finanza to check up on your management of VAT receipts, the validity of your invoices or in pursuit of suspected fiscal fraud of any sort. And what about offering a sizeable reduction in any inheritance tax liabilities or any of the other taxes incurred with the sale or purchase of property? Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano were able to offer all these ‘under the counter’ services thanks to their arrangement with Roberto Leoni who exchanged these favours for envelopes stuffed with bank notes.

Antonio Pennestri

Antonio Pennestri – charismatic but corrupt

Antonio Pennestri was the evil genius behind what has become named the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. It brought many clients to his door aware of the extra-commercial relationship he shared with key players in the Agenzia delle Entrate. Unfortunately, the Guardia di Finanza had become suspicious of these activities. They captured video evidence of the Pennestri handing over cash to Stefano La Verde. Pennestri and son were arrested alongside Leoni in July 2019 with the father now sentenced to over fours years and his son to three years imprisonment.

Antonio Pennestri may well have seen himself and been seen as a respectable member of Como’s elite with his many valuable social and business connections.  But this was not the first scandal he had masterminded. In fact Antonio Pennestri has had a string of convictions including a one and a half year spell in prison back in 2013 for authoring the so-called ‘Sistema Comense’. 

Sistema Comense

Comense

The basketball club Comense was reconstituted in 2015 after Pennestri had stepped down as president. There is no suggestion the club has been involved in the Sistema Comense in recent years.

Antonio Pennestri had always been involved in local sport and was even the President of Comense – Como’s local basketball club which had been at the top of the national Serie A until, under Pennestri’s presidency, it was expelled from the Federazione Italiana Pallacanestro (FIP) and lost its Serie A ranking. Whilst acting as the basketball club’s president, he devised what appeared to be a win-win opportunity for his accountancy clients and for local sports clubs like Comense. The ‘system’ worked like this.  He encouraged his commercial clients to make large sponsorship contributions to Comense, from which they gained legitimate tax relief against profits. In exchange, the sporting club would issue false invoices to their sponsors – invoices which were never intended to be paid. The profits of the clients’ businesses would appear to be reduced when the false invoices were added to the company accounts resulting in a further lowering of their tax bills. His clients paid less tax and the sports clubs got their sponsorship.  

This scam was uncovered in 2012. Comense was expelled from the FIP and Pennestri was handed down a prison sentence that could not be suspended due to a previous conviction. In spite of this sad history, Comense has subsequently bounced back under new presidency.  Once taken back into the Federation, it recovered its reputation and some of its former justifiable sporting prowess. 

freemasons

Pennestri became master of the Como lodge of the freemasons – the Grande Oriente D’Italia.

Antonio Pennestri also bounced back after serving his sentence with his social position not unduly effected by his criminal convictions. He was later appointed the Master of the Como lodge of the freemason organisation, the Grande Oriente D’Italia. This freemason group gained some infamy in the 1990s due to revelations that its P2 lodge managed by Licio Gelli had constructed a shadow state associated with Gladio (an organisation based on the Verga Battalion stationed on Lake Montorfano during the war) ready to spearhead a neo-fascist coup d’etat. There is no evidence that Pennestri had any similar political objectives but he certainly had not given up on his Sistema Comense. In 2019, when the Guardia di Finanza were investigating his newly-minted Sistema Pennestri, they also looked into his attempts to revitalise the Sistema Comense as well as checking on any possible involvement of the freemasons.

Antonio Pennestri is undoubtedly a creative genius and his breathtaking capacity to bounce back socially must be due to a certain charisma tied to boundless energy and self confidence. It’s just a pity he chose to apply these qualities into devising illegal activities . 

Three Waves of Arrest

tangenti

Caught red-handed by a hidden camera set up by the Guardia di Finanza – Stefano La Verde seen receiving a €2000 cash payment from the Pennestri in his office at the Agenzia delle Entrate

The original arrests back in July 2019 were limited to Roberto Leoni, the then Director of the Agenzia delle Entrate, Stefano La Verde the Agency’s Legal Director and the two accountants – Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano. These were not people comfortable in spending much time in Bassone, Como’s prison. Their plea bargaining for reduced sentencing soon allowed the authorities to extend their investigations leading to a second round of arrests in May 2020. These included Roberto Colombo, the head of all property-related taxation at the Agency. He admitted he had received his first ‘tangenti’, or illicit cash payment, way back in 2012.

Bassone

Time spent on remand in Como’s Bassone prison encouraged those arrested to cooperate with the investigators on the basis of plea bargaining. This led to a total of three waves of arrests.

This second wave also netted Roberto Santaniello who had become a form of ‘illicit’ business development manager procuring corruptible accountants and linking them to the appropriate officials in the agency. 

The number of those officials was added to in the third wave of arrests in November 2020 with the names of Vincenzo Ferraro, the Agency’s expert on property inheritance tax, and Patrik Orlando, an expert on the taxation of off-shore funds. 

Como from Brunate

Como’s old town seen from the funicular to Brunate.

The first wave of arrests had cut off the original source of demand with the incarceration of the Pennestris. But this did not stop his studio from continuing the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. Its management was now entrusted within the studio to Simona Secchi who had been instructed to reassure clients that the system would continue to operate in spite of the arrests. 

Revelations made by Stefano La Verde in particular also led to the arrest of many more accountants and financial professionals unconnected to the Pennestris. These accountants  had been recruited into the scandal by Roberto Santaniello. La Verde’s role was to determine the cost to these clients for whichever illicit service they required. For example La Verde determined that one accountant pay €3000 for the voluntary disclosure of off-shore funds to Patrik Orlando while a similar client was asked to pay €2,000. 

The full extent of the spread of this system of corruption was revealed in this last wave of arrests. By now the total number of those charged with corruption amounted to a further fifty two people beyond the eight originally detained in July 2019. 

La Verde was the contact inside the Agenzia delle Entrate who calculated the fees for each favour. His testimony revealed how the Sistema Pennestri had developed from a few high value cases originating from a single Como-based accountancy firm into an institutionalised practice of corrupt negotiation with accountants from around the province. It appears as if the ‘business development’ strategy implemented by Roberto Santaniello had been to go for quantity as much as quality with the word going out to financial professionals across the province that tax bills could be negotiated for a fee. 

The rate of payment determined by La Verde depended on the number of cases brought by each accountant and their relative worth. Some accountants only sought one or two cases for which they might typically have to pay a tangenti of two to five thousand euro.  Massimo Mariangeloni, an accountant from Cernobbio, was atypical in having to pay €34,000 for five higher value cases. He received the judgement of a two year suspended prison sentence typically handed out to most of the second or third wave accountants. However he also had to pay a €29,500 fine. 

Conclusion

As far as we know there was no involvement of organised crime in the Como tangentopoli scandal. But it is not hard to see parallels between it and the ‘Nuovo Mondo’ mafia investigation we reported on recently. Both crimes were based on a ‘system’ devised by corrupt accountants. For Nuovo Mondo, the evil genius was Massimiliano Ficarra, a known mafioso. For the Agenzia delle Entrate, the author was the seemingly respectable Antonio Pennestri. Pennestri’s studio was just around the corner from that of Bruno de Benedetto, Ficarro’s trusted financial professional also convicted in the Nuovo Mondo investigation. Pennestri and De Benedetto subsequently became neighbours incarcerated together in the local prison at Bassone. Both systems defrauded the state. Both systems offered unfair competitive advantages to their participants. Both seem to be born out of and sustained by a similar culture of greed and entitlement. Given all this, it does become easier to appreciate how the mafia continue to find it relatively easy to insinuate themselves within sections of the provincial commercial community.  With such temptations to criminality emanating from the state’s own fiscal entity, one has to admire the majority of individuals who continue to prefer honesty and integrity no matter at what cost to them individually or to their businesses. The other saving grace arising from this story is the apparent incorruptibility of the Guardia di Finanza – long may it last!

Casa del Fascio 1

The Casa del Fascio may hopefully become a museum dedicated to Rationalist Architecture but in the meantime it is the headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza who have proved to be excellent custodians of this architectural gem.

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Lake Como’s Bears, Wolves … and Werewolves

alps

Looking out from Brunate above Como to Monte Rosa and the high Alps on the Piedmont border with Switzerland – a rapid transition from urbanisation to remote isolation.

The lakeside cities of Como and Lecco are on the northern boundaries of Milan’s conurbation, with only the Alps constraining further spread.  In contrast, if you travel just a few kilometres from the shores of the lake, you find yourself in some of the most remote and mountainous areas of Europe –  an area favoured by wild animals including wolves and bears. 

wolf

The image of a wolf caught in 2015 by a remote camera placed in the Valle Albano.

Wolves and bears have been making a return to the Alps since the turn of the century after an absence of 100 years. Our area of the Alps is perhaps one of the last to see their return. Wolves were always present in the Apennines but they have recently been spreading up through Liguria and into Piedmont before moving east. Bears instead first re-established themselves in Trentino and the Alto Adige before spreading west. This can explain why recent sightings of wolves have been on the west side of the lake while bear sightings have been, up to now, restricted to the Lecco leg of the lake above its eastern shores.

Bear and wolf pic 2

Wolves

wolf2The first sighting of wolves was made in 2012 when two adults were seen in the Parco Ticino to the west of Malpensa airport.  In 2015 a pack of five wolves was identified living in the Valle Albano close to Garzeno which is an area 10 kilometres south west from Gravedona at the top end of the lake’s western shores. It is fascinating to note that such a wild animal could have become established so close to one of the most popular areas for visitors on the lake. Since 2015, this pack may well have multiplied by up to four times.

Parco Valle Albano

The Valle Albano is known to host large numbers of deer and other wild animals providing ample prey for wolves.

It is estimated that there may well be between one thousand to one thousand five hundred wolves living nowadays in the Apennines while there are still only a few hundred in the Italian Alps. Numbers and details of wolves in all Alpine countries are recorded by Life Wolfalps EU, an organisation committed to ‘coordinated actions to improve wolf-human coexistence‘.  The return of wolves to the Alps has not been without problems given that they had previously been hunted to extinction by farmers seeking to protect their herds of sheep and goats grazing on the Alpine pastures.

deer at Garzeno

Wolves grab their prey by their throat and use the pressure of their jaws to complete the kill quickly and efficiently.

A wolf’s diet is almost exclusively carnivorous consuming from three to six kilos of meat per day. This amounts to an average of twenty deer in a year. The Valle Albano is particularly rich in wild deer and is within a territory that provides the wolves access to over 200 square kilometres in which to hunt their prey, extending over the Swiss border.  Their other favoured prey are wild boar who, prior to the return of the wolves, met with no natural predators. Wild boar numbers have increased exponentially in recent years and so the return of the wolves does something to restore the ecological balance.

cavargna goats

Goat herders are at the forefront of the conflict between farmers and wolves with the fear of losing members of their herds as they graze on the high alpine pastures.

However, for those farmers managing their flocks of sheep and goats on the high alpine pastures, the return of the wolves is more problematic. Firstly wolves have a fearful reputation and stories abound of wolves attacking babies and children. This may have been more likely in the past when children and babies would accompany their parents to live and work in the high alpine pastures. Wolves will always out of preference hunt the weak or the slow but there are no recent reports of any attacks on humans.  Secondly there is the fear that in the cold winter months, the wolves might descend from the mountains in search of food as do the wild boar. Again there are no proven reports yet of domestic animals being attacked in the Valle Albano. This may be down to the still plentiful supply of wild deer and also to the suggestion that it is only lone wolves who attack domestic animals. The same is not the case in the Val Cavargna.

cavargna1

The Val Cavargna

The Val Cavargna lies around ten kilometres due north of Porlezza, a town on the eastern end of Lake Lugano. In August 2017 reports came in of thirty goats killed by wolves. In August 2020 there was a further report of ten goats killed out of a flock of sixty left to pasture on the Alpe Stabiello at 1,702 metres above sea level. The wolves were apparently able to separate out this group of ten from the main flock and drive them into the woods where they were killed. This follows on from a further twenty goats killed earlier in the year. The same pack of wolves may also have been responsible for another twenty attacks on ten alpine farms across the nearby Swiss border. It is relatively easy to identify a wolf attack since they usually apply the same method to kill their prey by locking their jaws around the throat of their victims applying up to 100 kilograms per square centimetre of pressure to strangle and sever the carotid artery.

wolf demo

Ecologists welcome the return of wolves to the Alps but some local farmers are less enthusiastic as in the case of these demonstrators in Ossola above Lake Maggiore .

There is a complex psychological relationship between man and wolf as revealed in fables like Red Riding Hood with its contrast between animal cunning and childhood innocence. Stories of the big bad wolf abound as is the case of a particularly large and savage wolf that was said to live in a lair guarding the route between Brunate and Torno. The Sasso del Lupo (the wolf’s stone) is a large granite boulder brought down from the Valtellina by glaciation and left, as the ice retreated, to almost block the route of the ancient Strada Regia to the south of Monte Piatto. The local myth goes that the wolf used this massive granite ‘erratico’ as its lair from which it would jump out at any passing children who had been particularly disobedient or badly behaved – a terrifying prospect if you had to make regular use of this mountain path. 

Sasso del lupo

The Sasso del Lupo is on the section of the Strada Regia between Brunate and Monte Piatto. It is a granite boulder brought down by glacier from the Val Masino in the Valtellina, 20 metres long by 10 wide and 8 high.

Bears

bear

The Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) is making a successful return to the Alps, particularly in the Trentino area which is where those bears seen around Lake Como originate from.

Bear sightings are restricted to the eastern side of the lake in locations that run alongside the Viandante, the 45 kilometre long hiking trail that starts to the the north of Lecco and extends north to Colico. In May 2012 evidence of bears were seen in Somana, an area to the east of Mandello del Lario, where a deer and two sheep had been killed with  a further two injured.  Bear tracks had been found nearby. At the same time two bears were seen in the area above Colico. In April 2013 the same bear seen close to Mandello was again seen in the Valsassina and identified as a four year old known by trackers as M7 and known to have originated from a pack living in Trentino. It was seen raiding a bee hive and eating bees and honey. The apiarist was compensated for his loss and farmers in the area advised to bring all their animals in overnight. Bear sightings were recorded in the same area in 2015 and again in 2017. This bear hotspot is above Dervio between the hamlets of Premana and Primaluna. 

valsassina

The Valsassina running east from Dervio on Lake Como is the area with most bear sightings.

Bears may well present a frightening spectacle when rearing up on their hind legs but there have been no cases of these brown bears inflicting injuries on humans in over 150 years. A bear on its hind legs is only trying to get a better view of what might be threatening it and, once it has identified the threat, will almost invariably retreat. Bears are a protected species like wolves and their numbers and welfare are monitored by an organisation called Life Arctos

…and Werewolves?

werewolf in Milan

A Werewolf in Milan

The myth of the man wolf or werewolf is almost universal.  Film and fiction have acquainted us with its features with the apparent influence of the full moon causing this shapeshifting phenomenon. The recent discovery on January 29th of naked large footprints crossing the snow-covered roofs of up to six houses in the remote village of Buggiolo was reported in La Provincia (the local paper) as being possibly made by a ‘lupo mannaro’  (werewolf).  Strange noises in the starlit night of a full moon with evidence in the morning of these footprints and of pieces of wood thrown down from the rooftops led one local resident, Piermario Cremella, to comment as follows:

‘I was told of the episode by some of my neighbours so I went to take a look expecting to find a logical cause but when I climbed up to the edge of my roof I had to reconsider. I saw these footprints in the snow crossing the roof. They were not made by shoes and on the balcony below, also covered in snow, there were these pieces of wood thrown down from above. I can’t think of a logical explanation and amongst us we began to think the unthinkable.’

Buggiolo, with its tiny population of 160,  is in the Val Rezzo, the valley that runs parallel to the Val Cavargna where so many actual wolves have been recorded.

Clearly the remoteness and isolation of our nearby alpine communities does not just favour the return of iconic wild animals like wolves and bears but also the residual belief in some of our ancient myths and fables. 

Posted in Folklore, Places of interest, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino

The Sanctuary on the summit of Monte Bisbino, one of the routes favoured by refugees seeking to cross the border into Switzerland.

To honour Holocaust Memorial Day I would like this year to recount the experience of Anna Sacerdoti, born 1925, who successfully managed to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps by escaping over the border from Cernobbio with her family.

Smuggling’s game of cat and mouse between ‘contrabandisti’ and border guards formed a key part of our local economy up until the 1970’s. However, during the war both these players would often cooperate in helping enemies of the fascist state escape over the border to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps. Anna Sacerdoti, a young girl from a Jewish family,  made that escape with her family in 1943. Her account of her experience provides insight into how life changed from 1938 with the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws until 1943 when Mussolini’s Repubblica di Salò defined all Jews as ‘enemies of the state’ at the Congress of Verona.  

The Rifugio Bugone above Moltrasio was one of the chain of barracks for border guards set up to deter smuggling. Many guards helped refugees cross the border using their knowledge of the mountain to outsmart the Nazi soldiers or the fascist Brigate Nere. Mussolini eventually barred the border guards from operating on the mountains due to their untrustworthiness.

Anna Sacerdoti was born into a family with one elder brother, a mother who kept house and a father with a textiles shop and tailor’s studio in the Porta Venezia area of Milan.  She and her family survived the war to later become a politician, a renowned astronomer and the joint owner with her husband of Como’s largest independent bookshop in Via Mentana. She recounted her wartime experiences in an interview recorded by Como’s Istituto di Storia Contemporanea (ISC) and available in Italian online. The details in this article are taken from that interview with the ISC.

Background

Headline announcing the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws of 1938.

Throughout the 1930s Jewish families from Germany had emigrated to Italy in the belief that they would be safer here. The fascist government had showed its capacity for racism in its deplorable conduct of the war in Ethiopia but there had been no recent history of anti-semitism. However, possibly under pressure from Hitler or as part of the evolution of his own racist thinking, Mussolini changed this when he published the ‘Leggi Razziali’ in 1938.  This convergence of Italian fascism with German Nazism came to be codified in the ‘Patto D’Acciaio’ (Pact of Steel) Treaty of 1939, sealing the fate of the Italian economy and the sacrifice of up to 70,000 of its own citizens to murder in Nazi death camps. 

The main clauses in the Racial Laws were the following:

  • Jews could not marry ‘aryian’ Italians.
  • Jews were forbidden from employing ‘aryians’ as domestic workers.
  • No Jews could be employed in public administration, banks or any company offering public services.
  • Foreign Jews could no longer enter the country.
  • All foreign Jews had their Italian citizenship revoked if granted at any time after 1919.
  • No Jew could be employed as a lawyer or journalist.
  • No Jewish children could attend state schools unless they converted to Catholicism.
  • No books published by Jews could be used in state schools.
  • Special schools for Jewish pupils were created in which only Jewish teachers could work. Jewish teachers were banned from working in state schools.

The fascist regime fell in 1943 with the signing of an armistice with the allies on September 8th. The racial laws were revoked. All political prisoners. allied prisoners of war and Jews then in detention were freed. However, the period of freedom was short lived since it was quickly followed by the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy.  

On the Nazi’s reinstatement of Mussolini in 1943, the so-called Republic of Salò passed  Article 7 of the Congress of Verona. This article defined all Jews living in Italy as ‘enemies of the state’ and it applied equally to all residents whether they be foreign refugees or those with Italian citizenship. Enemies of the state – which also included political opponents and ex-soldiers or others avoiding military service –  risked arrest, onward deportation and death in Nazi extermination camps. Most Jews from Italy were transferred to Auschwitz where 7,680 died leaving only 1,000 able to return home. 10,000 political prisoners and between 40 to 50 thousand ex-soldiers suffered a similar fate.

The Sacerdoti Family

The district of Casnedo within Cernobbio where the Sacerdoti family moved to avoid the allied bombardment of Milan and to be close to the Swiss border if they needed to make a quick escape.

Prior to 1938, Anna’s family were living in Milan. Her father, Renato – an avowed antifascist who kept his home free of any fascist influence – ran a textiles shop importing mainly English cloth  and a tailoring studio in the Porto Venezia area. It was not a religious family and so they did not insist that Anna or her brother were not to attend the daily prayers at the start of the school day. Anna recounts how they stood up with all the other children ‘out of respect’ but didn’t have to participate. She was not aware at that time of any anti-Semitism.

Her father though had sensed the way fascism was going and the increasing likelihood of war. He took the family on the long summer holiday to Cernobbio where he also  cultivated friendships with the local smugglers and the border guards. 

Schooling

Mussolini and fascist leaders at a young person’s rally in Milan’s Arena

The start of the school year in October 1938  was heralded by Mussolini’s customary attendance of a grand gymnastic display by school children in Milan’s Arena. Anna was a skilled gymnast and was taking part in rehearsals when her teacher tearfully had to inform her and two other companions that they could no longer  take part. Anna, at twelve years old, began at this point to understand the impact of fascism. 

During that summer in Cernobbio she had been taking extra lessons in German from a Jewish Russian refugee. She needed German as a condition of entry into the Scientific Lyceum – her preferred choice for secondary schooling. But the racial laws meant she was denied access to that or any other Italian school. She and her brother enrolled into the British Institute, unimpacted by the racial laws since it was linked to the British Embassy, but they did not get on with instruction in English. From then on Anna received no formal education until she went back to complete matriculation after the war, sitting as an adult in the 5th year class in the Liceo Scientifico ‘Paolo Giovio’ in Como.

Move to Cernobbio

Anna’s father’s textile shop and studio had been seized from him and he was forced into earning money from a variety of informal jobs. In any case, with the increasing overt racism of the state and the start of the allied bombardment of Milan in 1939, he decided to move the family to safer ground. In 1940 they made a permanent move to the district of Casnedo in Cernobbio, where Renato had already established good relationships. Como and Cernobbio were spared allied bombardment and they were in easy reach of the Swiss border if ever there came the need to make a hasty escape. 

Sign in a shopfront in Milan ‘discouraging’ Jewish customers.

A still taken from Roberto Benigni’s film ‘La Vita e Bella’ in which he parodied these exclusion notices with the fantasy that on certain days it was the turn of Visigoths and spiders to be denied entry.

The next blow to the family came when they were forced to sack their household help of many years – a girl originally from Friuli called Maria. Both Maria, Anna and the rest of the family were devastated by this. Anna had grown up with Maria and thought of her as a second mother. Maria had become part of their household and it was difficult for Renato to find another family who would employ her on similar terms and conditions. For Anna, it was just another example of how everyone, not just Jews, suffered as a result of the Racial Laws.

Armistice Day, September 8th 1943

The fall of the fascist government with the arrest and imprisonment of Mussolini brought widespread relief and the freeing of all allied soldiers from prison camps. Most of these allied soldiers then did their best to reach home with many coming up to cross over the border into Switzerland.  In the meantime, those Italian soldiers in Italy were quick to divest themselves of their uniforms and return to civilian life. Anna’s father helped some of the border guards posted on Monte Bisbino by giving them civilian clothes in exchange for their military uniforms. His fine instinct for survival had calculated that these uniforms might prove useful in the future.

The initial euphoria following the fall of fascism was soon cut short when the Nazis occupied the central and northern part of the country. They made a daring raid to snatch Mussolini from captivity and then reinstated him as leader of a puppet state nicknamed the Republic of Salò. The Republic of Salò lost no time in carrying out the nazifascist policy of mass extermination. 1943 saw the first train loads of Jews leave Milan’s Central Station destined for Auschwitz. The Shoah had reached Italy. 

From December 1943 to January 1945, 23 trains left Platform 21 of Milan’s Central Station containing mainly Jews but also partisans and political dissidents with Auschitz as their direct destination. The platform is now a memorial to the Holocaust.

Crossing over to Switzerland

Switzerland’s policy towards refugees during the war was complex with access being allowed and then denied whenever the individual cantons felt they lacked the resources to manage the numbers. Most refugees were interned and none were allowed to work. Initially the one group allowed access were soldiers. Following the Nazi occupation, there were many ex-soldiers who resisted being conscripted into the Republic of Salo’s army. Some of them formed the first bands of partisan antifascists. Others sought refuge in Switzerland. At that time the Swiss Canton of Ticino was only allowing ex-military to cross over the border with Italy. Anna’s father used the uniforms he had exchanged with the Border Guards to help Anna’s brother and his companions to pose as military and so pass safely over the border at Chiasso.

Renato then had to get the rest of his family to safety ever aware of the roundups of Jews by the German army and their Italian allies, the fascist Brigate Nere. Many of the local people were doing their best to safeguard their Jewish neighbours as we have recounted in previous articles and Renato was able to call upon the help of the smugglers he had befriended in Cernobbio. 

The Sacerdoti family then made their first attempt to cross the border on Monte Bisbino with the help of the smugglers who led their party to where they had cut a hole in the border fencing. The family crossed over safely but, as they descended towards Breggia, they were intercepted by Swiss border guards who refused them further entry and forced them to return into Italy. If they had returned via the official border they would all have been immediately detained and face immediate detention and eventual deportation. However they were allowed to return to the very gap in the border fence through which they had entered and so return home.

Their second attempt was made on December 19th 1943 once Renato had made a deal with the Italian border guards manning a pedestrian crossing into Switzerland at Rongiana on a footpath from Piazza Santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio next to the family’s home in Casnedo. The guards, part of the Guardia di Finanza, had agreed to open the gates to the family in exchange for their bicycles. This time they were not turned back by the Swiss who however did separate the family, as was their custom with refugees, by interning Anna and her mother in the local cinema and her father within the sports ground. 

The view over Switzerland from Monte Bisbino. The ridge in the foreground marks the border.

The Family Whistle

Anna’s mother soon understood that the Swiss were only going to allow those refugees who had crossed over more than twenty four hours previously to stay on. The more recent arrivals, namely Anna and her family, would be sent back into Italy. She decided that they would tell the Swiss authorities they had in fact crossed earlier from Monte Bisbino but had spent the night on the mountain since it was dark. The story would hold up only if they could get a message to Anna’s father for him to corroborate it. Anna’s mother persuaded a sympathetic guard to convey her message to the sports ground where her father was being held. The problem was how would this guard be able to identify Signor Sacerdoti from the hundreds of other detainees being held there. 

Through these years of anxiety, the family had devised a means of identifying themselves to each other as for example whenever approaching the house in Casnedo. This was by whistling a specific tune known to all of them. Anna’s mother taught the Swiss guard the tune and he duly walked around the sports ground whistling this Sacerdoti tune. On hearing it, Renato approached the guard and was passed the all-important message which ensured the family would be briefly reunited and transported together to another camp in Bellinzona.

Return to Italy

Photo by Christian Schiefer taken at Ponte Chiasso showing disarmed German soldiers waiting to cross the border into Switzerland, April 1945.

Those refugees who had successfully gained permission to stay in Switzerland were interned in separate camps for men and women during the remainder of the war. This did not stop Anna joining the Communist Party which was as clandestine in Switzerland as it was in Italy. She spent most of her time in internment except for one period when she was allowed to work as a housemaid for a wealthy Swiis-Italian family who unfortunately would lock her in her room every weekend when they left for their second home. Anna decided that internment was preferable and waited her time until she got news of the allied advance beyond the Po and the liberation of Bologna.  She made her way to Chiasso and arrived there on the 23rd April 1945 when the roads were full of German soldiers retreating from Italy. Mussolini was about to embark on his last flight out of Italy within a column of German troops making its way up the western shores of Lake Como.  

Christian Schiefer took a number of photos during the last days of the war including those of Mussolini and Clara Petacci’s corpses displayed in Piazzale Loreto, Milan. Here we see German soldiers having crossed over into Switzerland at the Chiasso border post.

This time she was initially refused entry into Italy by the authorities who had closed the borders fearing the clandestine return of  fascists seeking to disguise themselves within the flocks of returning refugees. However a border guard heard her give her name as Sacerdoti, and, thinking that she was the daughter of a family he knew, he allowed her to pass.

The army barracks – Caserma De Cristoforis – in Como. Citizens had rushed to the barracks in September 1943 to arm themselves after the initial fall of fascism. Anna went immediately to these barracks on her return to Como in 1945 to enlist in the Committee of National Liberation whose task was to guide the region in those first days of peace.

Como was in a complete state of chaos in those days leading up to the capture and execution of Mussolini. There were still some German soldiers and plenty of fascists in the area. Anna went immediately to the Caserma De Cristoforis and through her party membership she registered as a member of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) – the organisation that had coordinated resistance and, following liberation, provided the immediate civil order and administration. Her and Italy’s war was over and she and her family had survived through a fortunate combination of far-sightedness, ingenuity, help and good fortune. 

Aftermath

Anna formed an astronomical society which has an observatory on Monte Calbiga above Lenno.

On returning to Como, Anna continued her career in local politics maintaining her commitment to socialism, antifascism and the promotion of peace and culture. She established a number of cultural associations including the astronomical society, the Gruppo Astrofili Lariani with their observatory on Monte Calbiga. In 1962, alongside her husband she opened the most important independent bookshop in Como, the Libreria Mentana, which she ran until 1987. On retiring from the bookshop Anna decided to complete the secondary education that had been so brutally denied her under Mussolini’s Racial Laws back in 1938. She sat alongside those much younger than her to complete her matriculation at the Liceo Scientifico Paolo Giovio in Como.  She was then able to enrol in the University Science Faculty to further her interest in astronomy.

The interior of the Libreria Mentana set up by Anna in 1962 and managed by her until her retirement in 1987. The shop eventually closed in 2019.

Her long and fulfilling life came to an end in August 2015. Just this one single example of her achievements in peacetime, made possible by that escape over the border in Cernobbio, goes to illustrate how much human potential was sacrificed in the criminal slaughter of the millions of victims of the Shoah. 

Further Reading

Our article Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust describes how the Border Guards (Guardia di Finanza) based in Moltrasio helped refugees to escape across the border to safety in Switzerland.  

Our article  Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes how local priests also helped refugees. 

The world of the smugglers around Como is described in Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?  Even the fascist puppet state took to smuggling in an attempt to gain some financial independence form the Nazi masters. This is described in Como’s Lake Montorfano: Commandos, Contraband and the CIA.

 

Other articles commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day are:

Como Remembers the Holocaust

Testimonies and Remembrance: Como Recalls the Shoah

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Shadow of the Mafia over Como

Lario Connection

The logo of the Progetto San Francesco, part of the Centro Studi Sociali Contro Le Mafie, uses the metaphor of an octopus appropriately to suggest the many ways in which the mafia insinuate themselves within the fabric of society. The gun is less relevant for the new variant of financial crime infecting our area, but it still sits within their armoury.

Organised crime is like a virus whose bacteria spread across society breaking out from time to time in various hotspots, mutating along the way to evade the best efforts of law enforcers. The mafia have learnt to avoid attracting attention through their past acts of violence and intimidation. Instead their disease is more likely to attract attention these days once hotspots become self-evident or new variants are uncovered. Such is the case here in Como following the declared bankruptcy and closure of one of the most popular local restaurants – Pane e Tulipani, in the heart of the old city in Via Lambertenghi.  Links soon appeared between this bankruptcy and the arrest of 34 people in the Province of Como and Calabria in an anti-mafia investigation codenamed ‘Nuovo Mondo’. 

Pane e Tulipani

The now vacant site of ‘Pane e Tulipani’, formally one of the most popular and fashionable of Como’s restaurants in the old town.

Although the quality of the food and service had deteriorated of late at Pane e Tulipani, it still came as a surprise when the restaurant declared itself bankrupt on the 18th October 2018. Suspicions that all was not as it should be were confirmed four days later when the Guardia di Finanza intercepted a couple of Tunisians in a car close to the restaurant without a permit to enter the old city. In full view on the passenger seat of their car was a box containing financial documents belonging to the restaurant.  The Tunisians had been instructed by the restaurant’s accountant, Alberto Caremi,  to pick up and destroy incriminating financial documents relevant to the restaurant’s bankruptcy. What these documents and subsequent  illegal attempts to sell off company assets revealed was a clear case of fraudulent bankruptcy.  Company partners and accountants for Pane e Tulipani were immediately arrested. 

Guardia di Finanza

The Guardia di Finanza (financial police) led the inquiries into the bankruptcy of Pane e Tulipani and the other companies registered in the Province of Como and the Calabrian city of Gioia Tauro which were deliberately forced into bankruptcy.

Pane e Tulipani – The Scam

Subsequent investigations revealed an elaborate scam to cheat the tax authorities and make money out of a fraudulent bankruptcy. The scam worked by creating two companies linked to each other with one, Pane e Tulipani itself, responsible for running the restaurant and for all associated costs, and the other, Napo Srl, which took out a mortgage to purchase the restaurant’s premises. Although both companies were owned by exactly the same partners, Napo set out to bleed Pane e Tulipani dry by charging it €13,000 a month for rent.  This left the restaurant unable to pay its tax bills leading eventually, inevitably and deliberately to bankruptcy. The partners then hoped to conclude the scam by selling the property in 2019 thus paying off the mortgage, freeing them of the guarantees provided to cover that mortgage and leaving them with a good profit from the sale unhindered, due to bankruptcy, of having to pay the creditors of the restaurant including the tax authorities. 

ACSM AGAM

Acsm Agam is a utilities company part owned by the Comunes of Como, Varese, Sondrio and Monza

The mastermind and chief architect of this scam was Paolo Lanzara, a 51 year old accountant from Como who also happened to be on the board of the utilities company Acsm Agam, representing the interests of the Comune di Como as part owners who had sponsored that appointment. (His association with Acsm Agam resulted in further embarrassment to the current mayor of Como, Mario Landriscina, when it was revealed that Lanzara had failed to mention his previous arrest in 2018 when the mayor first sponsored his appointment.) 

Also involved in the scam was another Como financial professional, Bruno De Benedetto – a person behind a host of businesses in and around Como either as a partner, financial advisor or the real power behind a series of figurehead directors. De Benedetto had been working with Lanzara in attempting illegally to sell off the bankrupt company’s assets and also to purchase the physical premises of the restaurant. 

Bruno De Benedetto – Villain and Victim?

Bruno De Benedetto is no saint. He was the ‘trusted’ financial advisor to Massimiliano Ficarra, an accountant with residence in Gioia Tauro in Calabria but domiciled in Lomazzo in the Province of Como. Ficarra is a mafioso – a member of the Cosca Piromalli, one of the largest of Calabria’s ‘ndrangheta clans operating not just there but in Lombardy and other European cities. Ficarra is at the heart of the Nuovo Mondo investigation and is now facing a 12 year prison sentence. 

Villa Olmo Restaurant

The restaurant on the lakefront in Villa Olmo’s gardens, owned by the Comune di Como who grant license for its management following public auction.

De Benedetto’s personal stake in restaurants in and around Como is extensive and tumultuous. In addition to the illegalities associated with the failure of ‘Pane e Tulipani’ he is also accused of falsely applying to manage the Lido in Villa Olmo with its bar and the adjoining restaurant. His company, Villa Olmo Lago,  had previously run the restaurant attached to the lido for the previous ten years but in 2019 it was forced into bankruptcy left owing €500,000 in unpaid taxes.

Villa Olmo Lido and Bar

The bar and lido in the gardens of Villa Olmo now managed by a company granted license by the owners, the Comune di Como following public auction. The current managers are not associated with Bruno De Benedetto or implicated in any way in the Nuovo Mondo investigation.

The Comune di Como own a number of businesses around the city which they license others to manage in response to public competition. In recent years it would appear that many of these license competitions have not run smoothly, for example the lido in Viale Geno has remained closed now for two years since all applicants so far have failed to meet the competition’s criteria. When the Comune published the competition for licenses to run the Lido in Villa Olmo and the adjoining  restaurant, De Benedetto applied either directly or through frontmen. However, as a result of the Nuovo Mondo investigation and the previous bankruptcy of  De Benedetto’s Villa Olmo Lago – his company that had previously managed the restaurant for 10 years –  it became clear that De Benedetto’s new application to manage both restaurant and lido was illegal. It is an offence to participate in a  competition for public contracts if you lack the relevant means, skill or experience – a measure no doubt put into law to avoid cronyism. De Benedetto was held in Como’s prison, Bassone, on these additional charges of ‘turbativa d’asta’ in addition to the charges relating to the forced bankruptcy of ‘Pane e Tulipani’.

Lido Viale Geno

Recent competitions for licenses to manage some of the Comune di Como’s properties have been fraught with difficulties and delays with the lido on Viale Geno remaining closed for the last two tourist seasons resulting in loss of revenue to the Comune and loss of facilities to residents and visitors alike.

De Benedetto’s companies do not like paying taxes. Even his boutique hotel ‘The Avenue’ in Piazzolo Terragni was accused at the start of the year of not handing over €40,000 due to the Comune and representing the city tax levied on all hotel guests. This represents a non payment over a four year period which it appears the Comune themselves never took active steps to recover. That lack of concern and other possible irregularities are now being looked at more closely prior to the case coming to court later this Spring.

Avenue Hotel

The Avenue Hotel in Piazzolo Terragni, accused of allegedly not handing over the city tax charged on all overnight guests.

Usury

Faced with the ever increasing number of charges against him with the revelations of his connections to organised crime, De Benedetto has decided to present himself as a victim. He has denounced three local financial professionals with usury claiming he borrowed a total of €1 million to cover his debts to tax authorities for which he had to pay back €1.6 million. The annual rate of interest on these loans ranged from 80 to 600%, far exceeding the legal limit of 21% beyond which a loan is deemed as usurious. Two of the accused – Gabro Panfili, 74 years old and resident in a lakeside villa in Laglio and Paolo Barrasso, 59 years old and resident in Como –  have previous convictions for usury and so have been imprisoned awaiting trial. The third, Giovanni Gregorio, 82 years old and resident in Bellagio, is under house arrest. De Benedetto is also claiming that Gregorio issued his loans under the condition that De Benedetto put a Nigerian woman on the books of those employed at the Avenue Hotel, so that she would then be able to obtain a residency permit. Her wages of around €54,000 a year would then be paid directly to Gregorio. We do not know if the woman was asked to pay Gregorio for this favour. 

Organised Crime

Gioia Tauro

The mafia activities in the Province of Como revealed in the Nuovo Mondo investigation are linked to companies and people from Gioia Tauro in Calabria, the site of Italy’s largest container port. This is also the base of the Piromalli ‘ndrangheta clan.

We now move our focus away from Como  further south to the comunes of Lomazzo, Fino Mornasco, Cermenate and Cantù where links between local businesses and the ‘ndrangheta have been known to exist for some time. They have been charged for drug trafficking and the corruption of local officials in order to obtain favourable contracts – as well as the gradual infiltration into some specific industrial sectors such as building and waste management.  The extent of their influence can be gauged by the daytime execution in 2008 of Franco Mancuso in a bar in Cadorago in front of witnesses who remained silent. Mancuso had publicly ‘dissed’ Bartolomeo Iaconis of Fino Mornasco – the local ‘ndrangheta boss attached to the Piromalli family. That killing was intended to underline the message that the area around Lomazzo was mafia territory.

Antimafia Demonstration

Young people express their revulsion of organised crime at an antimafia demonstration in Como

The ‘ndrangheta have always favoured establishing themselves in the smaller towns around the Milanese hinterland where it is relatively easier to corrupt local public administrations, as in the case of Lomazzo. Here Marino Carugati, 77 years old, was mayor in 1987 and was subsequently linked to the ‘ndrangheta. Carugati’s colourful past includes having to call upon the help of national politicians in 2008 to get him out of solitary confinement in Eritrea where he had been imprisoned under the accusation  of supplying faulty wood working machinery to his Eritrean partner. More recently in October 2019 he and 33 others in and around Lomazzo and in Calabria were arrested as a result of the lengthy ‘Nuovo Mondo’ investigation.

Nuovo Mondo – the ‘New World’

Nuovo MondoWhy a new world – because, thanks to the two major architects of a new scam operating since 2010, the mafia had developed a novel form of white collar financial crime which allowed them to stay back in the shadows. No guns or intimidation were needed, just wily accountants and an army of dupes prepared to act as figureheads for bogus companies. The major, but not the only victim of this crime, was the state due to lost tax revenue. The major beneficiary was the ‘ndrangheta who could use the false companies to launder money from their other illicit activities and redirect their untaxed profits into further infiltration and corruption of local business and public administration. 

The two architects of the scheme were Massimiliano Ficarra, an accountant resident in Gioia Tauro in Calabria and Lomazzo and a banker from Milan, Cesare Pravisano also resident in Lomazzo. Their scheme was similar to that of Pane e Tulipani in that it played on the relationship between two separate legal entities, namely a cooperative of industrial workers and a consortium.  As with Pane e Tulipani, the scam works by pairing an ‘active’ company with a ‘passive’ one in which the active entity undertakes the physical activity and incurs all related costs. It is then deliberately set on a course to bankruptcy. Meanwhile the ‘passive’ partner  retains a semblance of legality while profiting from extracting all value from its ‘active’ member to which it appears to be entirely independent. The relationships are complex but this is how I have best been able to understand how it worked. The consortium, on gaining a public or private contract, would sub-contract the work to the cooperative. 

  1. The work cooperatives were headed up by figureheads but were actually controlled by the consortia who remained separate legal entities. 
  2. The cooperatives took advantage of their legal status to delay payment of taxes and insurance contributions for their workers who should in any case have been treated as partners.
  3. The cooperatives provided the workforce and other services under subcontract to the consortia who could then expense these charges for services which consisted mainly of manpower and included the percentage for VAT which the cooperatives should then have passed on to the state.
  4. The consortia avoided any direct employment of workers and so had no liability for insurance contributions. 
  5. The profits of the consortia were reduced on paper by the cooperatives issuing false invoices whose payment went directly to the fraud originators. 
  6. The cooperatives deliberately failed to make the necessary tax returns or the due payments of VAT and so, claiming they were unable to do so, declared themselves bankrupt. Bankruptcy would typically follow after two years of operation. 
  7. The fraudsters then created a new cooperative with exactly the same partners and employees of those made deliberately bankrupt. Employees of these cooperatives would remain entirely ignorant of the fact that they were now working for a new legal entity. 
  8. The consortia would remain entirely within the law with the correct payment of taxes but on profits massively reduced by the false invoices issued by the now defunct cooperative. 

From 2010 until 2019  it is alleged that 40 cooperatives had been set up with the deliberate purpose of driving them into bankruptcy. 34 people were arrested for involvement in this scam including the two main architects, the figureheads for the cooperatives and the related consortia and others such as Bruno de Benedetto for his attempt to derail the contracts for the management of the lido and restaurant in Como’s Villa Olmo.

The charges brought against them were for:

  1. Causing deliberate bankruptcy
  2. Issuing false company accounts
  3. Issuing fake invoices
  4. Disrupting public contracts.

A Victimless Crime?

Certainly white collar crime does not result directly in victims like Franco Mancuso in 2008 at Carugo but the impact goes way beyond losses to the state’s tax coffers which in this case were immense. The other main losers are all those legitimate businesses who lost out in their bids for public and private contracts in favour of the mafia’s consortia. The mafia had been able to undercut them since the lower bids had no need to reflect the actual costs of delivering the required services. Additionally all the employees of these cooperatives were victims. They not only lacked what should have been the benefits of participation in a working cooperative but were treated as mere employees exploited by lack of national insurance cover and without contributions made to their eventual pension entitlement. The physical environment also suffered through entrusting works to businesses totally prepared to ignore regulations governing the management and transportation of waste and other forms of environmental control. 

Pane e Tulipani Terrace

Pane e Tulipani’s terrace on the corner of Via Tatti now shows degradation resulting from its mafia association.

The beauty of the scam for the mafia was that they were able to stay in the background, casting their shadow undoubtedly but sheltering behind the facade of one or two known associates. But this description of one of the scam’s chief architects, Massimiliano Ficarra by the Como Carabinieri should leave us in no doubt as to whether the mafia were behind the scam:

 «Massimiliano Ficarra is a dependable and ubiquitous accountant, at the service of various criminal families of accredited ‘Ndrangheta membership. It is immediately obvious that he is constantly used to maneuvering in those environments. He is one of the principal members involved in organized and effective money laundering activity, with particular attention to the reuse, in economic activities, of the money coming from the Molè Piromalli mafia association “.

Conclusion

Bruno De Benedetto was Ficarra’s financial professional ‘of trust’. De Benedetto partnered with Paolo Lanzara in masterminding the Pane e Tulipani bankruptcy. Paolo Lanzara was the Comune of Como’s representative on the board of the utilities company Acsm Agam. Another of Ficarra’s co-defendants, Alessandro Tagliente, resident in Appiano Gentile, was the right hand man of ‘ndrangheta boss Bartolomeo Iaconis, convicted for ordering the murder of Franco Mancuso. The mafia, with this new variant of their particular disease, have certainly cast a deep shadow over the city and Province of Como.

Between June and November 2020 sentences have been passed down on many of the Nuovo Mondo defendants including 12 years imprisonment for Ficarra and 11 for Pravisano. No doubt much more will emerge in coming months including further detail of De Benedetto’s activities and his accusations of usury. In the meantime Como is in the grip of another financial scandal involving some local businessmen and their accountants accused of avoiding tax in exchange for illicit cash payments (tangenti) to senior officials in the city’s tax office – the Ufficio Entrate. But that is another story for the near future!

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