Como’s History of Plague and Pandemics

 

Villa Geno

Villa Geno was built on the site of Como’s isolated cemetery for those dying from contagious diseases like leprosy or the plague. The area could only be accessed by boat.

‘In 1665 hardly a soul was left alive..’ so goes the doggerel on the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in London that we used to recite in our History lessons long ago. Estimates of the death toll from that outbreak are between 75,00 to 100,000 representing 20% of the city’s total population at the time.

 

 

manzoni and milan

Illustration from Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi

In 1630 Como, with its modest population of 12000, lost at least 5000 lives to the same virus – around 42% of the total. The plague of 1630, commonly known in Italy as the ‘peste manzoniana’ after Alessandro Manzoni’s dramatic account of its impact on Milan in his novel ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (The Betrothed), was not the only epidemic to impact Como, Lombardy and Northern Italy in addition to Covid-19. Even though current mortality will hopefully not reach anything like the levels in the past, a link between then and the current Coronavirus is perhaps inevitable given that our society is now going through comparable psychological and economic traumas.

 

 

Danza Macabra Clusone

‘Danza Macabra’ 1485. Fresco in Clusone, Province of Bergamo, by Giacomo Borlone de Buschis

The economic impact of plague during the medieval period was massively significant. Taking the one example from England, almost all construction work on England’s glorious county cathedrals came to an almost total stop for half of the 14th century due to the premature  death of skilled artisans and the restrictions on travel imposed on the survivors. The iconography of the medieval world is dominated by images conveying the random, ubiquitous and unsparing hand of death.

 

 

Poveglia Plague Island

The long snout of the Venetian mask held aromatic herbs which were supposed to protect against spread of the plague. Venetian victims were confined on the plague island, Poveglia, shown in the background.

Many of those images remain current to this day acting, previous to the current outbreak, as a subconscious connection to the psychological trauma suffered by our ancestors. Covid-19 has brought a new set of devastating images, such as the army convoy of coffins from Bergamo, which will undoubtedly contribute to a similarly morbid iconography representing our current times.  In spite of all the modern advances in prosperity, healthcare and hygiene we too are now experiencing similar feelings of fear, isolation and confusion so admirably described within the pages of ‘I Promessi Sposi’.

 

army trucks

Bergamo March 2020.  A convoy of army trucks transport bodies to cities better able to manage the number of victims of Covid-19.

The outbreak of the ‘peste manzoniana’ in Switzerland, Northern Italy and Tuscany in 1630 was provoked by war and famine. Famine had preceded a fresh outbreak of war brought on by the death of the last member of the Gonzaga family, rulers of Mantova. A war of succession then followed between Mantova and Monferrato which, as throughout the Italian Wars, involved recruitment of mercenary soldiers based primarily in Switzerland and Germany and known as ‘landsknecht’ (lanzichenecchi in Italian).

 

landsknecht

German and Swiss mercenaries known as Landsknecht

Blame was placed on the movement of these landsknecht for bringing the virus with them across the Alps over the Splugen Pass to first infest Chiavenna and then, following the Viandante down the eastern leg of Lake Como to Lecco, Manzoni’s town of origin, and on to Milan, Manzoni’s town of residence.  From Milan, the virus then spread in all directions including back north to Como. Mortality levels were high. The cities of Bergamo and Brescia (the two most badly impacted currently in Lombardy by Coronavirus) suffered a similar mortality rate to that of Como (approximately 40% of the population). Milan’s population of 250,000 was reduced by 26% but the highest mortality was registered outside of Lombardy in Verona (61%) and Padova (59%).

 

The authorities at the time took defensive measures not so different from those adopted across the world today. The main effort was to prevent the movement of people by refusing entry to non residents and by enforcing quarantine on those displaying any symptoms of the plague. Some communities, who had previously not needed to defend access to their towns, rapidly took to building walls and gates of entry that were guarded at all times. Carate, the next village along the western lakefront after Moltrasio, is a case in point. The area of the town called Lestresio takes its name from the original dialect word for gates – ‘rastel’. Over time the name rastel developed into ‘Rostalese’ (those living in Rostel) which then became Restresio and finally Lestresio.   

 

Rifugio Bugone

Rifugio Bugone, above Moltrasio

The majority of the world’s population have recently and suddenly  become very familiar with instructions to stay at home whenever possible and to limit travelling beyond the bounds of our own communities. The authorities across all towns in the Province of Como also published restrictive instructions to all its citizens in 1630, as follows:

 

  1. No persons no matter of what class, status or condition are to be allowed entry through the gates if they have not previously shown their identity documents to the officials.
  2. All guards at the gate must at the time of the ‘Ave Maria’ (approximately half an hour before dusk) hand over all keys to the gates into the hands of an official.
  3. No-one particularly fishermen will be allowed to leave the port without previously handing over their permission to an official.
  4. No women or anyone under the age of 15 can be allowed to act as guards of the gates or the port.
  5. No-one denied access at the gates or walls can enter the town by any other route.
  6. The officials are required each night to go and check that the guards are being diligent in their responsibilities.

These instructions were discovered thanks to research undertaken by a 19th century local historian, Cencio Poggi, who was Commissioner of Como’s Civic Museum in the 1890’s. No doubt future historians will look at our current ‘Autodichiarazione’, which we are supposed to carry with us fully completed whenever away from home, as equally interesting pieces of historical ephemera illustrating an extraordinary tragic moment in 21st century world history. 

autodichiarazione

We are yet to discover if Coronavirus is seasonal and declines during the summer months. The Bubonic Plague hit the province of Como in the summer months. Many residents of the towns along the western shores of the lake felt they would be safer if they moved temporarily with their animals up onto the alpine pastures. They felt the open air would offer them some protection but this was not the case for those from Moltrasio who moved up on to the pastures by the Rifugio Bugone. They died en masse and were hurriedly buried in unmarked communal graves on the mountainside. Their burial ground became known as the ‘Doss di Mort’. In 2000 the local association of veterans from the Alpini regiments set up a cross and a plaque to commemorate the dead. At the foot of the cross there is an inscription that reads:

The Moltrasio Group of Alpini and friends by placing this cross, blessed 4th November in the Jubilee Year of 2000 by Don Bartolomeo Franzi, priest of Moltrasio, wish to remind our generation, and those who follow, of a page in the history of our community so as to honour the dead who in this location were buried because they were struck down in 1630 by the hand of the plague which also reached our area.

Citizens of Rovenna, the district of Cernobbio above the gardens of the Hotel Villa D’Este, and their counterparts from Sagno in Switzerland moved up to the pastures at the top of Monte Bisbino. On the 20th May 1630 the priest of Rovenna led a procession of the village’s inhabitants up to the summit of Bisbino and in particular to pray at the Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna (Santuario Beata Vergine del Bisbino) established there in the 14th century. He prayed that the local residents be spared from the plague promising to lead a similar procession to the sanctuary on the first Wednesday of every month for a year.  Most of the locals did survive, and to to this day there is an annual procession from Rovenna to the Madonna del Bisbino on 2nd July where the priest offers a blessing calling on the Madonna to continue to save them from famine and plague. The sanctuary became an ever more popular destination for pilgrims following the apparent protection provided by the saint. The trattoria alongside the sanctuary was originally built to house these growing numbers of visiting pilgrims. 

Vetta Bisbino

The Sanctuary of the Madonna del Bisbino

Lombardy’s health system has an entirely justifiable reputation for quality and efficiency. In normal circumstances there would be no reason to distrust its ability to deliver excellent service but this pandemic has strained it beyond all expected limits. Its ongoing capacity to treat virus victims is thanks to the selfless dedication and humanity of its staff, many of whom have paid the ultimate price through their personal sacrifice. The toll on medical staff has been heavy and the hospitals have only been able to continue thanks to volunteer staff arriving from other parts of Italy as well as from China, Cuba and Albania.

 

san rocco attending the Plague victims in a lazzaretto

San Rocco Attending the Plague Victims in a Lazzaretto. Tintoretto. 

No doubt the people caring for the plague victims in the 17th century were equally dedicated and selfless but the facilities available to them in attempting to manage either quarantine or treatment were of an entirely different order. The structures put in place for this were called ‘lazzaretti’ after Lazarus, the biblical leper.

 

San Lazzaro

Como’s lazzaretto, the Ex-Chiesa San Lazzaro in Via Teresa Rimoldi.

Como’s lazzaretto still survives but in a very poor state of repair. It is the ex-Chiesa San Lazzaro on Via Teresa Rimoldi. This was the very first hospital in Como built originally in the 12th century and run by the religious group known as the Umiliati. The building is now in a very poor state following the collapse of its roof back in 2003. It used to house a 15th century fresco of the ‘Danza Macabra’ which had been incorporated into the current structure at the end of the 16th century.

 

Danza Macabra Clusone detail

Detail from the Clusone ‘Danza Macabra’ in the Province of Bergamo

Now that fresco has been lost and the whole building is in need of radical restoration. San Lazzaro is just up the road from the Church of Saint Rocco named after the French saint St. Roch who is commonly depicted pointing at a bubonic boil on his thigh. He was known for his dedication to treating the victims of infectious disease such as the plague or leprosy. As with the ‘lazzaretti’, most churches or shrines dedicated to San Rocco, and thus associated with the treatment of infectious disease, lie outside city walls.

 

San Rocco

Madonna and Child with Saint Sebastian and Saint Rocco, 1504 by Giovanni Andrea De Magistris. Basilica di San Fedele, Como. 

With the arrival of cholera in the 19th century, there was little change initially in the methods adopted to combat its spread – to restrict the movement of people and quarantine visitors. Como suffered from the very first wave of cholera through Italy in the 1830s. The epidemic broke out of its ‘cordon sanitaire’ in Nice in 1835 first infecting the inhabitants of Cuneo in Piedmont. It had reached Como by the spring of 1836 and caused 5362 deaths in the province. Como suffered a further two major outbreaks of cholera with just over 5000 deaths in 1855 and 2687 victims in 1867. Como escaped lightly from the devastating epidemic of 1884 which claimed almost 8000 lives in the worst hit city, Naples. The Como authorities did however take measures at that time to reduce the number of victims by setting up a temporary ‘lazzaretto’ in the grounds of Villa Reina in the Quarcino district. This is very close to the border with Switzerland. Instructions at the time required the customs to check all visitors from Switzerland and evaluate if they needed to be placed in quarantine. If yes, they were sent to Villa Reina. The villa now contains an apartment for short term holiday lets available one hopes as soon as this current epidemic is over.

lazzaretto Quarcino

Illustration of the temporary lazzaretto set up in 1885 in the grounds of Villa Reina in the Quarcino/Sagnino district of Como

We may well have hoped that plagues were a thing of the past but we had been warned otherwise by numerous health experts and others like Bill Gates. Instead we have seen they may no longer necessarily be associated with war in favour of commerce and industrialisation, although conflict and famine will no doubt continue to exacerbate their spread. Cholera spread out from India due to Great Britain’s imperial trade. It then found favour in the rapidly growing urban centres brought about by the adoption of factory production accompanied by poor standards of housing and a lack of basic sanitation. Coronavirus too would seem to be a pandemic that has taken full advantage of the interdependencies in globalised commerce to spread itself rapidly along the routes of world trade. The first case bringing bubonic plague to Milan in 1630 is claimed to be a cobbler either from Chiavenna or Lecco (foot hygiene was particularly lacking in those days and cobblers were always at the forefront in the spread of contagion). The first case of Coronavirus in Italy (although no one is too sure if he was really the first) was reputed to be a business man working for a multi-national company who had been attending meetings in China before returning to the Province of Lodi via another meeting in Munich. The need for modern economies to keep up production may then help to explain firstly why Lombardy, the most densely populated and industrialised region in Italy, is the worst affected area and also why Bergamo and Brescia, which predominantly house most of the remaining large-scale industrial production plants, are the worst impacted provinces within the region. 

Dalmine dall'impresa alla città. Storia di una company town ...

Dalmine Plant, Province of Bergamo

Fortunately nowadays we can confront  the latest pandemic with a much greater level of scientific understanding than that available either in the 17th or 19th centuries. We also, in regions like Lombardy, are fortunate to have a refined healthcare system operated by those who possess the skills as well as a commitment to their calling and a sense of service to the community. We are therefore most unlikely to face the same levels of mortality suffered by our ancestors but we may however face comparative levels of economic damage if not as bad as in 14th century Europe. Maybe we can take some comfort from reviewing the statistical chances of catching or dying from the virus. But Coronavirus, and the way we react to it by isolating its victims, provokes fear of a solitary and painful end. The very same anguish suffered by our ancestors is reflected now in the fear in the eyes of our own present day victims.

This pandemic will end and it will be remembered for a long time. With luck as a society we may even learn something positive from it. A fitting way to commemorate its passing would be to fully restore our own lazzaretto – the ex-Chiesa di San Lazzaro and to dedicate it as a monument to all local victims of plagues and pandemics throughout the ages, including Covid-19.

San Lazzaro internal

Interior of the ex-Chiesa San Lazzaro courtesy of Iubilantes and Memorie in Foto.

 

 

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Lake Como: The 19th Century Super Highway

Comballi 1920s

Comballi  transporting goods in the 1920s

From even before Julius Caesar established Como (known then as Novum Comum) and right until the mid-twentieth century, Lake Como provided the principal means of local communication as well as forming a vital section of a transalpine communications network.

Romweg

Extract from the Romweg or ‘Road to Rome’ published in Germany in 1498 showing the route from Edinburgh via Como to Rome with the map oriented from South to North.

Its geographic position close to Milan and in the foothills of the Alps made it a strategic point of departure for an onward journey up the Val Chiavenna and across the Splugen Pass to join up with the river systems of the Rhine going north or the Danube to the east. So for centuries traders, pilgrims and leisure travellers have had reason to journey on the lake. And the peculiarities of its geography have meant that no other means of transport was able to diminish that importance until relatively recently.

Comballo in Loppia

A ‘gondola lariana’ (similar to a Comballo) docked in the small harbour at Loppia in Bellaggio.

Nowadays we are accustomed to see the lake used as a playground for pleasure and recreation. Currently it’s only the boats of the Navigazione Laghi that seem to set out with definitive purpose on its waters and then primarily for the advantage of seasonal visitors with time to admire the scenery. Try to imagine how different the lake would have appeared even up to eighty years ago when it provided the principal means for both passenger and commercial traffic.

Concordia

Concordia under steam – this boat has been lovingly restored and is in service over the summer months as a full working member of the Navigazione Laghi’s fleet.

Looking out from Como’s lakefront you would have seen a host of transport ships making their silent balletic progress propelling their heavy loads through the calm waters driven by the wind in their single sails. These were the stately ‘gondole lariane’, built by craftsmen originating from Venice but designed uniquely for transporting animals, building materials, agricultural products and goods of all sorts across the lake. A larger version of these gondolas, similar in shape and design, were called ‘comballi’.  They were single masted boats propelled by a single sail, often as tall as the boat was long. They were assisted travelling north by the regular midday wind called the Breva or, when travelling south by the wind known as the Tivano. In the absence of the Breva, Tivano or any other wind, the boatsmen resorted to using up to four oars.   

Sant Agostino

Gondole lariane being unloaded at Como’s port in the Sant’Agostino district.

Ports

Porto Piazza cavour 1866Foto VasconiComo’s ancient port established in Roman times was later filled in to form Piazza Cavour. The photo shown above from 1866 shows the two gatehouses guarding the entrance to the port marking how it formed one of the four defended entries into the city. The photo shows on the left an arc of ‘Lucia’ boats with some gondolas to the right. The port was however silting up over time and so towards the end of the 19th century, it was decided to fill it in and pave it over to form the piazza. 

porto sant agostino 2

The port in the Sant’Agostino district of Como on the road towards the funicular. Note the iron rings used to tie up the gondole lariane or the comballi allowing for the easy loading or unloading of goods.

The main commercial port had always been in the Sant’Agostino area marked out and protected by the mole that runs off the lakefront on the way to the funicular. Here the gondolas would tie up to the iron rings still used today and load or unload their goods onto ox-drawn carts. The gondolas were flat-bottomed and so retained an advantage even over steam-driven shipping due to their easy access to the shore line for loading or unloading their cargo. The steam ships instead required specially designed docking platforms. The port at Sant’Agostino retained its importance for the transfer of goods from land to lake right into the twentieth century.

porto mercantile sant agostino

The Arrival of Steam and Industrialisation

first steam boat

The first steamship entered service in 1826. This print shows the ‘Lario’ leaving Domaso on route to Como.

The first steamship entered service on the lake in 1826 using the port at Villa Olmo as its embarkation point. The first iron steamship followed in 1841. Those early companies were the ancestors of the current Navigazione Laghi and they managed a major increase in both passenger and goods traffic on the lake. However these boats, as previously mentioned, could not make use of the existing port facilities. One solution was to develop a goods yard on the other side of Como’s lakefront from Sant’Agostino. The yard was located on the lakefront towards the Tempio Voltiano.  

Station at camerlata

In December 1849 the railway from Milan reached Camerlata. Passengers would have to transfer from rail to road to make the descent down to the old town and the lake.

The exploitation of steam power did not just herald the introduction of steam ships but also gave birth to the railways. Back in 1836, the son of Como’s famous physicist Alessandro Volta had been proposing a railway line from Milan to Como to facilitate trade and tourism, However it was 1840 when the first railway line in Italy was built from Milan to Monza. This line was extended to Camnago by October 1849, finally arriving at Ca’Merlata on the southern edge of Como in December 1849. The steep gradient down from Ca’Merlata to the lakeside prevented any further development until Como’s San Giovanni Station was opened in 1875. Prior to that, goods and passengers would disembark at Ca’merlata and take a horse-drawn carriage down to the city and the lake. 

scalo a lago

The goods yard close to the Tempio Voltiano in the present-day Public Gardens.  This extension of track from Como’s San Giovanni station was developed to allow for the transfer of goods to and from the lake.

Further development of a railway to carry goods and passengers beyond Como into Switzerland and beyond was delayed considerably for both geological and political reasons. Geologically Monte Olimpino stood in the way of reaching Chiasso. The first tunnel under Monte Olimpino was opened in 1881 but was initially only used by horse-drawn trams. The rail link to Chiasso and on to Lugano was not made until 1926 only to be swiftly abandoned two years later since the fascist government took exception to the fact that it had been developed using foreign capital. 

Train

The locomotive in the Public Gardens used to haul goods to and from the lakeside point of transfer to ship.

So the railway was far from being an immediate threat to the ascendancy of sail and oar in transporting goods north. In fact, rather than compete, rail and sail developed more of a partnership by laying track  line that linked the goods yards at Como’s San Giovanni Station with the new port facility on the site of the current Public Gardens. The remains of part of this line can be seen in the dismantled bridge crossing Via Borgo Vico. One of the locomotives that plied its way from San Giovanni to the lake is on display in the public gardens. 

Back over at the port in Sant’Agostino, another railway line was being developed by a rival company to that managing the line via Monza. This was the precursor company to the Ferrovia Nord who built their line out of Milan’s Piazza Cadorna, through Saronno to Grandate where it met with their line from Varese to end up at the present-day Como Lago station. This line was officially defined as a railway in 1898. They too recognised the importance of  linking up with the lake transport and the current third platform originally ran beyond the station to meet up with the port at Sant’Agostino and the funicular up to Brunate. 

Borgo Vico

Roads

 

Map 1908

This map dated 1908 shows no road link whatsoever between Bellagio and Como.

Back in 1898, if you had arrived on the lakefront at Como Lago station, the only way you could continue an onward journey to Bellagio or any town in between would be by boat. Theoretically you could have travelled by foot or mule following the Strada Regia – an ancient mule path linking the towns along the eastern shores of the Como leg of the lake. It makes for a delightful recreational walk but is hardly an efficient means of transport. The map below printed in 1907 shows no road whatsoever linking Como to Bellagio. The current road was built between 1911 and 1917. The town of Palanzo had to wait until after the Second World War before a road linked it to Como. On the western shores of the lake there was the Ancient Strada Regina, which, as with the Strada Regia, makes for a delightful recreational walk but was not designed to meet the commercial needs of local industry and tourists.

 

scalo a lago 1As industrialisation developed, lake transport and the gondolas or comballi became ever more important. In 1839 a major investment went into developing mining and steel production in the lakeside town of Dongo. The plant would become part of the Falck enterprise, a major Italian steel producer whose largest site was in Sesto San Giovanni – on a site that had developed alongside the railway line from Milan to Monza.  There had been a factory on the Dongo site from the eighteenth century exploiting the iron and other minerals that can be found in the local valley as also generally in the Val Chiavenna and Valtellina. The production of iron had always benefited from the ease of transport on the lake. Now, with this major expansion in production, lake transport down to Como and onwards via rail proved indispensable. Road transport was irrelevant at this time.

End of an Era

 

Public gardens

The site of the lakeside goods yards converted since the 1960s into the Public Gardens.

The gondolas loading and unloading at the port of Sant’Agostino and the crane transferring goods from train to boat on the other side of the lake continued on until the 1950s. It was only then when the goods yards started to be dismantled and the area they occupied turned into the current Public Gardens. The mayor who oversaw these works was Lino Gelpi. He was the leading light in converting all of that lakeside area and developing the passeggiata along the lakefront towards Villa Olmo.

 

Autostrada A9 under construction

The section of the A9 motorway under construction above Como in 1971 to link with Chiasso.

Lake transport of goods at least, if not of passengers, had after centuries finally become less important. This was down to the development of that other umbilical-like ribbon connecting Italy to Transalpine Europe – the autostrada. The A8 Autostrada from Milan to Varese, the first motorway in Italy, was opened in September 1924. The section branching off  at Lainate to Como was completed in June 1925. However it was only once the section to the border in Chiasso opened up in December 1971 that the motorway offered a viable alternative for international freight transport. 

 

 

Autostrada Link

The line of the A9 Autostrada suspended above Como runs like an umbilical chord linking the area to the rest of Continental Europe over the Alps.

It also took some time for the rail network to provide an effective international link. In spite of the early development of the San Gottardo tunnel, the rail link from Milan through Como and on to Zurich faced the major obstacle of the sharp gradient down to Como’s San Giovanni station. This obstacle was eventually overcome in 1989 by bypassing San Giovanni by opening up another tunnel through Monte Olimpino at a higher altitude. This allowed goods trains to avoid the descent to Como by branching off the main line from Milan at a junction called the Bivio Rosales just after Como’s Albiate-Camerlate station. This finally provided a viable modern day alternative route from Milan into France and Germany putting Como once again alongside (but not directly on) one of Continental Europe’s main commercial arteries.

 

Milan Porta Nuova

The changing face of Milan – Porta Nuova

The Future

 

Milano Centrale

Milano Centrale – 2 hours 30 minutes to Zurich from 2025

With the second tunnel through Monte Olimpino and the new 57 kilometre rail tunnel at San Gottardo, all is set to develop a high speed high velocity network linking the ports of Rotterdam and Genoa – gateways respectively for shipping to Scandinavia and the Northern Atlantic and via the Mediterranean to Asia and North and West Africa. The prediction is that by 2025, following further upgrade of the Monte Olimpino tunnel and the track from Como to Milan to match work already done in Switzerland,  there will be 98 passenger trains per day passing through Como Camerlata compared with 37 in 2015. Even more significantly there will be 170 goods trains per day compared with 44 in 2015. So there will be over 250 trains per day passing through our territory with travel times from Milan to Zurich reduced from three hours forty five minutes down to two and a half hours. However, few of these trains are likely to drop down to Como San Giovanni. International travellers will have to alight at Como Camerlata, and like those early rail travellers in 1849, take the coach down to the city centre. We might also assume that the target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 if not before will see a relative decline in the importance of the motorway network and the complex freight customs infrastructure supporting it around Como and Chiasso.

 

Rapido

Navigazione Laghi’s Rapido service will take you from Como to Bellagio in 40 minutes.

As for transport on the lake, its heyday as a principal means of goods transport has long gone leaving its use solely for local passenger connections. Como has lost the bustle around its three port areas and the pleasure of looking out onto the balletic grace of its tall-masted gondolas. Even the pedalos have abandoned the port area at Sant’Agostino but the dock is still used by water taxis and the small harbour now houses the limited number of local fishermen’s boats. All signs of the port and goods yards in the Public Gardens are gone except for the one locomotive left as a reminder of days past. In summer months the Navigazione Laghi still offer a viable alternative for passenger travel avoiding the snarl ups that occur particularly on the lower stretches of the lakeside roads.  However buses, still known locally as ‘corrieri’ – a name adopted from the original horse drawn carriages, still provide the most economical and swift option for out-of-season travellers. Unfortunately Dongo’s steel mills closed down entirely in 2009 (as did the huge Falck and Breda factories in Sesto San Giovanni) so there is no longer the need to transport their products. Much agricultural production has also stopped and the old mule paths are no longer needed to bring produce down to the lakefront. Instead the Antica Strada Regina and the Greenway on the west bank and the Strada Regia on the east bank now provide well signposted recreational walking paths through some of the most beautiful scenery to be found in Europe. 

Further Information

Alle Darsene di Loppia

The terrace of the restaurant ‘Alle Darsene di Loppia’

Two examples of ‘gondole lariane’ can be seen in the small port area in the district of Bellagio called Loppia. This delightful port area is just at the southern entry to the Villa Melzi and its gardens. Another good reason for visiting is the marvellously located restaurant called ‘Alle Darsene di Loppia’ which receives good reviews and has a lovely terrace overlooking the lake and the small port.

Museo logoBoat Museum

The Museo Barca Lariana, or to give it its full English title, the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats, has a collection of all types of boat used on the lake. The museum is open during the tourist season at weekends but it’s worth giving a call to +39 0344 87235 to check on opening times. They are at Via Regina 1268, Pianello del Lario. Check their website for more detail.

porto sant agostino

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Ossuccio to Lenno: Up and Down the Perlana Valley

 

Looking up the Val Perlana

Looking up the Val Perlana

The Val Perlana runs west to east down from Mount Galbiga to join the lake in Lenno. This walk takes us up the southside to the head of the valley and then down the northside to return to the lakefront. The valley is itself very attractive but the walk is even further enhanced by taking in the series of chapels known as the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio, the Sanctuary to the Blessed Virgin of Succour, the ruins of the Benedictine monastery at the head of the valley and the sanctuary of Acquafredda above Lenno.

 

 

 

Sentiero start

The start of the walk up the Sacro Monte in Ossuccio

The walk can be broken down into three phases as follows:

 

  1. The initial walk from Ossuccio up Sacro Monte and visit to the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin
  2. Continuing up the valley to reach the ex-monastery of San Benedetto.
  3. Returning down the other side of the valley passing by the Sanctuary of Acquafredda to reach Lenno.

You can get to the starting point in Ossuccio from Como either by bus (C10 or C20) or boat to Lenno. Lenno and Ossuccio are very close to each other and starting the walk from either town is possible since both towns clearly signpost the ‘Santuario della Madonna del Soccorso’.

 

Sacro Monte chapels

Two of the chapels on the Sacro Monte. They were built between 1635 and 1710 in the baroque style.

The Sacro Monte of Ossuccio is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its significance, alongside a further eight similar structures across Piedmont and  Lombardy, as a cultural emblem of the Counter Reformation.

 

Sacro Monte figures

Life-sized stucco and terracotta figures in one of the chapels.

The walk takes you past a series of neo-classical chapels built between 1635 and 1710, each decorated with life-sized plaster or terracotta painted figures and frescoes. These scenes represent key moments in the lives of Jesus and Mary. They were built with the intention of instructing pilgrims on the life of Jesus as they made their slow way up to the sanctuary. The craftsmen who worked on decorating the chapels and the sanctuary were from the nearby Val D’Intelvi whose ‘maestri intelvesi’ had developed skills as sculptors, stucco-workers, architects and artists deployed in providing baroque decoration across Italy, Austria and Germany. The main artist responsible for the figures was Agostino Silva (1620-1706) from Morbio who worked elsewhere in Como, as well as in Urbino, Assisi and in the nearby Sacro Monte of Varese. The frescoes include work by Paolo Recchi. Read our article Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities for more information on this extraordinary concentration of artistic talent emanating from the Val D’Intelvi in the baroque period.

 

Sanctuary

The Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin at 420 metres above sea level

The Sanctuary (Il Santuario della Madonna del Soccorso) is at about 420 metres above sea level. Our walk will take us up to 900 m at its highest point when we reach the Abbey of San Benedetto. The Sanctuary is well worth visiting for the quality of its decoration and more examples of the work of the ‘maestri intelvesi’ including a great example of the false marbling known as scagliola on one of the altars.

Fresco Sanctuary

15th Century fresco of the Madonna and Child inside the Sanctuary.

The church dates back to 1537 and the story goes that it was built on the site where a deaf-mute shepherdess found a statue of the Virgin Mary and Child lying in the woods. This discovery led to her being cured of her disabilities. The sanctuary was then built to honour the Virgin Mary and the original statue (dating to the 14th century) was installed and is still to be seen in the side chapel.

 

 

 

Turning up the valley

After a steep but short section, you come to this turning to the right for the Abbey of San Benedetto

When continuing the climb beyond the sanctuary you will immediately come across a very steep but relatively short stretch which leads you to where the path divides off to the right in the direction of San Benedetto. From this point, the walk is a steady climb up towards the head of the valley.

 

Stream before San BenedettoThe path continues through woods traversing a number of streams making their way down to join the Perlana. In fact this side of the valley has much more water than the northside. After about one hour from leaving the sanctuary you will reach a small alpine area with the atmospheric semi-ruins of the San Benedetto Monastery appearing from the woods. The site of the half-ruined abbey is impressive in its isolation and simplicity as a retreat at the far reaches of the valley. 

The Benedictines established this monastery back in the 11th century (1090).  The church and the bell tower are built in the Romanesque style.

 

 

San Benedetto

The Abbey of San Benedetto with bell tower built in the Romanesque style in 1090.

The monastery grew in power with its influence spreading into the Val D’Intelvi and  the Valtellina until it was suppressed in 1431 when the Cistercian monks occupying the nearby Abbey of Aquafredda took ownership of its assets. The Cistercians were in turn suppressed in 1778,  and San Benedetto then passed into private hands and was used as a farm. The main church has now been restored with the help of public funds for which it is obliged to open up once a year on May 1st.

 

Helliborus

Helliborus, one of the early Spring flowers on show in te mountains.

On leaving the Abbey behind, you walk down to cross the Perlana via a series of stepping stones to reach the northside of the valley. From here you make a slow and gradual descent toward the Abbey of Acquafredda on the western limits of Lenno. The route is on a well-defined mule track through woods and offering some pleasant views over to the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin across the valley. 

Acquafredda

The Abbey of Acquafredda

The original Abbey of Acquafredda was founded in 1143 taking its name from a nearby spring. It was however abandoned in the 16th century and briefly used as a den of thieves before being destroyed in 1527. Rebuilding started almost immediately but was not completed until the 17th century with some notable frescoes painted in 1621 by Giovanni Mauro della Rovere, known as Fiammenghino. Stucco work by  Agostino Silva, the same crafstman responsible for many of the figures on Sacro Monte and in the Sanctuary of he Blessed Virgin, was completed in the 1680s.

Detail stucco and fresco Sanctuary

Stucco work by Agostino Silva in the interior of the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin

Having passed by the entrance to the Abbey, the walk continues by following the waters of the Acquafredda spring down into the centre of Lenno.

San Benedetto cloister

The ruined courtyard to the Abbey of San Benedetto

This walk is not too onerous. There are some steep stretches between the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin and the San Benedetto Abbey but they are not too prolonged. The return leg going down the valley is straight forward. There are no difficulties with signposting since the route is clearly defined by the valley structure. For timings, allow 45 minutes to reach the Sanctuary from the lakeside in Ossuccio. Allow a further one hour from the Sanctuary to San Benedetto and a further hour to return from there to the lakeside at Lenno.

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Como’s Famous Daughters: Teresa Ciceri, Agrarian Scientist

 

Potatoes

Teresa Ciceri, in addition to other achievements, introduced for the first time in Italy techniques for the cultivation and conservation of potatoes.

In anticipation of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I would like to feature a woman who, in spite of huge domestic responsibilities and limited funds, undertook and applied her research to the benefit of the poorest in her society. She was a close friend and collaborator with Como’s best known son, Alessandro Volta – the inventor of the battery. However, in spite of her achievements, she is nowadays hardly ever mentioned.

 

 

Volta

Bust of Alessandro Volta in Villa Olmo. Teresa was a close friend and collaborator with Volta aiding him, for example, in the discovery of methane.

She deserves to be much more famous than she currently is since her researches in agrarian science enriched the diet of peasant farmers across the arc of the Alps in Northern Italy. She was the first to seriously introduce the potato here by researching where and how best to cultivate it.  The potato may possess modest nutritious value but it was superior to what was previously available. Its introduction saved tens of thousands from undernourishment caused by the paucity and precariousness of their previous dependence on wheat or maize. 

 

As mentioned Teresa was a contemporary and close friend of Como’s most famous and certainly much better known scientist, Alessandro Volta, the inventor of the battery, who lived from 1745 to 1827. Teresa was born 1750 in Angera on Lake Maggiore and died 1821 in Como. Volta paved the way for the modern age’s ability to generate, capture and apply electricity. Teresa’s researches were instead dedicated to how she could improve the lives of the poorest in society – the peasant agricultural labourers and farmers – through developing crops that would ameliorate their subsistence diet or by offering them new economic possibilities as in her method for producing fabric from lupin stems.

 

Teresa Ciceri

Teresa Ciceri – this portrait hangs in Como’s Civic Museum. In the background can be seen a lupin stem and by her right wrist is the medal from the Società Patriottica di Milano.

Teresa was the daughter of Count Giobatta Castiglioni Zanebroni. She married Cesare Liberato Ciceri in 1770 when she was twenty and he was twenty years older. They had property in Como and extensive land in Camnago on the edge of the city as well as in Lazzate. However, the family had little actual income and, what with twelve children to feed, her agrarian research was always focused on practical innovations that could improve the lives of the poor.

Teresa grew up in the so-called age of enlightenment amongst an intelligentsia stimulated by contemporary scientific discoveries, the inspiration of philosophers like Voltaire and the creativity of the Romantic movement sweeping Europe. At an early age, she brought her friend Alessandro Volta over to Angera to show him a phenomenon which had enthralled her as she grew up – an area of water on the side of the lake where bubbles constantly rose to the surface. This led to his ‘discovery’ of methane for which he gained significant fame. The key role Teresa played in assisting him in his discovery has mostly been overlooked. 

 

Via Camnago Superiore 19 2

Via Camnago Superiore, 19 – now the B&B Flavia but formerly Alessandro Volta’s library where he undertook research alongside his friend and colleague, Teresa Ciceri.

When Alessandro Volta was planning one of his journeys across Europe with his friend Giambattista Giovio, Teresa asked him to pass by Aiguebelle in France to pick up and bring back for her some examples of the potatoes that had only recently been introduced to France. She made doubly sure he would not forget by placing reminder notes each day in his baggage as he made his preparations to leave. Teresa was adamant that she wanted to look into the potential for cultivating the potato in Italy and to conduct research on how best this could be done.

Liceo Statale

Liceo Statale ‘Teresa Ciceri’ in Via Carducci on the street parallel to the Liceo Statale ‘Alessandro Volta’.

For those of us brought up in the United Kingdom on how how Sir Walter Raleigh brought the first potatoes back from the Americas to Queen Elizabeth 1, it may seem strange that the potato had not yet reached Italy by the 1770s. Doubts are now cast on whether Raleigh ever brought back any potatoes since he went nowhere near their site of origin in the South American Andes. In any case, even though potatoes were evident in Spain from the 1570s, no country took their dietary potential seriously until the 1770s when large scale production began in Ireland. It later became the staple of the Irish diet and unfortunately, as tended to happen within colonial economies, formed the basis of a  mono-cultural agricultural system which led to the tragedy of the Great Famine in the 1840s. The Germans also started potato cultivation in the mid 1700s with the Dutch taking it up by 1800. However there was resistance to adopting it in France and Italy due to common beliefs that potatoes spread leprosy and other diseases. In fact, if the tubers are exposed to light when growing they take on a green shade and are poisonous to eat. It was in 1777 that Teresa Ciceri implored her friend Alessandro Volta to bring back some seeding potatoes from France where she had learnt they had very recently been introduced. On Volta’s return she started to cultivate her potatoes on her land in Camnago close to Alessandro Volta’s summer residence.

Camnago

Camnago is in the Cosia Valley, a well-irrigated area ideal for market gardening. 

Camnago was known as the Garden of Como resting in the sheltered valley of the Cosia with its south facing pastures protected from cold north winds by the mountains of the Triangolo Lariano. Teresa soon learnt that the potato was an ideal crop for mountainous areas like the Alps. It could grow up to an altitude of 2000 metres and was much more resistant to hail, frost, drought or floods than maize, wheat or barley. She was able to establish where, when and how to cultivate the crop in ways best suited to the local hilly terrain. 

Cosia

The Cosia River running down from Camnago – the waters of this river powered a string of mills in the past and then a series of factories involved in the dyeing and printing of silk. 

Meanwhile Alessandro Volta sponsored her membership of the Società Patriottica di Milano, an association similar to the Royal Society and born out of the spirit of the enlightenment when founded by the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1776. The society was tasked with developing knowledge and know-how  in the areas of agriculture, the arts and industry – all of Teresa’s areas of interest. It formed part of a knowledge sharing network across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1785, La Patriottica had recognised the potential of the potato and they were able to turn to Teresa for all her information on methods of cultivation and conservation. For this she was awarded a gold medal. Following the French invasion of Lombardy and the defeat of the Austrians in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte replaced La Patriottica with the Istituto Nazionale della Repubblica Cisalpina (later renamed Istituto Nazionale Italiano) modelled on the Institut de France.

Medal for Agriculture Patriottica

An example of a bronze medal for agriculture awarded by La Patriottica di Milano showing the bust of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Teresa Ciceri was awarded a gold medal by La Patriottica. 

Teresa’s husband died when she was 49 years old leaving her with many outstanding debts to manage. She remained economically disadvantaged for the whole of her life but still continued her researches into both industrial and agricultural innovations enjoying the company and affection of her extensive family and of friends and colleagues. She is remembered in the naming of the Liceo Statale in Via Carducci – close to the Liceo Statale Classico e Scientifico named after her good friend Alessandro Volta. Other than that, she is not as well known today as her achievements would merit. Apart from the naming of the secondary school and her portrait in the Civic Museum with a sample of cloth made from lupin, there are few other reminders of her achievements. However she managed to improve the lives of thousands of peasants over many generations by providing them with the means of producing a more reliable source of daily nutrition.She was a modest yet truly scholarly and practical  scientist with a committed social conscience. Her contribution as a scientist committed to improving the well-being of her society warrants ongoing recognition.

Camnago 2

The small centre of Camnago Volta with the bell tower of Santa Cecilia. The area was particularly well suited to agricultural production.

Another contemporary female scientist of Teresa was the aristocrat Candida Lena Parenti. She is even less well-known than Teresa but she was responsible for discovering how to spin asbestos so that it could be used to form paper, textiles and even lace. Nowadays we know that asbestos is highly carcinogenic but its heat resistance and isolating qualities had been known since Roman times. Candida Parenti unlocked the means by which these properties could be exploited industrially.

Porta Nuova

The Porta Nuova tower on the south western corner of the walled city housed the museum and laboratory of Canon Gattoni where a young Alessandro Volta undertook some early research.

Candida took a sample of asbestos from the collection of Alessandro Volta’s mentor, Canon Gattoni, who attributed its source as being from the ancient town of Herculaneum close to Pompei. She then procured further material from mines in the Tellina and Malenco valleys of the Valtellina, to the north east of Lake Como. The mining industry in the Valtellina then developed throughout the nineteenth century with 62 separate mines contributing material for the production of asbestos cloth. In that year the United Asbestos Company from the UK bought mines in the Valtellina but switched the industry’s production from textiles to building materials. All of this activity was initiated by Candida’s initial research for which she was awarded a silver medal in 1806 from the Istituto Nazionale Italiano (known previously as La Società Patriottica di Milano), who, as with Teresa Ciceri, awarded her a gold medal in 1807. I have not been able to find any further  biographical details of Candida Lena Parenti on the Internet.

Via Camnago Superiore 19

Another aspect of Via Camnago Superiore 19 where Teresa Ciceri and Alessandro Volta undertook joint research. The building now houses the B&B Flavia and enjoys from its terrace a marvellous view across the Cosia Valley.

The past is by definition a mystery and research can only hope to shine a partial light on distant attitudes. Yet shining even this limited light on two female scientists living at the height of the enlightenment has revealed to me that their contemporary society was possibly, within limited aristocratic circles at least, less sexist than today. The examples of Teresa and Candida show their contribution to science and industry was clearly both recognised and appreciated in their time. Those contributions deserve not to be as overlooked and minimised as they appear to be today. 

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Fables, Legends and Folklore: The Festa della Giubiana

 

Giubiana

The effigy of the Giubiana put to flames

Up to sixty years ago, the predominant culture in the Como countryside, as in much of Italy,  was that of the ‘contadino’ – the peasant farmer – engaged with family in a struggle for survival ever open to the vicissitudes of fortune. The contadino’s year was dominated by the agricultural cycle punctuated with periods of plenty or paucity, activity or sloth, with family life providing moments of joy or sorrow. This culture was enriched over time by fables, legends and folklore encapsulating aspects of the contadino’s wisdom gained from acute environmental awareness and sustained through an ignorance attributable to their necessarily restricted focus on survival.  Nowadays, that culture is dead but it has bequeathed a rich legacy of customs, rituals, local cuisine and artisan crafts. Its folklore and rituals provide even the most urbane of us with a link to our distant past, to mystical times when fundamental issues determining man’s fate could only be resolved through magic and fantasy. So it is that our ancestors, when perceiving the first signs of nature reawakening as the sun seemed to regain some power, celebrated the season by the symbolic burning of all the ills and misfortune of the old year in the hope that this cleared the way for better luck in the year to come. This is the festival of the Giubiana – and it is celebrated today in many towns across Como and Brianza on the last Thursday of January (although some towns celebrate it on the following Saturday to accommodate the modern rhythms of our industrial society).

 

Risotto

Risotto alla Milanese with Luganega sausage – the dish traditionally eaten during the Festa della Giubiana

This Thursday the Festa della Giubiana will be celebrated by burning an over-sized human effigy on a massive bonfire after conducting a symbolic trial and sentencing. Participants will then set to feasting with a specific local dish made of Milanese risotto (risotto flavoured with saffron) and a particular sausage called ‘luganega’.  On Lake Como, the Giubiana will be ceremonially tried, sentenced and burnt in Varenna at 20.30 and in Bellagio on Saturday at 20.00. The most spectacular celebration takes place in Canzo on Thursday with another sizeable celebration also on Thursday in Cantu. Albavilla also has a long tradition of celebrating the Giubiana but on Saturday joined also by celebrations in Barni and Civenna. Most celebrations start from around 20.00. 

Cantu

The bonfire in the centre of Piazza Garibaldi, in the heart of Cantu. Cantu burns a different effigy to all other towns in the area for reasons described below.

Uomo selvatico

The Wild Man – a character from Alpine mythology who features in the Festa della Giubiana in Canzo.

The origins of the festival seem to date from when the Celts from Gaul had taken over from the Iron Age Golasecca culture from the 3rd to 2nd century BCE. There are various versions of the legend behind the celebration but the most common recounts how a mother outwitted an old witch. The witch, driven by hunger at the time of year when stores are depleted and nothing grows, had been forced to roam at night looking to capture and eat young children. The mother decided to lay a trap for the witch by cooking up a massive pot of risotto including the local sausage – luganega. She left the pot on her window sill. The delicious smells tempted the witch who settled down to eat her fill. The risotto was so delicious that the witch was still eating as the sun rose. Unfortunately the witch was as sensitive to sun as Dracula and so perished due to her greed. The mother had liberated the whole community from the fear of the witch and the sacrifice of their young children to her hunger. With the witch destroyed, the ills of the old year died with her and all could hope for better fortune through the year to come. 

Canzo Giubiana

Canzo’s poster for this year’s Festa della Giubiana

The most elaborate Festa della Giubiana is held in Canzo with a long list of characters playing their part in the four  act drama – the trial, sentencing, execution and celebration. The cast list in local dialect represents a rich variety of mythical sources and gives a good indication of the bizarre not to say surrealistic character of the event. It includes:

  • Giubiana – an elderly figure representing all that was bad in the past year
  • Anguana – an aquatic fairy from the district of Canzo known as the Ceppo dell’Angua
  • Ul Cervun (Il Cervo) – A giant stag in the figure of the Nordic/Celtic god of the forest, Cernunnos.
  • L’Omm Selvadech (L’uomo selvatico) – The wild man, a figure from Alpine mythology.
  • L’Urzu (L’Orso) – A bear representing the instinctive forces of nature that must be tamed.
  • Ul Casciadur (Il Cacciatore) – The hunter who captures and tames the bear and teaches it to dance.

    Cernunnos

    The Cernunnos from Celtic and Nordic myth

  • I Diaul (I Diavoli) – The devils who serenade the Giubiana
  • Il Boja (Il Boia) – The executioner who represents the condemnation of the bad.
  • I Cilostar – characters who carry candelabra on their heads symbolising the good that will conquer the bad.
  • I Strij picitt – Witches who scare the children and try to save their companion, Giubiana.
  • I Bun e I Gramm (I buoni e cattivi) – The good and the bad symbolised by children wearing either white or black.
  • Barbanegra – The town’s wizard.
  • Ul Pastur (Il pastore) – Masked representation of the shepherd’s craft.
  • Ul Buschiroo (Il Boscaiolo) – As with Ul Pastur but for woodsmen.
  • L’Aucatt di caus pers – The Milanese lawyer sent to defend lost causes i.e. the Giubiana.
  • La Cumar da la Cumtrada – The friend of Giubiana who reads out her testimony in court.
  • I Pumpier (I Pompieri) – The fireman dressed in historic costume on bicycles with fire fighting equipment from the 1800s.
  • Gli Scarenej – Representatives from the nearby allied comune of Scarenna.
Cantu 2

The young traitoress who caused the sacking of Cantu by Como in the 12th century is burnt in effigy rather than an elderly witch.

In Cantu their Giubiana is not an elderly witch but a decidedly beautiful young woman. This marked divergence in tradition apparently stems from the city’s betrayal by a young woman during the conflict between Como and Milan from 1118 to 1127 – a war in which Cantu had allied with Milan. One night during the war a young woman was heard knocking at the gates of the town begging entry and seeking asylum from the marauding Comaschi. She was granted asylum and entrusted with a set of keys to the town gates. She treacherously handed these keys over to the Comaschi who entered and burnt Cantu to the ground. However when the fortunes of war turned in Milan’s favour, the woman was captured, put to trial and executed by being burnt alive. 

Gruppo i paisan Albavilla

The group ‘I Paisan’ (contadini or peasants) from Albavilla. This group organises the Festa della Giubiana and undertake other initiatives to celebrate local folklore and culture.

Another of the notable celebrations locally is that in Albavilla, a small town just about 6 kilometres to the east of Como on the route to Lecco. Their celebrations are organised by an active group intent on maintaining awareness of local folk culture. This year they will introduce a detail that updates the idea of ridding the old year of its pains. Participants will be invited to make a brief note of any personal negative issues from the past year. These notes will be thrown into a communal bin which will then be put on the bonfire along with the Giubiana. Following fireworks all will celebrate with a plateful of risotto with non-vegetarians adding luganega.  Albavilla’s festival is on Saturday evening.

Gruppo i paisan

The Festa della Giubiana may well herald the first signs of the start of the natural cycle, but in spite of the sun showing signs that it will regain its strength, the winter is far from over. In fact, we are now coming up to what is known as the three days of the blackbird (the merlo) which traditionally are the coldest in the year – and there is another story from local folklore at the heart of why people to this day refer to the days of the blackbird. Click here to find out more!

If however, the bizarre sound of the Canzo festival attracts you, do not miss out on the truly anarchic, surrealistic street theatre which is the Carnival in Schignano. I cannot recommend this festival enough for its effortless invocation of misrule in a beautiful mountain setting. The organisers of all these festivals are to be complimented for their efforts in keeping alive local traditions, and in the case of Schignano, associated local crafts such as mask making. 

Helliborus

Helleborus, a winter flowering Alpine plant that grows wild in the woods around Lake Como.

 

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Como Remembers the Holocaust

Jews deported from Alto Adige to Germany

Italian and foreign Jews resident in the Alto Adige facing deportation to Nazi-run concentration camps. Many German and Austrian Jews had previously migrated to the Alto Adige (Sudtirol) to avoid racial persecution only to find a gradual increase in discrimination codified in the Racial Laws of 1938 and progressing to active deportation from 1943 under Mussolini’s nazifascist regime known as the Republic of Salo.

27th January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million European Jews massacred by the Nazis in Germany as part of that regime’s belief in the need to maintain the purity of the Aryan race. The Nazis also massacred similar numbers of Russians and Poles as well as other groups seen as a threat to Aryan racial purity. This latter category ranged from those with physical or mental disabilities, gypsies, homosexuals alongside others classified as social deviants and even religious groups like the Jehovah Witnesses. Included in this horrific carnage were the Italian and foreign Jews who had previously sought safety in Italy from Nazi Germany and Vichy France. Their  transportation to the extermination camps in Eastern Europe from the northern half of Italy occupied by the Nazis started after the signing of the Italian Armistice in September 1943. Thus also Mussolini’s Nazifascist puppet state, known as the Republic of Salo, played its part in the mass extermination of European Jewry as a logical consequence and progression from the racial laws introduced by the Italian fascists in 1938.

Don Carlo

Don Carlo Banfi, a young priest who led groups of Jews to safety across the mountains into Switzerland.

With Como bordering neutral Switzerland, many of its citizens took a part directly or indirectly in helping Jews, anti-fascists, allied ex-prisoners of wars and other enemies of the state to avoid capture by following the smuggling trails over the mountains to safety. We have tried to honour the memory of some of those involved in aiding refugees on previous anniversaries. This year I wish to recall the exploits of Giorgio Perlasca, born in Como on January 31st 1910, who has been attributed with saving the lives of over 5000 Jews living in Hungary. He has sometimes been referred to as the Italian Schindler after Oskar Schindler who saved 1200 Jews in Poland. He was a contemporary and worked alongside another better known humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg who also saved around 5000 Hungarian Jews. There are memorials to Giorgio Perlasca locally in both Como and Cernobbio showing the amount of pride there exists locally for a Como-born hero granted the status ‘Righteous Among Nations’ in 1989 by the Israeli State organisation, Yad Vashem.

Giorgio Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

In many ways Giorgio Perlasca was an unlikely hero starting out as a fully committed fascist volunteering to fight in the war against Ethiopia and, significantly for his future, in Spain during its brutal civil war on behalf of Franco’s Nationalists. He must have contributed significantly to the Spanish fascist cause because he earned sufficient gratitude from General Franco to be granted a letter of introduction from the Spanish Head of State requesting all Spanish embassies to grant him whatever assistance he might require on demand. 

Cernobbio

The memorial to Giorgio Perlasca in Cernobbio cites his original commitment to a fascism inspired by Gabriele D’Annunzio which was strained when Mussolini allied with Hitler and passed the Racial Laws in 1938. He then went on to impersonate a Spanish diplomat in Hungary issuing a number of letters of protection to Jewish families placing them in safe houses until Budapest was liberated.

On his return to Italy from Spain, he apparently lost some of his faith in fascism maybe disagreeing with Mussolini’s overtly racist turn in 1938 when he introduced anti-Semitic legislation whilst also seeking closer allegiance with Hitler. Perlasca took on a role in Hungary with diplomatic status organising the supply of meat from Trentino to the Italian troops stationed in Eastern Europe. When Italy signed the armistice with the allies in September 1943, Perlasca preferred to retain his allegiance to the Italian king and not to Mussolini’s puppet state known as the Republic of Salo. He thus overnight became an enemy of Germany and Hungary. It was at this point that he played his joker by presenting his letter of introduction to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest. He was immediately granted a Spanish passport with the single modification of his first name from Giorgio to Jorge. Jorge presented himself from then onward as a Spanish diplomat.

Letter of protection

A letter of protection issued to the Harsanyi family by Giorgio Perlasca posing as a Spanish diplomat.

The Spanish Embassy was doing what ever it could to save Jews from deportation. They and other diplomatic missions were aware of the extermination camps where the Nazis were developing the means to implement the industrial scale of mass murder planned for the infamous ‘final solution’ phase of their ethnic cleansing policies. The embassies of Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the Vatican State were also assisting Jews by granting letters of protection. Spain was granting these certificates on the basis of a Spanish law passed in 1924 granting the rights of Spanish citizenship to those Jews descended from the Sephardic population expelled from Spain in the 15th century. The embassy had acquired up to eight buildings deemed part of the Spanish delegation to house those offered protection. Giorgio Perlasca assisted the embassy in granting the letters of protection and in running the safe houses. He later took on the entire responsibility for these people once the remainder of the Spanish diplomatic mission had been withdrawn to Switzerland for safety following the Nazi overthrow of the Hungarian regime in 1944. At this stage, Giorgio Perlasca falsified documents so as to present himself to the Hungarian authorities as the legitimate Spanish Ambassador. He successfully maintained this bluff and was thus able to continue providing protection to the Jews under his care in spite of constant and very real danger of exposure. He was even brought to the attention of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official tasked with implementing the holocaust in Hungary. 

Zingaretti

Luca Zingaretti (better known in UK for portraying Inspector Montalbano) portrayed Giorgio Perlasca in a film of his exploits produced by the RAI.

Through his bluff he was able to save over 5000 Jews who remained under Spanish protection in their safe houses until the Red Army liberated Budapest in April 1945. He has also claimed that by continuing his impersonation of the Spanish Ambassador he was able to prevent the demolition of the Budapest ghetto containing 60,000 Jews. The German SS and the extreme Hungarian fascist corps, Arrow Cross, had planned an assault on the ghetto but Perlasca threatened the Hungarian government that, if they permitted this, he would personally ensure that all Hungarians resident in Spain would in turn be arrested and interned. 

 

The actions of Giorgio Perlasca and others such as the Swede Raoul Wallenberg and in particular the Swiss Carl Lutz, managed to save many lives but there were still 568,000 Hungarian Jews murdered by the time the Red Army liberated the country. The German official responsible for the Hungarian extermination programme, Adolf Eichmann, evaded capture until finally traced, tried and then executed in Jerusalem in 1962. Eichmann never denied the holocaust but sought to avoid responsibility by claiming he was simply following orders. This incredulous defense and his nondescript appearance prompted Hannah Arendt, the author of the definitive book describing his trial, to coin the phrase ‘The Banality of Evil’ for its subtitle. 

The Banality of Evil

When Giorgio Perlasca returned to Italy, he made no mention of his role in saving lives until a group of Hungarian Jews, wishing to meet and thank the person who had given them so much help, managed to track him down to Padova in the 1980s. He was subsequently presented with the awards from Yad Veshem and the Italian and Hungarian governments. His biography by Enrico Deaglio, in contrast to that of Eichmann, is entitled ‘The Banality of Goodness’ to reflect the matter of fact way in which Perlasca assumed the responsibility for helping those he could. He did not see it as so much a conscious choice but more as following a natural reaction to witnessing inhumanity,  

The Spanish Civil War was characterised by appalling atrocities committed by all sides but arguably to a greater degree by the Nationalists, and it is hard to believe that Perlasca would not have witnessed this during his time in Spain. Yet over time he came to recognise the moral bankruptcy and illegitimacy of fascist racist ideology. His decision to act followed witnessing a German soldier in Budapest execute a 10 year old Jewish boy in the street.  He felt compelled from that moment on to do what he could to resist the forces of oppression. 

The Banality of Goodness

We owe it to those six million Jews –  to the equal number of Slavs also murdered by Nazis, to the Muslim men and boys murdered in Srebrenica, to the deaths in Rwanda and Myanmar  and to all other victims of attempts at ethnic cleansing across the world – that we never forget their sacrifice and do whatever is humanly possible to prevent further instances of genocide in the future. A memorial ceremony will be held outside the Biblioteca on Monday morning at 10.00 on this the 75th anniversary of the day Auschwitz was liberated.

 

 

 

Monument to European Resistance 1

The memorial to European Resistance and to Hitler’s Slaves on the Lungo Lago Mafalda di Savoia, Como.

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Como’s Microplastic Pollution Challenge

Rezzonico

The beautiful clear waters off Rezzonico bear the highest density of micro-plastics on Lake Como

In recent years, and particularly after David Attenborough’s screening of his series Blue Planet 2, there has been growing concern over the amount of plastic in seas and inland waters. In addition to the unsightly and highly visible plastic detritus that circulates the oceans, there is now greater awareness of the presence and dangers of so-called micro-plastics. Micro-plastics are defined as particles of plastic less than 5 mm in length or diameter. These small particles may have broken down from larger items such as plastic bottles but they also derive in original form inserted in cosmetics or from fibres shed from man-made fabrics when being laundered. This latter group are known as primary micro-plastics and they mostly get into rivers, lakes and the seas having first passed through sewage and water purification plants. Some of these particles are microscopic and thus readily digested by fish as well as by those animals including humans exposed to natural untreated water. 

monitoraggio_microplastiche_3

Micro-plastic densities are measured each year now to a depth of 50 metres by Goletta Dei Laghi – part of Legambiente.

No studies yet suggest that ingested micro-plastics are sufficiently small to cross over the stomach lining of either fish or animals to endanger other organs. However research has shown how the micro elements develop a form of natural coating which then provides a host for bacteria including those such as e-coli. In other words, all plastics including micro-plastics are a threat to the environment in general but some may also present a direct threat to health. 

Positive Result: Microbiology

Bellagio

Bellagio’s Beach – one of the cleanest on Lake Como

The ongoing good news is that Goletta dei Laghi confirmed that all sites analysed  during this year’s survey on the Como side of the lake were well within safety limits for bacteria. The same is not the case for micro-plastics. All Northern Italian lakes, unfortunately including Lake Como, have an issue with the amount of plastic pollution. Monitoring for plastics has only started relatively recently thanks to the work of the Goletta dei Laghi, driven by the Italian independent environmental organisation Legambiente. Goletta dei Laghi undertake an annual control of the major Italian lakes checking for both microbiological and micro-plastic levels. Biological readings from the lake are also undertaken monthly from April to October and published on the Internet. As we have reported over the last two years (2018 and 2019), Lake Como’s beaches are mostly well within safety levels particularly those within our own area of interest – the southern part of the lake’s Como leg. Legambiente’s last report in July 2019 confirmed the government’s figures giving a clean bill of microbiological health for all sites checked on Lake Como except for Perlasca, a beach to the north of Varenna. This is particularly reassuring since Legambiente undertake their water sampling at the most critical points where rivers such as the Cosia in Como or the Breggia in Cernobbio enter the lake. Both these rivers have purification plants metres upstream from the lake. 

Negative Result: Microplastics 

Seabin Como

A ‘Seabin’ designed to filter out plastic from the lake being installed at Proteus Lab’s HQ at the Darsena di Villa Geno in Como.

The data for micro-plastics leave no space for complacency. Checks on their levels show quantities doubling once water courses have passed through the local purification plants. This means that these plants are not currently equipped with the filters necessary for taking out the particles from domestic or industrial water waste. There are additional problems towards the north of our lake where water flows in from the Rivers Adda and Mera. Figures for micro-plastics are quoted based on a particle count per cubic kilometre. Data for 2018 had Lake Maggiore at the top of the list with 100,000 particles per kilometre followed by Lake Orta with 63,000. Lake Garda followed with 36,000 with Lake Como following with 28,500. The cleanest lake was Iseo with 11,500. However distribution of plastic is very variable and the average figures for Lake Como do not reveal that the limited area between Dervio on the Lecco side and San Siro on the Como side has recorded a maximum count of up to 500,000 particles per cubic kilometre presumably arising from the inadequacies in local filtration and the volumes of water entering from the river systems towards the north of the lake. This does not mean that the area is unsafe for bathing. Yet the high presence of micro-plastics and their capacity to allow for the culture  of harmful bacteria, putting yet another challenge in the way of the regeneration of the lake’s fish stock, does require immediate attention.

Legislation

Beach_litter_2

Plastic drinking straws gathered up by Goletta dei Laghi during this year’s survey of Lake Como

Pasta as drinking straws

Bio-degradable pasta drinking straws now replace plastic in many of Lake Como’s bars including the lido at Faggeto Lario.

Fortunately some key initiatives to reduce levels of all forms of plastic have been launched on both a national and local level.  Starting nationally, the Italian government banned the use of plastic in ear buds this time last year and followed it further this year with a ban on the use of micro-plastics in any form of cosmetics, e.g. body scrubs and toothpaste. Legislation though can only be part of the answer. The treatment of waste water and sewage needs greater investment to ensure filters prevent the onward spread of particles from human and industrial waste. Equally we all need to reduce the amount of plastic ending up in domestic water waste. Some of this waste, such as the fibres from man-made textiles, are difficult to capture domestically and the ideal of preventing the shedding of micro-plastics from laundry can only be achieved totally if we give up wearing man-made textiles.  

Plastic Free Challenge

Batz

The ‘Spazzino’ clears debris from the lake in Como but is not designed to capture micro-plastics.

The Italian Ministry of the Environment in 2018 launched an initiative called the Plastic Free Challenge to raise awareness of the issues and to seek to change both domestic and business behaviours. Some businesses are adapting their habits in order to improve matters. 

Faggeto Lario

The plastic free lido at Faggeto Lario

For example the lido in Faggeto Lario and its bar have declared themselves totally free from single-use plastics. They are the first commercial exercise on the lake to do this. They initially introduced metal reusable drinking straws to accompany their cocktails, as have many other bars in Como, but so many were being lost as customers took them home as a novelty souvenir. They are now using bio-degradable pasta straws. Environmental campaigners Lifegate secured sponsorship from Volvo Italy to install   ‘Seabin’ on the lake at the Darsena di Villa Geno – the headquarters of Proteus Lab. These seabins filter out micro-particles larger than 2 millimetres. Seabins are being installed internationally but the one in Como is the first in Italy to be installed on a freshwater lake. The Spazzino boats who keep Como’s port area free from water-born detritus are fine for ensuring the seaplanes can take off and land safely on the lake without risk but aren’t designed to reduce the quantity of micro-plastics. 

Aeroclub

Heavy rainfall brings down a lot of detritus from the mountainsides which must be cleared away to allow for safe landings and take offs for Como’s Aeroclub fleet of seaplanes.

Let’s hope though that the ban on micro-plastics in commercial products combined with the public’s greater awareness of the dangers posed by single-use plastics will quickly lead to reductions in our seas and inland waterways, and in Lake Como. We can be assured that Legambiente, with their annual checks by the Goletta dei Laghi on both biological and plastic waste, will hold national and local administrative entities to account and so provide the necessary third party assurance that our lake is safe for swimmers.  The ongoing improvements year by year in microbiological water quality, undoubtedly due to investments in local drainage and purification systems, cannot allow for any complacency. Our water purification plants now need further enhancement to filter out those micro-plastics originating from domestic or business waste. These particles are too small to offend us visually but they represent another real challenge, on top of climate change, to the ecological health of the lake.

River Adda Sondrio

River Adda upstream from Sondrio descends the Valtellina to enter Lake Como in the north and then exits the lake at Lecco to later join the River Po at Lodi.

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Lake Como and Climate Change

Forest Fire Varese

Forest Fire on October 30th on Campo Dei Fiori, Varese

Man’s impact on our natural environment through climate change is becoming frighteningly dramatic in many instances. The recent flooding in Indonesia and the devastation of the forest fires in South Eastern Australia are clearly a concern to all except for the more sociopathic of the world’s leaders. Yet the impacts of climate change are not just visible on the grand scale. Even on Lake Como there is reason to be concerned that recent patterns of weather are having a negative impact on the lake’s ecosystem. 

water level

Water marks on the lake walls show the variety in water levels.

Back in June 2018 the combined Como and Lecco Chambers of Commerce held a conference to kick off a project raising awareness of what climate change is doing to our lake.  They asked what we should be doing to ensure a sustainable future for all those who live or visit the area and gain either social or economic benefits from the lake’s natural environment. Proteus, a local environmental association, was entrusted with the responsibility of raising awareness amongst the young. In turn they set up a group called ‘Resilario’ whose slogan is to re-appropriate our lake. Locals can often be heard talking proudly of OUR lake and Resilario have been astute in selecting the use of that pronoun to elicit local pride and a sense of ownership in the hope that this inspires a communal sense of responsibility.

Como Futuribile

Waterfall Moltrasio

Waterfall above Moltrasio – the mountain streams become raging torrents at times of high rainfall

Resilario and their initiative now called ‘Como Futuribile’ are still in the consciousness-raising phase of the project. As part of this, local geologist Filippo Camerlenghi recently addressed a meeting at the Universita Popolare to outline exactly how climate change is impacting the lake. And the very first thing he mentioned was the change in the distribution of annual rainfall. This last November saw 25% of total annual rain fall in the one month. Apparently our annual rainfall totals have remained constant but there is now a marked variation between wet and dry periods with a concentration of rain in the Spring and Autumn. There are a number of issues that arise from this since the level of the lake can now vary considerably during the year and we are not prepared for the impact of a distribution of this sort.

Water levels

faggeto water level

Low water levels in Faggeto lario

The lake is renowned for its many villas with their gardens descending down to walled lakeside terraces. These walls were constructed with the expectation of constant pressure from the lake’s waters corresponding to the contrasting pressure outwards from the terraced land. That balance does not exist when the water level is low and so the whole aesthetic fabric of the lakeside is under threat due to the changing need to deploy structures more designed for tidal seafronts. The weakening of these traditional lakeside walls has created crevices to appear in them at low water which then allow water to enter and permeate the shore line at high water. This water, isolated from the main mass of the lake, then freezes in the winter causing further damage to lakeside structures such as roads and pavements. This causes the sort of damage experienced recently on the Como lakefront when a massive hole opened up on the road to Villa Geno. Further evidence of accelerated erosion can be seen on the any of the walks on Como’s lakefront where the pavements suffer from subsidence and distortion.

Street damage

Lakeside erosion in Como

Agone, Laverello and Other Lake Fish

missoltin

Missoltino, a local ‘delicacy’

The increased variation in water levels is also responsible for risking the recovery of the lake’s fish population, in particular the ‘agone’ – the small fish also known as fresh water sardines – which when dried and pickled are known as ‘missoltini’. If the water level drops after the agone have lain their eggs in the shallow lakeside waters, these eggs are then exposed as water levels drop and so fail to spawn. 

Torrent

Mountain stream in full flow above Cernobbio

Camerlenghi was keen to point out that we need to consider the health of the lake as part of an ecosystem that includes the surrounding mountainsides. Excess rain before the cold temperatures of winter reduces the amount of precipitation stored as snow on the mountains and increases the runoff containing sand and silt carried by the two rivers that feed the lake, the Adda flowing down the Valtellina and the Nera from the  Val Chiavenna. This sand residue does not directly pollute the lake but it does coat the bottom in its upper reaches with additional quantities of silt reducing the ability of the fish to feed. The resulting local reduction in the fish population there may be one of the causes for the increase in alghi in the summer months. Alghi may also flourish due to the growing numbers of the non-native fresh water mussels which have the effect of clearing the water in shallow areas. This may appear to be a positive sign of clean and attractive water for swimming but it allows for increased penetration of sunlight and heat which again can encourage the growth of more alghi. These are just a few examples of how the lake’s ecosystem, like all ecosystems, is so delicate and thus at risk from the effects of climate change. 

Economic Impact

Fisherman

Summer time swimmers may well be encouraged by the clear waters filtered by the increase in fresh-water mussels. Neither do they have need to fear bacteria levels since these are all well within safety limits around the lake. These attacks on the ecosystem do not result in any increase in pollution. But the economic interests of the seventy licensed fishermen and the number of restaurants offering produce from the lake are at risk if spawning and feeding grounds for the fish population continue to be threatened. Even the Navigazione Laghi who manage the ferries across the lake have suffered some economic disadvantage. At low water they can no longer deploy the larger ferry boats transporting vehicles from and to Bellagio and Menaggio. The smaller vessels maintain the service but at a higher cost.

Lake and mountain

In normal years, precipitation during the winter is held as snow on the mountains as here on Monte San Primo.

On the 23rd August 2017 a massive landslide on the borders of Switzerland and the Val Chiavenna to the north of Lake Como claimed the lives of eight people and made over one hundred inhabitants homeless. (Dramatic video of the landslide). This event followed a torrential summer storm. The land acts like a massive sponge seeking to absorb the precipitation that falls on it. There comes a point though when the mountainsides can no longer support the weight of the additional water they have absorbed. The result is a landslide. This November saw a relatively small landslide on the hills above Cernobbio close to one of George Clooney’s favourite restaurants, the Gatto Nero in Rovenna. Fortunately there were no fatalities as in the Val Bregaglia but the only road up to Rovenna was cut off. If we continue to see excessive rainfall in months like November, there will be a need to review the whole of the communications infrastructure in the lake’s surrounding mountain communities. The danger to life is real and the potential costs of revising the infrastructure are enormous.

Is Flooding a Problem?

1917bFlood

Como floods in 1917

Como has had its own scandal running for years on a smaller scale but similar in aspect to Venice’s attempts to construct flood defences across its lagoon. Como’s scandal resulted from the contract to build flood defences along its lake frontage. The contract was awarded to the same constructors building the Venice defences. One may want to question why flood defences were ever needed since the levels of the lake are controlled at the end of the Lecco leg as the lake runs out into the continuation of the River Adda which eventually flows into the River Po near to Lodi. Those responsible for managing the dam in Lecco are constrained by law to only take two factors into consideration when deciding how much water to release out of the lake into the lower reaches of the Adda.

water level 4

Sign in Via Diaz showing where the flood of 1673 arrived.

These factors are firstly the needs for irrigating agricultural land in the Lombardy plain and secondly maintaining sufficient flow to operate the hydro electric power plants on the river past Brivio. They are prevented by law from taking any other factor into consideration including the possible risk of flooding in Como or anywhere else on the lake. Having said that, even the record-breaking rainfall this November only caused the lake to break its banks to trickle slightly over onto Piazza Cavour – nothing like the flood levels recorded in the past. 

However the plans for Como’s flood defence became ever more extensive and costly and, clearly with the prospect of rich pickings to be made, were finally deemed illegal. The council and contractors had decided to take a chunk out of the lake without permission hoping to increase land on the lakefront which would then be highly attractive commercially and bound to sell at a high price. Some of those responsible for this speculation now face jail terms and Como still has an incomplete, useless and probably unnecessary flood defence system. Como does not need to spend massive amounts on managing high water levels but it does need to spend to counter the effects of massive water level variation. This is in effect a much more complex and less visible issue. One can only hope that our local politicians are up to facing such a challenge.

Small car ferry

One of the smaller car ferries the Navigazione Laghi are constrained to deploy when water levels are low

The Future

The Lecco and Como Chambers of Commerce are to be complimented on kicking off this initiative to raise awareness and foster the knowledge and determination to confront the issues of climate change on the lake. The Como Futuribile project will see ongoing efforts to increase local awareness and knowledge of the lake’s ecosystem and promote all forms of sustainable development. In March they and Proteus plan a live broadcast filming underwater just to let us all see what exactly is going on below the water’s surface. In one sense the concentration of rainfall in months like November, one of the quietest months for tourism, might be seen as a positive. Certainly I would advise visitors to plan on visiting the lake at any other time of year. However the impact of such heavy rainfall on the mountainsides with the associated risks of more landslides and accelerated erosion will be very costly to manage. As will be the need to secure the lakefront structures from the erosion arising from increased variations in water levels.  These impacts may all be relatively small scale but they affect the whole region and so could become a heavy financial burden. Similarly the economic impact on the lake’s seventy fishermen might be dismissed as hardly significant but those seventy are supplying the much larger catering sector who provide residents and visitors alike with an authentic lakeside culinary experience. Although personally I am no fan of missoltini, just consider how poorer the region would be if this small pickled fish disappeared from local menus. 

water level 3

This spit of land formed from the silt and sand brought down by the River Cosia only appears at very low water levels.

Finally we might be grateful that we have not experienced any of the more dramatic impacts caused by climate change such as the forest fires currently raging in Australia. However, our woods and forests do get very dry over the summer months and a repeat of the Varese fires in 2017 is always a possibility. We cannot afford any degree of complacency.

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Poets’ Way: Como to Brunate

 

path

The walk up to Brunate on the recently named ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’

Within minutes on foot you can leave the centre of Como and be walking up through tranquil woods to either Brunate to the east or within the Parco Spina Verde to the west. The city’s particular topology provides this sudden transition from town to country. With little effort, you can come across the most timid of wildlife including boar, ibex and deer living within hearing distance of the city. These very special characteristics were what attracted the Milanese poet Alda Merini to spend so much time revisiting Como and her paternal grandparents’ home in Brunate. Now, to honour Alda and to give greater expression to the inspirational qualities of the area, the footpath that leads up from Como, past the Sanctuary of San Donato and on to Brunate, has been renamed ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’.

 

Alda Merini

Alda Merini, 1931-2009 photographed in Milan near her home in the Navigli district

Alda Merini seems to be kept in very fond regard in Italy and in particular in her home town of Milan where she was born in March 1931 and died in November 2009. She had a modest background with a father who worked for an insurance company and a mother who cared for the family. Her father encouraged her interest in language but discouraged her from writing poetry for economic reasons. Her mother did not want her to consider any other future other than as a housewife.  Yet in spite of this and also in spite of suffering the first symptoms of bipolar disorder at 16, she went on to write her first verses at 15, to publish these at 19 and to continue publishing poetry and prose until 2007. She attained numerous prizes and great acclaim for her poems and aphorisms. 

Sentiero

Alda writes in direct, relatively simple language with an honesty conveying a total lack of social or artistic pretension – rare qualities which may in part be due to her ancestry on her father’s side. Her paternal grandfather, Giovanni Merini, was initially a count from an aristocratic Como family. He however fell in love with Maddalena Baserga, a peasant girl from Brunate. He was disinherited  the moment he married his peasant bride. Alda’s father did not as a result inherit much money but he was well educated and passed on his love of culture to Alda gifting her a dictionary at the tender age of five.

view

The view from Brunate – the balcony on the Alps.

Thus Alda Merini, who spent most of her life in her beloved Milan, had a very special link with Brunate and to that footpath which for centuries has linked that village known as the balcony over the Alps with Como. That path facilitated the love match between the young Count and his peasant bride. It may also have encouraged Alda’s  love of nature which even took on a mystical aspect in later life. 

The renamed footpath was first described here as one of those quick escapes out of the city. Now it has been given a definite name and been adorned by some of Alda’a aphorisms and excerpts from her and other poets. The novelty is that these are all accompanied by an English translation for which I for one am very grateful. Poetry is not so easy to internationalise but an American poet, Susan Stewart, has produced  translated versions of Alda’s poetry and aphorisms which are available on Amazon. I have included Alda’s poem ‘Night, if it is not swift’ translated by Susan Stewart to give a sense of her style:

Big toe

Alda Merini 

Night, if it is not swift

Night, if it is not swift,
has no time to cover the dream.
My eyes are lanterns and you
the breath that clouds them.
You sleep on everyone’s heart
oh little asphodel
and as soon as the fingernails
have scraped the winter cold
you will return, a blossoming arunculus,
to make me happy.

Eager your ivory cups
eager your testicles of desire
and the fingers filled with plums
blossom into vast perfumes.

I have always had a tricky relationship with poems – so many seem to require too much effort to understand their intention, or perhaps even more fundamentally, there simply don’t seem to be the right moments or opportunities for taking the time out to read and consider them. Yet, when an opportunity does present itself, I love at least some of them. So thanks to the local organisation ‘Sentiero dei Sogni’ for campaigning to rename the Brunate footpath and for providing the inspirational excerpts on the wooden boards. They have certainly added a further element of enjoyment to my walks up the hill. For example, I never knew that Alessandro Volta, Como’s famous scientific inventor of the battery, also wrote poetry if only for his own pleasure.

 

Wordsworth

William Wordsworth who walked around Lake Como in 1790

And, not only do the boards carry an English translation, one of them even has a quote from William Wordsworth, whom it appears did once wander ‘cloudlike’ along the lake’s paths, although not precisely here in Brunate.

 

Villa Pliniana

The view over the lake from the loggia of the Villa Pliniana where Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley resided for a time.

Wordsworth was travelling in 1790 with a friend from University, Robert Jones. Having passed through Paris, Lyon, Geneva and Chamonix, he then crossed the Simplon Pass to reach Locarno and on to Porlezza on Lake Lugano to arrive in Menaggio on Lake Como. He then headed north along the lake to Sorico before continuing up the Val Chiavenna to Splugen. He later recorded his journey in verse published as ‘Descriptive Sketches’  – one of his earliest publications. Here are some excerpts relating to Lake Como:

From ‘Descriptive Sketches’

More pleased, my foot the hidden margin roves
Of Como, bosomed deep in chestnut groves.
No meadows thrown between, the giddy steeps
Tower, bare or sylvan, from the narrow deeps.
 — To towns, whose shades of no rude noise complain,
From ringing team apart and grating wain —
To flat-roofed towns, that touch the water’s bound,
Or lurk in woody sunless glens profound,
Or, from the bending rocks, obtrusive cling,
And o’er the whitened wave their shadows fling —
The pathway leads, as round the steeps it twines;
And Silence loves its purple roof of vines.

bucolic scenes

A typical rural scene on the Antica Strada Regina which would have impressed William Wordsworth and even inspired Mary Shelley

The vineyards around the lake have diminished greatly since his time yet he may have had Domaso in mind where wine production has successfully returned in recent years.

He goes on to express a certain young man’s desire and frustration on seeing so many beautiful maidens labouring on the terraced slopes until he recovers his equilibrium sufficiently to portray what was to become a repeated romantic trope:

From ‘Descriptive Sketches

Yet are thy softer arts with power indued
To soothe and cheer the poor man’s solitude.
By silent cottage-doors, the peasant’s home
Left vacant for the day, I loved to roam.
But once I pierced the mazes of the wood
In which a cabin undeserted stood;
There an old man an olden measure scanned
On a rude viol touched with withered hand.
As lambs or fawns in April clustering lie
Under a hoary oak’s thin canopy,
Stretched at his feet, with stedfast upward eye,
His children’s children listened to the sound;
– A Hermit with his family around! 

This passage reminds me of the quite long episode in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when in the Creature’s Narrative, he describes living alongside but hidden from the peasant family living in the woods. Mary Shelley herself spent time on Lake Como renting out the Villa Pliniana with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when it was in a poor state and certainly not as luxurious as in its current incarnation as a super luxury hotel. Clearly the Romantic Movement found and shared inspiration from the natural beauty of Lake Como!

Balcony on the Alps

Brunate – view over to Monte Rosa

 

Unable to freely appreciate the Italian verse of Alda Merini, I was drawn to how many similarities there seem to be between her and England’s so-called peasant poet, John Clare – a Romantic poet and contemporary of Byron and Shelley but a self-taught son of a farm labourer. John Clare shares the same simplicity and honesty of language and feeling with Alda and incidentally, also suffered from long bouts of mental illness. I have reproduced his poem ‘I am’  to show some of the similarities with Alda and as a contrast and antidote to the flowery language of the early Wordsworth quoted above:  

I Am

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

The Sentiero Alda Merini forms only part of what the association ‘Sentiero dei Sogni’ hopes will one day be a complete ‘Lake Como Poetry Way’ highlighting the literary tradition of the area. The project is ongoing and foresees a walk starting off from Cernobbio, passing by the Villa del Grumello, through Como and then following the section already dedicated to Alda Merini to finish up in Brunate. This idea was born out of the ‘Passeggiate Creative’ initiative of local poet and journalist Pietro Berra. More information on the project is available from the association’s website.

Villa del Grumello

The gardens of the Villa del Grumello with the bust of the poet Ugo Foscolo

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Noir in Festival – Como 2019

Poster

Noir in Festival this year takes Batman as one of it main themes.

This Friday, 6th December, sees the start of the Como-based section of ‘Noir in Festival’ – an annual feast of crime film and fiction. This celebration of the ‘noir’ genre is into its 29th edition and its the fourth year that Como has co-hosted this festival alongside Milan. Two awards for literature are made or presented during the course of the festival and two for film. Additionally there are interviews with authors and screenings of films in original language as well as opportunities for media-folk to get together. The Como-based events, all of which are free, are held on Friday and Saturday in Villa Olmo. Events continue from Sunday onwards in Milan. The Como events in English are posted on CC’s Calendar but the full programme is available from the festival’s website.

Villa Olmo

The Como-based events for this year’s festival are held over Friday and Saturday 6th/7th December in Villa Olmo. Entrance is free.

Glorious Prizes

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem

For literature the winner of the internationally renowned Raymond Chandler Award this year is the American writer Jonathan Lethem. Last year’s winner was Jo Nesbo and in 2017, Margaret Atwood. Jonathan Lethem will be presented with the award on Saturday evening at 21.00 in Villa Olmo.  There is also a prize for Italian novelists named after the ‘father’ of Italian noir, Giorgio Scerbanenco.  

For film an award is made for the best  international film selected out of the six entered for the competition and screened during the festival. This year there are films entered from South America, China, Sweden and USA. The ‘Premio Caligari’  is a prize awarded during the festival to nationally-made ‘noir’. This prize is promoted by IULM (The Free University of Language and Communication at Milan) and so most of these films are screened on their site during the Milan-based part of the festival. However, the mood of the festival is set by a showing on Friday evening at 16.00 in Villa Olmo of Carol Reed’s atmospheric spy story ‘The Third Man’ starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles.

Third Man

A still from Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ set in bomb damaged Vienna

The whole mix of special events, film screenings and conversations with authors goes to form an intriguing dive into this most atmospheric of literary and visual genres. Margaret Atwood’s acceptance speech on receiving the Raymond Chandler Award here in Como two years ago, is worth quoting in part for its insight into why the genre remains so appealing:

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, Raymond Chandler Prize, 2017

 ‘….I am not a crime writer as such – just a writer about human behavior, which includes crimes among all of its other manifestations. Why are we fascinated by such acts? Because we would never do them ourselves, or because we fear we might? In our dreams and nightmares we find ourselves engaged in the most bizarre activities – perhaps that is what crime writing is for us – an exploration of our nightmares. And what lies between us and this nightmare world? Only the thinnest of barriers.’

 

The Noir genre may have originated with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the USA alongside Hollywood but it seems now to be a truly international genre.  Yet there seem to be some geographical hot spots where ‘noir’ is at its densest. One of these hot spots has to be Italy with strong representation in both film, TV and literature created by a host of writers.  Events in Italy’s recent history have almost made ‘noir’ an involuntary response within a society that has suffered so many moral and emotional traumas through the ‘anni di piombo’ when from 1969 to 1980 there were over 4,200 terrorist incidents. Whilst Italy did face open civil war from 1943 to 1945, these ‘years of lead’ in the 70s and 80s have also been described as a form of creeping civil war with atrocities born out of the shadows and formed out of duplicity, deceit and ambiguity – actions performed by a ‘dark’ state intent on spreading fear, tension and anxiety, a true ‘nightmare world’ to recall Margaret Atwood.. What could be more designed for ‘noir’ than a parallel state apparatus incorporating parts of the army and secret services set upon exploiting political extremists in creating a so-called ‘strategy of tension’? Remarkable but true – this was Italy at the height of the Cold War.

A Series of Anniversaries

Piazza Fontana

12 December will be the 50th anniversary of the terrorist attack in Piazza Fontana, Milan.

70 years ago, Carol Reed’s ‘The Third Man’ was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes on its release in 1949. The brilliance of that film, with its atmosphere of menace and secrecy located on the front line of a Cold War first emerging from the bomb-damaged cities of eastern Europe, shares inspirational space with Batman at this year’s Noir Festival. Also 70 years ago, NATO was established to coordinate western power responses to the perceived internal or external threats of communism. Fifty years ago on 12 December 1969, a bomb exploded in Piazza Fontana in Milan killing 18 people and injuring a further 84. That outrage, along with a number of bomb explosions in Rome on the same day, saw the opening salvo in Italy’s parallel state’s Strategy of Tension – known as ‘stragismo’. In response to the growing popularity of the Communist party in Italy and the wave of radicalism across Western Europe, ‘rogue’ elements of the right-wing establishment sought to discredit the left and provoke a reactionary response to terrorist atrocities they themselves committed. There is speculation that the Italian secret services, whose direct involvement in terrorism has been established in the courts, kept both NATO and the CIA informed of their actions.  

The ‘Nightmare World’ of Cold War Italy

Judge Salvini

Judge Salvini has spent a good part of his judicial career in trying to establish the facts behind the ‘Strategy of Tension’. 

It took from 1969 to 2005 for the Italian judiciary to finally close its process on the bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Milan’s Piazza Fontana.  By that time, although guilt had been established, no further sentencing was possible due to the passing of time under the statute of limitations. The fault for this does not lie with the judiciary, but rather is down to the success of the ‘occult’ powers committed to frustrating the work of the magistrates and courts through a process known as ‘depistaggio’ – misleading and derailing investigations through witness interference often resulting in verdicts of ‘not proven’ which, as in Scottish law, is not the same as ‘not guilty’ 

The Strategy of Tension

The strategy of tension ran like this. Commit acts of terrorism which appear to be perpetrated by the extreme left. Find an ostensible culprit amongst the left and pressure the magistrates to arrest them. Use neo-fascist extremist gangs to undertake the acts of terror. Use the ‘parallel state’ consisting of parts of the army and the carabinieri along with the secret services to obfuscate justice if right wingers are accused. Exploit the rising levels of alarm in the general public to get increased popularity for an authoritarian anti-communist government or foster acceptance of a right-wing coup d’etat. Extraordinary though this may seem, this is exactly how the Cold War was conducted in Italy backed up by the numerous establishment members of the illegal and fiercely anti-communist P2 masonic lodge. 

Accidental death

Dario Fo wrote the play ‘The Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ following the alleged suicide of one of the two anarchists initially arrested for the bombing in Piazza Fontana. The anarchist,  Giuseppe Pinelli, died falling out of a top floor window at Milan’s police hesadquarters.

The players in this strategy divided into either operational or directional groups. The operational groups were those extra-parliamentary groups of neo-fascists such as Ordine Nuovo strong in Northern Italy and Avanguardia Nazionale with its support more focussed in the south. They undertook the assassinations and bombings. The directional groups were responsible for the overall policy and for providing protection to the operational elements by delaying and misleading the judicial enquiries through a variety of means. The directional groups consisted of SID (the name of the secret service at the time), elements of the army and some elements of the Carabinieri. It is debatable to what extent the directional groups managed to control their operational partners. It is also unclear to what extent the parallel state structure of the directional groups operated with the knowledge of the established state given that both ‘states’ shared membership in the illegal conspiratorial P2 masonic lodge.  

Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto

If all this sounds fanciful, consider the direct experience of  ‘noir’ writer Massimo Carlotto, author of ‘Death’s Dark Abyss’ (2004). Massimo Carlotto was a student member of one of the left wing extra-parliamentary groups ‘Lotta Continua’ (Continual Fight). He was accused when 19 of murdering a 24 year old female student in Padova. Condemned to a 16 year prison sentence and on the advice of his lawyers, he fled to France to take shelter under President Mitterrand’s refusal at the time to extradite left-wing political prisoners back to Italy. He subsequently moved on to Mexico but was then later expelled and faced re-imprisonment on his return to Milan. There then followed a 17 year fight for his liberty making his one of the longest campaigns in recent history leading eventually to his release granted through  a presidential pardon from Oscar Luigi Scalfaro in 1993. However it was not until 2004 that he finally regained all his civil rights with the courts granting full exoneration of any responsibility for the original crime. With his direct experience as a victim of ‘stragismo’ it is hardly surprising that Carlotto is perhaps one of the bleakest of the current generation of Italian noir authors. Massimo Carlotto had inadvertently breached that thinnest of barriers separating us from nightmare.

Fact Stranger than Fiction

The machinations of Italy’s ‘dark state’ with its cynical readiness at the time to sacrifice its own citizens in order to deliberately raise tension and anxiety within the population at large defies credibility. It also challenges writers of ‘noir’ since fact (doggedly achieved by the heroic dedication of many of the Italian judiciary) has so often exceeded what might form credible fiction.

Giancarlo de Cataldo

Giancarlo de Cataldo

The novels of Giancarlo De Cataldo represent one response to this. In his ‘Romanzo Criminale’ De Cataldo uses his in-depth knowledge as a magistrate in Rome to depict the lives of the common criminals who formed the notorious Banda della Magliana in the late 70’s. These partially cover the procedural aspects of judicial enquiries but Margaret Atwood would appreciate that the main focus is on the characterisation of this group of petty criminals. This novel shares similarities with Marlon James’sA Brief History of Seven Killings’ which also explores the lives of petty criminals caught up as foot soldiers in an orchestrated attempt at political and social destabilisation at the same period but within another bitter theatre of the Cold War – Central America, the Caribbean and Michael Manley’s Jamaica in particular.  Giancarlo De Cataldo’s follow up to ‘Romanzo Criminale’ was ‘Nelle Mani Giusti’ which covers the period of the assassinations of the Palermo magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and the end of the First Republic resulting from the political corruption trials in Milan known as ‘Mani Pulite’. He will be at the festival at 19.00 on Saturday 7th to discuss his latest crime novel ‘Quasi per Caso’ which is set in the mid nineteenth century in Piedmont at the time of the struggle for independence from the Austrian Empire.

Quasi per caso

ITALY COMES IN FROM THE COLD?

Following on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the ‘Mani Pulite’ trials in Milan in the 1990s caused the collapse of the so-called First Republic and marked the end of the Cold War in Italy. Historians have still to disentangle the full scope and impact of the Cold War here but, due to the deep and long-lasting political divisions in the country, some historians have characterised the period as representing a sustained form of creeping civil war running on uninterrupted through the ‘anni di piombo’  and following on from the open civil war fermented by the Nazi Occupation after the Armistice in September 1943. Some suggest that such deep divisions along such polarised political lines require a form of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ process similar to that conducted in South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid. No doubt the country and its political structures would be strengthened by this but cupboards are still so jammed full of skeletons for this to prove unlikely to happen. And so, Italian ‘noir’ will thrive for the foreseeable future, and we here in Como will at least be able to continue to take pleasure in ‘Noir in Festival’ which must be the only positive but bitter-sweet by-product of such tempestuous times.

Further Reading

The following form the nucleus of the current group of Italian noir authors:

Giancarlo de Cataldo

Gianrico Carofiglio,

Maurizio De Giovanni

Donato Carrisi,

Maurizio Carlotto.

English editions are available for some of the books by all of the above authors.

To understand more about Italy’s ‘anni di piombo’, I would recommend:

Leonardo Sciascia: ‘The Moro Affair

Anna Cento Bull  (University of Bath): ‘Italian Neofascism – The Strategy of Tension and the Politics of Nonreconciliation.’

 Como Companion has previously written about ‘Noir in Festival’ and Italian crime writing in Noir 2018: Moral Ambiguity and Death

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