Como’s Latest Art Acquisition

pagani pinacoteca

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Paolo Pagani, Pinacoteca di Como on loan from Guglielmo and Marianna Poletti

There is a new painting on display in the Pinacoteca di Como’s Salone d’Onore – ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ (1690s)  by Paolo Pagani. This large canvas joins two other major works in the same room both taken from the destroyed church of San Giovanni in Pedemontana – namely ‘The Triumph of the Archangel Michael’ (1630) by Carlo Nuvolone and ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ (1608-9) by Il Morazzone. All three represent the Archangel Michael driving the devil and his rebel angels out of heaven. The Pagani painting is on a five year loan to the gallery from its owners, Guglielmo and Marianna Poletti. 

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The Triumph of the Archangel Michael by Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca di Como

Who Was Paolo Pagani?

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Detail from Pagani’s ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’

Paolo Pagani was born 1655 in Castello, a district of Valsolda on the northeastern shores of Lake Lugano. He moved to Venice where he studied art. He teemed up with other skilled craftsmen from Northern Italy to decorate palaces and churches throughout Austria, Germany, Poland and Moravia. In 1690 he was invited to Vienna to work in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Following his successful career in Eastern Europe, he returned in 1696 to the town of his birth, Castello in Valsolda.

On his return he immediately set about decorating the vault of the local  Chiesa di San Martino thereby gifting his birth town with some of Italy’s finest late baroque decoration. He also had the good fortune to develop a close friendship with his namesake but no relation, the Marquis Cesare Pagani of Milan. Cesare Pagani was a wealthy and well connected diplomat with the ambition to fill his extensive villa in Milan with a large collection of art. He commissioned many of Paolo Pagani’s later works including the ‘The Fall Of the Rebel Angels’  now on display in Como’s art gallery.

Pagani chapel 2

One of the scenes in the series of frescoes adorning the vault of the Chiesa di San Martino in Castello, Valsolda.

Cesare Pagani’s marriage had not produced any male heirs to whom he could bequeath his considerable fortune. In 1691 he had adopted a five year old slave boy of Turkish origin whom he had converted to Christianity and baptised as Michael choosing this name ‘for my particular devotion I openly profess for that glorious archangel [Michael] – my very clement protector’.  However his adopted son Michael may not have met the rigorous requirements of noble ancestry to qualify as a beneficiary. Cesare Pagani then turned to his friend Paolo Pagani’s son Angelo, born in 1694 in Moravia as a suitable person to inherit his lands and property. But for Angelo to qualify, his father had to provide proof of his family’s noble heritage.   Either by fortune or design, Paolo Pagani unearthed documentation during the renovation of his house in Castello that showed that the Castello Paganis were related to three pagan African kings who conveniently converted to Christianity on moving to Italy. This was sufficient proof for Angelo to become Cesare Pagani’s principal beneficiary on the Marquis’s death. One of the scenes of Paolo Pagani’s frescoes in the Chiesa di  San Martino depicts the conversion of pagans to Christianity.

The Cult of Michael, Archangel

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The 10th century Sacra di San Michele in the Val Di Susa, Piedmont.

Michael is a saint of considerable importance to Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. For Muslims, Michael alongside the Archangel Gabriel instructed Mohammed in the Koran. He is also deemed the protector of Jewish people. In Christian mythology he is ‘the supreme ruler of the heavenly army and warrior against the enemies of the Church’. He was particularly venerated in our part of Italy by the Lombards and their Queen Teodolinda who adopted Michael in the 6th century. They compared him with their pagan god, Odin. 

A number of impressive monasteries dedicated to Michael have been built along an ancient ley line running from Ireland to Israel known as the Sacred Line. These include Mount Saint Michael in Cornwall, Mont St. Michel in Normandy, the 10th century Sacra di San Michele in the Piedmontese Val di Susa and the 6th century Monte Sant Angelo on the Gargano peninsula in Puglia. 

defende nos

‘Defend Us in Battle’ – the name given to the prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII calling on the Archangel Michael to protect the Catholic church from Satan. This plaque is from the St. Michael Chapel in Como’s Bishops Palace.

A prayer dedicated to the Archangel Michael was composed by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 following a mystical experience which left the Pope horrified by a vision of ranks of triumphant demons gathering in the skies above Rome like a flock of crows ready to attack the city. An abbreviated form of this prayer known as ‘Defende nos in proelio’ (Defend us in battle) was recounted on bended knee at the end of Catholic Holy Mass from that date up until 1964 (and used, of course, during exorcisms). It reads:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle,and be our help  against the wickedness and the snares of the devil. We supplicants beg you: may the Lord command him! And you, Prince of the celestial militias, with the power that comes to you from God, drive Satan and the other evil spirits that roam the world to perdition of souls into hell.

This literal belief in the existence of Satan was even reiterated by Pope John Paul in 1994 when he stated that even if the prayer was no longer recited at the end of mass ‘I invite you all to not forget it but to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.

Paolo Pagani’s Museum, Castello

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‘The Descent of Christ into Hell’ 1690s by Paolo Pagani, Paolo Pagani Museum, Castello in Valsolda

Works by Paolo Pagani can be seen in museums and art galleries around Europe but, other than Milan, the best place to view his works locally is in the Museo Casa Pagani in Castello.  If you have previously viewed his ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ in Como then you will immediately be struck by the similarity between this and the largest canvas in the Castello Museum depicting ‘The Descent of Christ into Hell’. The colour palette is very similar with the preponderance of flesh tones to accompany so many representations of the human physique. In both studies he uses light and shade to distinguish between the forces of good and evil. And of course, both canvases are of similar size and visual impact. In fact they were both commissioned by Cesare Pagani to adorn his Milanese home. 

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‘Nymph Surprised by Satyrs’ by Paolo Pagani, Paolo Pagani Museum, Castello.

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Detail from ‘The Nymph Surprised by Satyrs’

The whole first floor of the museum is dedicated to his works with most of the other canvases dedicated to religious subjects with the exception of a ‘Nymph surprised by Satyrs’. This depicts a voluptuous nymph depicted with rich skin tones not seemingly too bothered by the voluptuous attention of two satyrs with the elder of the two looking particularly lecherous.  Here may lie the clue to the sort of satanic temptation that Pagani’s patron, Cesare Pagani, called upon Saint Michael to help him resist! 

Whilst in Castello, it is also well worth visiting the Chiesa di San Martino to view its frescoed vault. The church is accessible during the museum’s opening hours.  

Further Reading

Early Lombardy Baroque is well represented in Como by the works of Morazzone and later on by the local Recchi brothers. Read Como and Early Lombardy Baroque or Early Lombardy Baroque: Fratelli Recchi for more information about them.

Visiting Chiasso

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‘The Martyrdom of Saint Vitale’ by Paolo Pagani in the Chiesa di San Vitale in Chiasso

If in Como but without time to visit Valsolda, another of Pagani’s works can be seen in the Church of St. Vitale in Chiasso. This is entitled ‘ The Martyrdom of St. Vitale’ and was painted for the benefit of Baldasar Fontana, a sculptor with whom Pagani collaborated closely when both were working in Moravia and Poland. Fontana was from Chiasso.

Visiting Cracow

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The Church of Saint Anne in Cracow, Poland decorated by Baldasar Fontana and Paolo Pagani.

The interior of the Church of St. Anne in Cracow was decorated with sculpture and plasterwork by Baldasar Fontana and with frescoes by Paolo Pagani. Fontana took responsibility for managing the entire project. Their partnership is just another example of the way itinerant artists and craftsmen from the Como region migrated across Eastern Europe to decorate palaces and churches during the Baroque period. Read Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities for more information on some of the artists from the Val D’Intelvi  employed in this way.

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Como’s Heart Lies in the Bronx

piazza cavour 1860

The port before it was filled in to form Piazza Cavour in 1860

Back in time, Como had a heart – a place from where the lifeblood of the city radiated out up to and  beyond the city walls. This was the old port which, resembling a key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, anchored the city to its lake. 

Then, in 1860, the city government (the Comune) decided to fill in the port to create the only one of Como’s piazzas to face the lake – Piazza Cavour. But the new piazza looked bare and soulless, as it does quite frankly to this day. So in 1870, a Milanese financier and philanthropist, Sebastiano Mondolfo, gave the city 20,000 lire to purchase a fountain from the privately owned Palazzo Litta in Lainate.

Villa Litta

The Fontana di Galatea in the gardens of Palazzo Litta in Lainate. Sebastiano Mondolfo’s first idea was to buy this fountain to place in Piazza Cavour.

This was the baroque Fontana di Galatea built from 1720 to 1786.  This idea was rejected on the grounds that it was probably unethical to purchase and transform a privately owned work of art into a piece of public sculpture. So Mondolfo changed his plan and instead two years later hired a local sculptor, Biagio Catella, to design a fountain for Piazza Cavour. 

Piazza Cavour Vasconi 1890

Photo copyright of Vasconi of Piazza Cavour in the 1890s with Biagio Catella’s fountain fully working.

In almost record time, Biagio Catella created a three-tiered fountain carved from Carrara marble representing a swan at its apex surrounded by a variety of sea creatures including sea horses and dolphins ridden by cherubs. These creatures rested on shells supported by mermaids and mermen. The fountain also served the practical purpose of providing drinking water.  On September 23rd 1872, the water to the fountain was turned on.

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Sebastiano Mondolfo, Milan financier and philanthropist who had a second home, the Villa Volontè, in Como.

But from the start, some of Como’s inhabitants began to find fault with the fountain on both practical and aesthetic grounds. The main practical concern was that the supply of drinking water to the poor inhabitants of the area, which included at the time the labyrinthine quarter known as the Cortisella, would cause shortages at the water’s source on Monte Olimpino.  The aesthetic judgements ranged from complaints that the swan more closely resembled a goose and that the naked torsos of mermaids were inappropriate for children and disturbed  the sensibilities of the more puritanically minded. Others felt that the imagery of sea creatures like dolphins and sea horses was inappropriate to its setting alongside a freshwater lake. Thus the fountain became the subject of polemical debate. Sebastiano Mondolfo died in 1873 and was therefore spared having to witness his act of selfless generosity to the city where he maintained his weekend retreat being treated so ungratefully and scorned by the vociferous band of ‘anti-fontanisti’.

The fate of the fountain went from bad to worse. The constant flooding of Piazza Cavour from the lake and the erosion of the landfill under the piazza caused damage to the fountain which the Comune did not have the resources to repair. The Comune either could not or would not find the funds to maintain it. The fountain was dismantled and removed from Piazza Cavour in 1891, a mere 19 years later. It stayed in storage with a price tag of 3,500 lire to anyone prepared to take it off the Comune’s hands.

mermaid

One criticism of the fountain was that the naked mermaids might upset youthful sensibilities

The fountain’s saviour was the American oligarch founder of Standard Oil, the multi-millionaire William Rockefeller Jnr, who had much admired the fountain on previous visits to Como. He bought it in 1902 from the Comune for the asking price and then paid out $25,000 to transport it to New York City where it was installed in the Bronx Zoo in 1903. It was subsequently relocated to its current location in the zoo in 1910. The population of New York City fortunately took a very much more positive attitude to the fountain than the citizens of Como. It was even designated an official New York City landmark in 1968, and there it stands to this day. It is apparently a popular backdrop for newly-married couples posing for photographs during the post-wedding ‘passeggiata romantica’.

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The Rockefeller Fountain in the Bronx Zoo

While the fountain is now commonly referred to as the Rockefeller Fountain, there have been no attempts to deny its place of origin. The inscription on the fountain reads:

THIS FOUNTAIN

FROM THE CITY OF COMO, ITALY

WAS PRESENTED BY WILLIAM ROCKEFELLER

AND BY HIM ERECTED ON ITS PRESENT SITE

1902

William-Rockefeller

William Rockefeller Jnr,

In more recent times, the fountain has had to undergo extensive restoration and one very imaginative Como citizen was able to take full advantage of this cultural link to New York. Daniele Travi, the owner with his wife of the Sorsasso vineyard in Domaso, was guest of honour back in September 2008 at the ceremony revealing the latest work of restoration.

Daniele Travi was billed as the ‘special envoy’ to the Como City Council sharing top billing with the Italo-American tenor Michael Amante at the unveiling ceremony. As Como’s Ambassador Daniele Travi stated:

It is very rewarding for us to have this beloved work of art representing Como here at the Bronx Zoo. Como and its people are deeply touched and proud that this symbol of Italy – and our hometown in particular – graces such a place of beauty and inspiration in New York City. Thank you for caring for ‘Our’ Italian Fountain.

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The Rockefeller Fountain — named for benefactor William Rockefeller — at the Bronx Zoo in The Bronx, one of five county-level divisions within sprawling New York City, New York. The largest metropolitan zoo in the United States and among the largest in the world, this zoo, which opened in 1899, attracts more than two million visitors each year. It comprises 265 acres of parkland and naturalistic habitats, through which the Bronx River flows. Dedicated here in 1903, the fountain once stood in Como, Italy.

Reports of the ceremony went on to mention how the ‘celebrations were enhanced by a donation of wine from Como’s only vineyard by Daniele Travi’. Needless to say, that vineyard was Il Sorsasso in Domaso. 

Piazza Cavour today

Piazza Cavour – a space looking for a function

Meanwhile Piazza Cavour remains a piazza without a heart – an empty space left looking for a role. While nearby Piazza Volta rocks with life and activity, Piazza Cavour still hasn’t found a true purpose. It is unable to exploit its one major advantage of looking directly out on to the lake on its north side because of the major traffic route that separates it. And unless something is done about that, there is no reason why the new lakefront will in any way enhance this public space. At least the flood defences may at last solve the erosion issues affecting Piazza Cavour’s foundations so maybe any future donation of public art might stand a better chance of acceptance and survival within Como’s hostile civic environment.

Villa Volonte

One wing of the neo-classical Villa Volontè, on the lakefront near to Villa Olmo. This was the weekend retreat of Sebastiano Mondolfo.

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Moltrasio: The Power of Civic Pride

moltrasio

Moltrasio – from top to bottom

Moltrasio is a small town on the western shores of Lake Como 10 kilometres north of Como itself. It nestles within a valley carved out by two mountain streams, the Pizzalo and Arbusel,  which come together at the town’s centre.

arbusell

The Arbusel is the second of Moltrasio’s mountain streams which cascades down through the centre of the town where it joins the Pizzallo to then flow into the lake.

The town lies on the old Roman Via Regina that ran from Cremona to Chiavenna via Milan. The same road also formed the later medieval Via Francigena Renana, a route from Rome that crossed the Alps into Northern Europe by the Splugen Pass. A roman bridge, known locally as the Ponte del Pasett, still stands where the Via Regina crosses the Pizzallo. With a mere population of 1,600 people, but with an abundance of cultural, architectural and archaeological interest, Moltrasio plays way above its weight in the welcome it extends to all visitors.  

So many communities on the lake are vying with each other to attract the attention of visitors. Bellagio is undoubtedly the winner and clearly justifies its title of jewel of the lake. Bellagio is a beautiful town but to my mind, its attractions stop there. Moltrasio is not so perfectly groomed as Bellagio but its charms are more varied;  its atmosphere is more relaxed and its welcome more sincere. Bellagio’s combination of exclusivity and magnet for day trippers runs the risk of it becoming a living museum or a rich man’s ghetto like Portofino. Moltrasio runs no such risk – it is a living community of all ages and, what is more, a proud community committed to the well-being of their town.

Pro Moltrasio

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Just one of the many publications by Pro Moltrasio promoting local tourism. The association also provides bi-lingual information boards at all of the sites of historical, cultural or archaeological interest.

The work and commitment of voluntary associations is of primary importance in supporting the quality of everyday life in Italy – maybe more so here than in other developed countries due to the limited funds, functions and efficiency of state organisations.  ‘Pro-Loco’ associations that promote the social, cultural and economic life of their communities thrive in many small towns. Moltrasio is fortunate to have a particularly active ‘Pro-loco’ working to attract sustainable tourism to the town. They have achieved some considerable success and can boast a great bi-lingual website that provides visitors with a mass of information and suggestions on what to see and visit. 

The recent success of the FAI Open Day in Moltrasio is just one illustration of this group’s effectiveness. FAI (the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano) is an equivalent organisation to the United Kingdom’s National Trust. Their bi-annual Open Days offer the general public the opportunity to visit sites of special cultural or historic interest guided by local experts. The latest FAI weekend was on the 26th and 27th March and in the case of Moltrasio, there was no specific villa on show but the whole town itself. Over the weekend groups of up to 15 people departed every 15 minutes from Piazza San Rocco alongside the Imbarcadero on a round tour of the town taking about two hours. This called upon a mass of volunteers to either guide the groups around the town or to provide information at any of the key points of interest along the route. 

Stone and Water

cascata Pizzallo

The Cascata Pizzallo visible from the main road from Como to Argegno

Even those driving through Moltrasio on the direct road (rather than the lakeside route) to Argegno will notice the massive waterfall alongside the viaduct that goes over the heads of the houses below. This is the Cascata Pizzallo named after one of the town’s two main mountain streams. Further down in the town, the waters of the other stream, the Arbusel, tumble down precipitously toward the lake. Moltrasio in the past made good use of these streams to power up to eleven separate mills. 

old mill

The workings from one of the old mills now transferred and preserved in a building near to the Cascata di Cam. The mill stone is made from granite – not the natural stone of Moltrasio but brought down to the area by glaciation from the Valtellina.

Moltrasio’s other gift of nature is stone. Moltrasio stone is used in construction all across Lake Como. It is a hard sedimentary rock that is relatively easy to separate out into slabs of differing thickness. It is the stone used in Como’s city walls, in the terracing that covered the hillsides around the lake, in numerous buildings and with the waste shards used to pave the old mule tracks and mountain paths. 

sentee di sort

The Sentee di Sort is a path that links Moltrasio to Rovenna above Cernobbio. The path here is made from slabs of Moltrasio stone as are the walls of the terraces. The path passes some of the now disused stone quarries.

The mountain path that links Moltrasio to Rovenna above Cernobbio  – the Sentee di Sort – takes you past many of the old quarries. The old ways of working stone were demonstrated on the FAI Open Day by Pro-Moltrasio members at the disused quarry at Cavirolo. Householders whose properties backed on to the mountainside would also have profited from their location to quarry the stone in their back gardens and use it either for their own building or for the use of others. 

From Stone and Water to Food and Culture

Stone and water provided the basis for Moltrasio’s economy in years past to which must be added the profits made during the romantic era of smuggling with the Swiss border running right by the Rifugio Bugone above the town. It has also been a popular tourist destination for many years with visitors from Como and beyond coming out in the summer months to enjoy an ice cream at La Vecchina right by the Imbarcadero. 

The range of dining options in Moltrasio matches the range of its social classes – and as elsewhere on the lake, the town’s social strata tend to follow the geographical layout. So, you can dine in exclusive and more costly circumstances on the lakefront itself at the Ristorante Imperialino with its magnificent terrace directly on the lake or move up the valley to dine equally well but in more modest surroundings and at less cost in the long-established co-operative La Moltrasina just behind the town’s main church. 

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The terrace of the Ristorante Imperialino on the lakefront.

The Moltrasina co-operative was established in the 1900s with the aim of providing food and wine to the town’s residents at reasonable cost. It, like the Association Pro-Moltrasio, is a living example of the civic pride of Moltrasio’s citizens in that the co-operative still boasts over 280 active members still committed to its original aims. It continues to provide a social and cultural centre for the locals as well as being open to everyone to come and eat well at a modest price.

If you are looking to try out genuine local cuisine you can also head for the Crotto Val Durino to eat missoltini, risotto di pesce persico or the gut-busting cazuela when the season is right. 

For those prepared to climb up to the summit of the mountain behind the town, you will also satisfy the appetite gained by eating at the Rifugio Bugone – a former border guard post with an honourable history during the war of assisting Jews, ex Prisoners of war and others escape the fascist state to reach safety in Switzerland.

bellini memorial

The memorial to Vincenzo Bellini by local artist Massimo Clerici. Bellini lived in Moltrasio from 1829 to 1833, a period in which he composed many of his best known operas.

Two sculptures by local artist Massimo Clerici on the lakefront highlight Moltrasio’s cultural connections with its star visitor being Vincenzo Bellini who lived on and off in Moltrasio with his lover, Giuditta Cantù, from 1829 to 1833 either in the Villa Salterio Ecker rented by her or as a guest at the nearby Villa Passalacqua. Bellini’s muse, Giuditta Pasta for whom he wrote Norma, lived across the water in Torno.  

The other sculpture was erected more recently in 2019 to honour the memory of Virgilio Ranzato, the so-called Italian king of operetta. He also spent years living in Moltrasio to where he returned shortly before his death in 1937.  

Villas

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The Villa Passalacqua is due to open as a luxury hotel in June this year. Its terraced gardens descend down to the lakefront.

The lakefront at Moltrasio is as beautiful as anywhere else on the lake and a number of wealthy aristocrats or industrialists in the past have built and renovated villas along its shores. The largest and most impressive of all is the Villa Passalacqua, a neo-classical structure first erected by the Papal Odescalchi family in the late 1600s on the grounds of a former monastery. It subsequently took its current name once purchased by Count Andrea Lucini Passalacqua in 1787.

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The Villa Passalacqua

The villa is on a level with the heart of the town above the lake but with an extensive terraced garden that goes right down to the lakefront.  It had a varied history throughout the twentieth century even being occupied for some time immediately after the last war by the British Secret Service. In 2021 it came under auction and was purchased by the De Santis family. De Santis has been renovating the villa and will reopen it as a deluxe hotel with its doors due to open in June (2022). De Santis is also the owner of another of the most luxurious hotels on Lake Como, the Grand Hotel di Tremezzo. The lobby of the villa boasts a sculpture at the bottom of the grand staircase by Auguste Rodin and many of the rooms on the piano nobile have frescoes by Andrea Appiani.

Illustrious Visitors

In addition to Vincenzo Bellini staying at the Villa Salterio Ecker, we should mention Gianni Versace who bought the Villa Fontanelle also on the lakefront. Napoleon was said to have spent some time at the Villa Passalacqua and more recently, Winston Churchill came to stay in Moltrasio after his election defeat in 1946 at the Villa Donegani – now known as the Villa La Rosa.

villa donegani

Villa Donegani, now known as Villa La Rosa where Winston Churchill stayed in the summer of 1946

Churchill’s visit to Lake Como has subsequently caused a mass of speculation as to his motives for the stay. Some historians and believers in the Churchill-Mussolini correspondence conspiracy (far too complicated to touch on here) believe he was trying to track down copies of these letters to prevent any disclosures. The Villa Donegani was occupied at the time by the British Army while the British were aiding its owner, the industrialist and director of what was to become Montedison, Guido Donegani, in avoiding arrest for corroborating with Mussolini’s fascist regime. An apartment in the Villa La Rosa is available for holiday rentals so current day visitors can, if they choose, follow in Churchill’s footsteps.

Conclusion

Pro loco quarries

Members of Pro Moltrasio demonstrating the traditional techniques for quarrying Moltrasio stone at the old quarry in Cavirolo during the FAI Open Days in March.

There are a number of excellent reasons for visiting Moltrasio and a look at the bilingual Pro Moltrasio website outlines much better than here what there is to see and do. Above all else, it is the pride taken by the locals in their promotional work which deserves recognition given how they have so helpfully set about making  so much information available to those wishing to visit. But for me what makes Moltrasio such a pleasure to visit is the sense that this is a living community determined to optimise the present and ensure the future for its inhabitants of all ages. 

View to Torno

A view from the top of Moltrasio over to Torno. In the past, Moltrasio and Torno were vowed enemies and Torno sacked the town back in 1522.

Their civic pride shows itself in many small ways, in the quality of the signposting of the different attractions, in their willingness to staff open days with so many volunteers and in the way they all seem to take care of their local environment. One very telling piece of evidence of this civic pride was that Moltrasio suffered no serious damage resulting from the massive rainfall that fell last July which caused mountain streams to surge downhill with destructive force. Whole buildings were destroyed in nearby Laglio by the force of the rocks and detritus brought down where two mountain streams converge. But in Moltrasio, where two equally forceful torrents converge, there was no damage and the ancient Roman bridge over the Pizzallo remained untouched. The difference was down to the fact that the Moltrasio inhabitants have always ensured they keep their water courses clean and free of rubble and their woods cleared of broken trunks and branches. Such commitment paid off then and will continue to pay off into the future as Moltrasio presents itself proudly to the world.

madonna del latte

The Romanesque Church of St. Agata contains some early frescoes including this example of the Madonna del Latte. This image can be found repeated in a number of ancient churches around Lake Como and was venerated to encourage fertility.

Further Reading

Moltrasio has featured in a variety of Como Companion’s previous articles.

For walks, try out Sentee di Sort as well as the route from Carate Urio to Moltrasio via the Rifugio Bugone. 

The heroism and sacrifice of some members of the Guardia di Finanza assisting Jews and others to gain safety during the war in neighbouring Switzerland is described in Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust.

Moltrasio even features as the setting of a famous turn of the 20th century true crime in our account of the Trunk Murder.

Moltrasio’s lido is an excellent spot for swimming in the lake. A look at our data on the quality of the water for bathing in the lake confirms the positive record for this beach over the last few years.

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Como’s City Walls

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The ‘Citta Murata’ looking north. The towers on the south side are from left to right, Torre Gattoni, Porta Torre and Torre San Vitale. The walls that still stand follow the avenues of trees visible on the south, west and east sides of the old city.

Como has a lot of ‘history’ and the city’s walls provide visible evidence of the fact. Como was first fortified back in 51 BCE but only a few traces of those early Roman walls remain. What can be seen today dates back to 1158 when Federico Barbarossa, the Swabian Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned a new set of walls to be built just beyond the Roman originals.

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Federico Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and Como’s saviour in liberating the city from Milanese control.

The works took thirty years to complete and then underwent a variety of vicissitudes and modifications over the coming centuries until finally in 1975 the City Council decided that no further changes should ever be made. 

Most other Lombardy cities in Medieval times were fortified but most of these walls, as in the case of  neighbouring Cantù, have subsequently been demolished. Como’s walls owe their survival to the city’s unique geographical position as a gateway to or from the Splugen Pass over the Alps via Lake Como. This route was used for both military and commercial ends offering access north over the Alps to the Rhine and Danube river systems (as exploited by Julius Caesar) and south to Milan, Pavia and eastwards via the River Po to Venice and the east. In wartime, Como’s walls provided protection from attack and resistance to siege while in more peaceful times, they forced traders into paying taxes and levies as they sought to pass their goods through the city on their way to their final markets – a constraint long resented by the merchants of Milan.

Roman Days

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Plan of the Roman Walls (shown in red) superimposed on the current street map. The green lines show where the city expanded in later Roman times.

Como was granted the status of a municipality by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. This signified that the citizens of Como (the Comaschi) could claim the same level of social rights as citizens of Rome. In keeping with this status, and in recognition of the city’s strategic significance, Caesar set about improving the city’s defences by building a defensive wall around all four sides of the rectangular settlement. Building started in 51 BCE.

Only a few traces of this original wall are still visible but enough to be able to trace where the perimeters lay on the south, east and west sides. The north facing course of the wall towards the lake is much harder to discern. The  wall would have been two metres thick and eight metres high with an additional castellated walkway giving a further two metres in height. The main gateway was the Porta Pretoria on the south side not far from where the Porta Torre now stands. The ruins of the original Porta Pretoria are visible below the Liceo Classico and are, sadly, only occasionally open for the public to view. 

roman remains

Remains of the Roman wall can be seen on the left with the Medieval wall seen on the right.

Early Medieval Period

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Como found itself on the path of hostile armies from the north invading the old Roman capital of Milan and the even richer city of Pavia. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman walls were reinforced in a bid to resist these invading Germanic and Burgundian tribes. It wasn’t until the Gothic Wars of 535 to 553 CE allowed the Byzantines to reclaim total control of Como and the rest of the Pianura Padana. They set about reinforcing the Castel Baradello guarding the southern entry to the city and Isola Comacina on the lake which guarded the northern access to the city. Both Castel Baradello and Isola Comacina were to prove of strategic importance for centuries to come although Isola Comacina’s allegiance to Como, as with many other lakeside communities, was anything but constant.

porta-pretoria-sezione-romana-agora-albate

The foundations of the Roman Porta Pretoria are occasionally opened for visits from the public.

The Byzantines also improved the city’s defences by building new towers along its walls, destroying all buildings that lay in close proximity to their exterior and then digging a nine metre wide and two and a half metre deep ditch along its entire perimeter. 

Isola Comacina

Isola Comacina is small but, as the only island on Lake Como, proved of strategic importance throughout the years.

The Germanic tribe of Lombards, the Longobardi, took the place of the Byzantines between 569 and 572 CE setting up their capital in Monza. However the independent-minded Isola Comacina was not captured until 588 under the reign of Queen Teodolinda whose iron crown is now on display in Monza’s cathedral. 

The Lombards went on to rule the area until 774 CE during which time they allowed Como’s walls to suffer damage through neglect and lack of maintenance.

Middle to Late Medieval Period

Moltrasio Stone

Como’s walls and towers are built from Moltrasio stone.

The 9th to 11th centuries proved to be a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Como started to profit from exacting dues and tariffs from the passing trade. The two small communities outside the city walls north to the west – Borgo Vico – and to the east – Coloniola – were in turn fortified primarily to ensure no evasion of customs duties. The city now took on the form of a crab, the so-called ‘Urbs Cancrina’.

Ten Years War with Milan

Porta Torre

Porta Torre, situated close to the original Roman Porta Pretoria, Porta Torre was the main gateway into the city from Milan and the south.

At  the start of the 12th century, in the era in which individual communes assumed more power over any overarching political entity, Milan  became increasingly aggravated by the demands for duties imposed by the  Comune of Como on any goods passing through its territory. Milan formed an early version of the Lombardy League allying itself with Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Genoa in a bid to facilitate trade and withstand those more closely allied with the Holy Roman Empire. They focussed their antagonism against Como and managed to get the strategically important settlement of Isola Comacina on their side along with other towns on the lake such as Torno, Nesso and Lenno. 

Torre San Vitale

The Torre San Vitale is on the south eastern corner of the city’s walls. The two arches at its base were made to accomodate the tramway in the last century once the decision was taken to bar trams from the historic centre.

Milan instigated a period of war with Como from 1117 that was to last ten years following a defined season of aggression starting in Spring and ending in Autumn. Como was singularly successful in fighting off this alliance thanks to its naval fleet on the lake and its robust city walls.  But Como’s success did not last forever and the conflict was to end in 1127 when Milanese forces broke through the walls and proceeded to sack, pillage and burn the city. They also destroyed the walls and in the subsequent peace settlement, forbade Como from rebuilding them and from levying duties on trade. Thus Milan kept Como subjugated for the next thirty years until salvation arrived from the north.

Federico Barbarossa

castel baraDELLO

The Castel Baradello existed from Byzantine times but was rebuilt by Federico Barbarossa.

Federico Barbarossa, as the Holy Roman Emperor,  decided it was about time he reasserted his sovereignty over the rogue Italian communes to his south who swore allegiance to the Papacy rather than to himself. He had in mind those cities that had formed the Lombardy League. He first invasion south from Germany was in 1154 when he came to note the strategic advantage to him of both Isola Comacina and Como. Not having managed to fully subdue Milan and its allies, he returned again to Lombardy in 1158. By 1162 he had managed to force Milan into lifting all the restrictions to trade and defence it had previously imposed on Como. He turned his attention to strengthening Como’s defences and set about rebuilding the walls that had lain destroyed since 1127.

The Federican Walls

walls and porta torre

The south facing city walls with Porta Torre.

The city walls we see today are ostensibly those that Federico Barbarossa started to build in 1158. The work continued until 1192. His walls more or less followed the path of the previous Roman walls but were extended further out. They were built higher than before and castellated. He, like the Byzantines, also dug a ditch along the wall’s external perimeter. The city must have presented a very foreboding presence to those approaching it since no buildings inside the walls were allowed to surpass their height.

baradello tower

Remains of the Castel Baradello looking down onto Como

He also built the tower at what is now called Porta Torre on the southern entrance to the city from Via Milano. Castel Baradello was rebuilt and the main customs post was moved from Borgo Vico out of the city to Camerlata.

Barbarossa himself suffered a defeat by the forces of the Lombardy League at Legnano in May 1176 CE. He was feared killed but did manage to escape back to the Castel Baradello to rejoin his wife whom he had left there in the safe hands of the local garrison. 

Castello Della Torre Rotonda

castello torre rotonda 2

The Castello Della Torre Rotonda. The second square tower was a later addition.

The conflict between The Holy Roman Emperor and the supporters of the Pope developed into a conflict between local aristocratic families with the side supporting the Papacy, known as the Guelphs and those allied to the Holy Roman Emperor known as the Ghibellines. The Como Guelphs were represented initially by the Vittani family and later by the Delle Torre (or Torriani). The Ghibellines were initially represented by the Rusca family and later by the Milanese Visconti. These two sets of families then battled it out for control of the city over the next hundred years with the Rusca/Visconti having the upper hand. Loterio II Rusca built himself a castle where the Teatro Sociale and the Arena now stand. The building was  started in 1284 but was never intended as a defence against external attack. Its purpose instead was to ensure internal control of the city and to keep the city rulers safe from popular insurrection. Loterio Rusca also extended the walls on the eastern side to encompass the Bishop’s Palace and the military port area just north of the Como Nord station. 

The growth in the civic power of elite families heralded the period of the ‘Signorie’ lasting from the second half of the 14th to the end of the 15th century. While Florence had the Medici and Mantua the Gonzagas, Como was governed by the Milanese Visconti family. The Ruscas handed power over to Azzone Visconti in 1335. Visconti further strengthened the two southern gates of Porta Nuova and Porta Torre but, more significantly decided to enlarge on the fortified area of the Castello Della Torre to create another defensive line within the city. 

Cittadella Viscontea

stemma visconti

The crest of the Visconti family. This crest can be seen on many of the aristocratic villas, castles and palaces in Lombardy, for example above Como’s Villa Olmo.

The Cittadella Viscontea formed a type of ‘green zone’ within the cite to protect the city rulers, including the bishops, from the rest of the urban population. The walls of the Cittadella extended beyond the castle to cover the area of San Giacomo Church and modern day Piazza Roma. This included the naval military garrison, the Church of San Provino and the bishop’s palace. No traces can be seen of Como’s Cittadella but those established by the Visconti in Piacenza and Bergamo remain.

The Cittadella Viscontea lasted until 1447 when the last in the family line, Filippo Maria Visconti, died. A brief republic was set up in Milan and this gave the inhabitants of Como the opportunity to destroy the Cittadella’s walls. However the period of the Signorie was not yet over as the Sforza family soon came to take the place of the Visconti.

Como Again Under Attack

The start of the 16th century saw Como in the path of the expansionist aims of France, Austria and Spain with the French initially taking control of the city and consolidating its city walls against invasion from the Austrian Emperor Maximilian who was allied to the Milanese Sforza family. In 1508 the French Governor, Jean de Bassey, reduced the number of entrances to the city to just three gates in the walls with Porta Portello on the east side by the castle, Porta Torre to the south and Porta Sala on the west where Via Garibaldi now stands. He also deepened the ditch around the perimeter and flooded it to form a moat.

torre gattoni 3

The Porta Nuova is just alongside the Torre Gattoni on the south western edge of the city walls.

The Spanish lay siege to Como in 1521 as part of their conflict with France and although the French defended strongly, the Spanish breached the city walls near to modern day Porta Nuova. The French surrendered on 21st December and the Spanish followed this by sacking the city.

In 1532 the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes at the north end of Lake Como on what is now called the Pian di Spagna. This was built as defence against the possibility of further expansion from the Swiss Canton of the Grissons down the Valtellina and to discourage any further spread of Protestantism. For the Spanish, Como had no real strategic value and they certainly were not concerned about the city’s ability to set tariffs on passing trade. 

Towards the Modern Era

viale varese walls

The walls on the western side of the old city with the avenue of trees established over the old moat.

Fortunately the 17th and 18th centuries proved a relatively quiet period for Como even if under foreign rule. The walls lost much of their defensive purpose and so the owners of the private villas just within their limits were allowed to build the ‘hanging gardens’ that now characterise some sections of the walls on their west and southern facing sides. In 1783, the Comune purchased the walls from the military authorities. They then filled in the moat and turned it into avenues of trees. 

Mantero Hanging Garden

The hanging garden in the old headquarters of Mantero on the south western corner of the walls.

One symbol of this growing period of Enlightenment was the use made of the tower beside the Porta Nuova on the south western corner of the city walls. This tower was bought by the Gattoni family back in 1784 and was used by Alessandro Volta to undertake some of his early experiments into the nature of electricity. The tower is now commonly referred to as either Torre Nuova or Torre Gattoni. 

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was demolished in its entirety in 1811 to make way for the new opera house, the Teatro Sociale.

Teatro Sociale

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was destroyed in 1811 to make way for the building of the Teatro Sociale.

Under Napoleonic rule, the defensive role of the walls was reduced further by knocking down the bastions built around the gates to the city and getting rid of the wall’s castellations. The walls still served to mark out the customs area and ensure the payment of tariffs. For this reason entrances to the city were still limited to Porta Sala on the west, Porta Portello on the east and Porta Torre on the south or from the lake to the north. Some minor gates did exist including a gateway allowing Alessandro Volta to exit the city directly from his garden. This was subsequently blocked up again after his death. 

Porta Sala

Via Garibaldi is located where the Porta Sala gave access to the city from Borgo Vico on the west side.

In May 1859, Garibaldi led his soldiers after their victory over the Austrians at San Fermo through the gates of Porta Sala to a hero’s welcome. Full unification of an independent Italy would follow a few years later and the fortifications of Porta Sala pulled down. This is still a main entrance way into the old city with the street renamed Via Garibaldi and the area immediately outside the gates of Porta Sala called Piazza Cacciatori delle Alpi – the name given to the troops who fought the Austrians at San Fermo.

Internal customs borders were abolished in 1867 with the walls finally losing their other main role throughout history. From that day new entrance ways into the city began to open up and the only remaining gateway dating back to Federico Barbarossa is the Porta Torre.

old entry

One of the gateways into the city as depicted in the 1800s

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‘James Bond’ Returns to Lake Como

Dick and Christine Mallaby

Dick Mallaby with his wife, Christine

Back in June 2021 we recounted the exploits of Dick Mallaby, a British secret agent who, on being parachuted into Lake Como and immediately arrested, went on to provide the only communication channel available for those negotiating the Italian Armistice in September 1943.

Faggeto Lario

Dick Mallaby parachuted into Lake Como around 2.00am on August 14th 1943 in the area of the lake shown in this photo between Faggeto Lario in the foreground and Carate Urio on the further bank. He was detected immediately and arrested.

He then spent most of the remaining war years in a training role but he had not seen the last of Lake Como. Dick was an agent of  the British Secret Operations Executive (SOE) reporting to its boss in Bern, Jock McCaffery. The Americans also had their own secret organisation based in Bern known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headed by Allen Dulles. 

Although desperate to undertake another mission behind enemy lines, McCaffery was concerned that Dick would be too readily recognisable in Italy due to the fame of his former exploits. However, come February 1945, when allied victory was almost guaranteed, SOE relented and sent him once again to Lake Como.  It initially appeared as if fortune was going to be no kinder on this occasion than in 1943. He was almost immediately arrested and again carted off to Como to be interrogated by Paolo Porta, the fanatical Head of the local Brigate Nere, who  was to face execution with other fascist leaders on the lakefront in Dongo just over two months later. Dick was able to keep good luck on his side as he managed, truthfully or otherwise, to pose as a potential go-between in secret peace negotiations between the fascist authorities and the local heads of the allied Secret Services based in Bern, Switzerland. Once again Dick Mallaby found himself an active participant in another crucial moment of diplomatic intrigue.

The Mission

alla_scoperta_della_val_cavargna

The Val Cavargna above Carlazzo with Lake Como in the distance

The ‘official’ purpose of Dick Mallaby’s second trip into enemy-occupied Italy was for him to meet up with the Catholic forces of resistance – the Fiamme Verdi partisans operating principally in the Province of Brescia. He was accompanied on his mission by three Italians. They were a radio operator with the code name of Anselmo and two Catholic priests, Don Mario Zanin and Don Giovanni Barbareschi. Both priests were closely linked to the Fiamme Verdi. 

fiamme verdi

British SOE preferred supporting catholic Fiamme Verdi to other communist groups

The party of four met up at the British Embassy in Lugano on February 13th and made their clandestine crossing into Italy to the north east so as to descend the Val Cavargna. They spent the night of the 14th in a mountain hut outside of Carlazzo and on the next day crossed Lake Como from Menaggio to Varenna. There they failed to make contact with someone due to help their ongoing journey and so hitched a ride down the lake to Lecco. 

mallaby route (1)

Dick’s route on his 2nd mission started at Point 1, descended the Val Cavargna (2), overnighted in Carlazzo (3) before crossing the lake at Menaggio (4) to Varenna (5). They moved on to Lecco (6) where they were arrested with Dick being taken to Como (7). He would later return at the end of his mission to stay overnight in the Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio before crossing to Chiasso.

According to the young priest Don Barbareschi, the group had taken his advice to change their destination to Milan so they could all meet up with Milan’s Archbishop, Cardinal Schuster. Don Barbareschi was in fact Cardinal Schuster’s trusted go-between who had been aiding secret negotiations between the Catholic church with the support of the Fiamme Verdi and the heads of Mussolini’s puppet state through the offices of the British SOE in Bern. Schuster was seeking to arrange for the peaceful surrender of the Italian fascists in exchange for their promise to cease fighting and not destroy any of the civil and industrial infrastructure. Since Don Barbareschi was also highly trusted by Jock McCaffery, the SOE Head in Bern, there is every good reason to believe that Mallaby’s mission was always intended to support Cardinal Schuster and use the radio operator Anselmo to facilitate communications between Milan and the British in Switzerland. 

lecco lakefront

The lakefront at Lecco

At Lecco, the four members of the party went into a bar and, according to Dick Mallaby, the two priests began to attract unwanted attention to themselves through some injudicious and easily overheard comments. The police duly arrived and, although their identity documents passed scrutiny, suspicions were aroused by the fact that all four had given the same address in Milan as their residence – the address given was the actual Milan residence of Don Barbareschi. All four were arrested and initially detained in Lecco. Don Mario Zanin managed to take advantage of confusion during an air strike to escape and seek shelter in a nearby seminary. Dick Mallaby was separated from the remaining two and transported to face interrogation by Paolo Porta in Como.

Dick Mallaby becomes Captain Richard Tucker

epoca casa del fascio

The Casa del Fascio in Como where Dick would have been interrogated by Paolo Porta

All captured enemy secret agents faced summary execution on arrest. Agents were trained to use whatever means they could when captured to prolong their lives short of giving away critical information in a bid to play for time to organise some form of rescue. One way to prolong interrogation was to provide false information that would need to be checked assuming of course this did not compromise any actual plans. While advised to be imaginative in their stories, they were also told to keep to verifiable facts wherever possible. Dick Mallaby’s inventiveness and imagination would now be put to the test.

Rodolfo_Graziani_1940_(Retouched)

Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces under Nazi occupation

He told Paolo Porta that he was on a secret commission on behalf of the Allied Military Commander in Italy, General Alexander. To give some credence that he would be authorised for such a mission he promoted himself to Captain giving his name as Richard Tucker. He stated his message from General Alexander was intended for none other than Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces. He would not reveal the content of his message to any other except to say that it involved a possible peace proposal. Dick Mallaby would have been fully briefed on the political situation at that time where it was obvious that both the Germans and leaders of the Italian fascist regime were considering how to prepare themselves for defeat. I believe it is also highly likely that his original mission was to facilitate further negotiations initiated by Cardinal Schuster with the British SOE. However he may not have been on a mission directed by General Alexander. In any case, Paolo Porta was impressed and invited Dick to stay overnight at the officers’ mess before being taken down to Milan on the 16th February to meet with the overall Commander of the fascist Brigate Nere – Brigadier General Edouardo Facdouelle.

All seemed to be going well for Dick aka Captain Richard Tucker as he shared a convivial lunch with the Brigadier and to quote his biographer his ‘equally cordial daughter’. Dick explained how he could only convey General Alexander’s proposal directly to Rodolfo Graziani and no-one else. Facdouelle then accompanies Dick to Graziani’s headquarters but Graziani refuses to meet with him explaining through Facdouelle that he was worried that the Germans would learn about the hearing. Instead Graziani orders Dick to be taken to the headquarters of the fascist state’s secret services known as the Servizio Informazioni Difesa (SID) in Volta Mantovana to be interrogated by Colonello Candeloro De Leo who headed the organisation. 

On the 18th February Dick faced his interrogation with De Leo, a man with a fearsome reputation as a skilful  interrogator and the head of one of the more effective of the fascist state’s organisations. Dick knew at this stage, following Graziani’s refusal to get involved, that he would have to divulge the presumably fictitious proposal from General Alexander. He duly presented a five point plan for a peaceful surrender aimed to  protect Italian infrastructure from German sabotage  and ensure no partisan reprisals against Italian fascist forces, backed up by Allied military intervention wherever needed. He added that he himself would need to return to Switzerland to procure a radio transmitter so that he could return with it to facilitate all further communications between the two parties. De Leo passed on this plan to Graziani the next day, February 19th. Graziani duly informed the German SS of everything Captain Tucker had to propose.

Lake Garda

A storm gathers over Lake Garda

Dick Mallaby Meets the German High Command

Karl Wolff

Karl Wolff, SS-Gruppenführer

Once De Leo had concluded his amiable interrogation, Dick was told to pack his bags and accompany a Captain in the German SS waiting for him in the hall of the villa housing the Italian SID. Needless to say, this turn of events caused him severe worry which only increased on finding himself transferred to the headquarters of the German SS’s intelligence arm, the SD, in the Palazzo delle Assicurazione in Verona.

He now spent a week facing numerous and rigorous interrogation sessions but no torture.  His interrogators had introduced themselves as not as gullible or as credulous as their Italian counterparts. But Dick had by now bought himself sufficient time to consolidate and embellish his story. Try as they might his interrogators could not uncover any inconsistencies between the various statements recorded.  

On the 26th February he was transferred to a luxurious villa in Fasano on Lake Garda where he was introduced to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and General of the Waffen SS, Karl Wolff, the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy – the man responsible for the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps and for the vicious anti-partisan campaign across occupied Italian territory.  Having convinced all others so far of his sincerity, Dick Mallaby now managed to convince the most powerful representative in Italy of the Nazi regime that he really was Captain Richard Tucker and that he genuinely came with a peace proposal from General Alexander. He also repeated the need for him to return to Switzerland and to return with a radio transmitter as he had originally explained to De Leo.

villa carminati

Villa Carminati in Cernobbio was the Border Control Headquarters of the SS for North West Italy. Its strategic location close to the Swiss border meant that it hosted a number of people needing to enter Switzerland during the secret negotiations of a peace settlement.

With his agreement to return as soon as possible from Switzerland, Dick was transferred back to Verona from where on February 28th he was subsequently escorted to the SS’s local headquarters in Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli ready to cross the border at Chiasso the following day.

Dick Mallaby Falls Out of Favour

Dick’s apparently improvised plan for ending the war in Italy started to fall apart the moment he crossed the Italian border into Switzerland at Chiasso at 07.00am on 1st March 1945, because Allen Dulles and his team of agents working for the American OSS had a better plan now known to history as ‘Operation Sunrise’.

allen dulles 2

Allen Dulles seen with John F Kennedy later in life as Director of the CIA

Unknown to Dick or to his boss Jock McCaffery in Bern, or at this stage to Karl Wolff, a plan for bringing together Germans and the Allies to discuss a peace settlement had first been  proposed to Allen Dulles back on February 21st when Dick was under detention at the SD Headquarters in Verona. This plan already had the backing of the Swiss secret services, the sponsorship of some high ranking SS officers and was on the way to being adopted also by Allen Dulles. Karl Wolff was briefed by one of his officers on this fresh proposal on the very day that Dick crossed over to Chiasso. The Americans would have previously been made aware of Dick’s alternative plan and when he was due to cross the border because the SS Officer in command at Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli, Captain Joseph Voetterl, was in fact an American double agent. 

varenna to menaggioDick’s plan was now seen as an amateurish meddling with the inherent danger of confusing the various parties launching Operation Sunrise or worse still, sowing distrust between them. And so it may come as no surprise that the Swiss secret service refused to recognise Dick’s well established  cover as one of their own officers on presenting himself at the Chiasso border control. He was immediately detained and from that date on, effectively silenced and kept out of action. He remained in detention until released on 13th March when he was then able to debrief Jock McCaffery on his various exploits since entering Italy back in mid-February. Under pressure from London, McCaffery returned Dick into Swiss detention on 20th March where he remained until finally released by the Swiss one week later. By that time all the necessary agreements and understandings between the parties of Operation Sunrise had been secured and it only awaited the final approval of the Allied political leaders to activate the proposed armistice agreement. Operation Sunrise was ultimately successful and led to the signing of German surrender on April 29th at the Allied Army Headquarters in Caserta. 

Back in Cernobbio

The SS Border Control HQ in Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio was used extensively in these last weeks of the war as a practical location for hosting those senior German officials and the variety of agents and double agents acting as go-betweens in the negotiations for a peace deal. Just as Dick Mallaby stayed there on 28th February, so did others use it as a practical point of departure for or return from clandestine meetings in Switzerland. The American OSS were kept informed of all these comings and goings by their double agent, Joseph Voetterl. 

il-ribelle

Don Giovanni Barbareschi was one of the young priests who at great risk to themselves published an occasional illegal anti-fascist paper called ‘Il Ribelle’. The majority of those writing for the paper were executed.

Among those invited to the villa to his utmost surprise was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi, who had been arrested alongside Dick Mallaby back in Lecco on 15th February. Don Barbareschi had been held in prison in Lecco until he was unexpectedly released on 9th March and taken to Villa Locatelli. There he was met by none other than SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff. Wolff asked him to undertake a mission on his behalf to relay a message to the SOE chief in Bern, Jock McCaffery, informing him (and SOE) of his involvement and commitment to the Operation Sunrise peace negotiations that were progressing with the Americans, and of the fate of Dick Mallaby held in detention over the Swiss border. Until that moment, SOE had been given no information on these talks conducted by their allied partners in the American OSS nor did McCaffery know at that time of Dick Mallaby’s fate.

book jacket

Gianluca Barneschi has written a fascinating account of Dick Mallaby’s missions into Italy using information taken from official sources and Dick’s unpublished personal diaries and papers.

McCaffery must have been deeply embarrassed by having been kept ignorant of what had been going on when he duly informed London the next day of the secret American peace plans and of the fate of his own agent, Dick Mallaby. London did not hesitate in giving their approval  for the American OSS to continue as the senior partner in the talks with the Nazi leadership. They also directed McCaffery to suppress any news of Dick’s own links with Wolff or of the proposals put to him. Dick himself was only able to debrief McCaffery three days later in between his periods of Swiss detention.

Conclusion

Dick Mallaby was very reluctant later in life to talk about his exploits during the war. It is almost impossible yet to evaluate to what extent the proposals he presented to De Leo and Wolff were imaginative improvisation on his part or a genuine proposal from British SOE to seek an agreement with the Italian fascists. It is however evident that there was a serious lack of coordination between the two allied secret services and that by the time the war ended, the Americans were very much the senior partner in taking the initiative on shaping the new European order following the collapse of Nazism. 

false id card of don giovanni

The false ID card carried by the young priest, Don Barbareschi

Perhaps the one person with the best view and understanding of all the various peace negotiations at the time was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi. He would have been involved in Cardinal Schuster’s dealings with Mussolini and Graziani, had accompanied Dick Mallaby on his mission and was briefed by Wolff in the early days of Operation Sunrise.  Don Barbareschi was also very reluctant after the war to discuss what he knew or go into any detail of his time with Mallaby. 

 

If buildings could talk then the best one to interview would be Villa Carminati/Locatelli since many of the significant players in the complex series of secret diplomatic talks passed through its doors. Villa Carminati/Locatelli was to witness even more drama towards the end of April 1945 when the Como countryside was crisscrossed by eminent allies and enemies playing out the final dramatic act of the Nazifascist occupation of Italy. But that is another story!

Further Reading

For our account of Dick Mallaby’s first mission to Lake Como, read ‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como.  For more information on what went on within Villa Carminati/Locatelli and the role of American double agent Joseph Voetterl, read Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

A documentary film is currently under production on the life and exploits of Dick Mallaby promoted by his son, Vacky Mallaby. Follow this link for a preview in Italian with English subtitles. 

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Swimability Datafest for Lake Como

For wild swimmers a warm sun glistening off clear fresh water is one of the most enticing of summer pleasures – but one that needs to be consumed with care following a minimum of preparation. For instance, how do you choose where best to take to the water? Our datafest is here to help you select your favoured destination.

clean water

The tempting prospect of a wild swim in the cool, clean and calm waters of Lake Como.

lake como map

We report the data for water quality for each of the locations marked with a blue spot on the Como leg of the lake – from Como to Griante on the west and Como to Bellagio on the east.

In recent years we have tried to report on the data collected by the Italian Ministry of Health and published on their website Portaleaque. This site provides data collected over the summer months on the water quality of most coastal and fresh water bathing sites in Italy including Lake Como. Last year these results for beaches in our area of interest (the southern section of the Como leg of the lake) were not published on time probably due to the Covid pandemic. We have therefore decided to publish a bumper set of data now including the figures for the entire 2021 season running from April to September alongside those results for the preceding years of 2019 and 2020.

The epithet applied on the government site to the vast majority of Lake Como’s beaches is ‘Eccelente’  and we believe the historical data give continuing reassurance on the regularity of the controls undertaken and of the quality of the water on Lake Como’s beaches. They do however reveal some differences between sites and the risk of extraneous events producing anomalous results. For example those water purification plants in the larger centres of population do sometimes fail or find themselves unable to cope with run-off after particularly heavy downpours. Unfortunately climate change is resulting in more numerous instances of dramatic precipitation. In July of last year, for example, ferocious downpours caused flooding, physical damage and washed a mass of detritus down the mountain torrents to form a huge agglomeration along Como’s lakefront. 

detritus

28th July 2021, detritus brought down by mountain streams in flood over previous days fills up the lakefront in Como

Those of you less familiar with our area may be surprised by what are called beaches. While towards the north end of the lake there are relatively long (yet narrow) stretches of lakefront that resemble a traditional beach, down in the south these are rare due to the local geology. Our area is characterised by a series of small communities nestling in valleys cut into mountains that descend steeply to the water’s edge.

careno beach 2

Careno, between Pognana and Nesso on the road to Bellagio, is nestled into a narrow valley with a delightful but unofficial beach besides its Romanesque church.

Beach space is often limited and sunbeds are placed close together (although Covid restrictions limited this temporarily). Most sites described as lidos do provide the option of a swimming pool with more facilities and including somewhere to eat and drink. Some of the Grand Hotels such as Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este have used even more ingenious options such as  ‘floating’ pools and certainly don’t make any compromise to comfort. 

lierna

Lierna is on the Lecco leg of the lake and has a larger beach than most. It is very popular on summer weekends helped by its direct rail link from Milan.

The dedicated wild swimmer may not be interested in anything approaching the formality of a public beach and there are a number of other locations where one can easily access the water. For these locations, swimmers must use common sense and a degree of careful observation and perhaps also take note of the data from any nearby official location. 

Beaches from Como to Griante

Como

geno lido

The lido in Viale Geno only recently reopened.

como data
The lido at Villa Olmo also has a swimming pool as well as access directly on the lake. The lido at Villa Geno only has lake access. With both sites on the edges of the largest centre of population within our area of interest, we can expect figures to vary according to the efficiency of the local water purification plants and their ability to cope with extreme meteorological conditions. 

The lido at Villa Geno has only recently been reactivated following delays in granting a licence to new management. We can only hope that the site opens fully this year given the beauty of its location and the extensive space it occupies on the lakefront.

Cernobbio

cernobbio data
The beach monitored in Cernobbio is within the old galloping track of Villa Erba and at the mouth of the Breggia river. Upriver and just across the border into Switzerland there is a water purification plant that has had issues in the past and no doubt explains some of the poor results shown in the table above. However, somewhat unusually, the beach is not really open to the public but is used instead by a canoeing club. 

For those wishing to swim in Cernobbio there is a lido on the lakefront with a swimming pool but no lake access. Guests of the Villa D’Este have use of the hotel’s attractive ‘floating’ pool over the lake.

Moltrasio

Moltrasio data
The lido in Moltrasio offers access to the lake only. 

Brienno

Going north from Moltrasio there is an unofficial lido with lake access only in Carate Urio and a beach in Laglio undergoing development which has been ‘temporarily’ closed for the last three years. So the first official monitored site after Moltrasio is in Brienno. 

Brienno data
The Brienno location is a lido offering lake access only via a series of wooden platforms for sunbathing served by a bar offering light snacks. 

Argegno

Argegno

View across to Argegno and the start of the Valle Intelvi on the opposite shore.

Argegno data
Argegno’s lido is close to the mouth of the Telo river running down from the Val D’Intelvi. It is in a beautiful location and offers both lake and swimming pool access. 

Colonno

Colonno data

Sala Comacina

La Tirlindana at Sala Comacina

Isola Comacina viewed from the terrace of the Restaurant La Tirlindana in Sala Comacina

Sala Comacina data

Ossuccio

Ossuccio data

This and the nearby beach in Sala Comacina are perhaps in one of the most picturesque locations in our area with views over to the nearby Isola Comacina. Ossuccio does however seem to have a better record for water quality than its near neighbour. 

Lenno

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

Lenno data
Tremezzina

Tremezzina data

Results for Tremezzina are more varied than most with the beach in the Parco Olivelli being closed due to some pollution incident towards the end of last year’s season.

Griante

Griante data

Whatever caused the poor figures for Parco Olivelli in nearby Tremezzina may also have impacted the beaches in Griante which is a pity since the figures for Banderan earlier last year were amongst the best on the lake.

Beaches from Como to Bellagio

Faggeto Lario

Faggeto lido

The lido at Faggeto Lario pictured off season in uncharacteristically high wind.

Faggeto Lario data

Faggeto Lario’s lido offers lake access only managed by a bar that boasts a plastic free environment. The area is small but the location is glorious and the water quality consistently good.

Nesso

Bridge at Nesso

The Civera Bridge in Nesso.

Nesso data
Lezzeno

Lezzeno data
The town of Lezzeno stretches along the lakeside with three distinct beach areas. However the Rivabella Crotto site has been closed due to pollution for the last three years but fortunately the other two sites fare much better with Bagnana winning out with a more consistently good water quality.

Bellagio

View of Bellagio

Bellagio ‘the pearl of the lake ‘ – viewed from San Giovanni

Bellagio is described as the jewel of the lake and fortunately its two beaches also live up to this reputation.

Bellagio data

fish and birds

Let’s all hope for a great 2022 summer season with plenty of opportunity for wild swimming.

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Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

Alberto Ascoli

Alberto Ascoli in 1919 when at the age of 29 he undertook a tour of hydro-electric plants in the mountains. From the CDEC Library

On the 17th September 1943 Alberto Ascoli crossed into Switzerland from Como to Chiasso along with his wife and three children. They thus managed to avoid arrest and deportation to a Nazi-run extermination camp.  Alberto, 53 years old at the time, had been educated at the Politecnico di Milano as an electrical engineer. He later gained a doctorate  and went on to become Director of Supplies for Edison before being dismissed and classed an enemy of the state under Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws of 1938.  He and his family returned safely to Milan on the 3rd May 1945. 

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi

His sister, Olga Luigia Ascoli (better known as Luigina), and her husband Guido Levi went to make the same crossing six days later on 23rd September. The elderly couple had moved from Milan a year earlier to avoid the mounting number of bombing raids on the city. They had been living at No. 28 Via Volta and had, up to two weeks earlier, no intention to seek safety in Switzerland. Luigina had recently told relatives that ‘We aren’t going to move, we are old, they won’t do anything to us’. 

Levi-2021

Plaque inserted in the pavement in front of Guido Levi’s home on Via Castel Morrone, Milan. These plaques are placed around Europe outside the homes of those murdered in the Holocaust. This initiative was introduced by German artist Gunter Demnig as a means of confronting those who deny the Holocaust. The German name for these plaques is ‘Stolpersteine’. Those for Guido Levi and his wife Luigina Ascoli were laid on 29th January 2021 during the Covid lockdown.

Ascoli-2021

Once Mussolini had been overthrown, the official Italian government signed a peace treaty with the Allies (the  Italian Armistice) on 8th September 1943. This was immediately followed by the Nazi occupation of all parts of Italy not yet liberated by the Allied armies making their way up from the south. Como itself was occupied by the Nazis on 12th September 1943.  The Nazis then reinstated Mussolini as head of a puppet fascist state.  From this date on, the future for both foreign and Italian Jews in Italy turned decidedly worse. While previously Jews had suffered severe discrimination effecting their livelihoods, they now faced a persecution risking their very lives – so much so that Luigina and Guido had decided to follow Luigina’s brother’s example to expatriate. They set out on that fateful morning of the 23rd by trolley bus to Maslianico – the town just outside of Cernobbio on the border with Chiasso. There they had alighted at the town hall to wait in the nearby Giardinetto Hotel for a good moment to make the crossing. But they were both taken prisoner by a Nazifascist border militia, the 2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’ Brigade, and held temporarily in Como’s San Donnino prison.

swiss border parco spina verde

Remains of the fence marking the Swiss border in the Parco Spina Verde to the west of Como. While it was easy to cross the border here, it was also easy to police it. Many therefore chose to cross over Monte Bisbino just to the north of Como accessible from Carate, Moltrasio or Cernobbio.

1938 Race Laws

Prior to September 1943, no foreign or Italian Jews had been deported from the country although Mussolini had introduced  anti-Semitic race laws back in 1938 and life for Jews had been getting progressively difficult. Many foreign Jews had previously migrated to Italy from France, Germany, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In fact Italy had placed no restrictions on immigration prior to March 1938 although foreign Jews were only given six months within which to organise their onward emigration and were not permitted to work. They faced severe hardship unless they had the means for further emigration. Most had sought to enter the USA, Brazil or get permission to enter Switzerland. But from the moment the Nazifascist state was constituted, the fascist authorities joined their Nazi allies in effecting the policy of deportation to Nazi-run extermination and labour camps. The Italian authorities were fully aware what fate awaited those they were deporting.

DifesaRazza

Using stereotypical caricature, this Nazifascist poster summarises the restrictions imposed by Mussolini’s 1938 Race Laws.

When the armistice was signed on 8th September, all previous prisoners of war and political enemies of the fascists were released from prison. But the almost immediate German occupation of the northern and central part of the country left this mass of released prisoners of war, anti-fascists and demobbed soldiers anxious to escape either to the liberated zones to the south or over the Swiss border to the north. To their number must be added those Jews who now fully recognised the severity of Mussolini’s anti-Semitism and the risks to life of remaining within Nazi occupied territory. One of the easiest of the routes into Switzerland was via Como.

Bellinzona internment camp

Male refugees were placed alongside ex-Prisoners of War in Bellinzona’s internment camp if they managed not to be turned back by the Swiss authorities.

Swiss Immigration laws did not recognise the right of asylum for racial motives until July 1944 and had officially denied entry to all males over the age of sixteen from September 1938. In reality the Swiss authorities in Ticino would allow entry to those ‘in grave danger of their lives’ if they felt they had the capacity to house males in the Bellinzona internment camp and place females within those households prepared to receive them.  In the period immediately following the Armistice and the Nazi occupation of Como (from 9th to 16th September 1943) the border at Chiasso remained unguarded and 14,000 people entered Canton Ticino. 

The Nazi authorities immediately recognised the importance of the Como to Chiasso border and by 18th September had set up ‘Grenzwache’ (Border Control) contingents in Como and in other border provinces such as Varese and Sondrio, They actually occupied the Chiasso border crossing on 20th September and prevented passenger trains from continuing any further than Como. From this point on, all migration to Switzerland would have to be clandestine. 

view to moltrasio

Looking back on the road up to Monte Bisbino. Moltrasio is in the foreground with Carate Urio behind it.

The main clandestine routes over the border were in the Province of Varese although the area from Brienno, Moltrasio, Carate Urio, Cernobbio up to to Monte Bisbino and across to Sagno and the Valle di Muggio was much used particularly by the ex-prisoners of war and Italian deserters. The CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale),  the anti-fascist opposition, had set up clandestine routes using local smugglers for years during the fascist regime as a means of allowing people and propaganda to move freely in or out of Switzerland. They established a degree of assurance about the price and reliability of those smugglers approved by them to guide escapees across the border. Many of the local border control police (the Guardia di Finanza) also assisted those seeking to make a clandestine crossing over the mountains. Many other local priests and other individuals aided those seeking to escape. 

Valle di Muggio from Bisbino

Looking down from the summit of Monte Bisbino across to the Valle di Muggio in Switzerland with Monte Generoso (also on the border) in the background. Crossing into Swiss territory was no guarantee of safety since many seeking to expatriate were returned across the border by the Swiss authorities.

On 30th November 1943 Mussolini’s Ministry of the Interior passed a decree calling on the police to arrest all Jews irrespective of nationality, to place them in concentration camps, and to seize all their worldly possessions. But in Como the  2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’  hadn’t waited for this official order.  The group boasted to the local Prefecture that they had arrested 58 Jews in the initial period of persecution from September to December 1943, and had even increased this to 137 by the end of February 1944. Within that same period (from September 43 to February 44) 117 locals had been arrested for ‘aiding and abetting’ expatriation. The fascists had used a number of techniques to achieve these results including infiltrating the rescue groups by posing as Jews seeking asylum. Those arrested included Primo Mazza who used his trattoria in Brunate  – the ‘Volta’ – as a base for organising clandestine border crossings. While many individuals like Primo Mazza, including local priests and partisans were assisting escapees, there were others all too keen to denounce their Jewish neighbours out of spite or in exchange for the monetary rewards on offer by the fascist state. 

Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio

Cernobbio-Villa Locatelli

Villa Locatelli is on Cernobbio’s lakefront. The SS also occupied Villa Carminate further uphill towards Rovenna.

Right from the start of their occupation with a few notable exceptions, the Nazis were happy to leave the hunt and capture of Jews to the Italian fascist authorities while they took responsibility for organising the deportations to extermination and labour camps in Eastern Europe – the most common destination being  Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi administration of the Holocaust was characterised by a gruesome charade of quasi-legalistic bureaucracy through which detainees were processed.  Under the authority of the German SS, they established an office in Cernobbio to administer the processing of detainees across the western half of their occupied territory. This office – the Grenzbefehisstelle West – was run by Captain Joseph Votterl, who was later to play a critical role in facilitating the peace negotiations between Karl Wolff, Head of the SS in Italy, and Allen Dulles, Head of the American Secret Service  – the OSS. 

Villa Carminati

Villa Carminati

Cernobbio offered the ideal location with its proximity to the Swiss border and at the foot of Monte Bisbino – one of the main routes for clandestine crossings. Within Cernobbio, Votterl’s group occupied two buildings, Villa Carminate and Villa Locatelli. Joseph Votterl who had emigrated to the United States in the 1920s before returning to Germany, was in fact a double agent working  for the Americans while also administering the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews. His role was to determine the fate of those Jews brought to his office by the Italian fascist police and militias.

Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli, the elderly couple arrested in Maslianico on 23rd September 1943, were taken to Joseph Votterl’s offices in Villa Locatelli for interrogation. The Nazi administration of the Shoah in Italy was complicated by the varying nationalities of those detained and by the need to consider if not respect any rights these nations claimed towards the repatriation of their own citizens. Votterl’s group served to provide this semblance of respect for the law and to confirm the Italian fascist state’s right to seize the possessions of those arrested. The group in Cernobbio may also have been responsible for organising the transport of deportees from Milan to Auschwitz. After their interrogation at Villa Locatelli, Guido Levi and Luigina were transferred to Milan’s San Vittore prison. Votterl then sent a letter to the Prefecture in Como dated 2nd November 1943 stating that they could proceed to seize all  the couple’s possessions in their Como home on Via Diaz and at their main Milan residence at Number 12, Via Castel Morrone. 

Binario 21

binario 21

Platform 21 – the underground platform at Milan’s Stazione Centrale where deportees were loaded into cattle trucks for the five or six day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

At Milan’s Stazione Centrale the underground track used to load and unload mail bags was converted for loading cattle trucks with human cargo destined for the Nazi extermination and labour camps. The so-called Binario 21 (Platform 21) was deemed perfectly suited for this as it was out of sight of the local population. The very first convoy to leave Binario 21 was made up exclusively of Jews destined for Auschwitz. It was named Convoy No. 5 and left Milan on 6th December 1943 with 155 deportees, picking up a further 95 with stops at Verona and Trieste. The convoy arrived in Auschwitz five days later on 11th December. Out of those 250 deportees, only six would survive.

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi were among those 250 deportees on Convoy No. 5.  They were killed on arrival at Auschwitz. Also on board was Guido’s brother, Pacifico Levi. Pacifico was 76 at the time – 15 years older than Guido. He was also killed immediately on arrival. There is no record of when Pacifico was arrested but he alongside his brother and sister-in-law had been detained in Milan’s San Vittore prison. 

Luigi Del Monte

Gigi Del Monte

Luigi Del Monte, from the Archives of the CDEC

Luigi Del Monte was another Jew deported on Convoy 5 from Binario 21. He with his wife, Anna Levi, their two children Ugo and Mirella and Anna’s father Giuseppe and his two sons (Anna’s brothers)  Samuele and Guglielmo had all left their home town of Napoli to re-establish themselves in Milan in 1942.

giuseppe levi

Giuseppe Levi

The entire family then moved to Moltrasio, alongside many other Milanese, seeking to avoid the regular heavy allied bombardments and to be near the border in case of the need to expatriate in a hurry. But the Germans arrived too soon for them to escape when they interrupted the family dinner on 26th October 1943. Anna and the two children evaded capture by rushing out the back door of their home and hiding overnight in a dense grotto at the rear of their garden. Luigi, his father-in-law and Anna’s two brothers were arrested and taken to Milan’s San Vittore prison with Luigi subsequently deported alongside those other 154 Jews loaded into the cattle trucks on the 6th December destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. He would never return home.

Nor would his father-in law and Anna’s two brothers fare any better but their deportation was delayed until they were placed in a convoy leaving the Fossoli Concentration Camp on 16th May 1944 to arrive in Auschwitz seven days later. None of them survived. What caused the delay to their deportation was the fact that all three held Portuguese passports in spite of Anna’s family being Greek in origin.

samuele levi

Samuele Levi

Some foreign embassies in Nazi occupied territories, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese, had issued some passports in a humanitarian gesture to assist Jews facing Nazi deportation. The Spanish and Portuguese had offered some nationality rights to those who could claim ancestry links to the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Spanish peninsula back in the 15th century. There were some cases where foreign embassies had managed to intervene and safeguard expatriation for a number of Jews using this means. Giuseppe had acquired such passports for his family from the Portuguese Embassy which had also moved out of Milan to occupy the same house as Luigi to avoid the heavy bombardment.  It was down to Captain Joseph Votterl in his headquarters at Villa Locatelli to adjudicate on whether Portuguese citizens of Jewish origin should be shown any leniency and if so to judge the validity of the passports issued to Giuseppe and his sons. Votterl established that the family was not Portuguese and would thus face deportation.  He communicated his judgement in the letter shown below to the Como Prefecture. In this he confirms that the fascist authorities could go ahead and seize all the family possessions. 

votterl letter

Letter from Joseph Votterl to the Como Prefecture sealing the fate of Giuseppe, Samuele and Guglielmo Levi.

Ugo del Monte

Ugo Del Monte became a Professor of General Pathology at the University of Milan. He died in July 2017

Anna, Ugo and Mirella waited until the early hours to climb over their garden’s back wall to take refuge in the nearby home of their elderly neighbour, Emma Ripamonti. Emma kept the family safe until they could reach their second home in the village of Sant’Anna above Argegno a week later. Here they stayed for a further four weeks while trying to organise an escape into Switzerland via Porlezza. This proved too difficult so Anna brought her children back towards Moltrasio where she had the good fortune to meet up with another elderly lady in Carate Urio. This lady’s sons were local smugglers who agreed to guide Anna and the children over the border by Monte Bisbino. So they, as in the case of Luigina Ascoli’s brother, Alberto, found safety in Switzerland and were able to return home to Italy once the war was over.

Conclusion

Fascism is powered by nationalistic enmity of the ‘other’ and in this respect Mussolini’s Italy was no different from Hitler’s Germany. Once Nazi Germany had occupied Northern Italy, Italian fascism’s appeal to a nationalistic patriotism was patently bogus leaving Mussolini entirely dependent on exploiting enemies within to fuel his shrinking populist appeal. And for that the fascists were prepared to sacrifice their own citizens, the majority of whom had been loyal supporters of the regime in former years. The Brigate Nere and the Legions of the National Guard (Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR) were very quick to take on the task of hunting down Jews following the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy. The Italian authorities were fully aware of the fate that would await those they handed over to the Nazis for deportation. Beyond the strategy of creating an enemy within, from a moral perspective it hardly matters what else motivated Mussolini’s government to participate so enthusiastically with the Nazis – whether over time it had adopted Nazi racial fanaticism or sought to profit from the seizure of its condemned population’s property and valuables or both. Nor can the fascists excuse themselves by arguing that a much lower percentage of their Jewish population faced murder than those from most other nations occupied by the Nazis. The numbers were only lower due to the shorter time available for the Nazifascists to implement the Shoah on Italian soil and the fact that the allies were gradually gaining control over more of the territory freeing those deemed ‘enemies of the state’  purely due to their race from the risk of deportation. 

via volta

Via Volta, Como. Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli lived in No. 28 for a year prior to attempting their crossing into Switzerland on September 23rd 1943.

Sources

Francesco Scomazzon, Maledetti figli di Guida, Vi Prenderemo!: la caccia nazifascista agli ebrei. Published in 2005 by Arterigere-Chiarotto Editrice.

CDEC – Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea

For a recent evaluation of Italian antisemitism in the years leading up to and including the Shoah and why so many Italian Jews chose not to confront the dangers before it was too late, read Shira Klein’s Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism, published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press and available in English on Kindle.

Local publisher Nodo Libri have recently reprinted Rosaria Marchesi’s account of the fate of Jews in the Province of Como titled Como Ultima Uscita: Storie di Ebrei nel capoluogo lariano 1943-1944.

Further Reading

Thanks to its position close to the Swiss border, its proximity to Milan and as a gateway north over the Alps, Como became the location for some of the most notorious events during the Second World War apart from the actual fighting between the allied armies and the Nazis.

Read Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust for some accounts of those who aided Jews and other state enemies escape over the Swiss border, including members of the Border Police – the Guardia di Finanza.

Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino describes the impact of the Race Laws of 1938 and one Jewish family’s experience in crossing over to safety.

Many ex-Italian soldiers, trades unionists and anti-fascists were deported to work in Nazi labour camps. Read Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day for the account of this young woman’s arrest and deportation for supporting a strike in Como’s largest silk factory.

Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes the heroism of a local priest, Don Carlo Banfi, in aiding escapees.

There had been a long tradition of smuggling along the border with Switzerland and smugglers played a key role in assisting escapees using their knowledge of the mountain paths and how to avoid border patrols. Not all smugglers were honourable and there are cases of some betraying those they had been paid to help. We have written a number of articles about the smuggling tradition including The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como and Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Lake Como witnessed the last days of Mussolini and his lover, Claretta Petacci who were killed locally along with other members of the fascist hierarchy before their bodies were carried down to be displayed in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection describes what happened in and around Como during Mussolini’s last few days.

 

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Lake Como Boatyards: Luxury Boats

taxi boat cernobbio

One of the captains piloting a Venetian style water taxi belonging to Cernobbio Taxi Service.

What can be more memorable than a trip in the cabin or sat in the bows of a Venetian-style water taxi as its pilot skilfully and swiftly takes you to or from a lakeside restaurant on a summer evening. Sat on leather upholstery, set amongst brightly varnished mahogany and with sparkling chrome fittings, this luxurious experience may not be cheap but is nowadays at least accessible to many more of us than to our ancestors in years past. Since the middle of the seventeenth century up until today and hopefully well into the future Lake Como’s boatyards have and will be building, maintaining and restoring various forms of these luxury boats. 

water taxi

A ‘Vaporino’ style water taxi on the Sant’Agostino jetty in Como.

When Romans like Pliny the Younger built their summer villas on the shores of Lake Como, they undoubtedly had boats built to transport themselves in comfort. But no records remain of how they may have been constructed. Instead we must wait until those Italian aristocrats, who settled around the lake in the 18th century, required both a comfortable means of transport and a visible symbol of their status to remain moored alongside their villa’s personal jetty. And, as in the case of today’s water taxis, they looked to Venice for inspiration commissioning local boatyards to construct Venetian-style gondolas adapted to the choppier waters of the lake.

gondola villa carlotta

A Como-style gondola in service at the Villa Carlotta

It was this growing demand for Venetian craftsmanship that persuaded Ferdinando Taroni to move from Venice and establish his boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790. Ferdinando had learnt his craft from the Venetian master craftsman Angelo Albanese. He set about modifying the Venetian design by avoiding the original’s asymmetry, flattening the hull, broadening the flanks, increasing the overall dimensions and adding a rudder.  In making these changes Taroni took inspiration from the traditional fishing boats of the area built to suit the unique conditions of the lake.These enlarged boats were powered by a team of four to five oarsmen often dressed in the livery of their aristocratic employers. 

Ending the journey, coming into RIchond

An original British ‘Inglesina’ used to recreate the trip taken on the River Thames as described by Jerome K. Jerome in his novel ‘Three Men in a Boat’ – seen here at Richmond

The next major innovation in luxury travel was brought by the English gentry making their Grand Tour of Europe from the start of the 19th century. They introduced the so-called ‘Inglesina’ – a rowing boat designed originally for use on the River Thames. It allowed for comfortable seating at the bow and space for up to two or three oarsmen. The Inglesina also introduced the English preference for using mahogany in the construction of luxury boats – a choice also adopted by the Lake Como boatyards and continued to this day in spite of the growing problems of supply. This type of boat was made famous in the comic novel ‘Three Men in A Boat’ written in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome. The Lake Como version became very popular also as an early form of water taxi. 

Como-piazza-Cavour-Volta -1914-G

Como, Piazza Cavour 1914 with a row of ‘Inglesine’ water taxis in the foreground. Copyright Collezione Piero Vasconi

Cranchi inglesina

An ‘Inglesina’ on display at the Lake Como Boat Museum. This model was built by the Cranchi boatyard in Cadenabbia.

The Dulcinea on display in the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats is an Inglesina adapted to motorised propulsion. From the 1900s onwards, motorised luxury boats became more common aided by the development of petrol engines such as those of Alessandro Volpi.

dulcinea

The Dulcinea, an Inglesina built by Taroni of Carate Urio in 1920 with a bow adapted to house an outboard motor. On display at the Lake Como Boat Museum.

Volpi, the proprietor of the lakeside Villa Pizzo outside of Cernobbio, established a strong friendship and collaboration with Ferdinando Taroni, the owner of the boatyard in Carate Urio first established by his similarly named ancestor back in 1790. One of the great successes of this collaboration was the so-called Vaporino – a fuel powered luxury passenger boat whose design recalled the steam-driven boats of the past. The Boat Museum in Pianello del Lario has at least two examples, the Quo Vadiz and the Lario, which were moored at the Villa Passalacqua in Moltrasio. Much more recently, the owners of the luxury hotels Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana commissioned the Ernesto Riva boatyard in Maslianico to build a Vaporino to transport their guests.

ernesto riva 2016-07_Vaporina_11

The Vaporino built recently by Ernesto Riva of Laglio and Maslianico for the proprietors of the Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana hotels.

Vaporino Ernesto Riva

The development of inboard and outboard motors dispensed with the need for crews of oarsmen and heralded a new form of luxury vehicle – the so-called runabout. The beauty and popularity of this class of boat was to reach its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when boats such as the Riva Acquarama (built on Lake Iseo rather than on Lake Como) became iconic symbols of luxury and of mid-century Italian design. However, prior to that, the runabout went through a number of developments including use during the 20th century’s two world wars. 

Riva_Aquarama

The iconic Acquarama built by Riva of Sarnico on Lake Iseo. From the 1950s onwards Lake Como’s boatyards also focussed on designing and building similar runabouts which became icons of mid-century Italian design.

When Ferdinando Taroni moved his family business from Venice to Carate Urio in 1790, he set up a boatyard that spawned a tradition of luxury boat building that spread over the lake. From the Taroni yard came the names of Abbate, Mostes and Riva who each established boatyards that still exist to this day. To them we must also add the names of Molinari, Matteri, Cranchi, Colombo and Cadenazzi. While Taroni has now moved over to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, all the others still either produce, maintain or renovate luxury boats on Lake Como.

cranchi mtm

An MTM torpedo boat built by Cranchi of Cadenabbia and converted after the last war for domestic use. Housed in the Lake Como Boat Museum.

siluri-umani

Poster of the film celebrating the exploits of the ‘human torpedoes’ (MTM boats) which successfully disabled HMS York in Crete in 1941.

During the First World War, the Taroni yard in Carate Urio produced 18 anti-submarine boats known as MAS (Motobarca Anti Sommergibile). During the Second World War the Cranchi boatyard in Cadenabbia produced for the Germans a series of MTMs (Motoscafo Turismo Modificato). These, as the name suggests, were runabouts designed to be used as manned torpedoes in that the prow was packed with explosives. The pilot, positioned right at the bow, would jump off the boat once it was locked onto a collision course towards its target. The MTMs had one major success when they managed to disable the British cruiser HMS York near Crete on 25th March 1941. 

With the war over, Lake Como’s boatyards could return to developing those runabouts that have now become such recognisable icons of luxury and design. As mentioned previously, it is the Riva yard at Sarnico on Lake Iseo which has achieved the greatest reputation for this type of boat. However there are two branches of Riva boatbuilders with the original Ernesto Riva yard established in Laglio (and now also in Maslianico) over 250 years ago while Paolo Riva set up in Sarnico in the 1840s. Giacomo Colombo trained in the Como yards of Abbate (Tremezzo) and Cranchi (Brienno and Cadenabbia) before moving to Riva in Sarnico. However he then set up his own yard back on Lake Como in Menaggio where he produced the stylish Colombo 007. The lasting appeal of these runabouts stems from the flair of their Italian designers to combine aspects of ostentatious detailing inspired by the American car industry with the traditional look of mahogany introduced from Britain – all put together through the craftsmanship of local artisans developed and maintained over years of practice.  

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The bow of the Colombo 007 built in the Colombo yard in Menaggio in 1964. Housed at the Lake Como Boat Museum.

 All of these boatyards continue to produce super luxury yachts. The Abbate name continues with Bruno Abbate and his Primatist range of yachts with offices on the lake and with production in Sardinia. Cranchi have moved from Brienno to larger yards in the Valtellina at the top end of the lake. Ernesto Riva still have offices in Laglio but have moved production to Maslianico.  Taroni’s yards in Carate Urio and Torreggia have both now been redeveloped as apartment blocks but their production continues at Stresa on Lake Maggiore.  The yards of Mostes Matteri are still operating in Lezzeno. Cadenazzi are still based in Tremezzo. Many of these yards now organise private hire, offer various facilities for the storage and maintenance of boats or undertake renovation of vintage models.

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Maintenance and renovation work being undertaken by Cantiere Cadenazzi in Tremezzo

Further Reading

The production of luxury boats is only one aspect of the historical heritage of boat craftsmanship on the lake. Read our article on the production of powerboats and sailing dinghies which describes how Lake Como’s boatyards have also gained international renown in this sector. 

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A modern runabout, a Pegaso 28 Evo , the Mostes boatyard in Lezzeno.

As recommended in this previous article, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is the best way to gain an appreciation of the scope, quality and importance of this local industry.

Many of the boatyards mentioned here also provide private hire of the Venetian-style water taxis. Contact information can be found on our page Boat Hire and Water Taxis.

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Lake Como Boatyards: The Champions

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A map illustrating the large number of businesses involved in boating on the western shore and Como leg of Lake Como.

It was Julius Caesar back in 49 BCE who first established the craft of boat building on Lake Como. He set up colonies of Greek artisans to help build and maintain the boats needed to transport his troops and to defend the lake as part of the trade routes he established over the Alps. The Byzantines added their expertise such that a boat building tradition was established that lasts to this day.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Lake Como had become a favoured location for aristocratic villas and so started a further expansion of local boat building to include luxury man-powered launches and gondolas. Ferdinando Taroni migrated from Venice to set up the family boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790.

From out of that business numerous other family dynasties of boat builders established themselves on the lake. Not all but most of those families are still involved in one way or another in boat building. In addition to Taroni, they include Riva, Cranchi, Mostes, Matteri, Molinari, Abbate, Colombo, Cadenazzi  and Posca  – all originating on Lake Como. With the increased use of the lake for recreation, some of these boatyards developed international renown in building competition sailing boats and powerboats. 

Power Boat Racing

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The Centomiglia del Lario, organised by the Como Yacht Club, was first held in 1949 and proved a catalyst in developing the lake’s powerboat businesses.

Every year the Como Yacht Club hosts the powerboat racing gala, the Centomiglia del Lario. The race was first established in 1949 with funding provided by Remo Cademartori, proprietor at the time of a large villa in Blevio and owner of the cheese empire that still bears the family name. Cademartori also provided the funding needed to revive the fortunes of the Taroni boatyard in Carate Urio which had been established by Ferdinando Taroni back in 1790.  A powerboat built in the Taroni yard at Carate Urio won the very first edition of this long distance race.

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Advertisement for the Cantiere Timossi listing their successes in powerboat competitions.

Another boat builder further up the lake in Mezzegra was interested in power boat racing. This was Guido Abbate who won one of the first Gold medals awarded by the Federazione Italiana Motonautica travelling at a record breaking 80 km/h in a boat named Pamblo. The Abbate yard had first been established in 1873 but under Guido it became world famous for building so-called ‘Three Point Hydroplanes’. Guido himself was a very successful power boat pilot and won the Centomiglia del Lario three years running from 1955.

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The first three point hydroplane brought over to Italy from the United States – Blitz III powered by a V* engine.

Three Point Hydroplanes 

In 1949, the Americans brought over to Europe the first so-called three-point hydroplane with a V8 engine. This revolutionary design allowed the boat to rise when powered up such that there were only three points of the hull touching the water. This design opened up a new era in powerboat racing and massive opportunities for Lake Como’s boatyards to dominate the sector. 

Cantiere Mostes

The Cantiere Mostes in Faggeto Lario is just one of the boatyards on Lake Como that produced winning hydroplanes during the golden era of powerboat racing

The story goes that Guido Abbate stole the design of Blitz III by breaking in overnight to its storage under Como’s Stadio Sinigaglia on Viale Puecher and jotting down all its particulars. Others have claimed the industrial espionage was done by the Verona based producers of marine motors, BPM, while Blitz III was competing at Trieste. Whatever the truth, Guido Abbate was just one of the Lake Como yards to go on to design record breaking 3 point hydroplanes. 

The apex of success for Italian pilots of three point hydroplanes and the Lake Como boatyards which produced them came on  December 27th 1953 at the Orange Bowl Regatta in Miami Beach. As the Associated Press agency reported:

Three Italian power-boat racers took first, third and fourth today in the international Grand Prix, feature event of the four-day Orange Bowl regatta.

The winner was Mario Verga, a Como industrialist in a boat called Laura 2 built on Lake Como in Mezzegra by Cantiere Giulio Abbate. The other Italians mentioned were Ezio Selva whose boat Moschettiere was built in the Cantiere Carlo Timossi and Achille Castoldi piloting a boat also built by Carlo Timossi.

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The Cantiere Timossi in Azzano. Timossi was eventually incorporated into the nearby Cantiere Giulio Abbate.

The Cantiere Carlo Timossi was based in Azzano on Lake Como. Carlo Timossi started as a designer for the famous yard of Pietro Riva based in Sarnaco on Lake Iseo. Riva permitted him to develop specialist hydroplanes whose production soon moved over to Lake Como. Timossi’s greatest success came from his collaboration with the champion pilot, Ezio Selva, and the series of his hydroplanes called Moschettiere powered by Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engines. 

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Dramatised illustration of Ezio Selva’s fatal accident in Miami while trying to break the world speed record in his hydroplane, Moschettiere

Ezio Selva gained fame as an Olympic diving athlete who, on retiring from that sport, took up speed boat racing in 1950. He won Italian and European Championships in 1951, 1952 and 1954. In December 1957, in trials before the Orange Bowl Regatta at Miami Beach, he improved on his own personal  record of 141 mph to break the world speed record for his class at 146.1 mph, aided by the same Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engine used by Manual Fangio in 1951. Three days later his boat, Moschettiere, flipped over at 100mph in front of the judge’s podium during the second heat of the Orange Bowl Grand Prix. His son dived into the water to save his father but tragically he had already been killed on impact with the water.

Carlo Timossi also built the Ferrari Timossi Arno XI for Achille Castoldi. Castoldi decided to concentrate on seeking to break world records once Mario Verga replaced him as Alfa Romeo’s  principal competition pilot in 1953.  He also decided to switch to a Ferrari V12 to power his hydroplane in a bid to beat the world speed record for boats in the 800kg class. Castoldi duly did break that record on the 15th October 1953 at Sarnico on Lake Iseo travelling at 242.708 km/h. Since that class of boat no longer exists, Castoldi’s record stands to this day. The Ferrari Timossi Arno is now displayed in the Ferrari museum.  

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Carlo Timossi stands beside his Ferrari Arno Timossi built for Achille Castoldi in which Castoldi beat the world speed record for this class on Lake Iseo

Ferrari Timossi

The restored Ferrari Timossi Arno XI in the Ferrari Museum.

Meanwhile, in the Abbate boatyard in nearby Mezzegra, Guilio Abbate was building Laura for Mario Verga. Verga owned a silk printing business on Como’s Val Mulini which provided him with the funds he needed to indulge his love of speed boat racing. His boats, all named Laura after his daughter, were powered by Alfa Romeo as were the Moschettiere of his friend and rival, Ezio Selva. In 1953, with Laura 1, he won the World Championship in the 450kg class. In the same year he won the 800kg championship in Laura 2. He then turned to the Timossi boat yard to build Laura 3 with specifications he hoped would win him the world speed record. Trials of this new boat started in July of 1954 with Mario keen to get the record before Donald Campbell’s jet-powered Bluebird could enter the competition. On 9th October 1954, Mario set to break the record on Lake Iseo but, as the boat reached 190 mph it bounced twice on the water with its nose rising ever higher until it mounted into the air, backflipped and crashed down into the lake. The rescue boat found Mario dead in the cockpit. Thus ended the golden era of Italy’s powerboat racers – but not the continuing international success of Como pilots and boatyards.

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Laura 1 built for Mario Verga by Cantiere Giulio Abbate

Laura 1

The renovated Laura 1 originally built by Cantiere Giulio Abbate and now kept in the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Painello del Lario

Tullio Abbate

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The logo of the Cantiere Tullio Abbate incorporating 5 as the number of his winning hydroplane in the Centomiglia del Lario

The Timossi boatyard was bought up in 1980 by Tullio Abbate who had taken over his father’s boatyard in Mezzegra in 1975. Tullio introduced new construction materials as early as 1969 to his father’s boatyard as he gradually moved away from wood and aluminium to fibreglass bodies. He was also a very keen and successful speedboat pilot who beat his father’s record of victory at the Centomiglia del Lario by taking the cup eleven times over his career. He broke the world speed record for his class of boat in 1997 travelling at 223 km/h. 

Tullio’s boatyard became synonymous with speed and he attracted a vast range of clients from the world of motor racing as well as other celebrities interested in purchasing one of the yard’s speedboats such as the Sea Star range. His client list included Schumacher, Piquet, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Maradona, Matthaus, Prost, Airton Senna, Vialli, Mancini, Giacomo Agostini, Arturo Merzario, Bruno Giacomelli, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Stefano Casiraghi as well as  Silvester Stallone, Madonna and the Versace family – many of whom visited his boatyard in person. As he has stated: 

Here we have been used to hosting celebrities a good thirty years before Clooney arrived. Here in this boat yard that was originally a textile mill and where they made tennis rackets and skis – because I am a man of the lake and I will never leave this corner of the world.’

Unfortunately Tullio Abbate did leave this world recently on 9th April 2020 struck down by Covid-19 in Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital. He was 75 years old. His boat yard is now in the hands of his children. Elsewhere the Abbate name continues through Bruno Abbate and his boatyards in Grandola ed Uniti on the lake as well as larger production sites in Sardinia. Bruno Abbate has continued the tradition of powerboat production and the Primatist range of luxury yachts.

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Tullio Abbate in the hydroplane Number 5 in which he won the Centomiglia del Lario

While Giulio Abbate and Carlo Timossi started off the local tradition of building three point hydroplanes, other boatyards also took up the challenge. Particular mention needs be made of the Molinari family with Eugenio, Renato, Livio and Angelo all producing three point hydroplanes. Some of these can be seen in the Eugenio Molinari Museum in Lezzeno

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Logo of the Cantiere Nautico Lucini in Lipomo

A boatyard in Lipomo named Lucini e Frigerio started 3 point hydroplane production in the 1970s and gained significant success throughout the 80s and 90s. The yard still exists and it is now the main site for renovation of old boats. For example the Lucini yard renovated the Ferrari powered hydroplane owned by Count Guido Monzino, the owner of the Standa chain of department stores and the last private proprietor of Villa Balbianello

Count Guido Monzino 

Guido Monzino was not a regular competition pilot but he was the owner of a hydroplane he had built for him by the San Marco yard in Milan. Monzino was born in 1928 into an aristocratic family living in Moltrasio. He went on to take over the directorship of the family business, the Standa chain of department stores.

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The adventurer Guido Monzino used to commute from his home on the lake to Como in his San Marco Ferrari V12 hydroplane

However he was also an explorer and an adventurer who had financed and led a successful expedition to the North Pole in 1971 and to the summit of Mount Everest in 1973. Back in 1957 he had bought a Ferrari V12 engine salvaged from a fatal crash in 1953 during the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. Monzino had this engine mounted into the San Marco hydroplane and then used it for his daily commute on Lake Como to the Como Yacht Club on Viale Puecher. From there he would get into his Ferrari car to continue on his journey to the Milan headquarters of Standa. In 1958 he competed with this boat  in the Raid Pavia Venezia, the longest river race in the world. He came a very respectable third.  He later lost interest in the boat and dedicated more of his time to exploration. In 1974 he achieved a lifetime ambition by buying the Villa del Balbianello, and so devoted his energy to restoring the villa to its present day glory. So in 1969 the boat, now in a sorry state, was sold in auction to Dody Jost, an Austrian student who was studying at the time at the Milanese Brera Academy. In 1992 he gave the hull over to the Cantiere Lucini in Lipomo and the engine to Ferrari with restoration finally completed by 1998.  The boat is now viewable (along with other hydroplanes) in Jost’s museum attached to the Hotel Nautilus at Moregge on the western shores of the Lecco leg of the lake. 

ferrari monzino

The San Marco Ferrari V12 previously owned by Guido Monzino and bought in 1969 by Dody Jost and restored in 1998 by Cantiere Nautico Lucini

Star Class Sailing Yachts

Specifications for Star Class yachts were first established in 1911. The class first entered the Olympics in 1932 at Los Angeles and has since proved to be the longest lasting of the Olympic classes. In recent years the world market for this type of boat has been dominated by only three suppliers – two of which are based on Lake Como. They are Lillia Cantiere Nautico, a boatyard originally set up in the 1950s in Musso but  building Star class since 1975 and now based in Pianello del Lario, and Folli Lariovela established in 1977 in Abbadia Lariana.

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A Lillia Star Class yacht in action

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Star Class specification

While production of power boats has been mainly based on the Como leg of the lake, these sailing boatyards are found where the lake winds Breva from the south and Tivano from the north predominate – all the way up the Lecco leg and across the northern part of the lake.

The success of these two yards in the Star class is phenomenal. Folli and Lillia came second, third and fifth in the 1980 World Championships. In the Athens Olympics of 2004, Lillia took gold, silver and bronze. Lilla have won five Olympic, twenty nine World, forty one European and fifty National titles. Folli have also shared similar successes.

Lillia’s Star class production was started by Gianni Lillia leaving his brother Domenico, better known as Meco, to run the family butcher shop in Musso. Gianni died tragically young from cancer in 1981 at which point Meco, in spite of having no knowledge of boat building, decided to take over the business and keep his brother’s vision and ambitions alive. Lillia logoIt was thanks to Meco’s collaboration with Torben Grael, a then young gifted Brazilian yacht racer, that he turned the business into a world leader. Grael went on to become the so-called ‘Maradona of Yacht Racing’ while Lillia achieved world wide predominance alongside Folli in the production  of these boats.

Danilo Folli, originally from Milan,  was himself a keen sailor and yachting competitor.   He decided in 1977 to set up his own boatyard in Abbadia Lariana dedicated to the production of Star class yachts.  He and his family moved up at the same time to live in nearby Mandello Lario

folli logo

Folli Lariovela logo

Thanks to a collaboration with designer Gilberto Colombo, Folli Lariovela soon established itself alongside Lillia as a world leader. Danilo’s name lives on in the annual Danilo Folli Memorial Trophy race held in Mandello. Both Folli and Lillia are still family-run businesses producing boats apprised for their quality around the world.

Where to Visit

For anyone interested in the history of boat production on Lake Como, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is a must. Here you can see the reproduction of Mario Verga’s Laura, many other hydroplanes and a collection of the sailing boats produced elsewhere on the lake. I cannot recommend this museum sufficiently. It has been well resourced to create excellent displays with multi-lingual information. 

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Bruno Abbate, descendent of Giulio Abbate, now focuses production on customised luxury yachts with one of the Primatist range on display in front of the Villa del Balbianello

Examples of three point hydroplanes can also be seen at the Eugenio Molinari Museum in Lezzeno and the Giulio Abbate Museum in Grandola ed Uniti. 

Examples of Lake Como boats powered by Ferrari motors can be seen at the Ferrari Museum in Maranello and Modena while Alfa Romeo boats can be seen at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho on the outskirts of Milan. The San Marco Ferrari V12 hydroplane commissioned by Count Guido Monzino and other hydroplanes can be viewed at the Scuderia  Dody Jost in the Hotel Motel Nautilus in Moregge.

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Hydroplanes in the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho

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Dolinski ‘Sui Muri’ of Como’s Villa del Grumello

This article follows on from meeting up with Debra recently and a visit to her permanent exhibition in the Villa del Grumello.

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Debra Dolinski with one of her wall studies

On the 30th September this year Debra Dolinski was able to fulfil a long standing ambition to see her art works permanently installed in what she considers to be their perfect location – the Villa del Grumello. The permanent exhibition is entitled ‘Sui Muri’ – on the walls – and it consists of digitised photographic studies of the impact, effect and changes of light on simple walled surfaces – walls on walls.  

Pink Sweater

This series entitled ‘Pink Sweater’ consists of 8 panels recording the changes in light over a set period of time on a single day.

The Villa del Grumello is a delightful summer pavilion set in the midst of a botanical park along the so-called Kilometro di Coscienza running from Villa Olmo to the Villa Sucota. The building dates back to the 1500s but has seen many modifications as ownership has changed hands down the centuries. In the 1950s the occupier at the time, the Contessa Giulia Celesia, donated the villa to the Ospedale Sant‘ Anna. They subsequently allowed for the Como Chamber of Commerce to form the Associazione della Villa Del Grumello which then set about the restoration needed to transform the villa into a cultural centre for the benefit of all. 

pink sweater location

The ‘Pink Sweater’ series are displayed on the right-hand side of the villa’s first floor landing – the diffused lighting and the shades of colour compliment the display particularly well.

Debra recognised the villa’s unique qualities – its south-facing exposure to light with reflections from the lake, the contrast between its decorative stuccoed ceilings and monochromatic surface decoration – would all go to provide a perfect background for her very particular and individual art. Debra has always been mindful of the influence of setting when exhibiting her works. She will reject any offers of display if the exhibition space fails to compliment the installation. Her works derive from close observation of changes in light on form and colour – often recorded in series of images captured from the same vantage point. Their full impact for the viewer depends on the absence of any nearby visual distractions or irrelevancies. Her patience and perseverance in acquiring a permanent exhibition at Grumello must represent a significant milestone in her career seeing how the villa and her art compliment each other so well. Although the Villa del Grumello is not always open to casual visitors, the Associazione are rightly proud of the exhibition and will readily allow for viewings by appointment. Contact details are provided at the end of this article.

Meeting room and Il Tempio

‘Il Tempio’ takes pride of place in the Villa del Grumello’s meeting room on the first floor.

Debra Dolinski’s artistic career has developed over fifty years while living the majority of that time in Como. She discovered where her creative interests lay when studying  at Cornell University’s Faculty of Art and Architecture back in the early 1970s. She has worked diligently at her artistic evolution ever since. Her oil paintings from those art school days reveal her initial interest in focussing on the changing nature of views from a single fixed location. Those shown below were views from her studio window. 

Compare those images above with the photographic studies below of the differences in the quality of light on a single area of wall over a given time sequence. Each image is identified solely by a time stamp – precise to the exact minute. 

These studies above  formed part of an exhibition also named ‘Sui Muri’ held in 2013 in Como’s San Pietro In Atrio gallery on Via Odescalchi. One might casually mistake these studies of light on walls as being abstract but they are not. They are, like all of Debra’s work, based on acute observation of the physical world around us. She uses low resolution settings for her photographic studies to add some texture to the images but that is the only form of artifice allowed. There is no use of photo shop or digital manipulation. The images hope to be an accurate record of actual light situations. Altering the images would bely that intent. 

Behind this spectacular evolution in her style is a continuing commitment to the key elements of her figurative training – to the aspects of line, form, space and colour – but with a focus on observing the qualities of light.  The progression towards an abstract appearance in her art is explained by art critic Stefania Carrozzini’s comment that  ‘Debra eliminates the superficial to arrive at the essential’. Debra herself explained how she does not want figurative elements to be ‘telling you what to see’. She does not want to limit the scope of the  viewer’s own observation.

Skies, 1979 to 1985

The subject matter of her studies has changed over the years and these changes have coincided  with other major life events. For example it was the birth of her first daughter which prompted Debra to start a series of studies of skies. She was adamant that she would not allow motherhood to discourage her continuing development as an artist – a fate she had seen happen to too many of her contemporaries. So she vowed every day to record in water colour the portion of the sky visible from a fixed location in her home which was then on the lake in Ossuccio. 

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These Sky Diary studies and examples of Sky Watch and Sky Tiles can be seen on Debra’s website.

Debra’s website presents a comprehensive collection of the different sets of sky paintings categorised as Sky Diary, Sky Watch and Sky Tiles. For Sky Diary, Debra fixed a north-facing viewpoint and then recorded the sky on 10cm squared paper every day. She exhibited some of these sketches in Milan back in the 1980s in a space which almost miraculously accommodated precisely 365 of them to complete the wall space provided. 

Sky Watch introduces a more precise time stamp to the pictures by depicting the sky from the same viewpoint but at different times throughout a single day. 

Sky Tiles provide another means for presenting the Sky Diary paintings by transferring them on to porcelain. Debra admits to not being good at promoting her work commercially which is a shame because I think her Sky Tiles present an excellent way to commemorate a special event. For example, what could be a better way to recall memories of a special day than to have a series of sketches that capture the changing light of the sky over the course of the event. Looking at those sketches would I am sure evoke the emotions of the day in possibly a more profound way than would a conventional set of photographs. 

Walls, 1988 to 2018

sui muri

Part of the ‘Sui Muri’ exhibition in the Villa del Grumello

In 1988, Debra and her husband moved to the centre of Como for a variety of reasons including to be near the schools of her two daughters. They found an attic apartment in need of radical renovation which they subsequently converted into a much-loved family home. Debra is particularly inspired by the large south-facing glass wall that floods the sitting room with light. This new location and the effects of the light on its various surfaces inspired a new output. Her daily presence at the cultural association Borgovico 33 provided ample time to study light conditions and these studies were initially exhibited in San Pietro in Atrio in 2013 from which some examples are now installed in the Villa del Grumello.

Mountains, 2018 – 

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An example of Debra’s current focus on mountains.

The large window in Debra’s home in Como is not a ‘picture window’. It is not designed to offer an external view over the roofs of the old town, but rather to provide a variety of changing light to the apartment’s interior. It is only relatively recently that Debra has rediscovered an external artistic interest thanks to the views from her garden up in Rovenna, above Cernobbio. From there she has an unimpeded view over to the mountains around Brunate.  She admitted previously to thinking these mountains were as much an obstacle to viewing what lay beyond them rather than an interesting subject in their own right. But her attitude has now changed as she now begins to explore the changes in light and colour accentuated by natural lines with their various folds and contours. 

Como

As a migrant and long term resident in Como, I wanted to ask Debra about her personal and professional attitudes to her adopted city. Professionally speaking, she found promoting her work much easier when living in Switzerland where her membership of the now defunct artistic association known as Movimento 22 helped her gain exposure. Como has proved more difficult with more of a need to gain the support of some key individuals to unlock opportunities. However appreciation and understanding soon follow once those connections are made, as in the case of Villa del Grumello. 

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Villa del Grumello

Como’s landscape has until very recently seemed entirely irrelevant to Debra’s art. More important instead is the quality of the light. Debra could never have been a London-based artist. She appreciates both the quality and quantity of light found here and the way that its qualities change through the very distinctive seasons.  

Being based in and around Como also allowed her to study at the Brera Academy where she followed a course on colour given by Luigi Veronese – an abstract artist of international renown with a background in textile design who had strong links to  the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’ such as Manlio Rho. I had to ask if she had been in any way influenced by the Astrattisti Comaschi who had all mostly progressed from figurative to abstract painting. Given that Debra is not an abstract artist, it was unsurprising to hear that she was more inspired by early Renaissance innovators such as Piero della Francesca although she does admire the work of Como’s group such as Carla Badiali. 

Como RIP 2

Back in February 2020 (just before Covid lockdown) a demonstration was held to challenge the council administration’s apparent disregard for culture with this coffin placed on the steps of the Teatro Sociale symbolising the death of culture in Como.

In spite of Como’s exceptional heritage in the areas of innovative art and architecture, it is a city that appears nowadays to be resistant to change where, on an administrative level at least, promoting culture and exploiting the city’s numerous exhibition spaces is not given much priority. Debra expressed a frustration over this shared by many residents who long to see sites like San Pietro in Atrio, Spazio Natta, Villa Olmo and so many others back in use after what seems like an overlong hibernation. As she pointed out, the cultural activity in Lugano, Mendrisio or even Chiasso puts Como’s weak efforts to shame. 

Debra’s family have grown up in Como and this second generation do not and are not considered as outsiders in any way. She herself though still feels herself a foreigner but interestingly, she sees this an advantage. Professionally it might spark some additional interest and socially, it allows her a degree of licence to either ignore or transgress some of those intricate laws of etiquette that operate particularly strongly within provincial settings. 

Conclusion

Il Tempio

‘Il Tempio’ on permanent display in the Villa del Grumello

Debra’s art is not accompanied by any manifesto or explicit message but it must, if only through example, prompt us also to apply our own powers of observation to the world around us. That in itself is a valuable lesson but additionally her observation becomes introspective by being paired down to ‘arriving at the essential’. That introspective quality gives the viewer the time and space to think – almost like an aid to meditation. Many of us may lapse into reflective moments while staring at the sky, or looking up into the folds of the mountains, or even simply by staring into the corners of a wall – Debra’s art reflects those moments. 

Hers is an art that is figurative while seemingly abstract, and personal yet universally accessible. Her subject matter has shifted from the sky out of her window in Ossuccio to  walls and now to the mountains above her garden in Rovenna – but all have been viewed consistently with close attention to the quality of light and a grasp towards the essential. While she will willingly recognise the importance of time in her work, I also believe that place has also played its anonymous part. And that is why I see her as a Como artist who has justifiably found a fitting home for some of her works in the Villa del Grumello. 

The Contessa Ceiling

The frescoed celing in the meeting room which houses ‘Il Tempio’. The fresco was commissioned by the Villa del Grumello’s last private owner, the Contessa Giulia Celesia.

Contact Information

Debra hosts occasional open days at her studio in the centre of Como. If you would like to be invited to the next of these or want any information on sales or commissions, please email debradolinski@gmail.com.

To make an appointment to view Debra’s ‘Sui Muri’ exhibition in the Villa del Grumello, contact the Associazione on +39 031 228 76 20 or on mobile  +39 347 444 51 53. They can also be contacted by email at eventi@villadelgrumello.it

Further Information

Go to Debra’s website www.debradolinski.it  for a presentation of her Sky series.

More information about the Associazione Villa del Grumello with details of all upcoming cultural events are available at www.villadelgrumello.it

Como Companion has written a number of articles celebrating Como’s artistic and architectural heritage. In particular, go to Astrattisti Comaschi for our feature on this innovative group of artists who put Como on the worldwide cultural map during the mid twentieth century. Our archives also include articles on Como’s rationalist architects as well as on those artists from the Val D’Intelvi  who spread baroque decoration across the churches and courts of Europe in the 17th century. 

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