Como’s Pantero Pantera and other Admirable Admirals

Teatro Sociale

Visitors to Como’s Teatro Sociale will recognise the stage curtain that depicts the death of Pliny the Elder brought on by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. This painting 14.5 metres wide by 8.5 metres tall was designed by Alessandro Sanquirico and commissioned to adorn the opening of the theatre in 1813.

With one of Como’s historical naval commanders called Pantero Pantera and the other Pliny the Elder as opposed to the Younger, the attraction of an alliterative title to this article was irresistible.

duomo

Como Cathedral with statues of Pliny the Elder (left of the photo) and Pliny the Younger

Pantera was a commander in the Papal Navy based in Civitavecchia from 1597 to 1615 while Pliny the Elder was appointed by Emperor Vespasian in 76 CE as  ‘Prefect’, or overall Admiral of the senior fleet of the Roman Imperial Navy based in Miseno in the Bay of Naples. Whilst Pliny, also known as Gaio Plinio Secondo, is known even to this day for his work and publications as a naturalist, Pantero Pantera has sunk into obscurity despite the fact that he published one of the first and certainly the most complete manual on naval warfare entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’ in 1614. Both are thus illustrious sons of Como.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder was born in Como into a wealthy ‘equestrian’ order family. He was raised in Como as was his sister and her son who took on the name of Pliny the Younger when Pliny formally adopted him. He was appointed by Emperor Vespasian as prefect (akin to Admiral) of the Classis Misenum – the largest of the Imperial fleets based at Miseno in the Bay of Naples and charged with patrolling the western Mediterranean.

Miseno

The red marker is on Miseno, the port to the north east of the island of Procida which housed the most important fleet of the Roman Imperial Navy.

This appointment followed a long and successful  career as a lawyer and procurator in various provinces of the Roman Empire. However his time as the admiral of the fleet was cut short tragically by his death in the major eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE.  Mount Vesuvius, which was not known at the time to be volcanic, lay across the Bay of Naples from Miseno. Pliny took to the sea in his flagship and headed for Pompeii and Herculaneum on hearing news of the first earthquakes and on seeing the plumes of smoke from those early eruptions. He had initially intended just to investigate this unusual natural phenomenon but he set his fleet on a rescue mission as soon as the scale of the danger became apparent. 

pliny and Vesuvius

Pliny the Elder launched his fleet across the Bay of Naples to rescue those fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

His fleet did manage to save many of those residents from Pompeii and Herculaneum before the main eruption but Pliny himself was overcome by the fumes and ash as he tried to escape from Stabia to the south of Pompeii. He died aged 56. His sister and nephew, Pliny the Younger, were living with Pliny at Miseno at the time and his nephew later came to give the only existing first hand account of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in letters written to Tacitus, the Roman historian.  Here is a small excerpt from one of those letters.

[Pliny the Elder] ..changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated…..

Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. – Pliny the Younger, Letters VI 

I recommend those who are interested in the story of Pliny’s mission to Vesuvius to follow up on the suggestions for further reading at the end of this article. The poem quoted below by Primo Levi, scientist, author and holocaust survivor, illustrates the extent to which the Vesuvius eruption and Pliny’s end have retained their fascination on our collective consciousness to the present day: 

Primo Levi: Pliny

Don’t hold me back, friends, let me set out.

I won’t go far; just to the other shore.

I want to observe at close hand that dark cloud,

Shaped like a pine tree, rising above Vesuvius,

And find the source of this strange light.

Nephew, you don’t want to come along?  Fine; stay here and study.

Recopy the notes I gave you yesterday.

You needn’t fear the ash; ash on top of ash.

We’re ash ourselves; remember Epicurus?

Quick, get the boat ready, it is already night:

Night at midday, a portent never seen before.

Don’t worry, sister, I’m cautious and expert;

The years that bowed me haven’t passed in vain.

Of course I’ll come back quickly.  Just give me time

To ferry across, observe the phenomena and return,

Draw a new chapter from them tomorrow

For my books, that will, I hope, still live

When for centuries my old body’s atoms

Will be whirling, dissolved in the vortices of the universe,

Or live again in an eagle, a young girl, a flower.

Sailors, obey me: launch the boat into the sea.

23 May 1978

Primo Levi (1919-1987): Pliny, translated by Ruth Feldman with Brian Swann, in Collected Poems, 1988

quinquereme and liburnum

The large galley is similar to Pliny the Elder’s flagship. It is a quinquereme (with five rows of oarsmen) accompanied by ‘liburni’ – much smaller galleys with a single row of oarsmen. Liburni were deployed extensively in the Classis Comensis, Como’s lake fleet.

The ships launched by Pliny for the rescue were the largest in the fleet – quadriremes – consisting of four banks of oars (remi in Italian). These boats were 39 metres long and four metres wide and powered  by 232 oarsmen.  These galleys did have a sail but it was of secondary importance and never used when in conflict. Mediterranean warships from pre-Roman times until the early 17th century were propelled by oarsmen.

Classis Comensis

Pliny the elder

Pliny the Elder, Como Cathedral

Pliny was admiral of the main Imperial Navy charged with maintaining the security of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Western Mediterranean. The second most important fleet was the Classis Ravennitis, based in Ravenna and responsible for patrolling the Adriatic Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. There were a number of other Imperial navies based across the Roman Empire including the Classis Comensis – Como’s own Imperial Fleet charged with maintaining the security of transport on Lake Como and ensuring free access to the Val Chiavenna and thus across the Alps into Germany via the Splugen Pass. 

Como’s origins are as a military fortress established by Julius Caesar in recognition of its strategic position in giving access to Alpine crossings and as a key defensive location protecting Milan from Transalpine invasion. He in turn established colonies of Greek immigrants in both Como and around the lake to encourage settlement but also to provide local skills in shipbuilding. The lake’s military fleet did not deploy the massive quadriremes deployed on the Mediterranean but instead they used the much smaller ‘liburnians’ modified from their original Greek design. These much smaller boats usually had a single row of oars but were light, fast and less visible and so were well designed to tackle piracy which was the main security threat on the lake. Later on around the 4th and 5th centuries in the Byzantine period, Como’s fleet was sufficiently important to warrant it being commanded by one of only four admirals of the imperial fleets. Two of these admirals commanded the traditionally important fleets based in Miseno and Ravenna. The other admiral managed a fleet based in Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic positioned to protect the Empire from invasion from the north, as was also the case at Como. 

Forte Montecchio

Lake Como is strategically placed to defend Milan from northern invasion. Defences have been built along its course from Roman times, as at Colico where the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes in the 1600s and the Forte Montecchio was built in 1914 as part of Italy’s defense against attack across the Splugen Pass.

Not only did Como have a military fleet under the command of one of only four Imperial admirals but, in keeping with its military origins, it also boasted a naval military training school – the ‘Collegio dei nauti comensi’. This military school had two main responsibilities. One was to provide sufficient horsepower and carriages to maintain public services and the other was to teach ‘centurions’ how to conduct protection and warfare on lakes and rivers. The college also provided technical training for the three main artisan crafts needed to support the navy and military. These were training of ‘centonari’ – those who made defensive fabrics for sailors and other woven material including sails, ‘dolabrari’ who made the iron weapons for sailors (picks and axes) and ‘scalari’ who made the ladders used for boarding enemy vessels. Como was known as a centre for iron production and no doubt the navy protected the transport of iron ore down the Valle Albano to Dongo and then down the lake to Como. Steel production in Dongo only ceased very recently. 

Pantero Pantera

Collegio Gallio

Courtyard of the Collegio Gallio, Como, founded in 1583 as a school for poor adolescents by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio

So with this well established naval tradition in Como, it may not be too surprising that another local citizen should achieve a remarkable career as a sailor, albeit this time in the Papal rather than the Imperial Navy. This was the much lesser known figure of Pantero Pantera born to a noble Como family in 1568. He was sent to Rome following his father’s death and under the protection of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. However he was not suited to either of the two principal careers on offer in Rome – within the church or apprenticed to an artist’s studio. He therefore enlisted in the Papal Navy as a captain aboard the galley San Bonaventura. This was one of the ten galleys under Pope Sixtus V. These were deployed to protect the Papal States from Barbary pirates. 

16 century galley

Pantera’s challenges as a galley captain were twofold. Firstly he needed the seamanship skills needed to handle the relatively fragile boat and prevent it from sinking. The 16th century galleys deployed in the Papal Navy had evolved from the triremes (three rows of oars) and biremes( two rows of oars) of the Roman Imperial Navy. Seven of these vessels from the Papal Navy had been deployed as part of a combined European fleet at the major sea battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571 when Pantera would have been three years old. Pantero himself described these galleys in his manual ‘L’Armata Navale’ published in 1614:

‘The galley is long, thin and low. It has a single cover which is divided into six rooms. The room at the prow is for the captains, gentlemen and others ‘of respect’. The ‘scandolaro’ is the room adjacent to the prow. Here some of the arms are stored and other possessions of those in the prow along with some barrels of good wine. After the ‘scandolaro’ is the company’s room which serves as a dispensary of wine, preserved foods, oil, vinegar and cheese. After that there is the ‘pagliolo’ where biscuit, flour, rice, water, bread, beans and garlic are stored.’

His second challenge was maintaining order amongst the crew so they obeyed commands and did not mutiny. In this respect, his task was probably much harder than a captain in Pliny’s fleet since the Romans did not deploy slaves. Most of Pompey’s crew would have been recruited from Egypt and could hope to be granted Roman citizenship after 25 or 27 years service whereupon they would receive a reasonably generous cash payment. In Pantera’s day the crew was formed from Turkish slaves (many of whom may have been captured following the Battle of Lepanto) and so-called ‘galeotti’ who were prison inmates deemed suitable for service onboard – hence the modern day Italian term ‘galera’ for a prison. These slaves and prisoners remained chained to their oars. Pantera describes their daily food ration as follows:

‘Two pounds of biscuit, half a pound of cheese or four sardines, a pint of wine, an ounce of oil and a head of garlic’.

Torre Pantera

The Torre Pantera in Piazza Verde, Como

Pantera was promoted Commander of the galley Santa Lucia in 1597 which captured four pirate vessels just in the one year of 1598. He continued his career at sea for a total of fifteen years in which he tried to improve conditions for his crews. He then took up an administrative post on land. He served at a time when warships driven by ranks of oarsmen were being replaced by those using sail. The hybrid form known as ‘Galleazza’, developed by the Venetians, first appeared at the Battle of Lepanto. These massive boats armed with cannon used both manpower and sail for propulsion and manoeuvre. As the 17th century progressed, manpower gave way increasingly to sail and the long era of galleys ended.

Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London. The larger vessels firing cannon are the ‘galleaza’ – a hybrid vessel developed by the Venetians and powered by both sail and oar.

In 1614 Pantera published his manual on seamanship entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’. It covered a comprehensive set of subjects including the principles of boat construction, battle tactics, logistics and fleet administration. In the following year he retired from the Papal Navy and returned to Como to take up a role in public administration. Here he lived in a villa on the edge of Piazza Verde where the Torre Pantera is still visible. In 1617 he had a villa built on the lakefront at Blevio which no longer stands but  has been replaced by the Villa da Riva which has passed through many different owners, recently including the Istituto Angelicum di Milano which provided accommodation for young unmarried mothers. While living in Blevio he published another account of his time with the Papal Navy before he died in 1625, at the age of 57 – just one year longer than Pliny the Elder.

villa da riva

Villa da Riva, Blevio built on the site of Pantero Pantera’s villa built for his retirement in 1617

Unlike Pliny the Elder, Pantero Pantera remains relatively unknown and unrecognised. Throughout Italy there is just one street named after him in Como along with a piazza in Rome. Strangely enough Pliny the Elder has given his name to a craft beer from Portland, while Pantera’s name was adopted by a Como-based company producing a line of clothing. Initially the use of the name Pantero Pantera was challenged unsuccessfully in the courts by the French jewellers Cartier who claimed it was too close to their series of jewellery named  ‘Panthère’. 

Further Reading

There are no significant further sources of information about Pantero Pantera but there is a lot out there for Pliny the Elder. In particular the blog article by Will Mather for the Western Australia Museum provides a detailed description of Pliny’s rescue mission to Pompeii and his death. The article by Tom Clark entitled ‘The Death of Pliny the Elder’ includes the Primo Levi poem quoted above and excerpts from Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus describing the eruption of Vesuvius and his uncle’s involvement.

The British author Daisy Dunn wrote ‘In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny’ available in all formats on Amazon. 

The Italian archeologist and author Flavio Russo has also written many books on the eruption of Vesuvius including an account of the scientific analysis of the presumed remains of Pliny the Elder uncovered in an archeological dig in 2014.

Refer to Como’s Historical Fabric and its Pot of Roman Gold for more information on Roman Como and the recent discovery of an amphora containing more than 500 gold coins from the Byzantine period. This horde might be associated with the importance of Como as a military base including its fleet and nautical school.

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A Circular Tour of Cardina on Monte Olimpino

Dosso Pisani (1)

Villa Dosso Pisani

Looking out from Como’s lakefront, your eye is drawn to a Liberty-style villa on a hilltop – the Villa Dosso Pisani. This villa sits on top of Monte Olimpino near to a small rural village called Cardina which gives its name to the surrounding countryside. The area offers two major attractions. The first is the old settlement of Quarcino with its beautiful romanesque church and the second is the park of Cardina itself with its remains of First World War fortifications and a series of paths criss-crossing the hilltop. However it is not somewhere to walk for views of the lake. Those views are reserved for sites like the Villa Dosso Pisani and for those living along the Via Panoramica San Pietro on the eastern edge of our area.

Cardina is one of very few areas within Como where you can take a pleasant countryside walk while staying entirely within the city’s limits. This has recently become quite an advantage since the imposition of ‘Red Zone’ anti-Covid regulations in Lombardy. While these do allow for unlimited individual outdoor exercise, we are constrained to staying within our own town or city limits. In spite of being within the city, Cardina feels very rural particularly when you venture onto its secondary paths.

cardina aerial

Aerial view of Cardina

Cardina sits between the city districts of Tavernola to the north, Sagnino to the west and Monte Olimpino to the south, all close to the Swiss border. In the past this hilltop would have been productive agricultural land given over to vineyards and chestnut groves. Nowadays it is mostly wooded except around the small community of Cardina itself with its restaurant ‘Il Crotto del Lupo’ near to the pond known rather grandly as the ‘Laghetto di Cardina’.

Laghetto

The Laghetto di Cardina near to the restaurant ‘Il Crotto del Lupo’

The area around the laghetto used to be a popular spot for families to take a stroll in the countryside at weekends. This is where you are most likely to come across other walkers since it still is very attractive. Cardina remains a curious but rather overlooked oasis of green surrounded by urban development on all sides. It lacks the care and maintenance evident in its cossetted southerly neighbour, the Parco Spina Verde, but well worth a visit for those who like full countryside immersion.

signage

Signposting is inconsistent

The paths through the woods vary in quality with some parts only slightly discernable from the surrounding woodland although steps are provided on steep slopes.  The signposting is also minimal and inconsistent.  However there is little to fear if you are temporarily lost since you are surrounded by urban development. You can reach a start point by car or by any of the other buses serving Monte Olimpino (numbers 7 and 1), Sagnino (Number 7) or Tavernola (Number 11).

The starting point chosen for this route was just above the church of  Cristo Re in Tavernola at  the junction  of Via Conciliazione with Via Raimondi. There is both a bus stop on the No. 11 route at Via Tibaldi 6 and a small car park at this point.

The noticeboard shown in the photo below marks the start of the walk. It identifies points of interest around Cardina including the defences built for the First World War which are part of what is known as the Linea Cadorna. These defences which run through the Parco Spina Verde, and along the length of the Swiss border to Sasso Gordona above Schignano, were built to defend against a possible attack from Austrian forces crossing through Switzerland.

A Start

Directions

routemap

The starting point (A) is on the curve of Via Conciliazione where the private road, Via Raimondi, goes off to the left. You will see the noticeboard shown above on this corner.  The road turns from tarmac to gravel and shortly after you will see the hiking path go off to the right.

As you walk along the northern edge of the Cardina hill, the area becomes more humid and lots of mushrooms are to be seen. This is also the least well-maintained part of the walk and one section in particular is marred by many fallen trees obstructing the path. However it is worth persisting but noting where you need to take an alternative route when returning.

With a decisive turn to the left after the fallen trees, you start a gradual climb up to the highest part of the walk (around 450 metres above sea level). From here you take a narrow path that eventually opens up on to the tarmacced road leading down to the Cardina community.

You will now pass the old settlement of Cardina with its farmhouses and a small chapel attached to a building which is now rented out for holiday lets. The road leads down to the restaurant ‘Il Crotto del lupo’ which has been in he same hands for a number of years and specialises in dishes from the Valtellina. It is also a bar so a handy place to stop before passing the laghetto and making your way back to your starting point.

Refreshments

‘Il Crotto del Lupo’ – Website: https://www.crottodellupo.net/it/

Contact information: +39 031 570881 or +39 347 817 8428

Summary

Distance: 4 km

Time: 1 hour 20 mins

Climb: 190 metres

Descent: 190 metres

Difficulty: Intermediate, sure-footedness required

Profile

cardina profile

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Lake Como Poetry Way and its Little Free Libraries

San Donato

The San Donato Sanctuary on the Sentiero Alda Merini from Como to Brunate

The path leading up from Como past the San Donato Sanctuary and on to Brunate has now been named the Sentiero Alda Merini in honour of the Milanese poet who had a close family connection with the hilltop village. The Sentiero Alda Merini in turn forms part of a much longer walk that connects various points of local literary interest and is fittingly called Lake Como Poetry Way. It starts off from Maslianico close to the Swiss border, passes through Cernobbio to Como and ends at San Maurizio, above Brunate. 

San Maurizio Brunate

The Church of San Maurizio above Brunate

We reported back in December last year how the Sentiero Alda Merini, now part of the Poetry Way, has a series of wooden signs along its path with quotes from Alda and other writers prompting walkers to pause and reflect. The plan is to extend these signs along the entire length of the route reinforcing the different literary associations to be found locally. In these times of Covid, confronted by the challenges of isolation and heavy background anxiety, we are constantly reminded of the remedial advantages of exercise and country walks. The beauty of the Poetry Way and the addition of the literary quotes posted along its path add a further reflective dimension to these mental benefits.

Rodari

Bi-lingual quotes from numerous authors now illustrate the literary quality of the Poetry Way.

The Poetry Way  is a project initiated by Pietro Berra, a Brunate-based poet and journalist, and driven by Sentiero dei Sogni, a voluntary association committed to building cultural bridges and promoting sustainable cultural tourism. Their motto is ‘Discover, Connect, Create’.  Lake Como is rich in literary associations dating from the early Latin poet, Caecilius Statius, the Roman authors Pliny the Elder and Younger, and on to Paolo Giovio who in the Middle Ages established Europe’s first museum on the Como lakefront where the Villa Gallia now stands. Foreign literary figures became constant visitors from the start of the 18th century with arguably the most renowned being the English Romantics – Wordsworth, Byron and the two Shelleys. As a result the walk incorporates references to both Italian and foreign literary figures with quotes signposted in both Italian and English. As the Sentiero dei Sogni’s website  states ‘Lake Como’s Poetry Way will lead you to discover a city rich in personalities, culture and delightful unusual panoramas.’

Monte Rosa from Brunate

View over to Monte Rosa from Brunate

The Sentiero Alda Merini has over the last few months been enriched by posting a number of new literary quotes along it way. The start of her section of the walk in Como has one of her sayings ‘We are born not only to live but to walk for long with feet that do not know their home and travel beyond every mountain’. The end of her section of the walk in Brunate includes one of her self-deprecating quotes  – ‘I am not a domesticated woman  – I am a small enraged bee.’ Between these two panels, you will also come across quotes from Thoreau, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Alessandro Volta (who both painted and wrote poetry as well as inventing batteries), Gianni Rodari and Samuel Rogers. 

Samuel Rogers

Quote inspired by Laker Como from forgotten contemporary of Wordsworth, Samuel Rogers.

Thanks to the recent celebration of the centenary of Gianni Rodari’s birth, I have recently been made aware of his work as a children’s author and illustrator but Samuel Rogers was totally unknown to me, and, I expect, to most others! He turns out to have been a contemporary Romantic poet of William Wordsworth who achieved considerable popularity during his lifetime only to be later eclipsed by the other Romantic poets. Lake Como featured prominently in his poetry and his collection entitled ‘Italy’, illustrated with prints of Lake Como landscapes by J.M.W. Turner , proved massively popular. Rogers’ verse and Turner’s prints proved to be a profound influence on John Ruskin, the art critic most responsible for influencing Victorian neo-gothic aesthetic taste. 

The entry in the Tate Gallery’s catalogue of Turner’s painting above states: ‘ In producing this tranquil and picturesque scene, Turner may well have referred to the many sketches he made of Como during his 1819 visit to Italy. The villas, skiffs, and majestic mountain scenery of these drawings reappear in idealised form in Turner’s delicate vignette.’

The Poetry Way is work in progress still awaiting completion of the signage along the entire route and the online publication of its map which can be requested in hard copy from the Sentiero dei Sogni’s web site. However it is a great concept and the authors know exactly which literary figures they intend to reference and where.

Ugo Foscolo

The bust of Ugo Foscolo in the gardens of the Villa del Grumello

Ugo Foscali for instance is clearly associated with the Villa del Grumello, the summer villa of his father-in-law, GianBattista  Giovio, a descendent of Paolo Giovio and a friend and travel companion of Alessandro Volta. There is a quote from William Wordsworth posted along the Sentiero Alda Merini taken from his journal of a walking tour undertaken in 1790 in the company of his friend from university, Robert Jones. There is no record that he actually visited Como but his verse was inspired by the view higher up the lake possibly nearer to Dongo. The other literary figures referred to along the Poetry Way, in addition to those already mentioned, include Vincenzo Monti, Giacomo Leopardi, Pencho Slaveikov, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Hermann Hesse.

Marvellous as the Poetry Way is, the one feature that potentially transforms it is the inclusion of a chain of ‘Little Free Libraries’ along its path. Little Free Libraries are nothing more than small wooden containers housing books for exchange under the slogan ‘Take a book, leave a book (Prendi un libro o lascia un libro)’.

Prendi o lascia

Take a book, leave a book – One of the chain of 12 Little Free Libraries along the route of the Lake Como Poetry Way from Maslianico to Brunate.

The simple concept of providing these small weather-proof housings for anonymous book exchange was born in the United States but has now spread across the world. However, here thanks to the Poetry Way of Sentiero dei Sogni and the contributions of other volunteers and associations, Como now has a chain of 12 of these containers stretching over the 12 kilometers of the Poetry Way starting in Maslianico and ending in San Maurizio, above Brunate. Books in all languages are welcome. I found the little library in Cernobbio’s Giardino della Valle a particularly good source of books in English as well as others.

Map Little Free Libraries

Map of the 12 Little Free Libraries along the route of the Lake Como Poetry Way

For more information about the Lake Como Poetry Way, visit the Sentiero dei Sogni website. Also visit the site of Passeggiate Creative for information about the cultural walks they organise. Sentiero dei Sogni have launched another major project to translate from English to Italian Mary Shelley’s autobiographical account of her journey to Lake Como accompanied by her son. Refer to Holidaying on Lake Como: In the Footsteps of Mary Shelley for details of this journey and her stay in Tremezzina. 

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Como’s Festival of Misultin and Lake Fish

gastrolarioBack in October 2018 we wrote about the flurry of food festivals launched around Lake Como. These are intended to attract people into dining in local restaurants during what would normally be a quiet period between the summer and winter seasons. One of these festivals, GastroLario, is now into its third year but has made some significant changes to its format. It is now hoping to draw people into dining out through a focussed celebration of local lake fish entitled ‘The Festival of Misultin and Lake Fish’ or ‘Festival del Misultin e del Pess de Lac’ in local dialect.

misultin

Missoltini drying in the sun prior to being packed and pressed into tins called ‘missolte’ from which this delicacy gets its name.

In the two previous years GastroLario’s initiative had covered both mountain and lake cuisines within the same period but for this and all subsequent years, GastroLario will  feature just the lake cuisine throughout the month of October with a  celebration of the lake’s best known speciality – missoltini. GastroLario will be followed in November by a different initiative named GustoBrianza which will feature Brianzan or mountain cuisine. tira molaThe other major local food festival honours a single dish – the belly-busting winter delicacy of cassuola made from pork and cabbage. The cassuola festival runs annually from January to March even though cassuola features on local menus from November onwards.  

The  changed format for GastroLario is designed to create greater awareness of the lake cuisine which will  in turn help promote the lake’s attractions beyond the end of the summer season. There are 25 restaurants participating in the festival with most but not all positioned on or close to the lake (the furthest away is in Mariano Comense on the southern edge of Como Province). These restaurants range from those which can be classed as ‘luxury’ such as the Antica Darsena in Como or the Imperialino in Moltrasio, to those which classify themselves as neighbourhood establishments many of whom seem to be located along Via Bellinzona.

Momi Restaurant

Momi’s Restaurant, Blevio – just one location where the beauty of the view is matched by the quality of the local cuisine.

Those facing directly onto the lake include Momi’s in Blevio and the Hotel Vapore in Torno (both firm favourites of mine). In the words of GastroLario’s organiser, Claudio Bizzozero, ‘the best way to get to know the area is to unite the beauty of the landscape with the beauty of the dishes proposed by our restauranteurs.’  Consult the GastoLario website for a full list of the participating restaurants and for details of the festival dishes proposed by each of them.

logo fish

GastroLario’s focus on lake fish has prompted them to develop some charming graphics

Needless to say, most of the participating restaurants will be offering missoltini, or ‘misultin’ in dialect. Missoltini are unique to Lake Como being a form of preserved freshwater sardine with a very distinctive flavour which, to be honest, is not to everyone’s taste. If  you do find missoltini a bit strong, you may well prefer one of the other lake specialities such as lavarello (whitefish) usually served grilled with butter and sage. Perch fillets have a very delicate flavour which goes very well either on buttery rice or a creamy risotto. Another local delicacy is paté di cavedano (chub). Chub have lots of small bones and so, for safety reasons, are only served in paté form within restaurants.

chub

Chub come close to the shore to take advantage of bread fed to the ducks and swans.

Missoltini are the preserved versions of a lake fish called agone or shard in English. They are a form of freshwater sardine that evolved from its marine origins when the continents formed. The lake hosts another species with a similar history, the ‘bottatrice’ or burbot in English which is a freshwater relative of cod.

fishing for agoneFishing for agoni has been strictly controlled since medieval times to ensure stock levels. The agoni make their way to the shallow waters near the shore to lay their eggs in May to mid-June. Fishing is prohibited during this period but they are fair game from mid-June onwards for two months. Once cleaned, the fish are salted, dried (often in the sun) and then pressed into tins with some laurel or other flavourings. The tins are called ‘missolte’, from which the fish get the name ‘misultin’ or ‘missoltini’ in Italian. They are served grilled and often accompanied by polenta. There are a number of festivals or sagras dedicated to missoltini around the lake with the best-known  being in Mezzegra, a district of Tremezzina. This sagra normally takes place on or close to the last weekend in August but fell victim this year to Covid 19. Tremezzina’s other major summer event – the Sagra di San Giovanni, was a similar victim this year. The Sagra del Missoltino has been running for 50 years and will hopefully return in 2021 alongside Isola Comacina’s Sagra di San Giovanni. 

missoltini cooking

Grilling missoltini at the Sagra di Missoltini held at Mezzagra towards the end of August

Preserving fish was obviously critical before the days of refrigeration and missoltini were part of the staple diet of those living around the lake. Salting and drying was not the only way of preserving fish with the other main method being to marinate cooked fish in a vinegar-based liquid called ‘carpione’. Carpione as a method of preservation has been used since ancient times on the lake. Fish ‘in carpione’ are normally served cold these days as an antipasto. It offers a different way of enjoying agone other than as missoltino or lavarello other than grilled. Historically it was often used to counter the somewhat muddy taste of carp, hence the probable source of its name.    

missoltini

Missoltini being prepared at misultinshop.it

Some people have questioned to what extent the lake fish on offer in local restaurants actually originate from Lake Como. I don’t think we need be concerned over the provenance of missoltini even though there have been moments when concerns have been raised over the numbers of agoni in the lake. As mentioned previously, the fishing of agoni has been controlled over centuries. The origins of some perch fillets might be more questionable but, even though stocks have dropped low in the past, current indications are more positive.  Many of the lake’s perch are however quite small. There are a firm set of regulations defining closed seasons for each type of fish species with rules on the size and the numbers of caught fish that can be retained. Levels of water pollution have declined over the years as it has become illegal to allow untreated waste to flow into the lake.

misultin1

Missoltini are typically served grilled alongside polenta

However climate change and the resulting increase in the variations of lake level are a threat. Many species including agone come close to shore to spawn and, if the level of the lake subsequently drops dramatically as it has done in recent years, their eggs do not survive exposure above or just below the water level. The other unseen and as yet, unquantified threat comes from the level of micro-plastic pollution which is high on the lake as it is almost everywhere. Some recent research with marine fish has shown how microplastics can provide a platform for the development of harmful bacteria which could possibly become a threat to some species.

cormorant

One of the many Como cormorants

Empirically the arrival in recent years of large colonies of cormorants on the lake does suggest that fish stocks must be quite healthy. An article in La Provincia back in February this year highlighted a colony of up to 250 cormorants nesting in Blevio with the estimate that they consumed around 120Kg of fish a day – twice the quantity of fish consumed during Mezzegra’s Sagra di Missoltini back in 2019. Their numbers have grown significantly over the last two or three years with a migratory pattern that sees most of them flying off north in Spring only to return again in autumn. These increased numbers must indicate that the lake is well enough stocked to maintain their ever increasing numbers, but the local fishermen feel the birds are taking more than fair shares.

In spite of the cormorants, we can feel confident that fish stocks held by the 25 restaurants featured in the Festival of Misultin will originate from Lake Como and be numerous enough to meet our needs. The Festival website also welcomes feedback on the individual dishes offered by the participating restaurants. Those contributing their feedback stand the chance of receiving a voucher allowing them to go back and eat again at their selected location. There is of course no need to limit yourself to the restaurants listed in the festival if looking to taste genuine local cuisine. There are many other restaurants around the lake with local fish on their menu all year round. 

trattoria del ponte

The Trattoria del Ponte in Careno offers a fixed menu consisting entirely of lake fish. It is only open during the summer season and is not included in the GastroLario festival.

If by chance you develop a passion for missoltini or other lake fish ‘in carpione’, there are shops who stock them such as Castiglioni in Como or outlets dedicated to lake fish like Le Specialita Lariane in Cernobbio. You can even acquire missoltini online from Misultinshop.it – a processing plant and shop in Olginate on the Lecco leg of the lake. Lake fish, with lavarello in particular, are on sale from either of the two fishmongers within Como’s covered market. And if you fancy fishing yourself for whitefish, shard, chub, char, carp or burbot, get your equipment and fishing licence from Ropino (25 Via Asiago) in Tavernola or contact  Lake Como Fishing in Griante for a day’s excursion by boat on the lake or on the River Adda and some of its tributaries in the Valtellina. Staff at Ropino and Lake Como Fishing are all said to be exceptionally helpful and willing to give advice on all matters relating to fishing on the lake. 

fishing authority

Day fishing licenses are available from Ropino in Tavernola opposite Bennets supermarket.

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Como’s Lost ‘La Ruota’ Wheel

La Ruota Design Studio

24 Via Diaz, Como – the site of the Parisi’s design studio – La Ruota, purchased by Carla Pellegatta and husband Mario Lombardi to prevent this iconic site from becoming a take-away pizzeria.

24 Via Diaz in Como’s historic centre is now an antique shop but was from 1948 to 1995 the home of  ‘La Ruota’ – a design studio run by Ico and Luisa Parisi. If the names of Ico and Luisa Parisi are now not particularly well known, some of the furniture designs emanating from this studio are. Take for example the Model 691 chair designed in 1955 for Cassina, a furniture factory based in Meda, north of Milan. This design has become so ubiquitous with so many millions of variations produced over the years. Every iconic design has its origins and this one in particular leads back to the heart of Como.

Model 691 chair

The Model 691 chair designed by the Parisis for Cassina 1955.

Maybe it should not come as too much of a surprise that Como should have fostered talents like the Parisis who contributed so much to the success of Italian mid-century furniture design. From the 1920’s the rationalist movement in architecture headed by Como’s Giuseppe Terragni, designer of the internationally renowned Casa del Fascio in the Piazza del Popolo, believed in the integration of various art disciplines based on a common set of aesthetic principles. The Parisis followed in this same tradition. Como Companion has previously sought to identify what were the specifically local factors that led the group of artists known as the ‘astrattisti comaschi’ to gain international renown prior to the last war. Many of these same factors, such as the fertilisation of ideas across local studios and from across Europe through galleries like ‘Il Milione’ and the Brera Art Institute in Milan, ensured the continued development locally of creative talent in the applied arts.  

Ico and Luisa Parisi 2

Ico and Luisa Parisi

Ico Parisi moved from his home town of Palermo to Como when young. He graduated in construction here in 1934 and then went on to study architecture as an apprentice to Giuseppe Terragni. In 1945 he met a fellow designer, Luisa Aiana who had studied under architect and designer, Gio Ponti. He went on to marry Luisa in 1947. The Parisis  were to develop a lifelong friendship and a friendly professional rivalry with Ponti until Ponti’s death in 1979. They established ‘La Ruota’ – their design studio in Via Diaz – in 1948, the  year after their marriage. Luisa died in 1990 but La Ruota continued to flourish until 1995, one year before Ico’s death in 1996. The couple lived in Como for all of that time apart from between 1949 and 1952 when they moved to Lausanne to enable Ico to study architecture at Lausanne’s Institute Atheneum under his friend Alberto Sartoris –  a rationalist theorist and exponent of art integration.

sartoris drawing

Architectural design by rationalist theorist Alberto Sartoris. He developed his own graphical method for presenting perspective. Ico Parisi studied under him at the Institute Atheneum in Lausanne from 1949 to 1952.

Ico’s architectural work can best be found in the Como suburb of Monte Olimpino, namely the Casa Bini where he also collaborated with the artist Mario Radice, as well as Casa Bertacchi and Casa Zucchi.

casa bini

Casa Bini, Monte Olimpino, Como. Designed by Ico Parisi with mosaics by Mario Radice.

As with Terragni, he was keen to integrate a variety of artistic disciplines into both the exteriors and interiors of his buildings. He was also a keen photographer and fine artist. Examples of his art are on display within Como’s Pinacoteca which now also houses the Ico Parisi Archive of Design. In his later years Ico went on to explore further ideas around artistic integration with his ideas of existential utopianism. One of his last projects was the redesign of the upmarket restaurant and disco, the Bobadilla Feeling Club, in Dalmine outside of Bergamo completed in 1992. However he may best be known nowadays for the various items of furniture he designed together with Luisa for companies such as Cassina in Brianza or MIM in Rome.

Up until the 1950s both the Parisis and Gio Ponti were mostly designing one-off pieces of furniture crafted in the artisan workshops around Cantu. These artisans remained important in contributing ideas but by the 1950s new methods and technologies were allowing for the industrialisation of the production of their designs. This wave of industrialisation led to the golden years of furniture production within the area to the south east of Como known as Brianza. These businesses reflected part of Italy’s economic miracle after the last war. One company in particular, Cassina  – a family business  founded by Cesare Cassina – led the way in innovation.

ico parisi egg chair cassini 1951

Poltrona Uova Model 813 , Cassina SpA. Designed by the Parisis, 1951

The Parisis and Cassina gained a great success with the design of Model 813, the Poltrona Uovo (Egg Chair). Cassina also went on to produce the Model 691 illustrated above. Ponti also profited from his collaboration with Cassina for whom he designed his iconic ‘Superleggera’.

Model 699 Superleggera

Model 699 Sedia Superleggera, Cassina SpA. Designed by Gio Ponti

Cassina soon started to profit from the success of these designs and they expanded by opening up prestigious showrooms in Rome. The interior design of these showrooms was entrusted to Luisa Parisi while Ico was appointed as the company’s art director. Cassina’s products soon became the required accoutrements for ‘La Dolce Vita’.

Gio Ponti maintained a friendly correspondence with the Parisis throughout his lifetime. His letters were far from conventional since they were usually very brief and always graphical in format as in the example shown here in which Ponti compliments the Parisis on the success of their Egg Chair.

Gio Ponti letter

Letter from Gio Ponti to the Parisis.

He states: ‘Miei cari la vostra poltrona uovo è una meraviglia – Siete maestri – a me non resta che ritirarmi e vivere nell’ oblio a Civate.’ (My dears, your egg chair is a marvel. You are masters. For me there is nothing more to do than retire and live in obscurity at Civate). Ponti had his country home in Civate on Lake Annone near Lecco. Another of Ponti’s letters dated 6th October 1960 reflects the growing success of the Parisis when he reports his joy on entering the lobby of the Hotel Dorset in New York and seeing a Parisi-designed table. However in retrospect, Gio Ponti has achieved much more international recognition than the Parisis, possibly due to the greater extent of his international architectural commissions. The Parisis were more content to stay close to their Como home and their house on the lake in Sala Comacina.

ico and luisa parisi mahogany sideboard 1950s

Mahogany sideboard, designed by Ico and Luisa Parisi, 1960s

Yet maybe the Parisis’ reputation is now beginning to grow. Cassina SpA have recently  reissued some old models the Parisis designed for them. Other modern day designers have taken inspiration from the Parisis as in this example taken from the Champagne Bar of the Devonshire Club Hotel, London.

ico parisi devonshire club hotel

Parisi inspired design by March and White for the Devonshire Club Hotel, City of London. The hotel has recently been forced to close due to the economic downturn occasioned by the Covid 19 pandemic.

They are both owed much more however in terms of recognition for the crucial part they played in the phenomenal success of Italy’s mid-century furniture design. In the meantime, Carla Pellegatta and her husband Mario Lombardi from Via Diaz’s Bottega d’Arte would welcome any old photos of ‘La Ruota’ so they can restore the missing ‘wheel’ on the plaque outside the Parisi’s studio. The original wheel and a subsequent replacement were both stolen in past years by over-zealous fans seeking a memento of this iconic local institution from out of which emanated designs that conquered the world.

La Ruota

La Ruota’s missing wheel.

Further Information

Nodo Libri have recently republished the collection of Gio Ponti’s correspondence with the Parisis entitled, ‘Gio Ponti – Lettere ai Parisi‘. Available online at http://www.nodolibrieditore.it/

archivioThe Pinacoteca di Como maintains an archive of photographs and documents which are available for consultation on request. They also have some examples of his art, photography and furniture design on display.  You may also contact the Archivio del Design di Ico Parisi 

book

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Cricket in Cantù and Beyond

Cantu Cricket Club – the winning team against Jinnah Brescia in the T20 Quater Finals at Settimo Milanese

Cricket is a team game which mystifies the uninitiated but enthrals those who are better acquainted. It’s also developing as one of the fastest growing sports internationally spreading well beyond its previous base in Britain and its ex-colonies. And there is also a team in the Province of Como – the Cantù Cricket Club.

I recently enjoyed watching the Cantù team beat Jinnah Brescia in the quarter finals of the National Serie B T20 competition. I was delighted to discover such an active cricket club on Como’s doorstep and this prompted me to learn more about both them and the status of cricket in Italy.

Cantù Cricket Club was established in 2015 as a relatively recent member of the Federazione Cricket Italiana. Their founding President was Francesco Moscatelli, a current member of the FCI board and a Cantù resident who works as a journalist for the Turin-based La Stampa group. His role as President of the Cantù team has now passed to his father, Maurizio, who had invited me down to see the team reach the semi-finals. Cantù do not yet have their own home ground and so are obliged to travel down to Settimo Milanese to share the home pitch of the Milan Cricket Club. They returned there on 13th September to face the Kings XI in the semi-finals. However this time they were beaten but the club is now well established and they will undoubtedly achieve further success under their manager and coach, Munir Ahmed.

Munir Ahmed gives the final pep talk before the match

The first cricket match in Italy was played in 1793 by rival teams of sailors from Admiral Nelson’s fleet which had harboured in Naples. Other teams have been put together over the years promoted by ex-patriot or visiting players from Britain. For a while there was a Lake Como team of expats called The Milan Cricket Club formed in 1972 who played  on a pitch at Grandola between Menaggio and Porlezza. This Milan Cricket Club is not to be confused with AC Milan, the famous football club which, when first established in 1899 by two British expats, also incorporated cricket. Nor is it to be confused with the Milan Cricket Club based in Settimo Milanese whose ground Cantù now share. Expats also contributed to one of the more successful Italian clubs in the recent past, Euratom based in Ispra in the Province of Varese. In more recent years, the number of clubs in Italy has increased massively thanks to the arrival of the ‘new Italian’  migrants with links to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These players have transformed the game and have, as a result, brought international success to Italy. 

The opening batsmen take to the pitch

One of these early successes was in 2009 when the Under 15 National team, consisting mostly of players with an Asian background, won the European Division 2 championship. They had defeated teams from Belgium, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Israel and Switzerland to arrive in the finals to beat the Isle of Man. Some of those players were struggling to get granted Italian citizenship yet were proud to represent and bring success to their adopted country. Sport at a national level can often get political and no less so in cricket with its heritage of rivalry between colonisers and colonised. Simone Gambino, the President of the Federazione Cricket Italiana back in 2009 made the following statement to the press following the Under 15 team’s victory. “I dedicate this victory to Umberto Bossi [the founder of the Lega Nord, a virulently anti-immigrant political party] because it shows how immigrants don’t just bring problems but also bring glory to Italy. This victory is for those who would not have these boys become Italian. They have shown on the pitch that immigrants are a resource.”

For Simone Gambino, now Honorary President of the FCI, alongside Francesco and Maurizio Moscatelli, cricket is much more than just a game. It is also about social integration and cohesion, and the assertion of those positive values associated with gamesmanship and friendly competition. Above all, cricket demonstrates both locally and nationally that Italy can take pride in and profit from its multi-ethnicity. 

The Cantù team’s uniforms reflect their pride in the home nation, Italy

The ethos of contemporary cricket in Italy is well illustrated by how the Milan-based Kingsgrove team describe themselves on their Facebook page: 

Founded in 2003, the Milan Kingsgrove Cricket Club has as its objectives the formation, promotion and enhancement of the sport of cricket in accordance with the regulations of the Italian Cricket Federation and the Italian Olympic Committee. Cricket, called the “gentlemen’s game” for excellence, is a sport based on positive concepts such as absolute fair play and was able to combat, in Italy and in the world, differences of class, religion and race through the values of civility and fairness not only in sport….. a sport of English origin, cricket is the noble ancestor of baseball and was born in the Middle Ages and is transmitted through the centuries to establish itself today as one of the most popular sports in Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Denmark, India, Ireland, England, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe. It is the second most played sport in the world and bonds around the same values people from the Anglo-Saxon nations as well as from the Asian subcontinent and is spreading to other European countries due to migration. Born from the ashes of Brera Cricket Club, the winner of the Italian Cup in 2002, Kingsgrove had and still continue to have many of the leading figures of cricket in northern Italy, players of every origin and nationality, so the club has internationalism as one of its characteristics as testimony to the values of civilization and integration related to cricket. 

What Is Cricket?

The bowler plays to the batsman hoping to hit his wicket while the batsmen hope to hit the ball down the field so they can score some runs.

Others can explain the rules of this game better than me but its obvious features are a team game played with bat, ball and wicket. It is similar to baseball but provides more scope for stylistic and technical variety. In recent years matches of limited length (the T20 series) have proved popular but the traditional national ‘test’ matches can be played over five days. Such an extended period of play with the demands it makes on players’ stamina and concentration, introduces a tactical complexity reflecting psychological and environmental sensitivity and technical variety. It was a game originally played in the eighteenth century by British aristocrats with time on their hands which was then exported across an empire to provide a social link between rulers and ruled. This led to many  matches becoming proxy contests in these colonies’ development of a national pride and their related struggles for independence.  

Cricket is about gamesmanship and fair play. Two umpires (in red) oversee the conduct of the game and confirm when a batsman is ‘out’.

Cricket in Italy has spread exponentially since the arrival of the new Italians. Francesco Moscatelli’s co-authored book ‘Italian Cricket Club’  and sub-titled ‘Il gioco dei nuovi italiani’,  outlines how these new Clubs have been set up by individual ethnic groups from the different regions of Southern Asia to cover most areas of Italy. They have  ironically developed  a national game to which most Italians are strangers.   Cantù Cricket Club’s members are primarily of Pakistani heritage from families who moved over here to work in local industry. They get sponsorship from the local bank and from a local business founded by Pakistani entrepreneurs. Their uniforms reflect their pride in their ethnic heritage as well as their loyalties to their new national home. 

The language of cricket was traditionally English but the common language here is definitely Italian. The batsman is ‘il battitore’; the bowler is ‘il lanciatore’; the wicket-keeper is ‘il ricevitore’ and the ball is ‘la pallina’. Nor is English heard on the pitch since it is only Italian that can offer a common language uniting players from different regions who may speak a variety of languages or dialects at home. 

Beyond a Boundary

Nikolai Smith, an all-rounder playing in Northern Ireland also plays for the Italian national team due to his dual nationality.

The significance of cricket goes beyond cricket itself. There is an aphorism that goes ‘What can they know of cricket  who only cricket know’. It is a game inextricably influenced by its social and political context. The  West Indian Marxist intellectual  C.L.R. James wrote a great book on cricket entitled ‘Beyond a Boundary’  in which he sought to explain what this social and cultural significance is and how it originates.  He stated that ‘cricket is a game of high and difficult technique. If it were not it could not carry the load of social response and implications which it carries.’  Although he was writing at the time of national struggle for independence for many colonies, including his own Trinidad, his analysis still stands the test of time as cricket now spreads itself in a post-colonial period of fresh globalisation. While James recognised that cricket offered a form of outlet for social and political pressures, he saw its primary appeal as being artistic. He says ‘Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre , ballet, opera and the dance.’  It contains all the ingredients for continuing national and international growth and success.

The Future

For Cantù, they may have lost out in the semi-finals of the T20 competition but lets wish them success in the upcoming Coppa Italia. They are in Group B along with Bergamo, Milan United and Brescia Blasters with their first match away to Bergamo on 26th September. I do hope they continue their success but what would really make a difference is if they could get their own pitch to play on somewhere within the Province of Como. It does not seem right that they have to share facilities as far away as Settimo Milanese. 

Headline in La Provincia September 13th

Italian cricket in general is also making great strides forward and success breeds further success with some foreign players like Nikolai Smith attracted into playing for the national team and able to qualify due to his Italian passport. The major boost to the game in Italy has come from the new Italians and now is the time for them to spread knowledge and interest in the game across the country as a whole. Cantù Cricket Club recently gifted a bat and ball to the ex-Centre Forward of the Italian football team, Christian ‘Bobo the Bomber’ Vieri. Vieri had previously played some cricket as a young boy in Sydney, Australia. He was previously unaware that there was a cricket championship in Italy and is now keen to take up the bat again.  The Cantù team took Vieri’s ball down to their semi-final match against Kings XI but unfortunately it did not bring them the  good luck they had hoped for on this occasion. 

The Italian National Cricket team training at Desert Springs, Spain in April 2019

The national team incorporating players captained by Joy Perera and including other new Italians as well as  Nikolai Smith and Northamptonshire’s Gareth Berg, have qualified for the next World Cup series but recent matches have all been postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Undoubtedly they and the host of local teams across the country will continue to grow interest in this complex but fascinating sport. In the meantime, it is great to know that we have a local team in the Province of Como, and, once Covid restrictions are lifted, we can all indulge in the pleasures of watching or playing this timeless game. 

Further Information

Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R. James, available in English on Kindle

Italian Cricket Clubs, ‘Il Gioco dei Nuovi Italiani’ by Francesco Moscatelli, Ilario Lombardo and Giacomo Fasola, available in Italian on Kindle

Fire in Babylon’ a film by Steven Riley available on Youtube covering the politically charged series of 1976 Test matches played in England against a visiting team from the West Indies. Prior to the start of the series, Tony Gregg, the England captain, had boasted that they would make West Indies ‘grovel’. The West Indies went on to win every game in the series and in the process, established a team under Clive Lloyd’s captaincy which went on to dominate international cricket for the next fifteen years.

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Anomalous Waves on Lake Como

 

Alpine lakes like Lake Como cannot be said to be at risk from tsunamis. Firstly we are not prone, albeit not entirely immune, to the seismic shocks that typically create most tsunamis. Secondly a tsunami’s size and devastating power are derived partly from the time it takes for the waves to develop over oceanic distances. However we are susceptible to freak, or to use the more scientific term, anomalous waves. 

Lenno

Evidence of erosion, landslides and fault lines can be seen around the lake as in this fault line on the mountain behind Lenno.

Research published in 2007 by Daniela Faletti and Luigina Vezzoli of the Universita dell’ Insubria has identified two occasions in the distant past when anomalous waves on Lake Como of up to 10 metres have caused extensive damage and undoubted loss of life within lakeside communities. Anomalous waves may not be as high or carry such initial destructive force as tsunamis but they can last longer in a lake due to the specific effects of reflection, resonance and oscillation. The eventual height of such a wave is also dependent on the specific topology of where it reaches land.

Bellagio

The northern tip of Bellagio looking over to Tremezzo. A major landslide on the underwater shelf between Bellagio and Tremezzo is said to have caused a devastating anomalous wave in the 500s.

These waves are most likely to have been caused by landslides involving massive falls of mountain detritus happening both above and below the water level. Geologists are able to identify such cataclysmic events by studying the layers of sediment on the lake floor. These extracts of sediment can reveal the past in a similar way to how growth rings on a tree trunk reveal past climatic conditions. Scientists have been able to identify some years in which more sediment than average had accumulated on the bottom of the lake. These deposits in a few instances were even greater than might be expected from a major flood. In these cases, the volume and depth of silt can only be explained by the displacement of large volumes of land mass, i.e. caused either directly or indirectly by a landslide.

Le Grammont

A major landslide on the mountain of Le Grammont above where the Rhone enters Lake Leman is said to have triggered the movement of sediment that had built up at the river’s delta. This in turn is said to have caused the anomalous wave in 563 causing widespread damage along the length of the lake.

This phenomenon was first uncovered by scientists working at the University of Geneva who studied the sedimentary deposits on the bottom of Lake Leman (Lake Geneva). Local ancient history had always talked about a major disaster costing many lives and causing damage to lakeside communities back in the 6th century. Research verified that a major landslide must have taken place around that time at the eastern end where the Rhone enters the lake. First ideas were that a landslide at Tauredunum created a natural dam over the Rhone as it entered the lake. This dam was then said to have burst causing the huge anomalous wave which then travelled the length of the lake flooding communities along its way until it reached Geneva.  More recent researches by the University of Geneva have resulted in a new theory which claims a landslide back in 563 on the mountain called Le Grammont above Port-Valais caused a massive underwater shift in the sediment that had built up around the Rhone’s point of entry to the lake. It was the shift in this sediment which created the anomalous wave. The wave would then have travelled at about 70 km per hour to arrive 13 metres high in Lausanne 15 minutes later. 

tsunami leman

The anomalous wave of 563 travelled east to west across the length of Lake Leman. The numbers in red denote the time in minutes it took to arrive. The numbers in yellow denote the height of the wave in metres.

For Lake Como, the two researchers from the Universita dell’Insubria identified two major incidents causing destructive anomalous waves. One has been dated to between 500 and 530CE. The other was sometime within the 12th century. These results followed examination of sediment taken from the deepest part of the lake – the area between Isola Comacina and Brienno. The older wave has been attributed to two underwater landslides occurring on the shelf that lies between Bellagio and Tremezzo. The cause of the 12th century incident is less clear but has been attributed to possibly the same sort of event occurring on Lake Leman or possibly due to an earthquake. In either case, the anomalous wave created would have amounted to 10 metres in height.

‘A’ marks the origin of the two anomalous waves in the 6th and 12th centuries. ‘B’ is where the researchers undertook their study of sedimentary deposits. The arrows mark the direction of travel with ‘C’ (Como) marking their destination point.
Pliny the Younger

The statue of Pliny the Younger on the right-hand side of the main entrance to Como Cathedral

Both waves would have caused massive damage and loss of life. Some have suggested that the first incident in the 6th century was responsible for destroying the summer villa of Pliny the Younger. Pliny (born in Como in 61CE and brought up by his uncle Pliny the Elder) provided a description of his two Como villas in a letter to his friend Voconius Romanus. These villas were named Villa Commedia for the one on the lakeside and Villa Tragedia for the one on the mountainside. He stated that he was able to fish directly on the lake from within Villa Commedia. Paolo Giovio (1484 – 1552), Como’s famous historian, priest and art collector, claimed that Villa Commedia was on the shores of Lenno. In 1847 two Roman corinthian columns were recovered there from off the shoreline. However others have suggested the villa was on the Lecco leg of the lake in Lierna – a hypothesis supported by the discovery of extensive mosaics there in 1876. His mountain villa, Villa Tragedia, was most likely located in Bellagio where the Villa Serbelloni now stands. 

Here is the text of Pliny’s letter to Romanus in which he suggests that he could almost fish from his bed when at Villa Commedia:

I am pleased to find by your letter that you are engaged in building; for I may now defend my own conduct by your example. I am myself employed in the same sort of work; and since I have you, who shall deny I have reason on my side? Our situations too are not dissimilar; your buildings are carried on upon the sea-coast, mine are rising upon the side of the Larian lake. I have several villas upon the borders of this lake, but there are two particularly in which, as I take most delight, so they give me most employment. They are both situated like those at Baiae:[135] one of them stands upon a rock, and overlooks the lake; the other actually touches it. The first, supported as it were by the lofty buskin,[136] I call my tragic; the other, as resting upon the humble rock, my comic villa. Each has its own peculiar charm, recommending it to its possessor so much more on account of this very difference. The former commands a wider, the latter enjoys a nearer view of the lake. One, by a gentle curve, embraces a little bay; the other, being built upon a greater height, forms two. Here you have a strait walk extending itself along the banks of the lake; there, a spacious terrace that falls by a gentle descent towards it. The former does not feel the force of the waves; the latter breaks them; from that you see the fishing-vessels; from this you may fish yourself, and throw your line out of your room, and almost from your bed, as from off a boat. It is the beauties therefore these agreeable villas possess that tempt me to add to them those which are wanting.—But I need not assign a reason to you; who, undoubtedly, will think it a sufficient one that I follow your example. Farewell.

The location of the lake surrounded by tall mountains is at the heart of Como’s beauty and magnificence. Yet it is an environment that must be treated with respect since this combination forms a single ecological and geological system whereby changes to one element may impact the other – and those changes need to be constantly monitored to avoid the sort of calamity that befell the communities in the Prealpi Carniche between the regions of Friuli and the Veneto.

diga vajont

The dam completed in 1959 across the Vajont on the borders of Friuli and the Veneto was a marvel of Italian engineering but the resulting lake destabilised the surrounding mountains with tragic results.

In 1948 it was decided to build a dam across the Vajont stream where it cut a deep gorge below Monte Toc. The purpose was to provide for hydroelectric power. The dam that was built was (and still is) a great example of Italian engineering. A deep lake formed behind its solid concrete curtain closing off the mountain valley. In 1960 a landslide on the left bank of the lake caused a 10 metre high wave which the dam resisted and contained. But at 22.39 on 9th October 1963, a great chunk of mountain separated from Monte Toc on the right bank of the lake. The landslide was 2 kilometres long, 150 metres high and dislodged around 260 million cubic metres of material which travelled down the mountainside at between 75 to 90 km/hour, arriving at the lake within a mere 20 seconds. The result was a massive wave raising the level of the lake from 700 metres above sea level to 930. At least 25 million cubic metres of water went over the top of the dam destroying all in its path downstream. The town of Longarone suffered 1450 dead with a total mortality in the area rising to 1900. The dam itself survived but not enough attention had been paid to the geological structure of Monte Toc and how it could have been destabilised by the creation of a lake at its feet. The engineering was first class but the lack of attention to detail, the refusal to pay attention to local knowledge and insufficient monitoring resulted in a frightful tragedy. 

diga vajont monte toc

9th October 1963, 260 million cubic metres of mountain fell off Monte Toc into the lake below. 25 million cubic metres of water went over the top of the dam causing over 1900 deaths in the valley below. The dam survived and still stands as a monument to the dangers of ignoring environmental factors.

While we can have no idea of how many died as a result of those early anomalous waves on Lake Como, we can be thankful that nothing on the scale of Vajont in 1963 has happened here. However we have had a full history of floods over the last 200 years and also a very tragic loss of life following extreme weather and landslides along the course of the River Adda before it enters Lake Como along the Valtellina. Written accounts of floods improved once local newspapers like ‘La Provincia’ were established in the mid nineteenth century. There are reports of significant flooding in Como on 6th October 1868 and also on 11th September 1888, a year apparently when the weather was particularly cold and wet with snowfall visible even at the height of summer along the mountain tops surrounding the lake.

Villa Commedia

An artist’s impression of Pliny the Younger’s Villa Commedia located by Paolo Giovio as being built on the lakeside in Lenno. This impression fails to reflect Pliny’s own description of the villa being directly on the lakefront.

Tragedy did however strike our province much more recently when heavy rains provoked landslides with many victims along the length of the Valtellina. On 17th July 1987 a series of summer storms fell on the Valtellina. The streams were already full but the volume of water was added to by snow and ice separated from the mountain tops by the force of the storms. The ground could not absorb any more water and the mountainsides could not hold the additional weight of the sodden soil. On the next day, the 18th, a terrifying landslide fell on the town of Tartano killing 19 people sheltering in one of the hotels.  The floods that followed were worse around Morbegno close to where  the Adda enters Lake Como by the Pian di Spagna. The floods even reached Como with Piazza Cavour and surrounding streets covered in water up as far as the Duomo. 

pian di spagna

The Pian di Spagna, an alluvial plain created by sediment brought down the Valtellina by the River Adda as it enters Lake Como in the north,

However the landslide above Tartano on the 18th was just a prelude to further tragedy that befell the Valtellina 10 days later. Most of the communities in the plain of the River Adda from Bormio to Morbegno had been evacuated. Geologists  had also noted instability in the Val Pola and the mountains around Monte Zandila,  The area there had also mostly been evacuated except for seven workmen seeking to repair the damage to the main road up the valley to Bormio – a road normally used by up to eighty trucks a day transporting Levissima mineral water down the valley from the spring in Cepina.

val pola mountain

Monte Zandila in the Val Pola where 40 million cubic metres of mountainside fell down into the valley bottom on 28th July 1987 to form a natural dam further threatening the Valtellina with further flooding.

They were already at work when at 07.23  a very loud blast sounding like a whiplash was heard as far away as Bormio. Thirty seconds later 40 million cubic metres of mountainside had dislodged itself and tumbled down into the valley. The scale of this landslide was immense. The split in the mountain appeared in just 8 seconds and the subsequent fall was over in the next 23 seconds. The rock and detritus fell a total of 1250 metres hitting the valley floor at between 275 to 390 kilometers an hour. The seismic shock caused by the landslide was registered as 3.9 on the Richter scale. The debris fell into the small lake of Morignone creating a wave ninety five metres high which still stood at between 15 to 20 metres high after travelling for 1.5 kilometres. All seven workmen were killed alongside twenty eight victims from Aquilone. That town had not been evacuated since no-one had expected such a devastating landslide. In fact those victims did not die due to the direct impact of the landslide but due to the displacement of air caused by it – a phenomenon also recorded at Valjont but normally associated with atomic explosions. 

piazza cavour 1987

Piazza Cavour, Como flooded following the rain and landslides in the Valtellina on 17th and 18th July 1987

If the inhabitants of the Valtellina had not suffered enough throughout that fateful summer, their drama was set to continue since that mass of 40 million cubic metres of rock, soil and wood had formed a dam across the entire valley floor which caused a build up of water behind it. This dam threatened to give way at any time and threatened a further wave of damage. A commission was established to design and execute a solution which would drain the newly created lake and redirect the Adda along its previous course. Here again, Italian engineering rose to the challenge and managed to secure the area from further threat by the end of August.

val pola 2

The lake formed by the landslide in the Val Pola which formed a dam across the floor of the valley.

Ours is a truly beautiful area but the history of anomalous waves in the distant past and the more recent history of tragedy arising from exceptional weather does mean we have to continue to monitor the stability of lake and mountain. While Italian engineering has, from Roman days, excelled in its achievements, we need to ensure that sufficient time and attention is paid to the maintenance and monitoring of any plants likely to impact the environment and the delicate ecological system formed out of lake and mountain. That challenge is made even more demanding faced with the obvious effects of climate change and in the way annual  rainfall distribution has changed over recent years. Some also have suggested that human intervention through building in mountainous areas may have exacerbated the Val Pola landslide. 

 

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Como’s Train Station, Witches and the Inquisition

Monte Croce

The Church of San Giovanni Pedemonte lay between the city and Monte Croce (the highest peak of the Parco Spina Verde) where the railway station now stands.

Few travellers arriving by train at Como’s San Giovanni Station are aware that they are walking over the remains of a vast monasterial complex where thousands of innocent victims faced torture and a gruesome end by being burnt at the stake. The station is built on the site of San Giovanni Pedemonte established in the 13th century, deconsecrated in 1810 and then destroyed in 1814. It was the Como home of the Dominican Order who were entrusted with administering the Inquisition.    

San Giovanni Pedemonte

In this early painting, San Giovanni Pedemonte is in the foreground

The Diocese of Como shares  the gruesome record with Venice for the prosecution and execution of the highest number of those accused of Satan worship and witchcraft. At the height of this vindictive fervour in the late 1400s and early 1500s, around 1,000 cases were being tried a year. The accusations of witchcraft, mostly but not exclusively directed at women, were brought before a tribunal set up by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition.

Musso Saint Eufemio

The church of Saint Euphemia in Musso is just one of many religious buildings located on previously pagan sites.

The Inquisition had started in the 12th century but became a more formalised method of discouraging heresy under Pope Innocent IV in 1252. He entrusted the Dominican order with the task of conducting these tribunals which initially focussed on discouraging  the Catharism and Waldensian heresies prevalent at the time in Southern France and Northern Italy. It was only later in the 15th century when the Inquisition turned its attention to the suppression of rustic rites with links to paganism. Out of this was born the misogynistic quasi-judicial process that led to the beheading and/or burning to death  of those found guilty of dancing with the devil or flying through the air or of causing crop failures or provoking hail or thunder storms through satanic incantations. And both the tribunals and judicial burnings were held within the Dominican monastery which was part of the religious complex of San Giovanni Pedemonte established in the 1200s and finally destroyed by Napoleon’s army in 1814 – making way for the railway line from Milan to Lugano and in 1875 for Como’s main railway station that takes its name from the original religious site.

San Giovanni Pedemonte plan

Plans of the site of San Giovanni Pedemonte with its three cloisters, church and library.

The Dominican monastery of San Giovanni was established as far back as 1235 located outside of Como’s city walls and at the base of Monte Croce, the tallest hill overlooking the city within the Parco Spina Verde. It would become a major religious complex for the city consisting of a church, three separate cloisters and a library. It became the church of preference for Como’s Benedetto Odescalchi who became Pope Innocent XI in 1676. His family’s patronage enabled the church to acquire some significant works of art which are now on display in Como’s art gallery. The church and the monastery were suppressed during Napoleon’s control over Lombardy and the buildings themselves were mostly destroyed by his troops on their return from Russia in 1814. The very final remains of the religious complex were cleared to make way for the railway station in 1875.

Saint Ambrogio and San Pietro

San Pietro Martire meets Sant’ Ambrogio – a work taken from the Church of San Giovanni Pedemonte and now in Berlin’s Bode Museum

In 1251 Pope Innocent IV appointed the Dominican monk San Pietro da Verona as the very first Inquisitor for the Diocese of Como. Como’s diocese covered a massive territory which included most of the modern day Swiss Canton of Ticino, the Val Chiavenna and the Valtellina in addition to the Province of Como. In those early days, the Inquisition had not acquired the reputation for the torture, cruelty and intollerance it was to display in later years. San Pietro was a firm but fair judge much respected by the citizens of Como but hated by some of the aristocracy. He was to die in 1253 assassinated on the orders of two local aristocratic families near to Meda as he was walking from Como to Milan. He was later sanctified and became more commonly known as San Pietro Martire. He is Como’s second patron saint after Saint Abbondio. 

 

Bernardo Rategna Inquisition Techniques

A tract by Bernardo Rategno on how to interrogate heretics.

The Inquisitors who followed San Pietro Martire in the 15th and 16th centuries developed a very different reputation. The Catholic Church was going through another period of insecurity but this time its efforts to control heresy were more often directed at the rustic rites and the beliefs that had remained active within the isolated rural communities in the hills and valleys towards the extremes of Como’s diocesian territory – predominantly in the Valtellina. This was the period in which Como gained the reputation for persecuting up to a thousand cases of witchcraft a year – a figure in Italy only surpassed in the diocese of Venice.  The Dominican Prior Inquisitor who did more than any other to establish this grim record was Bernardo Rategno, born in Schignano above Argegno in 1450. He became Prior of San Giovanni Pedemonte in 1490 where he presided over the tribunals of the Inquisition until his death in 1510. He condemned up to 60 women to burn at the stake in a single year.  His successor, Antonio da Casale, is estimated to have condemned from between 300 to 1000 women to the same fate in 1514.  These deaths usually came after a period of torture with pressure to denounce others to which many succumbed also in the forlorn hope that they might avoid the standard means of execution – being burnt alive in public within the piazza in front of the Church of San Giovanni.

witches sabbath David Teniers

Preparing for the Sabbath by the Dutch 17th century artist David Teniers

Thanks to Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ – where a trial of witches in the 17th century within the Massachusett’s town of Salem stands in part as an allegory for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s  anti-Communist campaign through the 1950s and 1960’s –  we are all too aware of how pressure on the accused to provide names and denounce others helps to perpetuate injustice and oppression through the fear of ‘political’ or ‘religious’ heresy. In the case of Como’s witch trials, the accused were predominantly women on whom blame was laid for plague outbreaks, crop failures, storm damage or any other form of ill-luck or misfortune. Many may have had knowledge of natural remedies and performed a valuable function as such but could end up accused of witchcraft if treatments went wrong or if others believed they were responsible for putting a spell or laying a curse on them. Some victims might just have been a little too individual, unusual, eccentric or independent for the likes of their conformist neighbours. Their names would be passed up from the local churches to the Inquisition with accusations of participating in satanic rites, dancing with the devil, sacrificing children, indulging in sexual orgies or flying through the air.  Or they could be denounced for such participation by others facing torture or desperate to avoid execution. Above all else and leaving aside the absurdities of flying through the air, this was an attack directed on rural and rustic culture with its highly localised idiosyncrasies born out of the isolation of life in remote hills and valleys. The attack was persecuted by an urban elite in league with local representatives of the church who selected as their victims those least able to defend themselves. 

witches

The cultural conflict between town and country is born out by the location of the most common witch ‘hunting grounds’. In the 15th and 16th centuries these were Bormio, Chiavenna, Berbenno and Ponte in Valtellina. In 1523 the then Inquisitor Modesto Scrofeo (nicknamed ‘Il Sanguinario’) went on a witch hunt in the Valtellina from summer to autumn resulting in many executions. 

However it appears that by the 17th century, the role of the Inquisition based in Como’s San Giovanni Pedemonte changed perceptibly from being the main accuser of witchcraft to becoming the last point of appeal against such accusations. By this time, it was not just the Inquisition who brought and executed cases of alleged witchcraft. The local churches in the remote areas of the diocese were becoming more extreme while the Inquisition in Como was becoming slightly more liberal under the influence of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and then Federico Borromeo. They had instigated a slightly more tolerant attitude towards rustic custom and of course, were totally committed to resisting the forces of the Reformation which was leading to open conflict in the Valtellina. There the reformist church was spreading its influence over the hills from the Grissons and they were as severe in attitude towards the vestiges of pagan beliefs within the rustic communities as had been the Inquisitor’s forebears in the preceding centuries. As a result, the tribunal in San Giovanni Pedemonte could often find itself in disagreement with some of the local parishes. Knowing this, those accused locally of witchcraft realised that they may just get a fairer hearing if they were to appeal directly to the Inquisition in Como. Such was the case for a Margherita del Boseghe who in January 1640 travelled down from her town of Camignolo, near to Lugano to plead her case before Camillo Campeggi, the Dominican Prior Inquisitor. Margherita had previously been denounced as a witch by a Giovannina da Mezzovico who had herself been tried, beheaded and burnt as a witch in Lugano in November 1639. Giovannina had passed on Margherita’s name under torture claiming she had danced with the devil. Margherita was content to admit that she had accompanied Giovannina to a dance in the open under a large chestnut tree on Monte Ceneri. But she insisted this was just a get together of local people out to enjoy themselves and not ‘a ball to honour the devil’. We know all about the case because Camillo Campeggi described the proceedings in a letter sent to Rome seeking guidance. Margherita was subsequently found not guilty. What many supplicants to the Inquisition tribunals were seeking was the release of a ‘fede’ – a certificate of good faith. With such a certificate they could return to their local parish and be assured they could not be accused in the future of witchcraft. No doubt the Diocese also profited from the charge made for issuing these certificates. 

Cloister Sant Abbondio

San Giovanni Pedemonte’s cloisters were destroyed in 1814 but these nearby attached to the Church of Sant’Abbondio are now part of the University of the Insubria

In 1782 the Inquisition was formally closed and in 1810 the Dominican convent of San Giovanni Pedemonte was suppressed under the orders of the Napoleonic regime. Napoleon’s troops then destroyed the church and monastery in 1814. Some of the artwork from the church had previously been removed and is now housed in museums around Europe including works by Morazzone, Carlo Nuvolone and Giovanni Paolo Ghianda which are all to be found in Como’s art gallery. 

San Pietro

San Pietro Martire Cures the Leg of a Young Man by Giovanni Paolo Ghianda taken from San Giovanni Pedemonte and now in the Como Art Gallery (Pinacoteca)

Shortly before 1782, the last woman accused of witchcraft in the Valtellina died of exposure in the cold following banishment and excommunication by her local church in Ardenno. The church had become fed up of her selling her cures and potions and telling fortunes and so banned her from human contact. Over in Switzerland, due north from Chiavenna and not far out of the Diocese of Como, the last woman in Europe was to be tried, convicted and executed as a witch. This was Anna Goldi who was executed on 13th June 1782 in the town of Glarona. In 2008 the courts of Glarona, 226 years after her execution, absolved her of any crime declaring her a victim of judicial assassination. This is apparently the only case out of the thousands put through criminal trial and execution for witchcraft across Europe to receive formal apology.

Canzo Giubiana

Poster for the Festa della Giubiana in Canzo

It could well be the legacy of the many women burnt at the stake as witches in the mediaeval period which has contributed to the popularity of the winter ‘Festa della Giubiana’ – a festival celebrated in many towns around Lake Como and in Brianza in late January which involves the burning of an effigy of a witch on top of a huge bonfire. In the past those accused of witchcraft  were blamed for all the negative vicissitudes of peasant life such as ill health or crop failure. Nowadays, the burning of the Giubbiana represents purging the community of all the ills from the previous year in order to welcome in better luck during the year to come. The shadows of the past still flicker in the flames of those January bonfires as perhaps the screech of steel on steel as trains enter Como’s San Giovanni station echo the screams of those innocent women as they faced torture and death. 

San Giovanni Pedemonte 2

 

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Swimability 2020: ‘Excellent’ Lake Bathing

Clean waters of Argegno

The clean waters of Argegno – excellent quality and safe for swimming

2020’s tourist season has got off to a late start for reasons we know all too well! I had feared that the Coronavirus lockdown might have led to a deterioration in water quality if maintenance of the many lakeside septic tanks had been impacted. (There were some days in winter when a walk along Como’s Viale Geno made me fear the worst). However there is absolutely no cause for concern as the lake swimming season (officially running from 1st June to 30th September) has again started with excellent results. The first two sets of data from government controls of water quality are now in and all beaches on the Como leg of the lake are deemed swimmable with the vast majority classified as ‘excellent’. 

carena

The inviting water at Careno

Overall Results

As with last year, I have checked the latest data for the twenty two beaches monitored on the Como leg of the lake from Griante on the west bank and Bellagio on the east to Como itself. One of these, the Spiaggia Rivabella Crotto at Lezzeno, was closed last year due to unacceptably high levels of pollution. The figures for this year are fine so I am not sure if the closure order still stands. In any case, Lezzeno has two other beaches with excellent results that could provide an alternative.  The beach at Laglio is not recorded since it remains technically closed due to construction work on the lakefront – now into its third year!

Laglio

Laglio’s beach currently officially closed due to construction work on the lakefront.

All the others are swimmable with most recording only trace evidence of bacteria with the following exceptions. Como’s beach at Villa Olmo only manages to gain a ‘sufficient’ rating. Como’s other official lake lido at Villa Geno has better but not perfect results but unfortunately it remains closed to the public due to a prolonged piece of local council bureaucracy. If based in Como, I recommend a short trip to the lido at Moltrasio which has some of the cleanest water across the whole lake. Argegno’s lakefront and lido register some of the cleanest water on the lake for the second year running. Another ‘lido’ which does not appear to offer any access to the public is the beach within the old galloping track of Villa Erba. This beach, used by the Cernobbio Sailing Club, is near to where the River Breggia enters the lake. Last year the season started badly for them due possibly to issues upstream in the purification plant in Chiasso. There are no issues so far this year. The lido at Faggeto Lario shares excellent results in addition to the lidos at Argegno and Moltrasio. The Faggeto lido is also a plastic-free zone but remember that virus control measures require customers to book places in advance. Go to this website  to make your reservation.

 

Moltrasio to Torno

Looking down on Moltrasio and over to Torno

Detailed figures for 2020 are included in the table below.  For those of you wanting details of the beaches either at the top end of the lake or on the Lecco leg, please refer to the government website following this link, and enter in the name of the Comune, e.g. Abbadia Lariana. Ensure you enlarge the map sufficiently to make evident the individual beaches in each comune and then click on your preferred location. Since there are only two months’ data for this season, the classification of excellent, good or acceptable is based on last year. You need to check the actual results to evaluate the current state.

Portale

Screen shot from the Italian Government’s water portal site where data on levels of pollution at both salt and freshwater beaches are reported.

From Como to Griante

The hot weather does tempt some people in Como to enter the water by the Tempio Voltiano in the lakeside park. Unfortunately this is also where the Cosia river enters the lake having passed by Como’s water treatment plant just up the road. This is also not an official beach and it is not a good idea to swim there. Hopefully the data for Villa Olmo’s lido will improve but the lido does have its own swimming pool for those not happy with the lake. There is also a swimming pool lido in Cernobbio looking over the gardens of Villa Erba.

The lake at Laglio

The lake at Laglio

 Go out beyond Cernobbio to Moltrasio and you will find an excellently clean lido. Carate Urio has a popular beach on a lawn in front of the church but it is not monitored. Laglio’s beach remains closed due to ongoing construction work on the lakefront.

brienno 1

Brienno’s beach is actually a platform built over the lake with a bar on the terrace above.

You then arrive at Brienno which is my favourite location for swimming on the west side of the lake. Brienno’s beach is within the small public park on the northern edge of the town. It consists of a couple of platforms built on the mountainside over the lake with a bar offering sun beds and umbrellas if required. The bar provides all necessary facilities alongside simple dishes like rice or pasta salad and sandwiches. The water quality is monitored and is good. Brienno itself is a delightful little town of old fishermen’s dwellings linked by a maze of narrow streets. It is not on the main tourist map so remains pleasantly relaxing throughout the summer.

 

brienno 2

Brienno

On from Brienno, Argegno’s lido is excellent. Colonno’s beach is also very good. Lenno has three monitored beaches. All are well within acceptable standards but not as good as Argegno or Tremezzina to its north. Finally, there are two beaches reviewed in Griante and both have excellent scores this year.

 

From Como to Bellagio

carena beach

Careno’s beach is below the Romanesque bell tower of San Martino

The first beach to be monitored on the eastern side of the Como leg is at Faggeto Lario. Its results are excellent this year as are those for Nesso, the next monitored beach on the road north. Between Faggeto Lario and Nesso there is an unmonitored beach which happens to be my favourite spot for lake swimming on this side. It is Careno. The water here may not be monitored but I can assure you that it looks and feels good. Also there are no dense areas of population nearby least of all in Careno itself which is a very small town. This is a beautiful place to come and lounge in the shadow of the Romanesque bell tower of San Martino. The beach consists of a grassy area, and, if the level of the lake is low, a gravelly section. There are no public facilities here. However, if you have wisely booked lunch at the nearby Trattoria del Porto (call +39 031 910195 for reservations), you should be able to use their facilities. The restaurant specialises in lake fish and offers a fixed menu that usually includes two of Lake Como’s traditional local delicacies – missoltini and perch fillets with rice. There are not a large number of boats stopping at Careno but the schedule does allow you to arrive in good time to sunbathe and swim, eat, digest and then return home. Here you have all the ingredients for a perfect lazy excursion well off the normal tourist track – a spot that, like Brienno over the water, remains delightfully quiet and calm also in high summer during the week.

 

carena restaurant

Trattoria del Porto – specialises in lake fish at Careno.

Lezzeno is the next town on the road to Bellagio. Here there are three monitored beaches with the Spiaggia Rivabella Crotto being the only one in our area closed last year due to unacceptable levels of pollution. This year, however, its results are very good. The neighbouring beaches in Lezzeno at Bagnana and Salice have always been excellent. Finally we arrive at Bellagio’s beaches at Rivetto  and Punta Spartivento. Both are classified as ‘excellent’. 

careno beach 2

Leaving Careno beach on the boat back to Como

The EU’s Bathing Water Directive

Rezzonico Beach

The beach at Rezzonico, a beautiful lakeside village north of our area near San Siro.

All the countries within the European Union apply the standards defined in the 2006 Bathing Water Directive. These require member states to monitor rivers, lakes  and beaches regularly, to report their results and immediately publicise closure whenever any specific location fails to achieve acceptable levels. There is a broad range of poisonous bacteria that can enter the water either from sewage, water treatment centres or as agricultural or industrial run-off. Beyond causing gastroenteritis, they may also lead to very serious conditions such as meningitis. Rather than test for the wide variety of possible bacteria, the tests focus on identifying the number of units of just two microorganisms, e-coli and intestinal enterococci. Levels of these provide a good indication of general levels for the other harmful bacteria. Units are measured per one hundred millitres with any number below 1000 acceptable for e-coli and below 500 for enterococci. Depending on results, the water from each site is then classified as being either excellent, good, sufficient or poor.

Detailed results

Here are the latest figures for those beaches close to Como.

Table 1

 

 

Table 2

Clean Como water

Clean Como water

 

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Como’s Star-Crossed Lovers: 2 – ‘Gianna’ and ‘Neri’

Neri and Gianna

Luigi Canali, nom de guerre ‘Neri’ and Giuseppina Tuissi, nom de guerre ‘Gianna’

On 6th January 1945 two lovers who, as partisans, had both dedicated their lives to fighting nazifascists around the shores of Lake Como were arrested and imprisoned. Three months later, after the war had ended, they would end up murdered not by fascists but by their own colleagues on the orders of the Communist military leadership in Milan. Theirs is a truly tragic story of lovers who shared a selfless struggle on behalf of the poor and oppressed who were betrayed by jealousies and obstinacy within the political party to which they had dedicated their lives and invested their hopes for a brighter future.

Funicolare

Neri initially worked in the ticket office of the funicular to Brunate

Luigi Canali, nom de guerre ‘Neri’, the charismatic leader of the partisan 52nd Garibaldi Division and Giuseppina Tuissi, nom de guerre ‘Gianna’, were present at the arrest of Mussolini, his mistress Claretta Petacci and other fascist leaders on April 27th after they had been seized by the 52nd Garibaldi Division who had uncovered them in a convoy of German soldiers at Dongo. Luigi had accompanied Mussolini and his mistress in a bid to escort them to Milan. He may even have been a witness to their execution the next day in Bonzanigo, a village above Lenno.  They were both close witnesses to events in those last days and hours of the leadership of the fascist regime. For this they may have paid the ultimate price. But their fate at the hands of the Stalinist party leadership had been sealed much earlier.

Luigi Canali

Neri serving in Ethiopia

Luigi Canali was born into a poor working class family from Como on 16th March 1912. His father had been a socialist member of the town council but he and Luigi’s mother later switched loyalties to the Communist party in the belief that the PCI (Partito Comunista Italiano) might better achieve social justice. He qualified as a clerk and undertook military service in Ethiopia gaining the rank of a commissioned officer. His experience after on the Russian front convinced him to join the resistance following the armistice in September 1943.  In June 1944 it became known he was in the resistance and from then on he was engaged in full-time clandestine activity with the partisans in the mountains above Dongo. The authorities did not know that Luigi was the popular and highly effective  partisan leader, ‘Captain Neri’. 

He had quickly gained respect among the partisans for his leadership qualities. They admired his willingness to share all the discomforts and dangers of life in the mountains, the long marches and the constant threat posed by the German Army and the nazifascist Brigate Nere. He was admired for his fairness and good sense towards colleagues and for his skills as a guerilla commander. For example, it was critical for the partisans to maintain good relations with the country people. Their hard life had only been made harder by the demands of the nazifascist regime on them to provide food supplies. They also risked arbitrary retribution as a response to any partisan action in their area. Some partisans took to burning the crops as a way of limiting the supply of food to the authorities. However this also denied the country people of their own food source. This insensitivity to the realities of peasant life risked alienating them from the partisans and broadening the gulf of incomprehension between urban and rural cultures. (Most partisans were from the cities.) Luigi had recognised how important it was for his partisans to retain good relations with the local country people. His simple answer was to set his men to help with the grain harvests ensuring the country people retained enough for their own needs before destroying what was due to the authorities. With these displays of leadership, Luigi soon became one of the most influential communists operating in secret around Lake Como.

Luigi Canali in Italian army uniform

Neri in Italian Army uniform

His rapid rise within the resistance had however provoked jealousies and won him some enemies on his own side – in particular the commander of the partisans in the neighbouring area of the Valtellina, Dionisio Gambaruto – nom de guerre ‘Nicola’. Nicola was an old-style Stalinist commander who had fought with the Communist brigades in the Spanish Civil War. He had caused controversy in his command of the Valtellina by both alienating the local population and also by adopting a strict disciplinary line towards the wearing of the correct insignia – a requirement that made his partisans more readily identifiable to the enemy.  Luigi had been brought in to arbitrate and his more pragmatic and flexible approach gained him much popularity in contrast to Nicola. 

Giuseppina Tuissi was also from a traditionally Communist working class family based in Milan. She took up action for the resistance along with her brothers immediately when the nazifascist occupation followed the signing of the armistice in September 1943. She was twenty years old when In August 1944 her fiancé, Gianni Alippi, was captured during an attempted attack on a military barracks. He was executed in Viale Tibaldi, Milan. From that moment, Giuseppina adopted the nom de guerre ‘Gianna’ to commemorate her dead fiancé.  With her brother, she joined Luigi’s 52nd Garibaldi Brigade in Dongo on Lake Como. Gianna was a ‘staffetta’ – a key role entrusted with maintaining communications across the different partisan bands in the mountains by passing on messages and orders. Neri and Gianna became lovers which, for some party hardliners, represented a breach in party discipline not helped by the fact that Luigi was a married man yet long since separated from his wife in Como. The two did not allow any of these personal criticisms to deflect them  either in their love for each other or their shared armed struggle against nazifascism.

Como under snow 2

A hard winter in Como’s Piazza Mazzini

Setting the Scene

We start our story in January 1945 when the fortunes of the Italian Resistance were at their lowest ebb. From October 1944 the German Army, backed up by the groups of Brigate Nere, had carried out a relentless series of round ups across northern Italy to try and break the spirit of the partisans. In Como, the fascist Federal Secretary Paolo Porta with his Brigata Nera ‘Cesare Rodini’ had been particularly successful in capturing many local partisan leaders. The prisoners were subsequently locked up in the Brigade’s headquarters in a villa opposite Como’s Borghi railway station. The winter had been particularly severe making life in the mountains impossible. In addition, in a move that he would later admit was counterproductive, the Commander of the Allied Armies in Italy, General Alexander,  had published a decree on 13th November 1944 calling on all partisan groups to stop further action, to lay down their arms and conserve ammunition in order to wait further instructions. This only served further to demoralise the hard-pressed partisans.

Como under snowElsewhere in Europe France had been liberated and allied troops were gaining the upper hand in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. The Red Army was about to enter Warsaw in its inexorable progress towards Berlin,  The partisans may have been at a low ebb, but it was also clear that the final defeat of the nazifascists was only a matter of time. As a result, the allied secret services in Lugano were engaged in multiple negotiations in a bid to influence the post war settlement in Italy. They were in talks with all sides in the conflict including leaders of the different partisan factions, the Italian antifascist political leaders and even with Karl Wolff, the chief of the German SS in Italy and even possibly with Mussolini himself. 

In this forced period of operational inactivity, Neri and Gianna were living together in a rented apartment in Lezzeno, a town on Lake Como on the road from Como to Bellagio. Neri had already made one journey to Lugano as a representative of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) and had met with representatives of the American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA). He was preparing for a second trip across the Swiss border when on the night of January 6th he and Gianna were arrested at their home and taken to the top floor of the Fascist party headquarters – Terragni’s modernist masterpiece, the Casa del Fascio.

Act 1: January 1945, Imprisonment and Escape

Lezzeno

Lezzeno, where Neri and Gianna were captured

Neri and Gianna were arrested on the night of January 6th in possession of some incriminating documentation prepared for Neri’s upcoming visit to Lugano. However they were initially successful in hiding their actual identities since Gianna was unknown to the local authorities and no-one had yet identified Luigi as ‘Captain Neri’ – the most wanted senior communist figure in the Lake Como area. They knew they were in for very tough questioning and torture and that their continual silence would lead to inevitable execution.  They were prepared  to resist the gruelling physical and psychological torture which started from their first interrogation. Luigi also knew that at some point his identity as Neri would be revealed since so many of his colleagues had already been captured over the winter and not all were up to resisting the pressure of torture and the fear of death. So, from that first day under arrest he had been thinking of escape.

Casa del fascio

Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist masterpiece – the Casa del Fascio where Gianna and Neri were brought for interrogation on the top floor.

After three days of torture, Luigi’s identity as Captain Neri had been identified by a former colleague but yet to be confirmed by others. He and Gianna were transferred to the prison within the Brigata Nera headquarters by Como’s Borghi station. 

Dante Gorrieri

Danter Gorrieri, nom de guerre ‘Guglielmo’. Federal Secretary of the PCI in Como.

They would be walked down separately each day through the snow and ice to the Casa del Fascio for further interrogation and torture which they both managed to resist. On 12th January, the local Federal Secretary of the Communist Party, Dante Gorrieri – nom de guerre ‘Guglielmo’ – was captured and also brought to the Borghi prison. He too was then submitted to relentless torture and interrogation which he also was able to resist. The authorities now had the two most important representatives of the PCI in Como under arrest, and they were being joined each day by other colleagues.

On 23rd January, the commander of the Garibaldi divisions on the east side of Lake Como, Umberto Morandi – nom de guerre ‘Lario’ – was brought to the Borghi prison having been arrested earlier in Lecco. Neri had previously disagreed with party leadership over the appointment of Lario as the local commander. Lario was not a comrade – his loyalty was more towards the royalists and he had been promoting the royalist approval of General Alexander’s ‘step down’ orders issued back in November. Neri and most of the command of the Garibaldi divisions were vehemently opposed to this strategy and one of his aims in travelling to Lugano had been to convince the allies to free up arms and money even to the communist partisans to allow them to make an immediate armed response to the round ups of colleagues. 

Lake Como from Monte Palanzone

Looking over to the side of Lake Como where Neri’s 52nd Garibaldi Division operated 

Lario lost little time in betraying Luigi and confirming to the authorities that he indeed was the ‘Captain Neri’ they had been desperately seeking for so long. Neri now knew he had little time left before execution and so hastened his escape plan.

Over the subsequent days and in order to open up opportunities for escape, Neri made it appear that he was prepared to give up some information by both providing some false names of colleagues and admitting to information he knew had already been divulged by others. This bought him some relaxation in the prison regime. He also feigned a severe stomach illness requiring frequent visits to the bathroom. He had already noted that the toilet on the second floor in the women prisoners’ quarters did not have any bars over the window. On the late evening of January 29th, he persuaded his guard to allow him to use that bathroom out of urgent need. While the guard waited outside, he escaped through the window, down the waste pipe and over the gate. He was free.

Act 2: February 1945, Luigi and Gianna accused of betraying the PCI

Once over the gate of his prison, Neri made his way over the ice and snow to his uncle’s house on Via Zezio where he stopped long enough to change clothes and shoes and to borrow some money. He then travelled by bicycle down to his aunt’s house in Rogeno, a small town half way between Como and Lecco. His aim was to get to Milan and to meet with Pietro Vergani – nom de guerre ‘Fabio’ – the Commander of all the Garibaldi divisions in Lombardy. He wanted to update Fabio on the results of his interrogation, to inform him of the parlous state of the partisan groups on Lake Como as well as to express deep concerns over the reliability of Lario who had betrayed his identity to his captors. 

Casa del fascio 2

Casa del Fascio, currently the Como Headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza

Meanwhile back in Como, Gianna was submitted to further torture and beating on the immediate discovery of Neri’s escape. Neri’s mother and brother were also rearrested and Paolo Porta then set to working out how best to turn this calamity to best effect. His answer was to try and discredit Neri in the eyes of his colleagues by suggesting he had betrayed the leadership of the party and divulged vital information on their safe houses in Milan. He used Gianna to this effect by transporting her down to Milan to be seen close to known PCI safe houses with her nazifascist captors. Rumours soon circulated that Gianna had betrayed the party and that both her and Neri were not to be trusted.

Neri had initially arranged to meet with Fabio through intermediaries on 1st February but Fabio did not turn up at the agreed rendezvous. All subsequent attempts to meet also failed. Nor did Neri’s written testimonies of his interrogation and of his concerns over the situation within the Garibaldi divisions receive any reply. The only response from party leadership was an order issued on 7th February for Neri to return at once to Como and rejoin the units in the mountains. However there were no units active at that time and, thanks to Lario and the successes of the Brigate Nere, he would not be safe in Como. Neither was he particularly safe in Milan since he was without any identity documentation nor fixed abode and his colleagues had been ordered to distance themselves from him since he was now considered a potential traitor.

Piazza San Fedele

Piazza San Fedele where Remo Mentasti ran a bag shop used as a point of contact with local partisans. it is now a Vodafone shop.

On 20th February he made a hazardous return by bicycle to Como where he made contact with old friends through Remo Mentasti  – nom de guerre ‘Andrea’  – who ran a bag shop in Piazza San Fedele long used as a partisan meeting point. Having convinced himself of at least ongoing support amongst his colleagues in Como, Neri returned that same day to Milan, to the house of a relative on the edge of the city.  Neri’s Como colleagues did not doubt his loyalty for a second and went in delegation down to Milan on 25th February to try and convince him to follow party orders by returning to Como as well as trying to negotiate a meeting for him with Fabio. They failed on both scores with Neri too fearful of returning to Como and Fabio unprepared to meet with someone he had now, although as yet unpublished, declared to be a traitor and condemned to summary execution according to military discipline. 

If Neri had felt he had avoided imminent execution on escaping from his Borghi prison, he was now to learn that it was the turn of his own colleagues to condemn him to death. 

Fabio

Pietro Vergani, nom de guerre ‘Fabio’, Commander of the Lombardy Garibaldi Divisions.

On 21st February, in the back room of a boarded up shop in Milan, a delegation of the top military leaders of the Communist resistance heard Fabio argue the case for finding both Neri and Gianna guilty in their absence of betraying the party. He accused Neri of giving away the locations of party safe houses in Milan, of trying to meet with Fabio by going to his house in Cinisello Balsamo and of disobeying orders to return to rejoin his units on Lake Como. No defense was heard and the sentence of guilty was passed unanimously. Gianna was condemned partly due to her close association with Neri and partly since Fabio had believed the deceit hatched in Como when she had been brought down to Milan under nazifascist guard. The two lovers were thus condemned to death with execution possible at any time when and wherever either Neri or Gianna were to be found. This decision was dated 25th February and released to all active units on 1st March.

Behind this flat refusal of Fabio to entertain any response to Neri lies the dubious figure of ‘Guglielmo’ – Dante Gorrieri – the other major communist figure in Como who had been imprisoned and tortured alongside Neri in the Borghi prison. He too was facing imminent execution by the nazifascists but he mysteriously managed to avoid it and escape into Switzerland. Having sustained prolonged torture for many days, Guglielmo was taken up to the summit of Monte Bisbino on or around 2nd February escorted by an execution squad led by the infamous Brigata Nera Lieutenant Tucci. When and what happened on Monte Bisbino is still not clear other than the fact that Guglielmo was able to escape over the border into Switzerland. The suggestion is that Tucci accepted a payment in exchange for Guglielmo’s life and possibly, extracted  a promise from Guglielmo to not harm Tucci’s family in the ever more likely event that the fascists would be defeated.  Guglielemo shortly re-entered Italy.

On Mount Bisbino in Winter

On Mount Bisbino in winter

Notwithstanding Neri’s immediate reaction on his escape from prison to gather a group of partisans from the Como district of Lora to try to liberate both Guglielmo and Gianna from their Borghi prison, relations between the two senior communist representatives in Como had been difficult. Neri was the main protagonist in Como on the military side of the resistance. Guglielmo was the main representative on the political side and he did his best to ensure Neri was excluded from political forums. He was similar in attitude to Nicola, the leader of the Valtellina partisans, in his Stalinist alliance to party and the need to uphold harsh party discipline which included severe disapproval of the relationship between Neri and Gianna.  Neri had openly accused him of a sectarian and dictatorial approach towards the other allied groups within the Resistance. Guglielmo was known as being arrogant and would later, once the war was won, join Nicola in a personal settling of scores through a sustained bloodbath of former nazifascist collaborators and in a bloody ideological purge of former comrades. Neri was convinced that Guglielmo, from his position of safety in Switzerland and through the PCI’s representatives in Lugano, had been turning the Milan leadership against him.  

Act 3: March 1945, ‘Neri’ and ‘Gianna’ in Hiding

Neri continued to rely on family members to house and protect him in Milan where he still had no identity documentation and now, added to the danger of capture by the nazifascists, he also stood the risk of immediate execution by partisans. Gianna had meanwhile been transferred to a German SS prison in Monza from which she was released on 12th March on condition that she did not return to Como. So, although the lovers could at least meet secretly, the death sentence hung over both their heads. Neri spent his time still trying to negotiate a meeting with ‘Fabio’ and since this continued to prove impossible, in writing further testimonials to the Lombardy partisan leader explaining his situation and his fears of how the resistance was being conducted on Lake Como. 

The Como partisan federation were also doing their part in seeking to clear Neri and Gianna’s name and getting the death sentence rescinded. With approaches to their Milanese comrades facing rebuttal, conflict between the Como and Milanese federations began to develop. Out of all the exchanges  between the two federations, it was becoming clear that the Milanese leadership strongly disapproved  of the relationship of the two lovers, resulting as much from a moralistic distaste for Neri’s adultery as from concern over breaking party discipline. 

The couple did at least gain a partial success when the PCI military leadership in Milan issued a bulletin on March 16th stating that the death sentence for Neri and Gianna could be reconsidered at a later date if further information was to come to light in their favour. The sentence still stood but this bulletin did mean that the active search for the two lovers was at least called off for the time being. 

Act 4: April 1945, Return to Lake Como and the Capture of Mussolini

Coming out of the long and hard winter, circumstances were beginning to look up for the partisans and the Italian Resistance.  On 6th April, the allied forces started their spring offensive and broke into the Po Valley from the south. On 19th April they had encircled Bologna and on the same day the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) called for a general insurrection in the northern cities supported by partisans and the trades unions. The partisan groups around Lake Como such as Neri’s 52nd Garibaldi Division began to reform hurriedly resulting in it being led in Luigi’s absence by a monarchist aristocrat, Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle – nom de guerre ‘Pedro’. This was no time for sectarian niceties. The 52nd Garibaldi Division was required to ensure fascist leaders, collaborators or members of the Brigate Nere did not escape over the Swiss border. 

Francesco

Pietro Terzi, nom de guerre ‘Francesco’, friend and comrade of Neri

The previous day, Neri and Gianna set out by road, rail, bus and foot to return to Como. They arrived in Lasnigo above Asso in the middle of the Lario Triangle on April 21st and sought safety in the house of the father of Luigi’s old friend and partisan comrade Pietro Terzi – nom de guerre ‘Francesco’. Francesco had been appointed since Neri’s arrest back in January as the overall commander of the Garibaldi divisions operating around Lake Como. He had absolute faith that Neri had not betrayed the cause and he, like most other Como colleagues, was delighted to see both him and Gianna back in service.

For safety’s sake it was decided that Gianna should stay in an inn close to the Madonna del Ghisallo, above Bergamo. On April 25th (the day an armistice was signed in Rome) Neri, more than happy to be back in action as a partisan commander,  departed with Francesco on a tour of the Lario Triangle to disarm various groups of Brigate Nere. They inspected the partisan groups around the Brianza lakes of Segrino, Annone and Pusiano to reassure themselves they were back in control and that the local fascists had been disarmed. As the two comrades were returning to Lasnigo, they were captured by a group of fascists not prepared to surrender. They were placed against a wall to await execution later in the day but  were fortunately saved by local partisans. This would now be the third occasion when Neri had faced imminent death.

On April 26th, the commander of the Communist Garibaldi Brigades in Lombardy – ‘Fabio’ (the man responsible for sentencing Neri) sent instructions to Francesco to get as many men as possible over on to the west side of the lake to block off escape routes into Switzerland.  A German convoy was rumoured to be making its way out of Como.

The circumstances were now set for Neri and Gianna to cross paths with Mussolini, his mistress, and many of the hierarchy in the fascist government. Mussolini, Neri and Gianna were all to converge on Dongo on April 27th where the dictator would act out the last hours of his life and his regime.

The previous evening Francesco had signed a safe passage warrant for Neri to travel to Dongo. Neri cycled to Lezzeno, and then with the help of a comrade, rowed over to Lenno. He cycled up to Dongo the following morning. Gianna took a different route for safety’s sake by going by boat from Bellagio over to Varenna and then on the next day cycling north around the head of the lake to arrive in Dongo on the 27th in the afternoon. Mussolini and the convoy of German troops had stopped the night of April 26th in Menaggio and departed the following morning at dawn. Their column was halted by the 52nd Garibaldi Division on the road between Musso and Dongo at 6.00am and the Italian prisoners were taken to Dongo’s Town Hall.

Dongo Town Hall

Dongo Town Hall where the fascist prisoners were detained and where Gianna produced her inventory of Dongo Gold.

Pedro was delighted to see Neri arriving later that morning. Once having been greeted warmly by both Pedro and his other colleagues, Neri set about working out what to do with their eminent prisoners. Neri was also of course very pleased later in the afternoon to see Gianna who started the task  of compiling  an inventory of all the gold, jewellery and money seized from the convoy – what would later become called the ‘Dongo Gold’.

Neri had arranged for Mussolini and Petacci to be taken away from Dongo for their safety.  He then  accompanied them in a bid to get them to Blevio from where they would have been taken to Milan and handed over to the Allied authorities. That plan proved for whatever reason impractical and Neri instead arranged for Mussolini and Petacci to stay overnight in the house of a friend of his above Lenno in the village of Bonzanigo. A deputation from PCI headquarters in Milan arrived in Bonzanigo the next day and lost no time in executing Mussolini and his mistress. The same deputation then also picked up those who had been executed back in Dongo to carry all bodies down to be displayed publicly in Milan’s Piazza Loreto – the very same Piazza where fascists had displayed the bodies of executed partisans just three weeks prior.

Mezzegra Bonzanigo

Mezzegra Town Hall, by Bonzanigo on the Greenway above Lenno.

The exact events leading to Mussolini’s and Clara Petacci’s execution and the fate of the Dongo Gold have been matters of long debate and dispute. Communists wanted Mussolini to face summary justice but the Americans wanted him alive to stand trial. What is important for our story is that Neri was at the heart of those events and as far as we know, was loyally following the instructions received from the PCI. Having verified the status of his death sentence with comrades in Como and, having acted heroically to manage the events over the last few days on Lake Como at the head of the 52nd Garibaldi Division, he had every expectation that his and Gianna’s reputation would now be restored. He could expect that their sentence would be rescinded and that they could finally look forward, like most others, to the peace in prospect following the end of conflict and the defeat of fascism.

Victory

Victorious partisans celebrate

Act 5: May and June 1945, The Final Days

Neri and Gianna had during the last hours of April 28th completed the inventory of the Dongo Gold seized from Mussolini’s convoy. In 1949, the American magazine Life published an article based on information from American agents operating in Italy in which they estimated the total value of this treasure at that time amounted to $66.26 million. $61 million, the major part, came from the coffers of the RSI, Mussolini’s puppet fascist government. $4 million came from the fascist army and the German airforce. $1,210,00 came from Mussolini’s personal funds while the remaining $49,000 was the value of the gold rings donated by Italian households in response to Mussolini’s appeal for patriotic donations. 

This treasure was transported in six or seven bags from Dongo to Como on April 29th by Francesco and Gianna and delivered to the Casa del Fascio – the previous fascist headquarters of Paolo Porta which had now become the Como headquarters of the PCI under Guglielmo as well as the base for the other political parties within the CLN. Gianna and Francesco handed the treasure over to Guglielmo who secured it in a safe and issued them a receipt for its contents. Gianna and Francesco then continued the drive down to Milan where Gianna went immediately to visit her family. Her joy was however short-lived when she met up with local partisans in a bid to learn what may have happened to her brother.  Rather than being greeted as a hero fresh from the capture of Mussolini at Dongo, she was arrested due to the sentence passed down in February. The local group did not release her until eleven days later on May 9th. Fabio, the person responsible for the tribunal that had originally sentenced the couple, interviewed her on May 8th and had then instructed the group to release her. She was finally cleared of her original conviction but Fabio had at the same time told her that Neri had already been executed and that she was forbidden to travel up to Como under any circumstances.

During Gianna’s imprisonment in Milan, Neri had returned to live with his mother and family in Como, in Via Zezio. He had participated in the May Day celebrations without fear and seemed not in the least concerned when last seen getting into a car with Guglielmo on the morning of 7th May, even though he had argued fiercely with him over what had happened to the Dongo Gold. He may have believed that he was finally to get the chance to travel down to Milan to put his case before Fabio hoping that his deeds over the last few days in Dongo were additional proof of his loyalty to party. 

What he did not know was that the PCI had from 28th April set up a separate secret unit in Milan and elsewhere known as MC/7 whose purpose, in true stalinist fashion,  was to purge the party of any members who had diverged from doctrinal orthodoxy. This group answered directly to PCI leadership including Fabio without any reference to the CLN. From 6th May the summary execution of party members started. Neri’s turn came on 7th May since he was never seen again after getting into that car on the corner of Via Zezio.

Our article Clouds Over Como: Lest We Forget describes the terror of those first weeks after the liberation and identifies the key role played by two of those whom Neri had alienated over the previous years. These were the local party chief Guglielmo who had mysteriously managed to avoid execution on the summit of Monte Bisbino and the commander of the Valtellina partisans, Nicola who  was now head of the so-called People’s Police. Nicola  confirmed to others on May 7th that he had received orders to kill Neri. We do not know if Neri was murdered in Como or in Milan. No-one has ever been found guilty for his murder and the only trial attempting to bring characters like Guglielmo, Nicola or Fabio  to justice was abandoned after the prosecuting magistrate committed suicide due to the tangled mass of obfuscation that frustrated all attempts that he and others had made to get to the truth. 

Gianna was hoping against hope that Neri had been warned in time of the execution order and was hiding out somewhere on the lake.  In June she felt it safe enough to ignore Fabio’s prohibition on returning to Como and went to the Lario Triangle retracing those last movements of Neri in the hope that he may have returned there to retrieve clothing or other personal goods and have left some indication as to where he was hiding. Then in the company of Neri’s sister, Alice Canali, and helped by former partisan colleagues, she travelled up and down the west bank of the lake in a vain search for information. 

On 22nd June she and Alice had travelled by bus all the way up the west bank of the lake passing Gera Lario and Sorico without learning anything. Accompanied by ex-partisan colleagues they returned to Dongo the following day. Here they spoke to all those working in the town hall but no-one could report having seen Neri. They also asked for news in Lenno, Argegno and Isola Comacina – all without luck. Gianna was beginning to fear that the stories of his execution must be true.

Alice Canali

Alice Canali, sister of Neri lived to be 101, died on 9th July 2015 in Torno.

Gianna and Alice separated later that day  with Gianna cycling back towards Como and Alice accepting a lift and agreeing to meet up again in the evening. Gianna never arrived in Como. Witnesses would  later report hearing shots and a woman’s shout that evening at the Pizzo di Cernobbio, a point on the lake favoured for executions due to the way the currents carried the bodies away from the shore. This was where Gianna met her end.

Memorial Pizzo di cernobbio

A recent memorial event in honour of Neri and Gianna included putting a wreath in the lake at Pizzo di Cernobbio.

Conclusion

Neri and Gianna were not executed due to any presumed act of betrayal. They had both more than adequately proved their loyalty to their party following that sentence back in February. No court case has clarified what happened to the lovers but immediately after the war a judge named Giovanni Battista Mottino from the investigate section of the Milan Court of Appeal stated ‘the cause of the crime can be found in the hate and fear towards Neri of some of his partisan colleagues.’ The plot against him was issued by ‘Fabio’ the Commander of the Lombardy Delegation of Garibaldi Divisions and the execution was carried out by ‘Nicola’ the Commander of the 1st Garibaldi Division in the Valtellina and Head of Como’s ‘Polizia del Popolo’. ‘Fabio’ always defended his actions by claiming that in time of war, party discipline was paramount. The PCI had been maintaining a clandestine existence for many years during the fascist regime. They had also fought alongside the International Brigades for the Communist Party in the Spanish Civil War. They had essentially adopted all the Stalinist attitudes of the time partly as a result of the oppressive circumstances in which they operated but also due to following the dictatorial logic of Moscow. This cost both Neri and Gianna their lives. It cost the PCI the sympathy of a downtrodden and impoverished people who began to fear that the PCI may not be the right ones to lead them to a better world. It would take the party  some time to reconnect with the people and to regain some mass appeal.

PCI Via delle Botteghe Oscure

PCI headquarters in Rome in Via delle Botteghe Oscure

The murder of Neri and  Gianna was not the only mystery the PCI left behind them from the end of the war. The Dongo Gold which Neri and Gianna had so assiduously catalogued, went missing. It has been suggested that a part of it went to purchase the PCI’s new headquarters in Rome in the Via delle Botteghe Oscure. 

Further Reading

For more information on the last days of Mussolini on lake Como. read 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection

For more information on the period immediately following Liberation day read Clouds Over Como: Lest We Forget

Acknowledgments

Research for this article was based on ”Gianna’ e ‘Neri’: Vita e Morte di Due Partigiani Comunisti’ by Franco Giannantoni and ‘Il Capitano ‘Neri’ e la Morte del Duce‘ by Roberto Festorazzi

 

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