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.

Posted in Culture, Events, Food, Lake, Restaurants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Posted in Art, Culture, History, People, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Culture, People, Sport, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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. 

 

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

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

 

Posted in Art, crime, Culture, Folklore, History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

 

Posted in Lake, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

 

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

Como and Early Lombardy Baroque

Caravaggio

Detail from The Calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio, 1599-1600 Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. This was Caravaggio’s first important commission.  

The start of the 17th century saw a major development in artistic style as signalled by Caravaggio’s ‘Calling of St. Matthew’. Caravaggio, the revolutionary force behind this change whose actual name was Michelangelo Merisi, was born in Milan in September 1571. Morazzone sensualityOn moving to Rome in the 1590s he gradually developed an entirely naturalistic style that banished all flying putti alongwith the other previously favoured accoutrements of the so-called mannerists.  Caravaggio  influenced all subsequent art throughout the century through deploying dramatic effects of light and shade, vivid colour and a photographic capture of movement.

Rome at that time was the centre of the European artistic world as Paris would become in the  twentieth century. Another artist from Lombardy, Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, from the town of Morazzone in the Province of Varese, also learnt his trade in the studios of Rome at the same time as Caravaggio. He shared the same interest in colour and movement and the depiction of strong emotion but there was also a pronounced sensuality in some of his work. Both Mazzucchelli and Caravaggio had to leave Rome precipitously with Caravaggio fleeing south to Naples to avoid arrest for murder and Mazzucchelli, now better known as Il Morazzone, going north to Milan following an argument over a woman.

Milan and Borromeo

Morazzone Carlo Borromeo praying by the body of Christ

Cardinal Carlo Borromeo praying beside the body of Christ, Il Morazzone

The church was the main source of patronage of the arts and, while Caravaggio and others could determine style, technique and treatment, the commissioners would determine the subject matter.  Morazzone arrived in Milan at the moment when its cardinal was giving a  massive boost to local artists by establishing an artistic academy. This was Federico Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan from 1595. Federico Borromeo had been brought up and educated by his even more famous cousin, Carlo Borromeo. Carlo had been a leading force in the Council of Trent which ran from 1542 to 1563. The council’s purpose was to define and oversee the execution of the Catholic Church’s response to the threat of Protestantism.  Carlo Borromeo was sanctified in 1602 having achieved great fame and popularity through his saintly record, for his concern for the poor and his personal generosity in funding schools and churches, For both Carlo and Federico, the arts offered a powerful means of  retaining the population’s loyalty to the Catholic church and discouraging the influence of Protestantism and Calvinism from seeping into Lombardy from the Swiss Cantons.

Santuario della Madonna at Tirano Valtellina

Santuario della Madonna at Tirano in Valtellina, Baroque excess to ward off Calvinism from over the valley in St. Moritz

Federico set about encouraging a flourishing artistic community in Milan and so became the major patron of what came to be called Lombardy Baroque. in 1609 he established the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan which nine years later was enlarged to house a collection of paintings and sculpture. In 1621 it became the art school ‘Accademia Ambrosiana’ under the presidency of the painter known as ‘Il Cerano’. The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana still exists and contains a priceless collection of works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Morazzone had returned to Lombardy in 1598 and, while having absorbed some of the stylistic trends from Rome, he certainly did not buy into the entire naturalism of Caravaggio. The church in Milan and Lombardy in general, being under the strong counter-reformist influence of the Borromeos, was still firmly wedded to flying putti and winged angels, and Morazzone  duly obliged.  One of the major counter-reformation initiatives promoted by Carlo Borromeo had been the commissioning of ‘Sacri Monti’ in Piedmont and Lombardia. Morazzone painted frescoes in three of the chapels on the Sacro Monte di Varallo. He also decorated the Flagellation Chapel on the Sacro Monte di Varese. His links back to Carlo Borromeo continued with works commissioned in Arona, Borromeo’s birthplace and  a series of paintings depicting the life of Carlo Borromeo for Milan’s Duomo.

antica diocesi di como

Map of the Ancient Diocese of Como taking in Lugano and north to Bellinzona, parts of the Province of Lecco, the Val Chiavenna and the Valtellina

However, in 1608 he moved to Como where he would spend the next five years – a period in which he is said to have produced his best work.

Como

Flagellation Sacro Monte di Varese

Morazzone painted the frescoes in this the 7th ‘Flagellation’ chapel of the Sacro Monte di Varese. The terracotta figures are by Martino Rezzi.

Morazzone’s move to Como led him to accepting commissions from the Diocese of Como which had one of the largest areas of responsibility of any diocese in Northern Italy. The diocese covered the current Province of Como but also Lecco, Varese, the Valtellina, Lugano and beyond to encompass a large part of Ticino. The Valtellina was at the time on the front line of the religiously inspired Thirty Years War with the protestant-run Grisons Canton losing control of it  in 1619 to Catholic Spain, the rulers of Lombardy.

The Birth of Virgin Mary, Morazzone

The Birth of the Virgin by Morazzone, Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Como

By basing himself in Como, Morazzone could thus be considered  a propagandist through his art for the counter reformation – a position very similar to that of Pieter Paul Rubens working in Antwerp directly on the border between Catholic Belgium and Protestant Holland.  Both artists had adopted some of Caravaggio’s stylistic innovations but both also retained a place for flying putti and other supernatural conventions.

 

Morazzone completed a set of frescoes in the sacristy of Como Cathedral which unfortunately are not normally on public view. In the left-hand nave of the cathedral, there is a banner of his depicting the patron saint of Como, Saint Abbondio. The Chiesa di Sant Agostino, just outside of the old town, has a side chapel almost totally decorated by him. It’s the second chapel off the left-hand nave and it contains two large and two small canvases by Morazzone who also painted the chapel’s frescoes.  The Como art gallery, the Pinacoteca in Via Diaz, has a large semi-circular canvas of his on display commissioned for the now demolished church of San Giovanni Pedemonte. The Church of San Giovanni Pedemonte with its large monasterial complex was demolished to make way for Como’s main railway station which continues to bear the same name.

The Fallof the Rebel Angels, Morazzone

Detail from The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Morazzone, Pinacoteca di Como. This semi-circular canvas in less than optimal condition was originally in the Chiesa di San Giovanni  Pedemonte – a church later demolished to allow for the railway station bearing its name.

After his time in Como, he worked on the Sacro Monte of Orta, the Carlo Borromeo Chapel in Borgomanero, and the Certosa outside of Pavia. He famously collaborated with two other stars of Lombardy Baroque – il Cerano and Giulio Cesare Procaccini – to produce ‘Il Martirio delle Sante Rufino’ better known as the ‘Quadro delle tre mani’ now on display in Milan’s Pinacoteca della Brera. This work was commissioned by an aristocrat Scipione Toso who fell victim  in 1631 to the devastating outbreak of plague in Milan depicted in Alessandro Manzoni’s classic ‘I Promessi Sposi’.

 

quadro delle tre mani

Il Martirio delle Sante Rufina’ also known as ‘Il Quadro delle tre mani’ by Morazzone, Cerano and Giulio Cesare Procaccini, in Milan’s Pinacoteca della Brera

Morazzoni’s legacy

morazzone sensuality 2

Perseus and Andromeda by Morazzone 1610, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Morazzone’s treatment of Perseus’ shield is reminiscent of the shield in his ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ in the Pinacoteca di Como. 

Morazzoni left a lasting legacy within the artistic community of Como. He had undoubtedly influenced taste amongst the wealthy aristocrats and church leaders commissioning works either for the redecoration of churches or to adorn their own villas in town or on the lakefront. His conservative brand of baroque went down well in this provincial outpost on the frontline in the religious fight against Calvinism.

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Palazzo Odescalchi

The Fratelli Recchi’s frescoes in Palazzo Odescalchi, Piazza Roma, Como

Following generations of artists came to be recognised as ‘Morazzonian’ if displaying a similar chromatic style or selecting to treat biblical subjects or scenes in similar ways.

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Palazzo Rusca

Fratelli Recchi’s frescoes in Palazzo Rusca, Como. Commissions for private dwellings did not always depict religious scenes as in Palazzo Rusca where the owner was a military man who wanted to reflect the glory of battle.

The best known of these ‘Morazzoniani’ were two of his pupils, the Recchi Brothers (Fratelli Recchi).  Having learnt their craft as apprentices to Morazzone, the brothers, Giovanni Paolo and Giovanni Battista, set up their studio in Como’s Via Borgo Vico. Their reputation grew steadily with commissions for canvases and frescoes to decorate churches across the Diocese. They followed in Morazzone’s steps by also working on the Sacro Monte di Varese being responsible in 1648 for the frescoes in the eighth and ninth chapel. They were also commissioned to decorate many of the interiors of the aristocratic villas in the centre of Como, as in the example of the so-called Sala Recchi in Palazzo Lambertenghi, the friezes in the Palazzo Odescalchi, frescoes in the town hall – Palazzo Cernezzi, and in Palazzo Rusca.

Giovanni Paolo Recchi San Giorgio

Giovanni Paolo Recchi, Saint George Slays the Dragon, Chiesa di San Giorgio, Via Borgo Vico, Como

Giovanni Paolo is considered the more skilled artist of the two brothers however Giovanni Battista was better known as an architect. In fact Giovanni Paolo moved to Turin in 1646 with Giovanni Battista’s son, Giovanni Antonio, to undertake commissions for the Savoy Royal Family including frescoes within the Palazzo Reale.

Carlo and Raffaele Recchi Flagellation

Carlo and Raffaele Recchi, Flagellation. Chiesa di San Giorgio, Como

He returned to Lombardy in 1676 and then, towards the end of his career he worked again with his brother on the exterior and interior of their local church, the ancient Basilica di San Giorgio in Via Borgo Vico collaborating with two other nephews, Raffaelo and Carlo. One of Giovanni Paolo’s last works is the magnificent fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon in the dome of this church executed in 1686 shortly before his death. Previously  the two brothers had undertaken prestigious commissions for altarpieces across Lombardy in towns across Lake Como, in Varese, Ticino, the Valtellina and Bergamo. Their altarpiece for the now defunct Church of San Marco in Via Borgo Vico is on display in Como’s Pinacoteca in Via Diaz. The art gallery was originally known as Palazzo Volpi for which Giovanni Battista Recchi actually designed one of the wings.

The Martyrdom of saint Mark, Recchi Brothers

The Martyrdom of Saint Mark, Fratelli Recchi.  Pinacoteca di Como. The altarpiece came from the now defunct Chiesa di San Marco in Via Borgo Vico, Como.

Cultural Itineraries

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Birth of Jesus Coldrerio

The Nativity by Giovanni Paolo Recchi in the Oratorio Beccaria in Coldrerio, near Mendrisio, Ticino.

The artistic and architectural legacy inherited by modern-day Italy is beyond the country’s economic ability fully to maintain. There is of course an immense cost associated with maintaining ancient buildings and works of art but it is also true that there is considerable value in their capacity to attract and retain visitors. Local residents in and around Como are justifiably proud of their artistic and cultural inheritance and there are some very active local associations promoting knowledge and appreciation of the treasures on our doorstep. However it does seem to me that more, much more, could be done to make visitors and residents from abroad aware  of this patrimony.  Como Companion has over time put a spotlight on the surprisingly rich cultural heritage to be found within this small lakeside city on the edges of the Milanese conurbation and at the foot of the Alps. I will also try to make access to some of these treasures easier by identifying sources of further information in English and, where these may not currently exist, by suggesting some specifically thematic itineraries for readers to follow at their leisure. I hope in the very near future to start this series with an itinerary for the early Baroque in and around Como which will include where to see works by Morrazone and the Recchi brothers.

Fresco Fratelli Recchi, Chiesa di San Giorgio

Fresco by the Fratelli Recchi, Palazzo Rusca, Como

 

Posted in Art, Culture, History, People, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tourism 2020: Post Covid Como

Como

Como recovering from Covid-19

How has or will Covid 19 effect this year’s tourist season on Lake Como? When can we expect to enjoy the lake in the way residents or visitors might remember from former times? The tourist season usually begins at Easter and would by now be well underway. But Italy has only just entered its Phase 2 at the very start of a cautious and partial re-opening of facilities. Can we at this stage predict what the summer on Lake Como will be like? The short answer is no in that there are still many unanswerable questions and unresolved issues lurking alongside the diminished but not vanquished virus.  

Via Luini

Warm summer weekends attract many local visitors to Como’s old town. All wearing masks but in unmanageable numbers.

Seeking clarification of what is open and when will not be straight forward. The complex regulations governing the opening of hotels, restaurants, sports facilities, entertainment venues etc. is putting a great strain on owners and organisers. They will each individually have to set their own schedule for reopening based on their ability or otherwise to meet the conditions designed to minimise risk to customers. In such circumstances, the Internet is proving inadequate since web pages are not updated sufficiently quickly. Facebook is better in this regard as is Instagram. However social media does not offer universal coverage. The best option is to contact the organisation directly by mobile phone. Direct contact in any case is usually the most effective option in Italy and no more so than now. Don’t let language differences put you off. English is well understood and local businesses want your custom and will do their best to understand you. 

General Access

Gelati

Queuing for a gelato in Piazza Cavour

Right now the only people actually allowed to visit Lake Como are those resident in Lombardy or those travelling in from abroad. However foreign visitors face a number of obstacles to getting here. Most international flights are still suspended. Emirates will recommence flights to Malpensa from June 2nd but American Airlines won’t restart until October. Ryanair is waiting until the beginning of July before flying to Bergamo and Easyjet have not yet declared when their flights will return. An added problem for visitors from the United Kingdom is the two week quarantine they face on their return home. 

Our neighbours across the border in the Swiss Canton of Ticino are still restricted from crossing the border at Chiasso or elsewhere. So the vast majority of visitors are currently coming from Brianza, Milan or further afield within Lombardy. And, with the residual fear born out of weeks of isolation, the crowds strolling the narrow streets of the old town at the weekends are already causing alarm.  However such crowds can easily be avoided simply by visiting mid-week or staying outside of the main centres. 

Eating and Drinking

La Tirlindana at Sala Comacina

The terrace of La Tirlindana in Sala Comacina looking out towards Isola Comacina.

Many of the weekend visitors are happy to queue for a gelato or a slice of pizza and the gelaterias are very happy to see the queues returning with the warm weather.  Restaurants are still restricted to offering take away or home delivery services or, if space and capacity to meet legislative requirements permits, serving customers outside. This at least means diners can soon return to some of the most romantic alfresco locations on the lake. Hotel Villa D’Este’s outside dining re-opens from 5th June. The Tirlindana’s terrace (excellent ravioli al limone) at Sala Comacina opened from this last Saturday. So dining out (as long as it remains outdoors) should not be a problem. As more restaurants open their doors, they will need to apply limits on the number of diners they accommodate. You are therefore advised to book ahead and reserve your table. 

aperitif

An aperitif in Piazza Grimoldi, Como

Right from the first day of Phase 2’s easing of restrictions, customers returned, albeit one at a time, to entering a bar, ordering a coffee and then consuming it standing outside on the pavement. Unfortunately while all bars insisted on the wearing of masks when indoors and also provided hand sanitisers, many overlooked the requirement to take temperatures – a ritual previously established in supermarkets but now also needed in bars and hairdressers. While the morning coffee routine still seems rather awkward, the evening aperitif looks more relaxing and natural. However queueing to fill your plate from the ‘apericena’ buffet will not be possible for the time being. Aperitif buffets like that offered by Cafe Touring in Piazza Cavour are for the moment not allowed. Aperitif ‘stuzzichini’ served at the table are however fine and the return to the enjoyment of these small daily rituals is immensely reassuring. Seeing people enjoying an evening aperitif illustrates the pleasure to be had in just being here.

Accommodation

Villa D'Este

Hotel Villa D’Este, Cernobbio

Phase 2 regulations require constant attention to cleanliness and social distancing which means that hotels will open only when they have managed to meet all the conditions laid down by law. The Villa D’Este’s suites and bedrooms will be available from June 15th. The Palace Hotel reopens from June 11th.  Do not take any availability dates from the Internet for granted. Always call the establishment to find out exactly when they will be open.  There should also be no problem finding bed and breakfast accommodation but there may not be one standard date when places reopen so always call to verify whatever might be stated online. Fellow blogger Como Lake Today  recently published this article on hotel openings where you may find more information.

Rifugio Parabello

Rifugio Parabello

The mountain refuges will also open in time but many are having to plan how they manage to ensure social distancing within dormitories and communal bathrooms. The issue of communal facilities will also complicate matters for the camp sites at the northern end of the lake. 

Gardens and Historic Houses

Villa del Balbianello

Villa del Balbianello, Lenno – managed by FAI and open to visitors who pre-book online.

The trio of beautiful gardens up in the Bellagio triangle are all open again as one might expect with access to outside facilities being some of the easiest to manage. Villa Monastero in Varenna opened on May 23rd with the gardens open throughout the week and the house museum from Thursday to Sunday during May. Villa Carlotta and its gardens in Tremezzina opened on May 22nd. You are advised to buy your ticket online in advance since the ticket office is closed. The gardens of the Villa Melzi in Bellagio opened on May 18th. None of these sites welcome large groups and visitors must wear masks however wearing masks is compulsory in all public spaces. 

The properties run by FAI (the equivalent of the UK’s National Trust) which include the Villa del Balbianello at Lenno also opened on May 22nd but only for those booking in advance online. Don’t forget to take your face mask with you when visiting.

Museums

Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca

Triumphant Saint Michael by Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca di Como

Museums are all now open and will greet you by taking your temperature and inviting you to use their hand sanitiser. Unfortunately the Como museums never seem to be crowded which is a pity since they are well worth a visit. The Art Gallery (Pinacoteca) in Palazzo Volpi on Via Diaz contains works by theAstrattisti Comaschi, 13th century frescoes from the old Chiesa di San Giorgio on Via Borgo Vico, portraits that formed the 15th century collection of Paolo Giovio and some memorable examples of 17th century Lombardy Baroque. Visitors to the art gallery can often be outnumbered by the staff on duty. 

Transport

Navigazione

Navigazione Laghi’s ‘Orione’ in Como

Navigazione Laghi is running both its normal passenger routes and car ferries but with a provisional timetable which may well change. Use their Internet site to plan your journey and also to buy your tickets rather than have to queue up at the ticket offices. 

Boat Hire

Water taxis in Cernobbio

Both urban and interurban buses are operating normally but with seating restrictions and the requirement that passengers wear face masks and gloves.

The vast number of private hire boat services and water taxis are all back in business as are bicycle hire shops and bike tour operators. Use our page here for contact information for boat hire. Click here for bike hire.

Musical Events, Festivals and Theatre

Teatro Sociale

Teatro Sociale, Como. Sadly all performances have been cancelled including ‘Aida’ scheduled to have been performed as part of the Como Music Festival at the end of june. 

This is perhaps the least certain category since these are events where large numbers of people tend to gather and thus make social distancing specifically challenging. The Teatro Sociale remains closed and there is no information about any shows due to be performed over the summer. The annual opera involving a massive chorus of local singers which is normally staged in the open air towards the end of June and beginning of July is unfortunately cancelled. 

Music on the lake

Literally music on the lake, Cernobbio 2019

A normal summer on the lake is accompanied by a  large number of music festivals as well as other music outdoors. It is too early to tell which of these may survive the coronavirus and the best I can do is to suggest you consult Musical Events where information will be updated as soon as it comes available. Key dates will also be put into our Calendar as soon as they are published.

I fear many festivals will not take place this year but one at least has gone ahead to organise events in the open air where both musicians and audience can keep a safe distance. This is the Lake Como Festival whose dates are now in our calendar with the promise that further events may well be planned for later in the summer.

Lidos and Swimability 2020

Lido Faggeto Lario

The lido at Faggeto Lario

The lido at Faggeto Lario will open on 30th May two months later than last year. The lido at Cernobbio will open shortly after. The lido at Villa Olmo shows signs of preparing to open but not sure when. Whenever they do open, they will be different from last year if only to comply with new regulations. It could well be that customers will profit from this. For example, at Faggeto there will be more space between sunbeds and, while the bar area will be closed, customers will instead summon a waiter by ringing a bell. Spaces will be reduced and Faggeto is asking that all places are booked in advance online. 

Sala Comacina 2

Sala Comacina

In addition to the lidos there is nothing to stop people going out to any of the public beaches and taking a dip in the water. It’s for those of you who enjoy a dip in the lake that I have published water quality data for the last two years. I will also do the same for 2020 once samples are taken and results are published. Data is slow to be published on the government website undoubtedly due to the lockdown phase of the pandemic. Even though the water looks delightfully clean, one cannot just go on appearances but comfort can be taken from the good record established over former years.

Conclusion

The message in Phase One of the pandemic was a simple one to understand and to execute. Close your establishment and stay indoors. Now the message is open but respect all the protective regulations and be aware that they will be rigorously applied. Therefore opening dates will vary with some enterprises not able to open at all. Visitors will however be able to eat, sleep and travel around in comfort. Major attractions on the lake are already open and local entrepreneurs will be very pleased to see visitors coming in from abroad. A Bellagio hotelier has already pleaded on BBC News for the return of the English! A BBC correspondent residing in Menaggio also gave an oral portrait of the lake the other day on UK news. Our lake with its dramatic beauty and tranquility is the perfect antidote to lockdown blues. Its offer of freedom and serenity is open to all who manage to get here – just get into the habit of using your mobile when planning your perfect restorative stay.

Tranquility

Tranquility assured on Lake Como. View from the gardens of Villa Olmo

Posted in Events, Gardens, Lake, Restaurants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lake Como’s Star Crossed Lovers: 1) Osvaldo and Louisa

Ristorante Momi

Momi’s Restaurant, Blevio – just one of the romantic settings on Lake Como

Lake Como’s beauty has and will forever ferment romance. But when romance blossoms in a time of brutal civil war, it can too easily turn to tragedy. This was the case for two pairs of star crossed lovers from very different backgrounds and engaged on opposite sides of the civil conflict that engulfed Northern Italy from 1943 onwards. One pair was fascist and the other was communist but they shared an identical fate – summary execution without proper judicial process soon after peace was declared. Most commentators now believe all four victims were entirely innocent.  However their deaths can be attributed to the paranoia and venom fostered by the cruelties of the nazifascist regime and the moral turpitude resulting from fighting a civil war. 

Osvaldo valenti and Louisa Ferida

Louisa Ferida and Osvaldo Valenti – stars of cinema in the fascist era

Our first couple were stars of Italy’s film industry in the 1930s. He, Osvaldo Valenti, usually played the dashing, handsome yet slightly risque romantic lead roles. She, Louisa Ferida, was the beautiful heroine of the period. They had fallen in love while filming at Rome’s Cinecittà both starring in the so-called ‘telefoni bianchi’ romantic comedies that were very popular at the time.

 

white telephone films

‘White telephone’ films often featured this symbol of style and sophistication

The ‘white telephone’ became the adopted symbol of the style and sophistication to which audiences at the time might aspire. The plots of these films often involved a girl of humble origin winning the heart and the accompanying lifestyle, after various twists and turns, of a handsome man from a higher class. Closing scenes focussed on a happy resolution of the couple’s romance along with the shared commitment to love each other until death.

 

‘If I Could Have a Thousand Lire a Month’

 

Mille lire al mese

The words of this title song from a film released in 1939 starring Osvaldo Valenti portray the escapist dreams of an economically hard-pressed class of Italians. They were beginning to lose faith in the promises made by the fascist regime on the eve of the country’s disastrous entry into the Second World War. In effect neither Valenti or Ferida were committed supporters of the fascist regime during the Cinecittà years. Osvaldo was  well known for performing a comical mocking party-piece impersonation of Il Duce when among friends. However, following the September Armistice in 1943, he and Louisa were two of the very few artists who took up the invitation to work within the nazi-occupied half of the country at the newly opened Cinevillagio studios in Venice. 

Luisa Ferida in Sleeping Beauty with VAlenti

Osvaldo Valenti and Louisa Ferida in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ 1942

The move to Venice seemed to herald a change in their fortunes when the couple soon after suffered the death of their newborn son. This loss was followed later when Louisa miscarried while visiting her parents in Bologna. These personal tragedies caused Osvaldo to relinquish his acting career and, rather than accept a lucrative contract in Spain to star in two films, he took up the invitation from the fascist naval commander Prince Junio Valerio Borghese to join the Decima MAS as a lieutenant in the Vega Battalion based just outside Como on Lake Montorfano. (See our recent article on how the Como-based Vega Battalion were establishing covert ‘stay behind’ groups to continue the fascist fight once the allies had completed their liberation of Northern Italy). 

Lanzo D’Intelvi and Milan

Lanzo D_Intelvi

Lanzo D’Intelvi looking down on to Lake Lugano and Switzerland

From the summer of 1944 Osvaldo and Louisa based themselves in Lanzo D’Intelvi where both took on the role of organising the Vega Battalion’s extensive smuggling operation designed to replenish the coffers of both Borghese’s regiment and the nazifascist Republic of Salo. However the couple also made frequent visits down to Milan where they could participate in the decadent company of fascist high society. They were in particular regular visitors to Villa Fossati on Milan’s Via Paolo Uccello – the home of Pietro Koch, the leader of the Banda Koch. 

Villa Triste

Villa Fossati

Villa Fossati, the base of the Banda Koch where partisan prisoners were tortured. The Villa is open to the public as a reminder of the degenerate cruelty of the fascist regime.

The fascist regime had established a series of centres in Italy’s major cities used to imprison and torture captured partisans and other anti-fascists. These became known as Ville Triste – sad villas. The Milan Villa Triste was run by Pietro Koch and operated out of Villa Fossati. He and his band committed so many atrocities that it even became too much for the fascist authorities who, following continual pressure from the Milanese and Cardinal Schuster in particular, closed down the villa and eventually arrested Koch. Osvaldo and Louisa could not have been ignorant of what went on within the walls of this villa that they visited so often. They were however dependent on Koch as their supplier of cocaine and morphine to which they had both been addicted for some years. This  association with Koch would be their ultimate undoing.

Liberation, April 1945

 

valenti and ferida

Louisa and Osvaldo

The ultimate defeat of the Nazis and the collapse of Mussolini’s Republic of Salò could be clearly foreseen even from when Osvaldo had joined the Vega Battalion and moved to Lanzo D’Intelvi back in the summer of 1944 . As the inevitable defeat approached, Osvaldo decided to surrender himself to the partisans. He felt he had little to fear in terms of immediate retribution. He believed that his smuggling activity was unlikely to attract a strong reaction and he could even boast of having established amicable relationships with some of the partisan groups operating on Lake Como and in the Val D’Intelvi. He therefore offered himself up on April 20th, well before the actual armistice, to the Pasubio partisans operating within the Province of Vicenza.

 

pasubio

Some of the Pasubio partisans parading after the armistice in 1945. The caption suggests how their display of arms on this occasion was considered ‘exhibitionist’.

Summary Justice

 

marozin

Giuseppe Marozin, duplicitous leader of the Pasubio partisan group.

What Osvaldo had failed to take into account was that the Pasubio partisans had lost comrades who had been tortured and killed by the Banda Koch, and the duplicitous nature of their commander, Giuseppe Marozin, whose initial promise to them of protection from death proved valueless. Osvaldo and Louisa had been reported to the partisans as participating in the torture of prisoners on their visits to Villa Fossati.  Faced with those accusations, their eventual fate as collaborators committing war crimes could be in no doubt. After a summary hearing, the couple were driven out on the evening of April 30th 1945 to Via Poliziano in the San Siro district of Milan. There they were executed by firing squad with their bodies left on public display until the Red Cross were permitted to transport their corpses to the mortuary. So ended the turbulent, troubled but loving relationship of these two former stars from the glamorous world of cinema with their personal dreams of family happiness descending into drug dependence, decadence and early death. Osvaldo’s association with the corrupt cocaine-fuelled society of the fascist leaders had led to his and Louisa’s downfall. Louisa was thirty one and Osvaldo thirty nine.

 

death of louisa ferida

The body of Louisa Ferida with a sign attached by the partisans which reads ‘Executed as a collaborator of the torturer Osvaldo Valenti’.

It is said that Osvaldo sought to comfort a totally distraught Louisa as they were led out to Via Poliziano by commenting on an irony in the face of their imminent execution. They had as a screen couple played out so many final scenes where they turn to camera pledging an everlasting love until death. And here they were actually loving until….. Louisa died clutching one of her lost son’s shoes.

Epilogue

sanguepazzo

Luca ‘Inspector Montalbano’ Zingaretti and Monica Bellucci in the 2008 biopic of Osvaldo and Louisa called ‘Sangue Pazzo’ (Wild Blood)

Even seventy five years after the end of the war, many of the accounts of what happened in those immediate days following the armistice are obscure and clouded with controversy. Italy has never undertaken a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process in spite of perhaps needing it more than most other nations emerging from civil conflict. This is perhaps why Monica Bellucci could describe the film ‘Sangue Pazzo’ (Wild Blood), in which she played the part of Louisa, as controversial even though the film was not released until 2008. Actually most of Osvaldo and Louisa’s story is relatively free from controversy except concerning the responsibility for who issued their final death sentence. And even this would not be so controversial if it wasn’t for the dubious character of Giuseppe Marozin, the Pasubio partisan commander who conducted the judicial process. He later claimed that he only passed the death sentence on the direct orders of Sandro Pertini – a man with an honourable record as a committed partisan serving at the time as a leader on the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) and Secretary of the Socialist Party. He later served as President of the Republic from 1978 until 1985  and is widely considered to have been the most popular of Italy’s presidents in modern times. Marozin instead took advantage of the couple’s execution by following it up by robbing their Milan apartment.

Monica Bellucci

Monica Bellucci as Louisa Ferida. Bellucci has said the couple were doomed from the start since Osvaldo was addicted to morphine and Louisa was addicted to him.

It is now generally accepted, at least regarding Louisa, that the couple played no part in the torture of prisoners held by Pietro Koch. In the 1950’s the Milan Carabinieri undertook a full inquiry and came to the conclusion that it was the secretary of the Banda Koch and Koch’s girlfriend who had impersonated Louisa while participating in the torture of prisoners. Both women had implicated Louisa at the time of the original judicial process while claiming their own innocence. Louisa’s exoneration was confirmed by the state granting her mother a small pension to compensate for her only bread winner falling  ‘a victim of war’. 

And Our Other Couple?

Neri and Gianna

Luigi Canali  and girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi

Lake Como was the setting of an even more poignant tragedy – the deaths of the two partisan lovers, Luigi Canali (nom de guerre ‘Neri’) and Giuseppina Tuissi (nom de guerre ‘Gianna’) – both communist idealists and committed anti-fascists who were executed on orders from their own party chiefs. They played central parts in the dramatic last days on Lake Como of Mussolini and the sequestration of the treasure he and his fascist leaders were smuggling out of the country. Maybe they died due to jealousies within the party, or because of what they knew about Mussolini’s end or due to them questioning what was to happen to the sequestered treasure? Responsibility for the deaths of Gianna and Neri is still, after all these years, clouded in mystery and controversy which no legal process has yet been able to resolve. The inability over the years to arrive at a sufficiently objective account of their end has hampered historical analysis and discouraged artistic representation in either book or film. Monica Bellucci considered the story of Osvaldo and Louisa controversial, but not to the extent that it prevented their representation on television or film. I know of no such representation of the final days of Gianna and Neri. Their tragedy instead reaches Shakespearian heights in their star crossed encounter with the forces shaping the post-war world in which, in spite of selfless dedication to their ideals, they came to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. I will try to tell their story in a separate article to be published  shortly.

 

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