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

Neri and Gianna

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

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

Funicolare

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

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

Luigi Canali

Neri serving in Ethiopia

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

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

Luigi Canali in Italian army uniform

Neri in Italian Army uniform

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

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

Como under snow 2

A hard winter in Como’s Piazza Mazzini

Setting the Scene

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

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

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

Act 1: January 1945, Imprisonment and Escape

Lezzeno

Lezzeno, where Neri and Gianna were captured

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

Casa del fascio

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

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

Dante Gorrieri

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

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

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

Lake Como from Monte Palanzone

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

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

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

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

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

Casa del fascio 2

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

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

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

Piazza San Fedele

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

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

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

Fabio

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

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

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

On Mount Bisbino in Winter

On Mount Bisbino in winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesco

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dongo Town Hall

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

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

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

Mezzegra Bonzanigo

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

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

Victory

Victorious partisans celebrate

Act 5: May and June 1945, The Final Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Canali

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

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

Memorial Pizzo di cernobbio

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

Conclusion

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

PCI Via delle Botteghe Oscure

PCI headquarters in Rome in Via delle Botteghe Oscure

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

Further Reading

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

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

Acknowledgments

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

 

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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

 

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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

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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.

 

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Como’s Lake Montorfano: Commandos, Contraband and the CIA

Lake Montorfano 1Lake Montorfano, just to the south east of Como, is a tranquil and scenic spot ideal in the summer months for swimming in its pure clear waters where the only sound likely to be heard is the call of a coot or the occasional shout of ‘fore’ from the neighbouring Villa D’Este Golf Club.

 

Club House

Club House at the Villa D’Este’s Golf Cub on Lake Montorfano

But back in 1944 the Villa D’Este’s Club House was the barracks of an elite commando force trained to undertake spying and sabotage behind enemy lines. Its leadership were fervently anti-communist fascists yet their loyalties were ambiguous from the start as they maintained links with both the German and American secret services. The battalion set up on the shores of Lake Montorfano even went on to provide a model for covert  ‘stay behind’ teams of  spies and saboteurs adopted by NATO and deployed across Western Europe as an anti-communist tactic during the Cold War. For me, learning about Como’s history continues to throw up fascinating surprises, so let me try to unravel more about why this group came to Como and what they did.

 

Background

 

Independence Day at Milan

April 25th Independence Day Celebrations in Milan

April 25th was Italy’s Independence Day celebrating the surrender on that date back in 1945 of the German troops who had occupied the northern half of the country since Italy’s declaration of peace on September 8th 1943. The Nazi occupation had re-established Mussolini and his fascist puppet state known as the RSI (Repubblica Socialista Italiana). The RSI was certainly neither democratic nor socialist.  It became better known as the Republic of Salò after the name of  the small town on the western banks of Lake Garda where Mussolini was initially based. 

 

MAS

MAS Model 500 – Armed torpedo boats operated by the Italian Royal Navy

The Italian Royal Navy had, prior to 1943, been the most effective of Italy’s armed forces depriving the British merchant fleet of access to the Suez Canal, maintaining a blockade of Malta and ensuring ongoing supplies to the Axis troops in North Africa. Following the 1943 armistice, they maintained loyalty to the King and the constituted Italian government and not to the nazifascist RSI established by the Nazis under Mussolini in the north.  The Royal Navy duly withdrew where possible to Taranto where they surrendered their fleet and offered their services to the allies. The British immediately made use of the regiment called Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Flotilla) renaming it the Mariassolto group led by Captain Ernesto Forza and joined by other officers released by the British from Prisoner of War camps. MAS referred to the assault boats used – Motoscafo Armato Silurante (Armed Torpedo Boats). The Mariassolto were an elite commando force trained to destroy shipping and their first targets were those parts of the Italian Royal Navy that had been trapped within the occupied zone in their other major base at La Spezia in Liguria.

 

Junio Borghese

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese nicknamed the ‘Black Prince’

In La Spezia, an aristocratic captain of the Royal Navy called Prince Junio Valerio Borghese preferred to back Mussolini and the RSI offering his services to the Nazi occupiers. He promised to set up a group of commandos in the north with the same skills as those in the Mariassolto group in the south. He kept the same name for this regiment that had been used by the Italian Royal Navy, the Decima Flottiglia MAS. Most former members of the Italian armed forces had been imprisoned by the Germans following the September armistice and only released if they promised to join up in the RSI regiments. The great majority refused to do so and many were then deported as slave workers in German factories. However, for some young men, the prospect of a life of daring and adventure within an elite band such as the Decima MAS proved appealing. As time developed, the greater part of the Decima MAS regiment became used to fight against the partisans partnering with the lawless bands of fanatic fascists known as the Brigati Neri as well as the German Army. Borghese negotiated partial autonomy for his commando units from German command. Yet he also retained some distance from Mussolini’s RSI army preferring collaboration with German secret services.

 

Recruiting in La Spezia

Recruitment of young men into the Decima Flottiglia MAS in La Spezia in 1943

Lake Montorfano April 1944

Out of all the commando units operating within the Decima MAS, why was one of the most clandestine and subversive of them all based on Como’s Lake Montorfano occupying the grounds of the Villa D’Este Golf Club and barracked in the club house?  Pleasant though Lake Montorfano undoubtedly is, we need to fathom out why a naval group would decide to base itself in what must be one of the furthest points in Italy from the sea, and what exactly were they doing? 

Lake Montorfano

Lake Montorfano

The ‘Vega’ Battalion was established at Lake Montorfano in April 1944 by Captain Mario Rossi ostensibly to operate a warehouse providing supplies for the remainder of the ‘Special Forces’ battalions of the Decima MAS. Rossi’s actual brief from Borghese had been to develop commando groups of spies and saboteurs who could operate independently not just behind enemy lines but also as ‘stay behind’ cells once the whole country came to be liberated by the allies  From first conception the Vega Battalion was pro-fascist but its leadership’s loyalties were ambiguous. Mario Rossi had from the start been in contact with the O.S.S. – the American Secret Services organisation that preceded the C.I.A. – as had his superior, the ‘Black Prince’, Prince Junio Valerio Borghese. When the ultimate defeat of the nazifascist regime became increasingly obvious after the D-Day landings in Normandy, the Vega Battalion started to prepare for clandestine activity within a post-fascist Italy while retaining links through both German and American secret services with potential anti-communist allies.

Borghese’s Debriefing

 

James Jesus Angleton

James Jesus Angleton also known as ‘Kingfisher’

Borghese formally disbanded the Decima MAS on April 26th 1945, the day after the Germans had signed the armistice in Rome bringing a formal end to hostilities. He then spent his time in Milan hiding from the summary retribution being handed out by the victorious partisans to those who had collaborated politically, economically or militarily with the nazifascist regime. On May 10th he was picked up by James Jesus Angleton, local O.S.S. second-in-command  and future deputy to the head of the C.I.A. William Colby, given an American officer’s uniform to wear and driven down to the relative safety of Rome. His first formal debriefing took place eighteen days later in the Cinecittà prison camp. The contents of that interview have now been released from the American National Archives in Maryland and they include Borghese’s description of  the actual objectives of the Vega Battalion on Lake Montorfano.  Vega had been set up in 1944 to bring together all elements of the Decima MAS involved in either spying or sabotage. Previously these activities had been directed by the German Secret Service but Borghese had negotiated autonomy for Vega with the German General Harster. The group’s objectives were:

 

  1. To collect information from the areas of Italy occupied by the allies.
  2. Commit acts of sabotage in the areas of Italy occupied by the allies.
  3. Set up the means to continue spying and sabotage in the main cities of Northern Italy once the allies also occupy those areas.

It was this third objective which chiefly interested Angleton since it seemed to offer a model for how to pursue a clandestine war against communists. The C.I.A. replaced the O.S.S. soon after the end of the war. They, alongside NATO once it had been established in 1949, recognised they would need to act secretly against communist influence in the west given that the civilian populations of countries such as Italy would not tolerate open hostility against those who had so recently been fighting so bravely against fascism. Angleton appreciated, trusted in and shared Borghese’s fervent anti-communism while overlooking or even deeming irrelevant his total lack of respect for democracy.

A Nest of Spies

Viale Geno

Viale Geno, Como. The Swiss High Commission was located on this road during the 2nd World War but it is not clear which actual building they occupied.

Borghese admitted that one reason for selecting Como and Lake Montorfano for the Vega battalion was the proximity to Switzerland. There were at least two reasons why this might have been a factor in deciding on location. Como and Lugano were two cities which could both be described as nests of spies during the last two years of the war.  Borghese had managed to gain a certain amount of independence for the Vega battalion from the Germans and also from Mussolini’s puppet government of the RSI. He used this relative independence for him and Rossi to maintain links with the American O.S.S. Even one of the radio operators at Lake Montorfano was an enemy agent. Contacts with the O.S.S. were easy to maintain either through illicit entries into Switzerland and on to Lugano or even through contacts maintained by the Swiss High Commission which had transferred from Milan to base itself in Como on Viale Geno.  Even the Commander of the German SS Group based in Cernobbio, Joseph Voetterl, worked for the Americans. More significantly still, the German Military Governor of Northern Italy, Karl Wolff, had, through contacts with the O.S.S. in Bern and Lugano, made contact with the non-communist partisan groups from October 1944 and had also taken part in cross-border meetings with Allen Dulles (Swiss Director of the O.S.S from 1942 and overall director of the C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961) negotiating Operation Sunrise which provided for the eventual peaceful surrender of his troops – all very much against Hitler’s wishes. 

Contraband

albergo unione

Albergo Unione in Casasco D’Intelvi, headquarters of the Vega Battalion’s smuggling operation across the Swiss border.

The other advantage of proximity to Switzerland was the opportunities this offered for self-financing the battalion and the rest of the Decima MAS through contraband. The local economy around Como had always included significant income from smuggling over the Swiss border. The ‘Vega’ Battalion took to this activity on a truly commercial scale using their relative independence from the Italian authorities to openly flout the law. Organisation of the trade was entrusted to a film star of the time, Osvaldo Valenti who had joined the Vega Battalion with the rank of lieutenant ostensibly as the Information Officer for the Decima MAS. He based himself in Lanzo D’Intelvi overlooking Lake Lugano using the Albergo Unione in Casasco D’Intelvi as an administrative base.  His most profitable trade was the export of salt brought to Montorfano using military transport from the saline ponds on the Venetian lagoon. It was then transferred to the ‘spallone’ (as the smugglers were nicknamed) who would make the night-time crossing by foot. Valenti sold contraband primarily to obtain foreign currency.  All items in demand over the border were smuggled across but the trade in salt and in agricultural products from the Province of Brescia were the most regular. Flour, butter, rice, lard and cured meats were first transported by lorry from the area around Brescia to Milan where they were then taken by train up to Varenna or Bellano on the upper eastern shores of Lake Como. From there they came by boat to Argegno and then transported up to the end of the Val D’Intelvi. 

Osvaldo Valenti with wife and fellow actor Luisa Ferida

The actor couple Osvaldo Valenti and Luisa Ferida. Valenti organised the Vega Battalion’s smuggling operation.

Osvaldo Valenti would also become known for his part in a negotiated peace between the Vega Battalion and the partisan  groups operating in the Val D’Intelvi under the leadership of the legendary Captain Ugo Ricci. On 28th September 1944 Ricci’s group led a successful raid on a division of the Vega Battalion barracked in the ex-Sant Ambrogio monastery in Porlezza on the eastern end of Lake Lugano. Valenti, who either directly or through his accountant happened to have contacts with Ricci, then negotiated a treaty in which Ricci would return all the arms seized from the division in exchange for an undertaking that the Vega Battalion would not undertake any reprisals against the local population or, for that matter, not molest or take part in any actions against the local partisans. 

Collegio Sant Ambrogio di Porlezza

The ex-Sant’Ambrogio Monastery in Porlezza, now sadly unoccupied and in a poor state of repair.

Vega Groups

 

Ferruccio Nazionale

While Vega were not involved in rounding up partisans, the rest of the Decima MAS were as shown in their summary execution of Ferruccio Nazionale in Ivrea. The Civil War in Italy was truly brutal.

Mario Rossi’s battalion at Lake Montorfano established five ‘stay behind’ groups to work clandestinely after the northern part of Italy was taken over by Allied troops. Each group was designed to have six members able to undertake spying and sabotage. These were established in the cities of Milan, Turin, Genoa, Venice and Bologna. The members of each group were ideally selected to serve in their city of origin as well as for their specific skills in espionage or sabotage. However Rossi himself was a member of the Milanese group in spite of being from Genoa. Each group had a radio operator who was tasked with maintaining communications with the Vega headquarters. They rented lodgings and acquired garage facilities for servicing cars and trucks, and warehouses for their secret cache of arms. Each group acted independently of the others and each member of the group lived independently of his or her colleagues. Bars were acquired to provide cover for these individual members to meet and coordinate their actions. They were well established before the armistice but kept under strict command to not act before receiving instruction from headquarters. There was however one major problem – once Borghese had formally dismissed the Decima MAS on April 26th with a proclamation issued in Milan’s Piazza della Repubblica, no further instructions were ever sent to the five clandestine groups. They were left without any idea how to act. One can only surmise that this total lack of leadership came about as a result of an agreement forged between Mario Rossi, Junio Valerio Borghese and James Angleton that Vega should redirect its hostility away from the victorious allies and towards the communists whose partisans had led the insurrection against the nazifascist state and whose party – the PCI – was now ideally placed to influence the country’s post-war settlement. 

 

The Aftermath

Lake Lugano Porlezza

Lake Lugano close to Porlezza

The Villa D’Este took back its golf course and was soon back to hosting famous guests including Clark Gable, Bing Crosby and the Belgian King Leopold II.  

 

Monumento ai Caduti

Como’s Monumento Ai Caduti – the area behind the War Memorial facing the lake was a favoured spot for the summary execution of collaborators after the end of the war.

The immediate aftermath of the war resulted in considerable bloodletting as a reaction to  the oppression of the previous years. Summary justice was meted out to those accused of collaborating with the nazifascist regime. Osvaldo Valenti and his wife were among the victims of this with Valenti executed for his alleged association with Pietro Koch who was the leader of a merciless fascist death squad. His wife, Luisa Ferida, who had also been a pre-war film star, was executed alongside of Valenti in the belief that she had also been involved in the war crimes of the Banda Koch. She is now believed to have been entirely innocent of the charges.

 

 The chances of survival for fascists and collaborators improved greatly for those able to survive the first six months after the war. This was the case for Borghese who had been transported away from Milan to Rome by James Angleton. After an initial period in prison he was released in October 1945 only to be re-arrested and  brought to trial for war crimes. The C.I.A. did their best to ensure he would be tried by the Appeal Court at Rome where he might expect the greatest leniency. He was initially sentenced to a total of 12 years for the murder of partisans. The court reduced this by 9 years due to his previous brave service to the country when serving for the Royal Navy prior to the 1943 armistice. He was then given a total discharge due to the general amnesty issued by the Italian Communist party leader and then Minister of Justice, Palmiro Togliatti. Togliatti’s amnesty was designed to pardon both fascists and partisans for crimes committed during and immediately after the war. 

The Secret Civil War

In 1951 Borghese joined the MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) – a neo-fascist parliamentary party. He left them in 1953 since he felt they were too weak in preference to taking the extra-parliamentary route to fascism. This eventually led him to leading an abortive coup d’etat in Rome on January 8th 1970 – part of a fascist and anti-communist strategy backed by the Italian and American Secret Services and parts of the Carabinieri resulting in the bomb attack at Piazza Fontana in 1969 and continued afterwards in a series of terrorist attacks now known as the ‘anni di piombo’. Essentially Borghese was still fighting the civil war he had used the Vega Battalion to prepare for. 

48 anni dopo piazza Fontana: così Milano commemora la strage ...

On 12 December 1969 a bomb exploded inside the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in Piazza Fontana, Milan. This was the initial episode in a campaign of terrorism instigated by fascists with the knowledge or even under instruction from Italy’s secret service and aimed at placing blame on left wing militants.

Less is known about Mario Rossi although it is suggested that he gained his liberty in May 1945 by revealing the names of all the other members of the ‘stay behind’ groups that Vega had established in Milan, Genoa, Turin, Bologna and Venice. He went on to have a career in the shipbuilding industry in his home town of Genoa.

James Jesus Angleton stayed on as the O.S.S.’s head of counterespionage in Rome and started off by recruiting a covert band of armed ex-fascists as a hit squad to oppose any attempt of a communist uprising during the 1946 elections. He came back to Rome towards the end of the 1940’s as the CIA’s Head of Station. His fervent anti-communism led him to negotiate agreements with the Sicilian Mafia to ally themselves against the movement for Sicilian independence. He also collaborated with the Italian Secret Services in establishing a new set of ‘stay behind’ groups modelled on the Vega concept of Borghese and Rossi.  These groups were called ‘Gladio’ and the operatives were seen as ‘gladiators’. Gladio’s objectives coincided also with that other shady Italian post-war organisation, the P2 masonic lodge. Their overall objective can be summarised as both fighting communism and providing the means for integrating the fascist faithful into the structures of the new Italy. Gladio and P2 developed into a secret state promoting terrorist acts against its own citizens, with the purpose of discrediting communists and provoking a right-wing backlash that would support a fascist coup d’etat. Angleton’s anti-communism was definitely of greater importance to him than any commitment he may had to democracy – at least in any country other than the USA. 

andreotti

Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti discloses the existence of ‘Gladio’ in an open letter to President Cossiga and in front of the commission examining the series of terrorist attacks in the 1970s on 26th February 1991. He dated the presence of these covert groups in Italy since 1951 but their precursors had been established by Borghese and Rossi on Lake Montorfano six years earlier.

NATO went on to adopt the Gladio  (the Vega model) model of clandestine cells and these were established across Western Europe. It was only just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall that these groups were finally disbanded. Belgium and France disbanded theirs in November 1990. Italy stopped in December 1990 and Luxembourg did so in February 1991.  

 It is in effect quite extraordinary to consider how so much of the covert internal structures of the Cold War across Western Europe emanated out from that small tranquil lake on the southern edge of Como. It is also depressing to consider how the joy and relief arising on April 25th 1945 from the unburdening of the oppression and economic suffering inflicted on a good part of the country, did not mark the actual end of Italy’s civil war. Rather it seemed to mark a new covert phase prolonging a conflict between communist and anti-communist forces. And the greatest likely victim of this conflict was always going to be democracy.

Lake Montorfano 2

Lake Montorfano in more peaceful times

References

Local historian, Giorgio Cavalleri’s book ‘La Gladio del Lago’ was indispensable in researching this article.

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Holidaying on Lake Como: In the Footsteps of Mary Shelley

 

grand hotel cadenabbia

Grand Hotel Cadenabbia. Mary Shelley stayed here for 2 months in the summer of 1840 when she knew it as the Albergo Grande della Cadenabbia

Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, daughter of the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and author of arguably the most renowned gothic novel of all time – Frankenstein – loved Lake Como. In June 1840 she set out with friends and her son to spend the summer on the lake.

 

 

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’

She had previously visited Lake Como when she had lived in Italy from 1818 to 1823. She and her husband had even rented the Villa Pliniana near Torno, then in a very poor state of repair, for a short period as well as visiting all the main cities on the early 19th century cultural tourist route, namely Rome, Florence and Venice. However her stay in Italy had been marred by tragedy. She lost her husband who was drowned whilst boating off the Tuscan coast and in addition her two eldest children, Clara and William who both succumbed to diphtheria. So, as she set off from Dover with her one surviving son, Percy, she left full of joy at the prospect of returning to her beloved Italy after an absence of 17 years but also with some trepidation that her stay might reawaken memories of the tragic past. She maintained a journal of her travels, the last of her published works, under the title ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’. I propose that we take the vicarious pleasure of following her journey as described in that book given that we are temporarily unable to view the lake for ourselves and, in any case, her journal shows her to be an insightful, sympathetic and expressive leader for a virtual tour.

 

 

Giuseppe Mazzini

Bust of Giuseppe Mazzini in Piazza Mazzini, Como. Mazzini was a staunch republican and campaigner for Italian Independence. He was exiled in London at the time of Mary Shelley’s trip to Lake Como.

Italy at the time was not independent with Lombardy being part of the Austrian empire. She supported the independence movement undoubtedly influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini who had recently been exiled in London and by literary figures like Alessandro Manzoni. She described Italy as ‘the most illustrious (country) and the most unfortunate in the world.’ She was a true Italophile but by no means an uncritical one:

 

‘When we visit Italy, we become what the Italians were censured for being, – enjoyers of the beauties of nature, the elegance of art, the delights of climate, the recollections of the past, and the pleasures of society, without a thought beyond.’

These are all aspects that remain positive and relevant today although I would also now add the quality of the cuisine – something which Mary Shelley either did not get to experience or was not interested in! 

 

cruikshank diligence francais

Travelling by diligence in France satirised by cartoonist George Cruikshank

She crossed from Dover to Calais mid June 1840 and immediately travelled by ‘diligence’ to Paris regretting the lack of a rail link having become more accustomed to travelling by train back in England.

 

 

German route Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s route through Germany

In Paris they planned their route to Como deciding to go via Metz and then down the Moselle to Coblenz where they would follow the Rhine to Mainz and then somewhat strangely up to Frankfurt. From there they were to travel south through Heidelberg, Baden Baden, Schaffhausen, to Zurich to cross the Alps at Splugen and then descend from Chur down past Chiavenna to join Lake Como at Colico. Her journal records the different modes of travel, whether it by boat (on the Moselle and Rhine), diligence (in France and Switzerland), train (briefly from Mainz to Frankfurt) or voiturier (a German form of coach). Having left Paris on June 25th, they arrived in Colico on July 14th. There were some highlights on this journey such as the section of the Rhine from Coblenz to Mainz, and others which were both slow and tedious. Yet nothing surpassed her spirits than first hearing Italian spoken and then descending the southern slopes of the Alps into Italy itself.

 

All Italian travellers know what it is , after toiling up the bleak, bare, northern, Swiss side of an Alp, to descend towards ever-vernal Italy. The rhododendron, in thick bushes, in full bloom, first adorned the mountain sides; then, pine forests; then, chestnut groves; the mountain was cleft into woody ravines; the waterfalls scattered their spray and their gracious melody; flowery and green, and clothed in radiance, and gifted with plenty, Italy opened upon us. Thus, – and be not shocked at the illustration, for it is all God’s creation, – after dreary old age and the sickening pass of death, does the saint open his eyes on Paradise.

From Colico she took the steam-powered boat ‘Lario’ to Cadenabbia. She had wanted to stay in Bellagio but there was no direct boat service to there from Colico and Cadenabbia was at the time, and still is, a favourite resort for English tourists. She booked into what she refers to as the Albergo Grande della Cadenabbia which at the time was better  known as the Grand Hotel Bellevue having been established in 1802, with the name Locanda Cadenabbia, as the very first tourist hotel on the lake. The hotel has gone from strength to strength over the years and was extensively extended and renovated eleven years ago. 

grand hotel bellevue

Grand Hotel Bellevue (the current Grand Hotel Cadenabbia) in a photo taken in 1882.

Cadenabbia is now part of the larger municipality of Griante and is located at the very heart of Lake Como’s most renowned tourist region to the south of Menaggio on the doorstep of Villa Carlotta and looking over the lake to Bellagio and Varenna. It has been appreciated by international visitors over the years ever since the Locanda Cadenabbia was established. For example, Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia was for many years the summer retreat of the ex-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The villa now hosts the Adenauer Foundation. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian ex-Secretary General of the United Nations took a prolonged holiday here once he had retired from his diplomatic post. There is even an Anglican church open throughout the summer season providing regular church services in English as well as hosting musical concerts and recitals.

Olive trees at Griante

Olive grove above Cadenabbia in Griante. This part of the lake from Griante to Lenno is renowned for the quality of its olive oil.

Mary stayed in Cadenabbia from July 14th until September 9th, time enough for her to enter into the rhythm of days spent on the lakeside and to appreciate the essence of the location through her astute observation.

Sublime landscape - Above cadenabbia looking to Bellagio and the Grigne

The ‘sublime’ landscape so loved by Mary Shelley, looking east across to Bellagio and Le Grigne mountains behind.

Having described the dramatic scenery around her, she continued:

‘I wish I could by my imperfect words bring before you not only the grander features, but every minute peculiarity, every varying hue, of this matchless scene. The progress of each day brings with it its appropriate change. When I rise in the morning and look out, our own side is bathed in sunshine, and we see the opposite mountains raising their black masses in sharp relief against the eastern sky, while dark shadows are flung by the abrupt precipices on the fair lake beneath. This very scene glows in sunshine later in the day, till at evening the shadows climb up, first darkening the banks, and slowly ascending till they leave exposed the naked summits alone,  which are long gladdened by the golden radiance of the sinking sun, till the bright rays disappear, and, cold and gray, the granite peaks stand pointing to the stars, which one by one gather above.

Only ‘slow tourism’ can give a visitor the opportunity to identify and appreciate patterns and rhythms in the passing hours of the day. The rhythm of the lake is not just determined by the sun in the sky but also by the regular changes in wind and water and of course, the labour and habits of the local inhabitants. Mary also appreciated this aspect:

Each evening, too, at dusk, the girls from the silk mill close by, pass our inn on their way from work to their own village; they sing as they go, and look happy; some of them are very beautiful. They are all well conducted, I am told, keeping sharp watch on one another. The unmarried in Italy are usually of good conduct, while marriage is the prelude to a fearful liberty.’

I am not sure from where she gained that latter insight but it is an interesting observation which, unfortunately, she does not enlarge upon.

The heat as well tends to force one into appreciating the different phases of the day as Mary defines as ‘the repose necessitated by heat during the day, the revival in the evening, the enjoyment of the cooler hours, the enchantment of the nights’. These are all the joys of slow tourism unavailable to those who cannot spare the time needed to pick upon the patterns of repetition unique to each location. Possibly these patterns of repetition also gave Mary the inner calm for thought and reflection. She derived great pleasure from solitary reflection within, as in keeping with Romantic sensibilities, a sublime natural context:

When alone in an evening, I often walk towards Menaggio. I have selected a haunt among rocks close to the water’s edge, shaded by an olive-wood. I always feel renewed and extreme delight as I watch the shadows of evening climb the huge mountains, till the granite peaks alone shine forth glad and bright, and a holy stillness gathers over the landscape.

Beach at Griante

The beach at Griante looking north

One of her main activities was visiting the villas and gardens in the area, in particular Villa Serbelloni and Villa Melzi in Bellagio – a short ride across the lake in the boat her son had hired – and Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo (then known as Villa Sommariva). Villa Serbelloni is now occupied by the Rockefeller Foundation on the site of what was one of the first residential villas on the lake.

 

Villa Melzi

The gardens of Villa Melzi, Bellagio

In Mary’s time, the main attraction was the gardens built by Alessandro Serbelloni in 1802 which incorporated paths and tunnels providing views over both legs of the lake over to Varenna to the east and Menaggio to the west. It had been made famous by the patronage of the Austrian Emperor Francis I who had visited it in 1816 and again in 1825. Villa Melzi also had glorious gardens but Mary found them too formal for her taste. She certainly enjoyed visiting Villa Carlotta and viewing the sculptures there although she allowed herself to be slightly critical of Canova. On commenting on Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (still on view at the villa) she states:

 

The expression of their faces is tender and sweet; but – I like not to confess it – I am not an admirer of Canova’s women. He is said to have had singular opportunities of studying the female form; but place his Venus, or any other of his female statues, beside those of Grecian sculpture, and his defects must strike the most untaught eye.’

Villa Carlotta Cupid and Psyche

‘Cupid and Psyche’ by Antonio Canova in Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo

During her stay, Mary Shelley was more than content to stay in Cadenabbia and to make the occasional trip across the lake to Bellagio. However she did journey down to Como once to visit the opera house, the Teatro Sociale. In order to get there, she had to take the steam boat ‘Lario’. This was the very first paddle steam boat to ply its way between Colico and Como. It was built by Church of Liverpool in 1826 and presumably had to be assembled locally. The body of the ship was oak and the steam engine was designed and built by Boulton and Watt. Its first captain was an Englishman called Perham whose role would later be taken on by Italians once they had become familiar with the vessel. These early steam vessels had the disadvantage that their timber construction was not sufficiently resistant to take the weight and the torque of the boat’s engines. The ‘Lario’ was actually taken out of service in 1841, the year after Mary’s visit.  It was replaced by the first iron-clad steamer on the lake – the ‘Veloce’. This ship had been built in London and assembled in Como.

Piroscafo Lario

The piroscafo ‘Lario’ pictured passing by Villa Geno, Como.

She recounts:

The steamer, the ‘Lario’ (a better is promised for next year), is a very primitive and slow boat. I now made a voyage I had made years before, when putting off from Como in a skiff we had visited Tremezzo. How vividly I remembered and recognised each spot. I longed inexpressibly to land at the Pliniana, which remained in my recollection as a place adorned by magical beauty. The abrupt precipices, the gay-looking villas, the richly-wooded banks, the spire-like cypresses.

Villa Pliniana

The Villa Pliniana, Torno. Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley had stayed here briefly during their time in Italy. It is now a very exclusive (i.e. expensive) hotel.

At Blevio she noted the home of Giuditta Pasta, the opera singer who was perhaps the most renowned opera singer at the time across Europe. Mary Shelley says of her singing ‘ never did any so move, so penetrate the human heart.’ She described her visit to Como’s Teatro Sociale thus:

It is bathos (having been reminded of the qualities of Giuditta Pasta) to return to the opera of Como – but it was very creditable. The house was clean and pretty. Teresa Brambilla sang the part of ‘Lucia’ very tolerably, and it was an agreeable change.

Performances to this day at Como’s Teatro Sociale can well be described as ‘very creditable’ and the interior is a delight.

Interior Teatro Sociale

Her long holiday on the lake eventually came to an end when on September 9th she hired a private boat to take her and her son to Lecco. From there they visited Bergamo primarily for the opera and then on to Milan where she was separated from the rest of her party since she had to wait the arrival of a letter with more money in it to finance her journey home. This delay saved her from the dramatic experience suffered by her companions as they travelled back via the San Gottard Pass through heavy rain which had caused landslides and rivers in flood.

The full account of Mary’s stay can be read in her  ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843.’ She was sad at having to leave Cadenabbia. Clearly the location had won a place in her heart as it later did for Chancellor Adenauer and Kofi Annan. There is definitely something very tranquil and relaxing about Cadenabbia and Griante. Its true qualities are more easily appreciated just up from the lakeside itself and the best way to appreciate them is by taking the section of the Greenway or the Antica Via Regina described in our article .

inglesina

Aristocratic or wealthy English visitors were the first major group of international tourists on Lake Como. This boat, known as an ‘Inglesina’ was apparently designed to accommodate their needs for transport and adapted from the design of boats deployed on the River Thames.  It was then adopted as the standard form of passenger water taxi. 

Postscript

Sentiero dei Sogni – a local association promoting cultural walks in and around Lake Como – have as one of their projects for 2020 the translation of  Mary Shelley’s ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’ into Italian. The first results of this project coordinated by Pietro Berra, prior to the complete translation of Mary Shelley’s text, are some video clips produced by students from Como’s Liceo ‘Teresa Clerici’ illustrating the descriptions of the locations visited by Mary in 1840. Three of these are now available on YouTube. The description of her visit to Como is  at this address. Her visits to the gardens in Bellagio is at this address. Her description of Cadenabbia and the Villa Carlotta is at this address. Italian is a beautiful language and Mary Shelley would certainly have appreciated hearing her delightful text rendered so well by the students of the liceo.

Related Articles in Como Companion

Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina for a description of the walk from Griante (Cadenabbia) to Lenno.

Como’s Famous Daughters: Giuditta Pasta for more information on this local opera diva who became the most famous singer in Europe throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Additional Information

For more information about the history of the boats and ferry services deployed on lake Como see https://www.navigazionelaghi.it/historical-notes

The official website of the Grand Hotel Cadenabbia https://www.grandhotelcadenabbia.it/en/index

The website of the Anglican Church at Cadenabbia. http://www.churchonlakecomo.com/

The Boat Museum https://www.museobarcalariana.it/

Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo https://www.villacarlotta.it/

Villa Melzi, Bellagio http://www.giardinidivillamelzi.it/GIARDINI_DI_VILLA_MELZI/HOME_PAGE_ENG.html

For more information on the walks in the area, go to this link for the Greenway.  Use this link for information about the Cammini della Regina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art, Culture, Gardens, History, Itineraries, Lake, People, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Como’s History of Plague and Pandemics

 

Villa Geno

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

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

 

 

manzoni and milan

Illustration from Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi

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

 

 

Danza Macabra Clusone

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

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

 

 

Poveglia Plague Island

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

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

 

army trucks

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

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

 

landsknecht

German and Swiss mercenaries known as Landsknecht

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

 

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

 

Rifugio Bugone

Rifugio Bugone, above Moltrasio

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

 

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

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

autodichiarazione

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

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

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

Vetta Bisbino

The Sanctuary of the Madonna del Bisbino

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

 

san rocco attending the Plague victims in a lazzaretto

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

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

 

San Lazzaro

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

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

 

Danza Macabra Clusone detail

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

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

 

San Rocco

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

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

lazzaretto Quarcino

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

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

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

Dalmine Plant, Province of Bergamo

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

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

San Lazzaro internal

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

 

 

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Lake Como: The 19th Century Super Highway

Comballi 1920s

Comballi  transporting goods in the 1920s

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

Romweg

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

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

Comballo in Loppia

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

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

Concordia

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

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

Sant Agostino

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

Ports

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

porto sant agostino 2

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

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

porto mercantile sant agostino

The Arrival of Steam and Industrialisation

first steam boat

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

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

Station at camerlata

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

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

scalo a lago

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

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

Train

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

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

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

Borgo Vico

Roads

 

Map 1908

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

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

 

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

End of an Era

 

Public gardens

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

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

 

Autostrada A9 under construction

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

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

 

 

Autostrada Link

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

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

 

Milan Porta Nuova

The changing face of Milan – Porta Nuova

The Future

 

Milano Centrale

Milano Centrale – 2 hours 30 minutes to Zurich from 2025

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

 

Rapido

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

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

Further Information

Alle Darsene di Loppia

The terrace of the restaurant ‘Alle Darsene di Loppia’

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

Museo logoBoat Museum

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

porto sant agostino

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Ossuccio to Lenno: Up and Down the Perlana Valley

 

Looking up the Val Perlana

Looking up the Val Perlana

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

 

 

 

Sentiero start

The start of the walk up the Sacro Monte in Ossuccio

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

 

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

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

 

Sacro Monte chapels

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

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

 

Sacro Monte figures

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

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

 

Sanctuary

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

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

Fresco Sanctuary

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

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

 

 

 

Turning up the valley

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

San Benedetto

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

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

 

Helliborus

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

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

Acquafredda

The Abbey of Acquafredda

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

Detail stucco and fresco Sanctuary

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

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

San Benedetto cloister

The ruined courtyard to the Abbey of San Benedetto

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

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Como’s Famous Daughters: Teresa Ciceri, Agrarian Scientist

 

Potatoes

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

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

 

 

Volta

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

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

 

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

 

Teresa Ciceri

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

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

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

 

Via Camnago Superiore 19 2

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

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

Liceo Statale

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

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

Camnago

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

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

Cosia

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

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

Medal for Agriculture Patriottica

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

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

Camnago 2

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

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

Porta Nuova

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

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

Via Camnago Superiore 19

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

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

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