True Crime in Como – the Molteni Murder

oggi

Taken from an article published in Oggi on 12th October 2016 following the arrest of Alfio Molteni’s ex-wife, Daniela Rho and her accountant/lover Alberto Brivio for his murder

True crime stories have always been popular within the traditional media and are now even more prevalent on subscription services and podcasts. Behind interest in the most compelling of these stories may lie some of the characteristics which fuelled the success of tragedians from Sophocles, through Shakespeare to Henrik Ibsen. One such story is the murder of Alfio Molteni, an interior designer who lived in Carugo, a town to the south east of Cantù in the Province of Como. His fate, and that of those responsible for it,  is a local example of a crime possessing some quasi-Shakespearean elements for our own times.  It maintained media interest right from the victim’s murder on 14th October 2015 until the final confirmation in February 2021 by the highest court in the land of the life sentences passed down on those deemed most responsible.

The Victim

Alfio Molteni

Alfio Molteni, an architect with a successful interior design studio in Mariano Comense with both national and international clients.

Alfio Molteni was an interior design architect with a studio in Mariano Comense. Professionally he was very successful with commissions that included the design of the interiors of villas owned by Russian oligarchs on Lake Como, and international clients in the Arab Emirates. One of his projects was the luxury Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai Creek. He had an excellent private and professional reputation and was known for his personable and pleasant manner. However he had not had the same fortune in his emotional life having gone through an ugly divorce from his second wife back in 2013  in which they argued over access rights to their two young daughters. 

Park-Hyatt-Dubai-P333-Pool-Bar.16x9

One of the interiors of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai designed by Alfio Molteni

The Crime

After the divorce, Molteni went to live in his parents’ home in Carugo. It was there on Wednesday October 14th 2015 where two people lying in ambush  shot him on his return home. The neighbours called the police and an ambulance took Molteni to Cantù Hospital. The assassins had made their escape in his elder son’s stolen Volkswagen Polo which was later found abandoned and burnt out on the Milano-Meda road. One of the shots fired by the assassins had severed an artery in Molteni’s leg. He died in hospital that same evening.

omicidio-molteni-il-caso-e-chiuso-in-carcere-lex-moglie-e-linvestig_7d2a8272-6589-11eb-8941-9475f521dec4_900_566

The scene of the murder at the home of Alfio Molteni’s parents in Carugo, a town to the south east of Cantù in the Province of Como

His death came as the culmination of a series of recent incidents intended to intimidate. These had started back in May when his Range Rover had been set on fire. In June a Molotov cocktail had been thrown through his parents’ basement window and in July a masked gunman had fired eight shots in broad daylight at one of the home’s  shuttered windows. 

daniela-rho-e-il-padre-armando-indagati-ma-il-delitto-non-centra-eva_4a7ccbd8-9566-11e7-9cd9-d9b91b9bcd64_998_397_original

The Rho family own a factory based in Brianza producing furniture primarily for the Arab and Russian market

Investigators immediately discounted the involvement of organised crime but did consider the likelihood of some business-related motive such as revenge for the non payment of a debt. However there was no evidence that Molteni had any such  ‘enemies’ with the possible exception of his ex-wife who had been seeking in court to get an amendment to the divorce settlement to gain better terms of contact with her two daughters.

i-funerali-di-alfio-molteni-lultimo-saluto-allarchitetto-ucciso-davanti-a_f12c3c08-77e4-11e5-a865-126bf7491159_998_397

A scene from the funeral of Alfio Molteni in Carugo on 20th October 2015

Molteni’s funeral later that month in Carugo was attended by around one thousand people. The wreaths from business contacts included one from the family of the ex-President of Kosovo, Behgjet Pacolli, owner of the Swiss Mabetex construction group and husband of Anna Oxa, a once famous Italian singer and television presenter. Another was signed enigmatically from ‘The friends of Moscow’ as well as from ‘Armando Rho and employees’. This latter company was a local successful furniture factory owned by the father of Molteni’s ex-wife, Daniela Rho. The personal and business relationship between Molteni and the Rho family had deteriorated markedly since his divorce from Daniela two years previously.

macbeth

It may be fanciful to compare the protagonists and victim in our true crime story to those in Shakespeare’s Macbeth but their fate did follow a similar if less spectacular trajectory.

As a tragic victim, Molteni did not have the regal status of Duncan, the Scottish king who fell victim to Macbeth’s ‘overarching ambition’ in Shakespeare’s tragedy. But the Rhos and Moltenis could aspire to belonging to a privileged class in contemporary Italy with a status gained from success in business and the outward appearances of respectability. The media certainly presented him as a seemingly innocent, thoroughly decent and widely respected individual echoing the tragedian trope of Duncan’s death marking an upset to the natural and moral order and provoking the ensuing chaos.

The Investigation

Five months later, the Carabinieri made their first arrests, the 44 year old Michele Crisopulli and 27 year old Stefano Posca – both originally from Calabria but resident locally. In July 2016 a further three people were arrested including the man charged with firing the actual shot at Molteni – Vincenzo Scovazzo. The investigators were also getting closer to understanding who had commissioned the murder and what was their motive when they arrested Luigi Rugolo, a security guard, accused of organising the series of intimidation that preceded the fatal shooting. 

luigi rugolo

Luigi Rugolo, the security guard commissioned by Alberto Brivio to put together a gang to intimidate Molteni and make it appear as if he was involved in drug trafficking and organised crime.

Both Scovazzo and Rugolo were adamant that they had never intended to kill Molteni. They had been hired just to intimidate him. They claimed the shots fired at Molteni had not been intended to kill him.  This became a common line of defence throughout the ensuing trials and all subsequent appeals. Their claim was they were not to blame if one of the shots to the leg accidentally severed an artery. This argument was consistently rejected in the courts. 

But who had commissioned Rugolo to put together this gang of miscreants and set in motion a programme of intimidation resulting in tragedy and for what motive?  

Nearly a year after Molteni’s death, on 5th October 2016, the carabinieri arrested his ex-wife, the 46 year old Daniela Rho and her accountant, 49 year old Alberto Brivio. The cast of ‘rude mechanicals’, put together by Luigi Rugolo to carry out their brutal commission, could now be left aside to allow the investigators finally to uncover why the gang had been hired in the first place. 

The Embittered Wife and her Lover

alberto brivio

Alberto Brivio, the accountant to Armando and Daniela Rho who was also Daniela Rho’s lover.

When the carabinieri examined the mobile phone records of Rugolo, they saw that over the 24 hours prior to Molteni’s death there was a peak in the number of calls to and from him and Alberto Brivio – the accountant for both Daniela Rho and her father Armando Rho and their businesses. They then went on to note a similar peak in calls over the same period between Brivio and Daniela Rho. 

Brivio with defense lawyer Aldo Turconi

Alberto Brivio in consultation with his defence lawyer Aldo Turconi during the hearing at the Assize Court in Como.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Brivio and Rho were lovers and that they had both perceived a plan to restrict Molteni’s access to his young daughters. The programme of intimidation was intended to present Molteni as a character of dubious morality with links to the criminal world. Daniela Rho presented the acts of violence against Molteni to the courts as evidence of his unsuitability to retain custody of their daughters due to his obviously dangerous and immoral lifestyle. Her campaign was having some success particularly when her evidence to court was reinforced by the testimony of an ex-Carabiniere private detective called Giovanni Terenghi who claimed his investigations revealed Molteni’s close involvement in a drugs ring. 

Giovanni Terenghi

Giovanni Terenghi, an ex-Carabiniere private detective commissioned by Daniela Rho to uncover evidence of her ex-husband’s involvement in drug trafficking and crime. He produced false evidence in court.

It was Alberto Brivio who had the necessary contacts in the criminal world to recruit the  corrupt ex-Carabiniere Giovanni Terenghi and Luigi Rugolo, the security guard who put together the band of intimidators and hired the eventual assassin, Vincenzo Scovazzo who fired the fatal shot that severed Molteni’s artery. 

vincenzo scovazzo

Vincenzo Scovazzo, accused of firing the shot that killed Molteni.

The full scale of the programme of intimidation came out during the court hearings including such instances as the failed attempt to plant drugs in Molteni’s car. Daniela Rho’s mother, Antonietta Caimi, in her testimony dismissed these various acts as nothing more than practical jokes. Her testimony went on to illustrate how complete the breakdown in relations had been between Molteni and the whole of the Rho family. The Armando Rho furniture business specialises in expensive over-decorated and flamboyant pieces designed for those more interested in wanting to display their wealth than their taste. The Armando Rho business and Molteni shared some of the same clients possibly including the ‘Friends from Moscow’. Yet, after the divorce, the Rhos claimed that Molteni directed some of their former customers to other competitors. The Rho family assumed a united front in seeking to discredit Molteni and support Alberto Brivio. The family’s behaviour was fuelled by an exaggerated and totally unjustified sense of entitlement that in time was undermined by the immorality of the family business’s involvement in false accounting organised by their trusted accountant, Alberto Brivio.  

armando rho furniture

An example of the ostentatious style of furniture produced in the Armando Rho factory

The Convictions

Court judgements might be the closest one can get in modern days to the tragedian’s sense of catharsis. While a hefty sentence may not in itself cleanse the public of the forced contact and contamination with unnatural forces, it is supposed to offer a degree of closure. So, accepting that the concept of closure can only be a weak shadow of Aristotelian catharsis, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the convictions in the Molteni case passed down by the Assize Court in Como, were then confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Milan and finally by  the equivalent of the Supreme Court, Il Corte di Cassazione, in Rome. The defence that Molteni’s death was just the result of a practical joke gone wrong was unsurprisingly rejected by each court.

Brivio and Turconi

Alberto Brivio receives notice of his conviction and life sentence handed down by the court in Como and later approved by both the Court of Appeal in Milan and the Corte di Cassazione in Rome.

In total ten people were found accused of the various acts of intimidation leading up to the murder of Molteni. Vincenzo Scovazzo received a life sentence and the organiser, Luigi Rugolo, received 19 years. The brother of Michele Crisopulli, convicted to 18 years and 8 months, had committed suicide back in October 2016 on being found guilty of firing 8 shots at the shuttered window of the Molteni residence. The corrupt ex-Carabiniere Giovanni Terenghi received 5 years for giving false evidence denigrating the character of Molteni.

Alberto Brivio was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role as the overall mastermind of the plot while his lover, Daniela Rho, received a twenty year sentence. She had been under house arrest since July 2017 but on the 9th February 2021 when the Corte di Cassazione confirmed her sentence, she had to pack her bags to start her lengthy stay in Como’s Bassone prison. 

Conclusion

The wheels of Italian justice move slowly. It took almost six years for the convictions against the main protagonists to be finally confirmed. During that time, Brivio’s affair with Daniela Rho ended with him seeking to put all the blame on her. Two young children lost their father and access to their mother. The investigation into Brivio’s affairs had also revealed the involvement of Armando Rho in false accounting as well as an even larger system of money recycling between Italy, Germany and Austria. In some respects the crime is of its era illustrating the desire to maintain social standing and respectability yet with a readiness to avoid paying taxes, corrupt justice and break the law in defence of family and business interests –  a set of behaviours that proved all too common during the Berlusconi era. 

Further Reading

For more true crime on Como Companion try:

Murder on the Dance Floor- Italy’s Crime of the 20th Century on Lake Como

Lake Como’s Moltrasio Trunk Murder

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Walking Lake Como’s Wayfarer Way

The Via del Viandante (Wayfarer’s Way) is a long distance trail that runs up the eastern leg of Lake Como from Abbadia Lariana to Colico. However it is misleading to think of this as a single path in the same way as the Antica Strada Regina or the Strada Regia on the Como leg. Instead the Via del Viandante is a series or networks of paths ranging in the quality of their signposting and in the difficulty or gradient of the terrain.

Viandante

The Via del Viandante runs up the Lecco leg of Lake Como from Abbadia Lariana to Colico

Starting out from Abbadia you can easily be misled by the clearly demarcated and well surfaced path as it climbs gently through olive groves into thinking your route to Colico will be as well marked along its entire course. Not only do the signposts desert you at critical moments but the number of possible alternative paths all heading roughly in your desired direction force the realisation that this is not a single ‘via’ but a series of ‘vie’. But the variety and views along your way will more than compensate for these momentary inconveniences. 

Setting out from Lecco

Setting out from Lecco Station – the train line linking all the main towns along the Lecco side of the lake offers walkers the flexibility of adapting their excursions at any time.

It is perhaps the variety of the terrain, the landscape and the vegetation which go to differentiate this path from those on the Como leg of the lake. All visitors on arrival at Lecco can immediately appreciate the difference in the terrain with Mount Resegone with its jagged peaks looming over the city. Further north the impressive mountain range of Le Grigne dominates the landscape with its foothills providing a steep challenge particularly to those hiking between Varenna and Mandello. These natural pinch points to communication encouraged the building of castles and towers close to the main towns along the route including the Castello di Vezio above Varenna, the delightful castle ramparts at Corenno Plinio as well as the strategically placed Torre di Orezia at Dervio protecting access to the Valvarrone.

Torre

The Torre di Orezia in Dervio

Those of you more accustomed to hiking on the Como leg of the lake will also note how many more full rivers and streams you traverse along the Viandante. These range from what is billed as the shortest river in Italy – the Fiumelatte – to the numerous streams or rivers that traverse the Grigne and flow down to the lakeside towns. In Bellano the combined effect of erosion caused by the Pioverna and the ice age glacier of the River Adda created a deep gorge and a series of dramatic waterfalls now known as the Orrido di Bellano – perhaps the most dramatic series of waterfalls to be seen on Lake Como. These ample and reliable sources of water, gathered over extensive watersheds descending the mountain ranges to the north and east, gave towns like Bellano and Dervio the power needed for early industrialisation. Most of these industries have now moved on leaving behind their abandoned structures and the intricate series of mill races and irrigation channels that fed power to them.

Olive grove in Olgiasca

An olive grove in Olgiasca.

The major challenge of the Via del Viandante is managing the ‘dislivelli’ as you descend down to a valley or rise up to an alpine pasture. But these variations in altitude provide considerable variety in vegetation with olive groves at lakeside level rising to now un-managed chestnut terraces and upwards through woods on to alpine pastures with all open areas generously dotted with wild flowers even in the height of summer. In fact the abundance of wild flowers here is another of those more obvious contrasts with walks on the Como leg. Maybe this is down to some significant geological difference that ensures a more reliable supply of water.  

Lakeside views

Olgiasca – on the road to the Abbey at Piona

Those of you familiar with staying on the Como leg of the lake will be more than aware of the narrow roads hardly able to handle the volume of traffic in the summer months. You will not experience anything like that on the Lecco side which profits from a much more extensive communications infrastructure. There is a major highway whisking traffic from Lecco away from the lakeside roads on a direct route to the Valtellina. The Via del Viandante traverses this road on a few occasions creating moments of marked contrast between the calm pace of the ‘wayfarer’ compared to the frantic cacophony on the highway. The lakeside terrain also seems broad enough in most parts to allow for local roads of sufficient width. These towns also profit from the railway line that links all of the communities to Lecco and onwards to Milan or north east to Sondrio and the Valtellina. This railway is a great advantage to hikers offering the opportunity at any stage to terminate or shorten any excursion. Yet this part of the lake is less developed for tourism with notable exceptions such as Varenna or Corenno Plinio. This should not limit any hiker though from finding suitable accommodation along the route since there are a number of family-run hotels or Bed and Breakfast places not just along the lakeside but also in the small mountainside communities. There are also a number of rifugi for those wanting to walk the peaks of Le Grigne. All in all, the Via del Viandante gives you the chance to experience the beauties and characteristics of this part of Lake Como offering constant variety along the way. As such, for me it proved the ideal trail for a multi-day excursion along the majority of its course from Piona to Abbadia.

Le Grigne

The range of Le Grigne mountains provides a dramatic backdrop to the Via del Viandante

Starting Out

I decided on tackling the Via del Viandante over three days and nights going from north to south. Rather than selecting Colico as the natural start or end of the trail, I decided to start slightly off piste at Olgiasca so I could take in the Cistercian Abbey of Piona before heading out south. 

Cistercian Abbey of Piona

The cloister of the Cistercian Abbey of Piona

Travelling from Como to Lecco on public transport is not as swift as one might prefer with the choice of a slow bus ride or a train journey requiring a change at Monza. The train does however offer the option from Monza of continuing on to Mandello del Lario from where one could just take a leisurely and unchallenging stroll back past Abbadia to follow the lakeside walkway to Lecco. However on reaching Lecco I took the slow train to alight at the nearest point to Olgiasca – Dorio.  After a stretch walking on the lakeside road, footpaths lead you up to the small and tranquil town of Olgiasca perched on a promontory and facing south with great views down the lake or north towards the Val Chiavenna and the towering mountains either side of it. 

Detail Piona

Detail of medieval carving at Piona

The abbey is a brief two kilometre walk from the town along an easy cobbled road offering great views along its way. I was expecting the abbey to be perched in a particularly panoramic spot on the promontory but this is not the case. However the simplicity of the Romanesque architecture, the remains of some very early frescoes and the charm of the multi-columned cloister all made up for this initial disappointment.

I stayed overnight in the simple, clean and welcoming Hotel Belvedere in a room with a great view over the lake. I ate out at the Agriturismo Malacrida on the path towards the abbey. It offers a fixed menu at a fixed price of €35 which includes wine, water and coffee. The view on their terrace is glorious but not so the cuisine which was more marked by its abundant quantity rather than its quality. The wine was particularly uninviting. 

Agriturismo Malacrida

The terrace at Agriturismo Malacrida looks towards the Val Chiavenna

Hotel Belvedere, view from room

View from the room at the Hotel Belvedere

Day 1: From Piona to Bologna

Piona to Bologna

First day’s walk from Piona to Bologna

The following morning, once I had retraced my steps back to Dorio, I turned off the road and started my own version of the Via del Viandante. The well-signposted trail soon rose  steadily to reach the calm above the lakeside and to gain even better views over the water.

Day 1, view back to Olgiasca

View looking back north to Olgiasca

The start of the day was easy with no major climbs or descents with the route well signposted. I soon crossed over one of the many mountain streams I would encounter over the next three days. The path, having passed through woods, olive groves and open pasture dips down to the lakeside at Corenno Pliniano – one of the prettiest small towns on Lake Como. 

Day 1, descending to Corenno

Corenno Plinio – one of Lake Como’s medieval jewels.

Corenno seems to be a town that stopped all further development after the Middle Ages thus keeping in tact the narrow alleys and steep paths descending from the church and castle to the water. One oddity for English visitors to note is the dedication of the town’s church to Thomas A Becket, the luckless Archbishop of Canterbury assassinated on the orders of King Henry II. The church is well worth a visit as is the whole town itself. 

Day 1 Mill Race at Dervio

The mill race at Dervio – the vital source of power for the town’s early industries.

From Corenno, the path climbs back up the hillside to continue its steady and relatively effortless course towards Dervio dominated by the Torre di Orezia. Here the archeological interest is provided by the old industrial structures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the water courses running off from the River Varrone which used to power them. One cannot help but note the abundance of water along the Viandante which provided the power needed in those early years of industrialisation and factory production. Nowadays water power is still important here but as the means for generating hydro electricity. 

Climbing back up from the lakeside and following  another delightfully easy stretch through woods and orchards, the path descends down to Bellano. Bellano has a very particular and spectacular attraction for tourists – the dramatic series of gullies and waterfalls known as the Orrido di Bellano. 

After Bellano I began to realise I had made a bad mistake in planning my route. I had always looked at the profile of the path with some concern when noting the marked ascent on the day’s latter stage as it climbed from lake level to Bologna. I had also not taken into account that the route here was on a rudimentary hiking path. This marked ascent would always have been a challenge but one I would have been more prepared to manage if not on a multi-day excursion carrying a full backpack from stop to stop. It was hard going. It was with considerable relief that I finally reached my overnight stop in the old mountain community of Bologna, a village just further up the mountain side from Perledo.

Day 2, View from Bologna

The view south from Bologna taking in Vezio in the foreground, Bellagio and the fork in the lake.

I stayed at a pleasant Bed and Breakfast called ‘C’era una volta’ in the centre of the old town. It offered everything I needed after a full day’s walking including a cold beer on arrival. Feeling completely exhausted, I was also glad to learn that the local restaurant was a mere 50 metres away and fortunately the quality of both the food and wine was considerably better than that experienced the day before. The stay at this welcoming B & B completely restored my desire and ability to take on the next day’s excursion although, given the weight of the backpack, I decided to alter my plan to climb up to 1000 metres by hopping on the train from Fiumelatte to Lierna.

Day 2: From Bologna to Somana

Bologna to Somana

The route from Bologna to Somana above Mandello passing by Coria with a maximum altitude of 780 metres above sea level

As on the previous day, this day’s walk started off easily with a descent down to Perledo looking down directly on Varenna and to Bellagio on the promontory which marks the fork in the lake.  The Castello di Vezio lay ahead perched above Varenna in a commanding position with views to the north, south and west. The castle is well worth a visit due not just to its glorious location but also to look into the aviaries housing the castle’s collection of birds of prey. I chose not to head down into the centre of Varenna or to visit the house and gardens of the Villa Monastero. Instead I followed the so-called Greenway dei Patriarchi to Fiumelatte. This stretch was one of the most beautiful along the entire length of the Viandante, leading to the River of Milk (Fiumelatte) billed as the shortest river in Italy. 

Day 2, Greenway dei Patriarchi

The Greenway dei Patriarchi running down from the Castello di Vezio to and beyond Fiumelatte.

Day 2, Source of Fiumelatte

The source of Italy’s shortest river – the Fiumelatte.

Then, fearful of the 1000 metre climb up on to the flanks of Monte Fopp (and unaware at the time of an alternative route via Coria which only reaches 750 metres), I waited patiently at Fiumelatte’s train station to go one stop south to Lierna. However, a platform announcement just five minutes before my train was to arrive informed me of its cancellation and the imminent departure of the bus replacement service leaving from ‘the usual point’. I had little faith in catching this replacement bus even if I knew where the usual bus stop was given that the station was nowhere near the main road. I later learnt I was right to doubt the very existence of such a bus. Perhaps only in Italy can such announcements be made with all locals fully aware of their fictional nature. August is a busy holiday period and no doubt the train was unavailable due to staff shortages – an issue as likely to effect the bus service. The replacement service was a pure phantom. So I decided to continue on following the Greenway dei Patriarchi which conveniently ran on from the end of the station platform. I should have noted a turn off to the left putting me back on the Via del Viandante towards Coria but didn’t. When the Greenway dei Patriarchi fizzled out on the border of the Comune di Varenna I had no other choice but to walk along the lakeside road as far as Lierna.

Day 2, Lierna Beach

The beach area at Lierna

Lierna itself did not appear to have much to offer other than its extensive beach which was well frequented. I was grateful though at this point to return onto the Via del Viandante and, following a gradual uphill slope, to finally reach Somana. Somana retains a small medieval sector but is predominantly modern. It hosts a significant hydro-electric plant. All told, not a spot I would recommend except for one significant factor – the excellent Agriturismo La Selvaggia where the food is divine and the price very low.

Day 2, Agriturismo La Selvaggia

Nothing better than a taste of heaven after a long day’s walk – very economical and excellent quality at the Agriturismo La Selvaggia

In any multi-day excursion there are bound to be highs and lows and although Somana and my accommodation were themselves a disappointment, my evening meal was anything but. La Selvaggia, for a visitor, is hard to find. It is about a 20 minute walk up a mule path above the village in a clearing in the woods with a view over the valley to Mandello and beyond. There are no signposts to lead you there but clearly the owners have no need of publicity to attract their clients. When I arrived on a Sunday evening, every single outdoor place had been booked and I had to content myself within the rustic interior. 

Day 2, Interior La Selvaggia

The interior of tLa Selvaggia

For me the height of culinary quality is to be found in traditional mountain dishes done exceptionally well. My first evening’s meal in Piona was an example of traditional local food offered without any inspiration. The whole experience at La Selvaggia was the total opposite. They have paid attention to every aspect of the culinary experience with the same attention to detail and consistency that you might expect from a Michelin-starred restaurant. Their fixed menu takes you through the typical Agriturismo offer of antipasti, two different first courses, a main course with polenta, pudding, coffee, water and wine. But from the moment the wine arrives and the antipasti placed on the table, you begin to appreciate that this is no standard fare. The usual offer of bresaola, salami, lard and prosciutto was lifted into the divine by three varied home made sauces. The quality of the pasta dishes was superb. I passed on the polenta and wild boar to go straight to the dessert, and here comes the difference. The three different types of dessert came offered with a glass of sweet sparkling moscato. No wonder so many of the villagers were prepared to take a 30 minute walk up and down an unlit mule path to fill this restaurant on a Sunday evening. 

Day 3: From Somana to Abbadia Lariana

From Somana to Abbadia

The route on he third day from Somana to Abbadia showing the diversion along the Valle Meria with No. 1 showing the crossing over the river.

Day 3, Tributary of the Meria

The tributary joining the Meria just by the bridge for traversing the valley.

The last day of the excursion was to be the easiest and the shortest of walks to allow time to return by train to Como. On starting out just below the Agriturismo La Selvaggia, I soon made what turned out to be a fortunate error by missing the right hand turn off the Sentiero del Fiume to cross the valley over to Rongio. Instead I carried on the delightful path following the course of the valley of the Torrente Valle Meria.

I again missed the final path off to the right to cross the Meria only to ford the river just 50 metres further up by walking over the weir. With wet feet I then walked back down the other side of the valley immediately noting where I could have kept feet dry by crossing  the bridge until I finally reaching Rongio a good hour behind schedule. Time was no matter and I would recommend this diversion for the beauty of the valley and its fast flowing river and tributaries. With views of the lake concealed, the landscape was dominated by the mountains in the Le Grigne chain rising to their jagged peaks just under 2000 metres high.

Day 3, Le Grigne

Le Grigne dominate the views on the third day of the walk.

From Rongio, the views along the walk were again dominated by the lake and the town of Abbadia below. The descent was easy and as the terrain flattened out, became dominated by green pasture and olive groves. Here the signposting of the Via del Viandante is clear and unequivocal and, when skirting Abbadia itself, even the cobbled path has Viandante as its street name.

Day 3, Slopes above Abbadia

The gentle slopes through pasture and olive groves towards Abbadia.

The signposting for the route now extends south to Lecco itself by following the recent cycle and pedestrian path built directly on the lakefront. However my plan had always been to terminate my excursion at Abbadia, to take the train from there to Lecco and hence via Monza to Como. However it was at the Information Office in Abbadia’s railway station that I learnt about the fictional nature of any advertised bus replacement service. No train was going to stop at Abbadia going south to Lecco. Instead I had to go one stop north to Mandello but at least from there I was able to catch a direct train south to Monza. And so ended this particular mini-holiday which had enabled me finally to appreciate the beautiful characteristics of the Lecco leg of the lake in all its variety.

DAy 3, Journeys End

Journey’s end at San Martino looking south towards Lecco

Recommendations

When planning this walk I had underestimated my level of fitness and capacity to undertake some of the steep climbs with a full backpack. So I would recommend either adjusting the route to avoid these climbs or arranging for the bulk of your baggage to be shipped each day to your overnight stay. I have seen that some companies do organise trips with this facility but the charges seem unnecessarily high. I am sure local taxis could arrange this at a modest cost.

As I experienced, the signposting is not consistent across the length of the walk in spite of the best efforts of the Pro Loco Lario in defining and promoting the route. GPS coverage does not reach everywhere. Only satellite navigation can be guaranteed.

Some sites do not recommend undertaking the walk in the height of summer due to the heat. I had no problems due to heat but did experience those issues with staff shortages on the railway due to summer holidays.

Finally I can heartily recommend the Via del Viandante for a multi-day long excursion due to the fascinating variety along the way, the beauty of the landscape and the ability to truly get away from it all. 

If anyone would like copies of the GPX files covering the routes taken over the three days of the walk, please message me.

sentiero-viandante

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Como’s Changing Lakefront

Como is justifiably famous for the beauty of its natural surroundings and of its ancient walled city, for the inventiveness and quality of its silk production and for the creativity and skills of its artists and artisans throughout the centuries. The list of positives does not end there but it also ranks as the city with the longest, worst managed and corrupted civil engineering project throughout Northern Italy – a project that saw the imprisonment of its first citizen and which has tried the patience of its residents over the last eighteen years. An end to the sorry saga is now in sight, but the shadow of Como’s administrative shame may well linger for years to come.

finished lakefront

Artist’s impression of the completed Como lakefront once all anti-flood defence works are completed in 2023. Copyright Infrastrutture Lombarde 2018

Long term residents of Como may well have despaired of seeing an end to the project aimed at strengthening the city’s flood defences, known locally as ‘le paratie’ (barriers) . The project was first identified in 2003 but did not actually start until 2008. This delay was just a brief foretaste of things to come when all work was suspended in 2012 as the council and its contractors fell into a long legal dispute. Como’s city council had commissioned the project, secured the budget, appointed directors of work and other specialists from their staff and awarded the contract to SACAIM, one of Italy’s large civil engineering companies based in Venice.  

plan oct 2018 1

Artist’s impression of the enlarged walkway covering the two massive cisterns for capturing run-off from the city. Copyright Infrastrutture Lombarde 2018

But now, 18 years after the project was first mooted and nine years since it hit the buffers, an end is finally in sight. Como will get all of its lakefront back by 2023.  Nor is this just another vain promise since visible progress is there for all to see. And we now also know what our lakefront will look like when we reach the end of this prolonged and tortuous saga.

vasca a

Positive progress can now be seen – July 2021,

Why the Delays?

In retrospect, the project grew too big for the council to manage. But they had allowed it to grow out of hand by seeking to implement a series of modifications to the original contract. This was a typical case of project creep – a risk known to all project managers but one with severe impact on large civil engineering projects of this sort. In fact many of the changes requested by the council may well have had technical merit (and the final solution does seem to have incorporated them). But the way the council sought to commission them was all wrong and caused them and their key contractor legal issues on all sides. 

Not only was the prime contractor concerned about the financing of these changes but they and the council had started implementing them without gaining appropriate planning approvals or going through the correct tendering process. You don’t go changing the profile of the lakefront without first establishing your right to do so. Some personal financial interests in enlarging the project were also implicated prompted by the promise and temptations offered by the ever-growing budget. These led to the start of anti-corruption enquiries.  

Streetscape 2016

This representation of the famous fictional liar, Pinocchio, formed part of Como’s Streetscape 2016 exhibition. Originally Pinocchio was placed facing the city’s council buildings but, to avoid undue controversy, he was turned around to face the barriers barring a view of the lake. The symbolic intent remained unaltered.

The council proceeded even more slowly once the anti-corruption enquiries began, particularly after the first arrest of council officials in 2016. By this stage, the Lombardy Region had finally lost patience with the ability of the Como City Council to restart let alone finish the project. The Region stepped in to take over all responsibility for the project from 2017. However even further time elapsed as the old contractor SACAIM tidied up and left the site before a new contractor could be appointed. 

The new invitation to tender now managed by the Lombardy Region was not even published until July 2019. Further delays put down to the Covid pandemic meant the new contractor, Aria SpA, was not appointed until May 2020. But finally from that date, fixed periods of 21 months for completion of the first phase and a further 11 months for the second phase were published. Promises of biweekly updates to the public were then made and work in earnest recommenced. Now with an end date in sight, a conclusion can finally be envisaged to what had seemed to be Como’s own never-ending story.

The Impact of Delays

passeggiata

Fortunately throughout the works, the beauty of the passeggiata towards Villa Olmo (shown here) and on the other side along Viale Geno were not impacted.

Como’s lakefront runs on three sides with the beautiful Passeggiata from Villa Olmo to the Tempio Voltiano and the lakefront gardens to the west, the Lungo Lario Trento and Trieste passing Piazza Cavour in the centre and finally the stretch running along Viale Geno on the east. It was the central section of the lakefront that was the worst affected by the stalled project. Wooden barriers had been erected along this stretch at the start of the project in 2008 cutting off all views of the lake. These barriers remained in place, in spite of a total lack of activity, until 2015 when the local business organisation, Amici di Como, paid for the temporary renovation of the section running from the Navigazione’s ticket office to the start of the lakeside gardens. However the wooden barriers running from the old ticket office along Lungo Lario Trieste were left in place for yet another two years. Deprived of their lake view, Como’s residents and visitors were instead confronted by these fixed screens still displaying the old posters placed by SACAIM advertising what the end result of this phantom project should look like. 

lake blocked

These wooden barriers running along Lungo Lario Trieste remained in place until 2017 in spite of no work on the defences since 2012.

Italy’s anti-corruption agency ANAC, established in 2012 to prevent corruption in public entities, first began to take interest in Como’s flood defence project in 2015. This led initially to the arrest of two engineers employed by the council to direct the works. Their investigations led to the arrest of a further five officials including the then mayor, Mario Lucini. All seven accused finally faced sentence at the start of 2019 with the main Director of Works, Pietro Gilardoni, receiving a four year sentence and the mayor, Mario Lucini imprisoned for a year and a half. The others received custodial sentences ranging from six months to two years. 

pietro gilardoni

The luckless Pietro Gilardoni, the council’s overall director of works during a court hearing which would result in him receiving a four year custodial sentence.

Needless to say, the image of the city council and its centre-left political administration suffered badly faced with their inability to move the project forward and reinforced by the charges of corruption brought against the mayor and his other appointees. The financial journal ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ publishes a yearly ranking of council leaders’ approval ratings. When Mario Lucini first took up his post he came 5th in this poll nationally with a 74.9% approval rating. By 2017 he had fallen down to 56th position with a 53.5% approval rating. Even that judgement by Como’s residents seems generous in retrospect.

July 2017

The Region provided funding for tidying up the mess left by the suspended works once they had dismissed the original contractor, SACAIM.

The President of the Lombardy Region was Roberto Maroni, a stalwart of the Lega who no doubt took some delight in putting his political opponents to shame when he and the Region stepped in to take control of the project. He immediately granted budget for the removal of the remaining wooden barriers and restoring parts of the lakefront. Nor did he lose the opportunities offered for gaining some positive publicity as in the case of an article in the Corriere di Como written in October 2016 and  addressed to the citizens of Como. In this he stressed how the council had been entrusted with a budget of €13 million at the start of the project in 2003 but, in spite of the budget rising to €19 million by 2016, nothing had been achieved with ‘works not done and the beauty of the lake obscured from you and the tourists’.

In the council elections of 2018, the centre-left administration was defeated.

The Technical Solution

paratie

Work progressing on installing the barriers (paratie) along the length of Lungo Lario Trieste (July 2021)

The flood defences have two elements to them. The first will be a series of barriers housed within the pavements running alongside the lakefront. These barriers will be made of aluminium. They will be raised by hand up to a range of levels above normal lake height. These barriers (paratie) will run from just before the Funicular station along Lungo Lario Trieste and on to Lungo Lario Trento crossing Piazza Cavour and ending at the start of the lakeside gardens. 

The other form of defence consists of a couple of very large cisterns that will hold run-off water from excessive rainfall which might normally cause flooding in the centre (particularly in Piazza Cavour) when combined with a rise in the water table and high levels on the lake. Drains within a 1.5 km radius of Piazza Cavour will capture this rainfall and direct it into the two cisterns built beside the lake. When flood levels recede, the water accumulated in the cisterns will be pumped into the lake. One of these cisterns known as Vasca B already exists under the gardens opened up by the Amici di Como towards the lakefront gardens. However further work is needed to make it earthquake safe. Work is currently underway at building the other cistern, Vasca A,  beside Lungo Lario Trieste.

le vasche 2

The two cisterns known as Vasca A and Vasca B will collect excessive run-off water from the city centre and store it until lake levels subside

le vasche

Vasca B already exists below the Passeggiata Amici di Como but needs to be made earthquake resistant. Vasca A is yet to be built.

Conclusion

Paratie Dec 2014

Construction of the cistern known as Vasca A stopped in 2012. It will now be completed by February 2022.

Twenty years from conception to completion has to rank as one of the slowest civil engineering projects in the whole of Italy even exceeding the disastrously compromised attempts to complete the A3 motorway in Southern Italy running from Salerno to Reggio Calabria. There are some depressing parallels between these two projects. The A3 motorway extension to Reggio Calabria was initiated in 1997 with a due completion date set for 2003. The actual project was ‘officially’ completed in 2015, a full 12 years behind schedule.  The Como flood defence scheme will also come in12 years behind schedule.  The A3 motorway project became a symbol of local corruption and was widely perceived as showing  the relative backwardness of the South. The European Union at one stage even demanded the return of the money they had invested. The Como project has not attracted nearly the same level of negative attention or opprobrium. Similar levels of corruption and ineffectiveness do not seem to count when experienced in the heart of Lombardy, Italy’s economic power house.  

progetto-paratie-como-6-1200x600

Artist’s impression of the lakefront by Piazza Cavour with the new Navigazione’s ticket office and waiting room.

But, when all is said and done, Como’s residents and visitors can at least look forward with confidence to reclaiming the entirety of their lakefront and they will undoubtedly enjoy the delights of the broad walkway facing on to the lake. All good things are ultimately worth waiting for.

Further Reading

The Lombardy Region has published an informative presentation outlining the history of the anti-flood defence project from which some of the contents have been incorporated in this article. Follow this link to access the full presentation (in Italian).

Como Companion previously published an article entitled ‘Liberating the Lakefront’ on the partial opening up in 2017 that followed on from the Region taking over the project. 

We also featured the work of Pierpaolo Perretta, the artist responsible for the ‘Pinocchio’ statement in Piazza Cavour as part of Como’s Streetscape street art exhibition.

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Como: The Potential for Cultural Tourism

Como Companion supports slow tourism – the sort of tourism that takes an interest in the culture and history of the places visited. This is why I started a new section under Culture called Cultural Itineraries. These itineraries suggest walks through the city following a specific cultural theme. The latest itinerary covers part of Como’s modern architectural heritage by focussing on the rationalist buildings in just one section of the city. But here I would like to expand on why Como is so well suited to developing cultural tourism with a potential that to this day remains underdeveloped.

Como RIP 2

The death of culture in Como? Before the start of the Covid pandemic, there was concern about the city council’s commitment to supporting cultural activities. Demonstrators left this coffin in front of the Teatro Sociale to symbolise the death of culture in the city. Fortunately the council now seem more supportive of the arts but we are yet to see if they can respond to the opportunities provided by cultural tourism.

Como’s cultural patrimony is immense but not made immediately obvious to any temporary visitor, or even to many long-term residents. With the one exception of Alessandro Volta, Como seems singularly reticent about celebrating the achievements of its other remarkable sons and daughters. While we all celebrate the stunning beauty of the city’s natural setting, so many other aspects of local interest can get overlooked. The city’s true potential can so easily be unlocked with a concerted and co-ordinated push to promote cultural tourism. 

What Is Cultural Tourism?

“Cultural tourism ….. enables people to experience the different ways of life of other people, thereby gaining at first hand an understanding of their customs, traditions, the physical environment, the intellectual ideas and those places of architectural, historic, archaeological or other cultural significance which remain from earlier times. (ICOMOS Charter for Cultural Tourism, Draft April 1997)”

Ca Morta Funeral Carriage

Funerary Cart, Ca’ Morta circa 450BCE, Como Museum of Archaeology

With archeological interest ranging from the Golasecca communities on the Parco Spina Verde, through the Roman remains to the ex-industrial sites associated with silk production; with architectural interest starting with the Romanesque craftsmen in the Middle Ages to Rationalism in the last century; with art represented by Paolo Giovio’s first European collection of portraiture,  Lombardy Baroque and the Astrattisti Comaschi; with a history starring Julius Caesar, Frederick Barbarossa, and Mussolini; with a musical tradition encompassing Vincenzo Bellini and Giuditta Pasta; with the scientific heritage of Alessandro Volta; with its overall geopolitical significance as a border town on a major route across the Alps ….. Como’s cultural capital lies ready for exploitation.

The Advantages of Cultural Tourism

teatro sociale

Como’s Teatro Sociale matches the splendour of its interior with the quality and imagination of its productions.

The economic challenge for local tourism is to extend the time visitors’ stay on the lake. A survey in 2018 revealed that the average visitor’s stay in Como was 3.32 days, below the Lombardy average of 3.64 days. However for foreign visitors it was a mere 2.6 days. Meanwhile Brescia and Lake Iseo achieved an average stay of 5.72 days. A longer stay per visitor means a greater return per euro spent on marketing or infrastructure. And the difference between us and Brescia just shows Como’s potential gain if it could just advertise its cultural credentials as well. Brescia’s act of inspiration was to put itself on the international cultural map by hosting the massive Floating Piers art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Caude on Lake Iseo in 2016.

Floating Piers

The Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo gained international publicity for Brescia and its province boosting the average length of visitor stays.

Cultural tourism is also a sustainable form of tourism, not requiring the development of the complex infrastructure required to cope with massive visitor  numbers –  just the investment needed to encourage the current number of visitors to extend their stay by a few more days. Cultural tourism, as opposed to mass tourism, enhances visitors’ understanding and appreciation of where they are visiting and seeks to protect the local culture and folklore. Mass tourism or purely recreational tourism tends to subvert local culture through its tendency towards simplistic and cliched presentation of local attractions. 

religious art

The local churches around the lake are mostly always open to visitors and house great works of art such as this life-sized tableau of the Last Supper in Dongo.

Additionally it is not just visitors who profit from cultural tourism since residents will also appreciate an increased awareness of their cultural patrimony while not having to suffer from the inconveniences imposed by purely recreational forms of tourism. 

Como in 5 Days

The official Como website ‘Como Lake Experience’ includes two short videos promoting visits to Como – ‘Como in 24 hours’ and ‘Como in 48 hours’. Both videos include mention to many cultural attractions such as the museums, the art gallery, the Volta memorial and some of the key architectural gems such as Villa Olmo. The 48 hour overview extends its scope to mention the city walls, the main villas on the lake, Isola Comacina and the attractions of hiking and cycling. Of course both videos  also mention the recreational delights of a trip on the lake, an evening aperitif and dining alfresco, or a trip up to Brunate – the balcony of the Alps. 

pliny younger

The naturalist Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were from Como. Pliny the Younger had a villa in the city and another on the lakeside. He dedicated a library ro the city of which no trace remains. However there is plenty of other evidence of Como’s Roman origins. The Pliny statues sit either side of the main entrance to the cathedral

Baradello

The Castle Baradello stands sentinel over the southern approaches to Como – part of the city’s defences strengthened by Federico Barbarossa in the 13th century.

But what could a promotional ‘Como in 5 Days’ include? How about a reference to Roman Como, its Praetorian Gate and the other Roman sites. Or that, in addition to the Roman carvings and mosaics, the Archeological Museum contains an impressive collection of local prehistoric artefacts. Or that the Art Gallery includes a whole series of early Renaissance portraits curated by Paolo Giovio and originally housed in a gallery which inspired the Medici to establish the Uffizi in Florence. Or that the Pinacoteca also includes fine works by the Como group of abstract artists. Or that Cernobbio once had the largest silk factory in Europe and, while this is now an archeological site, the silk industry in Como is still alive and well. Or that it was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who in the 13th century commissioned the Baradello tower and strengthened the current city walls as a defense against attack from Milan, and that his arrival in the city is re-enacted in an annual festival. Or that there are three long distance hiking trails to be enjoyed around the lake and a series of mountain-top refuges offering food and accommodation. 

The Cultural Challenge

On August 21st, 2019, local journalist and poet Pietro Berra published the following challenge in Como’s ‘La Provincia’ 

[If the problem] …is the inability to keep tourists for more than 2 days in a city that is home to 12 festivals, appears in over one hundred films, has been eternalized by another hundred internationally renowned painters and writers, is the cradle of Romanesque, Futurism, Rationalism and Abstractionism, is a candidate for Unesco Creative City for silk, has a network of over 600 km of pedestrian paths studded with natural and architectural pearls, it means that it is essential to create a system that engages the different skills of tourism operators with those of cultural experts helped by a public administration acting as facilitators and promoters. It is time to invest in the  ideas, projects and skills needed to change the current narrative, perception and use of our area, to move from the “fragmentation of the museum network” to the extraordinary uniqueness of an open-air museum city teeming with a creative energy that enhances it.

Como’s Cultural Innovators

poets way

Como’s Poets Way starts in Maslianico and ends above Brunate. Along its way you find selected quotes from many of the literary figures who have visited Lake Como.

Pietro Berra’s challenge was directed at the  local authorities to take the initiative in coordinating and consolidating the cultural offer. There are many associations and organisations contributing to that offer but their consolidation and a consistent and far-reaching promotion of that offer remains undone to this day. For example, Pietro Berra himself and the association Sentiero dei Sogni have created a Poetry Way which leads walkers along a route marked by relevant literary quotes and cultural references. This is just one example of the number of initiatives from a variety of local associations, businesses and individuals that enrich an appreciation of Como’s cultural and historical heritage.

monumenti apertiOther examples include the initiatives of  Iubilantes, a local cultural association that provides an app Camminacitta with multi-lingual guides to various walks around the city of Como. Since 2018 they have also embarked on  leading a cultural initiative in Como and Cantu called ‘Monumenti Aperti’ –  a national project that educates secondary and tertiary students, in  the knowledge and sustainable and social development of the cultural and environmental heritage of the area in which they live. As a result  these students will in turn be able to communicate their knowledge and appreciation of these local features to other interested residents and visitors, safeguarding this patrimony for years to come.

missultin

Missoltino – pickled lake fish – served with polenta.

Similar initiatives abound in most other areas of local culture. In particular, there is a growing appreciation of the area’s culinary heritage with different festivals throughout the year focussed on the traditions of individual communities. While visitors to London can select restaurants on an ethnic basis, here they can take the time to appreciate the differences in regional cuisine, and come to appreciate the influence of the lake and mountains on culinary tradition. 

Conclusion

Given all this local potential, the enthusiasm of so many local associations and the support of the Como and Lecco Chamber of Commerce,  there would just seem to be one vital coordination element missing. The city already possesses a beautiful and imaginatively managed theatre and a variety of museums. The remaining infrastructure needed is already in place. There is no reason why visitors should not be spending any less time in Como than in Brescia if they were only made aware of all there is to see and experience here. Lets hope that Como’s post-Covid renaissance includes revived eforts to promote cultural tourism.

villa olmo

Villa Olmo at dusk – a council owned property which has remained underused over recent years but which is now hosting musical festivals and art exhibitions. A hopeful sign of things to come!

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‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como

dick mallaby book cover

The story of Dick Mallaby is meticulously researched and presented in this book by Gianluca Barneschi, also published in English under the title ‘An Englishman Abroad’.

Dick Mallaby, an Englishman brought up in Tuscany, is said to have inspired Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero, James Bond. Mallaby was on ‘His Majesty’s Secret Service’ when, as a trained ‘licensed to kill’ agent he parachuted down into Lake Como on 14th August 1943. He was caught almost immediately and, with Italy still allied with Germany, he faced summary execution as an enemy spy. 

Mallaby’s drop into Lake Como was a first in two respects for Britain’s wartime ‘dirty tricks’ division of the Secret Intelligent Services (SIS) – the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was the first time an SOE agent was parachuted behind enemy lines, and also the first time SOE had attempted to place a UK national to serve as a wireless operator and sabotage expert into hostile Italy. 

The mission was fatally flawed from the start – Mallaby landed almost straight into the arms of the awaiting Italian authorities. However our gallant hero would prove to have luck on his side. His capture happened at a fortuitous moment for Mallaby resulting from Italy being in the midst of a major political and constitutional crisis following the King’s dismissal of the Mussolini-led fascist government back in July. Through a mixture of quick creative thinking and exceptional luck, Mallaby was to find himself in the crucial role of aiding the new Italian government negotiate a peace deal with the British and American allies. With his clandestine wireless transmitter and his signals training, he offered  the only means of providing confidential communication between all parties. The centrality of his role in establishing the armistice meant that he would eventually be accompanying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Badoglio as together they boarded the boat that took these leaders to Brindisi and to safety in the newly liberated area of Italy. But this fortuitous end would have seemed beyond all possibilities as he languished in Como’s San Donnino prison unaware that fate was about to offer him a chance to avoid execution.

Casino Royale Gaeta

Lake Como is no stranger to either factual or fictional secret agents. Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royale – filmed on location at Villa Gaeta in San Siro (seen above) and Villa Balbianello in Lenno.

What was SOE?

Special  Operations Executive was a secret organisation created in 1940 on similar lines to the American equivalent forerunner of the CIA  – the OSS. SOE agents were trained to support resistance groups, maintain communications with headquarters, and undertake sabotage while operating behind enemy lines. Life expectancy of SOE agents was measured in weeks since they were invariably executed if caught on active service. Financed by secret funds and not given any official recognition, SOE came to be called ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ or ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. By 1943, they had established clandestine operations in France and the Balkans but were only just beginning to develop activities on the Italian mainland. Although SOE did coordinate activities with the American OSS in other countries, they were keen to establish themselves as the more dominant organisation in Italy – a situation that was to be reversed by the end of the war. 

sabotage

Sabotage activities, use of explosives, support of resistance groups with arms, money and clothing and providing wireless communications were key activities for SOE and its agents in Europe.

SOE Agents were members of the British Army. They were subjected to a rigorous training covering sabotage techniques, unarmed combat, survival, silent killing, how to resist interrogation and torture, parachuting, wireless telegraphy and ciphers – a programme that could well have suited James Bond himself. They even had their own ‘Q’ department not quite up to modifying Aston Martin DB5s but certainly with the imagination to come up with exploding rats. The idea was for SOE agents to position dead rats whose stomachs had been stuffed with explosives inside enemy facilities. The hope was that the rats would then be collected  up for incineration whereupon they would explode.

Aston MArtin DB5

‘Q’ provided our fictional James Bond with the famous Aston Martin DB5 with extras. SOE also developed special gadgets along with some absurd ideas like the exploding rats.

Who Was Dick Mallaby?

dick mallaby

Dick Mallaby, born in Sri Lanka, brought up in Italy speaking perfect Italian and English as well as French and German.

Dick Mallaby was born in 1919 and died prematurely on 1st April 1981. It was back in 1939 aged 20 that he left the family home in Tuscany for London to enlist in the allied war effort. He joined SOE in 1942 as the need for fluent Italian speakers became more obvious following the campaigns in North Africa and the imminent allied invasion of Sicily. He was a reckless, courageous adventurer like many of the young men who seemed to be heroes straight out of ‘Boys Own’ magazine. He was a multilingual athlete who had already qualified as both a paratrooper and a wireless operator when first recruited into SOE. However he was not originally selected to work behind enemy lines in spite of his perfect Italian and knowledge of the country due to his Nordic good looks. His key identification data put on file for Agent D/H 449 in February 1943 describes him thus:

Sergeant Cecil Richard Mallaby, unmarried, not interested in politics, able to speak perfect English and Italian, very good French and also good German; completed schooling in Italy and England.

REAL AGE: 23

APPARENT AGE: 21

HEIGHT: 1.79m

WEIGHT: 70kg

FACE: Long. Fresh, clear complexion

FRONT PROFILE: Oblique and irregular

EYES: Sky blue and deep set

NOSE: Straight. Nostrils visible

MOUTH: Full

CHIN: With a light dimple, well defined and clean shaven

HAIR: Straight, combed back, blond but credibly brown for operational purposes

DISTINCTIVE MARKS: Scars on the right cheek, right elbow and both shins. Heart-shaped tattoo on the left forearm, red spot on the right thigh. Walks in a very upright manner.

SOE  wanted to establish a clandestine wireless operator in Northern Italy to team up with what they believed to be friendly resistance groups. Their previous candidates proved either unsuitable or unwilling and so the opportunity was passed to Dick Mallaby who assumed the codename of Agent Olaf and started preparing for Operation Neck. 

The purpose of  Operation Neck was to make contact with so-called Agent 900, an Italian national,  and then provide Agent 900 with communications support. Agent 900 had apparently arranged a safe house for Olaf in 1 Via Borgo Vico, Como. The problem was that Agent 900 was in fact a double agent of the Italian secret services – the Servizio Informazioni  Militare (SIM) – who had managed to gain the unquestioning confidence of SOE bosses. In this way Agent 900 and SIM (judged to have been the most efficient of all the European belligerents’ spy agencies) had perverted all of SOE’s understanding of the resistance groups they had decided to support. These groups were entirely fictitious as was the safe house in Como where Dick’s contact was yet another double agent of SIM. When Dick climbed aboard a Halifax plane on 13th August 1943 with Lake Como as his destination, his mission was doomed from the very start. 

Dropping Into Lake Como

Pognana 2

Looking down lake Como south from Pognana. Dick dropped into the lake between here and Faggeto Lario. His intended drop was near to Torno.

Dick’s flight from Blida in Algeria left at 10.02 pm on 13th August and set a course over Minorca, South-Eastern France and then Lodi in Lombardy before approaching Lake Como from the south west. The flight had not been easy in that it faced flak above Savona and searchlights around Pavia. 

At 2.48am on 14th August 1943, Dick Mallaby bailed out at 600 metres above Lake Como on a clear, moonlit night. His target had been Torno where it was hoped the lakeside would be in darkness and no-one would be around on the ground. However lights were shining brightly from all the villages around the lake and the sky to the south was bright due to an intense allied bombing raid on Milan. The lakeside was actually full of refugees avoiding the heavy bombardment of Milan over the previous days. And the Italian anti-aircraft batteries were on full alert thanks to Agent 900’s prior warning. Dick’s parachute was spotted by Domenica Aquilini from her balcony in Carate Urio as it descended into the lake between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. She raised the alarm.

carate

Carate Urio, on the western banks of the Como leg of the lake. Dick was spotted landing in the lake by observers in Carate Urio.

Four men from Carate Urio then set out in a rowing boat to look for whoever had just parachuted into the lake. They came across Dick Mallaby in his inflatable dinghy off the coast at Pognana. His attempt to explain himself came to nothing when the English lettering on his dinghy sonn gave him away.  An eyewitness, Annamaria Rusconi – a young girl at the time – remembered  the night well and stated the following in an interview published in La Provincia in 2016. 

‘He was wearing a camouflage suit which they stripped off him and found something. He was hidden away for a day but I don’t know where.’

annamaria rusconi

Gianluca Barneschi was able to interview some of the original witnesses to Dick Mallaby’s parachute drop including Annamaria Rusconi who was a young girl at the time. She went on to teach in the local Elementary School and run the local library.

He was taken to the Carate Urio town hall and interrogated by the Como Commander of the Carabinieri. Incriminating materials including parts of a wireless transmitter and code books were soon found and his captors immediately realised they had an important prisoner.  He was then transferred to counter espionage services in Milan while remaining incarcerated in Milan’s San Vittore prison. His capture was made public on Wednesday 18th August when the Milanese newspaper, ‘La Sera Il Secolo’ published the headline ‘The Man Who Fell from the Skies was Betrayed by Moonlight’.  Following more allied bombing of Milan, Dick was transferred back to Como’s San Donnino prison while SOE headquarters tried to work out some means of getting him out.

During subsequent interrogation Dick was able to fabricate a story that fortunately fitted into the political confusion of the time and which did not contradict whatever SIM’s double agents including Agent 900 had been able to learn about the purpose of his mission. Additionally he managed to interest the Italian security services sufficiently for them to refrain from executing him. In any case, SIM was not a purely fascist organisation. Its ultimate loyalty was to the king and Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III had dismissed Mussolini’s fascist government twenty days earlier on 25th July.

Landing Within a Political Maelstrom

armistice

King Vittorio Emanuele III and Pietro Badoglio in a newspaper article declaring the peace agreement with the allies. Dick was to play a crucial and central role in facilitating the negotiations for this armistice.

King Vittorio Emanuele III had supported fascism from its inception until 25th July 1943 when he dismissed Mussolini and appointed one of Mussolini’s senior generals, Pietro Badoglio, to head a new government. The allies were left uncertain as to whether Badoglio would sue for peace with the allies or continue the fascist policy of partnership with Germany. With German agents completely surrounding the Italian government and royal palace in Rome, it was very hard to make contact with Badoglio or sustain confidential communications. Thus, Dick continued to fester in San Donnino whilst the uncertainty over what Badoglio intended to do continued. 

san donnino

The forbidding exterior of the old San Donnino prison in Como’s old town.

Little did Dick realise that his salvation was on its way thanks to the secret mission of Italian Brigadier General Giuseppe Castellano to Portugal.

Castellano had been tasked with negotiating a peace with the allies without the Germans learning about it. Badoglio’s government had decided its future policy – to dissolve their partnership with Germany with as little harm as possible and without getting into a fight with them. Once secret negotiations kicked off in Portugal, there then followed the need to continue discussions and clarify details with communication between Rome and the Allies’ base in Algeria. But the only way these negotiations could remain confidential and undiscovered by the Germans was through the use of a clandestine wireless set and an operator well-versed in cryptography. The Commander in Chief of Allied Forces, General Eisenhower insisted on this and charged UK’s future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with organising it. Macmillan turned to the head of SOE who informed him that the very man they needed was currently languishing in Como’s San Donnino prison. 

On 30th August 1943, Dick Mallaby was released from San Donnino and transported down to Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, having been previously and unknowingly promoted by SOE to second lieutenant. 

From Como to Rome

Regina Coeli Prison

Regina Coeli Prison, Rome

Dick Mallaby knew nothing of the crucial role he was about to play in the historic peace negotiations between the new Italian government and the allies. After all, he had only exchanged one dismal lodging in Como for an equally dismal cell in Rome’s Regina Coeli. But he knew something was afoot when the next day a luxury car came to escort him to Palazzo Vidoni, the headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Italian Army. He was immediately introduced to Brigadier General Castellano who gave him the wireless transmitter provided by the allies with a curt order to immediately contact the Allied Forces HQ in Algeria. Mallaby at first refused stating he could not take orders from any other than a British officer. He was then shown the authorisation from the SOE Director. It was then at around 4.00pm on 29th August 1943 that he sent his first coded message to SOE headquarters in Algeria, as follows:

‘Sergeant C.R. Mallaby to Allied Forces HQ North Africa: I have been instructed by General Castellano to establish radio contact between the Italian Government and Allied Headquarters. I request instructions.’

He received the reply: ‘Proceed. Continue transmissions.’  Which he duly did, from an office in Palazzo Vidoni only metres away from the number of German and Italian VIPS forever in and out of the building. He was given the codename Monkey and Allied HQ responses were codenamed Drizzle. These communications were the ONLY means in which the Italian government was able to communicate with the Allied leaders. The  full set of Monkey-Drizzle communications have now provided historians with the most accurate, complete and verifiable record of the negotiations leading up to the signing on the 3rd September and the subsequent publication of the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943 – the day before the Americans were to make their beach landings at Salerno and when it was also hoped they would be able to make a landing to liberate Rome.

Palazzo Vidoni

Palazzo Vidoni, headquarters during the war of the Italian Supreme Command. Dick was transmitting messages to Allied HQ in Algeria while German officers were constant visitors in the adjoining rooms.

Announcing the Armistice

The timing of the announcement of the Armistice was not to the liking of the Badoglio government who believed they had until 12th September by when they hoped the Americans would have liberated Rome. Eisenhower was intent though on forcing Badoglio’s hand possibly fearing that the Italians were not seriously intending to surrender. Badoglio though was concerned about making the surrender public while the German army was still in control of Rome. Dick Mallaby’s communications were still the only means of contact between the two parties throughout this tense period. Eisenhower would not allow for any further delay in publishing the armistice commenting in a message earlier on September 8th to Badoglio via Dick Mallaby that there were sufficient loyal Italian troops in Rome to ‘ensure the momentary security of the city’. Eisenhower then announced the armistice at 6.30pm Rome time. Badoglio then made the following broadcast via radio to the nation at 7.42pm:

‘The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the unequal struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, in order to spare the nation from further and more serious disasters, has requested an armistice from General Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Anglo-American forces.

The request was accepted. 

Consequently, every act of hostility against the Anglo-American forces must cease by Italian forces everywhere.

However, they will react to any attacks from any other source.’

The Germans interpreted that very last phrase to mean that the Italian Army was from that moment an enemy force. They set about the immediate imprisonment of all Italian military within their areas of occupation. They subsequently captured and disarmed over one million Italian soldiers, half of the entire Italian army. Of those one million, 196,000 managed to escape during deportation and 13,000 were killed while being transported from the Greek islands. Only 94,000 accepted the immediate offer to fight alongside the Germans leaving 710,000 imprisoned as slave workers in German concentration camps. A further 103,000 in the camps later agreed to fight with the Germans leaving between 600,000 and 650,000 slave workers. Of these it is estimated that about 40,000 died during their time in the concentration camps. 

Meanwhile the situation back in Rome for King Vittorio Emanuele III, Badoglio and his government and Dick Mallaby had become highly dangerous.

From Rome to Brindisi

Early in the morning of 9th September, King Vittorio Emanuele and Badoglio fled from Rome by car towards Pescara on the Adriatic coast. Dick was told to pack a suitcase and his wireless transmitter and go immediately to the airport where he boarded a cargo plane with an unknown destination. That very same day, the British landed in Puglia as previously planned with the Badoglio government to take over control of the Italian Royal Navy in Taranto and Brindisi. 

Mallaby’s destination was Pescara. On landing he was instructed to set up his wireless transmissions from within the airport and recommence the Monkey-Drizzle links so the allies could resume contact with Badoglio and the King. He was soon told to pack up again having been told their destination was now to be Taranto. He and the group from Rome travelled by car down the Abruzzo coast to Ortona where he was told to await boarding ship. 

Corvette Baionetta

The Corvette Baionetta left Pescara with the Admiral of the Italian Royal Navy and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio on board. It stopped at Ortona to pick up King Vittorio Emanuele, his family and Dick Mallaby

Amongst total confusion at the port with a crowd waiting to board the corvette Baionetta, Dick realised he was standing  just behind the royal party. Gathered on the dock and also waiting to board was King Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife Queen Elena, Prince Umberto and the Supreme Commander of the Italian Army, General Vittorio Ambrosio.  They and Dick all boarded to join Pietro Badoglio and the Chief of the Italian Royal Navy who had embarked in Pescara. Spaces on board were limited with no space for Dick until General Ambrosio ordered his embarkation since Dick was ‘by now part of the Supreme Command’s nucleus’. The ship then left Ortono with its VIP list of passengers just after 01.00am on 10th September. Dick was the only Englishman amongst the other 56 passengers. 

Their ship was met by a light cruiser, Scipione near to Vieste on the Gargano peninsula which accompanied them down to Brindisi. Dick, the King, the senior officers of the Italian Armed forces and the leaders of the Italian government docked in Brindisi at 2.40pm on 10th September.  Meanwhile a few hours earlier back in Rome, Italian troops had surrendered to the Germans commencing their occupation of most of Italy. 

Brindisi

Brindisi

On landing, Mallaby yet again set up his wireless transmitter choosing to base himself in the grounds of the castle overlooking the harbour. Allied HQ in Algiers were relieved to be back in contact and to learn news of whatever had happened to the leaders of the Italian government over the preceding 24 hours. They seemed completely unaware of the King and Badoglio’s escape and the subsequent fall of Rome. 

Conclusion

faggeto

Faggeto lario – Dick had travelled the length of Italy since dropping close to Faggeto on Lake Como on 14th August 1943

It had just been under a month since Dick dropped into Lake Como between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. His mission had gone disastrously wrong at the start but he had used his training to keep his interrogators interested in him and delaying any possible execution. Events then seemed to fall in his favour and he just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. He found himself as the most critical facilitator of the highest level of negotiations between the allies and the leaders of the defeated Italian nation.  

His achievements did not go unappreciated. General Eisenhower himself recognised the importance of the negotiations that Dick had so ably facilitated stating he played a part in:

‘ …negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys of secret agents and frequent meetings in hidden places …plots of various kinds were hatched, only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances … if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama.’

Dick received more formal and individual acknowledgment on 7th December 1943 when he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation talks of him ‘dropped alone into lake of Como by parachute…in conditions of unexpected difficulty that tested his courage…handcuffed and beaten… (demonstrating) exceptional coolness, perseverance and devotion to duty.’ 

His exploits also won the SOE considerable gratitude from Winston Churchill and the British General Staff since, as mentioned in his citation, if it was not for his role ‘the Allied landings on the Italian mainland may have been made with Italy still an enemy.’

Just as James Bond  always ends his cinematic escapades with a well deserved scene of rest and ‘recuperation’, so we can imagine Dick, in a new clean officer’s uniform, recovering in a bar overlooking the Brindisi seafront, and thinking back over one amazing month in his wartime career.

Villa Balbianella

Daniel Craig as Bond and Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios in a ‘romantic’ scene from Casino Royale in the gardens of Villa Balbianello

Postscript

SOE was to establish its first base on Italian soil in Brindisi. Dick stayed in Italy and was occupied over the next two years in training up other agents to be dropped off behind enemy lines to support partisan groups in occupied Italy. However he had not seen the last of Lake Como. 

With his incredible sense of critical timing, he set off on secret mission from Lyon in France on 15th December 1944 in the company of some of the most senior leaders of the Italian Committee of National Liberation. He crossed the Swiss border into Italy on 14th February only to be arrested the following day having crossed Lake Como to Varenna. From there he was transferred to Como where he faced interrogation first by the Italian fascists and later by the Chief of the SS, Karl Wolff. And herein lies another extraordinary escapade since Dick just happened to be back on Lake Como when equally momentous military and political upheavals were developing. The last months of the war in Italy are shrouded in deep mystery and the role of both the American OSS and British SOE in the secret negotiations with Karl Wolff and their possible involvement in the death of Mussolini remain highly ambiguous. Dick happened to be there – but that is all another story. 

Acknowledgments

This article is based on the research undertaken by journalist and independent researcher, Gianluca Barneschi and published in his excellent account of Dick Mallaby’s SOE service entitled ‘An Englishman Abroad’. The book is available from Amazon and in Kindle format in both English and Italian. It is a great read.

Further Reading

In addition to Gianluca Barneschi’s meticulously researched book cited above, I can recommend the official history of the SOE in Italy written by David Stafford and entitled ‘Mission Accomplished – SOE and Italy 1943-1945’. This is also available from Amazon and in Kindle format.

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The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como

the smuggling game

Dominioni Libri publish a ‘Gioco del Contrabbandiero’ in which players follow the routes across the Swiss borders as smugglers (spalloni) seeking to avoid the attention of the border guards (finanzieri)

Throughout most of the twentieth century local communities around the lake told stories of  their rebel heroes conducting an illicit trade in smuggled goods in a constant game of cat and mouse with the authorities. The so-called era of ‘contrabbando romantico’ only came to end in the 1970s when the role of these locals was supplanted by more organised criminal syndicates from afar.  In those days the profits made from the dangerous game of smuggling supported many communities along the Val D’Intelvi from Argegno to Lanzo, and along the lake from Tremezzina  to Dongo or across the water in Lezzeno. The nearby border, which divided two distinct territories with their different currencies and levels of taxation, provided the opportunity to earn extra for those with the strength and courage to face the dangers and discomforts of a rebel life. Smuggling was common along the entire length of Italy’s northern border but particularly prevalent around the lakes so much as to become a key element in local folklore.

Cats and Mice

smuggler

A ‘spallone’ (smuggler) with his ‘bricolla’ (back pack) ltypically loaded with up to 35 or even 40 kg of goods such as cigarettes or coffee.

All family members played their part in the smuggling trade but the major role was taken by the young men who developed the strength and agility to manage the large backpacks loaded with up to 35 to 40 kilogram of goods. These packs were known as ‘bricolle’ and the smugglers as ‘spalloni’ meaning ‘large shoulders’ due to the weight they had to carry. Spalloni were also known as ‘sfusaduu’ in the local dialect. A trip over the border from a town like Colonno, just north of Argegno, would take about three hours following the least-used mountain paths to find gaps in the netting. These trips would invariably be undertaken by night throughout all seasons. They would load the bricolle from stores kept in mountain sheds just over the border from where they would make the three hour trip back home seeking to avoid border guards along the way. Once back at base, the bricolle would be stored safely away to await either onward shipment across the lake to Lezzeno or opened for immediate distribution.

Monte Generoso

The view over Lake Lugano in Switzerland from the border on Monte Generoso, a route taken by many smugglers in the Val D’Intelvi.

The spalloni’s foe were the border guards – the Guardia di Finanza, known as the ‘finanzieri’ or ‘burlanda’ in local dialect. The life of a finanziero on duty in any one of the barracks posted along the border was hard. They earned little and had to undertake long periods of duty in their isolated outposts facing the dangers of patrolling throughout all seasons and in all types of weather. They were recruited primarily from the poor regions in the south attracted in spite of the hardships and severe discipline by the guarantee of a steady if modest salary and by the respect gained back home from donning a state uniform. More than 30,000 southerners were recruited over the century to settle permanently with their families in the Como area. 

Fresco Bar Sport Lella

Illustration in the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacino owned by ‘Il Cimino’, a retired smuggler made famous by singer songwriter Davide Van De Sfroos.

Both spalloni and finanzieri were armed but shots were only exceptionally exchanged. If a patrol did manage to intercept the smugglers they would shout the command ‘Molla!’ and be content if the smugglers then abandoned their bricolle and ran off into the darkness. The spalloni for their part tried their best to avoid having to sacrifice their loads and the most legendary were known for their daring break neck descents down steep paths still carrying their massive loads. 

Rifugio Murelli

The Rifugio Murelli on the hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani – one of the line of finanzieri barracks along the mountain border from Cernobbio to Lanzo D’Intelvi.

The local spalloni had the initial advantage of their detailed knowledge of the mountain paths and the various weak points along the border defences. The finanzieri also developed a similar knowledge over time. Both sides used this knowledge during the Nazifascist era after 1943 to help Jews, partisans, allied prisoners of war and antifascists avoid the German and fascist militia to escape over the border. The finanzieri around Como were so prepared to aid this clandestine emigration that Mussolini eventually banned them from patrolling the borders.

In spite of the romantic image of this game of cat and mouse, the dangers of death and injury were real. A number of both spalloni and financieri died from falls, avalanches or gunfire amounting to about 3,000 victims in total over the years.

il gioco del contrabando

Il Gioco del Contrabbando showing the labyrinth of smuggling routes around Lake Como.

The Goods

Dog smugglers

Dogs were used by both smugglers and finanzieri.

The direction and content of the smuggling trade changed throughout time as political and economic circumstances evolved even if the main direction of travel was from Switzerland into Italy. In the Napoleonic period from 1803, a monopoly was applied to the provision of salt, tobacco and gunpowder encouraging their illicit import from the Swiss Federation. Loose tobacco became an even more favourite commodity during  Austrian rule when the Swiss established a tobacco and cigar factory at the Swiss end of Lake Maggiore in 1848 posing a threat to the monopoly factory in Venice. Tobacco smuggling remained a key export from Switzerland until relatively recently. 

group of spalloni

A group of spalloni likely to have been carrying tobacco or coffee from Switzerland.

Wartime in particular saw major changes in the direction and nature of trade. We have already mentioned the smuggling of people during the last war. There was a similar trade in people smuggling in the Great War but the subjects were the host of secret agents and Italian counterspies needing passage over the border to monitor the political manoeuvres and each others’ clandestine negotiations in the spy capital of Europe, neutral Lugano. 

finanzieri

The Guardia di Finanza (finanzieri) in the Province of Lecco display bricolle abandoned by spalloni when intercepted in the mountains.

Peace time brought about a return in the regular flow of tobacco, coffee, chocolate and other luxury items into Italy from Switzerland with another change of direction brought about in the last war. Switzerland suffered major shortages of basic foodstuffs during the conflict caused partly by the allied blockade on ports such as Genoa as well as by the Swiss Federation’s attempts to become self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Strict rationing was applied at below subsistence levels on goods including flour, pasta, rice, cooking oil and flour. The Swiss closed all border posts in 1940 and increased the penalties for smuggling. However the local people took immediate advantage of the porous borders with all family members carrying over chestnuts and flour. Even live animals such as piglets were smuggled over having firstly been drugged with grappa to ensure they remained silent.

Wire fence

A wire fence was erected along the length of the border dividing Lombardy from Switzerland. This has now been mostly dismantled. Here Guards are patrolling in the Province of Varese.

The war time trade became ever more anarchic after the 1943 armistice with even the Nazifascist state engaged in smuggling salt from the Venetian lagoon as well as rice, pasta and flour in exchange for Swiss currency, gold, watches, cloth, coffee, car tyres and shoes. Those involved included the X Mas Naval division based in Porlezza, the German command in Colico, various local fascist Prefects and even Mussolini’s own secretary.  

spalloni

A band of spalloni in the Province of Lecco

With the war over, the Swiss withdrew their hardline border guards and were happy to turn a blind eye to the clandestine export of coffee and tobacco. After all, the more goods were bought in Switzerland, the more duty was collected to fund the federation’s social services. Conversely, the more smuggled goods were sold in Italy, the less duty was gathered to pay for Italy’s social security programmes. The Swiss saw no reason why purchasing products in their country and transporting them into Italy should be deemed illegal. Additionally, the gradual postwar increase in Italian standards of living increased the demand for coffee and for American-style cigarettes.  The continual devaluation of the Italian lira next to the Swiss franc and the imposition in Italy of high levels of duty served to maintain attractive profit margins for the spalloni.  All was set for a golden age of ‘contrabbando romantico’ that would last for a further thirty years – a time when all visitors to Como would return home with a cheap packet of coffee and a carton of cigarettes. 

The Heroes

robin hoodNo romantic era can be without its heroes. Folklore has turned many morally dubious bandits into warriors against oppression fighting for the poor and for a more just distribution of wealth. Such heroes have also emerged from the ranks of the spalloni who operated within the Val D’Intelvi and Lake Como.  They shared that mix of qualities common to peasant leaders from Robin Hood to the present day. They possessed a detailed knowledge of the local  physical environment common to all peasant communities combined with an entrepreneurial flair and the capacity to lead. Their safety was dependent on retaining the respect and support of their local communities who, for whatever reason, retained a greater loyalty to one of their own rather than to the state at large. 

Il Ment – Duke of the Mountains

clemente malacrida

Clemente ‘Il Ment’ Malacrida, born 1900 – the so-called Duke of the Mountains

Our first hero is Clemente Malacrida born in 1900 and brought up in Pellio Intelvi close to Lanzo. He originally applied his knowledge of the mountains and the lesser known paths  across the border to assist the various secret agents wanting to reach Lugano. After the Great War ended he supplemented his income as an intermediary in the sale of cattle by smuggling in tobacco, chocolate and coffee from Switzerland. He soon became recognised as chief of the smugglers earning the title  ‘Il Ducato dei Contrabbandieri’. 

By the 1930’s Ment was constantly on the run from the Guardia di Finanza, the Forestry Police and the Carabinieri. His heroic status was secured when, on the 10th August 1933 while participating in the local celebration of San Lorenzo Day at a big feast at the Rifugio Venini on Monte Galbiga, he helped his lifelong friend ‘Il Gal’ escape from a trap set by the Carabinieri. They made their escape together by descending the Val Perlana down to the Monastery of San Benedetto above Ossuccio. 

San Benedetto

The Monastery of San Benedetto in the Val Perlana above Ossuccio

He gained national renown the following winter when he led a massive convoy of a hundred smugglers bringing coffee across the snow-covered mountains. Bad weather had caused a prolonged halt to the regular crossings since tracks in the snow made detection by the finanzieri easy. The situation had become critical with investors impatient at seeing the build up of goods awaiting collection from the clandestine stores just across the Swiss border. The decision was taken to organise a mass column of spalloni and the only person who could be entrusted to lead it was Il Ment assisted by his friend Il Gal.  However on this occasion Ment was betrayed by one of the spalloni who talked too much. The column was intercepted at the Cima di Bove along the Val Mara leading to Lanzo D’Intelvi. The incident was famously represented on the front page of the ‘Domenica del Corriere’ who under the title ‘2 Against 100’ claimed the column had been halted by a mere couple of finanzieri although in reality they had been intercepted by up to five patrols. Ninety seven of the bricolle full of coffee had to be abandoned to allow for all but one of the spalloni to escape capture. For Ment, the publicity ensured he became a heroic symbol of subversion. Efforts were redoubled to seek his arrest.

Domenica del corriere (1)

The edition of the Domenica del Corriere featuring the exploits of Il Ment and Il Gal leading a band of 100 spalloni carrying coffee from Switzerland

A year and a month later, he and Gal were captured on Epiphany Day, 1935 by Carabinieri from Castiglione D’Intelvi at Blessagno.  They faced trial a month later with both receiving lengthy prison terms. Ment did however manage to escape from prison in the summer of 1936 but was quickly rearrested, beaten up and left to die of his wounds  a few days later when back in prison. Gal served his term and on release from prison in 1943 immediately returned to the mountains as a partisan taking up arms against the nazifascist regime.

Ment could have avoided the life on the run but his determination to avoid arrest during his career was born out of a rebel spirit.  His refusal to compromise with authority seemed to exemplify the independent spirit of the Val D’Intelvi and his example went on to inspire future generations of spallonii.

Val D'Intelvi

The Val D’Intelvi with the Swiss Alps in the distance

Il Cinto – Captain of the Lake

Colonno

The small town of Colonno north of Argegno where the sense of ‘omerta’ kept the spalloni safe from betrayal to the finanzieri.

Our next hero, Il Cinto, was born and lived in Colonno – a small lakeside town north of Argegno where smuggling had for years provided a supplementary income for a male population accustomed to seasonal migration into Switzerland as construction workers. For their part Colonno’s women had developed a specialism in producing local butter adulterated with margarine from Lecco which proved popular in Como, Brianza and Milan for cooking. So strong was this local clandestine tradition that Colonno developed a sense of ‘omerta’ amongst its people as unbreakable as in any mafia-controlled township. 

Il Cinto’s outlaw career started from the moment he was demobilised from the army in September 1943 following the armistice of the Badoglio government and the subsequent Nazi occupation which established the nazifascist regime in Northern Italy. He immediately took to the mountains as a partisan member of the communist-led  52nd Garibaldi Brigade with ‘Novara’ as his nom de guerre. One of his first actions was to seize arms from the Guardia di Finanza barracks in Argegno where many of the finanzieri themselves wished to join the partisans. He also participated in the raid led by the royalist partisan leader Captain Ugo Ricci on the Porlezza barracks of the X Mas Naval Division. His last major action was to provide rearguard cover for the failed attempt (in which Ugo Ricci was killed) to kidnap Guido Buffarini Guidi, the nazifascist Finance Minister who was residing at the time in Lenno. After this he dedicated himself fulltime to smuggling. 

bricolle

Four spalloni make their way back into Italy with their bricolle

The period between 1945 and 1948 was one in which the supply of smuggled goods went both ways over the Swiss border. The arrival of the well provisioned American troops offered a source of goods in desperately short supply in Switzerland. In addition to the shortages in foodstuffs, the spalloni now carried over bicycle and lorry tyres, parachute fabric and even condoms. The risks taken by the spalloni were considerable since the Swiss had supplemented their normal border controls with soldiers recruited from the German speaking cantons who had no hesitation in shooting at anyone ignoring their cry to ‘Alt’. However by 1948 the demand for these goods declined, the Swiss border guards were retired and the  Swiss decriminalised all traffic crossing their territory into Italy. Il Cinto was now ready to take full advantage of this return to normal trading and to welcome in a golden era for local spalloni.

Lake Como from Colonno

Looking south down Lake Como from the mountain path linking Argegno to Colonno

Traditional custom had determined that groups of smugglers travel in a single convoy. Il Cinto however developed his own particularly successful method. He travelled with a trusted band of eight to nine spalloni but divided the group in two with himself taking the lead alongside two of the fastest and strongest members of his gang. He would carry a bricolla loaded with only 15 kilograms of goods. The other five or so members would stay well back from the lead group. If the lead group encountered a patrol of finanzieri, the other members of the group would remain hidden until the patrol had been drawn away in pursuit. The lead group would at worst have to abandon just two of their bricolle to aid their escape. Il Cinto on principle never abandoned his own lighter load. 

Corniga

Corniga, an alpine hamlet above Colonno

Il Cinto also saw the sense in forming allegiances with other smugglers, in particular with the spalloni from Dongo. Those from Dongo did not need much persuading of the advantages of initiating their cross-border incursions from Colonno. A journey from Colonno to the stores held just over the border took about three hours rather than the six needed from Dongo. Il Cinto also teemed up with smugglers based in Lezzeno directly across the lake from Colonno. Onward transport of the cigarettes and coffee from Lezzeno to the major market of Milan was a lot safer from there than from the western shores of the Como leg of the lake. They faced fewer controls by the Guardia di Finanza and had more alternative routes to Milan. 

Cecco Bellosi

Cecco Bellosi, ex leftist militant of the armed struggle and author of books like ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ depicting the life of Il Cinto and other local rebels.

With the introduction of his new methods, the ongoing spirit of Colonno omerta and the level of trust he established with all parties, Il Cinto assumed the leadership of a successful criminal enterprise. He became known as the Captain of the Lake. His custom was to preside every Monday evening to settle accounts and plan the following week’s activities at the bar beside Como’s bus station – the Osteria San Donnino. Here all three parties would meet, namely the transporters from Lezzeno, the spalloni from Dongo/Colonno and the store holders from Switzerland. Lezzeno would first pay Colonno for the number of bricolle delivered to them. Colonno would then pay the Swiss for what they had carried away from over the border.

While Ment’s renown was gained from the publicity provided by the Domenica della Corriere, Il Cinto’s fame is more due to local author Cecco Bellosi who has immortalised his exploits in books such as ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’. 

Il Cimino

Cimino

Sergio Bordoli aka ‘Il Cimino’ made famous as the subject of the ‘Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by Davide Van De Sfroos

Our last hero brings us up to our own times. Il Cimino is the subject of a ballad entitled ‘La Ballata del Cimino’ written and recorded by local singer songwriter Davide Van de Sfroos. The ballad recounts one of the exploits of Sergio Bordoli, the joint owner with his wife of the Bar Sport Lella in Sala Comacina.  He was nicknamed Il Cimino after Leonardo Cimino, a criminal from Rome briefly famous towards the end of the 60s for a couple of daring robberies. In his youth, Il Cimino was a smuggler following the routes led by Il Cinto from Switzerland to Colonno and across the lake to Lezzeno. 

You may well wonder how a local singer could have a name which appears to have originated from Holland rather than Tremezzina. In fact Van de Sfroos is the stage name for Davide Bernasconi, born in Monza but brought up on Lake Como in Mezzegra, one of the districts of Tremezzina. His adopted name is taken from  ‘laghee’ dialect for smuggling. The spalloni from Colonno were known as ‘sfrusaduu’ and so Van de Sfroos is dialect for ‘gone to smuggle’.

Van de Sfroos and Sergio Bordoli

Davide Van De Sfroos and Sergio ‘Cimino’ Bordoli in Sala Comacina with Isola Comacina in background

Sergio ‘Il Cimino’ Bordoli was born after the last war into a family of ten. At the age of 14 he asked his mother’s permission to start smuggling –  to ‘van a sfrosare’. She readily agreed seeing how the family desperately needed his additional earnings. On one occasion in the early 60s, he was tasked with uncovering bricolle full of cigarettes that had been hidden close to the lakeside near to Brienno and to load them into a motorboat for the crossing to Lezzeno. Unfortunately an armed  patrol of the Guardia Di Finanza with dogs intercepted him. To avoid capture he threw himself into the lake near to the restaurant Il Crotto dei Platani and swam underwater until he surfaced under the cover of a jutting cliff. There he waited his time until the finanzieri gave up any further search for him. Dripping wet and having lost his Lacoste shirt, trousers and wallet, he climbed up onto the road dressed only in his underpants and wearing his Superga trainers. 

Conclusion

motoscafi

Cigarette smuggling during the era of contrabbando romantico has been replaced by an industrial scale operation run by organised crime using high powered motor boats pursued by the Guardia di Finanza also in boats or helicopters.

By the mid 1970s the era of contrabbando romantico was coming to an end. Cigarette smuggling was passing into the hands of organised crime with the centre of its operation in the Mediteranean.  Il Cimino gave up smuggling when he reached twenty in the early 1970s. After a period working in Switzerland, he came back to Sala Comacina to set up the bar with his wife Lella. By the mid 1970’s the Guardia di Finanza had abandoned their string of barracks along the crest of the mountains from Cernobbio to Lanzo allowing them now to be turned into mountain refuges offering food and accommodation for hikers. The wire netting of the border was left to fall into disrepair. Now we can all cross the border in the mountains as often as we like – unless we are one of the illegal immigrants trying to make our way into Northern Europe via Switzerland. For them another type of smuggler now exists, the so-called ‘passatori’ but they have little interest in crossing over mountain paths. In any case the border is now under the surveillance of drones and helicopters.

Standards of living have definitely improved for those on the lake, as have the work conditions for the finanzieri of the Guardia di Finanza but the success of the Van de Sfroos ‘Ballata del Cimino’ points to a nostalgia for the recent past and to an important element of local history which has undoubtedly shaped aspects of the local culture. Cecco Bellosi has done much in his books to ensure the heroes of past times are not forgotten and I share his enthusiasm for celebrating and maintaining his and their spirit of rebellion.

Further Information

There are two small museums dedicated to the era of contraband. One is in Erbonne – a small town in the foothills of Monte Generoso. It is called the ‘Burlanda e Sfusaduu’ Museum and is open by appointment by contacting Sig. Sfefano Agnese on +39 333 23 84 179.

The other museum – The Museo Svizzero Delle Dogane – is in Gandria. Call +41 79 512 99 07 for opening times.

There are a number of hiking trails that follow or go near to the old smuggling routes. For example, see sentieri-contrabbando.it for details of hiking trails around Cernobbio and Maslianico. The long hiking path Via dei Monti Lariani passes by the string of ex-barracks of the Guardia di Finanza.  Follow this link for information about the trail and details of the ex-barracks now open to trekkers as mountain refuges. There is also ‘un percorso al contrabbando’ that starts in Casasco D’Intelvi and crosses Monte Generoso over the border.

Via dei contrabbandieri erbonne

The percorso al contrabbando runs from Casasco D’Intelvi via Erbonne to cross the border

The Contraband Game (Il Gioco del Contrabbandiere) is available online from dominionilibri.it  for €24.

Davide Van de Sfroos’ ‘Ballata del Cimino’ is available on Youtube and a translation of the lyrics from laghee dialect into Italian is available at http://testicanzoni.mtv.it/testi-Davide-Van-De-Sfroos_63920/traduzione-La-ballata-del-cimino-3243351

Cecco Bellosi’s book ‘Con I Piedi Nell’Acqua’ is available in Italian on Kindle.

Sentee la Culman

The Sentee La Culman is a steep path used by smugglers to climb from Moltrasio to the side of Monte Bisbino. It now forms part of a gruelling alpine run held once a year with its route marked out by yellow markers.

Other articles in Como Companion that may be of interest include:

Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust

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Hollywood, Gucci and Lake Como

On 17th March (this Wednesday) Hollywood will descend on Lake Como for a day of filming at the Villa Balbiano. They will move on the following day to a nearby location on the lakefront at Azzano di Mezzegra. Both locations are within the Comune of Tremezzina. They may also shoot some footage along the coastal road between Argegno and Colonno. The subject of the film is the Gucci dynasty with an inevitable focus on the most infamous chapter in that blighted family’s history – the murder of Maurizio Gucci on the doorsteps of his office in Milan on 27th March 1995.

arrest of Reggiani

Patrizia Reggiani arrested on January 31st 1997 for commissioning the murder of her estranged husband, Maurizio Gucci outside his Milan office on March 27th 1995.

The director of the film is Ridley Scott, a veteran Hollywood director with such titles as ‘Gladiator’, ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Thelma and Louise’ to his credit. The film also boasts an array of Hollywood stars including Lady Gaga (whose real name is Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), Adam Driver, Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons. The targeted release date of the film with the working title of ‘The House of Gucci’ is 24th November this year.

Maurizio with Paola Franchi

Maurizio Gucci seen with his girlfriend Paola Franchi. Both he and she had divorced their respective partners to clear the way for their own marriage. The completion of the divorce may have been what instigated Patrizia Reggiani’s plan to murder her husband. She claimed that their daughters’ inheritance would be compromised by the second marriage.

The story of the Gucci dynasty would seem tailor-made for a cinematic epic assuming the plot skips over most of the complex financial arrangements, share dealings and takeover battles that brought the family into internecine conflict right from its foundation in Florence by Guccio Gucci at the turn of the last century.  Instead we can expect the focus to be on the era in which Gucci became one of the world’s leading brands of luxury goods helping to establish Milan as a centre of fashion thanks mainly to the design genius of Tom Ford. As the Gucci brand went from strength to strength at that time, the Gucci family itself actually lost control of their family business. Maurizio Gucci was the ill-fated family member who, in spite of his powerful vision for success, could not convince his financial backers of his ability to realise it. Perhaps of even greater interest to the film’s scriptwriters, he found himself in mortal conflict with his estranged wife and the mother of his two daughters, Patrizia Reggiani nicknamed Lady Gucci or the ‘Joan Collins of Monte Napoleone’. It was Patrizia Reggiani who paid for the assassination of her former husband back in 1995, arranged on her behalf by her good friend and personal clairvoyant Pina Auriemma. In 1997 she received a twenty six year sentence for commissioning the murder leading to her release from Milan’s San Vittore prison seventeen years later. 

Pino Auriemma

Pina Auriemma then at her arrest and now on release from prison. Pina was Patrizia’s longterm friend and confidante but during her trial Patrizia tried to claim that the murder of Maurizio was entirely Pina’s idea. The court found Pina responsible for organising the murder but found Patrizia responsible for commissioning and paying for it.

The full story of the Gucci dynasty has been set out in an excellent book by Sara Gay Forden entitled ‘The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed’ – an irresistible cocktail as the book’s subtitle suggests for Hollywood’s scriptwriters. However, in spite of all the glamorous locations cited in the book, there’s only one mention of Como and that is in relation to the silk scarf known as the Flora commissioned by Rodolfo Gucci for Princess Grace of Monaco from local silk printer Fiorio – a business which is now part of the Como-based Canepa Group. In spite of this, Hollywood have decided to include Lake Como as one of the exotic locations where the domestic drama of the Gucci dynasty was played out, to the delight no doubt of all those promoting the lake as an exclusive destination for a luxury holiday or a romantic wedding. 

Fiorio silk scarf

There are no images available of the original Flora foulard designed by Gucci for Princess Grace and printed by the Como company, Fiorio. This example shows Fiorio’s skills in producing sharp colour differentiation when printing on silk.

The two hundred strong production unit along with the director and his actors arrived in Rome and then moved up to Milan where Lady Gaga, playing the part of the young Patrizia Reggiani, visited the hairdresser and became a brunette. They moved to Gressoney in the Val D’Aosta presumably to reconstruct the scenes that took place in reality at Maurizio’s and Patrizia’s Saint Moritz home. Adam Driver is playing the part of the luckless Maurizio who had tried to deny Patrizia access to this second home which she had come to love dearly. 

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga

A publicity shot of Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci) and Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani) taken on location in Gressoney, Val D’Aosta.

Filming then moved on to the streets of Milan where the director will need to try to recreate the atmosphere of the city in the period between the mid eighties to 1995 when Maurizio was killed. This was a very particular era in Milan’s modern history which has come to be called ‘Milano da Bere’ after a TV ad for the alcoholic drink ‘Ramazzotti Amaro’.

Milano da bere

The TV advert for Amaro Ramazzotti which captured the arriviste culture of Milan in the 80s and early 90s.

This ad seemed to capture what was a new found feeling of general well-being aided by a  consumerism and confidence as the city became a fashion capital. In this optimistic period following (more or less) the end of the string of terrorist attacks and kidnappings known as the ‘anni di piombo’, social acceptance was automatic if you had the money and presented a ‘bella figura’. This was the era when Milan’s growth provided the base for Bettino Craxi’s political power financed through his system of demanding paybacks on the granting of all construction contracts in the city including from Silvio Berlusconi for his satellite development known as Milano 2 financed with Sicilian Mafia money. Maurizio’s murder followed on from the collapse of the Craxi system once brought to light in the series of Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) trials.  Both events marked the definitive end of a particular phase in the city’s socioeconomic development. Let’s hope Ridley Scott can evoke that period as effectively as Federico Fellini did in earlier times for Rome in ‘La Dolce Vita’ – a film title that itself became the catchphrase for  a specific time and place.

Villa Balbiano (1)

Villa Balbiano originally built for the Giovio family but passed on to Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in the late 16th century.

It’s not clear why Lake Como or the Villa Balbiano have been selected amongst the film’s locations beyond their obvious photogenic attraction. Unlike Gianni Versace who had a holiday villa directly on the lakefront in Moltrasio, Maurizio Gucci preferred his mountain retreat in Saint Moritz. However Villa Balbiano, on the border between Ossuccio and Lenno, is gloriously located away from the main road and directly on the lakefront. It was originally built for the Giovio family at the end of the sixteenth century but was immediately handed over to Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. It was later bought by Cardinal Durini in 1787 who then commissioned the building of a sister villa, the Villa Balbianello, on the nearby Lavedo promontory.

Gylfi Sigurdsson wedding

Villa Balbiano is a popular location for luxury weddings as in the case of footballer Gylfi Sigurdsson seen here marrying Alexandra Ivarsdottir in 2020.

Villa Balbianello has since become the much better known of the Durini properties due to its use as a location in films such as Star Wars and Casino Royale. The Villa Balbiano is however no stranger to publicity having hosted a number of celebrity weddings over the years.

Inglesina museo barche lariane

For the scenes to be shot on the lake at Azzano di Mezzegra, the film crew have hired three ‘Inglesine’ – the traditional oar driven water taxis of old. This example is housed in the Museo Barca Lariana in Pianello del Lario.

The other chosen location for this week’s filming is the lakefront at Azzano di Mezzegra, also in Tremezzina, for which the production has ordered three ‘Inglesine’ – the traditional man-powered Lake Como water taxis – to be in attendance and a large smoke machine to produce an ethereal mist over the water. 

Grand Hotel Cadenabbia

The Grand Hotel Cadenabbia will open early this season to provide accommodation for the film’s 200 strong production crew.

The arrival of the Hollywood entourage has come as a gift to some of the local hoteliers who have of course suffered a dreadful time due to the pandemic. The Grand Hotel Cadenabbia will open its doors earlier than normal this year to host the 200 strong production unit. Meanwhile the stars of the film have chosen to stay in the ‘exclusive’ enclaves of the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio. Rumour has it that Lady Gaga may copy Jennifer Aniston in staying at the hotel’s Villa Cima annexe. Rumour also suggests that Al Pacino, playing the part of Aldo Gucci, will occupy Robert De Niro’s favourite corner suite on the Piano Nobile of the main building. No rumours surround where Jeremy Irons or Ridley Scott will sleep but I do not expect they will be required to share.

Villa Cima

Villa Cima, an annexe of the Hotel Villa D’Este, in the foreground with the main villa behind.

Films on Lake Como

Lake Como has itself been the star of a number of Hollywood films over the years. Mention has already been made of the Star Wars episode and Casino Royale while recently in 2019 Jennifer Aniston (when not occupying a suite at the Villa D’Este) and Adam Sandler zoomed around the lake overturning a red Ferrari in the whimsical piece of nonsense ‘Murder Mystery’. There is the threat they may return to the lake to make a sequel. In times gone by Alfred Hitchcock used the Villa D’Este and other locations on Lake Como in his 1925  film ‘The Pleasure Garden’. He then came back to Como in December 1926 to spend part of his honeymoon at the same hotel to which he returned on a number of subsequent occasions. 

Innamorato Pazzo

Adriano Celentano and Ornella Muti in the 1981 film ‘Innamorato Pazzo’.

Nor have the attractions of Lake Como been ignored by Italian filmmakers. One of my favourite films is ‘Innamorato Pazzo’ from 1981 starring Ornella Muti and Adriano Celentano. It includes a scene filmed on location in Como’s Villa Olmo in which Celentano, playing the part of a bus driver, is assisted by the bus depot’s musical band in serenading La Muti playing the part of a Princess. Years after Celentano admitted to having a brief affair with La Muti during the production of this film. This was at the time a devastating admission given how Celentano is known for his long standing stable marriage. Celentano, now aged over 80 and still happily married, decided to make Lake Como his home in 2020 by purchasing a villa in Galbiate close to Lecco.

Celebrities Depicting Celebrity

Patrizia Reggiani

Patrizia Reggiani today following her release from prison.

Of course Celentano is not so well known as George Clooney who, in spite of owning numerous properties, still finds time to take up seasonal residence in Laglio where he manages to carve out some sort of life within the confines of his celebrity status. It may be too early in the season for him to be at home to entertain our current batch of celebrity visitors.  They will have to amuse themselves within the confines of the Villa D’Este if they are granted any time away from filming. All of the main ‘celebrity’ locations such as the Gatto Nero in Rovenna are closed due to Covid restrictions nor are they likely to be able to take a casual stroll into Cernobbio unless armed with their ‘autocertificazione’ to present if challenged by the police. 

Celebrity must at times be a hard burden to bear with the limitations it inflicts on personal liberty. Celebrity is also at the heart of the Gucci story. It will be interesting to see how Ridley Scott uses his own band of celebrities to present the life of the ill-fated Guccis. Behind Maurizio Gucci’s celebrity and the image of success lay fear of failure and inadequacy, constant financial anxiety, estrangement from his two daughters, and a jealous wife hell bent on revenge. For the rejected wife Patrizia Reggiani it meant seventeen years in a Milanese prison before being able to return to her husband’s luxury apartment on Corso Venezia that had been originally decorated for the benefit and to the orders of her rival, Paola Franchi. 

Further Reading

The Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio was itself the setting of a celebrity murder that gripped the Italian media in the post war era. Read about it in Murder on the Dance Floor- Italy’s Crime of the 20th Century on Lake Como

The area of Tremezzina, Ossuccio and Isola Comacina holds many attractions for visitors. Read more in:

Ossuccio to Lenno: Up and Down the Perlana Valley

Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina

For me some of the best Italian films depicting the ‘Milano Da Bere’ era are two of the comedies starring the Milanese actor, Renato Pozzetto. These are ‘Un Povero Ricco’ and ‘Il Ragazzo di Campagna’ both available on Youtube in their original language. You can also find ‘Innamorato Pazzo’ on Youtube but, in spite of the use of Villa Olmo as one of the settings, the film is resolutely urban Roman.  Search for ‘Milano da Bere‘ and you will even find the original Ramazzotti advert on Youtube 

Sara Gay Forden’s book ‘The House of Gucci’ is available on Amazon.

Documentaries have also been made of the life of Patrizia Reggiani and can be tracked down on Google.

Gucci stores still exist around the world for those with sufficient disposable income. Fake Gucci bags can still be had from itinerant sellers assuming the beaches will open up again in the summer season.

Filippo Ninni

Filippo Ninni then and now. He was the detective whose investigation led to the arrest and conviction of Patrizia Reggiani, Pina Auriemma and the other accomplices to the Gucci murder.

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Two Local Poets for International Women’s Day

alda merini

Alda Merini born Milan March 1931, died November 2009

Lake Como has inspired poetic sensibilities throughout the ages including those of two of Italy’s most renowned poets of the 20th century – Antonia Pozzi and Alda Merini. Both these writers’ works are available in English translation giving also us the opportunity to appreciate their creativity. See below for details. They shared an almost mystical appreciation of nature gained through a prism of existential social pressure and isolation. Alda suffered years of mental illness in which she was incapacitated from writing. Antonia tragically cut her own life short when only twenty six due in her own words to ‘mortal desperation’. All of her work was published posthumously.

Antonia Pozzi portrait (1)

Antonia Pozzi, born in Milan Feb 1912, died Dec 1938.

Antonia and Alda were both from Milan but had  close associations with Lake Como. Antonia spent at least three months of the year in the family’s country villa in Pasturo, a small town in the Valsassina on the Lecco leg of Lake Como. It was the wild nature of the valley that inspired her poetry which contains not a single reference to Milan. Alda took more inspiration from her urban environment but was deeply attached to Brunate, the small town above Como where her paternal grandparents lived. 

Antonia Pozzi

Antonia was born in 1912 into an aristocratic family with literary antecedents. Her mother was the granddaughter of Tommaso Grossi, the writer and friend of Alessandro Manzoni. Her father was a lawyer well-established within the Fascist hierarchy. She attended the Liceo Manzoni in Milan and went on to study languages and philosophy at university. She was an excellent  photographer as well as a poet. Her first poems were written at the age of seventeen. She went on writing,  keeping both her poems and letters within a series of notebook diaries. 

Pudore

An example taken from Antonia’s notebooks which formed her original manuscripts. This poem ‘Pudore’ (Modesty) was written in 1933. 

Here is a translation of ‘Pudore’ by Nicholas Benson:

Modesty

If a word of mine

pleases you

and you tell me

even just with your eyes

I open wide

in a joyful smile –

but I tremble

like a young mother

who even blushes when

a passerby tells her

her little boy is handsome.

___

1 February 1933

One of her tutors at University was Antonio Banfi, a philosopher who propounded a ‘rationalist’ aesthetic in literature deploying simple and accessible language. She describes her own style of writing as a ‘desire to reduce the weight of words to the minimum’. In this sense, she was fully aligned to the modernist and rationalist philosophies also evident in the architectural and design theories of Como’s Antonio Sant’Elia and Giuseppe Terragni and in the fine art produced by the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’. The equivalent school of poetry was known as ‘Crepuscolarismo’ – a movement that originated at the start of the 20th century based on a rejection of the grandiose and heroic in favour of the spirit found in everyday life expressed in simple free verse. As with Terragni’s architectural rationalism, this movement had grown out of Italian Futurism. 

Valsassina

Antonia spent her summer months in the family home in Pasturo, a small community in the Valsassina running off the eastern leg of Lake Como.

One critic has commented: “Her Modernist verse is lyrical and experimental, pastoral and erotic, powerfully evoking the northern Italian landscape and her personal tragedies amid the repressive climate of Fascism”. Unfortunately for Antonia, her father’s strong commitment to fascism with its misogynistic anti-feminist creed created conflict at home. The family’s obsession with maintaining their social standing and reputation led her father to deny Antonia access to her lover and later on, to censoring the publication of any of her poems deemed inappropriate. Her escape was walks in the mountains around the family’s summer home in Pasturo. 

Pozzi family villa

The Pozzi family home in Pasturo

 

Pasturo_Villa_Pozzi_P6A5219

Antonia’s study in Pasturo. The house is now in private hands and the collection of manuscripts previously on display has been moved to the Universita dell’Insubria in Varese.

In Antonia’s words “poetry has this sublime task: to take all the pain that foams and bounces in our soul and to appease it, to transfigure it into the supreme calm of art, just as rivers flow into the celestial sea.” However her ability to appease the pains in her everyday life was to prove beyond her. On top of the oppressive atmosphere at home and the dispiriting climate of the fascist regime, Antonia found the passing of the anti-semitic Race Laws in September 1938 a final blow. She declared at that moment “forse l’età delle parole è finita per sempre (maybe the time for words is over forever)”. Four months later she committed suicide out of ‘mortal desperation’ aged just 26.  She took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down to die in a snow-covered field overlooking the beautiful Chiaravalle Abbey to the south of Milan. Her parents gave pneumonia as the cause of her death.

Up to that moment only a few close friends knew of her poetic output. Her father, Roberto Pozzi, undertook a strict censorship of her poems and paid for the private publication of this collection entitled ‘Parole, Liriche’.

Portofino Antonia Pozzi

Photograph entitled ‘Portofino’ by Antonia Pozzi

The initial print run for the book was for 300 copies published in Milan by Mondadori in 1939. However Antonia’s full poetic output was only truly revealed in 1986 thanks to research undertaken by Sister Onorina Dino who is now the established curator of Antonia’s poems.

onorina dino

Suora Onorina Dino from the Congregazione delle Suore del Preziosissimo Sangue di Gesu in Monza. She is the official curator of Antonia Pozzi’s manuscripts which have now been entrusted to the Universita dell’Insubria.

Suora Onorina compared the poems in Antonia’s notebooks – her original manuscripts – with the versions printed in the 1939 edition. She discovered that Antonia’s father had modified some of the poems by altering both the metre and vocabulary in parts. He had also penned over some of the poems and cut out pages to censor those he did not like. The nun’s diligent research led to finding a secondary source of these missing works passed on from a close friend of Antonia who had been entrusted with handwritten copies.   

 

It was only in 1989, on the publication of the unadulterated and complete works of Antonia Pozzi, that critics could make a true assessment of their literary value. Maria Corti, a much respected commentator on contemporary Italian literature who died in 2002 wrote:

“Her spirit made us think of those mountain plants that can only expand at the edge of crevasses, on the edge of the abyss. She was hypersensitive, with a sweet creative anguish, but at the same time a woman with a strong character and a beautiful philosophical intelligence; she was perhaps the innocent prey of a paranoid paternal censorship of life and poetry. No doubt she was in crisis with the closed religious family environment. The beloved Lombard land, the nature of plants and rivers certainly consoled her more than her peers.”

Antonia Foto

Another photograph by Antonia Pozzi of the mountains close to Pasturo

Antonia has been compared with Emily Dickinson and some may well see similarities with Sylvia Plath but ultimately she is an Italian rationalist poet born into the Modernist period with a spiritual dimension unrelated to any belief in God but more to an interest in the idea of God. She is also very much a product of her geographical background with an almost mystical appreciation of nature perhaps arising from the sharp contrast between her urban upbringing in Milan and those idyllic months spent in the foothills of Le Grigne above the shores of Lake Como. 

Pasturo Valsassina

Pasturo, its people, their work and the surrounding countryside inspired Antonia’s poetry.

Her source of inspiration was the countryside around the family villa in Pasturo where she is buried in the town’s cemetery. To honour their famous daughter, the local council have defined a poetic walk (Percorso Poetico) so visitors to Pasturo can themselves appreciate some of her works within the setting that inspired their creation.

Alda Merini

Merini Poem

The footpath from Como to Brunate has been named ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in recognition of her links with the area. Examples of her works and those of other poets are posted along the route.

Alda Merini was born in Milan in 1931, just seven years before the untimely death of Antonia Pozzi. She died in 2009. Her paternal grandfather was from an aristocratic background but had been disinherited on marrying Alda’s grandmother who was from a peasant family. Her father was supportive of Alda’s education but tried to discourage her from becoming a writer on receiving early encouragement from her tutors. Her mother felt all ambition for her daughter to be inappropriate and urged her into just accepting a future based on marriage and motherhood.  She applied to study at the same secondary school as Antonia Pozzi, Milan’s Liceo Alessandro Manzoni, but was rejected ironically due to her ‘poor Italian’. Her early promise as a poet was interrupted in late adolescence by the onset of a severe bipolar condition which plagued her until better managed in later life. In spite of this she enjoyed rich periods of creativity resulting in being put forward twice for a Nobel Prize – in 1996 by the Academie Francaise and in 2001 by the Pen Club Italiano. 

Alda Merini’s paternal grandparents lived in Brunate and Alda took much inspiration from the mountains around Como. The footpath from Como to Brunate has now been named the ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in her honour. Small excerpts from her poems have been posted along its route forming part of the initiative by Sentiero dei Sogni of creating a Poets Way from Maslianico on the Swiss border to San Maurizio above Brunate .

We have not given as much space to Alda in this article not because she does not warrant it but because we have already featured her and her poetry in our article entitled Poets’ Way: Como to Brunate.

Conclusion

Pozzi foto

Photograph by Antonia Pozzi

Both these local poets display exceptional talent. While Antonia Pozzi came from a literary background, Alda Merini was more proletarian yet they shared many aspects in common.  Both were brought up in Milan but were strongly drawn to the countryside around Lake Como.  Both displayed acute poetic sensibility at an early age with accompanying mental fragility.  Both adopted a deceptively simple and highly accessible writing style. Both had to deal with paternalistic societal pressures seeking to limit their creative expression. Both have achieved posthumous recognition of their talents in spite of life’s obstacles. Both are admirable women. 

Further Reading

percorso poetico

The ‘Percorso Poetico’ in Pasturo has been created to honour the town’s famous poet, Antonia Pozzi.

For a bilingual collection of Antonia Pozzi’s poems and letters, look for Breath: Poems and Letters by Antonia Pozzi translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Wesleyan University Press. This book is available on Amazon.

For our articles on Modernism, Rationalism and the Como School of Abstract Art, refer to the following:

Como’s Internationally Renowned Urban Visionary

‘Rationalism’ – Open Days from 15 to 17 April

The Como Group of Artists – ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’

 

 

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Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

View from Bugone

The view from the Rifugio Bugone down on to Lake Como.

This walk, from lakeside to the crest of the mountains on the Via dei Monti Lariani and then down, is rewarding but not for the fainthearted. The first section climbing up from Carate and past Monte di Urio requires stamina but the well-defined path offers changing views over the lake as you climb higher. You are at your highest altitude when you reach the Colma del Crinco to join the old military road which now forms the Via dei Monti Lariani. We turn left here to enjoy a level walk to the Rifugio Bugone. From the rifugio we descend down to Moltrasio following the old smugglers’ route now used for an annual alpine running competition described as a ‘killer’ and called La Culman. This is a route favoured with nearby mountain retreats offering food, drink and accommodation. You can easily divert from our suggested route to the Rifugio Murelli or to the Vetta Bisbino. You can also make this a circular route by following a small section of the Via Verde through the narrow streets of Tosnacco back to the Santuario Santa Marta in Carate.

la Culman

La Culman is a particularly tough annual alpine running competition ascending the path on which we descend, but then continuing back down to Moltrasio only to climb again to the Rifugio Murelli.

Starting Point, Santa Marta in Carate Urio

Via Santa Marta

If arriving at the lakeside, take the Via Santa Marta shown here with its Via Crucis which goes under the main road and ends at the Sanctuary of Santa Marta.

The steepest section of the walk is the old smuggler path called  La Culman which reaches a 70% gradient towards the Rifugio Bugone. I prefer to descend rather than climb such steep slopes so I chose to start the walk from Carate Urio and end it by following La Culman down to Moltrasio. So, taking either Bus C10 or C20 from Como, you can either get off at the San Marta bus stop if you are on a ‘via panoramica’ bus (the route that keeps to the high road up from the lakefront) or at the Urio Genesio bus stop down on the lakeside.  The Santa Marta Sanctuary is on a slight promontory looking south towards Como and surrounded by an olive grove on well maintained terracing. Head out south on the so-called Via Verde which is marked out by painted green spots on the stone paving. After at most ten minutes you cross a mountain stream that flows down to the Church of San Quirico and Giulitta in Urio and you arrive at the gates of the Urio Cemetery.  Facing south and to the right of the cemetery’s entrance are two paths. The one on the level is the continuation of the Via Verde while the other rising steeply to the right is our path going to Monte di Urio. 

Climbing to Monte di Urio

Monte di urio sign

Signposts direct you off the Via Verde to start your ascent to the right of the Urio Cemetery.

The path to Monte di Urio is steep but well maintained passing through woods which provide shelter from sun in summer and views over the lake in winter. You arrive after one hour of hard climbing at the small alpine community of Monte di Urio, 800 metres above sea level. From here there are marvellous views to north and south along the lake. Paths diverge at the small chapel at the heart of the village with the option of taking the direct path to Rifugio Bugone on the left or to carry on to the Colma del Crinco by following the sign for the Rifugio Murelli. 

The route towards Rifugio Murelli is possibly less steep overall than the climb up to Monte di Urio but it is still somewhat challenging in parts. However, after following the path north for about 2 kilometres, you make a decisive turn to the left and will then see that you are not too far from the crest of the mountain. It comes as quite a relief to reach that crest and, leaving the view of the lake behind you, look over towards the twin peaks of Monte Generoso and Switzerland. 

Monte di urio

The alpine village of Monte di Urio is 800 metres above sea level.

You are now on the old military road now called the Via Dei Monti Lariani, a long distance hiking path that starts from Monte Bisbino and continues along the Val D’Intelvi before crossing the valley to continue on to the north end of Lake Como. 

Monte Generosa

Once on the Via dei Monti Lariani your views are over towards Monte Generoso, the Sasso Gordona and the Swiss Alps.

Via Dei Monti Lariani

Colma del Crinco

You join the Via dei Monti Lariani at the Colma del Crinco at 1,160 metres above sea level. Turn right for a 20 minute walk to Rifugio Murelli or left in a slight descent to the Rifugio Bugone.

There is the option on reaching the Colma del Crinco of turning right and continuing for around 20 minutes to reach the Rifugio Murelli. This rifugio was, like Rifugio Bugone, one of the string of barracks built to house the guards deployed to prevent smuggling (somewhat unsuccessfully) across the Swiss border. They were occupied by members of the Guardia di Finanza, many of whom actively helped Jews, partisans, allied soldiers and others escape across the border during the last war.  They now offer walkers with food, drink and accommodation but it is advisable to check if they are open before setting out if hoping to stop for refreshment.  Murelli is usually always open but call  +39 335 843 4493 to be sure. 

The Colma del Crinco is at 1,167 metres above sea level which is the highest point on our walk. If you were to divert to the Rifugio Murelli, you would only climb a further 33 metres but if you turn left rather than right towards Rifugio Bugone, you will descend by 50. The path is well maintained and clearly signposted taking you through woods that offer views over to the Sasso Gordona and Monte Generoso on your right before arriving at the Rifugio Bugone.

Rifugio Bugone

The Rifugio Bugone is open all week during the summer and at weekends through the rest of the year for food and drink. You are however advised to use the contact information to check on opening before setting out on your walk.

The Rifugio is open every day during the summer but only at weekends for the rest of the year. However, it is always best to contact them to check either by emailing stones roberto.rifugiobugone@gmail.com or calling +39 031 0350027.

The views from Bugone point down again over Lake Como. The Rifugio is on a hiking crossroads with the option as you face the lake of taking a sharp left turn down to Monte Liscione before reaching Tosnacco. You could also continue on the Via dei Monti Lariani to Monte Bisbino or take the path between these two options signposted for Monti di Lenno. For our route, we start off by taking this latter option. 

Start of la Culman

Look out for the yellow markers on stone and tree that mark the start of the La Culman trekking path leading left off the path for Monte di Lenno. If conditions are slippery, I advise you continue to descend via Monte di Lenno.

Descent to Moltrasio on La Culman

la Culman 1

The route of La Culman marked out for the annual alpine running challenge starting off in Moltrasio.

As you follow the path signposted for Monte di Lenno, look out after about 150 metres for yellow painted stones that mark the start of the steep descent to Moltrasio on the old smugglers’ path known as La Culman. This path is particularly steep at the start of the descent and is far from being well defined. However the way down through the rocks is clearly marked out with splashes of yellow paint. These markings are designed particularly for the competitors in the annual alpine running competition. This race, openly described as a ‘killer’, takes place in October with runners ascending from Moltrasio up to Bugone through the trees and the rocks following a route used by local smugglers in the past. The yellow markings are designed for those climbing rather than descending so, if you find yourself unable to pick out the next marking, just look back to orientate yourself.

la Culman 2The path gradually becomes more clearly defined as it eventually joins a disused mule path. This in turn leads you down to the southerly end of Tosnacco on Via Colombo from where you can either descend further to Moltrasio or continue north on Via Colombo to go through the labyrinth of Tosnacco’s narrow streets towards the Via Verde.  Follow this to return to your point of departure at Santa Marta in Carate. Another option is to turn right on arriving at Via Colombo to pick up the Sentee di Sort which starts close to this point and continue walking on to Rovenna above Cernobbio.

Santuario Santa Marta

The Sanctuary of Santa Marta in Carate seen from the Via Verde as you return from Moltrasio,

To return to Como you can take your luck finding a C10 bus at the bus stop across from the pharmacy on the main road or increase your options by going down to the imbarcadero on the lakeside. Here you can choose either the bus or the boat to get home.

Returning to Santa Marta

Urio

The Church of Saint Quirico and Giulitta in Urio looking down from the Via Verde. It’s possible to see Como’s Villa Olmo in the far distance just to the right of the bell tower.

The time added to the route for returning you to your point of departure is not included in the summary below. You will however be pleased that the additional two kilometres are not onerous since the Via Verde is mostly on the level. It also takes you through the delightful medieval centre of Tosnacco before continuing on a path paved with Moltrasio stone around the headland to Carate. 

Summary

Rifugi

Distance: 8.6 Kilometres

Time: 4 hours 10 minutes

Climb: 900 metres

Descent: 1000 metres to the lakeside

Difficulty: Good fitness required and sure-footedness. I do not recommend descending on La Culman if the ground is wet.

Rifugi profile

Note the sharp gradient at the start of the descent. An alternative descent is to stay on the hiking path for Monte di Lenno from the Rifugio Bugone. 

Torno Moltrasio

View as you descend the La Culman path of Torno across the lake and Moltrasio in the foreground.

 

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Cleaning Up Como’s Tax Office

Agenzia delle Entrate

The offices of the Agenzia delle Entrate on Viale Cavallotti whose director was arrested in July 2019 following an investigation of corruption at the highest level of the organisation in Como.

Key officials in the Province of Como’s tax office (the Agenzia delle Entrate) have been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for heavily discounting local businessmen’s tax bills. The state has lost out on over €2 million in tax revenue as a result of a system for defrauding the authorities hatched by the actual chief of the tax office in league with one of the most prominent accountants in the city. To this date sixty people have been arrested linked to thirty five individual cases of corruption. These amount to six senior officers of the Agenzia delle Entrate including the previous Director, its Head of the Legal Office and another official from the Milan office. The scale of the scandal, first exposed in July 2019, has uncovered an institutionalised system for obtaining massive discounts on the tax liabilities of businesses or individuals in exchange for illicit cash payments. Such backhanders are known here as ‘tangenti’, made famous in the ‘tangentopoli’ scandal centred on Milan in the 1990s which brought about the fall of Bettino Craxi and Italy’s First Republic. Como’s scandal is a provincial rather than a metropolitan ‘tangentopoli’  and thankfully does not involve politicians. Yet it is similar to the Tangentopoli trials of the 1990s in revealing a murky side to supposedly respectable society. It has cast an unfavourable  light on a particular strata of Como’s provincial society piercing through layers of social pretension to reveal greed and corruption. 

What Is the Agenzia delle Entrate?

Agenzia delle Entrate logoAn office of the Agenzia delle Entrate exists in every Italian province forming part of a national structure of public administration under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance. All residents will have had to apply to it to obtain the all-important ‘codice fiscale’. Property owners will have greater contact since the office determines the level of all property taxes including those incurred through changes of ownership including inheritance. They have overall responsibility for the administration and collection of both local and national taxes including VAT payments. They identify errors in tax returns and call upon the help of the Guardia di Finanza to investigate and prosecute cases of tax evasion. It is therefore more than ironic that Como’s Guardia di Finanza ended up investigating its own Agenzia delle Entrate and arresting the Director, Roberto Leoni, and its Head of Legal Office, Stefano La Verde on charges of corruption. 

Rotten Apples in Como’s Tax Barrel

Casa del Fascio

The headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza in Terragni’s Casa del Fascio. The Guardia di Finanza undertake many of their investigations on behalf of the Agenzia delle Entrate. This time they found themselves ingestigating the agency itself.

The easiest way to establish a system of corruption is to have it initiated and promoted from the very top of the organisation. Roberto Leoni was the Director of the tax office in Como.  He actually moved from Como to take over as boss of the Varese office six months before his arrest in July 2019. However by that time he had established a system of corruption alongside other executives such as Stefano La Verde. No doubt he would have instituted a similar corrupt regime in Varese given enough time. But Leoni and La Verde have now been sentenced to four years imprisonment. The Head of Personnel at the Milan tax office was subsequently arrested for advising Leoni that he was under investigation. 

‘Creative’ Accounting

Antonio and Stefano Pennestri

Stefano and his father Antonio Pennestri. Antonio Pennestri is said to be the author of the system of fraud linking accountants to corrupt executives within the Agenzia delle Entrate.

One way to become one of the leading groups of accountants in Como was by going well beyond legal tax avoidance advice.  For an enhanced fee, the Studio Pennestri could guarantee you the full cooperation of the tax office in accepting  a significantly reduced calculation of your tax liabilities. You could also add to your unique selling point by promising to give your clients forewarning of any likely visits from the Guardia di Finanza to check up on your management of VAT receipts, the validity of your invoices or in pursuit of suspected fiscal fraud of any sort. And what about offering a sizeable reduction in any inheritance tax liabilities or any of the other taxes incurred with the sale or purchase of property? Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano were able to offer all these ‘under the counter’ services thanks to their arrangement with Roberto Leoni who exchanged these favours for envelopes stuffed with bank notes.

Antonio Pennestri

Antonio Pennestri – charismatic but corrupt

Antonio Pennestri was the evil genius behind what has become named the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. It brought many clients to his door aware of the extra-commercial relationship he shared with key players in the Agenzia delle Entrate. Unfortunately, the Guardia di Finanza had become suspicious of these activities. They captured video evidence of the Pennestri handing over cash to Stefano La Verde. Pennestri and son were arrested alongside Leoni in July 2019 with the father now sentenced to over fours years and his son to three years imprisonment.

Antonio Pennestri may well have seen himself and been seen as a respectable member of Como’s elite with his many valuable social and business connections.  But this was not the first scandal he had masterminded. In fact Antonio Pennestri has had a string of convictions including a one and a half year spell in prison back in 2013 for authoring the so-called ‘Sistema Comense’. 

Sistema Comense

Comense

The basketball club Comense was reconstituted in 2015 after Pennestri had stepped down as president. There is no suggestion the club has been involved in the Sistema Comense in recent years.

Antonio Pennestri had always been involved in local sport and was even the President of Comense – Como’s local basketball club which had been at the top of the national Serie A until, under Pennestri’s presidency, it was expelled from the Federazione Italiana Pallacanestro (FIP) and lost its Serie A ranking. Whilst acting as the basketball club’s president, he devised what appeared to be a win-win opportunity for his accountancy clients and for local sports clubs like Comense. The ‘system’ worked like this.  He encouraged his commercial clients to make large sponsorship contributions to Comense, from which they gained legitimate tax relief against profits. In exchange, the sporting club would issue false invoices to their sponsors – invoices which were never intended to be paid. The profits of the clients’ businesses would appear to be reduced when the false invoices were added to the company accounts resulting in a further lowering of their tax bills. His clients paid less tax and the sports clubs got their sponsorship.  

This scam was uncovered in 2012. Comense was expelled from the FIP and Pennestri was handed down a prison sentence that could not be suspended due to a previous conviction. In spite of this sad history, Comense has subsequently bounced back under new presidency.  Once taken back into the Federation, it recovered its reputation and some of its former justifiable sporting prowess. 

freemasons

Pennestri became master of the Como lodge of the freemasons – the Grande Oriente D’Italia.

Antonio Pennestri also bounced back after serving his sentence with his social position not unduly effected by his criminal convictions. He was later appointed the Master of the Como lodge of the freemason organisation, the Grande Oriente D’Italia. This freemason group gained some infamy in the 1990s due to revelations that its P2 lodge managed by Licio Gelli had constructed a shadow state associated with Gladio (an organisation based on the Verga Battalion stationed on Lake Montorfano during the war) ready to spearhead a neo-fascist coup d’etat. There is no evidence that Pennestri had any similar political objectives but he certainly had not given up on his Sistema Comense. In 2019, when the Guardia di Finanza were investigating his newly-minted Sistema Pennestri, they also looked into his attempts to revitalise the Sistema Comense as well as checking on any possible involvement of the freemasons.

Antonio Pennestri is undoubtedly a creative genius and his breathtaking capacity to bounce back socially must be due to a certain charisma tied to boundless energy and self confidence. It’s just a pity he chose to apply these qualities into devising illegal activities . 

Three Waves of Arrest

tangenti

Caught red-handed by a hidden camera set up by the Guardia di Finanza – Stefano La Verde seen receiving a €2000 cash payment from the Pennestri in his office at the Agenzia delle Entrate

The original arrests back in July 2019 were limited to Roberto Leoni, the then Director of the Agenzia delle Entrate, Stefano La Verde the Agency’s Legal Director and the two accountants – Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano. These were not people comfortable in spending much time in Bassone, Como’s prison. Their plea bargaining for reduced sentencing soon allowed the authorities to extend their investigations leading to a second round of arrests in May 2020. These included Roberto Colombo, the head of all property-related taxation at the Agency. He admitted he had received his first ‘tangenti’, or illicit cash payment, way back in 2012.

Bassone

Time spent on remand in Como’s Bassone prison encouraged those arrested to cooperate with the investigators on the basis of plea bargaining. This led to a total of three waves of arrests.

This second wave also netted Roberto Santaniello who had become a form of ‘illicit’ business development manager procuring corruptible accountants and linking them to the appropriate officials in the agency. 

The number of those officials was added to in the third wave of arrests in November 2020 with the names of Vincenzo Ferraro, the Agency’s expert on property inheritance tax, and Patrik Orlando, an expert on the taxation of off-shore funds. 

Como from Brunate

Como’s old town seen from the funicular to Brunate.

The first wave of arrests had cut off the original source of demand with the incarceration of the Pennestris. But this did not stop his studio from continuing the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. Its management was now entrusted within the studio to Simona Secchi who had been instructed to reassure clients that the system would continue to operate in spite of the arrests. 

Revelations made by Stefano La Verde in particular also led to the arrest of many more accountants and financial professionals unconnected to the Pennestris. These accountants  had been recruited into the scandal by Roberto Santaniello. La Verde’s role was to determine the cost to these clients for whichever illicit service they required. For example La Verde determined that one accountant pay €3000 for the voluntary disclosure of off-shore funds to Patrik Orlando while a similar client was asked to pay €2,000. 

The full extent of the spread of this system of corruption was revealed in this last wave of arrests. By now the total number of those charged with corruption amounted to a further fifty two people beyond the eight originally detained in July 2019. 

La Verde was the contact inside the Agenzia delle Entrate who calculated the fees for each favour. His testimony revealed how the Sistema Pennestri had developed from a few high value cases originating from a single Como-based accountancy firm into an institutionalised practice of corrupt negotiation with accountants from around the province. It appears as if the ‘business development’ strategy implemented by Roberto Santaniello had been to go for quantity as much as quality with the word going out to financial professionals across the province that tax bills could be negotiated for a fee. 

The rate of payment determined by La Verde depended on the number of cases brought by each accountant and their relative worth. Some accountants only sought one or two cases for which they might typically have to pay a tangenti of two to five thousand euro.  Massimo Mariangeloni, an accountant from Cernobbio, was atypical in having to pay €34,000 for five higher value cases. He received the judgement of a two year suspended prison sentence typically handed out to most of the second or third wave accountants. However he also had to pay a €29,500 fine. 

Conclusion

As far as we know there was no involvement of organised crime in the Como tangentopoli scandal. But it is not hard to see parallels between it and the ‘Nuovo Mondo’ mafia investigation we reported on recently. Both crimes were based on a ‘system’ devised by corrupt accountants. For Nuovo Mondo, the evil genius was Massimiliano Ficarra, a known mafioso. For the Agenzia delle Entrate, the author was the seemingly respectable Antonio Pennestri. Pennestri’s studio was just around the corner from that of Bruno de Benedetto, Ficarro’s trusted financial professional also convicted in the Nuovo Mondo investigation. Pennestri and De Benedetto subsequently became neighbours incarcerated together in the local prison at Bassone. Both systems defrauded the state. Both systems offered unfair competitive advantages to their participants. Both seem to be born out of and sustained by a similar culture of greed and entitlement. Given all this, it does become easier to appreciate how the mafia continue to find it relatively easy to insinuate themselves within sections of the provincial commercial community.  With such temptations to criminality emanating from the state’s own fiscal entity, one has to admire the majority of individuals who continue to prefer honesty and integrity no matter at what cost to them individually or to their businesses. The other saving grace arising from this story is the apparent incorruptibility of the Guardia di Finanza – long may it last!

Casa del Fascio 1

The Casa del Fascio may hopefully become a museum dedicated to Rationalist Architecture but in the meantime it is the headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza who have proved to be excellent custodians of this architectural gem.

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