Lake Como’s Moltrasio Trunk Murder

Moltrasio 4

Via Durini, Moltrasio, 5 km north of Como. A peaceful little town unused to violent crime but..

Lake Como is a peaceful place but, when crimes are committed, they tend to truly hit the headlines. No doubt this is due to media coverage delighting in the lake’s exotic natural landscape and that Como has seemed to specialise in crimes of passion. We have previously reported on how Cernobbio and its luxury hotel, Villa D’Este, saw the shooting of wealthy industrialist Carlo Sacchi by his ex-lover, Countess Pia Bellentani, in September 1948 and how this tragedy hit the national headlines at the time. Fifty eight years prior and just up the road in the neighbouring village of Moltrasio, another murder – also later to be judged a crime of passion – saw the conviction of a young American for bludgeoning his wife during their honeymoon, placing her stunned body in her travelling trunk where she died of asphyxiation and seeking to conceal the body by jettisoning the trunk in the lake. This incident also gained massive newspaper attention on both sides of the Atlantic not just for its self-evident drama but also because it raised a whole series of legal issues at the time surrounding the extradition of an American citizen to Italy.

Headline

A Bay Area newspaper reports the murder of Mary Scott Castle before husband, Porter Charlton, was suspected.

The Fated Newly-Weds

Villa Legnazzi

Villa Legnazzi on Via Durini, Moltrasio – the house rented by the newly-weds where Mary Scott was murdered.

The murder took place on June 6th 1910 within the ‘dependance’ of the Villa Legnazzi in Moltrasio. The victim was the 40 year-old ex-actress, ex-San Franciscan socialite divorcee Mary Scott Castle and the accused was Porter Charlton,  the 21 year-old bank clerk and son of Puerto Rican judge Paul Charlton.

Mary Scott

Mary Scott Castle

The couple had recently married on March 12th of that year in Wilmington, Delaware where she had claimed to be 27 years old and he 25. Mary had just been granted a divorce from her husband Neville Castle who had been a prominent San Franciscan attorney but, having lost a fortune, had moved up to Alaska to pursue fresh enterprises. Porter’s parents were unaware of their son’s marriage until after the event and were not impressed by the bride. Her acting career had stalled after some initial success but she still retained a reputation for her great beauty. She had been characterised as ‘imperious of will and with a consciousness of power’. Porter suffered from ill-health. He was tubercular and his father once described him as ‘weak of will and feeble of body’. The newly-wed couple did however share a similar character trait, a tendency to lose their patience and get into furious tempers. This trait may well have led Mary Scott Castle to the attempted murder of a former lover William D. Craig.  She shot him at close range, but with an under-powered revolver, in a corridor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1909. This event is remarkably similar to the shooting of Carlo Sacchi in the Hotel Villa D’Este in 1948 except that Craig was fortunate to survive unharmed. In Mary’s case, the bullet intended for her ex-lover was deflected by a fountain pen and he was only lightly injured. When the case against Mary finally came to court, the victim decided not to press charges. 

Moltrasio 1907

Moltrasio Lakefront in 1907 

The Road to Tragedy

Piroscafo Duca D'Aosta

Steamship Duca D’Aosta

The couple set off on their extended honeymoon in Italy from New York on April 16th 1910 on the Italian steamboat Duca D’Aosta. They arrived in Genoa on April 28th and overnighted the day after at the Pensione Rigatti. They then made their way north and checked in to the Hotel Barchetta on Piazza Cavour in Como on May 3rd, staying for two nights before moving over to the nearby Hotel Metropole Suisse.

Piazza Cavour 1900s with Metropole Suisse

Piazza Cavour and the Hotel Metropole Suisse at the turn of the twentieth century before the hotel’s front was redesigned by Giuseppe Terragni.

They were impressed by Como and made it known on May 7th that they wished to spend at least a month on the lake if they could find somewhere to rent. Not long after, they took up residence at the Villa Legnazzi in Moltrasio. There was nothing to suggest at this stage that the couple were anything other than happy in each other’s company.

Moltrasio 1

Moltrasio

Yet, on having moved into the Villa Legnazzi, which was a relatively modest ‘villetta’, the locals could hardly fail to hear the occasional heated argument sounding over the tranquil village. When returning to dine and stay overnight at the Metropole Suisse on May 17th, they were ejected from their room by the hotel manager at two in the morning due to their failure to stop disturbing the other guests with their animated rows. Porter even followed this up by refusing to pay the full fare demanded by the boatman prepared to row them back to Moltrasio at that early hour. Relationships between the couple and local residents deteriorated even further once they were befriended by a retired Russian resident called Konstantin Ispolatov, known locally as ‘Costantino il Russo’. Costantino was well read and spoke a number of languages thus making  himself useful to the couple as their translator. Porter spoke only English whilst Mary also spoke some French. Added to the locals’ distrust of Costantino and the sound of violent argument emanating from the villa, gossip also began to circulate that the couple and Costantino held wild orgiastic parties.

In A Fit of Temper

Capture of Porter Charlton

Article in the Oakland Tribune June 1910

As the honeymoon began to go severely sour, the couple began to consider that they had both made a mistake by marrying in such a hurry. Money was clearly a problem. Local suppliers were having to wait for payment. Porter could only call upon a modest allowance from his father. Mary had more of a fortune but was soon forced into selling jewellery to finance their stay on the lake. The realities of life were catching up with them and neither liked the prospect. On the night of June 6th all these tensions rose to the fore as the couple again started an intense row. Porter was later to claim that he was so provoked by his wife that he lost his temper and, picking up a mallet he had been using earlier in the day to mend some furniture, struck her a number of times to the head. Mary collapsed unconscious in a pool of blood. Porter immediately assumed she was dead and so, possibly after waiting one day, he emptied her trunk except for some letters and jammed his wife’s body in it forcing her head between her knees. He then also threw in the mallet, closed up the trunk and carried it down to the nearby jetty on the lake. Here he added a boulder to the trunk to give it added weight and heaved it into the water. The next morning he pocketed the rest of his wife’s jewellery and set out for Genoa to avoid capture intending to return to the United States as soon as possible.

Moltrasio 2

Looking down on Via Durini, Moltrasio

The trunk was discovered two days later on June 9th when a couple of fishermen caught their lines on it. They retrieved it thinking its weight suggested it might contain something of value but found instead the body of Mary. She was quickly identified by the letters that had remained in the trunk. An autopsy followed which revealed that she had not died as a result of her head wounds but due to asphyxiation – she had been alive when placed in the trunk.  At first, investigators considered that maybe Porter had also been killed since there was no sign of him. The bottom of the lake was dragged in search of a similar trunk containing the husband. Meanwhile, ‘Costantino il Russo’ was arrested as the main suspect to a double murder. Porter had sent off a couple of letters on the morning of his rapid departure and, once those had been retrieved, suspicion turned on him. A false lead led investigators to believe Porter may have taken the train north to Zurich which implied he may well be heading for Hamburg where he could take a steamer for New York. Instead he had boarded the steam boat Prinzess Irene which from Genoa, having stopped also at Naples and Palermo, docked on the  morning of June 23rd at Hoboken, New Jersey. 

01prinzessirene-ndl

The Prinzess Irene, a German ship was interned in New York in 1914 and renamed the USS Pocahontas and used as a troop ship. It was given back to German owners in 1923 and renamed the Bremen and then finally renamed the Karslruhe in 1928. 

Mary Scott’s brother, Captain Scott, had been convinced from the moment Mary’s body had been recovered that she had been murdered by Porter. He was at the dock in Hoboken on the morning of June 23rd following his hunch that Porter might be arriving there on a steamship from Hamburg. By chance, the Prinzess Irene had also docked that morning in the same port and Captain Scott was able to identify Porter as he waited to take charge of his luggage. Porter claimed to be called Jack Coleman when questioned but his true identity was soon revealed after his luggage was searched. He made a rapid and complete confession once his true identity had been revealed. He was then arrested and detained in New Jersey. 

Porter arrested

The arrest of Porter Charlton (in bowler hat) at Hoboken, New Jersey on June 23rd 1910.

Extradition to Italy

Public interest at this point on both sides of the Atlantic switched from the details around the actual murder to the course of the legal debate on whether Porter should be extradited. An extradition treaty did exist between Italy and the United States. It had however been broken a number of times with Italy preferring to bring its nationals to trial in Italy wherever possible even if their crime may have been committed in the United States. Under US law, a United States citizen could not be tried for a crime committed outside of US jurisdiction. So, unless Italy requested extradition, Porter would have to be released immediately. On June 29th 1910, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs duly requested Porter’s extradition. While Porter remained in detention, his family set about contesting extradition on the basis that the existing treaty had been abused so many times that it was no longer valid and, in any case, Porter was insane and could not be held responsible for his actions.

Tremezzo 1900s

Another vintage photograph from the turn of the century from the Vasconi archive shows a posed group of boatmen on a break on the waterfront at Tremezzina. The boat in the foreground is an ‘Inglesina’ and the cargo vessel behind it is a ‘Comballo’.

The legal issues were disputed from June 1910 until June 1913 when a definitive order was given for extradition. Porter finally returns to Como in November and is given a trial date of May 1914. He would however only face a charge of ‘unpremeditated’ murder – a formula similar to a crime of passion – and he underwent further examination by psychiatrists (known at the time as ‘alienists’) to establish the extent of any apparent insanity.

San Donnino Prison, Como

The old San Donnino prison in Via Giovio, Como. This was was directly behind the courthouse in Palazzo Volpi, now the city’s art museum.

In spite of the date set as May 1914, the trial did not actually begin until October 1915 by when Italy was at war. A final verdict of guilty but with diminished responsibility was passed on October 26th with a sentence of six years eight months. Porter only had to serve a further 29 days in Como’s San Donnino prison since time spent in detention since 1910 was taken into consideration as well as a one year ‘discount’ awarded to all those convicted during the war for crimes committed before the war started. Thus it was that Porter left Italy for the United States for the last time on January 12th 1916 taking the SS America from Naples to New York. 

SS America launch

Launch of the SS America built for Navigazione Generale Italiana at the La Spezia shipyard in 1908.  It’s route took it from Genoa via Naples and New York to Philadelphia – a round trip undertaken 34 times until 24th December 1916 when it changed to the South American routes.

Porter Charlton then faded into obscurity to die aged 45 in November 1933. 

Sources

Thanks are due to the research undertaken by Fabio Cani and Gerardo Monizza (both local historians and editors at Como’s publishing house, Nodo Libri). Their research was based on the material deposited with the Como Palazzo di Giustizia and later transferred to Como’s Archivio di Stato.

Other sources include the United States newspapers of the time with many articles in the newspapers from the San Francisco Bay area where Mary’s family were mainly based and from New York where Porter had previously been working. 

Moltrasio 3

Moltrasio

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Dining Out in and Around Como: Genuine Food

 

Honest food

‘Honest’ food? Not visually stimulating but truly delicious. Fried polenta and funghi porcini. To revitalise yesterday’s polenta, it has been lightly fried in butter, as served in the Trattoria behind the Santuario Della Madonna Del Soccorso in Ossuccio.

I have only recently felt sufficiently qualified to pass on some recommendations for dining out here. Why has it taken over five years to arrive at this point? Primarily because I am from England and so lack experience of local culinary traditions – I was essentially blind to those links between food and local culture. Secondly, my ability to offer a reasoned commentary of restaurant food cannot begin to match the well informed and exacting criticisms of Italian friends.  Just as my Italian will always be cadenced with a strong foreign accent, I also feel that my culinary judgements can never aspire to the native level of sophistication. Thirdly, in spite of these significant disadvantages, I persist in listening to an inner voice prompting me in the search and appreciation of a cuisine I can only describe as ‘genuine’ – a quality so nebulous that I have only recently been able to appreciate what I myself might mean by it. And finally I have hesitated to step into this area since we dine out for a variety of different reasons or to meet different needs – and as such, a set of recommendations do really need to match specific motivations. 

To address the latter issue first, I have decided to write a series of articles under the general title of ‘Dining Out in and Around Como’ with each one addressing a different category of need. This first one will take on what I might mean by a ‘genuine’ cuisine and where it can be found. 

What is Genuine?

Describing a wine as ‘honest’ either means it’s not that great but at least doesn’t cost too much or else it’s just pretentious twaddle. Describing a meal  as ‘genuine’ runs a similar risk. Further explanation is required and that, unfortunately, is far from straight forward.

Paccheri alla napoletana

Paccheri alla Napoletana – the form of pasta NOT served up as promised on the menu at Antica Riva  on Como’s lakeside.

It may be easier to start by identifying  restaurants which are not genuine. From my own experience once when eating at the Antica Riva on Como’s lakefront, my wife ordered a pasta dish based on a distinctive type of pasta called paccheri but was served an entirely different pasta without comment or explanation. When challenged as to why they had not served what had been ordered, the waiter offered the excuse that most of their clients would not have known the difference between it and any other pasta in any case. Restaurants of this type that display such a deplorable attitude deserve to be singled out and avoided at all costs. These are the antithesis of ‘genuine’. Unfortunately cities with high levels of tourism do allow such forms of dishonesty to go unpunished in the marketplace. Fortunately, Como has other options available but you seem more likely to find them as you move away from the lakefront.

Er Piu

First recommendation Ristorante Er Piu, well away from the lake near to the ex-army barracks in an area now abandoned by local industry but retaining this excellent restaurant.

Recommendation: Er Piu, Via Pastrengo 3, Como

Closed Tuesdays. Speciality fish and Lombardy Cuisine. Established for 30 years. Tel: 031 272154. Email: ristorante@erpiucomo.it. Link to website.

Notes: Located near to the military barracks in an ex-industrial area where the previous textile factories have now left.  In addition to the quality of the food, it is a joy to observe how the head waiter maintains a constant control on how service is progressing across the dining room. A popular location for weekend family meals but they also offer a daily weekday lunch menu at reduced prices. Other restaurants of quality on Como’s periphery left high and dry by the repositioning of industry include Ristorante S. Anna and Ristorante Navedano.

In London, most middle-of-the-road restaurants identify themselves by alignment with a particular national or regional cuisine. Often you hear people selecting where to eat by running down a list of nations – Chinese, Indian, Italian etc. In London, on Islington’s Upper Street, there are two ‘Peruvian’ restaurants within 50 metres of each other for whom the majority of clients can only have the most remote idea of what represents good Peruvian cooking. I would argue  that it is fundamentally impossible for an Upper Street restaurant to recreate a Peruvian cuisine matching anything like the quality you might expect back in Lima. To do so would require spending  a fortune on flying in their raw materials as well as acquiring and retaining qualified Peruvian staff. Even in France, which we know has as proud a culinary tradition as Italy and not so prone as in England to fall for novelty,  the food served up in most so-called Parisian Italian restaurants  is awful and dishonestly priced. 

Risultati immagini per valverde como

Ristorante Pizzeria ValVerde, Cernobbio. A ‘regional’ restaurant specialising in sea food that has acquired a great reputation amongst both local and Swiss customers.

Recommendation: ValVerde, Viale Matteotti 29,  Cernobbio

Open every day. Speciality fish and Sicilian Cuisine. Established for over 30 years. Tel: 031 511150.  Link to website.

Notes: Located on the road out of Cernobbio towards Maslianico. This is a family run business started by the elder brother who moved up to Cernobbio from Palermo a long time ago. The restaurant prides itself on the quality of the fish bought in from the Milanese market. It profits from its proximity to the Swiss border and the fact that the Swiss often prefer to eat early from about 18.00 meaning tables are freed up for Italian clients who tend to dine from 20,00 onwards. Organisation in the kitchen is their weak point and sometimes service can suffer as a result but this is the sort of establishment that can be forgiven such shortcomings due to its commitment to quality in all other respects. They also remain stubbornly closed over both the August and Christmas periods when both brothers return to Palermo for the holidays.

It may be stating the obvious that there are no ‘Italian’ restaurants in Italy nor are there ‘French’ restaurants in France but revealingly one can find a handful of  restaurants in London identified as ‘English’.  Here however there are an increasing number of restaurants identifying themselves as regional, e.g. Sicilian, Pugliese, Tuscan or Umbrian to name some of the more common.  Regional restaurants have been around for some time but crucially the original ones rarely identified themselves as regional. They were set up by migrants who, not being that far from their places of origin, could source the real raw materials and initially offer some culinary novelty to their clients in their adopted locations. They then worked over the years to establish a reputation for the quality of their cuisine.  The more recent wave of regionalism is instead a reflection of marketing trends aimed at commercial exploitation and more likely originating from a partnership including a Milanese financier rather than owned by a displaced family applying their traditional skills whilst seeking their fortune in a wealthier part of the country. This new wave will have to wait the test of time and the judgement of the marketplace before they can gain the accolade as ‘genuine’.

Casa 28

‘New Wave’ Pugliese regional restaurant ‘Casa 28’ on the corner of Via Vitani and Via 5 Giornate, Como. Slick interior, kitchen on view and even a slogan ‘Your satisfaction is our best prize’ on the exterior blackboard. Time will tell if this establishment can be classified as ‘genuine’ but it has gained some initial popularity.

I contend that very few people in Italy consciously decide to go and eat out in a regional restaurant. The national or regional ‘identity’ is not what primarily attracts people. Even if a restaurant does identify itself as Tuscan or Sicilian, it is more likely to be selected on the basis of its reputation and not by any geographical identifier. And their reputation depends on offering dishes that stand out and which they do best. Regional identification is in my opinion a marketing error since it is appealing to novelty, and novelty has a limited shelf life. 

La Barchetta

La Barchetta, Argegno. The interior of this restaurant has not changed in any respect since when this photo was taken in 2012. ‘Genuine’ restaurants tend not to remodel their interiors very often.

Recommendation: La Barchetta, Piazza Roma 2, Argegno

Closed Mondays. Speciality lake fish, Porcini mushrooms and truffles, Alpine Cuisine. Established in 1908 and run by the Dotti family since 1989. Tel: 031 821105. Link to website.

Notes: Located on the lakefront in Argegno at the start of the Valle Intelvi. Renowned for the quality of traditional local dishes such as Risotto al Pesce Persico or Risotto ai Funghi Porcini  as well as Ossobuco with Risotto Milanese. They also get in white truffles from the Alba area of Piedmont when in season.  This restaurant is included in the Rassegna Valle Intelvi along with other quality restaurants in the Intelvi Valley such as Ristorante Castiglione.  Another recommendation in the area is the Locanda Sant Anna.

Reputation depends on a number of factors, not least being the passage of time and the ability to sustain consistency. Reputation is gained by keeping faith with your clientele and seeking to maintain what is good and improve wherever possible. This in itself requires experience, a true desire to impart pleasure and a high degree of honesty to yourself as the proprietor and to your customers. Put all this together and we arrive at that ‘genuine’ cuisine. 

View from Locanda Sant Anna

View of the lake and the Villa Balbianello Peninsular  from the Locanda Sant’Anna above Argegno on the road to Schignano.

Thus ‘genuine’ cuisine is a notion at odds with novelty although innovation is not disallowed. It is at peace with tradition and comfortable with the notion of seeking to recreate what has been done well over many years. It is aided by consistency and continuity and by strong links to culinary habits laid down through previous generations. Given all that, a ‘genuine’ establishment goes beyond the menu to provide a relaxing atmosphere born out of its own effortless self-confidence in its quality and its capacity to impart pleasure. It is a quality that seems to hang in the air providing an oasis of certainty in an insecure world and which can only be extinguished by an excess of luxury. 

osteria gallo

Osteria del Gallo on Via Vitani, Como’s oldest street.  Traditional food in a traditional almost timeless setting. 

This definition seems to preclude new establishments, and admittedly it is harder but not impossible for them to qualify as ‘genuine’. What they need to offer before they acquire the necessary patina of experience is their enthusiasm, a clearly visible commitment to quality, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their desire to please. As time passes, these restaurants are permitted to become more individualistic in their approach and style always assuming they remain ‘genuine’.

Momi restaurant

Momi’s Restaurant on the lakefront at Blevio. This must be one of the most romantic and soothing locations when not over busy, matched by the quality of the cooking, commitment to local and seasonal products and a warm welcome. 

Recommendation: Momi, Riva Stendhal, Blevio

Closed Mondays. Speciality lake fish, local and seasonal dishes using quality ingredients.  Established in 2010 by Chef Momi  who tries to give a personal greeting to all customers. Tel: 334 1202327. Link to website.

Notes: Located with a terrace directly on the lake in the tranquil small village of Blevio, Momi’s restaurant is individual and their commitment to quality is best made obvious when the season quietens down and they are not under time pressure.  They offer a very reasonable Menu del Giorno during weekday lunchtimes. Staff at the restaurant also manage the neighbouring imbarcadero so they will not let you miss your boat departure.  Other establishments with direct lake access and a reputation for quality include La Tirlindana in Sala Comacina.

 

Momi restaurant 2

Momi’s from the Imbarcadero which is operated by staff from the restaurant.

The average lifespan of a London restaurant is measured in months not years and that is because most are ‘identity’ based and so are appealing to novelty, fashion, aspects of  life style, or god knows what else other than the quality of their cuisine. They are created around marketing briefs and business plans which fail to go beyond a superficial understanding of quality , or lack a fundamental interest in delivering culinary authenticity. Their ongoing replacement with new establishments with the same mentality, and destined for a similar short-lived existence, marks the triumph of hope over experience, but at least goes to guarantee a future for those establishments that conversely do commit to quality.

 

Missoltin

Some local dishes such as missoltini can be an acquired taste. Missoltini are the small lake fish (called Agone on Lake Como) which have been salted, pickled and pressed. They have a strong and distinctive flavour. They are typically served with the ubiquitous polenta.

While I am more than prepared to admit regional restaurants into the band of genuine establishments, for example ValVerde in Cernobbio, it has to be admitted that those offering local cuisine are usually better placed. That is because they call upon the tradition of local expertise with locally-sourced products. Many are also family enterprises and these seem well able to provide the continuity necessary to establish long-lasting reputations for quality. Nothing disqualifies a restaurant faster than an ever-changing chef. 

Antica Trattoria

L’Antica Trattoria, Via Cadorna, Como. This long established restaurant specialises in grilled meat but the full range of its menu is of excellent quality.

Recommendation: L’Antica Trattoria, Via Cadorna 26, Como

Closed Sundays. Speciality barbecued meat, local and seasonal dishes using quality ingredients.  Established many years ago and family run. Tel: 031 242777. Link to website.

Notes: Located well away from Como’s lakefront, L’Antica has built its reputation on commitment to quality and use of seasonal products. In particular they specialise in ‘carne alla brace’ and in guaranteeing totally gluten-free cooking for those suffering from this intolerance.

Rassegna Gastronomica

 

La Fagurida menu

Rassegna Gastronomica Special Menu for La Fagurida in Tremezzo

The local cuisine comes into its own at this time of the year – a period of plenty based on the harvest of corn for polenta, wild mushrooms from the woods and chestnuts. To reflect this abundance, there are now so-called ‘Rassegna Gastronomica’ (Gastronomic Collections) established in Como, Valle Intelvi and Tremezzina. These are all seasonal initiatives promoting local cuisine in participating restaurants. I had somewhat cynically assumed that these were primarily intended as marketing ploys to fill a slack period after the end of the summer season and prior to Christmas. However I now know better and would redefine them as nothing less than a perennial reassertion of local culinary culture.

 

The Rassegna Gastronomica Valle Intelvi is in its second year. It runs from 18th October to 18th November involving sixteen different establishments. More details are available from their Facebook page.

GastrolarioThe GastroLario is also into its second year. It is on a larger scale than the others involving fifty restaurants promoting the local cuisine found around Lake Como and within the province. It runs from 4th October to 24th November. Details are available in English from their website. This year’s competition is to identify the best ‘polenta uncia’ in the area. 

 

Polenta in Mendrisio

Mendrisio’s Fire Brigade offer hospitality and a plateful of polenta to diners at the town’s annual Wine Festival

The Rassegna Gastronomica Tremezzina is into its fourth year. It runs from 18th October until 30th November and, as in the Valle Intelvi, involves sixteen establishments. The link here is to download the organiser’s brochure.

 

Over the border in Switzerland the Rassegna Gastronomica di Mendrisiotto e Bassa Ceresio is just coming to an end as it runs from the 1st October to 3rd November. This year was its 56th edition celebrating as always the local cuisine and the winemaking of the region. More information is on its website

If you too might be in search of a cuisine that might loosely be described as genuine, try out some of the establishments within these initiatives, or any of those recommended here. It’s also a good idea to seek recommendations locally and the best in my experience come from those who have lived here for a long time. They can identify which restaurants have moved beyond novelty to withstand the test of time.

Slow FoodI would also like to mention the Slow Food movement which campaigns to retain and strengthen the same principles about food that I have attempted to describe here as genuine. There is a local chapter of the Slow Food movement here in Como and their website explains their philosophy and notice of the various events and initiatives in which they are involved. 

Just a morsel of cheese

Local cheeses (from goat, sheep or cow) form a key part of the area’s alpine diet and are readily available within the covered market or, as photographed here, in the Christmas market.

And Beyond…

A follow up article will seek to expand on the alpine roots of the local cuisine and the habit of Como city dwellers to dine out at weekends in one of the mountain refuges or ‘baita’. Additionally, in spite of my argument that there is no such thing as a national Italian cuisine, one has to recognise the ubiquity of pizza and ice cream and so we need to identify the best pizzerias and gelaterias. Finally, and probably not before next Spring, we will try to address the complex and varied needs of tourists to Como to offer our advice to the savvy visitor. 

La Fagurida.png

Tagliatelle at La Fagurida, Tremezzo

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Strada Regia: From Nesso to Lezzeno

Nesso Orrido

Part of the Orrido di Nesso, where the bus C30 drops you at the start of this walk.

This walk represents the final stage in the Strada Regia’s route from Como to Bellagio, or, to be more precise, from Brunate to Lezzeno since the path officially ends at Lezzeno’s Ponte del Diavolo, three kilometres short of Bellagio itself. I took the walk as far as the centre of Lezzeno, a seven kilometre stretch from Nesso but four and a half kilometres short of the Ponte. You should allow a good two hours but longer, if like me, you are distracted by foraging for chestnuts, walking along Lezzeno’s glorious lakefront or possibly stopping half way to eat at the Baita La Morena.

Nesso

Looking down from the bridge on the main road onto the roman Ponte Civera on the Nesso waterfront.

The walk can be divided into four sections defined by their differing terrains. Firstly we take the old mule paths and cobbled streets through the centre of Nesso before crossing the main road and climbing up onto the terraces. This next section, after a brief climb, flattens out to follow the line of the old terraces with spectacular views over to the other side of the lake. This then gives way to a prolonged stretch of dense woods walking at this time of the year (October) over a carpet of sweet chestnut burrs, the occasional mushroom and wild cyclamen. The final section descends to follow mule paths and a quiet tarmacked road which runs parallel to the main road through the different medieval quarters of Lezzeno until the path finally drops down to join the main road close by the Museum of Racing Boats. To further complicate options, you can start off the walk in Nesso by immediately taking a steep walk up by the Municipal building following the normal Strada Regia signs passing through the quarter called Vico. However here I describe the so-called lower route which follows the contour of the lakefront and will in any case join up with the other option at the second section.

Nesso

Imbarcadero Nesso

The port and imbarcadero at Nesso. Brienno is seen to the left on the opposite shore.

Our starting point is Nesso with its spectacular set of waterfalls – the Orrido di Nesso. I got here as usual by C30 bus from Como – a forty minute journey. The bus stop is just after the bridge over the gorge which creates the waterfall. From here, walk down to the lakefront by the path on the north side of the bridge and take a closer look at the iconic and much photographed Ponte Civera – possibly Roman in origin.  At the port take the uphill path leading north and follow it until it joins the cobbled street Via Borgonuovo which leads down to the parish church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Keeping on the right hand side of the church, continue as the street joins the main road to Bellagio. Walk along this road in the direction of Bellagio for about 100 metres until you come to a pedestrian crossing. Here you will be comforted to see one of the familiar Strada Regia signs pointing you off the road and up a mule track towards a chapel. You are now leaving the town of Nesso and the main road behind you as you join the second section of the walk.

Start of Strada Regia

Start of the lower level option of the Strada Regia from Nesso to Lezzeno.

Along the Terraces

Between Brienno and Argegno

View across the lake to the section of the Antica Strada Regina which is constrained to follow the main road from Brienno to Argegno due to the steepness of the mountains.

This section takes you up above the noise of the main road and then along a line of semi-cultivated terracing. It’s fascinating to note how the countryside has changed radically since the end of the last war due to improvements in communications and the mass abandonment of agriculture in favour of jobs in the towns and cities. From that moment, the extensive terracing which covered the hillsides all around Lake Como started to fall into decline, but the pattern of flat fertile strips divided by dry stone walls of Moltrasio stone is still more or less evident in those areas where the mountains don’t rise too steeply up from the lake. In this section, the terracing is still very evident and maintained in parts for fruit and olive trees.

Path divides

This is the point where you keep to your left to pass in front of the baitas rather than take the more developed path that continues to climb uphill.

Take care when you reach a couple of baitas, one with a flagpole in the garden, to not continue to climb up the hill but to take the less well-defined path which continues in front of the buildings. (The signposting on this section of the Strada Regia is not as thorough or as helpful as in previous parts.)

Cascina and mountain

Disused and abandoned buildings like this indicate the dramatic change from agricultural to industrial employment after the last war.

This section of the walk is open and offers marvellous views across to the other shore of the lake with views over to Brienno and on to  Argegno. Looking across the water, you can appreciate how the steepness of the mountains, coming down to the lakefront, has prevented walkers from adopting alternatives to the main road over this particular stretch. There is no such problem on our side however.

Argegno

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

The Woods

Mossy wall

Moss, fallen leaves and replenished streams make Autumn a great season for walking through the woods.

As we progress, the terracing stops, deteriorates or is in any case uncultivated and we enter a long stretch given over to woods. I hear now of ‘rewilding’ schemes in some agricultural areas of the UK but Lake Como went through its ‘rewilding’ unconsciously about seventy years ago as generations abandoned working the land.  Obviously the views over to the other side of the lake are now rare but the woods themselves offer many compensatory pleasures. One of these, depending on the time of the year, could well be collecting chestnuts. There are so many chestnut trees within these woods that it can seem in October as if you are walking on a continuous carpet of the spiny chestnut burrs. Also at this time of year, you may well see various types of mushroom if the ground is damp. If you think you have found and harvested some edible varieties, take them to a chemist just to get them checked before cooking.  Other autumnal joys include wild cyclamen, and the green banks of moss and lichens returning after the heat of summer.

Half way through the wood you will see a sign pointing to the Baita. If planning to eat at this Baita (which has excellent reviews) do telephone in advance to see if they are or will open for you. Here is a link to their website in English or call them on +39 328 0333335

Carvagna

As you leave the wood to enter the small village of Carvagna, take care not to miss this turning down to the left. It is very poorly signposted.

The path through the woods is narrow in parts but usually in good order. However there are some spots where trees may have fallen or erosion has damaged the way, so be ready and take some care. Also take particular care when eventually emerging from the woods in a village called Carvagna because here the Strada Regia signage can let you down badly. As you see the first stone buildings coming out from the wood, there is just a small faded unofficial sign pointing downwards and to your left. The faded sign actually points to Lezzeno and that is the way you should go. Confusingly, if you carry on straight here, you will be falsely reassured that you are on the correct path by seeing the white and red markings depicting the footpath. However this path leads you relentlessly uphill towards the summit of Monte Colmenacco just to the south of Monte San Primo. So ensure you take the left turn downhill as soon as you emerge from the woods  and you will soon be reassured to see a couple of ‘Strada Regia’ signs well placed for those coming from Lezzeno but of no help to those like us arriving from Nesso!

Through the Medieval Villages

Sormazzana

The final section of the walk traverses a series of medieval village settlements that are now part of the municipality of Lezzeno.

You are now onto the final section of our walk which is partly tarmacked but mainly cobbled mule track. It passes through a series of old settlements which are now all included within the municipality of Lezzeno but undoubtedly locally retain their individuality.

Church of Sant Antonio Calvasino

The church of Saint Antonio in Calvasino, one of the medieval centres you pass through on your way to Lezzeno.

One of the delights of the Strada Regia (and the Antica Via Regina for that matter) is the number of medieval villages it passes through with their narrow alleys and confused sets of arches, porticoes and heavy wooden doorways. As the road narrows to leave cars behind as you head into the alleys of any of these villages, there is a sense of expectation as to what architectural delights you will come across. Maybe nothing can quite surpass the string of pearls represented by  Molina, Lemna and Palanzo all within the municipality of Faggeto Lario further south on the Strada Regia, but here Sormazzana, Calvasino, Ponisio and Bagnana run a close second.

The path keeps at a discrete height above the main road until finally descending onto it opposite the Molinari Nautical Museum. A short walk up the road leads you to Lezzeno’s parish church of Saints Quirico and Giulietta. From here you can continue on to complete the further four and a half kilometres to the Ponte del Diavolo by returning onto the Strada Regia which restarts at the back of the church. Otherwise you can go down to the lakefront and enjoy a pleasant walk along the newly constructed lakeside ‘passeggiata’ before catching the C30 once more to return to Como. If you do opt to continue to Ponte del Diavolo, it is another three kilometres from there to get to Bellagio itself with the only option being to walk along the busy main road.

Lezzeno lakefront

The lakefront at Lezzeno

Further Reading

The three other sections of the Strada Regia are described:

  1. Como to Torno Revisited
  2. Strada Regia – From Torno to Pognana
  3. Strada Regia: From Pognana to Nesso (and back)

 

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Fairy Tales, Wanderlust and Landing in Como

Sonja portrait

Sonja Christoph, artist, illustrator and recently arrived new resident in Como.

It must be more than coincidental that so many creative people like Sonja Christoph are drawn to live in Como – the city nominated unanimously back in June by Italy’s UNESCO committee to form part of UNESCO’s ‘Network of Creative Cities’. She herself was unaware of Como’s creative designation, nor necessarily of its astounding recent achievements in art, architecture and both furniture and textile design. But as an art illustrator with a passion for folk tales and fables and as a wife and mother committed to fostering the creativity of all of her family members, it’s as if Como’s spirit and location called her here to join the ever-growing number of local foreign residents involved in the arts.

fonte di camerlata

The Ca’Merlata Fountain designed by Rationalist architect Cesare Cattaneo and Abstract artist Mario Radice is a fitting entry from Milan to the creative city of Como.

I initially contacted Sonja, who only arrived in Como back in August, once I became aware of her work as an illustrator, knowing that all us ex-pat immigrants have a story to tell. Her road to Como started as a form of wanderlust overcame her as a ‘teenager’ living with family in Florida.

artwork sample

Examples of some of Sonja’s illustrations of children’s stories. © Sonja Christoph

Her family combines links with Norway on her mother’s side and with Germany from her father.  So off to Germany she went to live initially in Heidelberg and subsequently for the next ten years in Munich where she completed a Masters degree in Comparative Literature and met her future husband, Alessandro Vannini, British by birth but Italian by upbringing. They then moved to London where Alessandro took up the prestigious post of Vice Director at the Institute of Cancer Research. It was however the birth of their son, Cristian, that prompted Sonja to develop her artistic career – not primarily for economic reasons but out of a desire to give her son a magical environment in which to enrich and preserve his inherent creativity.

big bad wolf

Little Red Riding Hood. ©Sonja Christoph

As part of her studies into comparative literature, Sonja had been attracted to the theories of child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim concerning the critical role played by fables and fairy tales in children’s emotional and creative development. He postulated how fairy tales and fables, sharing a high degree of thematic universality, seem to provide the means for young children to make sense or manage some of their emotions and reactions to the world around them. She then thought that the best way to maximise these emotional benefits would be to work on illustrating the stories since these would provide a pre-literate child with a stimulus for further reflection and a context for sharing their feelings and reactions.

Fairy doors

A ‘fairy door’ personalised art object made to commission.

Fairy doors 1This was the starting point for her career as ‘Sonja Illustrates’ which developed from the illustrations on the walls of her son’s room to a series of commissions for other families and the production of a unique child-centred art product known as ‘fairy doors’. The latter combine Sonja’s skills in art and illustration with calligraphy and, applying her literary background, with a series of suggestions for adults on how they might best use the imagery on the doors as gateways into their children’s fears and thoughts

 

Meanwhile, in the ‘free Hanseatic City’ of Hamburg, Kevin Fehling, the highly successful chef of the city’s 3 star Michelin restaurant ‘The Table’, had commissioned Sonja to provide illustrations in four editions of his in-house magazine.

The Table

Sonja with her cover design to kevin Fehling’s in-house magazine ‘The Table’.

He also turned to her when thinking about the decor for his next project, a restaurant known as ‘The Globe’ aboard the MS Europa, the only cruise liner to achieve a 5 star plus classification. Reading Kevin’s biography one can appreciate why he selected Sonja to design a series of drawings to fill the restaurant’s rear wall. His type of cuisine seeks to exceed any standard expectations of creativity. He must want his customers to both approach and react to his culinary experience with an open-minded almost childlike sense of wonder and amazement. After all, his clientele are for the most part exceedingly wealthy, very demanding, accustomed to luxury and most probably nursing jaded palettes. So what could be more refreshing for them than to be transported back into a sense of innocent discovery combining his cuisine within the packaged ‘wanderlust’ of an ocean cruise.

Kevin Fehling montage

A montage of Sonja’s illustrations for Kevin Fehling’s restaurant ‘The Globe’ on board the MS Europa

Kevin himself has stated how he took on the opportunity of establishing a ‘roaming’ restaurant as a reflection of his own sense of wanderlust which for him he has described as ‘like homesickness but only worse.’ His somewhat oxymoronic comparison seems to capture part of the ex-pat’s dilemma – a love of travel and enlarged experiences but a loosening of roots and fixed coordinates.  Many of us ex-pats including Sonja have upped anchor numerous times. Kevin Fehling’s The Globe restaurant itself upped anchor aboard the MS Europa for the first time this October with Sonja’s illustrations helping to feed Kevin’s clients with a sense of wonder and adventure.

Food, travel and adventure

Food, travel and adventure ©Sonja Christoph

So what were Sonja’s first impressions of Como? On the positive side, she was delighted to find herself within a short walk of that great art supply shop on Via Milano so no excuse to getting that key commission from Kevin Fehling out the door. However this major commitment was not helped by an irritatingly long delay in getting Internet installed at home. Italy would not be Italy if there were not at least ‘one or two flies in the ointment’. But, in spite of long exposure to German efficiency moderated to some degree by her spell in London, she is adapting stoically to that uniquely Italian sense of customer service. Notwithstanding Sonja’s fascination in fable and fantasy, she struck me as being a total realist well aware of the need to confront and overcome the intimidating aspect of moving to a country where many of the norms and customs are new to you.

London

London ©Sonja Christoph. 

The size of cities count. After her years in London where it seemed you remain anonymous no matter how long you live in a neighbourhood, she is happy that both she and her son are now readily recognised and greeted in their local area. Como is still a city of human dimension, but with the additional extraordinary gifts of nature to its north and, if required, the cosmopolitanism of Milan to its south. For now, Sonja has had to return to driving getting Cristian to and from school, to which he has adapted well. Husband Alessandro takes on a highly ambitious and significant role as the Director of Research at the Human Technopole – the state-sponsored project occupying the ex-EXPO site in Rho which aims to re-position Italy as an international leader in life sciences. Sonja continues to foster the creativity of all her family members and, of course, to illustrate.

Fieramilano Rho

Fieramilano at Rho, the site of Expo Milano 2015 and now the headquarters of the Human Technopole

Do visit Sonja’s Internet site to see more examples of her work, for further biographical detail and a very much more accurate and complete understanding of the theoretical basis of her approach.

Her full social media links are:

Internet:  www.sonjaillustrates.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sonjaillustrates/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sonjaillustrates/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SonjaChristoph

Also visit  https://www.htechnopole.it/en/home to understand more about what brought Alessandro, Sonja and Cristian to Italy and to appreciate the immensely ambitious scale of this major state-sponsored initiative.

Como Companion has always taken an interest in Como’s artistic tradition, and in both her local and immigrant contemporary artists. The following links may be of interest:

ugly duckling

©Sonja Christoph

Sarah Aller: Como’s New York Artist in Residence

The Como Group of Artists – ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’

Ester Maria Negretti – Como’s ‘Traditional’ Contemporary Artist

Ice Cream and Vespas: Irma Kennaway’s Artistic Odyssey

The Poetry and Joy of Urban Portraiture – Adriano Caversazio

Campo Urbano – Public Art in Como 1969

Wanderlust

 

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Campo Urbano – Public Art in Como 1969

Poster

Poster advertising the recent convention and exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of Campo Urbano.

This September 21st was the 50th anniversary of a cultural event known as Campo Urbano – a ‘happening’ held over a single day on the streets of the historic city centre. The anniversary has recently been marked with a conference in Villa Olmo, the dedication of the display space in the town’s art gallery to one of the event’s art installations by Ugo La Pietra and an ongoing exhibition of some of the ephemera associated with the event in the de-consecrated church on Via Borgo Vico 33. This year’s Streetscape exhibition of public art installations running from October to November is also dedicated to the memory of this one day precursor to all subsequent public street art in Como.  Many of the original contributing artists are still with us and some of them, including Ugo La Pietra, were present at a commemorative meeting at the Pinacoteca to review the impact of that single day 50 years ago. 

Mirroring the Duomo

Campo Urbano’s subtitle was ‘Aesthetic Interventions within a Collective Urban Context’. This installation was called ‘Riflessioni’ consisting of mirrors at the base of the Duomo

Via Cinque Giornate

Via Cinque Giornate named after the rebellion against Austrian rule in 1848.

All of these events made me gradually aware that Como’s Campo Urbano deserved some closer attention. It was an event still within the living memory of those of my generation in that exhilarating but brief period of youthful political and intellectual idealism which seemed to mark a release from the grey austerity of the post-war years. Como was (and perhaps still is) rather conservative politically and its youth did  not catch the revolutionary fervour until a year after the street demonstrations in Paris, May 1968. This is in spite of the city’s enthusiastic participation alongside Milan and Brescia in 1848 – a fundamentally revolutionary year across Europe. 

Como’s Artistic Tradition

If slow to revolt politically, Como was about to reveal itself again as a national or even international leader in the artistic world since Campo Urbano was pure innovative cultural agitprop. Como had established itself from the 1920s onwards in the vanguard of Italy’s plastic arts with the Futurist theories of Antonio Sant’Elia, the work of rationalist architects such as Giuseppe Terragni  and abstract artists like Mario Radice, Manlio Rho and Carla Badiali. Our previous article on the these so-called ‘Astrattisti Comaschiexplores the extent of their phenomenal success and poses some reasons as to why such international talent came to be concentrated within this provincial city.

Ico Parisi

A young Ico Parisi (our left) in front of Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio.

They had established a cross-fertilisation and integration of ideas uniting the disciplines of fine art, architecture and design. These talents, combined with exposure to international trends through galleries in Milan and links with Paris, put them at the forefront of artistic developments and gained them a massive national reputation. So much so that a next generation of architects, artists and designers decided to make Como their home. These included Ico Parisi who moved from Palermo to come and work in the studio of Giuseppe Terragni. He in turn worked with artists such as Mario Radice and another Como resident sculptor, Francesco Somaini to combine all three disciplines in ground-breaking buildings such as the Casa Bini on Monte Olimpino. Another artist, Giuliano Collina had also moved from Liguria to base himself in Como. Parisi, Somaini and Collina were to become key contributors to Campo Urbano. 

Art and architecture

Poster advertising the exhibition of Mario Radice’s collaboration with architects showing part of his mosaics on the exterior of Casa Bini, designed by Ico Parisi and also including sculpture by another Campo Urbano contributor, Francesco Somaini.

The Demonstration

What interested all of this next generation of artists was the possible impact their disciplines could have on revitalising the living environment in both public and private spaces. However they needed the inspirational leadership of another Como resident, the art and architecture critic Luciano Caramel, to organise Campo Urbano as a living manifesto of their ideals. This is how Fabio Cani, local Como historian and principal editor of Como’s publishing house Nodo Libri, describes the event:

‘Sunday 21st September 1969 some areas of the centre of Como were transformed by an unusual group of artists (mostly from Milan, but with a core of support and inspiration from Como) driven by fantasy and a desire to shatter the complacency of a provincial city. This was ‘Campo Urbano’.

He goes onto describe the uniqueness of the occasion as a mix of artistic activity, protest, exhibition and demonstration. It was essentially one of the most influential acts of public artistic and architectural agitprop, and even though similar events had arisen out of the atmosphere of 1968, Campo Urbano’s significance was in the quality of its organisation and the clarity and force of its message. 

Ugo La Pietra design

Ugo La Pietra’s designs for his installation of an enclosed tunnel along Via Vittorio Emanuele. La Pietra is an artist, architect and designer.

A catalogue of the event entitled Campo Urbano: Aesthetic Interventions in a Collective Urban Dimension, with photographs by Ugo Mulas and illustrations by graphic designer Bruno Munari, was published later giving the event a prolonged afterlife and providing scope for future academics to analyse its social as much as its artistic significance. 

Logo

 

The main installations of the day are here described by Romy Golan, Professor of Twentieth Century Art at the City University of New York:

‘laundry hung on clotheslines across the Piazza del Duomo by Gianni Pettena, which brought the unsightly qualities of Italy’s impoverished peripheries to the city center; a wooden tunnel covered with black plastic in order to obstruct a main commercial street, by the architect Ugo La Pietra; mirrors lining the foot of the Gothic Duomo, by the architect and conceptual artist duo Mario Di Slavo and Carlo Ferrari, which created myriad reflections that unhinged the city’s most familiar monument; an invitation to the public to release pieces of folded paper from a nearby medieval tower by Munari, as an attempt to ”visualize the air”; and, finally, an artificial storm by the Paduan and Milanese collectives Gruppo T and Gruppo N, who enlisted local firemen and electricians to simulate falling rain and lightning with synchronized loudspeakers and projectors. Nothing could be more “presentist” than this.’

Fabio Cani describes the locals reactions to the event as either ‘shocked or fascinated, prompted to discussion or just disgusted, unable to comprehend and turning their backs on it or getting fully involved.’ 

Interaction at Campo Urbano

Crowds interact with the installations in Piazza Duomo in September 1969

However much the day’s event has subsequently been discussed, its original purpose was fairly modest, namely to stage exhibitions not in a gallery but in a public urban context alongside people who had not elected purposefully to attend or participate but were just going about their everyday lives. Simple though this now sounds, it was at the time revolutionary, iconoclastic and an idealistic act of civil protest. Like May 68, it was inclusive and egalitarian and about liberation from creative constraint, conformity and social convention.

End of A Dream

Ico Parisi art

Surrealist painting by Ico Parisi in the Pinacoteca di Como.

Campo Urbano was held in the September that  followed on from Como’s first student protests in January 1969 – well after Paris in May 1968. Its importance in the collective memory may well be influenced by this particular timing since in retrospect it seemed to reflect the end of a brief youthful period of idealistic hopes and expectations. Soon after protests on both the extreme left and right were to rapidly degenerate into acts of terror and assassination. The Neo-Fascist atrocity in Milan’s Piazza Fontana took place a mere three months later on 12th December 1969 killing seventeen and wounding eighty eight. So started the period of bitter terror-driven civil war that came to be known as the ‘anni di piombo’ – the years of lead. Alongside the victims in Piazza Fontana lay the innocent idealism of an entire generation nurtured on the humanist and egalitarian principles that had underpinned the work of those architects, artists and designers who had been defining an aesthetic for the post-war world. 

Como’s Artistic Heritage

Giorgio di Chirico

Self portrait of Giorgio de Chirico with a plaque whose inscription in latin reads ‘Et quid amabo nisi quod aenigma est?’. This phrase was placed on a banner spanning the Piazza Duomo by artist Giulio Paolini. The Latin translates roughly as ‘And what will I love if not what is enigmatic?’

For me, the ‘discovery’ of Campo Urbano prompted even further admiration  of how the small city of Como has been able to produce such a rich artistic heritage throughout the twentieth century. It was fascinating to see how a generation following on from Terragni, Badiali, Rho and Radice was able again to take a national lead in the areas of art, architecture and design. Thanks to this, I have begun to appreciate more profoundly the influence and importance of Ico Parisi and his wife Luisa, a furniture designer who trained in the studio of Gio Ponti. 

The 50s and 60s  generation of Como artists differed from their forebears who were for the most part self-taught. Instead they were mostly academically trained with the Brera Academy in Milan taking a leading role. Luciano Caramel even became Vice Director of the Brera Academy later in his career. But the work of that earlier generation had now become mainstream in the art schools and so artists like Atanasio Soldati, a student at the Brera Academy and founder of the Italian form of Concretism, could cite Mario Radice as one of his major influences. 

Campo Urbano’s Legacy

The long term legacy of that single day of artistic agitprop may not be so easy to discern from within our more atomised post-modern art world. It may well have brought about the annual Streetscape exhibitions of street art installations which are commissioned and placed so they refer in one way or another to their urban setting. However I believe Campo Urbano was about much more than that and in any case, even the idea of street art itself seems now to get compromised as installations acquire increasing monetary value. 

Parada Par Tucc

The Parada Par Tucc is an annual event held in June that reflects the spirit of Campo Urbano.

Romy Golan  described Campo Urbano as ‘the reorientation of contemporary art practices toward a dematerialisation of the art object and the extra-mural trespassing of the artifact into its surroundings.’   Her language points me to the danger that the more art objects ‘dematerialise’, the more dependent they become on ‘interpretation’ which in turn relies on textual descriptions that can be very obscure.  That may be one of those ‘unintended consequences’ of Campo Urbano.

Pratiqiamo

Pratiqiamo have also inherited part of the spirit of Campo Urbano with their social participation and aim of rejuvenating public spaces.

The legacy can also be seen in its social impact.  For example, its spirit is certainly present within the annual Parada Par Tucc.  This may be more street theatre than art but, now into its eleventh year, it is committed to giving visibility to the more marginalised citizens of Como with a strong belief in using art for social participation and inclusion. 

Another initiative in the spirit of Campo Urbano but directed entirely to wellness and physical activity is that organised by Pratiqiamo. They are robustly non-commercial, public spirited and inclusive. They are also dedicated to reclaiming public spaces.  For them, being outdoors and surrounded by nature is of primary importance hence their name Prati-Qi-Amo (translated as Fields-Qi Gong-I love) but also sounding like ‘pratichiamo’ – we practice. They like to locate their activities within Como’s different parks  and public spaces with the intention of reclaiming these as places for communal enjoyment. Some of Como’s parks away from the lakefront can be somewhat neglected and certainly underused. Pratiqiamo aim to assist the reintegration of these overlooked areas back into social urban life.  

Streetscape8

The Bull in Piazza Duomo signals the eighth edition of Streetscape Public Art which runs from mid-October for a month.

These two examples might be thought of as tangential to art and architecture but I believe they, and many other similar low-key events, reflect the social impact of Campo Urbano’s revolutionary act of bringing art out of the galleries. 

Cast of Characters

The Artists

Collina, Giuliano: b. Intra 1938 – . Artist. Studied art at Milan’s Brera Academy. He currently holds a chair in design at Como’s Galli Academy.

La Pietra, Ugo: b. Pescara 1938 – . Artist, architect and designer. Studied architecture at the Milan Polytechnic.

Parisi, Ico (Domenico): b. Palermo 1916 – Como 1996. Artist, architect, designer. Apprenticed to the studio of Giuseppe Terragni.

Mulas, Ugo: b. Brescia 1928 – Milan 1973. Photographer. Self-taught but frequented the Brera Academy and the nearby Bar Jamaica. Photographic chronicler of Campo Urbano.

Munari, Bruno: b. Milan 1907 – Milan 1998. Artist, graphic designer. Self-taught and apprenticed to Milanese studios. One of the original founders of MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta)

Somaini, Francesco: b. Lomazzo 1926 – Como 2005. Sculptor. Studied at Milan’s Brera Academy. Member of the MAC (Movimento Arte Concreta). Collaborated with Parisi and Mario Radice in creating Casa Bini, Como.

Organiser

Caramel, Luciano: b. Como 1935 – . Art and architecture historian and critic. Served as Vice Rector of Milan’s Brera Academy from 1979-1982

Further Reading

Blog describing Ico Parisi’s work as an architect.

Fabio Cani’s article in Italian on Campo Urbano.

Romi Golan’s article in English on Campo Urbano.

Urban Fields Blog – inspired by Campo Urbano with photos of the event and links to other sites of interest.

Movimento Arte Concreta

Members of MAC – the Movimento Arte Concreta – a development of abstractism well represented by artists from Como in the tradition of the famous ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’.

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Como’s Secret Gardens

Conservatorio

Courtyard and cloister of the ex-hospital Sant’Anna, now the Conservatorio di Como

On the weekend of 21st and 22nd September, those fortunate to be in Como can, for the price of €8, visit a whole series of secret gardens and courtyards within, and sometimes on, the old city walls. This very welcome initiative is called ‘Bellezze Interiori – I Giardini Segreti di Como’. An organisation known as TIKVA is to be thanked for this along with their partners, Como’s  Conservatorio music school and the cultural association Iubilantes.

Off Via Diaz

A courtyard off Via Diaz opposite the Le Soste restaurant – open to anyone with the curiosity to enter.

Anyone walking the streets in Como’s old centre must have peeked into the numerous courtyards or sought a glance through open doors onto the private gardens concealed within wishing they could only just step further into any one of these tranquil spaces so definitively separated from the tumult outside. Now, at least on this one weekend, we can.

The purpose of the Bellezze Interiori initiative is best left to the organisers to describe in their own words on their website but crudely translated by myself since the site is still under development. They say:

Bellezze Interiori is an ambitious project established to give public access to places until now known only to a few.

It is an innovative project already duplicated successfully in other Italian locations intended to spread awareness of local treasures, to promote respect for our urban environment and to rediscover the beauty of our historical and cultural heritage through opening up green spaces.

Their statement of aims gets more hyperbolic at this stage as can often be the case in Italy, this land of harsh realities and impossible romantics. They continue:

This isn’t just the physical opening of the gates but also an internal opening up to others in a genuine real moment of shared urban experience contributing to adding value and access to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Chiostrino Artificio

The Chiostrino Artificio, a semi-hidden gem.

Como and its secret courtyards and gardens do however merit the hyperbole and, again thanks to the selfless initiative of some civic-minded individuals and owners, we can all check this out for ourselves.  Locations are all described on their website where you can also purchase the €8 ticket online (€5 for those above 65, free for the disabled and for children under 10). You will in any case need to go to the project headquarters over the weekend in Palazzo Lambertenghi  (Via Lambertenghi 41) to pick up your bracelet that will ensure access to all the locations and events over the two days. You may also buy tickets there on the day.

Palazzo Lambertenghi

Palazzo Lambertenghi, classical exterior, baroque interior

Porticoed courtyards, originating out of monasterial cloisters or the more domestic enclosed yards of medieval dwellings, are bit of a renaissance speciality – and they abound in Como’s urban palaces. Some of these interior treasures are permanently open for all to see and enjoy such as the nymphaeum in the courtyard of the Palazzo Giovio, now the Museo Civico, or the courtyard with terracotta highlighting in Palazzo Rusca. Other treasures like the exterior of the Chiostrino Artificio or the Teatro Sociale’s Sala Bianca can be seen when attending a scheduled event. This does however leave the majority of Como’s architectural delights hidden away from the public, often behind stout ‘portone’ which remain resolutely closed against the outside world.

Museo Archeologico

The Nymphaeum in the courtyard of Palazzo Giovio, the site of Como’s Museo Civico.

There are fortunately some public-spirited owners who have shown themselves prepared and willing to share their good fortune by allowing occasional access on their property to the general public. They appreciate that sites of particular cultural or aesthetic value form part of a shared heritage. The Italian equivalent of the UK’s National Trust, the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) have done much in organising open days to many of these privately-owned treasures. For example, this year FAI organised visits to the Palazzo Odescalchi in Piazza Roma which is undergoing renovation and conversion into apartments for private purchase.

Collegio Gallo Carlo Carloni

The ceiling of the grand staircase in the Collegio Gallio, frescoes by the Intelvi master, Carlo Carloni.

Here was a chance to see some of the 16th century frescoes by the Recchi brothers before the renovated units get sold off into private hands. They also organised visits to the Collegio Gallio, one of Europe’s oldest teaching institutions where the public were able to see the frescoes by the 17th Century Intelvi master from Scaria, Carlo Carloni, on the ceiling of the grand staircase and decorating the walls of the Aula Magna. Visitors to Bellezze Interiori will also be able to visit the Collegio Gallio.

Martirio di San Marco, Recchi

Martirio di san Marco by the Recchi Brothers, taken from the main altar in Chiesa San Giorgio in Via Borgo Vico and now housed in Como’s Pinacoteca on Via Diaz.

When visiting Palazzo Lambertenghi, be sure to note the 16th century frescoes in the Sala Affrescata by Giovanni Battista Recchi and his brother Giovanni Paolo. The room is also referred to as the Sala Recchi. These brothers had a studio in Via Borgo Vico, a street which still hosts the studios of contemporary artists such as Ester Negretti, from where they undertook commissions across Lombardy and Piedmont including decorating their local church of San Giorgio. Their painting above San Giorgio’s main altar, ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Mark’ was removed and is now on view at Como’s Pinacoteca in Via Diaz.

Another of the Bellezze Interiori sites is the Palazzo Albricci Peregrini in Via Rovelli. The main villa here was renovated towards the end of the 15th century and still has a remarkably well preserved fresco from that period on the inside of the main doorway.

Palazzo Albricci Peregrini

15th Century fresco on the inner wall of the main entrance into Palazzo Albricci Peregrini in Via Rovelli.

Behind the villa there is a beautiful garden and alongside that lies a medieval building which has been lovingly restored by the owners of the villa to make one of the most atmospheric Bed and Breakfast locations in the city. It even contains exposed stone walling from Roman times. This is just another, if not entirely secret gem, at least one that deserves a visit and to be better known .

Secret Garden

Not on the list yet of gardens to visit, this is the villa just beside Sant’Agostino outside the city walls on the western side.

Not all the buildings on the list are necessarily old. For example the Palazzo Arturo Stucchi, also known as Palazzo Delle Torre, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 and then extensively renovated by Como’s eclectic-style architect Federico Frigerio for Arturo Stucchi who was a textile magnate. What is of main interest here is the Nymphaeum and the statues representing the Four Seasons in the niches that flank it. This Palazzo is on Via Volta where you will also be able to visit the birthplace of Alessandro Volta. I am not sure if the house itself will be open to the public. Half is now occupied by the Order of Engineers and the other half by a law firm. They have generously given public access to the house in the past. You will certainly be able to visit the gardens of the house and also the gardens down the road at the old silk factory and headquarters of Mantero. Here within the gardens on the corner of the old defensive walls is the tower known as Porta Nuova within which Alessandro Volta undertook some of his early experiments in harnessing electricity. By the way, the whole of the Mantero building, the gardens and the ancient communal salt and tobacco warehouse across the road are for sale.

Sede Mantero

The old Mantero headquarters on Via Volta. The gardens behind also give access to the Porta Nuova tower where Alessandro Volta undertook some of his early experiments seeking to harness electricity.

Both the Volta and Mantero gardens are examples of what are called ‘giardini pensili’ or hanging gardens. These are gardens built on top of other buildings as for example along Via Volta where the gardens have been built on top of the old ramparts and remains of the original Roman wall defences.  From Volta’s house, the gardens are accessed directly from the first floor and then paths lead you up onto the top of the walls overlooking the park and across Viale Varese to the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso. Other hanging gardens along Via Volta will also be open to visits.

Via Volta

The ‘Giardino Pensile’ at Alessandro Volta’s home on Via Volta.

No matter how noisy and populated the streets in the old city might be, once the main doors are closed on them the interior courtyards and gardens retain a surprising serenity which, perhaps more than anything else, helps convey the spirit of days past. This upcoming weekend in September  organised by Bellezze Interiori will offer access to the largest number of private dwellings of cultural or aesthetic interest ever available at any one time.  The modest charges go to cover administrative costs and to help plan future events. Not all the details for this year’s weekend have yet been finalised and there may well be more owners signing up to give access to their properties, along with other events. The initiative deserves every success and I certainly hope that it is something that rapidly becomes a reliably regular highlight in Como’s cultural calendar.

Collegio Gallo

The Collegio Gallio will be one of the sites open to the public on 21st and 22nd September,

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Argegno to Argegno: Up and Down the Telo Valley

Ancient bridge Argegno

The Roman bridge at Argegno over the River Telo.

This circular walk begins and ends at Argegno, a delightful town on the western shore of the Como leg of the lake and at the start of the Valle d’Intelvi. This valley links Lake Como to Lake Lugano or to use the original latin names of the lakes, from Lario to Ceresio. The Valle D’Intelvi has a natural beauty derived from spectacular features such as the majestic Monte Generoso and the Sassa Gordona which both straddle the Swiss border.  The Telo runs down the eastern section of the valley into Lake Como while the similarly named Telo di Osteno runs westwards beyond Pellio into Lake Lugano.  The proximity of the lakes and the abundant irrigation from the streams running down from the mountains on either side create a unique mild micro-climate which was much appreciated by those Milanese industrialists who built their Liberty-style villas here well away from the suffocating summer heat and humidity down in the Pianura Padana.

View from Cerano

View from the path from Veglio to Giuslino down on to Rovasco and Lake Como.

This area also has a remarkable creative tradition having produced artists and craftsmen who have had a major influence on European culture in two distinct eras, the first being from the ninth century and on through the period of Romanesque architecture and the second during the seventeenth century in the period of the baroque.  So an excursion up the Telo Valley offers opportunities to appreciate both art and nature while passing through the medieval centres of a variety of mountain villages.

san sisinio

Church of San Sisinio, established originally in Roman times, This was the view painted by Winston Churchill on his holiday to Lake Como in 1945.

Argegno is easily reached from Como either by bus (C10 or 20) or by boat. From the main piazza, take any of the narrow alleyways off to the north and cross the Roman bridge following signs for the Mulattiera di Pigra, a cobbled ancient path that will lead us up above the town to Muronico.  After a brief climb you will see the Church of San Sisinio on your right. This is one of the oldest churches in the valley originating from the days of the original Roman settlement of Argegno.  The interior of many of these churches in the Valle D’Intelvi  host impressive internal decoration dating from the baroque period. For example, San Sisinio has a great example of the fake marble mosaic work developed by the valley’s craftsmen called ‘scagliola’. Unfortunately the churches are mostly left locked but don’t hesitate to enter if you see an open door. You will always be welcomed to look around unless of course there is a service being held.

Churchill Val D'Intelvi July 1945

Chiesa di Sant Sisinio, above Argegno – Winston Churchill, from sketches done in July 1945

As you walk up the mulattiera past the church look back to appreciate the very viewpoint adopted by Winston Churchill when he painted the church during his holiday on Lake Como in 1945 after the war and his recent defeat in the post-war general election.  The path will lead you on into the old centre of Muronico where you should try the doors of the Chiesetta di San Carlo which houses other fine examples of Intelvi craftsmanship.

The walk described here is one recommended by an association known as the ‘amici di Dizzasco e Muronico’.  They publish a handy leaflet with a clear map available in any of the tourist offices with the long but descriptive title ‘Percorso suggestive di esplorazione culturale e paesaggistico della Bassa Valle d’Intelvi’.  The same association is presumably also responsible for the clear signposting  provided at least for the first section of the walk from Argegno to the Via dei Mulini outside of Dizzasco.  However, signposting gets more challenging once you cross the Telo river and make your way up to Cerano.

SignThe route up the valley takes you past Muronico, past the turning off to the right for Pigra to Rovasco, followed by Biazzeno  and then Dizzasco. Dizzasco is a town obsessed with mules hosting an annual Mule Festival and displaying mule emblems in some most unlikely places.

Via dei Mulini Dizzasco

The River Telo at the recreation area on the Via dei Mulini outside of Dizzasco. Our path takes us across the bridge in the background to start a climb up to Cerano.

Take the left-hand forks out of Dizzasco’s main piazza to descend down to the Via dei Mulini where there is a picnic area along the banks of the Telo. It is well worth taking a brief detour before crossing the bridge by taking the river side path going up the valley. A five minute walk will bring you to an old mill followed shortly after by another mill on the far side of the river.Sign 1

When you cross the bridge  you start to climb out of the valley towards the town of Cerano.  Before making a gradual return down this other side of the Telo Valley, you can detour up a further hundred metres in altitude to the neighbouring town of Veglio before following the signs for Giuslino.

Asino Dizzasco

Mule water spout on the fountain in Dizzasco – the town which hosts the annual Festival of Mules

There are few opportunities to eat along this walk but, if arriving around lunch time, Cerano’s Baby Bar offers a fixed price lunch for €12 including wine, water and coffee with a first and second course of mountain proportions – a very good deal.  You may well need this refuelling stop if you decide to walk up to Veglio. The route is not signposted but take the road north out of the town and then turn left where you see a road with a sign warning of a 10% gradient. When in Veglio, head south past a lavatoio (the old communal laundry facilities which are still used by some in these  mountain communities).  The tarmacked road soon gives way to gravel and then a cobbled mule path offering some great views to your left down to the lake below. However, once you follow the sign for Giuslino,  look out for an un-signposted sharp turn left and downhill. If you miss that turn you will carry on to the path leading up to the spectacularly located Church of San Zeno – a seriously long way off your route and a very steep climb!

fresco Veglio

Fresco on the walls of the lavatoio in Veglio. Unusual in that the subject is domestic rather than religious.

Coming out of Giuslino you are forced to follow the main road south until you come to a bridge known as the Ponte Erboggia. The Erboggia is a tributary of the Tela.  A notice beside the bridge explains its strategic importance and the plans to blow it up in the case of invasion from across the border in the First World War. This road  is the only way into the south side of the Telo Valley from the west  and blowing up the bridge would essentially prevent any further access east towards Argegno.

Turn off the tarmacked road at the bridge and then follow the mule path south avoiding any turn off to San Zeno until you come out of the woods and approach the Church of Santa Maria Assunta above Schignano.  Schignano is a town that hosts a truly fascinating carnival in February.

San Zeno

Clouds following a summer storm surround the mountain-top church of San Zeno

Over the years the carnival has attracted more and more attention across Lombardy mainly since it is a true piece of street theatre as well as an opportunity for the local people to demonstrate their skills in carving wooden masks.  Despite its growing popularity, it has remained true to its anarchic origins since its organisation is entirely in the hands of the local community who exclude outside commercial interests.

The route from hereon is downhill taking you down to the Sanctuary of Sant’Anna  perched above Argegno. Here there are a couple of restaurants and I can give a personal unqualified recommendation for the Locanda Sant’Anna where the food is excellent but by no means as economical as Cerano’s Baby Bar!

Interior of Sant Anna

Interior of the Sanctuary of Sant’Anna, below Schignano on the path down to Argegno. The rich decoration shows off the skills of the Intelvi artists and craftsmen in the baroque style of fresco painting and sculpture.

The signs state that the descent from Sant’Anna to Argegno will take about forty minutes from where you can take the bus from the main piazza back to Como.

Schignano

The town of Schignano

The map provided in the tourist office states the entire route amounts to around ten kilometres but, given the slight lack of adequate signposting from Cerano,  allow for a few more. Argegno is at about 220 metres above sea level and Veglio, the highest point on the walk, is at 700 metres.  However you need to allow plenty of time for the walk given all the glorious cultural attractions along the way.

I find the history and culture of the Vale D’Intelvi fascinating so there are a number of other articles in this blog if you would like to read more.  They include:

  1. Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini
  2. Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities
  3. Lords and Ladies of Misrule at Schignano

Statuary

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Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities

Sant Agata Castiglione

Church of Sant’Agata in Castiglione D’Intelvi with Monte Generoso in the background. The masters of stucco and scagliola originated predominantly from the Intelvi valley which runs from Argegno on Lake Como to Lake Lugano.

Back at the start of the 17th Century, a new technique was developed in Northern Italy to create fake marble marquetry – a much cheaper method of reproducing ‘commesso’ –  the artistic effect of marble mosaic using  ‘pietra dura’ (hard stones) which had its heyday from the 14th to the 17th century.

Commesso Pietra Dura Dubrovnik

An example from Dubrovnik of ‘commesso’ marquetry using ‘pietre dure’ . The technique is expensive and time consuming since each stone inlay must be polished individually since they all differ in density.

This new technique was called ‘scagliola’ (large slither or scale) and it derived from the skills already developed in the use of plaster for internal decoration known as  stucco. A certain Guido Fassi from Carpi, a city between Mantova and Modena, is accredited with the introduction of scagliola in Italy and Carpi rapidly became a centre of excellence for the technique. However, the most successful family of scagliola artisans was forced to move away from Carpi to Milan in the mid 17th century when the father, Battisti Leoni,  committed a murder and fled to avoid imprisonment.

Scagliola Carpigiana

An example of scagliola from Carpi.

He and his three sons set up a new workshop in Milan and before long had completed commissions for decorating the altars of churches across the Po Valley and the table tops for nobility from Genoa to Amsterdam.

Also by the mid century, the technique had arrived in the Val D’Intelvi  – the valley which links Lake Como with Lake Lugano – where it immediately took root given the pre-existing tradition in stucco, stonework and the other decorative arts as well as architecture.  The first scagliola altar front (known as paliotto) in the Val D’Intelvi  is attributed to the priest artisan Carlo Belleni (1612-1683) and found in Gottro on Lago Ceresio, the name given to the  eastern end of Lake Lugano. The craftsmen of the Val D’Intelvi rapidly developed their skills deploying a distinctive set of design features and undertaking commissions across the Province of Como, and more broadly over the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Castiglione Sant Agata

Paliotto decorated with scagliola in the church of Sant’Agata in Castiglione D’Intelvi.

The Val D’Intelvi is a beautiful but relatively remote part of the province of Como straddling the Italian side of the border with the Swiss Federation. For historical reasons, the area had always produced numerous families who perfected craft skills employed in construction. There is good reason to believe that it was the stonemasons from this remote far-northern corner of Italy who led the adoption of the Romanesque style of ecclesiastical architecture across Western Europe.

Sacro Monte Ossuccio 1

Painted stucco sculpture in the chapels of the Sacro Monte in Ossuccio, now a UNESCO site.

Our previous article Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini identified the influence of these itinerant ‘maestri comacini’ in the 13th century and how they established freemasonry as an early  artisan guild set up to protect the secrets of their trade – their ‘mysteries’.  Now in the 17th century, Counter-reformation Europe was gripped by the baroque style of architecture and design. It would be a second wave of itinerant ‘magestri comaschi’ deploying their skills in stucco, scagliola and fresco painting to spread this ornate decorative style across Europe.

Scagliola was born out of stucco, plaster work, which had developed in Rome during the Renaissance as a cheaper option to marble. The techniques were first defined in a tract by Alberti in 1542 but examples had been produced in the workshops of Raphael from the 1520s. Stucco designs could be polished, painted, bronzed or gilded. Or painted sections could be polished to resemble ‘pietra dura’  as developed in Carpi to become what became known as scagliola. Stucco designs were made from a variety of plaster but the preferred final layers for scagliola were made from gypsum rather than lime. This would be mixed with water and animal glue and then coloured. There are numerous examples of impressive stucco work across the Province of Como such as the interior of Santa Cecilia in Como itself decorated  in 1687-88 by an Intelvi artisan, Giovanni  Battista Barbarini from Laino.

Santa Cecilia

Detail of stucco work in the Church of Santa Cecilia, Via Cesare Cantu, Como.

Other fine examples can be seen in the chapels of the UNESCO site,  the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio.  These were produced by Agostino Silva (1628-1706) from Morbio Inferiore, a town just over the Swiss border from Como and Cernobbio.

Intelvi unkmown

Detail of scagliola work on a paliotto screen from the Val D’Intelvi

Scagliola work was usually reserved for the front panels of the church altars, known as ‘paliotti’ in Italian. Here the idea was to imitate ‘commessi’ mosaic work to the same aesthetic effect but at a fraction of the cost and time to produce. The earlier Carpi paliotti tended to be monochromatic  but the styles developed in the Val D’Intelvi were bright and colourful including a rich variety of patterns and designs. The background colour was normally black. This was produced by colouring the plaster with ‘nerofumo’ also known as lampblack – a pure carbon produced by collecting the soot from burnt oil. The other main colour used to mix and in pure form was white – a lime white known as Bianco San Giovanni  which originated from Florence. The following recipe for its production was written by Cennino Cennini (1346-1427) in his book ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’.

‘…take good white air-slaked lime, put it, in the form of powder, into a pail for the space of eight days, adding clear water every day, and stirring up the lime and water thoroughly, so as to get all the fatness out of it. Then make it up into little cakes; put them up on the roofs in the sun; and the older these cakes are, the better the white will be. If you want to make it quickly and well, when the cakes are dry, work them up with water on your stone; and then make it into little cakes and dry them again; and do this twice and you will see how perfect the white will be. This white is worked up with water and it wants to be ground thoroughly. And it is good for working in fresco, that is, on a wall without any tempera.’

Sant Anna Argegno

Altar in the Santuario di Sant’Anna, Argegno. with fine examples of stucco, fresco and scagliola work.

The artist’s palette was completed with blue derived from either azurite, indigo or lapis lazuli. Red was obtained from vermilion, cinnabar, hematite for a dark red or crimson. Yellow came from ochre ( a natural clay) or orpiment. The base of the paliotti was made from a plaster mixed with broken up bricks or roof tiles and sand. Quality gypsum for making the plaster for the upper layers  was taken from the local mines at Limonta, just to the east of Bellagio or Nobiallo, to the north of Menaggio.  Marble quarries in nearby Musso (white marble) and Varenna (black marble) and the stone quarries at Moltrasio ensured the craftsman of the Val D’Intelvi had all the raw materials needed for their crafts.

Santo Sisinnio

The interior of the Church of Santo Sisinnio in Muronico above Argegno. The statue of the Madonna and Child is in marble with all surrounding decoration in stucco.

While the Val D’Intelvi  had a long tradition of craftsmanship, its prominence in the production of stucco and scagliola maybe would not have developed if Como, being on the border between the catholic world of Italy and the Calvinism of some of the Cantons in the  Swiss Federation, had not been on one of the front lines of the Catholic Counter Reformation. Also Northern Italy had received many catholic refugees fleeing from Protestant Northern Europe during the Thirty Years War and they were intent on securing and declaring their faith by commissioning works in the style that reflected the religious affirmation and exuberance of the Counter Reformation,  namely the Baroque.  The artisans of the Val D’Intelvi, used to long periods of itinerant work and outward emigration, were thus poised to dominate Europe once again.

ludwigsburg

Ludwigsburg Palace, near to Stuttgart.

The predominant position of Val D’Intelvi craftsman is best exemplified by their role in constructing Ludwigsburg Palace, the largest palatial estate in Germany commissioned by Eberhard Louis, Duke of Wurttemberg in 1707.

ludwigsburg interior

Interior of Ludwigsburg Palace with stucco work by the maestri comacini led by Donato Frisoni.

When Duke Louis’ architect Johan Nette died in 1714, the sculptor Donato Frisoni, originally from Laino in the Val D’Intelvi, was appointed to take over responsibility for completing the original section of the palace and extending it. Frisoni employed hundreds of his fellow countrymen but the main craftsmen he employed all originated from the Val D’Intelvi, namely Paolo Retti (Frisoni’s nephew), Giambattista Carloni from Scaria,  the Scotti from Laino and the Ferretti from Castiglione. The scale of the works was immense. Paolo Retti was organising  up to six hundred and fifty workers at one stage consisting of stone masons, cutters and labourers.

Val D’Intelvi craftsmen were to be found wherever the baroque style was in favour, particularly in cities across Catholic Mid and Eastern Europe such as Prague, Vienna, Passau and Salzburg. Salzburg Cathedral was designed by Santino Solari (1576 – 1646), born in Verna in the Val D’Intelvi. Construction was also done entirely by craftsmen from the Val D’Intelvi.

Salzburg Cathedral

Salzburg Cathedral, entirely constructed by caftsmen from the Val D’Intelvi.

Giambattista Carloni not only worked on the Ludwigsburg Palace but was also responsible for producing ten altars and the stucco decoration in Passau Cathedral. The whole of the interior decoration of the cathedral was project managed by another Intelvi resident, Carlo Lurago from Pellio. These two became the most prominent promoters of baroque decoration across Eastern Bavaria.

Ceiling Passau Cathedral

Ceiling of Passau Cathedral, stucco work by Giambattista Carloni from Scaria in the Val D’Intelvi.

Giambattista Carloni’s two sons, Diego (1674-1750) and Carlo (1687-1775) were also employed at the Ludwigsburg Palace. Diego was a sculptor and master of stucco and scagliola whilst Carlo was an artist. They, like all the other master craftsmen from the valley, worked predominantly abroad returning from time to time to their towns of origin. These two brothers became internationally renowned protagonists of rococo  – the lighter but highly decorative style that developed out of the baroque.  Along with their successful careers in Stuttgart, Vienna, Passau and in Italy, they decided to gift the parish church of Santa Maria in their home town of Scaria with a complete interior and exterior makeover. Carlo also added some delightful frescoes on the wall of the portico added to the side of the nearby Romanesque church of Saints Nazaro and Celso.

Carloni Santa maria Scaria 2

Interior of the Church of Santa Maria, Scaria. Painting by Carlo Carloni and stucco work by his brother Diego.

Carloni Santa maria Scaria 3

Church of Santa Maria at Scaria with stucco and scagliola by Diego Carloni and the fresco above the altar by his brother Carlo.

As with the story of Como’s group of world renowned abstract artists, ‘the astrattisti comaschi’ , one is left wondering what were the circumstances that led to this intense concentration of artistic talent within such a small defined area. I have alluded to some possible geopolitical causes but maybe the most significant influence was family.

Carlo Carloni Scaria

Fresco by Carlo Carloni on the wall of the portico of the Church of Saints Nazaro and Celso in Scaria,, Val D’Intelvi.

For example Paolo Retti, the architect cited as collaborating with Frisoni on the Ludwigsburg Palace was not just Frisoni’s nephew. Paolo’s father Lorenzo was a stucco master as was his brother Donato. His other brother Leonardo was an architect. Craftsmen would marry into other craftsmen families from the valley. Connections to family and place of origin gave these itinerant workers the freedom to travel for years on end knowing there was always a welcome back home.  Travelling for work exposed them to different techniques and ideas while family pride also drove them to perfect their skills and to innovate.

Thus there have been two clear eras over the last nine hundred years when the ‘maestri comaschi’ have had a disproportionate  influence over European art or architecture.  It is difficult to foresee how this success could be replicated again given modern methods of design and production but their legacy has at least ensured, due to the need for restoration, that their old skills remain current.  Students at the School of Artisan Crafts at the Villa Fabris in Verona still learn how to create and restore scagliola!

Students at Villa Fabris

Students at Villa Fabris learn the techniques of stucco, scagliola and other decorative arts so as to recreate or restore the originals.

 

 

 

 

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Tourism on Lake Como – Then and Now

Argegno

Argegno and the start of the Val D’Intelvi

Are more tourists coming to Lake Como these days? Data on this for 2018 has recently been published covering all of Lombardy and its individual provinces including both Como and Lecco for the two legs of our lake.  The data does reveal the increasing importance of tourism to the local economies of both provinces, with a breakdown on the country of origin of visitors and on how long they stay here.  It also reveals the broad differences in the type of tourism on offer in Como or Lecco.  We also see how many people may prefer to visit Lake Iseo or Lake Maggiore. Yet the figures provide no insight into why people choose voluntarily to visit or to live in any of these provinces rather than just stay at home or in their mother country.  The data cannot explain what brought me as a resident or the 1,372,787 visitors in 2018 to pick Como as a location that may possibly be good for the soul.

Now – The Figures

Bell tower

Towards Lezzeno

InLombardia, the Lombardy Region’s tourist board, has in recent years been actively campaigning to encourage more people to visit Milan and the other provinces in the region. The figures for 2018 show their efforts are paying off with a 3.5% increase in numbers since 2017 but 26.4% since 2013. In 2018 , out of a total of nearly 17,200,000 visitors to Lombardy, 7,800,000 went to Milan and 1,370,000 came to Lake Como making us more popular than Lake Maggiore (Province of Varese) or the Valtellina (Province of Sondrio) but less so than Lake Iseo (Province of Brescia). For Como this represents a significant 34.9% rise in numbers since 2013.

On average across Lombardy, around 50% of visitors originate from outside Italy. However for Como the percentage of foreign visitors climbs to 77.5%, ahead of Lake Iseo with 72% or the other leg of the lake in Lecco at 62.6%. Countries of origin are recorded for Lombardy as a whole but not for the individual provinces. The top ten countries in descending order are 1) Germany 2) United Kingdom 3) Netherlands 4) United States of America 5) France 6) Switzerland 7) Japan 8) China 9) Belgium 10) Russia.  The Provinces of Sondrio (the Valtellina), Cremona, Lodi, Monza, Mantova and Pavia all have a majority of Italian tourist visitors.

There has been a radical change in the type of lodging available with a decline in the number of hotel beds across the region except for Como where there has been a steady annual increase of 1.6% over recent years.  The reduction in beds is most marked in the two or three star category. Conversely there has been a massive increase in the number of non-hotel beds. This category includes holiday homes, bed and breakfasts, ‘agriturismo’ and camp sites. Since 2015 this category of accommodation has increased by a massive 302% in Como with a 59% increase recorded in just the one year from 2017 to 2018. Lecco and Sondrio have also seen significant increases since 2015 of around 150% in this category.

There are also marked differences in the length of visitors’ stay. The average for the whole of Lombardy is 3.64 days per visitor with Como just below this at 3.32 days although those from abroad tend to spend less time here, 2.6 days. The challenge is of course to get people to stay longer and Brescia (Lake Iseo) seems to manage this well with an average stay of 5.72 days.

Brescia and Lake Iseo seem to be doing a number of things well and maybe there is something that Como and Lecco could learn from them. The figures also reveal essential differences in the experiences on offer on the Lecco leg rather than Como with Como maintaining or even increasing the number of luxury hotel rooms as well as increasing the non-hotel options. Lecco is managing to increase the number of visitors but less are coming from abroad than to Como and they are also favouring lower cost accommodation options.

Then – The Origins of Tourism

Towards Bellagio

Bellagio from Lezzeno

So we know how many people visit the lake, roughly where they come from and how long they usually stay. Let’s try now to find out why we are all here? The answer is to some extent obvious, in that the lake has its natural beauty. From Roman times Lake Como, known as Lario, was recognised as having a particular appeal with unique qualities. Pliny the Younger was one of the first to describe the attraction of the mild, fertile lakeside contrasting with the dramatic mountain backdrop. He had a villa built for him on its shores, and his enthusiasm for the lake helped give birth to the concept of ‘Il Mito di Lario’ – or the fame of the lake. As time passes, the ‘Mito di Lario’ will form the basis for the growth of an ever expanding and evolving tourism industry. However, tourism as such is a relatively modern phenomenon and the concept of visiting far-away lands for pleasure could only take root once fundamental infrastructure issues were resolved.

Lakeside and mountain

From lakeside to mountain – Lake Como’s contrasts

We have the diary kept by a manservant of an English nobleman, Sir Edward Unton, who travelled through Italy in 1563 to give us some insight into the concerns and interests of early travellers.  The quote below reveals as much by what it fails to mention and the relative space given to describing Milan compared with the throwaway reference to Como.

‘Milan is a fair great city well-fortified and situated in a fair country having on the one side a very strong castle whereunto all the city is in subjection. This city is very populous and full of artisans of all sorts and much more than other cities I have seen. From thence the 1st October to bed to a city of the same dukedom called Como, not fair standing at the foot of the mountains and the furthest city towards Switzerland. In this part of Lombardy is indifferent good food for travellers, the people notwithstanding are very subtle and crafty given like the rest of Italians to deceive strangers.’

Richard Smith, the diarist, was unimpressed by the lake, the local inhabitants or the cuisine with his focus definitely on urban culture and his preference decidedly for Milan.  His prejudice against Italians in general was matched at the time by the overall contempt of the Milanese towards Como – after all it was only four hundred years previously when the two cities were at war with each other. However, aristocrats, who began to visit the area in increasing numbers from a century later as part of their cultural ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, were more favourably impressed. Some even settled in the area and established neo-classical villas and gardens on the lake shore adding to the lake’s fascination for successive generations.

Villa D'este

Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio

If Elizabethan aristocrats were not yet interested in the lake, Italians were. In 1568 Cardinal Gallio of Como commissioned the architect Pellegrino Pellegrini to build the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio as his summer home. Villa Monastero in Varenna, originally a monastery as its name suggests, was acquired as a home for the Mornico family in the early 1600s.  Villa Pliniana, originally built in 1573, was bought by a branch of the Milanese noble Borromeo family in 1590.  Villa Dell Grumello on the edge of Como was built in 1570 for Tommaso D’Adda.  It would later pass into the hands of the Odescalchi and then the Giovio family whose ancestor Paolo had built one of the early lakeside villas on the current site of the Villa Gallia in 1543 to house his collection of paintings.

Giambattista Giovio

Giambattista Giovio, author (1748-1815)

The Grand Tour, undertaken as part of the intellectual education of young Northern European aristocrats and focussing initially on the major cultural cities of Europe, did much to develop the concept of ‘tourism’.  It introduced the concept of travelling for its own sake, for the experience and for the opportunity to learn and then to exchange ideas and opinions with other travellers. One such journey was undertaken in 1777 in the company of Alessandro Volta by the author Giambattista Giovio, a member of a long-established Como aristocratic family. Giovio kept a journal of their journey together through Switzerland including their meeting with Voltaire in his home town of Ferney, just over the border from Geneva.

Giovio was perhaps the most influential person in his day to encourage interest in visiting Lake Como. He published ‘Como and Lario’ in 1795 and his further text on travelling around Lake Como was published posthumously in 1817. These books helped to broaden interest in travel beyond visits to sites of antiquity into locations which might inspire through their beauty or dramatic quality.

Then – From Spectacular to Sublime

In 1817 Stendhal visited Lake Como and described it as ‘sublime’.  Sublime is a word that in modern parlance has lost most of its original power and significance similar in a way to ‘awesome’.

Villa Pliniana

Villa Pliniana, Torno – Percy Bysshe Shelley and wife, Mary considered buying this on their visit to Lake Como in 1818

When as a teacher I attempted to introduce students to the Romantic Poets such as Shelley, my personal challenge was trying to get my head round the true meaning and importance to these writers of the sublime – a metaphysical almost mystical belief in the powers of man and nature. So, whatever the sublime might be, for Stendhal and visitors like Shelley and his young runaway bride Mary, Lake Como had it. The Shelleys were so attracted to the lake that they seriously looked into the possibility of purchasing Villa Pliniana, now a luxurious hotel but a dilapidated albeit romantic wreck when they viewed it in the Spring of 1818.

Milano and Sublime

Sublime Lake Como

The Romantic period ushered in a golden age for Lake Como with so many writers, artists and musicians deciding to visit and record their impressions.  Sheer sided mountains reflected in the calm waters, snow-capped peaks above temperate shores, small towns with Romanesque bell towers rising above the surrounding chestnut groves – these were the never changing elements which had enchanted visitors from Pliny’s day.

Torno

The ancient northern Roman gateway into Torno

But for the Romantic sensibility, the beauty and drama of these natural elements conveyed a sense of freedom, awe in its original sense combined with the boundless possibilities of creativity. What could be a better setting for Verdi to complete ‘La Traviata’ or for Rossini to compose ‘Tancredi’ over a three day stay at the Villa Pliniana, or for Bellini to collaborate with Giuditta Pasta, his mezzo-soprano muse, crossing the lake from Moltrasio to her villa in Blevio?

Cardinal Gallio’s summer villa in Cernobbio was acquired in 1815 by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of the English King, George IV. It was she who renamed it the Villa D’Este having bought it as her home in exile from the London court.  Lake Como had by now consolidated  an international reputation for its charm.

View of Menaggio JMW Turner 1842

View of Menaggio from the sketchbook of JMW Turner, 1842

Now – From Sublime to Serene

As the nineteenth century progressed, the wealthy homes of aristocrats either changed hands with or were accompanied by those built for the financiers and industrialists making their fortunes from Northern Italy’s growing industrialisation.  As we know, the increase in wealth for the few was also matched by a partial mastery and a general deterioration in the quality of the natural environment matched by an increase in the pressures of everyday life.

Romance on the lake

From sublime to serene – Lake Como becomes ‘romantic’.

People no longer tended to travel as much for intellectual or spiritual enrichment as they did in search of some peace and tranquillity in a bid to regain equilibrium prior to returning back into the commercial fray. The dawn of the modern world had made the Romantics’ concept of the sublime impenetrable and the search was now more directed to seeking serenity, a concept easier to appreciate even if hard to achieve. Since the quest for serenity was bound to be more in demand than the esoteric search for the sublime, tourism on Lake Como was set for further development. However the lake retained, simplified and then amplified its ‘Romantic’ epithet, becoming to this day a popular location for weddings.

Churchill Val D'Intelvi July 1945

Chiesa di Sant Sisinnio, above Argegno – Winston Churchill, from sketches done in July 1945

Some notable figures in the political world have sought serenity on the lake including Winston Churchill. He visited here immediately after he lost the post war elections in the United Kingdom in July 1945. He started his holiday staying for two weeks in Moltrasio as a guest of an industrialist. He spent much of his time sketching and painting but his stay has also raised speculation that he may also have been trying to track down and dispose of incriminating correspondence between him and Mussolini.

Konrad Adenauer rented a villa in Griante above Cadenebbia for at least two periods a year during his time as the German Chancellor after the last war. Adenauer had one of the most stressful roles in modern politics seeking to drag his country out of the shame and bankruptcy of the Nazi years while also laying the foundations for ongoing future peace in Europe. The Villa la Collina provided the serenity he required. Maybe following Adenauer’s example but years later, the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, on his retirement in 2006, spent three months staying above Menaggio.

He remained incognito for most of this time but feared his cover may have been blown one day when, while out buying a newspaper, someone seemed to recognise him stating, ‘I know you – you’re Morgan Freeman!’ He was also a regular visitor to the Ambrosetti Forum, the annual meeting of international politicians and industrialists held at Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este. In all he visited Lake Como six times dining on one of the last occasions as guest of George and Amal Clooney in Laglio at their Villa Oleandra.

Rezzonico

Rezzonico in the Comune of San Siro

The Clooneys have done more than any others to publicise the lake in recent years, in spite of the fact that other wealthy industrialists like Richard Branson and various highly anonymous Russian oligarchs also own property here. This summer the Clooneys entertained Barak and Michelle Obama as house guests. No doubt they also  appreciated the soothing restorative benefits of staying on the serene lake.

The Future

The one constant throughout the whole long period in which tourism has grown on the lake is its basic attraction. Lake Como has a unique combination of the lush temperate lakeside fringing the calm water which in turn reflects the dramatic mountainsides with their gullies dividing off the individual mountain communities.

Brienno to Argegno - sheer mountainside

Going north from Laglio from Brienno to Argegno, the mountains fall so steeply down to the lake that not even the mountain paths up to the alpine pastures are readily maintained.

Fortunately these features are largely protected by the local geology, which may also discourage the development of a mass tourism and continue to hinder too much further urbanisation. The current communications infrastructure fails adequately to cope with the number of summer visitors. The father of Lake Como tourism, Giambattista Giovio knew back at the start of the 1800s how important roads were to the area’s wealth and development. Now however we need to develop alternative ecological solutions to enhance the communications network.

Christo Floating Piers

Bulgarian artist Christo’s Floating Piers on Lake Iseo

Como may also be able to learn a lesson or two from Brescia on how they have achieved their higher than average  length of visitors’ stay in their city or on nearby Lake Iseo.  Their province includes Franciacorta, a wine producing area best known nowadays for sparkling whites (spumante rather than prosecco). The wine quality is generally good but the wine’s success in recent years is due to superlative marketing. The province must have noted this success and applied similar imagination in promoting their lake recognising the part culture can play in attracting attention.

Villa del Grumello

Villa del Grumello between Como and Cernobbio, owned by the Odescalchi and the Giovio families, where Giambattista Giovio entertained his future son-in-law, the poet Ugo Foscolo – Italy’s equivalent to Lord Byron.

Como too is not short of various marketing initiatives including cultural ones such as Grand Tour 2.0 (not to be confused if searching online with a popular TV programme about boys in fast cars). However they lack a certain impact maybe because they are underfunded or don’t receive enough institutional support.

Airbnb

Local advertising for Airbnb, one of the disruptive technologies radically changing the accommodation on offer on Lake Como in particular but also across the whole of Lombardy.

One positive aspect for Como is the increase in the range of accommodation now available providing more options for those on restricted budgets.  Destinations can now include some of the mountain communities as well as those on the lakeside. Those looking for luxury have also seen their options increase in recent years, with an increase in capacity amongst luxury hotels and with the birth of possibly an entirely new category – the super luxury B&B.

Villa Platamone

Villa Platamone, luxury bed and breakfast accommodation in Como – creating a new category of top end options to rival hotels such as Il Sereno or Villa Pliniana in Torno.

The general view is that Como’s local administrations over recent years have been somewhat complacent in their management of the city. It is not hard to find aspects to criticise ranging from the totally scandalous flood defence project to the lack of any noticeable increase in cycle paths and the generally tired condition of the public spaces. Yet it would feel particularly alien if Como was to become suddenly efficiently and conscientiously managed. The city fortunately has as many charms as faults and the charms of the lake are resilient to administrative indifference since they are deeply loved and appreciated by local residents. As tourism trends change, we can remain confident that the lake will continue to attract visitors from around the world for years to come.

Related Articles:

Read more about Como in the height of the tourist season.

Blevio was the home of Giuditta Pasta, Bellini’s muse and Europe’s most popular diva in the nineteenth century.

Villa D’Este has a long and varied history including this incident that caused a nationwide scandal after the last war.

Visitors need to know if the lake is safe for swimming. This article outlines what is monitored, the data at the start of the 2019 season, and where further updates can be found.

The Odescalchi family, former owners of both Villa del Grumello and Villa Olmo, produced a pope, Pope Innocent XI, and established a noble dynasty across Europe. A summary of their history is included here.

Mention is made above to Winston Churchill possibly seeking to retrieve documents that may have been seized by partisans following Mussolini’s capture and execution on the lake. This article describes the last days of Mussolini and his mistress as they tried to avoid the partisan insurrection in April 1945.

Como Companion recently visited Villa Platamone, on the launch of this super luxurious Bed & Breakfast.

 

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Como’s Pope and other Odescalchi

Via Vitani

Via Vitani, one of the streets in Como’s old town which takes its name from a former noble family. Others include Via Rusconi, Via Lambertenghi, Via Giovio, Via Natta etc.

Florence has the Medici, Mantua the Gonzagas,  Milan has the Visconti who merged through marriage with the Sforzas.   Como for its part has the Odescalchi. Many of the streets in Como’s old town are named after some of its former aristocratic families. Amongst these is Via Odescalchi along which, in a piazzetta just beyond the deconsecrated church of San Pietro in Atrio, you will find a sculpture of a very austere looking character, Benedetto Odescalchi, better known as Pope Innocent XI who served as pontiff from 1676 until his death in 1689. So in addition to Via Odescalchi,  Como also has a Viale Innocenzo XI .

Statue Odescalchi

Statue of Benedetto Odescalchi, Pope Innocent XI, in Via Odescalchi, Como.

The first reference to an Odescalchi  (pronounced O-des-cal-key) in Italy can be traced back to 801 when an Odescalchi accompanied the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne on one of his Italian campaigns. However it was in 1290 that a certain Giorgio Odescalchi established his family as important residents of Como. He and his successors developed the family’s wealth through finance and mercantile interests.  Como remained the family’s base but branches of their banking interests were established by the sixteenth century in Genoa and Venice. From Venice in particular they established commercial links with Paris, London, Amsterdam and Nuremberg in Bavaria.

Noble families also sought to consolidate their family status through seeking high ecclesiastical office for their offspring other than the primogenitor.  By the sixteenth century a Bernardo Odescalchi had become Bishop of Alessandria and had spread the family influence through missionary work in Poland and Transylvania.

Stemma Odescalchi 2

The heraldic shield of the Odescalchi family.

The future Pope, Benedetto Odescalchi,  was born on 16th May 1611 in Como – a plaque can be seen on the side of the villa in Via Volta commemorating the place of his birth.  He gained a positive reputation as a fair and effective civil administrator starting off as a captain in the local militia, then becoming the tax collector for the Marche Region and Governor of the Marche town of Macerata. On the strength of his administrative capabilities as much as his religiosity, he was created a cardinal in March 1645 and appointed to Ferrara. Here he made a good name for his ability to manage the availability of grain and flour thus becoming known as father of the poor. He was elected Pope in September 1676.

 

Pope Innocent XI 2

Pope Innocent XI

As his statue in Via Odescalchi  and his portrait convey, Pope Innocenzo XI was an austere character. He was known for his ascetic habits and his attempts to abolish nepotism. However, in spite of this, the Odescalchi family would undoubtedly have profited from his papal position and another strong branch of the family established itself in Rome from that time acquiring substantial property in the capital as well as priceless works of art still in the family’s possession. The Pope did however stick to his high moral principles and set about prohibiting gambling and usury within the Papal States as well as closing all places of public entertainment in Rome itself.  His austerity and frugality certainly was of benefit to the papacy which he left considerably better off on his death due to his supreme financial and administrative capabilities. He was sanctified in 1956 by Pope Pio  (Pius) XII.

Villa Odescalchi

Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza, built as the personal residence of Pope Innocent XI

During his life he remained much attached to Como and had a personal residence built for him just a few kilometres away in the small town of Alzate Brianza. This lovely neo-classical villa has now fallen on hard times and is currently up for sale by auction (current reserve price of €2,717,000) having remained unoccupied (and repeatedly vandalised) since closing its doors as a luxury hotel.  Another relative of the Pope had the Palazzo Odescalchi  built for him facing onto Piazza Roma in Como in the 1670s. Half of this palace has been converted into apartments and the rest of the conversion is still in progress.  Some of its former glory is still evident particularly in the frescoes done by the Recchi brothers and the monumental stucco work around the fireplaces.

The Odescalchi family was also the original owner of Como’s most renowned villa, the Villa Olmo. The land for this villa was initially purchased by the Odescalchi in 1664 who acquired it from the Abbey of Santa Maria di Vico. The current villa was constructed on the site in the eighteenth century and occupied by the family until the Como branch married into the Raimondi in the early nineteenth century. The Raimondis sold the villa on to a branch of the Milan-based Visconti  family, the Duke Visconti di Modrone, in 1883.

Luchino Visconti di Modrone

Film director, Luchino Visconti di Modrone was a member of a local noble family who bought Villa Olmo from the Odescalchi-Raimondi dynasty. He himself frequented nearby Villa Erba for summer holidays.

It is the famous serpent emblem of the Visconti family which now crowns the entrance to the villa. The neo-realist film director, Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) would spend summer holidays in the nearby Villa Erba in Cernobbio.  Villa Olmo was passed on to the Comune of Como in 1925.

Like most other noble families, the Odescalchi protected their privileged position through securing titles and making tactical marriages with other noble families. Following Benedetto’s death, the family secured a string of noble titles in Hungary and Slovenia from the then Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I. Benedetto’s sister, Lucrezia married into the Erba dynasty – a family that also had originated in Como.  In the 1820s the Como Odescalchis joined the Raimondi family.  One visible result of all the inter marriages was the way names became longer and longer.  It was the illegitimate but recognised daughter of Marquis Giorgio Raimondi Mantica Odescalchi who, at the age of seventeen, became very briefly the second wife of the fifty-two year old hero of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi . The marriage was annulled almost as soon as completed due to the likely infidelity of the bride. One of the witnesses to the marriage was a Count Giulio Porro Lambertenghi – another name appearing amongst the street names in Como’s centre.

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi, in Piazza Santi Apostoli in Rome. Bought in 1745 and still the current home of Prince Odescalchi and family.

Benedetto Odescalchi  (Pope Innocent XI) died without heir but his niece Lucrezia maintained the family line through marriage to the Erba family and a strong Odescalchi dynasty established itself in Rome from then (seventeenth century to today), all in spite of the former pope’s disapproval of nepotism and usury.

Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi with arms

Detail of the baroque exterior of Palazzo Chigi Odescalchi showing the family crest.

In fact the current Prince Odescalchi lives in the Palazzo Chigi-Odescalchi on Piazza Santi Apostoli in Rome. The exterior of the palace was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in around 1665 and in spite of being restored after extensive fire damage, remains a superlative example of Italian Baroque architecture. The palace was purchased by Prince Baldasssare Odescalchi in 1745. This is just one of the many properties owned by the family in and around Rome. Of note also is the Castello Orsini-Odescalchi in Bracciano. This was inherited as the feudal estate of Bracciano passed from the Orsinis to the Odescalchis towards the end of the seventeenth century. The castle is now open to the public as well as being used for weddings and other events.

Castello Odescalchi a Bracciano

Castello Orsini-Odescalchi at Bracciano with the lake in the background.

The family do however retain an interest in another of their castles – the Castello Odescalchi di Santa Marinella, on the coast near to Civitavecchia. This castle originates from the fifteenth century and was bought by a more recent ‘Baldassare’ in 1888. He acquired it in an auction for very little just as today one could acquire the Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza for relatively little if wishing to participate in the auction on the 15th July.

Castello Odescalchi a Santa Marinella

Castello Odescalchi at Santa Marinella in Civitavecchia

Baldassare Odescalchi went on to be elected to the Italian Senate in 1896. The family developed a beach resort linked to the castle which became a favoured spot for film stars and celebrities in the 1950s with famous guests including Totò, Alberto Sordi, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. It is now also rented out for weddings and retained for the family’s own use as was testified in an interview back in 2014 in Grazia with Sofia Odescalchi, daughter of the current Prince and duly described as an ‘It’ girl!

Sofia, renowned for dining under a Caravaggio in the family’s home on Piazza Santi Apostoli and for spending weekends at the seaside castle in Santa Marinella, was keen to present herself as rather ordinary in her Grazia interview. Here is an excerpt  included just to give an indication of how current aristocrats seek to retain low, understated profiles of banal normality if only publicly.

Grazia: Sofia, must I address you as Princess?

Sofia: Stop pulling my leg! It’s great having an aristocratic name and all the history but all the rest is a disadvantage.

Grazia: How come?

Sofia: Everyone thinks you must be a spoilt brat used to having everything – but it’s not like that.

Grazia: Do you live by yourself?

Sofia: Yes, in a studio flat with a small terrace. I manage it all myself.

Grazia: Is it true you like extreme sports like paragliding and white water rafting?

Sofia: Yes, I find them exhilarating.

Grazia: What’s your dream?

Sofia: To work in the fashion industry.

Grazia: Have you got your own style?

Sofia: Yes, it’s a mix of vintage pieces I pick up in London and items stolen from my mother’s wardrobe. I love soft, capacious handbags like those of Zanellato. I always wear a chain necklace.

Grazia: Do you ever feel like a prisoner in a gilded cage?

Sofia: No – and then I only go to my parents’ castle for a bit of peace – and the sea!

Sofia and Lucia Odescalchi

Sofia with her mother Lucia Odescalchi

If you would like to purchase Villa Odescalchi in Alzate Brianza at auction, there is still time to submit your interest prior to the bidding on https://www.realestatediscount.it/aste-immobili/villa-dei-papi-odescalchi-1162/.

If on the other hand, you wanted to arrange an event at the Castello Odescalchi in Santa Marinella, look at its website for further details.

If you would prefer an Odescalchi connection in Como, enquire into purchasing one of the renovated apartments in the Palazzo Odescalchi at  http://www.palazzo-odescalchicomo.it/eng/

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