Anomalous Waves on Lake Como

 

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

Lenno

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

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

Bellagio

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

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

Le Grammont

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

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

tsunami leman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diga vajont

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

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

diga vajont monte toc

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

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

Villa Commedia

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

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

pian di spagna

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

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

val pola mountain

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

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

piazza cavour 1987

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

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

val pola 2

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

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

 

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Como’s Train Station, Witches and the Inquisition

Monte Croce

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

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

San Giovanni Pedemonte

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

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

Musso Saint Eufemio

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

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

San Giovanni Pedemonte plan

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

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

Saint Ambrogio and San Pietro

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

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

 

Bernardo Rategna Inquisition Techniques

A tract by Bernardo Rategno on how to interrogate heretics.

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

witches sabbath David Teniers

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

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

witches

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

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

Cloister Sant Abbondio

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

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

San Pietro

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

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

Canzo Giubiana

Poster for the Festa della Giubiana in Canzo

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

San Giovanni Pedemonte 2

 

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Swimability 2020: ‘Excellent’ Lake Bathing

Clean waters of Argegno

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

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

carena

The inviting water at Careno

Overall Results

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

Laglio

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

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

 

Moltrasio to Torno

Looking down on Moltrasio and over to Torno

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

Portale

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

From Como to Griante

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

The lake at Laglio

The lake at Laglio

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

brienno 1

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

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

 

brienno 2

Brienno

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

 

From Como to Bellagio

carena beach

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

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

 

carena restaurant

Trattoria del Porto – specialises in lake fish at Careno.

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

careno beach 2

Leaving Careno beach on the boat back to Como

The EU’s Bathing Water Directive

Rezzonico Beach

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

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

Detailed results

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

Table 1

 

 

Table 2

Clean Como water

Clean Como water

 

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

Neri and Gianna

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

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

Funicolare

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

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

Luigi Canali

Neri serving in Ethiopia

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

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

Luigi Canali in Italian army uniform

Neri in Italian Army uniform

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

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

Como under snow 2

A hard winter in Como’s Piazza Mazzini

Setting the Scene

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

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

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

Act 1: January 1945, Imprisonment and Escape

Lezzeno

Lezzeno, where Neri and Gianna were captured

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

Casa del fascio

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

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

Dante Gorrieri

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

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

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

Lake Como from Monte Palanzone

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

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

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

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

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

Casa del fascio 2

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

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

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

Piazza San Fedele

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

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

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

Fabio

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

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

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

On Mount Bisbino in Winter

On Mount Bisbino in winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesco

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dongo Town Hall

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

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

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

Mezzegra Bonzanigo

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

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

Victory

Victorious partisans celebrate

Act 5: May and June 1945, The Final Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Canali

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

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

Memorial Pizzo di cernobbio

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

Conclusion

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

PCI Via delle Botteghe Oscure

PCI headquarters in Rome in Via delle Botteghe Oscure

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

Further Reading

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

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

Acknowledgments

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

 

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Como and Early Lombardy Baroque

Caravaggio

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

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

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

Milan and Borromeo

Morazzone Carlo Borromeo praying by the body of Christ

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

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

Santuario della Madonna at Tirano Valtellina

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

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

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

antica diocesi di como

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

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

Como

Flagellation Sacro Monte di Varese

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

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

The Birth of Virgin Mary, Morazzone

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

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

 

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

The Fallof the Rebel Angels, Morazzone

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

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

 

quadro delle tre mani

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

Morazzoni’s legacy

morazzone sensuality 2

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

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

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Palazzo Odescalchi

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

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

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Palazzo Rusca

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

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

Giovanni Paolo Recchi San Giorgio

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

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

Carlo and Raffaele Recchi Flagellation

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

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

The Martyrdom of saint Mark, Recchi Brothers

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

Cultural Itineraries

Giovanni Paolo Recchi Birth of Jesus Coldrerio

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

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

Fresco Fratelli Recchi, Chiesa di San Giorgio

Fresco by the Fratelli Recchi, Palazzo Rusca, Como

 

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Tourism 2020: Post Covid Como

Como

Como recovering from Covid-19

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

Via Luini

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

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

General Access

Gelati

Queuing for a gelato in Piazza Cavour

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

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

Eating and Drinking

La Tirlindana at Sala Comacina

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

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

aperitif

An aperitif in Piazza Grimoldi, Como

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

Accommodation

Villa D'Este

Hotel Villa D’Este, Cernobbio

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

Rifugio Parabello

Rifugio Parabello

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

Gardens and Historic Houses

Villa del Balbianello

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

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

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

Museums

Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca

Triumphant Saint Michael by Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca di Como

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

Transport

Navigazione

Navigazione Laghi’s ‘Orione’ in Como

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

Boat Hire

Water taxis in Cernobbio

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

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

Musical Events, Festivals and Theatre

Teatro Sociale

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

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

Music on the lake

Literally music on the lake, Cernobbio 2019

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

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

Lidos and Swimability 2020

Lido Faggeto Lario

The lido at Faggeto Lario

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

Sala Comacina 2

Sala Comacina

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

Conclusion

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

Tranquility

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

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

Ristorante Momi

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

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

Osvaldo valenti and Louisa Ferida

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

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

 

white telephone films

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

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

 

‘If I Could Have a Thousand Lire a Month’

 

Mille lire al mese

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

Luisa Ferida in Sleeping Beauty with VAlenti

Osvaldo Valenti and Louisa Ferida in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ 1942

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

Lanzo D’Intelvi and Milan

Lanzo D_Intelvi

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

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

Villa Triste

Villa Fossati

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

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

Liberation, April 1945

 

valenti and ferida

Louisa and Osvaldo

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

 

pasubio

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

Summary Justice

 

marozin

Giuseppe Marozin, duplicitous leader of the Pasubio partisan group.

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

 

death of louisa ferida

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

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

Epilogue

sanguepazzo

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

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

Monica Bellucci

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

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

And Our Other Couple?

Neri and Gianna

Luigi Canali  and girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi

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

 

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

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

 

Club House

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

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

 

Background

 

Independence Day at Milan

April 25th Independence Day Celebrations in Milan

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

 

MAS

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

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

 

Junio Borghese

Prince Junio Valerio Borghese nicknamed the ‘Black Prince’

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

 

Recruiting in La Spezia

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

Lake Montorfano April 1944

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

Lake Montorfano

Lake Montorfano

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

Borghese’s Debriefing

 

James Jesus Angleton

James Jesus Angleton also known as ‘Kingfisher’

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

 

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

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

A Nest of Spies

Viale Geno

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

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

Contraband

albergo unione

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

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

Osvaldo Valenti with wife and fellow actor Luisa Ferida

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

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

Collegio Sant Ambrogio di Porlezza

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

Vega Groups

 

Ferruccio Nazionale

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

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

 

The Aftermath

Lake Lugano Porlezza

Lake Lugano close to Porlezza

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

 

Monumento ai Caduti

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

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

 

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

The Secret Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

andreotti

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

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

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

Lake Montorfano 2

Lake Montorfano in more peaceful times

References

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

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Holidaying on Lake Como: In the Footsteps of Mary Shelley

 

grand hotel cadenabbia

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

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

 

 

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’

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

 

 

Giuseppe Mazzini

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

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

 

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

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

 

cruikshank diligence francais

Travelling by diligence in France satirised by cartoonist George Cruikshank

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

 

 

German route Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s route through Germany

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

 

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

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

grand hotel bellevue

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

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

Olive trees at Griante

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

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

Sublime landscape - Above cadenabbia looking to Bellagio and the Grigne

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

Having described the dramatic scenery around her, she continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beach at Griante

The beach at Griante looking north

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

 

Villa Melzi

The gardens of Villa Melzi, Bellagio

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

 

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

Villa Carlotta Cupid and Psyche

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

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

Piroscafo Lario

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

She recounts:

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

Villa Pliniana

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

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

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

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

Interior Teatro Sociale

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

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

inglesina

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

Postscript

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

Related Articles in Como Companion

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

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

Additional Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Como’s History of Plague and Pandemics

 

Villa Geno

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

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

 

 

manzoni and milan

Illustration from Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi

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

 

 

Danza Macabra Clusone

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

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

 

 

Poveglia Plague Island

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

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

 

army trucks

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

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

 

landsknecht

German and Swiss mercenaries known as Landsknecht

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

 

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

 

Rifugio Bugone

Rifugio Bugone, above Moltrasio

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

 

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

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

autodichiarazione

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

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

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

Vetta Bisbino

The Sanctuary of the Madonna del Bisbino

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

 

san rocco attending the Plague victims in a lazzaretto

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

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

 

San Lazzaro

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

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

 

Danza Macabra Clusone detail

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

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

 

San Rocco

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

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

lazzaretto Quarcino

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

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

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

Dalmine Plant, Province of Bergamo

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

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

San Lazzaro internal

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

 

 

Posted in History, Uncategorized, Wellness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments