The Como Group of Artists – ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’

A Cultural Round Trip from Como to Paris via Milan

 

Carla Badiali Catalogue

Carla Badiali (1907-1992) was a leading member of the Como Group of abstract artists. Her general catalogue was compiled by Luigi Cavadini and published in 2007 by Silvana Editoriale.  I am truly indebted to Luigi for his help when I was researching this article.

‘In the 1930’s Como was the working base of four out of a total of ten Italian abstract artists of international renown’  – Luigi Cavadini, art exhibition curator, author and expert on modern and contemporary art.

When I first moved to Como five years ago, I  soon became aware of the city’s ‘rationalist’ heritage. Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (1932-6), built in a prominent position on an open piazza behind the Duomo, is a modernist masterpiece. His equally bold Monumento ai Caduti (War Memorial) (1931-3) on the lakefront, inspired by the visionary designs of  Antonio Sant’Elia, provided further evidence of something unique in the cultural genes of this city. However what took me longer to discover was that, during this period of bold architectural innovation, a group of Como-based artists had established themselves at the forefront of the abstract art movement in Italy and Europe.

The core members of this Como Group were Manlio Rho (1901-1957), Mario Radice (1900-1987), Carla Badiali (1907-1992) and Aldo Galli (1906-1981).  I wanted to understand how such a significant group of avant-garde artists emerged from a city with a total population of no more than sixty four thousand in those early years when the group first became productive.  

Manlio Rho, Giuseppe Terragni, Renato Uslenghi, Mario Radice

From left: Manlio Rho, Giuseppe Terragni, Renato Uslenghi, Mario Radice ©edixxon.com

My initial interest in the group was sparked by visiting the recent exhibition of the work of Manlio Rho at the Silk Museum. This is  entitled ‘The Sense of Colour – In textiles and art’ and was curated by Luigi Cavadini and Francina Chiara It runs  until the end of the month (March 2019). I had always been aware of a vibrant contemporary art scene here in Como (see CC’s articles on Ester Negretti, Irma Kennaway and Adriano Caverzasio)  and had wondered if this may stem in part from the influence of  the local textile industry and the design requirements of their clients – the major fashion houses. The Manlio Rho exhibition explores that link directly.

Como’s Cultural and Industrial Background in the 1930s

Industrial archeology

Behind Via Borgovico

The main industry in Como then and now is silk. The skyline of the city in the 1930s was dominated by tall chimneys rising from the power rooms of the numerous factories that lined the city’s water courses such as the Cosia river. The silk industry had started in the 1860s and would reach its heyday after the last war until the start of its relative decline in the 1970s. However silk finishing is still a major industry and, although most of the factories have moved out beyond the city’s periphery, training and employment of textile designers is as important now as it was back in the 1930s. 

The city had also become the centre of activities of some young and highly innovative architects who shared Terragni’s  interest in the ideas of modernism born out of the Italian Futurists whose architectural vision had been codified by Como’s own Antonio Sant’Elia who died tragically young in the First World War.

Transatlantico

Photo taken in 1943 showing the contrast between Terragni’s rationalist building on the left and Caranchini’s eclectic style structure on the right. The wheat field in the foreground was there due to the wartime stipulation to turn all vacant land over to food production.

Terragni and his contemporaries like Pietro Lingeri (see the Engel & Volkers office in Cernobbio) named their style as ‘rationalist’ seeking to minimise all unnecessary or non-functional elements to focus on form and spatial structures. The contrast between this new rationalism and the contemporary eclectic fashion, with its numerous decorative elements, could not have been starker as the photo above shows.

Art and Architecture

Art and architecture

The interior of Terragni’s Casa del Fascio (1932-6) and the abstract composition by Mario Radice (Composition 3 Bars, 1938-40) are put together here to underline the shared interest in simple forms, geometric shapes and plain colours.

Terragni’s vision for the Casa del Fascio did not just cover the internal and external architecture but also furniture design and the internal and external artistic decoration. He himself designed the chairs for the board room but asked Mario Radice to decorate the walls with a bold series of abstract frescoes.

terragni chair

Giuseppe Terragni’s chairs for the Casa del Fascio

Radice’s design left space for a full-sized photographic image of Mussolini to be displayed prominently behind the head of the table. This led to the frescoes becoming a target of anti-fascist revenge once the regime had collapsed in 1945 when the building was taken over as the local headquarters of the Communist Party.  The frescoes were destroyed but have since been restored and the space previously occupied by the image of Il Duce now bears the insignia of the Guardia di Finanza, the current occupants and custodians of the building.

Mario Radice also collaborated with another local rationalist architect, Cesare Cattaneo, in the design of the ‘Fontana di Camerlata’. This sculpture was originally produced by Cattaneo and Radice in 1935-6 for display in Milan’s Parco Sempione (behind the Castello Sforzesco) for the 6th Milan Triennale. However it was destroyed during allied bombardment of the city but it too was subsequently reproduced in 1960 at its originally intended location on the roundabout at Ca’ Merlata on the southern edge of Como. It was designed as a monument to road traffic – in line with futurist ideals and well before the growth in traffic led to associated problems outweighing advantages. The four horizontal circles were intended to house directional signs pointing the route either to Varese, Cantu, Milan or Como.

fonte di camerlata

Fontana di Camerlata by Cesare Cattaneo and Mario Radice

The rationalist architecture of Terragni, Lingeri, Cattaneo and others influenced the Como Group’s approach to form and structure and on simplifying those elements to ensure focus on what might be of the greatest interest or importance. This may  have contributed to their interest in geometric shapes and simplified colour palettes.

Paris – the Intellectual Capital of Europe

Courb dominante by Wassily Kandinsky, 1936

‘Courb dominante’ 1936 by Wassily Kandinsky

At the same time, well away from Lake Como over the Alps, the predominance of Paris as the centre of European intellectual fervour and creative innovation was being further enhanced by the influx of progressive artists from Berlin and Eastern Europe. Amongst those artists escaping Nazi harassment in Berlin was Wassily Kandinsky,  one of the pioneers and principal theorists of abstract art.  Here, within the liberal spirit of the city, he continued to develop and complete an aesthetic theory that placed a primary focus on shape and colour to achieve its effect. Awareness of his work and that of other Paris-based  avantgarde came to the attention of the Como Group through their links with fellow artists linked to Milan’s Galleria Il Milione, established in 1930 in the Brera district.

Soldati

Atanasio Soldati

This gallery put on exhibitions of avantgarde artists including Kandinsky and provided a focal point for Milan-based abstract artists such as Atanasio Soldati (1893-1953) and Luigi Veronese (1908-1998). Both Manlio Rho and Mario Radice exhibited there and collaborated with the gallery to stage exhibitions of European modern art in Como, notably in an exhibition held at Villa Olmo in 1936 which included works by them and by Carla Badiali. Soldati and Veronese had travelled to Paris and both went on to join the Paris-based Abstraction Creation Group. Another frequent exhibitor at Il Milione was Osvaldo Licini (1894-1958) who had lived in Paris until his return to Le Marche in 1926. He too was involved in abstract art at the time although he interestingly went on to reject the notion of ‘rationalism’ in art.  The Galleria Il Milione also had a bookshop and published a monthly newsletter ‘Il Bollettino del Milione’ which both spread interest and awareness of what was coming out of Paris as well as providing for an exchange of ideas between those artists based in Milan and those on the lake.

Art and Applied Art

Manlio Rho Self-portrait 1921

Manlio Rho, Self-portrait 1921

Manlio Rho trained as an accountant and worked as such within the silk industry for up to fifteen years. During this time he was developing his artistic skills as a figurative artist through evening classes and by assisting in the studios of local professional fine artists. He then applied his artistic skills along with his industrial knowledge to textile design. Three out of the four core group members (Manlio Rho, Carla Badiali and Aldo Galli) would all apply their artistic skills in service to Como’s silk industry designing textiles for some of the most demanding clients in the fashion trade.

 

Chromatic composition and colour theory were central to the applied art of the textile designer and the most influential publication on this from Paris was the monthly ‘L’Officiel de la couleur des industries de la mode’. The cover designs shown above were undoubtedly influenced by the interest in abstract art at the time. Manlio Rho’s studies of colour applied in his abstract compositions  were done in parallel with the colour combinations used in his textile designs. The recent exhibition of his work at the Museo della Seta includes examples of this direct link. What is more, Rho also applied his studies of geometric form and structure to both his fine art and to his textile designs for Parisian clients such as Givenchy.

Rho, Composition No.20 1935

Composition No. 20 by Manlio Rho, 1935 with a colour palette from the autumn range in ‘L’Officiel de la Couleur’.

Rho functioned successfully in the two worlds of fine art and industry through his capacity to transfer his own artistic skills and inspiration into valid industrial projects with their own set of inherent technical and financial constraints. 

Female Nude by Manlio Rho, 1932

Female Nude by Manlio Rho 1932-3, Charcoal on paper. This sketch reveals the quality of Rho’s figurative skills and also his ability to achieve fine gradations of shading – a skill which he increasingly applied in his abstract art as it developed and managed to recreate, although at some cost, in his textile designs for the Givenchy fashion house.

Como’s Artist Studios

friends

This image is enlarged and displayed on the top floor of Como’s Pinacoteca showing the ‘brotherhood’ between Como’s artists and architects.

The historic centre of Como is contained within the medieval city walls and the lakefront – an area encapsulating a grid of narrow cobbled streets offering quick and easy access to all points on foot or bike. Within this confined space were located most of the key artists studios at the time. Giuseppe Terragni’s studio was on Via Independenza. Manlio Rho’s studio was nearby on Via Porta. Both these studios were centres for the free exchange of ideas within a relatively close circle of friends and associates. Maybe the contained geography of the city and the ease in which colleagues could meet and share their innovative ideas on architecture, art and design helped nurture the birth of the Como Group. All of the artists had a range of interests and skills so not only did most also work on textile designs but they maintained an interest in sculpture and architecture. The architects for their part were also interested in fine art and design. Terragni himself was a reasonably accomplished figurative painter. This studio structure in Como had not only been critical in teaching this new generation the fundamental skills of painting but led also to the propagation of the new ideas. For example Manlio Rho encouraged Carla Badiali when she was working in his studio to undertake her first studies in abstract art.  Her success may well then have encouraged Rho himself and Mario Radice to follow similar paths. Aldo Galli developed his particular ideas and interests once he was working in the studio set up by Carla.  A second generation of artists like Alvaro Molteni (1920-2015) also came out of Carla’s studio. 

From Figurative to Abstract Art

Carla Badiali Abstract

Carla Badiali

All the members of the Como Group learnt their artistic skills traditionally through the disciplines of figurative painting. Nor did they later abandon interest and application of the skills in perspective and projection born out of the Renaissance. They saw their interest in geometric and mathematical composition as deriving from originators like Piero della Francesca. It appears though that it may well have been Carla Badiali to be the first to make the switch from figurative to abstract output by taking up and working on the ideas emanating from Manlio Rho’s studio. A contemporary commentator Luigi Zoccoli  stated the following;

 

‘Employed as a textile designer at the Ditta Castelli and Bari from 1927 to 1932, she had already been devoting herself to painting, having contacts with Como artists. It was one of these, Manlio Rho, who in the year before she resigned from Castelli and Bari [1931] urged her to try some initial abstract studies developing on the experiences of Soldati, Veronese and Licini’ (Members of the Milan-based Il Milione group).

If Zoccoli is correct then Carla must be considered the founding member of the abstract group and the one whose initial actions encouraged both Manlio Rho and Mario Radice themselves to move over from figurative art in the following year. She went on to establish her own textile design studio in that same year out of which would later emerge the final core member of the group – Aldo Galli.

Carla Badiali’s Studio

 

Badiali design

Artwork and design by Carla Badiali, 1934-6.

Unlike Manlio Rho, Carla Badiali never sought to incorporate her abstract compositions into her textile designs. The two remained entirely separate activities but both flourished freely within her studio which operated from 1932 until 1963 with a period of closure due to the war from 1943 until 1948. Her studio was immensely successful and over the years produced a series of iconic designs for the Paris-based fashion houses. She ran the studio in a unique way always maintaining a rigid demarcation between fine art and design. Her custom was to bring a halt to all design work mid-afternoon, and to dedicate the rest of the day to fine art. She took pains to ensure that the working environment was conducive to creative reflection by providing a tranquil somewhat otherworldly atmosphere with classical music playing softly in the background.  No doubt this sensitivity to the quality of the working environment was appreciated by the last core member of the Como Group – Aldo Galli.

 

 

aldo galli 1950 disegno per rilievo 1953

Bas Relief 1970, Aldo Galli.  In a private collection recently lent to the Pinacoteca Civica di Como.

Aldo’s talents and his importance as an abstract artist were recognised much later than those of the others. His first personal exhibition was not held until the 33rd Venice Biennale held in 1966 even though his personal move from figurative to abstract art started in 1937. He had moved back from Milan to Como in 1932 to become quickly acquainted with Manlio Rho and Carla Badiali. As with Carla, his initial exploration of abstract art was through sculpture. Aldo had originally wished to train as an architect but his precarious financial situation prevented this from happening. He was never as financially secure as the other members of the group and this led him to taking on a number of applied art activities in addition to textile design such as picture restoration before gaining a belated recognition for his fine art. He learnt his craft as a building decorator and restorer through evening classes. He then gained further knowledge of fine art techniques when working as a textile designer for Carla and profiting from her studio’s parallel interest in abstract art.

Why here in Como?

In attempting to answer the question, why here in Como, we have identified a) the heritage of rationalist architecture b) the influence of the silk industry c) the geographic proximity of Milan and the cultural and commercial links with Paris  and d) the very compactness of Como with the easy transfer of ideas and influences across the studios. However these factors do not entirely explain the concentration of individual talent within such a small city. A partial answer to this might lie in the educational and training opportunities available locally.

salon des nobels carducci.png

Salon des Nobels, Istituto Carducci, Viale Cavallotti, Como.

None of the members of the Como Group came out of the established art academies like the renowned Accademia della Brera in Milan. They were all more or less self-taught taking advantage of both formal and informal sources of additional training, to supplement skills gained in the applied art of textile design. The teaching of textile design had been established in Como from the end of the 1800s. Carla Badiali attended the Istituto di Setificio in 1923 to learn design and then went on to extend her fine art skills by ‘sitting with Nellie’, in other words, learning directly from experts. As mentioned previously, Manlio Rho trained and worked as an accountant. Even though he came to teach design at the Istituto Setificio in later years, he learnt his artistic skills through evening classes and supplementary lessons at the Istituto Carducci in Viale Cavallotti. The Istituto Carducci, still open today, was set up by a silk industrialist Enrico Musa in 1903. Its aim was, and still is, to provide access to general culture and vocational disciplines for the local population. Here he attended both drawing classes and a course for what was described as the ‘decorative industries’ which included modules on perspective, the geometric aspects of planes and solids, projections as well as figurative drawing.

Scuola Castellini

Entrance to the Scuola Castellini on Via Sirtori. The school for arts and crafts was established in 1879 and still offers full time and evening classes in fine and applied art  skills.

Aldo Galli instead started by taking evening classes at the Accademia della Brera in building decoration where he learnt and applied a knowledge of classical design emblems. He applied these skills working on some of the decorative features of Milan’s Stazione Centrale. His name is now given to the Como branch of the IED (European Institute of Design) where students can study some of the skills he acquired in his individual way such as design and picture restoration.

So most of these artists had a formal education that covered aspects of applied art, primarily textile design. Their skills in fine art were mainly acquired by ‘sitting with Nellie’ – working and learning in the studios of local established figurative artists.

Politics and Abstract Art

In France and Germany, abstract art and other avantgarde movements of the 1930s had traditionally been associated with left-wing politics, hence the Nazi denunciation of ‘decadent’ art. However in Italy and Como, the art appeared either apolitical, or, as in the case of Mario Radice’s frescoes, was denounced by the left due to collaboration with the fascist regime. Giuseppe Terragni’s brother Attilio was appointed ‘Podestà’ of Como in 1934. The Podestà was essentially the city mayor – the  un-elected central government’s local ruling representative.  No doubt this political connection helped Giuseppe gain his commissions, but his association with the fascist regime led to a post-war reaction on the left that led to a delay in the full recognition of his skills and significance as a modernist architect.  Carla Badiali however was a committed anti-fascist. Her studio had closed down from the moment of Nazi occupation in 1943 until after the war. She moved her studio to Milan where she associated closely with the resistance and used her figurative skills to falsify documents to aid escaping Jews and political dissidents.  There in 1944 she married Alessandro Nahmias, a long time friend from a Jewish family in Como. He  had gone underground working for the resistance in Milan.  The couple were captured later that year and he was deported to Mauthausen labour camp whilst Carla was imprisoned in Milan’s San Vittore Prison from which she later managed to escape by feigning  illness. Alessandro was one of the few deportees to Mauthausen who returned alive but in ill-health to Italy after the war. Carla reopened her studio in Como in 1948.

Conclusion

The combination of a set of circumstances and people in a specific place and time to produce a phenomenon like the Como Group has to be considered rare and its occurrence must ultimately be as unpredictable as a win on the lottery.  Como had its cultural and industrial background which no doubt went some way to facilitating the rise of talent.  The individual artists were all highly committed and talented. The scope for learning and the opportunities to share ideas were plentiful. These days Como may be better known internationally for its tourism based on the glories of the local landscape. Yet this – the one dimension mostly ignored by the abstract artists – is only one of this city’s multi-faceted appeal.  No doubt, like the hoard of roman gold unearthed here recently, the city will come to reveal even more surprises to me as time passes.

Woodcut Aldo Galli

Engraving, Aldo Galli. Galli was the one member of the group who combined some aspects of natural and urban landscapes in some of his more ‘metaphysical’ compositions.

Acknowledgments and Further Information

Luigi Cavadini

Luigi Cavadini in the library of his studio on Via Natta.

My thanks go to Carlo Pozzoni (Carlo Pozzoni Fotoeditore) for his advice on where to learn more about the group.

Luigi Cavadini is a true expert and gave his time freely and generously. His studio on Via Natta houses a large library on art and architecture of great value to researchers. The website (http://www.uessearte.it/) details many of his publications and current activities.

More information on textile design is available from the Museo Didattico della Seta on Via Castelnuovo 9, and from the Fondazione Antonio Ratti at Villa Sucota, Via per Cernobbio  19, Como.

The top floor in the Pinacoteca Civica di Como on Via Diaz 84, Como  houses a collection of 20th century art from Como with examples of the work of all four Como Group members.

 

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Como’s Famous Daughters: Giuditta Pasta

Bellini’s Muse and Europe’s Star Diva

Giuditta Pasta as Norma

Giuditta Pasta in the title role of ‘Norma’

The opening bars of ‘Casta Diva’ from the first act of Bellini’s opera ‘Norma’ are instantly recognisable but the name of the opera star for which it was originally written is much less so. Take time now if you wish via Youtube  to reacquaint yourself with the incredible emotional power and pathos of Bellini’s masterpiece and then consider what must have been the talent and sensitivity of the singer, Giuditta Pasta, for whom it was written.

Pure Goddess, whose silver covers these sacred ancient plants, we turn to your lovely face unclouded and without veil…Temper, oh Goddess, the hardening of your ardent spirits, temper your bold zeal. Scatter peace across the earth Thou make reign in the sky…

Bellini’s ‘Norma’ was first performed in Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on the 27th December 1831. Giuditta Pasta took the title role for this her inaugural performance at La Scala. She had carefully prepared herself for singing this part which Bellini had written with the quality and the formidable range of her voice in mind. Her voice had inspired him to create the aria ‘Casta Diva’ which initially even Giuditta feared might be beyond her capabilities. Bellini reassured her otherwise, and, in spite of a lukewarm reception on that opening night, Norma went on to be performed thirty nine times during that first season at Milan. Later in August 1832, Bellini watched Giuditta in ‘Norma’ at Bergamo. He wrote to his librettist Romani of the performance: ‘Our Norma is decidedly a great success. If you heard how it was performed in Bergamo, you’d almost think that it was a new work…[Giuditta] even moves me. In fact, I wept with the emotions I felt in my soul.’ And ‘Casta Diva’s’ magic still reduces many to tears!

Teatro alla scala Interior

Auditorium – Teatro alla Scala, Milan

But who was this young ‘Comasca’? After all it is not as if the name Giuditta Pasta is particularly well known nowadays, not even in the city where she lived and died. Como shares a common fault in celebrating its famous sons (Alessandro Volta, Giuseppe Terragni, the Plinys  etc) more than it does its women. Giuditta Pasta certainly counts as a famous daughter since she, alongside Maria Malibran, is considered one of the most famous opera singers of the nineteenth century. She was as well known in London and St. Petersburg as she was in Milan, Naples or Venice.

Teatro Giuditta Pasta

Teatro Giuditta Pasta in Saronno built in 1990s and named after Giuditta who was born in the town in 1797.

Giuditta was born in 1797 in Saronno, a town in the Province of Varese lying almost half way between Milan and Como. She soon moved to Como where she spent her infancy and early adolescence. In 1811 the family moved to Milan and at sixteen she started her music studies at Milan’s Conservatorio. It was two years later when she held her first public performance and also married Giuseppe Pasta. In 1817 she made her first appearance at London’s King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, on the site of the current Her Majesty’s Theatre. However her career really took off once she started her long collaboration with Vincenzo Bellini.

 

Interior Kings Theatre london 1808

The interior of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London  in 1808, the venue of many of Giuditta’s triumphant performances in London.

Once her career was established, she bought the Villa Roda on the shore of Lake Como in Blevio, the first village out of Como on the road to Torno and Bellagio. She had it rebuilt in 1827 to her tastes by the architect Filippo Ferranti who was her uncle. Bellini became a constant visitor making the trip over the lake from Moltrasio where he stayed as a frequent guest at the Villa Passalacqua close to his mistress, Giuditta Turina who stayed in the nearby Villa Salterio Erker.

 

Vincenzo Bellini

Vincenzo Bellini, originally from Catania, Sicily.

Gaetano Donizetti was another visitor to the Villa Roda and stayed for a month working on his opera ‘Anne Boleyn’. However it was her collaboration with Bellini that proved the most positive for both of them. Bellini felt that in Giuditta he had found the perfect voice to suit his style of experimenting with long melodic lines. For her part, she felt Bellini’s scores allowed her to develop and display her talents to their utmost. This partnership gave rise not just to ‘Norma’ but to his other great success ‘La Sonnambulista’ (The Sleepwalker) with Giuditta playing the principal role of Amina in its first performance at the Teatro Carcano in Milan on 6th March 1831. She repeated the role again at London’s King’s Theatre in July of that year.

 

Villa Passalacqua

Villa Passalacqua, Moltrasio, Lake Como – where Vincenzo Bellini was a frequent guest.

Bellini went on to write ‘Beatrice di Fenda’ for Giuditta which was first performed at Venice’s La Fenice in March 1833. This was followed shortly after by the start of a tour to the United Kingdom with Bellini where Norma premiered at the King’s Theatre on 21st June with Giuditta in the title role. Her voice may well have suffered as a result of so much activity and faced with some poor reviews of her performance at La Fenice, she took a two year interval before relaunching  her career at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1837.

 

Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot  (also known as Garcia), opera singer and younger sister of  Maria Malibran

Pauline Viardot, the younger sister of Maria Malibran and also a successful opera singer in her own right, described Giuditta’s voice at this stage as being similar to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper  – ‘a damaged painting but the most beautiful painting in the world’. Giuditta’s final singing tour was in 1841 when she toured Russia.

Giuditta was an ardent patriot sharing in the hopes of forming an Italian nation freed from its subservience in Lombardy and the Veneto to Austrian rule. The year of revolutions, 1848, witnessed a significant uprising in Lombardy where Milan, Brescia, Como and other cities gained a fleeting independence and a temporary surrender and retreat of the Austrian army. This uprising is known as the ‘Cinque Giornate’ (five days) and it was a significant moment with Como sharing in the bourgeois-inspired revolutionary fervour for democracy and self-determination which had gripped most of Continental Europe.

After the surrender 22 March 1848 Francesco Capiaghi

Francesco Capiaghi’s painting of the surrender of the Austrian troops to the patriot rebels in Como on 22nd March 1848

During those ‘cinque giornate’, with Milan and Como in open revolt, the local Teatro Sociale in Como staged Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Attila’. When the aria ‘Cara Patria’ (Dear Country) started, the auditorium stood up to join in the singing. The Austrian dignitaries ordered the guards to fire at the audience to silence them and force them back to their seats. A tragedy was only averted by a diplomatic intervention by the Police Commissioner who persuaded the guards to stand down and the public to return to their seats.

Teatro Sociale Como

Teatro Sociale, Como, built 1813

Giuditta had been giving shelter to some of the rebels in Blevio prior to the uprising but on this evening was up at Brunate with a group of friends awaiting news on how the rebellion was faring in Milan. At one hour before noon on the following day, news came that Radetzki’s army had retreated and that Milan, like Como, was under revolutionary leadership. From her vantage point visible to all below in Como she hoisted the revolutionary flag, the tricolor, and sung the ‘Canto degli Italiani’, the patriotic song written in 1847 by Goffredo Mameli and adopted as the Italian National Anthem in 1946.

canto degli italiani

The Tricolor and the Canto degli Italiani, also known as the Inno (Anthem) of Mameli as waved and sung by Giuditta Pasta at Brunate above Como on 23rd March 1848.

The rebellion came to nothing in the end and Italy’s total unification had to wait until 1871. From 1849 until 1863, Giuditta continued living between her lakeside villa in Blevio and Milan. In 1864, with her health failing, she moved into Como and died there the year after from bronchitis. She now lies buried in Blevio’s cemetery.

Villa Giuditta Pasta

Site of Villa Roda, the home in Blevio of Giuditta Pasta

 

Her villa on the lake was mostly rebuilt in 1904 and renamed the Villa Roquebrune although apparently one of the two original dependencies for guests remain intact along with the gardens. The luxury resort ‘Casta Diva’ is just nearby on the lakefront and named in her honour.

Casta Diva Resort

‘Casta Diva’ Resort, Blevio named after Giuditta

The town of her birth, Saronno, has named its theatre after her, and Como’s Teatro Sociale has a room named after her. There is also, as is common in Italy, a street named after her but unfortunately in a singularly remote location. But perhaps her most satisfying legacy would be the private school of music named after her – the Accademia ‘Giuditta Pasta’. This school is the only private music school licensed to award State Diplomas in Music and Dance. It has strong links with Como’s Conservatorio and the Teatro Sociale and is housed in the glorious setting of the Palazzo Valli-Bruni in Via Rodari in the centre of Como.

Window Palazzo Valle-Bruni

Palazzo Valli-Bruni, detail

Giuditta Pasta is undoubtedly one of Como’s famous daughters – someone who achieved international recognition for her artistic abilities; a reputation gained not just through natural talent but by applying sensitivity and dedication to perfecting her art. Her home on the lake became a crucial meeting place for the development of Italian ‘bel canto’ at the start of the nineteenth century. That link between Bellini in Moltrasio and Giuditta Pasta in Blevio created works of world renown and their aria ‘Casta Diva’ still accords with deep rooted human sentiments  as no doubt did her singing of that patriotic hymn to self-determination across the rooftops of Como. Undoubtedly Giuditta Pasta deserves a greater place in Como’s collective memory – as do others of her ‘not so famous as they should be’ famous daughters!

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Climbing Monte Bisbino – Como’s Local Mountain

View from summit

Above mist and cloud, ‘on top of the world’ at the summit of Monte Bisbino (1325m)

Monte Bisbino is Como’s local mountain. At 1325 metres above sea level –   comparable to Ben Nevis in UK –  it certainly is not the highest around the lake but it is one of the most significant. How come?  It’s partly due to the border with Switzerland that runs across its summit which made it one of the favoured routes for smugglers in former years. The ‘contrabandisti’ also acted as guides on the so-called ‘viaggi di salvezza’ during the war where they helped Jews, allied prisoners of war, partisans and other enemies of the state to escape into Switzerland for safety from the nazi-fascist regime.

Rifugio and sanctuary

The rifugio and the Sanctuary to the Blessed Virgin on the summit of Bisbino

Its summit houses a ‘rifugio’, a sanctuary and also well-preserved trenches and fortifications built as part of the Cadorna defences during the First World War. The fear then was that the Austro-German army could decide to ignore the neutral status of Switzerland and march through its territory to invade Italy on the Lombardy borders. In reality, the fighting took place exclusively on the North Eastern side of the country and the Cadorna Line in Lombardy was never put to the test.

Monte Generoso 2

Monte Bisbino’s neighbouring mountain, Monte Generoso, seen from Bisbino

A climb to the summit is an achievement in itself and, depending of course on the weather, is likely to be rewarded with a glorious 360 degree view including looking north along the line of the border past Sasso Gordona and Monte Generoso.

sasso gordona

Sasso Gordona, another summit with extensive fortifications from the First World War.

The trek up the mountain is on well-defined paths kept in good order and not requiring any specialist equipment. The paths are well signposted thanks to the volunteer members of the Rovenna Pro-Loco. However be sure to take appropriate clothing since there is often a significant variation in temperature at the summit with snow still likely to be present on the north-facing slopes well into April. Take plenty of water with you on the uphill journey since there are few if any springs on the route selected here.

There are in fact various routes up the mountain depending on whether you start from Cernobbio or from the Swiss side of the border. From Cernobbio, you could take the route from Piazza Santo Stefano that passes close to the ‘Croce del Uomo’ to then pass Piazzola and follow the line of the border along an extensive ridge before making the final ascent. This is shown as SI-SC on the map below. The other options are from the other district of Cernobbio, Rovenna. From Rovenna I prefer to take the route that goes via Madrona and crosses the mountain road to the summit a couple of times. This is shown as CAI-1 below. There is no easy way to the top other than driving up but this latter route is in my opinion the least arduous with the safest paths. However, for the sake of variety here I describe an alternative route for the descent that takes you past a gushing spring with a year-round  abundance of delightfully cool and clean mountain water.

Bisbino Map 1

The path marked in yellow is the route described for the ascent whilst green is used for the descent.

If arriving by car, you can drive up to Rovenna and leave the car in a good-sized car park just beside the cemetery. Otherwise, from the centre of Cernobbio (Piazza Mazzini) walk directly up the hill alongside the car park which covers the stream. You will then pick up the signs for Path 1 which will guide you up to Rovenna following Via Monte Grappa. Alternatively you can turn off to the right at the start of the car park to walk along part of the original Via Regina, passing by the Giardino della Valle and then climbing up to Rovenna on Via Monte Santo.

Follow the sign

As you climb up to Rovenna you will begin to see the large yellow signs for Monte Bisbino provided by the Rovenna Pro-loco, as here on Via Monte Grappa.

Once in Rovenna you cannot miss the large yellow signs erected by the Pro-Rovenna group pointing you to Monte Bisbino. Rovenna is known for staging a witches festival in autumn coinciding with the height of the chestnut season.

Trenches Linea Cadorna

Trenches on the summit – part of the Cadorna line defences

It also has the Gatto Nero restaurant renowned for high prices, celebrity customers and a marvelous view over the lake – not somewhere just to drop in for a coffee and a sandwich. For this there is a bar in the village’s main square beside the bus terminal for the very infrequent bus service down to Cernobbio.

 

By taking any path uphill and keeping to your right whenever faced with an option, you will at some point meet up with the well established mule path leading up to the first small hamlet outside of Rovenna. This is the mountain community of Scarone. There is a spring here thoughtfully installed for trekkers in the past but which has unfortunately now stopped working – hence the need to bring adequate supplies of your own. It will take you about an hour to get from Cernobbio to Scarone.

Scaron

Scarone

Continue following the well-defined and relatively broad mule path as it makes steady uphill progress through the woods before breaking out onto the alpine pastures that mark your entry into the mountain village of Madrona – a thirty minute climb from Scarone. The village of Madrona is named after the foothill of Bisbino with the same name. Here you join the tarmacked road up to Bisbino  for about a kilometre before leaving it to take the broad mule path that goes off to the left as the road makes a sharp bend to the right. Along this section you start to get some clear views towards the summit of Bisbino. The path continues to climb but initially less steeply but the gradient does gradually increase as you continue.

After Madrona

The view opens up just after Madrona showing the pine woods which mark the last strata of vegetation before the summit.

The next time you traverse the tarmacked road will mark the final section of the ascent. At this stage the mule path becomes less broad  and the gradient decidedly steeper. You soon enter the band of pine trees which crown these southern slopes of the mountain’s summit. If the path gradient becomes too onerous, you can always opt to follow the longer but less arduous road whenever the path traverses it. You will also soon see signs advertising another ‘rifugio’ – Rifugio Bugone – leading off to your right. That rifugio is on a line and path called the ‘Via dei Monti Lariani’.  It follows the crest of the mountains and the border leading to and beyond Rifugio Prabello having passed a number of other buildings which, as with the rifugi,  were all originally barracks for the border guards seeking to prevent smuggling.

last climb

The second to last traverse of the mountain road at the start of the last section where you enter the pine woods.

The final ascent of the summit takes you through a part of the pine forest which has been recently cleared leading you round onto the western facing slopes and the Capanna Falco. It just requires one last effort to climb up the open grassland to reach the summit and a well deserved rest and possibly something to eat and drink if arriving on a day when the rifugio opens. Opening times are however dependent on the season so check via website prior to departure to avoid disappointment.  Don’t be too surprised to find the restaurant doing good business at the weekends since most of the clients would have arrived by car. However you will also see singularly exhausted-looking cyclists who, like you, have made it to the summit under their own steam!  Expect to take at least one hour and a half to reach the summit from Madrona, or to summarise, three hours in total from Cernobbio.

 

Monte Generoso

Twin peaks of Monte Generoso

As you look out to the north and to the twin peaks of Monte Generoso, it is interesting to note that this neighbouring mountain now provides a base for a herd of wild horses that used to live on Bisbino. These horses were moved over to Monte Generoso a few years back when the harsh winters started to bring them into conflict with local inhabitants as they descended the mountain looking for food. The decision was taken to round them all up and migrate them to Generoso and, what is more, to ensure their well being during the winter months by escorting them down to lower pastures where the locals could more readily ensure they had enough to eat and drink. Their story is told in this delightful video clip on You Tube which includes the story of the old mule who was relocated along with the horses but who, on sensing he was dying, took it upon himself to return to Bisbino for his last days.

Capanna Falco

The Capanna Falco – a rifugio run by an association for use by its members.

Now for the descent. The start of the route selected for the descent is not marked so take care to find the right point of departure. As you retrace your steps towards the Capanna Falco, note the start of a path running alongside the fence of the building immediately before the refuge. This is the path to take. It soon begins to descend the grassy area quite steeply passing alongside the gardens of a private building before entering into the woods. Once entering the woods, it then re-emerges briefly onto a much broader path with multiple signpostings.

Pro-Rovenna signsAt this stage, you should follow directions previously for Duello but for Fonte Anzone once marked. Once past more private gardens, the broad path reduces down to a narrow strip as it re-enters the woods.  You are no longer going to be taking an actual mule path until you reach the Alpetto Gombee so be sure to look carefully to discern the route of the path as it descends through the woods looking in parts very much like the course of a mountain stream. Also look out for a critical sign pointing you to the Alpetto Gombee and Fonte Anzone. This will take you off to your left and will soon lead you to the small alpine clearing of the Alpetto.

 

Alpetto Gombee

Alpetto Gombee (850 metres)

It is at this point that you pick up on an ancient mule path recognisable by the stone and cobble surface and the occasional stretches of dry stone wall. The paths on the descent are nowhere near as well defined as those followed on the climb up so even though you are now on a mule path, it is not well used or well maintained. However, as you get lower and lower, the path does become clearer and certainly by the time you reach the Fonte Anzone, it is back to normal standards. It will also lead you back to Rovenna eventually where you can cross the village to get to the car park if needs be or descend to Cernobbio by either Via Monte Santo or Via Monte Grappa.

fonte Anzone

All year round fresh water at the Fonte Anzone

This descent takes almost as long as the climb up and, in the early stages, is a little difficult particularly if the ground is wet. However it does mean that you would have taken a slightly circular route to provide variety. Of course you could decide to reverse your options and ascend via Fonte Anzone and descend via Madrona. That would be more arduous in my opinion. The Fonte Anzone route goes through more woodland and is not as varied in views and terrain as the way we took up. Also bear in mind that this path in its upper reaches is quite steep and not so well defined.

Bisbino deer

Young deer seen in the woods above the Fonte Anzone

Whichever route you do decide to take, you will end the day with a great sense of achievement and, hopefully weather permitting, fond memories of the views along the way and at the summit with that unique sense of being for a few moments ‘on top of the world’.

 

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Como’s Celtic Connection

 

Ferdinando and Ulisse

Ferdinando Viti and Ulisse Soncini, the two founding partners of ‘Oro di Scozia’ at the Orticolario Show 2018

Oro di Scozia’ – a non-profit cultural association – was established in 2015 to recreate a Scottish atmosphere in Como and ‘to spread the tastes and flavours of that country with its rich historical background’. So writes Ferdinando Viti, Como born and raised, who has developed such a strong affinity with the culture and legends of the Highlands that it has led him to take on the mantle of a Celtic apostle in the town of his birth.

Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson plays William Wallace in ‘Braveheart’

But how did this passion originate? Partly it seems thanks to Mel Gibson and his depiction of rebel William Wallace in the film ‘Braveheart’. A more profound explanation was his  almost spiritual response to setting foot on Scottish soil and his growing appreciation of the local culture. This response seemed entirely natural when Ferdinando discovered he actually had a close family connection with Scotland and had  Scottish blood coursing through his veins. It was Ferdinando’s great-grandfather, Lorenzo Viti, who emigrated to Glasgow in the 1890s from the Tuscan town of Seravezza in the Province of Lucca. His original intention was to make his way to the United States. But like many other compatriots, he went no further once on Scottish soil. He set himself up selling ice cream, and soon went on to marry his Scottish bride.

Barga, a Tuscan town in the Province of Lucca not too far from Seravezza, happens to describe itself as the most Scottish town in Italy, boasting a ‘Fish n’ Chips – Scottish Festival’  held during the summer for the last thirty five years. The story goes that early immigrants to Glasgow from Barga, like Lorenzo, encouraged other friends and relatives to join them. Subsequently, some who had made a decent living working in the catering industry (hence the ‘Fish n’Chips’) returned back to Tuscany wanting to retain memories of their former home and share aspects of the Celtic culture which they had appreciated so much. That same instinctive appreciation that Ferdinando feels for Scotland – from the lowlands, through the islands and into the highlands – may well derive from that bloodline from his great-grandmother. As he himself has written, ‘From the moment I stood on Scottish soil, I had the feeling that I had been there before and everything charmed me to the extent that I thought I had seen the remains of a certain castle in my dreams and the legend of William Wallace and his fight for freedom enthralled me and moved me to tears.

Orobian Pipe Band

The Orobian Pipe Band from Bergamo  priming the bagpipes for the piping of the haggis on Burns’Night 2019 at the Villa del Grumello. An event organised by Oro di Scozia.

Ferdinando and Ulisse’s passion has become Como’s gain with the Oro di Scozia Association coordinating a series of Scottish resources to stage a full range of events and activities.

shop

The Oro di Scozia shop on Via Zezio, 32

Thanks to these two, Como residents and visitors can now celebrate Burns’ Night and a full range of other Celtic events here on our lake.   They also run the ‘Oro di Scozia’ shop on Via Zezio, 32 assuring access to some of the most iconic Highland products obviously including Scotch but ranging also from knitwear and jewellery to smoked salmon from that culinary hotspot – Loch Fyne. Their mission is to permeate Como with the essence of Scottish charm and romance by organising cultural events, dance classes, whisky tastings and more.

Scottish Dancing

Established for some time now, Oro di Scozia’s courses of Scottish dancing take place twice a year with each course consisting of ten sessions. Both courses are led by Milan-based Scot, John Murphy. The autumn course starts in October and leads participants up to a performance and exhibition on Saint Andrew’s Day (30th November) and at the annual Burns Night celebration traditionally held on or around January 25th. The Winter/Spring course starts in February and its participants work towards a similar dance exhibition at the Gaelic celebration of Beltane, a celebration with pagan origins held around the start of May. They may also appear at the Milan Highland Ball, an annual event also in May normally held at Monza’s Hotel de La Ville in front of the Villa Reale. The venue for the classes has changed over the years but they are currently hosted by the Officina della Musica in Via Giulini, Como.

 

John Murphy

John Murphy, Scottish dance instructor

Cultural Events

View from Villa del Grumello

View towards Como from the Villa del Grumello where Oro di Scozia hosted this year’s Burns’ Night celebrations.

celtic calendar

The association seeks to celebrate the principal cultural events in the Scottish Celtic calendar. Mention has already been made of Burns Night held this year in the delightful setting of the Villa del Grumello with its glorious view over the water to Como’s lakefront. For this, as tradition requires, a haggis is flown in from Edinburgh to be piped ceremoniously into the dining hall by members of the Orobian Pipe Band from Bergamo. Next comes Beltaine followed by another celebration with pagan origins – Samhain. Saint Andrew’s Day rounds off the annual events although who knows if there may well be a future Scottish Independence Day in the calendar or at least a ‘Staying in the European Union Day’! I would certainly down a dram or two to celebrate that alongside Scotland’s sixty two percent of referendum voters.

Scottish Gold

 

spirit of freedom

62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU – this Scotch includes 62 different single malts.

Oro di Scozia, Scottish Gold, is Scotch. So it should not come as any surprise that the association organises regular monthly whisky tasting evenings called ‘Salotto di Oro di Scozia’ and held in the shop on Via Zezio. This part of the Association’s activities is the responsibility of Ulisse who is an official ‘Whisky Ambassador’  – the first in Italy having followed the appropriate courses in Glasgow. The shop on Via Zezio offers a range of single malts. The ‘salotto’ (sitting room) concept is intended to provide an informal atmosphere for both amateur or expert whisky lovers to meet and exchange information and opinions. Dates and details of the tastings are published on Oro di Scozia’s Facebook or internet page.

Whisky Ambassador

 

 

Music

Tony McManus and Julia Toaspern

Tony McManus and Julia Tuaspern at the Officina della Musica in 2018 – an event organised by Oro di Scozia.

Oro di Scozia seeks to promote both new and well-established Scottish musicians bringing artists like guitarist Tony McManus and the young singer, Iona Fyfe, to the attention of Como’s audiences in venues such as the Officina della Musica.

Iona Fyfe

The Cd cover of one of Iona Fyfe’s recent albums. Oro di Scozia organised a concert with Iona hosted at the Museo della Seta last year.

Donations

Red McSquirrel

Sir Red McSquirrel

Oro di Scozia is a non-profit association so, once costs are deducted for staging the various cultural events, all money raised is donated to charity. Their favoured charity is ProTIN (Pro Terapia Intensiva Neonata) – in support of the neonatal and premature baby unit at Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital. The money raised in 2017 went to provide heating equipment for preparing the supply of natural maternal milk. Maternal milk is the best source of sustenance for the premature babies in their care. It is to this end that Sir Red McSquirrel was invented. Sir Red was born out of a collaboration between author ‘Viber’ and illustrator Carlo Pozzi. The McSquirrel adventures are published by the association with all proceeds from sales going to charity.

ProTIN 2017

Presentation in 2017 by Oro di Scozia of one of the maternal milk heating devices to the Premature Baby unit at Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital.

One incident of local interest in the richly varied life of Sir Red McSquirrel sees him falling into Loch Ness after his ascent of Ben Nevis. Inevitably he encounters Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, who so happens to be entertaining his Italian cousin from Lake Como, Lariosauro (Lario for short). (Lariosauro may not be as well known as Nessie but he or she did actually exist, as described in one of our previous articles.)

nessie and lario

Sir Red McSquirrel witnesses Nessie in the company of his cousin from Como, Lario. Lario is rowing a Lucia – the traditional gondola-style boat of Lake Como.

Conclusion

Clearly Oro di Scozia has a well-defined goal which, thanks to Ferdinando, Ulisse and the association’s members, is pursued with passion and enthusiasm. A considerable number of local people have derived great pleasure from the dance classes through to the cultural and musical events organised by the association. No matter how vibrant local culture might be, we can all profit from the enriching exposure to what may initially appear alien to us. But in fact, the similarities between the socio-economic and cultural aspects of Scotland and those of our own Insubria region (the Pre-Alp borderlands of Switzerland and Italy) are numerous. And even if geographically we lack the sea and so many islands, we at least can both boast our own lake monsters!

salotto

The ‘Salotto di Oro di Scozia’ – a session of the monthly whisky tastings in Via Zezio.

Further Information

Oro di Scozia Internet: https://www.orodiscozia.it/

Address: Via Zezio 32, Como.

Opening hours: Tuesday to Friday: 15.00 – 19.00; Saturday 10.00 – 13.00 and 15.00 – 19.00

Tel: +39.338.5093758 – Ferdinando Viti

 

 

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Testimonies and Remembrance: Como Recalls the Shoah

 

Villa Olmo

Villa Olmo –  Holocaust Memorial Day Presentation, 29th January 2019

After Italy’s disastrous experience of fascist rule, it has never managed to entirely rid itself of that ideology but, as if to compensate, it has acquired an established anti-fascist culture – as so admirably on display at Como’s Villa Olmo on Tuesday 29th January this year. For the annual Holocaust Memorial Day celebrations, the trades union CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana di Lavoro), with the support of the city’s local government, organised a presentation that included the testimony of Ines Figini (born 1922). Ines was a young worker at Como’s largest textile mill (later known as Ticosa) in 1944 when she was deported to Germany as a slave labourer alongside the organisers of a strike at the factory.  She addressed a packed assembly with standing room only and a lot of young people present. Speaking with a strong clear voice full of conviction, she described her time in the Nazi extermination and labour camps of Mauthausen, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck.

 

ines figini

Ines Figini, 96 years, addresses the audience at Villa Olmo, Como on Tuesday 29th January 2019

Ines Figini

Ines was twenty one years old  when, out of conviction, generosity and maybe a touch of youthful naivety, she stood up for the organisers of the strike at Ticosa in March 1944 – a strike directed at improving working conditions but also part of a wave of resistance in Northern Italy to the Nazi-fascist state. She paid dearly for pointing out to the authorities that they should either arrest all or none of the strikers since they were all in it together. She was arrested that same night, imprisoned locally, and then transported from Bergamo to Vienna and on to Mauthausen. She did not return home until 25th October, 1945.

Villa Olmo crowds

Ines addresses a crowded room with young people well represented at Villa Olmo

Since then she has dedicated her time talking to schoolchildren about the Holocaust. Hers is a story of survival – in the camps, on the death march as war ended and then through severe sickness. She also tells of how she came to deal with the mental impact of witnessing and experiencing so much horror, as, for example, when she came to realise that the young children she saw being marched past her hut clutching soft toys, were being sent to the gas chambers. The only way she managed to live with these memories was by confronting them by repeated return visits to Birkenau and also by finding a way to forgive those responsible. Go to  ‘Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day’ for a more complete account of her story.

Optimism and Despair

 

Vincenzo Guarracino

Vincenzo Guarracino , ‘saggista’ and poet, interviewed Ines and introduced Alessandro Lukacs

Ines survived – to this day her firm, clear voice recounting her experience in straightforward unequivocal phrases, reveals her inner strength and her overall sense of hope and optimism of a brighter future. Her testimony is well suited to the young who have the future ahead of them which we hope will never descend into the barbarity witnessed by Ines and so many others of her generation. However there was no hope for the millions of victims of the Shoah nor for many others who lived through it. Also at Villa Olmo last Tuesday was Alessandro Sander Lukacs, Hungarian by birth in  the same year as Ines, Italian by adoption – and another long-term resident of Como. Alessandro is also a survivor from the Nazi lagers who emigrated to Italy after the war, taking up his medical profession in Milan and later moving on firstly as a consultant doctor and later as the director of Como’s Sant’Anna Hospital.

 

il talmudistaHe is also a writer and a poet – but a writer of fiction since this is the way he prefers to recall the Holocaust. For him the process of testifying and remembrance is acutely painful. As he has said ‘It takes decades to learn to recount what you wanted to forget.’ His three novels are only available in Italian as far as I can establish. Alessandro’s protagonist in his latest novel, ‘The Talmudista’, longs for liberty but he has gone beyond the hope of experiencing a living freedom. For him, liberty is the annulment of the present – he can only hope for death. Alessandro’s testimony was brief but very different from Ines’s, not so immediate in its impact but profound in its attempt to convey a reality beyond our capacity to imagine. He recounted the brutality of the prison camp regime and how he only learnt the meaning of what the guards shouted at him in their foreign language by the degree of accompanying violence.

Cernobbio’s Remembrance Park

cernobbio

Just behind the town hall of Cernobbio, just down the road from Como, is a small area amongst sombre cypress trees dedicated to victims of the Shoah and of other atrocities. The central plaque is ringed by others citing individual acts of bravery or self sacrifice  performed by some of those people with links to Como or Cernobbio who have stood up to oppression and inhumanity.

scomparsi del pizzo

The central plaque is dedicated to ‘Ignoti Scomparsi del Pizzo’ – those anonymous victims killed during and just after the war either by the fascist authorities or the partisans seeking retribution. Pizzo is the small headland jutting out just beyond the Hotel Villa D’Este. It was a favoured spot for assassination since bodies were easily toppled over the railing into the waters below where the peculiarities of the current would then carry the victims out into the middle of the lake for their bodies never to be recovered. The memorial is to all those whose life was ended at that spot no matter what their political affiliation or, for that matter, what inhumane acts they themselves may have been responsible. It is hard to reconcile the beauty of a spot like Pizzo (where, by the way, there is a glorious villa much used as a romantic wedding venue) with the tragedy and inhumanity it has witnessed. In this instance, the motive for remembrance is to restore a bit of dignity to those killed there.

Narciso Riet

Narciso Riet, Jehovah Witness and resident in Piazza Santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio

The plaque dedicated to Narciso Riet (originally a German citizen who had however settled in Cernobbio but was arrested, transported to Dachau and subsequently executed) serves as a reminder that enemies of the Reich included groups like Jehovah Witnesses who were forced to wear a purple triangle badge similar to the yellow one or blue and white armband forced on Jews. Narciso was a Jehovah Witness who died for his faith.

enrico caronti - Edited

Memorial to Enrico Caronti in his hometown of Blevio

The other plaques in the circle include one to Antonio Farinatti, a marshall in the Guardia di Finanza who was executed in Croatia when Italy signed its armistice in September 1943 whilst trying to save fellow nationals caught up in the wave of ethnic cleansing directed against the Italian resident population. Two partisan members are cited, one being Enrico Caronti, battlename ‘Romolo’, captured, tortured and then shot outside the cemetery in Menaggio in 1944. The other is Ettore Fumagalli, the only partisan from Cernobbio who was killed during the war. Two citations are for people who aided Jews, anti-fascists and allied prisoners of war escape into neutral Switzerland. The first is Bruno Bossuto, from Cernobbio, who was caught, deported and died in Mauthausen on 28th July 1944. The other is Cernobbio’s local priest, Don Umberto Marmori who was imprisoned in Milan in 1944 for helping Jews and others escape. He was released in January 1945 but died shortly after due to the harsh treatment during his incarceration. There are two more general monuments to unnamed victims in addition to that for the victims of ‘Pizzo’. One is in memory of the victims of the Twin Towers outrage in New York on September 11th 2001 and the other is to the so-called ‘’Schiavi di Hitler’ (Hitler’s slaves) – the 700,000 Italian soldiers deported to Germany after the September 43 armistice as slave workers. 40,000 died in Germany as a result of hunger, illness, bombing or violence.

nine eleven

Plaque in memory of the victims of the 9/11 outrage in New York.

The plaque to Giampiero Civati honours a young corporal in the local Morbengo regiment of the Alpini who, when ordered to take his place in a firing squad to execute recently captured partisans, refused to do so stating he did not see how an Italian army could be shooting fellow Italians. His platoon commander summarily shot him on the spot.

Giorno memoria: sondaggio, 47% studenti non conosce Perlasca

Giorgio Perlasca

It is however with particular pride that a plaque commemorates the exploits of Giorgio Perlasca, Italy’s own Schindler. Perlasca was directly responsible for saving the lives of five thousand Jews whilst living in Budapest in 1944. He later saved many others from death in the Jewish ghetto there.

perlasca film

Luca Zingaretti (Moltalbano) plays Giorgio Perlasca in the 2002 film

One of the plaques in his honour includes a quote from Simon Wiesenthal which states ‘Every man who has saved innocent lives or has sacrificed his own life, merits being honoured.’ Perlasca, born in Como,  actually started off a committed fascist fighting for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. However he was deeply opposed to the Racial Laws passed in Italy in 1938 which discriminated directly against Jews, and led inexorably to fascist compliance with Nazi insistence on deportation to the labour and extermination camps. When in Budapest, he took advantage of a Spanish passport granted to him during the Civil War to pose as a Spanish diplomat and issue ‘letters of protection’ that ensured safe passage for the 5000 he saved.

Cernobbio’s small remembrance garden sets out to achieve many aspects of remembrance from seeking to restore dignity to unnamed victims, to honouring those who, through small or more extensive gestures, have sought to challenge the forces of oppression for which they have often paid the highest price.  Ines Figini too paid a very high price for standing up for her worker colleagues. Before too long, we will not have the voices of survivors to remind us of how humanity can, if led in a certain way, reduce the most sophisticated and cultured societies to commit the worst excesses of barbarity. The danger is that the reality of the suffering and inhumanity of the extermination camps will all become a little unbelievable in our modern world without the tattooed arm of a living survivor before us as live testimony to the truth. But the most profound way to honour the victims of the holocaust is to ensure their sacrifice prevents any similar recurrences. If we can do that, then we will be able to link remembrance to hope of a humane future, to poetry and to Ines’s spirit of optimism.

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Brienno’s Botanic Path – Sentiero Botanico

laurel

Yellow labels on the Sentiero Botanico

This path is apparently the only one of its kind in the Lake Como/Val D’Intelvi area. The route contains a number of clearly visible yellow plaques describing the plant or tree to which they have been attached. As you can see, each tree is given its formal name, the Italian name and finally how it is known in local dialect. So walkers are not only treated to a botanical but also to a linguistic lesson. The route of the botanical path passes through delightful mountainside cut into by numerous and vigorous streams that have formed deep-sided gullies. In fact, the whole route is rather steep particularly in the early and middle stages as it climbs rapidly above Brienno and the lake. This is also the only path that attempts to climb the mountainside on this stretch of the lake from Laglio to Argegno.

 

the woods

As the path begins to level out and enters into a beech wood, it becomes more difficult to follow due to both landslides and fallen trees.

Walkers’ efforts are also not helped by the number of small landslides and fallen trees which throw up obstacles along the way. In fact, since I was walking here with snow and ice, I had to give up trying to reach the Alpe del Comune. In spite of having to turn back without managing the circular route I had envisaged, I can still recommend this walk for its beauty and botanical interest – and, for those who wish, it is possible to use this route as a means of reaching the Pian D’Erba and on to Posa and Schignano. At Posa, you can then either link up with the Sentiero delle Espressioni or carry on down to Schignano and then on to Argegno for a bus or boat back to Como. That would make for a complete day’s excursion whilst the Brienno section described here is from two to three hours, depending on when and where you feel it is too unsafe to continue!

map

The Sentiero Botanico is marked in blue. The path to Alpe del Comune is however difficult to use in poor weather. The alternative for reaching the Pian D’Erba and on to Posa is to take the right hand fork above where the map marks ‘Torbola’.

As usually when walking on the western side of the lake, I took the C10 bus out of Como as far as Brienno.  Depending on which bus you take, you will either be stopped right outside the church in the centre or have to walk from just before the start of the tunnel that by-passes Brienno.  Either way, your point of departure is directly opposite the church and the war memorial on the lakefront.

alpini monument

Monumento ai caduti at Brienno

Follow the sign marked ‘Campo Sportivo’. The War Memorial depicting an Alpino soldier from the Morbengo regiment commemorates the occasion when the Alpini were under siege and without ammunition during the Libyan war.  Their only form of defense was to throw stones.

As you walk up through the old town, you will soon pick up on the painted pathway signs for route 1. This is a little confusing since ‘Sentiero 1’ forms part of the ‘Cammini della Regina’ – an ancient  route from Como to Sorico that linked Italy with Switzerland both commercially and culturally.  The ‘Cammini della Regina’ have from Argegno simply followed the modern lakeside road, but at Brienno the path climbs up to about 200 metres above the lake and then follows the contours  of the mountainside to Laglio and on as far as Moltrasio and Cernobbio. These sections of the walk are described in our entries ‘Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina‘ and ‘From Laglio to Moltrasio‘. However the numbering seems also to have been used for the Sentiero Botanico and its diversion up the mountainside from the main path.

antonio abate

The Chapel dedicated to Sant’Antonio Abate

Additional signs for the Sentiero Botanico are also present. The only point where you may face confusion is at the junction by the Chapel of Sant’Antonio Abate. The effigy to the saint is true to custom in depicting him accompanied by a piglet at his feet. This one is a particularly naive and slightly comical rendering of a piglet. At this chapel, be sure to take the right-hand turn going uphill. By going straight on at this stage, you remain on the Cammini della Regina and will eventually arrive at Torriggia and then Laglio where of course, you might want to drop in on the Clooneys.

As mentioned at the start, this path does include some steep sections that can be tiring but in recompense, you gain some delightful views over the lake and also pass by a number of disused alpine baitas, many now in ruins.

buildings

And of course, there are the numerous yellow plaques to inform you of the many varied plant and tree species to be found here. In spite of being brought up in the country, my ability to recognise and name different trees remains basic and I have to admit that to me, one tree trunk looks very much the same as another. However I was intrigued by the plaque on one tree that seemed to suggest that its dialect name could be translated as the ‘tree that spits’.

pianta che spuza

The tree that spits?

The number of disused and ruined baita on the route testify to an active agricultural economy here in the not too distant past. The steepness of the gradient and the small amount of old terracing makes me think  that our path was developed  primarily to aid the  biannual migration of animals to and from the summer alpine pastures.  For example, it was clearly worth it for the inhabitants to construct the so-called ‘Scala Santa’ at one of the steepest sections of the path. The Scala Santa is a stone set of steps permitting the country people to bring their animals up onto the Alpe del Comune for the summer months. The considerable investment in time and effort in the past to construct this mule path is testimony to the previous importance of the alps to the local agricultural economy.  Now that rural economy exists no longer, and unfortunately, without an economic motive, the path is no longer being maintained as previously.  Further deterioration of the path is unfortunately inevitable given the number of landslides and fallen trees on these steep mountain slopes.

scala santa

The Scala Santa

For those of you who do want to reach the Pian D’Erba (1171 metres above sea level), there is an alternative to battling on past the Alpe del Comune. By retracing your footsteps past the Scala Santa you will eventually come across the turning off to the north as shown in the photo below. It is not signposted but the red arrow is the direction to take. This is the only significant turning off the main path.

bivio pian d'erba

Apparently the views of Lake Como from the Pian D’Erba are spectacular. Also from here you can follow a broader path down to Posa from where you will see signs directing you to the Sentiero delle Espressioni – a path around Monte Comana populated by a number of wood carvings representing aspects of local folklore and displaying the talents of the Schignano wooden mask makers as deployed in the annual unmissable Schignano Carnival extravaganza.

sentiero delle espressioni

One of the carvings along the Sentiero delle Espressioni

Alternately, those visiting Schignano at carnival (highly recommended) or at any other time, may fancy walking on to Pian D’Erba and then down to Brienno on our Sentiero Botanico as a means of descending down to the lake. The Sentiero Botanico is the only other way down to the lake along the whole stretch of mountain side from Argegno to Laglio.

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Como’s Four Seasons: 2 – Feasting and Hibernation

Cherub in fountain at Villa Olmo Winter 2017

Freezing cherub in the garden fountain of Villa Olmo

Como’s winter falls into two parts as in most other western countries in the northern hemisphere.  The first half is taken up in the preparation for and celebration of the holiday season. Once that is out of the way, it is then a case of adopting coping strategies to deal with the onset of true winter. In Como, the first part is marked by the frantic exuberance of ‘Città dei Balocchi’ whilst a common way of confronting the second part seems to be to join the bears in deep hibernation.

Città dei Balocchi

 

Campanile Broletto

Campanile Broletto

In recent years the scale and breadth of the events under the ‘Balocchi’ banner have increased markedly. The goal of this initiative, financed by local businesses and the council, is to attract the maximum number of visitors to the city and so compensate for the seasonal nature of tourism on the lake. The results? In one sense, they may have proved too successful this year as the crowds, crammed into Piazza Duomo at the weekend to view the light show on the wall of the Broletto, exceeded safety limits. However, apart from the special lighting effects which get more adventurous each year, Città dei Balocchi organises a number of great events for both adults and children. The special lighting, Christmas market and ice skating all give the city a festive feel that complements the rich variety of cultural events on offer. Christmas time at Como is enchanting.

Consumerism and Concerts

christmas market

Christmas Market

I tend to doubt whether the great majority of visitors who flooded into Como during the weekends prior to Christmas actually spent much money. Yet it would only have taken a small percentage of them to purchase a bit more than a slice of pizza to have made the whole ‘Balocchi’ exercise commercially viable. The price they definitely pay though is the time spent searching for a parking space and then queueing for the free-ride buses to and from the car parks on the city’s periphery. Como’s Piazza Cavour becomes as crowded and stressful as London’s Oxford Street, but here at least there is the beautiful natural setting and the relatively quick means of escape for when it all becomes too much.

 

Beyond the streets, stalls and shopping, the origins of the holiday season are not forgotten. The special lighting on the churches and religious buildings remains in keeping with the season. Free Christmas concerts are organised in the Duomo, the Basilica di San Fedele, Villa Olmo and elsewhere. The Opera season has its grand opening at Milan’s Scala on 7th December- that city’s saint day. Como’s Teatro Sociale follows a different calendar but with plenty on offer over the holiday period.

bishop's palace

Bishop’s Palace, Piazza Grimoldi

The restaurants meanwhile have survived that dip in demand through autumn, even if the gastronomic festivals may not have brought in as many clients as wished. Now there are all those avid shoppers who need refuelling, or the groups of varying sorts who wish to celebrate the season together in that atmosphere of shared conviviality which many restaurants in Italy manage to achieve so artlessly.

La Cucina di Elsa

Ristorante Cucina di Elsa

This is the season of fixed menus offered primarily by those restaurants who have a reputation to maintain. Dining out on New Year’s Eve, in Como as elsewhere, carries a premium. As an example, the Navigazione offer a New Year’s Eve dinner aboard a lake cruise taking in Como’s midnight firework display and ending at 2 in the morning – at a cost, but with a voucher for a full day’s travel in the summer season thrown in with the deal.

And then, once the Befana has flown down from the Broletto on her broomstick to distribute sweets to the children in Piazza Duomo on Epiphany (6th January), the pace all changes.

Hibernation

bears

Bears preparing for the long hibernation

No-one has yet devised a marketing plan to fill the dead period in Lake Como’s tourist season. In particular the super luxury hotels mostly close after 6th January until the start of March. These include Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este, Blevio’s Casta Diva, Torno’s Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana and Tremezzo’s Grand Hotel. In Como, the Hilton seems closed until the end of March, Villa Flori until 8th March and the Albergo Terminus closes for a brief two weeks in January. Of the luxury hotels, both the Palace and Vista Lago remain open. So, even though the seasonal closures may be diminishing, lakeside hibernation is still a reality.

 

 

The rest of the commercial world does however carry on undiminished, and since Como’s industry is derived only half from tourism, those hotels catering to business travellers cannot hibernate. The wily visitor might well choose this as a good moment to spend a few days on Lake Como – and profit from some of the undoubted advantages of off-season travel.

Off-season Visitors

winter view brunate

Winter view of Monte Rosa from Brunate

In my opinion, January and February are good months to visit Como assuming you don’t mind the cold, you aren’t looking to swim in the lake and you appreciate avoiding large numbers of fellow visitors and paying less for travel and accomodation. The downside is the short length of daylight but even this becomes less marked in February. The winter here is often dry and sunny. You are unlikely to get the periods of prolonged rain that are more common in November or Spring. The restaurants that remain open are those that were never dependent on tourist traffic in the first place and, perhaps as a result, are often of good quality. There are days even in mid-winter when the midday sun allows for a pleasant meal outdoors. Its true that some of the main lakeside villas and gardens are closed until March but, assuming you stay in or near Como itself, there are other attractions and of course, easy access to Milan once you have exhausted Como’s cultural delights.

misty mood

Misty Winter Mood

The lake retains its beauty and displays a greater variety of moods than during the hot season. Small changes in temperature, wind speed or direction can alter its appearance. The mountains may well remain snow-capped from one thousand metres and above but you will walk the Greenway or the Strada Regia uninterrupted.

cormorantsWhen visiting the small towns on the lake, you will be eating or drinking where the locals eat. When out in the woods, you will hear the occasional lizard rustling through the dry leaves prompted by the rising sun to venture abroad.  On such days the sun’s heat brings out a feint earthy odour from the undergrowth as a precursor to the flavours of Spring. On the water you will see cormorants jump off from their watch posts to skim a metre above the lake surface on their forays for fish. In other words, the lake modifies or retains its charms even off season.

Festa della Giubiana

By the end of January, the appeal of the crisp chilly winter days begins to pall as winter moves into its coldest period. It was during these bleakest days in the natural cycle that pagan worshipers in Ticino and across Northern Italy celebrated what is now called the Festa della Giubiana or Giobia.

la giubiana

Festa della Giubiana at Seregno in Monza Brianza, ©Massimo Chisari

The festival lives on in many towns close to Como, such as Albavilla, Alzate Brianza and Tavernerio. In both Cantù and Canzo, the celebrations are more extensive. The centrepiece of the festa is a large communal bonfire upon which is burnt a female effigy known as the Giubiana. She represents the spirit of the old year and her sacrifice symbolises the death of the past to make way for the birth of the new in anticipation of spring. The origin of the Giubiana is obscure but the ceremony certainly reaches back into pagan times with some suggesting that the  alternative name of Giobia  derives from the Roman God,  Jupiter or Jove (Giove in modern Italian).

saint anthony with pig, naples

Saint Anthony with Pig, Naples

The ceremony may well also have been the inspiration for another tradition celebrated with a large communal bonfire – Saint Anthony’s Saint Day or the Festa di San’ Antonio. This is celebrated with a large bonfire in both Barni and Varese where locals can also take their pets into church for a blessing. Saint Anthony is associated with the care of animals and is usually depicted with a pig at his side. The Festa di San Antonio is another example of how the early Christian church appropriated or radically adapted pre-existing pagan ceremonies to fit the new system of beliefs.

Carnival

brut 6

Schignano Carnival – Bruts (pictured) are often armed with something like a carpet beater to aggravate the onlookers or a passing Mascarun (see next photo).

By mid-February, the scent of spring is ever more prevalent on the hillsides as the earth warms up and the days grow longer. Mid February is also carnival time. This too is another celebration with origins going way back into pagan times representing a joyful welcome to the coming of Spring. In Como we are lucky to have one of the most entertaining and original carnival celebrations in Italy – in Schignano. Whilst Venice’s carnival has characters dressed up in luxurious finery assuming genteel postures, Schignano’s characters dress in rags, make raucous noise, lounge about and harass the onlookers. It is truly and originally anarchic. Children love it but it also affects us adults no matter for how long our anarchic spirit may have lain repressed. Schignano’s carnival has the true spirit of liberation and is perhaps the best possible way of marking the end of Como’s winter!

Mascarun Schignano Carnival

A Mascarun – the rich, sophisticated and beautiful players in the Schignano Carnival.

 

 

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Christmas Como: Citta dei Balocchi

Over recent years Como has sought to exceed itself in attracting visitors to its streets over Christmas defining itself as the ‘Citta dei Balocchi’ – a phrase that might roughly be translated as the city of fun and fantasy.  The most visual elements of the Como Christmas are the special effect lighting installations in the main piazzas. These installations seem to become more ambitious each year. The photo collection here hopes to give an idea of Como Christmas nights. Go to our calendar for a more complete view of the different Christmas events or visit the internet site of Citta dei Balocchi.  

Como Companion wishes all readers, supporters and followers a very happy holiday season. Auguri e buon anno nuovo!

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Noir 2018: Moral Ambiguity and Death


Gigi Cavenago’s design for this year’s poster in homage to ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and representing the Noir in Festival’s main content – film and book.

The Noir genre in film or fiction was bound to find fertile ground within Italy, given the high levels of moral duplicity, obscurantism and corruption within many of its institutions and in general public life – made even more stark when contrasted with those heroic figures who have entered into combat with these dark forces without thought to personal safety and often at personal cost. Italian society seems ready made for ‘noir’ and Como is the ideal location for appreciating it since its stunning natural location will calm the spirits after the moral turbulence provoked by this annual feast and festival of noir.

This December sees Como and its Teatro Sociale hosting ‘Noir in Festival’ for the third year since its transfer in 2016 from Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley.  Half of the festival is based in Milan but from December 6th to 9th, all events go lakeside. Other than a couple of prize givings (including this year’s Raymond Chandler Award awarded to Jo Nesbo), the festival’s activities are screening original language films or tv shows in the main auditorium  or having authors present some of their latest works in the Sala Bianca. The films and tv shows are international but the author presentations are all Italian this year with the exception of Lars Kepler. So there is no better place to take the pulse of current day Italian noir and for taking bets on whose works may next be translated into English.

Teatro Sociale

The following Italian authors will be presenting their recent novels over the four days; Mariolina Venezia, Gianni Biondillo, Roberto Costantini, Carlo Lucarelli and Antonio Valenzi. None of these latest releases are yet available in English but both they and their authors are worth checking out for an insight into current trends in Italian crime fiction.

Mariolina Venezia

Mariolina Venezia’s latest in the Imma Tataranni series.

The first author up on the podium is Mariolina Venezia this Thursday at 17.30. She will be discussing her latest work, ‘Rione Serra Venerdi’ with Annarita Briganti. The novel is set in Matera in the heart of the southern region of Basilicata, a town embracing global tourism but still haunted by past poverty. The heroine Imma Tataranni is a state prosecutor tempted into an inappropriate  relationship with a police detective into betraying her husband and jeopardising her family.

Mariolina Venezia has published poetry and both film and TV scripts as well as publishing a historical saga tracing a Basilicata family over the last 150 years. Some of her previous books are available in English, French and other languages.

Gianni Biondillo

Gianni Biondello’s latest mystery for Inspector Ferraro

Gianni Biondillo makes a welcome return to Noir in Festival on Friday in the Sala Bianca at 17.30. His novels are set in his own home town of Milan and feature the run-down Quarto Oggiaro, where he himself was raised.  ‘Il Sapore del Sangue’ has Biondillo’s Inspector Ferraro investigating into why a multiple murderer seems to be out on early release from the Bollate Prison.

Gianni Biondillo has written seven Inspector Ferraro novels all located in Milan. He is an architect by training and has written an account of Como’s famous architect son, Antonio Sant’Elia as well as also writing for film, TV and theatre. Some of his books have been translated into French and Spanish.

Roberto Costantini

Roberto Costantini has Michele Balistreri revisit an old cold case before his retirement

His place is taken by Roberto Costantini at 18.30 who will be discussing his latest novel ‘Da Molto Lontano’. His detective Michele Balistreri, described as scarred in ‘both body and mind’ tries to resolve a cold case dating back to Rome in the summer of 1990. His failure to clear that up at the time now comes back to haunt him as he faces his retirement.

Roberto Costantini wrote the prize winning ‘Trilogy of Evil’ series starting back in 1952 with ‘The Memory of Evil’ (2014) giving a noir view over the previous sixty years of Italian history. The trilogy features ageing detective Michele Balistreri with this last novel offering insights into his complex character as he faces retirement. His Evil Trilogy is available in English and other languages.

Carlo Lucarelli

Lucarelli’s Commisario De Luca investigates murder and negotiates dangerous politics in wartime Bologna

Carlo Lucarelli presents ‘Peccato Mortale’ on Saturday at 17.00 and it takes us back to 1943 and the period between the overthrow of Mussolini and the armistice signed with the allies in September by the king and Prime Minister Badoglio. His detective, Inspector De Luca working in Bologna, gets embroiled in dangerous politics as he investigates the mystery of a headless corpse.

Carlo Lucarelli’s  police detectives – Coliandro, De Luca and Grazia Negro – have all been filmed or televised. He himself has also directed film and made both radio and television programmes. He is a journalist and teaches creative writing in school and prison. Some of his books are available in English and French.

Antonio Valenzi

Valenzi’s unlikely protagonist takes on global capitalism and its political backers.

Antonio Valenzi appears on the last day of the festival on Sunday morning at 12.00 in the Sala Turca. He presents ‘Il Quinto Dominio’. This novel takes on the shadowy world of international corporations and their political backers as they maneuver for power and profit. As might be expected in the era of global capitalism, the noir tentacles spread out to France, South America and beyond.

Antonio Valenzi took up journalism after trying out a string of different jobs. He covered a variety of investigative topics involving the media industry and currently writes a blog on media affairs for the Huffington Post. His second novel ‘Golden Standard’ won the 2016 Casa Sanremo Writers Prize. His books have not yet been translated into English as far as I can establish.

Teatro Sociale with the lighting organised by Como’s Citta dei Balocchi 2018

Italian Noir presents many  grey and negative aspects of Italian society, well beyond the stereotypical images of a beautiful and cultured country. This is not to say that Italy lacks culture and beauty. Far from it  BUT it is also a country where many private lives get caught up in the machinations of seemingly indifferent state and morally dubious private institutions and where injustices, whether intended or accidental, may never get resolved – rich territory for our modern day noir writers.

A summary of the Festival’s events in Como is available on our calendar. For more detail, go to the Noir in Festival’s website.

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Clouds Over Como: Lest We Forget

 

Clouds over Como

November is a melancholy month made even more so in this centenary year marking the end of the First World War. Italy celebrates this anniversary on the 4th rather than 11th November since that was when the hostilities in the Dolomites and the Isonzo valley ended. This conflict between the young Italian state and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire registered as gruesome a rate of mortality as that on the Western or Eastern fronts. As elsewhere across Europe, most Italian towns have a memorial to their local dead from both this and the subsequent tragic conflicts of the twentieth century. Como’s Monumento ai Caduti, designed by Giuseppe Terragni and inspired by Como’s other famous architect son Antonio Sant’Elia – himself a victim on the Isonzo front, is a particularly striking example due both to its bold design and its prominent location on the lakefront.

Giuseppi Terragni’s Monumento Ai Caduti, inspired from designs by Antonio Sant’Elia

The local impact of the First World War is still visible in the Linea Cadorna, a line of trenches and machine gun emplacements straddling the peaks of the mountains around Como and marking the frontier with Switzerland. That defensive line was never needed. Como was however tragically embroiled in the last years of the Second World War when the town had become a favoured residence for many fascist leaders, their families, mistresses and assorted unsavoury bullies and hangers-on.  The civilian population, enlarged by the escapees from the unrelenting bombardment of Milan, witnessed the dying days of the nazi-fascist regime and the blood-letting that followed its immediate overthrow. Como was at the heart of the maelstrom following Mussolini’s retreat from Milan and his attempt to seek safety in the Valtellina. Those days brought tragedy on both sides of the political divide with summary justice often meted out with little discrimination. It seems appropriate to personalise this season of remembrance by recording the tragedies that marked those horrendous days in Como – and  to identify the sites and structures where various acts of horror took place, if only to remind us all that, even in locations as beautiful as ours, our recent history has been punctuated by the grossest acts of inhumanity. The cruelties of the past need sometimes to be brought to current attention in the hope that they may never be repeated.

The Isotta Fraschini – the luxury car favoured by the fascist hierarchy and wealthy wartime society.

Before the armistice of September 1943 Como seemed to have been spared the worst of war deprivation, and even later managed to avoid most of the allied bombing maybe due to its proximity to its border with neutral Switzerland. The population suffered deprivations from the strict rationing, the ongoing callousness and favouritisms of the fascist state and of course the bullying, torture, imprisonment  and deportation to Nazi labour and extermination camps of its social and political enemies. But for those friends of the regime, with money or some useful connections, Como became a hedonist paradise. Luxury cars were a common sight as politicians, industrialists and media stars enjoyed the good life in casinos, restaurants and bordellos whilst the common folk struggled by on the meagre rations issued to those fortunate to be in work.

Hedonistic Como

General Rodolfo Graziani – Commander of the RSI’s army

Mussolini had chosen the shores of Lake Garda for his residence but his son Vittorio, other relatives and some at the top of the fascist political hierarchy lived on Lake Como. Among these were Rodolfo Graziani – the general commanding the RSI Army  who lived in Villa Crespi on Monte Olimpino and one of the Duce’s ex-mistresses, the Countess Alice de Fonseca, living in Lezzeno. The climate and the beauty were undoubtedly as appealing then as now but the additional advantage for them and also for many of the Nazi state institutions, was the proximity of the Swiss border if there was a need for a quick escape.

Paolo Porta

By April 1945, the imminent defeat of the Nazi-fascist state was increasingly obvious even to the most diehard fascist leaders such as Paolo Porta, the chain-smoking fanatic boss and chief representative of the fascist state in Como. From his headquarters at the Casa del Fascio (Giuseppe Terragni’s rationalist masterpiece), and from the barracks of his division of the Brigate Nere right by Como Borghi Station, he waged a successful war against the partisan bands operating in the hills on the western shores of the lake and those further up towards the Valtellina.

Casa del Fascio designed by Giuseppe Terrragni

He filled up the Brigate barracks on Via Sirtori with his prisoners as well as in the town’s old prison, San Donnino. Even these facilities were insufficient to hold all his and the Questora’s detainees.

Palestra Negretti in Via dei Partigiani

The gymnasiums of Palestra Gino Negretti in the renamed Via dei Partigiani and Palestra Mariani on Via Sauro, where Ines Figini was held prior to her deportation to Mauthausen, were converted into temporary jails. Giuseppe Terragni  designed the Casa del Fascio with its glass atrium way back in the idealistic early years of Mussolini’s era with the idea of conveying transparency in local government, but instead it had become the centre of oppression over the local population and the site to where partisan leaders such as the Chief of Staff of the 52 Garibaldi Brigade, Luigi Canali (‘nome di battaglia’ Capitano Neri) and his girlfriend Giuseppina Tuissi (‘nome di battaglia’ Gianna) were brought to be tortured mercilessly by henchmen such as Enrico Mariani, who had won the European Rowing Championship in his youth but was now an ardent fascist with a perverse streak who whistled arias from Verdi’s Il Trovatore as he indulged his sadistic fantasies.

A Nest of Spies

The ex-Swiss Consulate on Viale Geno

The fascist state could only gain results against its enemies by using threat, torture and bribes to urge local people to denounce enemies of the state whether they be Italian or foreign jews seeking to avoid deportation, young ex-soldiers avoiding conscription, escaped allied prisoners of war or the increasing bands of armed partisans with their allegiances either to the communists, socialists, the Catholic Church or the Royal Family. Como was not only a magnet for the wealthy hedonists but also for these so-called enemies of the state seeking safety over the border or, in the case of some of the partisans, receiving funding from the allies and particularly from the future head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, based in Bern. However he took care to fund only the more moderate partisan bands from the OSS (American secret service) office in Lugano. Como too was full of agents, double agents, traitors and double-dealers whose loyalties became increasingly difficult to decipher as fortunes turned against the Nazi-fascists. One point of reference for those wanting to link up with agencies across the border was the Swiss Consulate on Viale Geno, still standing but as a private residence.

Vodafone shop which used to be the luggage and bag workshop of Remo Mentasti  who provided a point of contact for partisan sympathisers arriving in the city and wanting to make contact with the groups hiding in the mountains. 

Partisan Resistance

Partisans were under fierce pressure during the bleak winter of 1944/5, under attack from Porta, constrained to disband temporarily by the Allied leadership, facing the cruel deprivations of winter reliant on the support of a civilian population suffering from ever stricter rationing, unemployment and civil oppression. But some sites such as the shop of Remo Mentasti – the luggage maker – in  Piazza San Fedele continued to provide a point of contact for all partisan sympathisers from Milan seeking contact with the groups encamped in the hills although Porta had his men spying on the shop’s entrance from the first floor of the restaurant across the square.

Dionisio Gambaruto, seasoned partisan commander from the Spanish Civil War

Opposition to the fascist state was led by the Italian Communist Party with its disciplined cadres and hardcore guerrilla leaders who had learnt their craft, and unfortunately their Stalinist intransigence, fighting against Franco’s forces in Spain. Such was Dionisio Gambaruto, a veteran from the Spanish Civil War and a hardline Stalinist in command of the Garibaldini based at the top end of the lake. He would feature more prominently after the fall of fascism. However partisans were recruited from a wide range of political backgrounds and even the 52nd Garibaldi Brigade (Communist funded like all the Garibaldi brigades) was under the leadership of a royalist ex-army captain, Count Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle, whose ‘nome di battaglia’ was Pietro.  He led his group in blocking the column of German soldiers as they approached Dongo on April 27th to negotiate the surrender of all those in the column who were Italian citizens, including Mussolini who had initially tried to pass himself off as a German soldier and his girlfriend Claretta Petacci who was travelling with her brother under a false Spanish passport.

The Prefettura on Via Volta, seat of central government then as now, and where Mussolini spent his last night in Como

Two days earlier, Mussolini had realised that his attempts to negotiate some sort of deal with the leaders of the Milanese insurrection, the Committee for National Liberation (CLN),  would get him nowhere since the German Army, without Hitler’s approval, had already signed an armistice with the allies in Rome. He and his band of fascist leaders chose to flee to Como which, due to Porta, was still under fascist control. He stayed the night in the Prefettura on Via Volta but had to leave rapidly at 04.00am on the 26th to ensure his safety.

Villa Mantero – the most discrete villa in Como, impossible to see except from the air.

His wife Rachele stayed at the Villa Mantero on Via Crispi and then tried to enter Switzerland at Chiasso the next day but was turned back and later arrested by partisans. His girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Volta and then joined Mussolini’s ill-fated column of German soldiers.

Insurrection and Revenge

Albergo Firenze in Piazza Volta

But Como was about to switch dramatically from fascist to anti-fascist.  Fascist leaders such as Porta had joined Mussolini’s column seeking the safety of the Valtellina but others started to negotiate surrender seeking favourable terms for themselves. There was a sudden demand for red fabric so young men could rapidly don red scarves whilst disposing of their former black shirts. Nowhere was the contrast in fortunes greater than amongst the residents of San Donnino, the town’s prison. Overnight the anti-fascist prisoners swapped places with fascists. Some of those ex-fascists faced a summary justice similar to that meted out to Porta. He was with the fascist leadership captured in Dongo. Faced with the imminent and ultimate solution to his nicotine addiction, he begged  one last cigarette before execution. His and the other victims’ bodies were then carried down for display in Milan’s Piazza Loreto alongside the corpses of Mussolini and Petacci who had been executed together on the same morning but at Bonzanigo, a district of Mezzegra now part of the newly formed comune of Tremezzina. The lakefront at Como behind the Monumento ai Caduti became the setting for the summary execution of many fascists including the Questore, Pozzoli, and his diabolical second in command, Saletta.

San Donnino Prison in Como’s old town – on April 27th the anti-fascist prisoners were released and their places taken by fascist collaborators who at least stood more of a chance of surviving than those captured by the partisans and housed in the Hotel Posta or Villa Rossa.

On the night of April 27th the American OSS, the UK’s Special Operations Executive and some of their non-communist partisan allies had to save German officers including General Wolff, the commander of the SS in Italy. On returning the previous day from secret surrender negotiations in Switzerland, Wolff had been forced by strong partisan activity to take refuge in Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio – the SS headquarters for Lombardy whose commander was ironically a double agent working for Dulles.  The communist partisans had surrounded the villa but had failed to cut the telephone lines so Wolff was able to contact the Swiss and arrange allied assistance to free him. This was perhaps the first of many occasions when the allies sought to moderate the forces of insurrection and revenge. The Americans had certainly wanted Mussolini to be captured and delivered to them alive (there are some doubts about the UK’s wishes) but the communists wanted immediate justice alongside a desire to rid the area of all those connected with the fascist past.

Police records of Dante Gorreri, nicknamed ‘ul parun’ due to his arrogance

Following the 27th April 1945, the Casa del Fascio immediately became the headquarters of the Partito Communista Italiano and Porta’s ex-director’s office was now occupied by the similarly vicious but politically contrasting figure of Dante Gorreri, renowned for his arrogance and authoritarianism. Gorreri now spent his days managing the administration of the province and his evenings in clandestine journeys personally performing summary execution of former fascist collaborators. The immediate climate for revenge and for settling the scores built up through years of oppression, betrayals and double dealing led to the formation of two bands of semi-official police. One of these, the ‘Polizia del Popolo’ led by Dionisio Gambaruto, was headquartered at the Hotel Posta on Piazza Volta, used to house prisoners whose stay there was often a brief interlude before execution.

Allies Moderation

Hotel Posta in Piazza Volta. This exterior was a less ambitious design by Giuseppe Terrragni.

Here the police worked in conjunction with the Questura (state police) who were doing their best to distance themselves from the former regime. The civil police or ‘Volonte Rossa’  had their headquarters in the so-called Villa Rossa, also known as Villa Tornaghi at 33 Via Bellinzona but now demolished. The leader here was an elegant but ruthless partisan called Leopoldo Cassinelli or ‘Il Lince’. There too the prisoners tended to stay for short period before their end. Around 20 to 30 ‘collaborators’ per night were rounded up by the partisan police patrols and brought to these temporary prisons. The allied authorities became so alarmed by the level of bloodletting that they threatened to attack both bases. In addition the Carabiniere under Brigadier Ettore Manzi used allied troops to assist them in re-arresting at least 74 of these prisoners thus ensuring their transfer to the official prison of San Donnino avoiding summary execution and left to be processed according to official court procedures. The modern day civil art gallery of Como, the Pinacoteca, was the site of the law courts positioned close to the San Donnino prison.

Blue Skies and Calm Waters

Careno – blue skies and calm waters

As civil power was gradually restored and the first democratic government since the 1920s was established, the partisan police forces were disarmed and the period of revenge, fired by hopes of a socialist revolution, faded into memory. Too many members of the PCI had failed to appreciate how the general public were fed up with any form of political tyranny and how the stalinist levels of discipline needed perhaps during times of conflict were off-putting in peacetime. In any case, the revolutionary hopes fired by the emotions of the general insurrection in April were misplaced given Russia’s lack of commitment to a Communist revolution in Italy, in reality out of the question whilst the country was still occupied by the Allied forces. Maybe the anti-communist fears of the Allies went too far. One immediate result even for hardline fascists was that, if they could survive the first six to twelve months after the war, they were likely to be given amnesty and be reintegrated into civil society with little said about their former collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. No-one was to regret the passing of those tragic days before and after the end of the war.  Even though political conflict between left and right extremes remained to resurface in the terrorism of the 1970s, this hardly impacted on Como. Here the pleasures of life in such a beautiful natural setting were re-establishing themselves as the local economy, based primarily on silk production, boomed.

The Casa del Fascio from the portico of the Teatro Sociale

‘Lest We Forget’

The bullet holes on the lakefront railing at Dongo are still visible reminders of the execution of Paolo Porta and the other fascist leaders on the morning of 27th April 1945. San Donnino is no longer a prison and in fact awaits a developer to renovate it as luxury apartments. The barracks of Villa Tornaghi or of Porta’s Brigate Nere at Como Borghi have been demolished. The Hotel Posta has been renovated and is now a boutique hotel on the corner of Piazza Volta where the Albergo Firenze still offers rooms but not to the prostitutes or mistresses of the old regime. The gymnasiums used to house Jews and political prisoners awaiting deportation to Germany are just gymnasiums. The Casa del Fascio no longer houses political tyrants and torturers but is the temporary headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza (an organisation which had impeccable anti-fascist credentials throughout the Nazi occupation). In fact the Casa del Fascio is most likely to become a museum and study centre dedicated to its architect designer, Giuseppe Terragni.  He had also designed the Monumento ai Caduti behind which so many collaborators met summary justice. No plaque is placed there in their memory. Instead it is a favoured meeting place during the summer months for young immigrants seeking to make their way to Northern Europe. The blood has been wiped clean, and memories of those bad times are fading but if the buildings that remain could talk, they would no doubt beg us to never again lose our sense of humanity.

Como Companion has published a number of articles relating to this sad period in Como’s history. You may wish also to read:

 

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