Weaving Art into Como’s Urban Fabric: Streetscape 7

Vittorio Emanuele

Via Vittorio Emanuele

Saturday 13th October saw the launch of the seventh annual Streetscape bringing street art to the four corners of the old town and beyond. Congratulations to Art Company for organising it and to the local authority entities who continue to support it.  I love Streetscape – it offers an opportunity for gentle criticism, an excuse to walk around the town for an artistic treasure hunt – and most of the installations do genuinely provoke thought and reflection often influenced by their temporary urban homes. Never do my personal reactions correspond in any way to the official notes displayed at each site but neither does this seem to matter – the interplay between each item of art and its urban setting sparks off reactions that are bound to be personal. The occasional dud might leave you underwhelmed but this year, duds are in the smallest of minorities.

chiostrino

Il Chiostrino Artificiale with last year’s exhibit -an architectural gem worth taking every excuse to visit.

The purpose of Streetscape, as I perceive it, is to present art outside of a gallery thus exposing it to many more people and also, if the locations are well selected, allowing the location to influence how the art is perceived, and/or conversely allowing the work of art to create reflection on its location. But if this is the conceptual heart of street art, it is problematic since there are inherent conflicts between the desire for accessibility and security, between the notions of expendability or permanence, or between iconic or iconoclastic intent. These issues do impact the sense of commercial value and can result in the ultimate absurdity as represented at Sotheby’s auction of Banksy’s ‘Girl with Balloon’ which doubled its value by being morphed via a ‘hidden’ shredder into ‘Love is in the Bin’. No such absurdities were on show or to be witnessed in Como however street art does and perhaps always should provoke a degree of controversy.

Dangerous Attraction by Rendo

Dangerous Attraction by Rendo, exhibited within the Serre of Piazza Martinelli

Home - una casa nell'albero by Florencia Martinez

Home – una casa nell’albero‘ by Florencia MArtinez within the Chiostrino Artificiale

Yet the polemic remains – as the works on show become less ephemeral, security issues become more critical. This year the trend established last year of staging works within secure compounds seems to have been consolidated since six out of the nine works are to a greater or lesser degree behind locked doors. This does not necessarily diminish their impact but those seeking to view Florencia Martinez’s textile sculpture ‘Home – una casa nell’albero’ will have to ensure they time their visit with the morning opening of the Chiostrino Artificio. Difficult to see this as street art, but never mind, the Chiostrino is always worth a visit if just for its architectural beauty. And in fact there is a whole series of Martinez’s other works on display inside.

Chinese artist Lio Ruowang’s sculpture ‘Original Sin’ can be seen also out of hours through the gate enclosing the Museo Archeologico’s courtyard, but best to enter and see this work at closer quarters, positioned as it is squarely at the centre of its exhibition space. Its location made me compare this squat humanoid shape to the idealised sculptures of famous figures adorning the squares and piazzas of our cities, such as Alessandro Volta, Mazzini or Garibaldi here in Como. Equally well located in the garden courtyard of the Biblioteca Comunale is the seemingly bucolic work by Corrado Bonomi entitled ‘Roseto‘. Initially this looks like a bright red rose arbor beautiful enough to adorn the Garden of Eden – but closer inspection, only possible during opening hours, shows the vines and flowers all to be made of plastic.

Continuing our tour of Como’s courtyards, the Pinacoteca has offered up its rather dismal courtyard space for Streetscape works over the last few years but the space is so uninspiring and confined that it usually diminishes the impact of whatever is exhibited there. Not this year, however. The monumental inflatable by Polish artist, M-City, entitled ‘Pomnik Konny’ towers high drawing the eye upwards and beyond the confined space.

Pomnik Konny by M-City

Pomnik Konny by M-City in the courtuard of the Pinacoteca Civica.

Another usually uninspiring location for Streetscape works is the enclosed shed space in Piazza Martinelli featured at the start of this article. In past years, two dimensional works have been mounted against the far wall of this shed kept secure and distant behind locked bars. This year though the work by Rendo is not only staged clear of the far wall but, through optical illusion and use of perspective, creates an intriguing two and three-dimensional ambiguity.  This seems to imbue the sculpture with a sense of repressed energy which is in turn reinforced by its position behind bars.

Dangerous Attraction by Rendo 2

Dangerous Attraction by Rendo – in the serre of Piazza Martinelli – two and three dimensional ambiguity.

The final courtyard setting is in Palazzo Cernezzi on Via Vittorio Emanuele, the seat of local city government. The work on display here is by Matteo Capobianco aka Ufocinque and is entitled ‘La leggenda del Lariosauro e altre storie comuni.’ At the heart of this sculpture is a representation of Lariosaurus, which actually existed as a pre-prehistoric creature (see our article Myth and Reality: Lake Monsters and Political Scandal for  the full story).

La leggenda del Lariosauro detail

Detail from ‘La leggenda del Lariosauro’

The Lariosaurus myth has more recently been reinterpreted by Como’s very own street artist, Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall, who used it in a publicity stunt to draw attention to the local city council’s incapacity to resolve the issue of the redevelopment of the ex-Ticosa industrial site on the edge of Como’s historic centre. So it is entirely possible that this installation is intended as an ironic commentary on the local council’s inefficiency. If so, it either means the local council were either unaware of such an intention when granting permission for the work to be sited at the town hall, or, due to a recent change in administration, they feel confident enough to ignore it. Or I may of course have entirely mistaken the artist’s intent – such is the delightful ambiguity of street art! In any case, if we leave out the potential irony, this is perhaps one of the least successful installations with the location adding little to its impact.

 

Moving away from the courtyard settings, there is a very obvious big blob of black plastic in the middle of Piazza Duomo – a more open and exposed location would be hard to find.

Cardiaco by Paolo Grassino

Cardiaco by Paolo Grassino in Piazza Duomo

This work by Paolo Grassino and entitled Cardiaco immediately attracts attention in its anomalous setting and also by its courageous disregard for security or of threats of vandalism. In fact it seems to invite use as a massive ashtray or refuse bin. No doubt it is hard to move and almost indestructible. It is also true street art. The artist makes the original observation that when genetic engineering takes control of our bodies, the colour of the body parts will be black. As Henry Ford might have said, ‘You can have a heart in any colour as long as it’s black.’ I am sure the town council have received complaints about landing a black blob in the middle of one of the city’s finest piazzas. If so, they are to be congratulated on ignoring them.

Follow your heart by Andrea Zamengo

‘Follow your heart’ by Andrea Zamengo in the Como Lago train station.

The final installation near the old town is by Andrea Zamengo in the Como Lago station. It may be more of a symbolic representation of a heart compared with the realistic black blob in Piazza Duomo but it does restore its red coloration. The title  ‘Follow your heart’  makes immediate sense of its location, and the different planes of the heart are said to represent the full diversity of those who pass through the station on their journeys that may be following their heart.

Suffering from a temporary mobility restriction, I was unable to get to the last of the open installations – Zio Ziegler’s poster installation on Via Castelnuovo. This location could well profit from something inspirational being on a featureless stretch of urban highway. The poster gets over some of those security issues since it can be reproduced and reinstalled if needs be although last year’s poster in the same location, was one of the first installations that did not last the length of the exhibition. In terms of longevity, it was great to see that the ‘unofficial’ entry to last year’s Streetscape – Pierpaolo Perretta’s ‘Great Wave’ is still  in situ and remains totally unvandalised. Either through the Lariosaurus or his own installations, notwithstanding his remarkable international success over the last year, the spirit of Como’s Mr. Savethewall still pervades Streetscape.

savethewall

Great Wave by Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall installed last year and still in good condition in Piazzetta Pietro Pinchetti

Streetscape 7 runs until 18th November and I have no hesitation in recommending all who have the opportunity to take a walking tour around the city to see the art. You may well cross paths with others on the same venture. Alternatively if around on Saturday 20th October, there is a cycle tour of Streetscape setting out at 11.00am from the Autosilo Tribunale – a great opportunity to bring your own bike and share the artistic experience with others.

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Como’s Historical Fabric and its Pot of Roman Gold

Pot of Gold 2

Roman Gold from 5th century AD found recently during rebuilding work at the Cressoni theatre on Via Diaz, Como. Courtesy of il Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.

The recent find in Como amounting to more than four hundred gold coins unearthed in a terracotta amphora during the redevelopment of Teatro Cressoni has drawn both international attention and significant interest from archaeologists of the Roman period. The sheer quantity and value of the coins make this a highly significant find which may reveal more about Novum Comum, as Como was called by its founder, Julius Caesar. First reactions are that this horde most likely belonged to some state or civic institution given its size. Most of the treasure will revert again to the state but representatives from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs have intimated that at least a part of it will be donated to the city of Como for display alongside the number of other Roman artifacts in the Museo Archeologico in Piazza Medaglie D’Oro. Up to a quarter of the value may be awarded to the owners of the building site, a more than fair recompense for the inevitable delays to the development to allow for further study of the site.

Historical Importance

baradello 2

Castello Baradello, enlarged by the Swabian Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, to defend Como from the forces of Milan and other members of the Lega Lombarda

Como has always been recognised for its strategic location through the ages. For Julius Caesar, Como was a port city at the end of the lake providing  a staging post for goods and soldiers making their way from Milan to cross the Alps. For the Swabian Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, Como provided a gateway to his Italian territories. He developed the town’s defenses by rebuilding the Roman walls and also by extending the Baradello Castle and tower to keep sentinel across the Pianura Padana.

Romweg

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

Como’s importance in medieval times is shown on the Romweg,  one of the earliest maps representing a pan-European route from Edinburgh in Scotland to Rome – a route used by religious pilgrims and by merchants alike. For traders, it linked the wealthy city of Milan to the cross-Alpine routes giving access to the transport links provided by the Rhine and Danube river systems. Even in more modern days, the A9 autostrada from Milan to Como was the first super highway built by the Fascist government in the 1920s. This role throughout the ages is reflected in the historical fabric – the buildings and physical structures of the city.

Como location

View over Como showing the thin thread of the Autostrada in the background still acting as the most direct link from Milan to Basel and the Rhine Valley.

The Roman baths, medieval towers and walls, or the Baradello tower are the most obvious visual evidence of the importance and prolonged history of the town. In a less direct way, the historic fabric of the city can also be seen in the evolution of many of its buildings as they were adapted for varying uses over the centuries. Some of the more readily visible modifications include the redesign of doorways or windows.

Modern internal restoration of old buildings can still be quite radical in Italy where the high costs of energy and government-set standards encourage the adoption of modern insulation technologies. However the exteriors often seek to preserve as many original elements as possible. Many exteriors contain such clues as to how the structure may have looked in previous centuries.Doorways

Coats of Arms

Stemma Piero

Coat of arms of the Del Piero family in Via Del Piero

One visual element that has remained on some ancient buildings is the crest or coat of arms of the original inhabitants. These coats of arms were carved onto the keystone above the principal doorway to a noble family’s villa. The best preserved of these is the ‘Pear’ family in the street named after the most famous family member – Adamo del Pero. Adamo del Pero was a ‘condottiero’ or naval captain of the Como fleet under the warrior Bishop Grimoldi during the city’s ten year war with Milan starting in 1118. Other coats of arms can be seen in Via Balestra including the badly eroded one of the Lucini family, whose ancestor Arnaldo Lucini was also a captain of the Como forces but he took  part in the later wars against Milan headed by Federico Barbarossa in the 1170s. (For Como these wars were about maintaining access to the lucrative trade routes across the Alps. For Barbarossa it was more about the ongoing conflict for domination between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.)

Buried History

Column Photography studio

Roman column in a studio on Via Rodari. It descends a good metre below current ground level.

With the passing of time, the pavements trodden by those original citizens of Como have become buried under layers of earth and debris brought about by floods, earthquakes and centuries of urban development. The ground level of Roman Como is now from about one to two metres below current levels as can be seen under the Valduce car park in the ground level of the Roman Baths or again when visiting the Praetorian gates. Other proof is in the hidden columns supporting the blocked arches along Via Rodari and  in the sunken level of the Roman column at the centre of the photographer’s studio also on Via Rodari.

Columns Via Rodari

The difference in ground level between now and Roman times is shown by these columns and arches in Via Rodari.

Symbolical Traces

Fainter still, some parts of Como’s historical fabric are recorded using purely symbolical traces as with the two rings of steel laid to denote where the twin lost towers of San Giacomo used to stand. The church of San Giacomo used to be twice current dimensions with twin towers crowning its main entrance. One of these towers abutted the Broletto. Similarly close by, a small section of tram tracks remain as a reminder of former times.

San Giacomo

San Giacomo Church in Piazza Grimoldi. The church originally had its entrance by the mulberry trees. Steel bands set in the pavement beside the trees show the location of the original twin towers.

Building Conversions

The plethora of churches and convents that flourished in the middle ages has meant that a number of them have been converted as lay populations grew. The deconsecration and subsequent conversion of churches is perhaps the most common change of building use over the years  – a trend not unknown in more recent times in UK cities. Here the conversions were undertaken much earlier and without the intention necessarily of retaining any of the former aspects of ecclesiastical architecture. The faint impression of the former triple window can be seen in the image below.

church conversion

The building on the right still shows the faint outline of the triple windows above the original doorway to the church. A cloister to the right still survives within the grounds of the Valduce Hospital

An interesting form of building conversion concerns at least two former ice houses (nevere) whose original outlines are still discernible but which have now been re-purposed as a private residence behind San Fedele in one instance and as a clothes shop in the other.

The clothes shop behind the Banca D’Italia is particularly revealing since here you can freely view the interior of the nevera. Originally this structure had an open roof to allow the snow to fall in and accumulate on the floor and subsequently be pressed down to form ice. The room next to the entrance was the original shop where the blocks of ice were sold. It was located right in front of the old fish market. Clearly there has been a distinct change in climate over the years since it rarely snows in Como these days.

Lost History

via vitani

Via Vitani

This last nevera and the long-lost fish market were in a quarter of the town known as the Cortisella. Little now remains of the area of Cortisella other than the nevera, Via Vitani and the fishermen’s houses that front on to Via Fontana. The area was Como’s ‘Les Halles’ or London’s ‘Seven Dials’ – an area considered unsanitary and unsafe. The fascist government particularly didn’t like the narrow alleys which defied surveillance or the undisciplined population who tended towards ‘disobedience’.  It was redeveloped in the 1920s and replaced by the monolithic and now redundant Banca D’Italia building. The ‘spirit’ of Cortisella lives on though as a romanticised urban mythology dear to many of Como’s present-day citizens. Another item of lost history is the church of San Giovanni on the western side of town sacrificed to make way for the train station which at least continues to bear the church’s name.

False History

Banca Commerciale Frigerio

The Banca Commerciale building designed by Federico Frigerio and completed in 1927.

In this rapid review of historical fabric, we have touched on visible and hidden traces of the past but we need also to be aware of ‘false’ history or those buildings put up in the ‘eclectic’ period of architecture that borrowed from former architectural styles. The main example of this is the Carige bank, on Piazza Grimoldi designed by Federico Frigerio and built for the Banca Commerciale from 1923 to 1927. Whatever its merits may be, it isn’t as old as it looks. Frigerio also designed the neo-classical Tempio Voltiano on the lakefront which again may well be elegant but dates from no earlier than the late nineteenth century, and to my eye at least, lacks the delicacy of earlier neo-classical architecture.

Preserved History

cupola

Cupola of Como’s Cathedral

Old buildings require considerable upkeep and the economic burden of maintaining Como’s architectural heritage is not inconsiderable – a burden shared across much of Italy due to its patrimony. Federico Frigerio  was responsible for designing critical restoration work on the cathedral by devising a means of preventing the frontal elevation from continuing to bow out and ultimately collapse. He also redesigned the cathedral’s cupola following its partial destruction by fire in 1935.  He also restored the Broletto tower and showed both technical ingenuity and aesthetic sensitivity in helping to preserve some of Como’s most prestigious architectural structures.

Pot of Gold

Back to that pot of gold lying in the mud of an excavated basement on Via Diaz – those gold coins in their terracotta amphora have certainly drawn international media attention to Como.

Pot of Gold

Part of the horde of over 400 gold coins, jewels and ingots uncovered at Il Cressoni in Via Diaz.

The find is the most significant ever uncovered in Northern Italy and exceeds that of 400 coins unearthed in 2004 in Maremma. It has now been confirmed that in addition to the estimated 400 gold coins, the treasure also includes jewels and ingots. One immediate impact of the find is to focus attention on how the city can make the most of its obviously rich archaeological patrimony to promote further cultural tourism. Alongside this, there is renewed interest in attempting to define what is known about Novum Comum. For example, was the forum actually in Piazza San Fedele and does this latest find suggest that the ex-Cressoni site was an extension of it? Was the Roman theatre close to modern day Piazza Grimoldi or in Via Vitani? Como has been built over too many times to allow for the discovery of a complete urban complex like the forum in Rome, or in nearby Brescia. What remain here are only the foundations two to three metres down below ground.  All the other original building materials have been reused through the middle ages and the Renaissance. The Roman origins of the city have been incorporated into the very fabric of modern-day Como. Roman, medieval and renaissance structures all go to make up the city’s structural DNA – for which there still is plenty of visible evidence whilst no doubt more of the hidden fabric will at some time be revealed.

Additional Links

For more information about Roman Como, refer to From Out of the Swamp, Novum Comum – Roman Como

Prior to Roman times, there was a significant prehistoric community living in the foothills above the lake, refer to Up in the Hills – Prehistoric Como for more information.

Refer to Cortesella – The Mythical Heart of Old Como  for more information about this lost quarter behind Piazza Cavour.

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Como’s Four Seasons: 1 – The Re-entry (Il Rientro)

Fiera Sant Abbondio - Pumpkins

Seasonal produce – pumpkins on show at the Coldiretti Market during the Fiera di Sant’Abbondio

The four seasons on Lake Como are very pronounced each with distinctive climatic features, but also with marked changes in the social environment. Actually the social calendar is more predictably seasonal these days than the climatic one. This is why I am going to characterise the four very different periods in the year by each of their predominant social features. For September this is undoubtedly the so-called ‘rientro’ or the Italian return home from summer holidays.

rientroBack in the 1980s and 90s, bourgeois Italian families from Como and particularly those living in the hot and humid Pianura Padana, e.g. Milan, would spend July and August either by the sea or in the mountains or both. The breadwinner of the family would continue to work in July and join the rest of the family at weekends. Then he or she, normally ‘he’, would join the others for a four week break in August. Workers would also be on a long holiday in August since almost all factories would close for the entire month.  The northern cities would be deserted with most supermarkets and other shops remaining firmly shut. The poor and infirm were left to swelter in the heat and to check the newspapers for information on where to find an open supermarket or chemist. Modern economic pressures, and the need also to provide services for foreign tourists, have moderated this pattern but the ‘rientro’ is still a palpable reality.

Como Rientro

Seasonal change in Como

One cannot deny that the ‘rientro’ does coincide with a climatic change – September heralds cooler evenings and a reduction in the scorching temperatures of high summer making outdoor life even more pleasurable in the continued sun and reduced humidity.  However businesses have to restart, commuters must return to getting up early to go out and make a living. Students and schoolchildren must prepare for the new academic year. Domestic routines reassume their regular pattern.

Arrival of Federico Barbarossa

The Palio del Baradello kicks off in September with the re-enactment of the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, in March 1157 – an ‘entro’ this time.

But memories of summer remain – work colleagues, friends or family members greeting each other after the summer break have stories to tell and recommendations or warnings to make about where they stayed, what they saw and what they ate.

Interior of Basilica di Sant'Abbondio

Interior of the Saint Abbondio Basilica – dedicated to Como’s patron saint who is celebrated on August 31st.

Commuters might need to make some initial adjustments to routine since the train and bus companies use this period to introduce timetable changes. In the past, road resurfacing, best done under hot conditions, would be crammed into the early weeks of September as soon as the workers returned from holiday. The ensuing confusion on the roads made for a brutal return to work for many. However nowadays, much of this work has already been done by those constrained to work throughout the summer. In the past, supermarkets found September the best time to push up prices assuming that many people may have forgotten what the original prices were before the holiday break. All in all, the rientro was often a brutal return to full immersion reality.

Como Summer Festival

The Francesco D’Auria Jazz Trio in Piazza Grimoldi as part of the Como Summer Festival

Como itself sees some specific changes at this time of year. The number of music festivals or other events intended for visitors begin to tail off. As you will see in our Musical Events section, popular classical music festivals such as the Bellagio and Lake Como Festival wind down. The Comune’s excellent jazz initiative ‘Como Summer Festival’ comes to an end. Instead the Teatro Sociale starts its ‘Notte’ season of operas and its chamber music sessions on Sunday mornings, both of which are of course of interest to residents and visitors alike. But events like the celebration of the local patron saint, the Fiera di Sant’Abbondio, or the associated inter-commune competition and folklore festival, the Palio del Baradello, are certainly of interest to all but have a distinctly local element to them.

Villa Erba

Villa Erba Conference Centre with Rovenna (above Cernobbio) in the background

Villa Erba in Cernobbio hosts the very popular horticultural show, Orticolario, at the start of October – directed at committed local gardeners. This exhibition space focuses more on international business later in the year.

Villa D'Este

Villa D’Este, site of the Ambrosetti Forum at the start of September

Also in Cernobbio, the luxury hotel, Villa D’Este (see our article on its famous crime of passion after the last war) turns its focus from wealthy tourists to local and international politicians and business men by hosting the annual Ambrosetti Forum. It in turn will later go into hibernation closing its doors on all except maintenance staff. Back in Como instead, parents can encourage their children and young adults to attend Gioventù 2018 to learn more about the various after school activities available to them over the coming scholastic year. Sporting organisations such as Canottieri Lario go out to recruit young people onto their CAS (Centro di Avviamento allo Sport) courses.

Sagra Gioventu 2018

Sagra Gioventu 2018 – Organisations seek to attract young people to sign up for sporting and cultural activities

Institutes and individuals are actively looking to recruit adults and youngsters onto cookery or dance classes, fitness sessions, or the full range of artistic courses ranging from photography to art renovation. As an example, Ester Negretti, one of our featured artists, offers personal art classes whilst the Teatro Sociale in addition to their acting and dance classes will also run a series of courses on theatrical administration this year.

Lucia Race

The Palio del Baradello consists of a series of competitions between the different quarters of the town or nearby communities on the lake – here two competing teams in the race of the ‘lucie’ (traditional lake boats) battle it out for first place.

The hotels are of course all still open and visitors remain most welcome. With the changing demographics now in the developed world, there is now a discernible trend for more elderly visitors to travel after the end of August. The prices are cheaper, the weather is still good and the streets, bars and restaurants are less crowded. The foursome of beautiful lake villas and gardens (Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo, Villa Melzo at Bellagio ,Villa Monastero at Varenna and the iconic Villa del Balbianello at Lenno) are all still open to the public. The hotels will later decide whether to hibernate or put their faith in initiatives like the Noir Festival to maintain sufficient clients during the cold damp days of winter.

View from Baradello Castle

Ruins below the tower of Baradello Castle. It was reinforced by Federico Barbarossa as part of his defenses for Como.

The rientro used to be when some of the best Italian grapes were available but now they are on offer throughout the summer.  Como’s vineyards are long gone but just over the border there are still many merlot vines and Mendrisio (a short train ride away)  marks the harvest every year with the so-called Sagra del Borgo – a celebration of wine, food and music in the medieval streets of the town’s centre. However the main seasonal bonuses are wild mushrooms delightfully displayed in the covered market although nowadays they are as likely to be stocked from Romania as from the Valtellina. The ‘baita’ or ‘rifugi’ up in the mountains have been offering polenta dishes throughout the summer but now at least, the cooler weather makes them more palatable – but be aware that many of these mountain restaurants may only open at the weekends now that the high season has passed.

Donkey

Animals on show at the Fiera di Sant’Abbondio

So how can we summarise this distinct but paradoxically nebulous change of season? The climate at the start of September doesn’t change as dramatically as do social behaviours. Its slight moderation may even increase outdoor activities. However, in the same way as climate change is prolonging summer and shortening autumn, economic pressures are reducing the clear distinction between leisure and work that characterised the rientro in the recent past. But there is still a distinctive communal atmosphere at this time of year marked perhaps by the return to ‘home’ and the accompanying renewal of domestic rituals and responsibilities. This contrast may be that bit more acute in Como due to the presence of both tourism and manufacturing industry here. Manufacturing tends naturally to be relegated during the summer months whilst tourism in turn goes into hibernation over the winter – more of that after All Saints’ Day which marks for me the end of the Rientro.

Fresco - SS Cosma and Damiano

Fresco on the apse of the Romanesque chapel dedicated to Saints Cosmo and Damiano within the grounds of the Sant’Abbondio complex.

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

Villa D'Este 1

Hotel Villa D’Este, Cernobbio

On 15th September 1948, the Milanese fashion designer, Biki, was presenting her winter collection to the rich and the famous at the Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio. The hotel  was, and still is, one of the most luxurious in the world and many of the wealthiest milanese socialites were gathered there that night along with Biki’s guests of honour, Baron Rothschild and King Farouk of Egypt’s uncle.  One of the tables hosted the guests of Carlo Sacchi, a local owner of a silk factory and Count Bellentani, an aristocratic landowner with a meat processing factory in Emilia. The party also included Count Bellentani’s wife, Pia, who happened to be Carlo Sacchi’s ex-lover, Carlo Sacchi’s wife – the Austrian ex-ballerina Liliana Willinger, and Carlo’s most recent lover, Mimi was sat nearby.

Young Pia

Countess Pia Bellentani when young

In the early hours of the next morning, at around 2.00am, whilst some of the remaining guests were enjoying the last dance to the Hawaiian tunes of the hotel’s orchestra, others were preparing to depart. As a strong wind caused the drapes over the french doors to billow out, the calm was also shattered by a brief argument between a couple standing towards the door. There followed a single gunshot. Carlo Sacchi fell to the floor killed instantly by a 9mm bullet to the heart. Countess Pia then placed the pistol to her own temple but she failed to fire again, shouting ‘It won’t fire! It won’t fire!’. It appears that the pistol jammed when the shell casing from the first shot failed to eject.

Villa D'Este

Hotel Villa D’Este

So ended the dance and fashion show. And so started one of the more exhaustive criminal proceedings in Italian legal history; every step of which was assiduously covered by intense media coverage.

Tempo Bellentani

Il Tempo – Countess Pia Bellantani

The war had only ended three years previously and Italy was making a very slow recovery from bankruptcy. The vast majority of the country was penniless or in dire financial difficulty. The result of twenty years of fascism and the more recent Nazi occupation had led to the growth of the largest Communist party in Western Europe and the real possibility of a socialist revolution if there had not been the constraint of the allied armies still on Italian soil and Moscow’s lack of support. The murder at the Villa D’Este opened a window on a world that most had forgotten existed – a society of massive wealth inequality and extraordinary privilege, one in which some rich individuals like Count Bellentani carried a weapon to defend against robbery or kidnap.

The family background of Countess Pia Bellentani reveals a high level of social mobility as was experienced by some friends of the regime during the fascist era. She was the youngest of six children, three of whom died in childhood. Her father, from the Emilia region, started off poor but made a fortune in the building trade. Her mother had been a farm and factory worker up until the time she could afford to stay home to raise her children. Pia met her future husband, the Count Lamberto Bellentani on the social circuit for Italy’s wealthy – a round of locations that has hardly changed since those days. The count was smitten by her beauty and, on learning that the family were also from Emilia, pursued her on his return home.

Cernobbio Water fountain

Water fountain on Cernobbio’s lakefront

Although initially sharing and continuing a hedonistic lifestyle with her husband, she was more than content to renounce it following the birth of her two daughters. She did meet her future lover, Carlo Sacchi once in 1940 in Venice but nothing came of the encounter at that stage.

Carlo Sacchi’s background also reveals the sort of social mobility open to friends of the fascist regime. He was an orphan who left school to enter the world of work when thirteen years old. On his return to Italy, having worked for a long period in Germany, he settled in the Como area and established a silk factory which made him his fortune. He had married Liliana in 1934 with whom he had three daughters, with the eldest subsequently dying young.

In 1941 the Bellentani family acquired a villa in Carate Urio, just up the road from the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio and about 10 kilometres from Como on the western shores of the lake.  As a result, Countess Pia got to know Carlo’s sister, Ada, very well. She offered a sympathetic ear to Carlo as he was grieving the loss of his eldest daughter. They also seemed to share interests such as a love of literature and a propensity for writing poetry. Their mutual attraction developed, and the end of the war allowed them more time to spend together. They eventually became lovers although their shared interests were perhaps more superficial and of less significance than their temperamental differences. For example, her poetry output consisted of brief and lyrical romantic verses whilst he specialised in pornographic epic sagas!

Carlo and Pia at Cortina 1943

Carlo Sacchi and Pia Bellentani (left) at Cortina in 1943

In reality Carlo was a sex-obsessed playboy and he soon began to tire of Pia’s romantic sensibility and increasingly demanding company. Pia’s behaviour towards him, in the face of his serial infidelities, became more unstable. She even made a suicide attempt by riding her moped into the path of his car. He dismissed such behaviour as typical womanly hysterics, as he was also said to have done on the night of his death as Pia declared she would shoot him. In fact his reply to this on the lines that ‘you are nothing more than an aggravating bitch’ may well have been the catalyst prompting her to act.

Count Bellentani pistol

Count Bellentani’s pistol, the eweapon used by Pia to shoot her ex-lover.

Clearly on September 15th 1948, Pia had come to the end of the line in her humiliating history with Carlo. Earlier in the evening, the party at Carlo’s table seemed content enough but the words shared between Carlo and Pia during their last slow dance together must have prompted her to her desperate act. She prepared to leave the ballroom passing by the concierge to collect her ermine stole and her husband’s jacket in which he kept his 9mm revolver. Hiding the revolver under her stole, she went up to address Carlo for the last time. She went on to report their last conversation to the police as follows:

Carlo: Well, what do you still want? What’s got into you?

Pia: Nothing — but this time it really is all over, you better believe me.

Carlo: What are you trying to say?

Pia: I can kill you – I have got the gun.

Carlo: Not your same old women’s romantic nonsense! Same old drama queens!

At this point she shot the single round with the gun still hidden under her stole. He died instantly and she was arrested and carried away to spend her first night in Como’s San Donnino prison.

San Donnino

Ex-San Donnino Prison in Como’s centre, now on the market as a desirable site for residential development.

And then the media circus started – for the communists, the crime and the circumstances leading up to it illustrated the corruption within the ruling class after twenty years of fascism. The church blamed the modern collapse in moral values and lack of respect for the family. For the weekly magazines like Epoca, it was a story of doomed romance. Others including legal commentators saw literary parallels with Gustave Flaubert’s  Madame Bovary with Pia in the part of the eponymous heroine, Carlo as the bounder aristocrat Rodolphe Boulanger and the location at Yonville as the provincial society of Cernobbio and Carate Urio. For Pia’s defense lawyer Angelo Luzzani, it was about arguing a crime of passion and diminished responsibility due to insanity.

Everything about this case was rather larger than life including the record-breaking eight day summing up by Luzzani for the defence!  Even the work of the defence lawyer became controversial with Gianni Clerici, Como’s tennis star and journalist, commenting, “It seemed to many that this great lawyer was not just defending a murderess but a whole social class.” Luzzani’s efforts paid off since Pia was condemned to a mere eight years’ incarceration in a mental hospital for criminals at Aversa in Campania. She was freed in December 1955 shortly after which her husband, Count Bellentani, died. She went on to live until 1980 by which time the media interest had died down and the ‘fashion show with murder’ had been mainly forgotten.

Palace of Justice

Palace of Justice, Largo Spallino, built in 1968 well after Pia Bellentani’s trial.

The Villa D’Este continued attracting its rich clientele and was even the scene of another crime of passion when in 1967, the hotel barber, Nicola Pangrazio, killed his lover, Adrianna Mandelli.

Cernobbio War Memorial

War memorial on Cernobbio’s lakefront

The window this crime opened up on the lives of the wealthy in that year of dire austerity surprised many. Affluence levels have grown since then and the clientele of the Villa D’Este has become more international. Lake Como has something to offer all levels of tourist budget but it is interesting to note that facilities for the super wealthy have multiplied in recent years.

Il sereno

Il Sereno – the latest addition to the 5 star luxury hotels in the ‘primo bacino’ of Lake Como.

Il Sereno which opened last year and its partner establishment, Villa Pliniana at Torno, Villa D’Este at Cernobbio and the Casta Diva at Blevio will all cost you  ‘an arm and a leg’. Two new midrange hotels opened up in Como itself this year, the Hilton in Via Borgo Vico and the Vista Lago in Piazza Cavour. At least one new and jovial-sounding budget hotel also opened, the Ostello Bello in Viale Rosselli. This local barometer of global wealth perhaps supports the French economist Thomas Piketty’s assertion that levels of wealth and its distribution are now reaching Edwardian proportions – those halcyon days before the Great War when the bourgeoisie across Europe seemed supremely confident.

Primo bacino

Winter chill on the primo bacino of Lake Como with Cernobbio and Moltrasio on the left hand shore and Torno on the right.

Lake Como’s reputation for discretion is one factor most appreciated by the super wealthy. George Clooney can go to dine at Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio or the Gatto Nero above in Rovenna, because journalists will not hear about it until after the event. Russian

Gardens of Villa Olmo

The gardens of Villa Olmo ‘requisitioned’ by Dolce and Gabbana this spring for a fashion show extravaganza.

Oligarchs can hold extravagant parties or weddings in the knowledge that no supplier will reveal any advance information. Or, more controversially from my point of view, Dolce and Gabbana can requisition exclusive use of public locations such as Villa Olmo for private commercial events denying access to the general public. Film companies can incorporate streets in the city centre as film sets closing them off for days on end. The general public, looking on from the barriers in the hope of sighting a star, are admonished ‘No photographs’ as soon as security staff see a camera being raised. But the rich have to play their part allowing a certain access for local media, and most importantly, behaving with discretion. Shooting your lover in public on the dance floor was not discrete and the Villa D’Este suffered financially as a result of the ensuing scandal.

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Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina

From Griante to Colonno

2. Sanctuary of San Martino

2. Sanctuary of San Martino

The lake and its western shores have formed part of an vital Pan-European line of communication since Roman days. The summer jams on the main road, as it struggles through the constrictions from Colonno through Sala Comacina and on to Ossuccio, may cause you to doubt its former efficacy. Yet just above the main road there are the traces of the Antica Via Regina – the road that linked Milan to the Alpine passes and on to the valleys of the Rhine and Danube. Our walk takes us on a particularly picturesque section of this route whose former importance for commerce and religious pilgrimage to Rome is being researched by an Italian-Swiss project called the ‘Cammini della Regina’.

Via Regina Map 1

Antica Via Regina from Griante to Colonno courtesy of Cammini della Regina

Away from the frustrated traffic at lake level, the section of the route between Griante (Cadenabbia) and Colonno is particularly interesting and evocative. Additionally, in an imaginative initiative aimed at getting tourists to explore the hinterland behind the lakefront, the local councils have defined a walking route known as the Greenway. This takes in some parts of the Via Regina and so the signposting for both the Greenway and Cammini della Regina are relevant to us. The two routes do diverge in parts with the Greenway always offering a less strenuous (but possibly less rewarding) option.

Section 1

Section 1: Griante to Tremezzo

I have divided the walk into three  distinct sections using maps extracted from the geoportal of the Cammina della Regina website (viaregina.eu).

Section 1: Griante to Tremezzo

1. Beach at Griante

1. The beach at Griante. The walk starts by taking the road up hill from the bus stop at the beach.

Our walk starts off beyond the end of the Greenway at Griante. I got here taking the C10 bus out of Como and alighting at the third stop in Griante alongside the beach and at the base of the road leading up to the San Martino Sanctuary.

3. Olive trees at Griante

3. Olive trees in Griante – evidence of the mild microclimate created by lake and mountain.

The route here runs behind one of the most affluent tourist areas on the lake dominated by large villas and luxury hotels on the lakefront. However, step back a bit from the water and you soon find a much calmer, relaxed and timeless atmosphere much appreciated for its tranquility in times past by the ex-Chancellor of the German Federal Republic, Dr. Konrad Adenauer, who bought a holiday villa up in Griante in 1957 – the Villa La Collina–  which now operates as an Italo-German cultural centre and hotel.

4. Donkeys at Griante

4. Griante donkeys

Since the route at this stage is relatively straight forward, it offers a good opportunity for acclimatising to the ‘Cammini dell Regina’ signage. The light blue plastic stickers are quite small and beginning to fade with age.

insert 2However the eye soon becomes accustomed to picking them out. It is useful that usually after a potentially ambiguous turn, a sticker is strategically placed twenty or so metres further on confirming you are still on the right track. Whilst some parts of the walk are on asphalt, it mostly follows the ancient mule tracks made of cobble.

The zone here above the lake and below Monte Nava is primarily agricultural. The particularly mild microclimate also allows for the most northerly production of olive oil in Europe with the number of olive groves increasing as we go south towards Nesso.  Nesso olive oil is one of the typical agricultural products from Lake Como and much valued.

5. Lunch at La Fagorida

5. Lunch with a view – on the terrace of La Fagurida

There are two or three restaurants to chose from as the road begins to dip down towards Tremezzo. I stopped at La Fagunda and sat on their small but panoramically positioned terrace overlooking the lake below. These are not ‘menu del giorno’ establishments though so wait until you reach Mezzegra (next section) if on a budget.

Section 2: Tremezzo to Ossuccio

Section 2

Section 2: Tremezzo to Ossuccio

6. Walking to Tremezzo

6. Walking down towards Tremezzo

This section of our walk is dominated by the view down towards Lenno and its bay formed by the peninsula known as the Dosso di Lavedo. This is better known for the villa at its promontory, the Villa del Balbianello.

The walk takes us down to the valley and then heads back up hill through the mediaeval community of Intignano to arrive at Bonzanigo, a ‘frazione’of Mezzegra. At this point, the Cammina della Regina joins the more stately Greenway for a couple of kilometres. The Greenway is very clearly signposted with the distinctive yellow arrow on a blue background in addition to steel plaques laid into the paving from time to time.  However the Greenway turns back down to our left half way along Via Pola Vecchia. The Cammini della Regina continues along the asphalt road until it turns back into a cobbled mule track to descend and cross another ancient stone bridge.

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

8. Bonzanigo

8. Bonzanigo – where the Via Regina joins the Greenway

9. Church of Sant Abbondio

9. Church of Saint Abbondio, Bonzanigo

10. Lenno Olive Trees

10. Olive trees above Lenno

A visitor sharing part of the walk with me enthused over  the ‘real Italy’ he was experiencing which of course implied a lack of reality elsewhere. Rationally this comment does not compute since there is an infinite number of realities including those offered by the luxury hotels on the lakeside. However the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina take you through history along tracks used previously for hundreds of years, even past the house where, comparatively recently, Mussolini and his mistress spent their last night alive – and for me, it’s that strong historical perspective that supercharges the sense if not the actual ‘reality’ of the walk.

11. Masnate towards the Acquafredda Abbey

11. Masnate towards the Aquafredda Abbey

12. Via per Ossuccio with Sanctuary

12. Towards Ossuccio’s Sacro Monte and Sanctuary

This section comes to an end as we pass by the road up to the Aquafredda Abbey and not long after reaching the first chapel in the series of chapels forming the Sacro Monte di Ossuccio. It is of course well worth taking the detour up the Sacro Monte passing the chapels along the Via Crucis to arrive at the sanctuary.

Section 3: Ossuccio to Colonno

Section 3

Section 3: Ossuccio to Colonno

13. Bell tower of the Church of Saint Agata

13. Bell tower of Saint Agatha

The landmark in front of us now as we descend from the base of Sacro Monte is Isola Comacina, the only island in Lake Como. It had a massive strategic value during the Middle Ages since whoever had possession of the island could also control all lake traffic north and south to and from Como.  As a result Isola Comacina has had a turbulent history with the most dramatic event being its bombardment and destruction by Como and the allies of the Holy Roman Emperor, Federico Barbarossa. The destruction of the Milanese garrison in 1169 is recreated in a stupendous firework display every year at the end of June as part of the Sagra di San Giovanni.

 

14. Lakefront at Spurano

14. Lakefront at Spurano – a ‘frazione’ of Sala Comacina facing onto Isola Comacina

Just before reaching the level of the main road, the Cammini della Regina joins up again with the Greenway and their two routes remain unseparated up to our final destination in Colonno.

15. San Giacomo Church at Spurano

15. Church of San Giacomo on the lakefront at Spurano

One has to admit that the towns of Colonno, Sala Comacina and Ossuccio betray little of their true beauty from the main road. Rather they give an impression of blight created by vehicles far too big for their narrow streets. However this is an entirely false impression and a much more accurate idea is conveyed by the approach to Sala Comacina on our walk which immediately crosses the main road to descend down to the lakefront through a labyrinth of narrow passageways.

The path passes by another Romanesque gem, the Church of San Giacomo. The series of Romanesque religious structures along on our route does more than anything else to convey the sense of those early small lacustrial communities – an impression of a long-past ‘reality’.

17. Isola Comacina

17. Isola Comacina from above Sala

The final stretch of the combined walkways starts once we again cross over the main road and make a gentle climb above the level of the lake. Our final descent towards Colonno reveals the true beauty of its location looking south towards Argegno.

The total distance of this walk is about thirteen or fourteen kilometres. Time taken depends to what extent you are distracted by so many possible diversions. The route marked out by the Cammini della Regina includes three stretches of prolonged climb which are all avoided by the Greenway. However the increased altitude does ensure more spectacular views out over the lake – and a greater degree of tranquillity. Whichever option you go for, rest assured you will be walking in the steps of so many ancestors and the shadows of their former presence will undoubtedly impact your sense of ‘reality’. After all, you will have traversed part of one of Europe’s earliest super highways – the so-called Romweg, or Road to Rome!

Romweg

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

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Strada Regia: From Pognana to Nesso (and back)

san martino campanile

Bell tower of San Martino Church, Careno with Laglio on the other side of the lake

Ancient terraces, woods, medieval villages with Romanesque churches and iconic lakeside locations – this tract of the Strada Regia has it all. It is different in feel but as spectacular as the previous section of the path that took us through the three beautiful mountain communities of Molina, Lemna  and Palanzo.

The last section ended at Peppo’s Bar in Pognana Lario just below the town hall (municipio) and right by the bus stop for the C30 to and from Como or Bellagio. Walking north from here, turn off as soon as you see a turning on the right with a sign to the Romanesque church of San Miro. This twelfth century church was established on a previous site of pagan worship and boasts a marvellous view of the lake from its patio.

Pognana

View from San Miro

Patio of San Miro Church, Pognana with view looking northwards up the lake

From here you can pick up the signposting for the Strada Regia. The signs are so good that there is no need to give detailed directions here except when facing  the ‘dilemna’ posed by two contrasting signs which you will find as you walk through the medieval ‘frazione’ of Pognana called Quarzano.

Signpost dilemna

On the edge of Pognana, the Strada Regia offers you a choice – take the left fork or live to regret it!

The right hand fork leads you up into the Careno mountain range taking you up from around 300 metres above sea level to a maximum of 700 and on a path that is steep and challenging in parts. The option offered by the left-hand fork is to descend down to the small lakeside town of Careno prior to then ascending a mountain road prior to a further descent to the lakeside at Nesso. This second option is both more interesting as a walk and less onerous even though the uphill section is not for the faint-hearted. I took this second option and soon found myself walking on a pleasant level path through well-tended terraces reminiscent of how much of the area would have looked like as recently as the 1950s before most of the lakeside agriculture was abandoned. On this section of the walk, large dry-stone walls of Moltrasio stone still remain intact revealing just how much effort went into the creation and preservation of these small strips of agricultural production.

 

Having passed by a sanctuary and then descending down to a quarry on the main road, (presumably the source of the material used in the dry stone walls) after 100 metres  I turned down Via del Pero to get down to the lakefront at Careno.

Careno

San Martino Careno

San Martino, Careno

Careno is a true hidden gem with everything you might be looking for in a personal secret haven, including yet another glorious Romanesque church (San Martino), a beach for a cool swim in the lake, a small restaurant specialising in fish and a jetty for one of the boats from the Navigazione Laghi to take you back home after your prolonged taste of heaven.

Spiaggia Careno

The ‘spiaggia’ or beach at Careno, just below the Romanesque church of San Martino.

A descent to the lakefront is a small but very worthwhile detour from the Strada Regia sufficient to prepare yourself for the almost relentless uphill climb past the modern (18th century) church which passes under the main road for Bellagio and then up the Via dei Monti . The path is orderly but the climb is steep so eventually you will undoubtedly meet the sign pointing you left and down towards Nesso with some relief.

Mount Careno

Turn left at the signs here off Via dei Monti to end the seemingly relentless climb up towards Monte Cappon and start your descent to Nesso.

This hardest section of the walk is however shaded by the woods so is manageable even in high summer.  The downhill path leads you rapidly down through the woods, past an ancient water trough and past a further sanctuary until you come out of the woods with a view over the lake to Argegno with its cable car up to the village of Pigra.

As you come back down towards the level of the main road, you pass by the ruins of Nesso castle with a view to your right of the impressive waterfalls known as the Orrido di Nesso. As with Careno, it is well worth going down to the lakeside at Nesso to view its famous bridge and take a dip in the the lake.

Nesso

Bridge at Nesso

Nesso’s lakefront bridge

There is no actual beach here or a bar or trattoria unlike at Careno but the boats from the Navigazione do stop here at the Imbarcadero. To eat I recommend walking back up  to the main road and stopping at the Hotel Tre Rose which, apart from a full menu, also offers an excellent value Menu del Giorno.

From Lenno, you can either take the boat or a bus back to Como or Bellagio but I decided to walk back to Pognana to check out that section of the walk I had missed out on in preference to passing by Careno.  I therefore retraced my path past the Castello di Nesso and up into the woods noting this time some examples of naïve religious art along the way.

More naive art

Naive religious art usually carried out by the local ‘decorator’ and often retouched over the years.

In fact this walk seemed to be dotted with the occasional sanctuary or chapel in various states of order. As I rejoined the Via dei Monti I continued to climb upwards towards the mountain community just below the summit of Mount Cappon.

Mountain community

The mountain community just below the summit of Monte Cappon in the string of mountains known as Monti Careno.

Here again to my relief, the sign for the Strada Regia led me off the uphill path to walk on the flat through untended ancient terraces until it started its descent to Pognana. The downhill section was steep in parts making me thankful that I had not chosen this route in preference to the Careno option back near the start of the day. In fact it was with some relief that the path finally opened up into the managed terraces on the edge of Pognana offering a breathtaking and welcome view southwards down the lake.

return view from Pognana

View south over the lake as you emerge from the woods on the outskirts of Pognana

This section of the Strada Regia is definitely more onerous than the previous one’s amble through the mid-height medieval villages of Faggeto Lario. Here the uphill sections require a degree of patience and fortitude but these virtues do bring their own reward with the discovery of the secret heaven that is Careno and the better known and equally glorious lakefront at Nesso. In between these two lakefront gems, you are surrounded by art and a sense of the years past through the stark simplicity of the Romanesque architecture and the varying degrees of artistry in the religious frescoes. Then as you pass through either maintained or untended terraces, it is as if you are walking through history in step with the rhythm of a different age.

T

Ancient terracing above Nesso

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Lake Como’s Speciality Dishes and Local Products

One of the many delights in travelling around Italy is discovering the culinary specialities of the town or area you are visiting.  There is such a rich variety based on the geographical and climatic aspects and also the traditions and customs of each region. Como and its lake are no different with a cuisine obviously influenced by lake and mountain and by the culinary traditions from Brianza (for the southern part of the lake) and the Valtellina (for the north).

The Lake

lake

Lone fisherman in front of Villa Geno, Como

The most iconic product from the lake, and one that is definitely not to everyone’s taste, is missoltini – a salted and pickled small fish. As with most Italian specialities, this is a fine example of ‘cucina povera’ based on a long tradition of preserving the small and insipid ‘agone’ fish to provide sustenance over the year. The end result of the preservation process is a highly flavoured sprat which in the past provided a valuable source of protein but which is now considered a delicacy for those who have acquired their distinctive taste.  The best way I have tried missoltini was as a sauce with fish roe on pasta from the Hotel Vapore in Torno best experienced on their terrace on the banks of the lake.

Fish

Cured fish at Le Specialità Lariane in Cernobbio

Missoltini and other smoked and preserved local fish are produced and sold by the long established ‘Le Specialità Lariane’ which has a production facility in Tremezzo and a shop both there and in Cernobbio.

La Pergola Pescallo

La Pergola – Pescallo. One of the most beautiful locations to it and eat perch fillet risotto

The lake is well stocked with fish but unfortunately the numbers of perch have declined dramatically meaning that the luxury lake dish of perch fillets and risotto is potentially as delicious as ever but the perch may well have come from elsewhere. It is a supremely refined dish dependent on the quality of the creamy risotto and the freshness of the fish. You are likely to find it on the menus of the more expensive restaurants around the lake – my fellow blogger, Lake Como Style – recommended the beautifully located ‘La Pergola’ on the lakefront at Pescallo in Bellagio as being one of the best.

DSC06031

‘Le Specialità Lariane’ in Cernobbio. They also have a production and retail outlet in Tremezzo.

Strangely enough, Como is also well provided with seafood as well as fresh water fish notwithstanding the fact that it must be as far from the sea as one can get in Italy. But it is very close to Milan which boasts the best fish in Italy due to the national importance of its wholesale market. Try ‘La Valverde’ – a genuine Sicilian-run restaurant in Cernobbio – or the more expensive but good ‘Le Soste’ in Como’s old town to experience quality fresh products.

The Mountains

milk

A ‘nevere’ – traditional Alpine construction packed with snow in Spring to provide storage for milk products during the summer season. This one is above Moltrasio.

But back to the mountains and the alps which have traditionally produced cow and goat cheeses for years. Try out the local producers’ section of the covered market in Via Mentana. There are at least four stalls selling local dairy products. The main section of the market sell cheeses from further afield in Lombardy such as the Valtellina and the rest of Italy.

Market local producers

Cheese and salumi in the local producers’ section of the covered market in Como.

Lake Como is the most northerly zone for olive oil production thanks to the specific micro climate around Lenno which is influenced by the lake and the shelter provided by the mountains behind. Olive oil has been produced in Lenno since Roman times and is much prized and so is often falsely represented. Buy a known brand from a reputable store to be sure of getting the genuine article. Go for oil from Vanini Osvaldo from a shop such as Castiglioni on Como’s Via Cantu to avoid any disappointment.

olive oil

Olive oil from Lenno produced by Vanini Osvaldo

Further up the western side of the lake, at Domaso to be precise, are two of the most important vineyards on Lake Como. In the past there were as many vines as can be found today just over the border around Mendrisio although the wine they produced was light and so was used to blend with stronger wines from the south. Current day IGT Terre Lariane (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wines are of much higher quality and known for freshness, fruitiness and overall flavour. Included in this category are the wines from Montevecchio in Brianza. The two Domaso vineyards are Sorsasso and Cantine Angelinetta – contact either of them to arrange for a wine tasting. Shops such as Castiglioni will stock wines from Montevecchia and from Lake Como on their local shelves.

Local wines

Wines with the appellation IGT Terre Lariane come predominantly from Domaso on Lake Como or from Montevecchia in Brianza. These are available from Castiglioni in Via Cantu, Como.

Much of the terracing that covered the mountain sides rising up from the lake is now covered in trees following the switch to industrial employment after the last war. Just as few as eighty years ago, the mountains around the lake would have looked very different with the carefully tended terraces marked out with their dry stone walls made of Moltrasio stone supporting vine, grain and chestnut groves. Unfortunately now the chestnut trees remain untended and their fruits are eaten mostly by the groups of wild boar living in the woods.

Pizzoccheri and polenta

Pizzoccheri and polenta uncia – both made with buckwheat flour, butter and cheese. Rich mountain food available all year round!

The rural and mountain tradition has given the area a specific dish which formed the staple diet for country people for centuries – polenta. Or to be more precise, polenta uncia which is a polenta enriched with mountain cheese and butter. The preferred flour for polenta in this area is buckwheat which produces the grey rather than yellow polenta. This is the same flour used in that typical dish from the Valtellina – pizzoccheri – a truly glorious pasta dish for a cold day consisting of cheese, potato and some greens with some additional butter and garlic.

cheesePolenta and pizzoccheri form the staple offer in the many ‘baita’ (alpine buildings) restaurants in the mountains around Como. They serve these traditional dishes right through the summer heat which may sound a bit off-putting. Believe me though that after a brisk walk even in summer, a plate of polenta uncia or pizzoccheri (or both) accompanied by the most modest of red wines is pure heaven.  Some baitas around Como offer transport up to them such as the Cascina Respau in the Parco Spina Verde or the Baita Monte Goj above Montorfano. Others along the mountain path to Bellagio from Brunate (Baita Bondella and Boletto) are good. Baita Pianvalle on Monte Croce cook steak on an open barbecue during the summer months.

A Como Exclusive

Resta Panettone

‘Resta’ Panettone – A Como Speciality produced by La Vecchia Como in Via Lambertenghi

Pandoro and panettone are traditional sweet bread loaves from Lombardy and Como has its own variety which has an important added ingredient, namely an olive stick. The bread is called Resta and by tradition it was prepared for Palm Sunday. The olive stick has its religious symbolism for Easter but the commercially-minded bakers of Como back 100 years ago decided to combine their bread with this religious symbol so as to increase sales over Easter.  Their next target was to create a demand for this speciality all year round. Resta can be bought where it is produced, namely at  ‘La Vecchia Como’ in Via Lambertenghi, Como. This baker also produces some spectacularly decorated chocolate eggs at Easter time.

Vecchia Como

Vecchia Como bakers in Via Lambertenghi

The influences of lake and mountain hold sway across the entire lake on both the Como and Lecco legs and north to Colico. The regional influence of Brianza (the area best represented by an inverted triangle with its southern angle at Monza and the two northern corners at Como and Lecco) is reflected in the local cuisine around Como or Lecco. For example, try the delicious pork and cabbage  dish, cazzuola, at Cernobbio’s ‘Osteria del Beuc’ from November onwards or from whenever the cabbage’s flavours have been intensified following the first frosts. This typical dish from Brianza was made to use up the most modest parts of the pig, but as is often the case, the traditions of cucina povera manage to transform the most modest of ingredients into the tastiest of dishes.

At the north end of the lake the regional influence is from that culinary hotspot – the Valtellina, a valley which runs east starting at Colico where the River Adda enters the lake. Pizzoccheri has already been mentioned but another dish from this region often found on the lake is ‘sciatt’. This sounds unpleasant enough in English but is equally unpleasant when translated from the Valtellinese dialect to mean ‘toad’ given the shape rather than the content of this fried cheese dish. Try out this and a glorious risotto of ‘bitto’ cheese and wine at the Hotel del Mera on Via Dascio, Sorico on the banks of the Lago di Mezzola – a calm northern extension to Lake Como. This hotel’s restaurant is worth a pilgrimage – simple local cooking done exquisitely well.

If you get to read this article as soon as published, you will be in time to sample for yourself the polenta and cheeses of the area at the festival in Ossuccio held on Saturday and Sunday (14th and 15th July). If not, the following lists the contact details for most of the businesses mentioned in the article above.

Osteria del beuc

Osteria del Beuc

 References

Missoltini and local fish products –

Le Specialita Lariane, Via Cinque Giornate 59, Cernobbio.  Website: http://www.lespecialitalariane.it/Tel: +39 0344 55250

Olive Oil and local wine:

Castiglioni, Via Cantu , Como Website: http://www.castiglionistore.com/ Tel: +39 031.26.33.88

Restaurants

Valverde, Viale Matteotti 29, Cernobbio Website: https://www.ristorantepizzeriavalverde.it/  Tel: +39 031 511150

Osteria del Beuc,  Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 Cernobbio Website: http://www.osteriadelbeuc.it/  Tel: +39 031 341633

Le Soste, Via Diaz 59, Como Website: http://www.lesostealmare.it/ Tel: +39 031 261126

Hotel Vapore, Via Plinio 20, Torno Website: https://www.hotelvapore.it/ Tel: +39.031.419311

La Pergola, Piazza del Porto 4, Pescallo, Bellagio Website: http://www.lapergolabellagio.it/en/ Tel: +39 031 950263

Hotel del Mera, Via del Dascio 11, Sorico  Website: http://www.hoteldelmera.com/  Tel: 0039 0344 84147

Castiglioni

Castiglioni Delicatessen on Via Cantu

Baita and Rifugi

Baita Pianvalle  Via Monte Croce 1, Como Website: http://www.baitapianvalle.it/

Cascina Respau  Website: http://www.cascinarespau.it/en/lake-como-hostel/

Baita Bondella  Via Bel Paese 9, Como Website: http://www.baitabondella.it/  Tel: +39 031 220307l:

Baita Boletto, Via Bel Paese Como Tel: +39 031 220235

Baita Monte Goj, via alla Zocca 33 Albate CO Website: http://baitamontegoj.it/  Tel: +39 349 104.64.82

Vineyards

Sorsasso, Via Gaggio 1, Domaso Website: http://www.sorsasso.com/en/domasino-wine/index.html  Tel: +39 0344 910022

Cantine Angelinetta  Via Pozzolo 16 Website: http://www.cantineangelinetta.com/  Tel: +39 0344.490095

Bakeries

La Vecchia Como, Via Lambertenghi 35, Como Tel: +39 031 26 19 79

 

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Lake Como’s Beaches ‘Excellent’ – and that’s official!

Bathers

Most of Lake Como’s beaches are classed as ‘excellent’ 

Nothing can beat a dip in cool lake or river waters on a hot summer afternoon – and nowhere can look so inviting as one of the many beaches on Lake Como. BUT is the water really as welcoming as it looks? The short answer is yes, in the vast majority of cases not only are the beaches approved for swimming but they have been classified as ‘excellent’. And it is the Italian State Ministry of Health that says so as a result of constant monitoring over the summer season of beaches not only on the coast but also for freshwater locations like Lake Como.

Lake ComoHowever it pays to check the details just in case you select the only beach on the Como leg of the lake closed temporarily due to unacceptable levels of microbial pollutants. So this is definitely a good news story reinforcing the progress made in recent years to improve water quality. Even Varese’s lido on Lake Schiranna is now classified as ‘excellent’ which is no mean achievement for a lake without any major outlet and surrounded by both urban and agricultural development.

Beaches on the western shore

Let’s take a closer look at the beaches in the lower half of the lake on the Como leg by starting in Como itself. We should match our expectations to the fact that Como is a sizable town with a slightly dysfunctional history behind its water purification infrastructure (nothing too alarming but certainly noticeable as a musky scent emanating from the purification plant on Via Innocenzo XI in warm weather).

Tempio Voltiano

Bathers enjoy the water at the Tempio Voltiano – one of the few locations which I would NOT recommend!

The positive news is that the water quality is improving year on year and, as with last year, the lido in Villa Olmo has again been certified safe for swimming. The classification is however a modest ‘satisfactory’. This is the only beach in Como tested and measured by the state although they are considering the feasibility of including the beach at the Tempio Voltiano and the lido in Viale Geno within the monitoring programme next year.  I would personally avoid swimming off the Tempio Voltiano due to its proximity to the mouth of the River Cosia which carries output from the purification plant into the lake.

Geno

The fountain on Viale Geno. The nearby lido is a much safer location for swimming than near to the fountain.

The lido in Viale Geno is just down the road from the HQ of Como Nuoto where members swim happily in the lake as well as in the swimming pool and where they recently organised a competition for professional swimmers to cross the lake to Cernobbio from there. If the water is clean enough for them, I am sure it is good enough for those on the banks of the lido one hundred metres away.

The Ministry of Health (Ministero della Salute) test the water for two particular microbes originating from human or animal waste. They are Enterococci and E-Coli (Escherichia Coli). Safety levels are standard across the European Union. Check out their website (only in Italian unsurprisingly) to look up the status of beaches across the whole of Italy.

 

Villa Olmo

The scorecard at the start of the 2018 season for the lido at Villa Olmo as monitored by the Italian Ministry of Health.

Leaving Como and going up the west side of the lake, the next beach to be tested is the one on the border of Cernobbio within the old trotting track in the grounds of Villa Erba. This also passed with a ‘satisfactory’ classification. I am not sure exactly how accessible this beach is given that the gates to the trotting track are often closed but maybe volunteers provide access over the summer. If so, this is a great location just on the edge of Como.

Villa Erba

The view back towards Como from the garden of Villa Erba. The public beach is to the right of this view after the landing stage.

The next beach is the lido at Moltrasio where the water here is classified as ‘excellent’.  If visiting the Clooneys in Laglio, you are unlikely to be visiting the very attractive public beach at Riva del Tenciù which is just as well since it is closed this season due to the nearby construction work on the lakefront. Brienno has a great beach accessed through the Parco Pubblico. This is classified one down from excellent as ‘good’.

Argegno

The clear blue ‘excellent’ waters of Argegno

Argegno’s lido is ‘excellent’. Lenno’s lido is also ‘excellent’. Lenno’s Spiaggia San Giorgio is also approved for swimming but classified as ‘new’ presumably since it lacks historical data. Moving on to Tremezzo, its beach in the Parco Teresio Olivelli is approved for swimming but also is classified as ‘new’.  Meanwhile the beach at Torrente Bolvedro is ‘excellent’.

Laglio

Laglio’s lovely beach is closed this year due to construction work nearby on the lake.

New’ crops up twice as a classification of approved beaches in Menaggio, – the Spiaggia Cantone and the Spiaggia Lerai. The Menaggio lido is classified as ‘excellent’.

Beaches from Como to Bellagio

Como

Como’s lakefront

Leaving Como on the winding road to Bellagio, the first beach to be tested is the Lido Riva at Faggeto Lario which gains an ‘excellent’ as also does the Rosina at Nesso. However at Lezzeno there is the only beach in our list with a temporary ban on swimming due to effluent levels. This is the Spiaggia Rivabella Crotto. Not to worry though since the other two beaches in Lezzeno – Bognana and Spiaggia Salice – are both approved for swimming and classed as ‘excellent’.  Finally at Bellagio, the jewel of the lake, the beaches at La Punta and Rivetto are both classed as ‘excellent’. See our recent article on E-Biking in Bellagio to get some idea of the beauty of this place.

We haven’t touched on the great beaches to be found above Menaggio or those on the Lecco leg of the lake but there are some great locations for swimming in both areas and you can always use the Ministry of Health website to check on their water quality.

Rezzonico

The marvellous beach at Rezzonico – one of the many beaches to the north of Menaggio or on the Lecco leg that are not covered in this article.

So to summarise, out of twenty beaches, one was closed due to construction and another temporarily due to pollution. Of the eighteen remaining, two were classed as satisfactory, one as good, four as new and the eleven remaining as excellent. All in all, a positive set of figures reassuring me for one that I will have no hesitation in taking a dip whenever the water beckons.  My favourite location for wild swimming is Lake Montorfano just to the south of Como. Both this and the equally calm and peaceful Lake Pusiano on the road to Erba are both classified positively. With the heat now building up nicely, the lake(s) could not be more inviting.

Pusiano

Lake Pusiano – with Mount Resegone in the background. Lakes Pusiano and Montorfano are both approved for swimming.

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E-Biking Food Tour in Bellagio – All Gain, No Pain

View of Bellagio

Bellagio ‘the pearl of the lake ‘ – viewed from San Giovanni

I am convinced – e-bikes are the ideal means of transport around Lake Como. It’s taken just the one experience on an e-biking tour buzzing up and down the hills surrounding Bellagio to prove it to me beyond question.

EMTB

Electric Mountain Bikes from Como Lago Bike based at the Hotel Perlo Panorama

E-bikes (electric motor-assisted pedalling) are, as far as I know, ecologically virtuous. Their negative emissions (and lack of noise) make them preferable to scooters, mopeds or motorbikes. In any case, they are much more flexible than any of those other motorised two-wheelers. On an e-bike you can nip up or down footpaths, over shallow steps, on old cobbled mule tracks, or on an electric mountain bike (E-MTB), on mountain paths and off-piste. All this was proven to me on a three-hour food and e-bike tour around Bellagio, the so-called Pearl of Lake Como. It was organised by Lake Como Food Tours who partner with Como Lago Bike to offer this unique opportunity for discovering those areas of Bellagio you would never get to discover on foot and which you would be hard pressed to access by car.

logoAs a keen advocate of slow tourism, slow food and ecological sensitivity, I was very happy to be the guest of Lake Como Food Tours since they aspire to similar values. It is a Lecco-based organisation run by two women who combine their love of local culinary delights by providing them within stunning lakeside settings for the pleasure of  their guests from around the world. Como Lago Bike is based, appropriately enough for cycle specialists, half way up the gruelling hill climb out of Bellagio that eventually ends up at the cycling museum and sanctuary at Madonna del Ghisallo.

Terrace Hotel Perlo

View from the terrace of the Hotel Perlo Panorama – the starting point for our e-bike tour

This ascent which, alongside the nearby and equally difficult Muro di Sormano, often features in the Giro d’Italia and the Giro di Lombardia. It attracts die-hard cyclists from around the world. Many equip themselves with professional road bikes from Como Lago Bike and also stay at the cycling hotel, Hotel Perla Panorama, within which the bike shop is based. However those on the e-bike tour have no need to feel the strain on heart and limbs as Alberto, our guide, or Carlo, the hotel manager, will transport you up the hill from the Bellagio lakefront or from anywhere else nearby for that matter.

Terrace Hotel Perlo 1

Looking down on Bellagio from the justly-named Hotel Perlo Panorama

Having taken in the glorious view from the hotel, we were kitted out at the bike store with helmets, water and instructions on how to operate the bikes. There is definitely a technique to operating an e-bike based on co-ordinating the two variables (engine power, and gears) to best suit your pedalling speed. We started off downhill just requiring a steady hand on the disk brakes but, as we made our way to our first stop in Limonta, we were all soon using the power assistance  to iron out the uphill climbs. It wasn’t just the exhilaration of being freed from uphill effort that hit me but also the reminder of why cycling is such a positive way of travelling with exposure to the varied scents of thyme and acacia on the road with the sun on the face and the breeze on bare arms.

The e-bike tour takes in those locations most people either don’t know exist or don’t have the time or means to discover. Alberto seemed to know every hidden corner of Bellagio and he first led us over the headland and through the narrow streets of Visgnola (1) to descend down onto the start of the Lecco leg of the lake to the small port of Limonta (2).

Limonta

Celia Abernethy of Lake Como Style on the dock at Limonta. Point 2 on the map.

Here wealthy villas share a view over the broad convergence of the lake’s two legs to the north and across to Varenna. Straight ahead of us was the forbidding mountain range called the Grigne standing in sharp contrast to the lush semi-tropical vegetation on our side. This leg of the lake contrasts clearly in character from the Como side. Here the waters aren’t churned up by the ferries, water taxis and the whole variety of boats plying between Bellagio, Tremezzo and Menaggio. Here the lake stays calm. We stopped off to appreciate the view further along happy to just stare down mesmerised for a few moments by the tranquility of the still clear water.

Towards Varenna

View from Bellagio towards Varenna on the calm leg of the lake.

Alberto had a delightful surprise for us next as we made our way carefully down a steep path to an isolated sanctuary on the waterfront known as the Madonna del Moletto (3).

Sanctuary

Madonna del Moletto. Point 3 on the map

This is a true little gem and the perfect spot for a private picnic and a swim in the clear waters. Before returning up the path, we were advised to set gears to their lowest and power assistance to the maximum. Then, on a simple turn of the pedals, we were off shooting up the steep slope seemingly effortlessly.

Sanctuary 1

The clear waters at the Madonna del Moletto looking over to the Grigne mountain range to the left and the Corni di Canzo on the right

After this delightful moment of solitude we rejoined the numerous visitors milling along Bellagio’s main street (4) above the lakefront passing by the stark but impressive 11th Century Romanesque church of San Giacomo which contains some fine stone carving by the Maestri Comacini (see Como’s Artistic Tradition – A Pan-European Legacy: Maestri Comacini for further information on the rich artistic tradition of Como stonemasons). We continued onward to the most northerly point of Bellagio and the so-called Lario Triangle – La Punta (5).

la punta

La Punta – the northern most point of Bellagio and the Lario Triangle.

By this time I had truly mastered the e-bike technique. I no longer viewed oncoming hills with foreboding – I just upped the power assist guiltlessly as I maintained a constant level of effort on the pedals.

la pergola

The dining terrace of the Hotel Ristorante La Pergola at Pescallo.

Pescallo (6), another of Bellagio’s small quarters or ‘frazioni’, was our next destination. We saw some early diners sitting out on the terrace of the ‘La Pergola’ restaurant which juts out over the lake. Here again back on the Lecco-side of the lake, the waters were calm and the views serene. I also earmarked this spot as somewhere to return to, and having been told that the restaurant serves one of the best ‘risotto al pesce persico’, I vowed that one day I would also sit out on that unique terrace soaking in the scene and trying out their version of that delightfully delicate and creamy Lake Como speciality.

darsene di loppia

The terrace of the Darsene di Loppia restaurant looking over the small port in Loppia

We now put our e-bike riding skills to a true test as we went up amongst the old streets of Aureggio (7) to then descend a mule path with shallow steps to cross over to the west-side of the town above the gardens of the Villa Melzi. This was just another aspect of Bellagio that one would never normally get to experience and it was all going to convince me that Bellagio had so much more to it than I had previously assumed. However it was not over yet since we threaded our way around the villa’s gardens to arrive at the small port of Loppia (8) with another delightfully located restaurant – the Ristorante Darsene di Loppia. Again my appetite was being sharpened by further confirmation from colleagues that the food here was excellent and matched the beauty of the location – a winning combination. Also Loppia is just at the southern end of the Villa Melzi  and so would make an ideal starting or finishing point for a visit to the villa’s stupendous gardens.  If coming by boat from Menaggio or Tremezzo, you could also descend at San Giovanni (9) – our next and final destination.

alberto and celia

Alberto Elli. our guide from Como Lago Bike with Celia Abernethy from Lake Como Style.

This small port in front of a piazza which houses the church of San Giovanni is so much quieter than Bellagio itself but visitors could descend here and take a delightful walk to Loppia, through the gardens of the Villa Melzi to arrive at the promenade leading into the centre of Bellagio. However for us San Giovanni housed another attraction – Nenè Food. This is where we stopped for an aperitif and to taste some of the cheeses from Lario and the nearby culinary hotspot – the Valtellina. Nenè Food is another of those Bellagio hidden corners waiting to be discovered – small, intimate, and welcoming.

nene food

Prosecco and spuntino – a welcome restoration at the end of the tour

The aperitif and ‘spuntino’  were most welcome since it would be wrong to convey the impression that e-biking does not require any effort. You have to keep pedalling. The power assistance stops the moment when you stop pedalling. You can of course select the level of assistance but you are still cycling and exercising. Therefore  you should feel no guilt in enjoying a glass or two at the end of the tour.

CONTACT INFORMATION

The e-biking tour is organised by Lake Como Food Tours.

www.lakecomofoodtours.com    They are contactable by email at info@lakecomofoodtours.com    or by phone at +39 349 5600603

Lake Como Food Tours partner with Como Lago Bike who provide the e-bikes and the guide for this tour.

www.comolagobike.com  They are contactable by email at infocomolagobike@gmail.com  or by phone at +39 031 950 229. Their address is Via Valassina 180, Bellagio

Como Lago Bike are located at the bike hotel called Hotel Perlo Panorama, offering active, cultural or romantic breaks.

www.ilperlo.com They are contactable by email at info@ilperlo.com  or by phone at +39 031 950 229. Their address is Via Valassina 180, Bellagio

For more general info on other bike hotels, go to www.italybikehotels.it or http://www.roadbike-holidays.com/en

Our aperitif was hosted by Nenè Bellagio Food in Via Jacopo Rezia, 20. Bellagio.

The two restaurants which attracted my attention during the tour were:

  1. Hotel Ristorante La Pergolawww.lapergolabellagio.it They are contactable by email at info@lapergolabellagio.it  or by phone at +39 031 950263
  2. Ristorante Darsene di Loppiawww.ristorantedarsenediloppia.com They are contactable by email at info@ristorantedarsenediloppia.com or by phone at +39 031 952 069

E-Bikes are now available for hire from shops around Lake Como from Malgrate near to Lecco to Como and Cernobbio. Check out our Bike pages for more information.

Bike Hire

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Through Conflict to Collaboration, Achille Grandi, Como and the Birth of the Republic

Republic Day Ceremony

Crowds gather in Piazza Cavour before the start of Como’s Remembrance Day Ceremony

Republic Day is celebrated on June 2nd each year to commemorate the referendum result back in 1946 which abolished the monarchy and set in motion the drawing up of a constitution for the First Italian Republic.

Flag Republic Day

Raising the tricolor flag of the Republic as the Corpo Musicale Albatese play the national anthem.

In Como there was the traditional gathering of all the representatives from civic entities and associations for a ceremony starting with the raising of the republican tricolor followed by recognition of those citizens from the Province receiving civic awards and the distribution of copies of the constitution to all those reaching 18 years and thus now able to vote. In spite of the numerous crises and obvious shortcomings or errors of the Italian political class since the Second World War, there is every reason to be exceedingly proud of the achievements of the solid anti-fascist alliance established from 1943 onward which worked collaboratively across political party lines firstly to overthrow nazifascism and then to draw up that first constitution for a democracy based on universal suffrage.

That anti-fascist alliance achieved two major milestones back on June 2nd 1946. The first was the referendum in which the majority elected to abolish the monarchy since as an institution it had done little to protect the country from the disaster caused by the fascist regime. The second was to vote for a constituent assembly whose one objective was to define a new constitution for the newly-born republic.

Musicians Republic Day

Members of the Corpo Musicale Albatese.

The assembly maintained the cross-party collaboration to deliver a constitution approved with a massive majority and enacted on 1st January 1948. In the space of the three years following the anti-fascist alliance born after the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy in September 1943, the partisan and worker organisations had restored pride to a country that had suffered brutal oppression and had been reduced to bankruptcy with mass unemployment and widespread poverty. That pride stemmed from the actions of the armed resistance supported by a heroic civil population and a vanguard of workers who had the foresight to plan for a life after fascism by weakening the Nazi war economy whilst also ensuring that the industrial infrastructure was not destroyed by the retreating German Army.

Carabiniere Republic Day

Carabiniere on parade

The class of industrial owners had mostly been compromised by their collaboration with the nazifascist regime even though many of them like the Agnelli family of FIAT fame had started to hedge their bets when they saw the tide turning after the Battle of Stalingrad. However the workers’ organisations, which had all been suppressed during the fascist regime, arose again following the allied advance in the south and it was out of the trades union movement that the three emerging political parties – the Socialists (PSI), the Communists (PCI) and the Catholics (DC) – signed the Pact of Rome in June 1944. This pact secured the impetus and coherence behind the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) and its campaigns of armed and civil resistance in the north. The key role of the communists in this resistance with their ability to organise shop floor action as well as sustain their Garibaldi Brigades of partisans is perhaps the best known party in this triumvirate. Much less is known of some of the other players in the resistance such as the Royalists or, more significantly, the Catholics. The recently formed Catholic political organisation (Christian Democrats) was one of the three signatories to the Pact of Rome and it was the majority party within the Constituent Assembly established on June 2nd 1946 to produce the new constitution having won 207 seats whilst the Socialists gained 115 and the Communists got 104.

Achille Grandi

Achille Grandi

How the Catholics managed to come out of the war in such a strong position with a solid base both within the bourgeoisie but, more significantly for the resistance, within a radicalised working class, is partly down to the ability of a particularly skillful political and trades union organiser who happened to be from Como – Achille Grandi.

 

Achille Grandi’s Early Years

Achille was born the first of four children to Romualdo and Olimpia Cavadini in Como in August 1883. Como was primarily an industrial town in that period which had experienced a massive growth in the silk and textile industry from the 1860s onwards. However those working in the mills had a very hard life with working days of over 12 hours, with little concern for worker safety and only the basic local forms of representation to try and negotiate better terms from the factory owners. In addition, during the period when Achille was growing up, the local spinning industry was suffering a downturn due to competition from France causing wage reductions and redundancies amongst the spinners. Achille’s family was poor. His father was unemployed for long periods and he himself was forced to leave school aged eleven to take up work in 1894 in a Como printing factory. He was not a strong boy and he soon started to suffer from the principle health risk in printing works – lead poisoning.

Volunteers Republic Day

Volunteers on parade at the Republic Day ceremony.

His Inspiration

Given his religious upbringing and the direct experience of the hardships caused by the spread of industrialism with all the advantages accruing to the capitalist class with not a single aspect of social legislation passed to improve working conditions, it was no surprise that Achille was inspired by the Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This encyclical highlighted the need for the church to define and implement a social policy recognising the rights of workers to form unions to ameliorate their work conditions and denouncing unfettered capitalism alongside atheistic socialism. Achille took inspiration from  this and joined the early local union known as the Federation of Workers which was however aligned to the increasingly socialist-oriented ‘Camera del Lavoro’ but there was no other syndicalist option at that time. He then sought to educate himself on the catholic social doctrine laid out by Pope Leo as well as get training on trades union and co-operative organisation through his local church at the Circolo Popolare Cattolico di San Bartolomeo.

San Bartolomeo

Church of San Bartolomeo, Via Milano, Como

From Como Diocese to Local Politics

At only 18 years old Achille became a member of the Como Diocese Committee and six years later he became a salaried member of the Diocesan Management. This salary proved very convenient since he had had to give up his job in the print factory due to the effects of the lead poisoning. His role was as ‘segretario propagandista’ making use of his organisational and communication skills across activities that ranged from education, women’s rights to assisting immigrants from the south but his main focus was on political and union work.

Banners Republic Day

Comune banners are processed into the ceremony in Piazza Cavour.

His difficulties in getting on with the socialist-led union – the Camera del Lavoro – led him into developing a Catholic alternative known as  the Lega Cattolica di Lavoro directed at improving working conditions. Whilst he always tried to work alongside the socialist-run unions, he often ran into issues preventing effective collaboration. Socialist doctrine was based on Marxist theory of class conflict whilst Achille believed that collaboration between the classes would best improve workers’ conditions. By 1908, Achille was able to establish the first national catholic trades union known as the Sindacato Italiano Tessile (SIT -Textile Workers Union). The socialists also formed their first national union in the same year – the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro (CGL).

Catholic attitudes to politics had always been problematic in Italy ever since Pope Pius IX excommunicated all members of the newly-formed Italian government which had sequestered the Papal States and moved its capital from Turin to Rome in 1871. However Pope Pius X recognised in 1904 that attempts by Catholics to further the church’s social doctrine as laid out by Leo XIII would also require participation in politics in order to protect whatever gains they made. He therefore gave a tacit approval for church members to enter into politics. Achille also appreciated how political activity was crucial to securing whatever social advances the unions were able to negotiate. So he entered politics as a Como town councilor in 1908, thus becoming one of the first Catholics to enter politics without the threat of papal excommunication. However his entry into politics was to reveal a marked difference between his social-christian approach and the more cautious attitudes of the Diocese. These differences led finally to total disagreement which led on to his dismissal from his Diocese role in 1913. In spite of these differences. Achille always maintained his course of keeping faith with the church whilst also continuing to fight for social justice.

Alpini Republic Day

Two Alpini regiment veterans relax before the start of the ceremony.

Move to Monza

After his dismissal from the Como Diocese, Achille immediately got an offer to move to Monza to take up the post of Secretary of the Monza branch of the Lega Cattolica del Lavoro and as director of another worker organisation known as the Opere Cattoliche Monzesi. He still held firm to his Leo XIII-inspired ‘third way’ attitude that social injustices, disorder and conflict stemmed from the dechristianisation of society either due to the rationalist liberalism of the rich or the anticlerical socialism of the poor. The Rerum  Novarum of 1891 remained his inspiration and fueled his belief that trades unionism could bring the two industrial sides together.

Ceremony Republic Day

The ceremony continues under the Republican flag.

After The Great War

The brutality and inhumanity of the war led to a Marxist revolution in Russia and the death of the ruling liberal elite in Italy. Out of the social confusion with the growth of the socialists, a Catholic political party (the Partito Popolare Italiano – PPI) was born for the first time under the leadership of Don Luigi Sturzo in 1919. Achille was one of the founder members. He was also made President of the national Textile Workers Union (SIT) and was also a founding member of the first national general catholic union – The Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori  (CIT).

Banners

Comunes of Domaso and Menaggio parade their banners at the Republic Day ceremony

In 1919 he was returned as a member of parliament for the list representing Milan in elections that could have seen the first progressive workers government take control if the Socialists had only been prepared to collaborate with the PPI or if the Socialists’ Trades Union (CGL) had collaborated with the Catholics’ CIT.  However the Marxist doctrine of the CGL at that time was fixated on the notion of class conflict whilst the CIT saw inter-class collaboration as the best route to social justice. Later Marxist thinkers such as Gramsci or Togliatti might have been more sympathetic to the PPI and the CIT but it was not to be in those early days of class conflict.

Anti-fascism

in the 1920s Italy never had recovered economically after the Great War and, faced with ever greater economic turmoil matched by growing industrial unrest, the emerging fascist party took the opportunity to provoke and exploit social disorder so as to present themselves as the authoritarian answer to Italy’s issues. Unfortunately the socialists were out-manoeuvred and many Catholics who had previously supported the PPI were attracted to the appeal  the fascists made to restore social order. The majority of the party thus voted in favour of Mussolini’s government in 1922 but Achille Grandi was one party member who voted against. He was henceforth seen as a potential enemy of the state and kept under police surveillance from that time on.

Visitor Republic Day

Visitors take advantage of soldiers on parade to request portrait pictures to show back home.

In 1922 Achille became Secretary General of the Confederazione Italiana dei Lavoratori (CIL), the national catholic trades union. In the same year Pope Pius XI took over as Pope from Pope Benedict XV. Achille’s trades union was now under attack on two fronts. Firstly Pope Pius XI was not comfortable with the church’s involvement in politics and in social welfare matters. He sought to focus all Catholic laity activity within one organisation, Azione Cattolica, and then to get Azione Cattolica to focus only on spiritual concerns. The PPI thus became increasingly irrelevant and Achille focused ever more of his attention on the CIL union and on trying to forge closer links with the other unions. However, as the fascist hold on power increased, their level of threat and intimidation to the unions increased. Finally in 1925 the fascists declare that the only union that could legally represent workers was the fascist union. Azione Cattolica were happy to accept this but Achille was not. He now had to decide how to react to the imposition of the fascist totalitarian regime and his choice, like many others, was to adopt what has been called ‘internal exile’, that is preferring to go back into obscurity rather than continue a public life of humiliating compromises. So he returned to work in a print shop but retained secret links with some of his former trades unionists such as Giovanni Gronchi, also from Como (from Montano Lucino to be precise) who in later years was to lead the left wing of the post-war Christian Democrats and serve as President of the Republic from May 1955 to May 1962.

Comune mayors gather

The mayors of the comunes within the Province of Como dressed with their sashes of office gather at the start of the Republic Day ceremony

Years of Obscurity

Achille’s wife, Maria, recalled how Achille would often meet up with ex-union colleagues such as Giovanni Gronchi during that hard period of fascist oppression to discuss what to do after fascism collapsed. They all appreciated that fascism was doomed to ultimate failure but Achille also regretted how fascism was only able to prevail in those early years of the 1920s due to the failure of the progressive parties and organisations of the left to coordinate an effective opposition. The same realisation obviously occurred to the socialists, and of greater significance now, also to the Communists who had established an effective power base within the factories and amongst the workers in cities like Milan and Turin – and who, after the Nazi occupation in September 1943, provided the political inspiration and leadership behind the largest group of armed partisans, the so-called Garibaldi Brigades.

Before the ceremony

Piazza Cavour

The Anti-Fascist Alliance

In July 1943, the king dismissed Mussolini’s government and the majority of Mussolini’s ministers failed to support him. Fascism was for a brief period over and the government was put into the hands of an ex-fascist army general, Badoglio, who was as an inept a politician as he was a soldier. However an armistice with the allies was signed which immediately provoked the Nazi occupation of the northern part of Italy and the restoration by Hitler of Mussolini as head of the puppet Socialist Republic of Italy (RSI). In the meantime Pope Pius XI who had been discouraging the catholic laity in organising for anything other than spiritual reasons, died in 1939. Achille could now re-emerge from obscurity and in fact Badoglio invited him in July 1943 to take up the position of Commissioner for the Confederation of Agricultural Workers. (Due to the history of failure to revise feudal land tenure rights, agricultural workers formed one of the most militant sections of the Italian working class at that time.)

Swords and shades

The lifting of the ban on trades unionism was soon to lead to the historic signing of the Pact of Rome in June 1944 when representatives of the Socialists (Emilio Canevari), the Communists (Giuseppe Di Vittorio) and Achille for the Christian Democrats signed the agreement to work together in support of the Committee for National Liberation (CLN) to defeat fascism. Achille had finally seen his faith in collaboration over conflict confirmed. The other significant outcome of the Pact of Rome was the formation of a single national trades union representing all workers irrespective of any political doctrine – the CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori). This cross-party collaboration within a single trades union was to endure until 1948, well after the establishment of the Republic and the enactment of the new constitution. With this new union in place, Achille recognised there was a need for a specifically catholic workers organisation to give catholic unionists a solid understanding of the church’s social doctrine so as to allow them to articulate their views within the consolidated union’s forums. Hence he became a founding member and the first president of ACLI (the Christian Association of Italian Workers) – an organisation still going strong to this day. He was then elected to parliament in the elections of 1946 as a Christian Democrat but was to die only two months later at the age of 63 in his home in Desio, a town close to Monza and just north of Milan.

in the partisan mountains

Localita Boffalora – the mountains above Lenno where the partisan groups under the command of royalist partisan leader Capitano Ricci gathered prior to attempting the assassination of the RSI Finance Minister residing in the hotel on the lakeshore.

Achille Grandi was to see his faith in cross-party collaboration come to fruition within the singularly effective anti-fascist alliance established in 1944. Not only was he a central player in setting up that alliance, but his pragmatic approach, partly in denial of the Marxist dialectic of class conflict, was also effectively adopted by the Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti on his return from Russia. Later, as peacetime progressed, some Communists may rightly have come to question whether such a degree of collaboration with the capitalist class was always tactically appropriate but few can doubt its initial success. From 1943 until the setting up of the Republic, the three main parties worked together to restore pride in the country and put it back on a path to recovery from the degradation and bankruptcy of the war years. For me, not only do I find inspiring the collaboration forged within that anti-fascist alliance, but also the story of Achille himself, his tenacity in self-educating and directing his gifted organisational talents and the fact that there were at least some channels back then for some talented but socially disadvantaged people to progress.

The Partisan battle above the lake

Val D’Intelvi – the area patrolled by Capitano Ricci and his royalist and catholic-oriented partisan band. Ricci got funding support from Allen Dulles and the American OSS offices in Lugano just across the border.

Nowadays the Republic Day celebrations may appear somewhat anachronistic, an excuse for local dignitaries and state functionaries to don sparkling dress uniforms for another opportunity for self-congratulation, but the heart of this celebration lies in history and, specifically in the sacrifices and efforts made by those of Achille’s generation in rescuing the country from the depths of degradation and inhumanity inflicted during the fascist era. To quote the anti-fascist University professor and politician Piero Calamandrei:

‘If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our Constitution was created go to the mountains where the partisans fell, to the prisons where they were incarcerated and to the fields where they were hanged. Wherever an Italian died to redeem freedom and dignity, go there young people and ponder because that was where our Constitution was born.’

The Constitution that Achille contributed towards has essentially survived to this day with some elements revised and others, unfortunately, never fully implemented but the one lasting legacy codified in its pages is the Italian State’s commitment to anti-fascism, and long may that last beyond the span of living memory.

Achille Grandi 2

Achille Grandi, 1883 – 1946

 

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