Como’s Famous Women: The wartime exploits of Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri

This article on Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri in part commemorates International Women’s Day (March 8th), but also is intended to throw light on someone who needs to be counted within the pantheon of Como’s famous women. 

Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri

As we are currently witnessing in Ukraine, warfare inflicts a set of extreme moral and physical pressures which bring out the best and the worst in humanity, as during the war initiated by the Mussolini dictatorship which developed into the civil war following the nazi occupation of Northern Italy from September 1943. Ginevra was just one of those heroines of the resistance movement in Como who displayed immense physical courage and total commitment at great personal risk to helping those declared enemies of the state. She was however perhaps unique in her ability to play on many of the stereotypes of class and gender to stay safe while taking extraordinary risks for the benefit of others. 

Ginevra was born in to a well-to-do liberal, free-thinking family. Her father, a renowned local socialist politician, had once declared himself to be ‘an anti-fascist before even fascists existed.’ Her mother played an active part in the local Red Cross aiding those injured in the First World War who, on the occasion of the return of the wounded from the front line, turned the family home into a veritable factory for producing bandages and sheets.  Ginevra duly inherited her sense of duty, energy and generosity as well as her practical sense and organisational capacity. 

Organisational Ability

Headquarters of the Italian Red Cross in Como

When Italy entered the 2nd World War in 1940, Ginevra had noted how the soldiers sent off to fight in Albania and later to Russia ‘left with few clothes, scarce equipment and above all, without any enthusiasm.’ She set about organising the collection of unused garments and reworking them into clothing for the soldiers. This initiative required the enrolment of many of her friends and acquaintances amongst whom she would later take the lead in organising safe passage for those seeking safety across the border in Switzerland. For now she needed to ensure her gesture of charity was not immediately blocked by the local fascist administration.  This she achieved by first obtaining the approval of the local military garrison and the Red Cross. All the objections of the fascist party were thus neutralised, much as they disliked an initiative of this sort emanating from the party’s political opponents or the fact that it highlighted how the newly enlisted troops were so badly equipped. 

Early meeting of the Committee for National Liberation North Italy (CLNAI). Apart from the two women in the foreground, all other members of this opposition coalition against the nazifascists were men. While their work of political and military co-ordination was vital to the liberation movement, Ginevra preferred direct action.

The appearance of political naivety alongside acute diplomatic sense formed an essential part of survival for those members of the social elite like Ginevra who operated visibly against the state’s aims and values.  Within the framework of her anti-fascism, she remained ideologically apolitical, averse to any form of committee work but resolutely committed to action. Although she went on to perform countless errands in support of the opposition Committee for National Liberation (CLN), she never aligned herself explicitly to any of the political groups within it. What is more, she never took part in any committee deliberations preferring always actions over words. 

Action

Life was hard enough under the fascist dictatorship for progressives. It became harder still for Jews following the passing of the Racial Laws in 1938, and for everyone else once Mussolini decided to declare war on France and Britain in 1940. Yet still worse was to come following the armistice on September 8th 1943 when the Germans occupied Northern Italy reinstating Mussolini as head of a puppet republican fascist government. From then on, all Jews no matter what their nationality feared for their lives and the nazifascists tyrannised all political opponents. Yet whatever steps they took to increase repression only caused more civilians to aid the opposition either by joining the partisan groups, supporting them or undertaking strikes and acts of sabotage within the workplace.  

One of the more remote official border crossings from Maslianico into Switzerland. In the early days of the Nazi occupation such crossings were supervised by the Guardia di Finanza who assisted many escapees.

Ginevra’s very first patriotic act took place on the eve of the nazifascist occupation back in September 1943. She organised a group of friends to break into the Carabinieri barracks on Via Lambertenghi and capture all the arms held there.  She then managed the distribution of these arms from her lodgings on Via Rubini to the nascent partisan bands being set up in Moltrasio and at the far end of the lake in Domaso. From this moment on, Ginevra was totally committed in many different ways to supporting the resistance movement and in helping those seeking to escape across the border into Switzerland to safety. She became one of the principal ‘go to’ contacts in Como for those Jews, political opponents, allied ex-prisoners of war or men avoiding draft into the fascist militia, all seeking safety over the border in Switzerland. Her lodgings on Via Rubini became a clearing house for hundreds fleeing out of Italy and for receiving those couriers from Switzerland with money and documents supporting the opposition political parties (CLN) and the partisan bands. 

Staffetta

Conventional warfare is predominantly conducted by men but clandestine partisan warfare requires the active support of the local civilian population. It has been estimated that up to five civilians were needed to keep a single partisan in active combat. And most of that civilian group was made up of women, particularly those who took on the dangerous work of a ‘staffetta’. 

A staffetta would typically travel around the countryside by bike conveying messages from one group to another. This photo is of the partisan Caterina Rigoni Boer.

The main role of a staffetta was to maintain communication between the different partisan groups. They would convey messages allowing different bands to communicate with each other. They also  delivered food, clothing, as well as money and arms. Without them, the individual bands hiding out in isolation from each other in the mountains would have no knowledge of what was happening in the towns and cities, or be able to receive orders or convey reports to or from the political opposition or their military coordinators.

Women undertook this vital role in linking and supporting the partisan bands because they were not so likely to be challenged or mistrusted as they moved around. The nazifascist mentality was traditional and reactionary in terms of the role they saw for women even in conflict. The partisans took immediate advantage of this knowing full well that a young woman cycling from village to village with vital messages for band leaders or hiding a couple of automatic pistols would appear more innocent than a lone man. The ‘staffette’ were quite prepared to play up to whatever stereotype  or  deploy so-called feminine wiles to circumvent close questioning or inspection at any of the many control points. Yet if caught their fate was the same as that for any active partisan, namely imprisonment and torture and a high risk of summary execution ‘in seeking to escape’. 

Ginevra undertook trips from Como to Milan up to three times a week as a staffetta carrying arms and money brought over from the Swiss border for delivery to the heads of the patriot movement.  In her own words:

I made trips to Milan at least three times a week, When I went to Milan, I became very skilled at escaping, because they always followed me … In fact, Saletta admitted that for two years they had followed me. In Milan because of the bombing there were gaps between one house and another, with low walls…. I went in one way and I went out the other, went to the hairdresser where there was another exit and they stayed there for maybe four hours waiting to pick me up when I had already returned back to Como, so to speak. I had learned to jump on the trolleybus, on the trams, just when the doors close… leaving my followers behind. ‘

From an interview with Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri published in La Memoria che resiste, Como 1988.

(Domenico Saletta was the much feared Vice-Commander of the Como Police). 

On public transport she would appear to be a regular middle-class lady sat patiently knitting whilst inside her knitting bag she concealed much-need currency from Switzerland or even possibly two or three automatic pistols. 

Milan suffered from continual massive allied bombing raids which were particularly severe throughout August 1943

But her luck ran out on August 8th 1944 when she was arrested by the Vice-Commander of the local police, Domenico Saletta and incarcerated in Como’s San Donnino prison. Her prospects were bleak. Clearly Saletta was aware of her activities in supporting escapees and delivering money and arms to the CLN in Milan but Ginevra had some luck on her side and the help of an unusual guardian angel, General Hans Leyers. Leyers was Albert Speer’s representative in Italy with overall responsibility for directing Northern Italian industry towards the production of arms and wartime materials for the German economy. Ginevra was Hans Leyers’ neighbour in Via Rubini.

Villa Rosasco

Villa Rosasco occupied during the Nazi occupation by General Hans Leyers, Head of the RUK and his immediate staff. It is now known as the Casa Bianca and is up for sale.

Ginevra’s family home had been burnt down in a fascist arson attack prior to the Nazi occupation. She took up residence next door to the sumptuous Villa Rosasco on Via Rubini. This villa had been commandeered from the local silk magnate Eugenio Rosasco who, as an ardent ant-fascist, had fled to Switzerland. His villa was subsequently occupied by General Leyers and his close staff. Leyers’ personal commitment to nazism is unclear but his personal secretary, Bayerlee, was known by the CLN as a passive supporter of the patriot cause. He and Ginevra had worked out a way of signalling when it was safe for Bayerlee to join her to listen to Radio London, an act which was itself a capital offence. For whatever motive, Hans Leyers had granted Ginevra a permit that allowed her to travel for the most part unchallenged. On learning of her imprisonment in San Donnino prison, Leyers ordered Saletta to release her which he duly did. 

No sooner was Ginevra back at home than she was rearrested but this time by the German SS and not the local police. Clearly Saletta had decided to sidestep the local SS division whom he saw as untrustworthy in this instant by applying to the SS group in Monza where Ginevra was imprisoned and submitted to repeated interrogation.

Keeping Up Appearances

The photo of Ginevra reveals a well-groomed, affluent yet unremarkable middle class lady with her restrained string of pearls – not the typical image of a revolutionary that her interrogators would have had in mind. Ginevra knew how to play up to such class stereotypes and the latent snobbery of her nazifascist persecutors. She insisted on ensuring she looked her best for every interrogation she faced. She had particularly asked her family to send down to her prison in Monza a chiffon blouse and some smart coloured shoes and, so dressed with make up and a dab of perfume, she courageously faced each interview. All to good effect since her interrogators soon began to doubt her links to the resistance and granted her extra comforts within her confinement. But it was the unexpected help of the SS group’s Italian interpreter that allowed her to escape and return to Como.  Domenico Saletta was later to exclaim that Ginevra had even managed to fool the Germans. 

Who Dares Wins

The super-macho UK special services regiment, the SAS, has the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ and the same phrase applies equally to Ginevra. On one of her missions travelling by train from Milan to Turin which had been delayed by various air raids, she arrived after curfew with two suitcases containing money, arms and documents intended for her husband’s partisan unit in Piedmont.  Playing on her appearance of bourgeois respectability, she approached the fascist militia guarding the station asking them to escort her to a nearby hotel. The gallant militia duly accompanied her carrying the two cases on her behalf.

The wire fence marks the Italian Swiss border above Maslianico on the side of Monte Bisbino with a now disused guard hut on the Italian side. Escapees were led to areas such as this where they sought safety through gaps in the wire fencing. This form of escape would not be suitable for a family travelling with a new-born child.

On another occasion she had been asked to help a young Jewish mother with her son and baby escape to safety across the Swiss border. The mother had been arrested but put into the care of the nunnery in Via Borgovico because of her children. The nuns had called on Ginevra to arrange their escape before the authorities came back to deport them to a death camp. The young baby meant that it was too dangerous for Ginevra to use one of her normal clandestine crossings.  The only option open to her was to arrange their transfer to a remote inn in the Piedmont Alps where they could wait out the end of the war. But she needed transport with all private cars requisitioned and fuel strictly rationed. The only solution was to ask the local carabinieri to help her. She knew that either the Lieutenant or the Captain were partisan sympathisers and known collaborators with the CLN. But she did not know which. She went to the Carabinieri barracks and asked to see the Lieutenant but judged by his appearance and manner that he was unlikely to be the partisan sympathiser. So she then asked to talk to the captain and without hesitation asked if he would help her in arranging the escape of the Jewish family. If she made the wrong choice she would face immediate arrest and possible execution. Fortunately her instinct proved correct and Captain Perone provided the transport to Piedmont. The family was saved with all three members surviving the war.

Righteous Among the Nations

Villa Gallia, one of the villas along the lakeside passeggiata leading to Villa Olmo. It is now the headquarter site for the Province of Como.

On 12th January 2005, the Israeli Ambassador to Italy, Shai Cohen, posthumously awarded Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – an honour granted by the Israeli state to those non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from the holocaust. The award was given for her actions in saving the mother, Perla Rosemberg and her two sons, Vittorio and Maurizio, as described above. The elder brother Vittorio was thirteen at the time of the escape. He gave the following testimony at the ceremony held in Villa Gallia describing what happened after the family’s arrest in Menaggio:

It was the 8th January 1944 when we were transferred to Como. We were placed in an institution (the nunnery on Via Borgovico) and on 3rd April a Red Cross nurse (Ginevra) came to visit us. Firstly she took away my younger brother Maurizio on the pretence that he had an infectious illness. The next day we found the key in the door to the main entrance. We managed to escape also thanks to the help of a captain in the carabinieri and we reached Settimo Torinese where Ugo Moglia provided us with a safe hiding place.

The Righteous Among the Nations Award

Conclusion

The second page of Ginevra’s official partisan certificate (AMG) which cites up to seven of her clandestine activities between the 8th September 1943 and the liberation of Como on April 28th 1945.

After the liberation of Northern Italy in April 1945 Ginevra, once reunited with her husband, continued her work with the Red Cross and focused more attention on her growing family. The gradual return to normality caused many that had fought in the resistance, both men and women, to downplay the risks and responsibilities shouldered during the liberation struggle. Ginevra’s outward appearance of a middle-aged, opulent member of the bourgeoisie belied the steely force of her character and her readiness to risk her own life for the sake of others in less fortunate circumstances. Her importance in the liberation struggle was easily overlooked.

The significance of her effort during the war extended way beyond her individual acts of courage and altruism due to the leadership and inspiration she gave to many of her friends and acquaintances. They followed her lead in helping others. It is perhaps a natural instinct to want to put the war years behind us but we should at least try to preserve the memory of those who still maintained the highest standards of humanity during those barbarous years. Ginevra Bedetti Masciadri was definitely one of those.

Sources

Roberta Cairoli, Nessuno mi ha fermata, Nodo Libri 2006

Coppeno, G. Como dalla dittatura alla libertà, Como 1989


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Lake Como’s Wild Pack of Wolves

monte berlinghera

Monte Berlinghera, a remote area in the Alto Lago (High Lake) within the territory of Lake Como’s longest established pack of wolves.

Two years ago in February 2021, we published an article entitled ‘Lake Como’s Bears, Wolves and Werewolves’. This reported on the sightings of bears and wolves at the northern end of the lake, and the presence of some inexplicable tracks that some had fancifully speculated as those of a werewolf. Leaving werewolves (no further sightings) and bears aside for now, it seems appropriate to report on the current status of our wolves and identify if the extraordinary phenomenon of the Covid lock-down has had any impact on their distribution. In brief we are now confident in claiming that Lake Como hosts at least one well-established wild wolf-pack. There may also be a previously unrecorded pack inhabiting the Valsolda to the north of Porlezza. In addition, there have been some occasional sightings of lone wolves elsewhere in the province.

Where are our wolves? 

Firstly we must admit that the entire Lombardy region hosts considerably fewer wolves along its Alpine borders than those in the neighbouring regions of Piedmont, Liguria, Trento and Emilio Romagna. The chart issued below by the Life Wolf Alps project clearly shows this. 

Wolf distribution North Italy

The distribution of wolves in Northern Italy. The red pixels record documented presence with dark green spots for packs and light green for couples. The highest wolf distribution is along the Piedmontese and Ligurian Alps.

The following chart shows the four established wolf packs in Lombardy.

bears in lombardy

Bears in Lombardy.

The survey published in February 2021 identified two individual wolves in the pack based in the Province of Sondrio around Aprica and Teglio. The largest pack of seven wolves is based in the Province of Brescia around Ponte Legno. Right in the south of the region there were three wolves in the pack based around Verretto in the Province of Pavia. Finally, our pack based around the north west end of the lake (Alto Lario) consisted of three individuals.

lupo a Germasino

This wolf was seen at the Bocchetta di Germasino and he may be responsible for the carcass of a sheep found in Livo and reported in the local newspaper La Provincia last December.

A sighting of a wolf, or any evidence of their presence still receives immediate interest in the local media. From newspaper reports we can establish more precise locations for the pack in the Alto Lago. All the sightings marked below were in remote mountainous areas inland from the lake apart from the fourth. The Number 4 marks the spot where a couple of motorists saw three wolves crossing the state highway 36 – the main valley road leading to Chiavenna. The sighting of the three wolves was reported in Il Giorno di Lecco on 6th March 2022 (https://www.ilgiorno.it/lecco/cronaca/lupi-statale-36-1.7435486) and included film of the wolves caught on camera by one of the motorists. The newspaper since reported this brief video had gone ‘viral’.

bears on lake como

The established wolf pack roams within the area to the north and north west of the lake and extends across the border into Switzerland. The sights numbered 1 to 6 mark where wolves have been seen over the last twelve months. The location marked 7, at the head of the Valsolda and across the Swiss border in the Val Colla is an entirely new sighting from last December of two adults and three wolf cubs.

The first location (1) is the Valle Albano, the exact location where the presence of  wolves was  originally reported in February 2021. All the sightings in the Alto Lario cluster are of the same pack which consists of three adults as reported by the Life Wolf Alps project. However the sighting number 2 in the mountains around Vercana talks of a pack of four adults. The sighting was reported in QuiComo on 13th March 2022 and on 7th March in La Provincia. 

Lupi a Vercana-2

Image captured of two wolves seen in Vercana and reported in La Provincia on 7th March 2022.

The article in La Provincia states how this is the same pack seen in locations 5 (Albonico) and 6 (Monte Berlinghera in the Comune of Samolaco). In December 2022 a sheep’s carcass was found in location 3 showing the typical signs of being torn apart by a wolf. Other sheep have also gone missing in the same area. 

Val Colla wolf cubs

The three cubs estimated to be between three and four months old pictured in the Val Colla across the border from the Valsolda in Switzerland.

The Valsolda runs north from the shores of Lake Lugano to the west of Porlezza running close to the Swiss border and the Val Colla. What may be a previously unknown pack was identified there (Number 7 on the map above)  and reported in La Provincia on the 13th September 2022.  The Swiss UCP (Ufficio della Caccia e della Pesca) confirmed the presence of a pack consisting of two adult wolves and three cubs. The pack had been caught on hidden mini-cameras placed in the Val Colla within a short distance of the Italian border. 

The effect of lock-down

Whilst all the sightings mentioned previously were in remote areas, two other sightings have been made to the south of our region. One of these was in Montevecchia, a park in Brianza between Monza and Lecco. The other was near to Tradate at the southern end of the Province of Como in the Parco Regionale della Pineta di Appiano Gentile e Tradate. The suggestion is that the wolf seen in Montevecchia originated from the Alto Lario pack. However, to reach either Tradate or Montevecchia, the wolves would have had to traverse built up and well populated areas. The assumption is that lock-down gave these animals the opportunity to roam more widely than they would normally do, just as it did also for wild boar and deer. It is unlikely that these one-off sightings will result in the establishment of new packs now that lock-down restrictions have been lifted. 

montevecchia-paesaggio

Montevecchia in Brianza – an idyllic natural oasis with the slopes of its hillside terraced with vineyards.

Man and Wolf

wolf protection

Publicity on how to safeguard your animals

The relationship between man and wolf has always been problematic and the increased number of wolves in our area risks reigniting this time-honoured conflict. The main concern is for the safety of the flocks of sheep kept on the alpine pastures but there is also a natural worry that a wolf may attack a human. The Life Wolf Alps project runs a series of courses and advice to farmers on how to safeguard their alpine flocks. They also publish advice to the general public on how to avoid the danger of a wolf attack. 

Their recommendations are the following:

  • If you come across a wolf, keep calm, stop and assess the situation. If the wolf becomes aware of your presence, it would normally retreat or run away.
  • If instead the wolf does not run away immediately, stay calm and make yourself known using a decisive tone whilst slowly retreating.
  • Do not under any circumstances go towards the wolf even to get a photo.
  • Never follow a wolf
  • Stay clear of the wolf’s lair
  • Never under any circumstances give food to a wolf. Ensure you do not leave any food behind after a barbecue, picnic or when camping.
  • If with a dog, the wolf might consider it as intruding on its territory or think of it as potential prey. Keep an eye on your dog or keep it on a lead.
  • Report to the authorities any wolves that have displayed unusual behaviour or appear particularly bold.
  • Report any animal that has been caught by what may have been a wolf.

wolf safety

Call 112 if you see a wolf that appears too friendly. You can also report any sightings of wolves to the Carabinieri or use the form on the Life Wolf Alps EU website.

The wolf packs in the Valsolda and in the Alto Lario live in remote locations but they are within areas often visited by trekkers and mountain bikers. There are two well established trekking routes in the Alto Lario that will take you into wolf territory, the Berlinghera to Alpe Gigiai or the Monti di Vercana that goes from Vercana to Trezzone before descending to the lakefront at Gera Lario. So it is possible you might come across a wolf. If so, please report any sightings to the Life WolfAlps project via this link: https://www.lifewolfalps.eu/en/report-a-sighting/

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Love, War and Death on Lake Como – The Tragic End of Gina Ruberti

lake-como-hotel-boat-01

Hotel Mandarin Oriental, previously known as Hotel Casta Diva and originally known as the Villa Roccabruna

Anyone reading the brochure of the 5 star luxury hotel, Mandarin Oriental in Blevio, will remain entirely ignorant of its illustrious origins in occupying the site of the home of Giuditta Pasta – the most famous mezzo-soprano throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The hotel was until recently known as the Casta Diva, named after the aria in Norma composed specifically for the voice of Giuditta by Vincenzo Bellini. In 1906 the current villa was built on the site of Giuditta Pasta’s home and renamed Villa Roccabruna.

magda brard

Magda Brard, concert painist, wife of Enrico Wild and one time mistress of Benito Mussolini.

It was owned by the Wild family, Turin industrialists of Swiss origin. Enrico Wild  and his wife, Magda Brard, a renowned concert pianist and daughter of an anarcho-syndicalist French senator, lived there during the fascist period until she was arrested at the end of the war on suspicion of collaborating with the nazifascists.   Magda Brard is said to have been one of Benito Mussolini’s mistresses to whom she bore a daughter, Vanna, born in 1932, but that is all another story…

…..Since It is also most unlikely that current hotel guests are reminded of the tragedy that took place on the night of 3rd May 1946 when a famous resident of the Villa Roccabruna drowned in the lake while attempting to cross back home from Moltrasio. That person was Gina Ruberti, better known as Gina Mussolini – the dictator’s daughter-in-law. 

A Fated Nation and a Fated Family

The death of Gina came at the culmination of a series of tragedies affecting the personal lives of the dictator’s family during and just after the end of the disastrous fascist regime. These tragedies started with the death of Gina’s husband, Bruno – the third born and possibly the favourite child of Benito and Rachele Mussolini.

Bruno-Mussolini

Bruno and Benito Mussolini, taken from the cover of Time Magazine, 1935

He died in an air accident whilst piloting a test flight in Pisa on 7th August 1941. This was followed by the execution for treason of Count Galeazzo Ciano on 11th January 1944. Ciano was the husband of Mussolini’s elder daughter, Edda. She had implored her father to show some mercy to her husband, the father of three of Mussolini’s grandchildren. Edda never forgave her father and remained estranged from him for the rest of his life.  Then of course there came the infamous end of Mussolini himself executed in the company of his mistress Claretta Petacci in Mezzegra on Lake Como on 28th April 1945 on the orders of the CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale) with the implicit approval of the British allies if not the Americans. 

CINEMA: BRUNO, L'EROICO FIGLIO DI MUSSOLINI E LA SUA GINA

Una immagine di scena del film “Bruno e Gina” di Beppe Attene e Angelo Musciagna. 

Mussolini throughout his life had been responsible for the deaths of thousands to millions of his fellow citizens or to those innocent refugees who had previously sought shelter in Italy from Nazi atrocity. He reduced his country to a state of abject poverty and devastation and created a state of civil strife that still lingers to some extent to this day. So he is hardly deserving of an iota of sympathy. However Gina’s story is one of a tragic life that came to a tragic end on Lake Como.

Bruno and Gina

Italy Bruno Mussolini weds Gina Ruberti, Rome, Italy

Mandatory Credit: Photo by AP/Shutterstock (7401399a) Aviation Captain Bruno Mussolini, 21 years old third son of Benito Mussolini, was married in the Church of St. Peter, Rome, to 21 year old Gina Ruberti. Bruno Mussolini, center, and Gina Ruberti kneel for the Nuptial Mass during the service in Rome on . On the left standing together are Benito Mussolini and Maria Ruberti, mother of the bride Italy Bruno Mussolini weds Gina Ruberti, Rome, Italy

Gina Ruberti and Bruno Mussolini were married on the 29th October 1938 in the Chiesa San Giuseppe in Rome. Bruno was 20 years old and his bride was two years older. Theirs was a full fascist wedding with Gina given away by Mussolini himself. The couple went on to honeymoon in Naples. King Vittorio Emanuele wrote the following note congratulating the dictator on the marriage of his son: 

‘Dear President, the queen and I wish to tell you that we vividly share in the joy of your family and we send our best wishes to your valorous son and his gracious wife.’

Bruno was deemed ‘valorous’ because he exemplified the iconoclastic adventurous dynamism of youth so often projected in the propaganda of the time as encapsulating the spirit of the young fascist state. Aged just 13 he came third in the Circuito di Littoria motorcycle race travelling at up to 130 km per hour. He started flying lessons when 17 and was soon flying sorties in the Ethiopian War. He seemed the very personification of the futurist spirit and its political offshoot – fascism. 

1918.Mario_.Sironi.New-Man.-Futurism-The-Vintagent-

Mario Sironi’s New Man, 1918. Futurism – partly a fascistic aesthetic

In the summer of 1937 he headed a squadron of fighter planes based in Palma di Majorca as part of Mussolini’s assistance to Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 he wanted to emulate the transatlantic crossing of his hero Italo Balbo and on 24th January 1938, he left Rome’s Guidonia airport for Dakar in Senegal from where he crossed over to Brazil to a hero’s welcome in Rio de Janeiro.

Time-Balbo

Italo Balbo. Bruno Mussolini emulated his hero’s transatlantic crossing.

On his return he was promoted to captain. One year later he married Gina whom he had known since he was 15 years old. However, just  less than three years later and seventeen months after the birth of their daughter Marina, Bruno died aged 23 on 7th August 1941 piloting a test flight in Pisa. His widow and her father-in-law were devastated. Bruno’s early death saved his reputation from the ignominy brought about by the later years of the fascist regime but he did fully participate in the shameful invasion of Ethiopia and in the barbarity of the Spanish Civil War.

Villa Feltrinelli

Gina had always been well received within the Mussolini family and her father-in-law was genuinely fond of both her and his granddaughter, Marina. It was natural that Gina and her child would become members of the Mussolini household.  They all moved to the Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano in 1943 once Hitler had reinstated his fascist partner as head of the so-called RSI (Repubblica Socialista Italiana) – a puppet state governing the Nazi occupied north of Italy. 

villa feltrinelli

Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano on Lake Garda – the home of Mussolini and his family when reinstated by Hitler in 1943 as the leader of Nazi occupied Northern Italy

Life in Villa Feltrinelli was not great. Firstly there was the poisonous atmosphere created by the neighbouring presence of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s most recent mistress. Rachele Mussolini became so distraught by her rival’s close proximity that she even attempted suicide by drinking bleach. 

galeazzocianoeddamussolini-1280x720-1-1240x698

Edda Mussolini and Count Galeazzo Ciano

Then, towards the end of 1943 and following the execution of Count Ciano, the household was rocked by the rupture in the relationship between Mussolini and his elder daughter, Edda.  She had escaped over into Switzerland on the 9th January 1944. Here she was able  to join her three children who had already transferred there but later she went to stay within the safe confines of a convent from where she wrote the following letter to Gina:

Dear Gina, thank you for your letter. I’m sure that you have been close to me in all these horrendous days that I have been and am still going through. You are lively but generous. As you know, I am shut up in a convent and the absolute lack of freedom weighs heavily on me, also because I don’t know to whom or to what I should attribute this rigour. Maybe one day it will pass and I will go back to living among people without feeling like the mangy sheep that needs to be removed from the herd. The judgement of men has always left me indifferent, but injustice burns within me. But I’m a good fighter and, although the desire to crouch in a corner and let go is sometimes irresistible, I still want to go on and stand and hold my head high. I don’t envy your family life: I know the environment too well not to envy your two rooms and a silly servant. Who knows if we will meet again one day; I hope. However things turn out, my friendship and affection for you will remain. I don’t have a fleeting memory. Hugs to you and  Marina. Edda

gina

Gina Ruberti

Later Gina was joined by her mother and father who moved from Rome to come and live on Lake Garda as the allied troops advanced up the country.  They were accustomed to join the Mussolini family most evenings in the Villa Feltrinelli.  But, as the war progressed life there became ever more uncomfortable with regular sorties of allied fighter planes coming over to strafe the shores of the lake. 

At the point in which everyone could see the war was lost, Mussolini decided to move his entourage back to Milan and to put some distance between himself and the Nazis by organising a final redoubt in the Valtellina. He left Villa Feltrinelli for the last time on 18th April 1945 to take up residence in the Milanese Prefectura. His family including Gina and her parents duly followed on later. 

Lake Como 

As the allies broke through the Gothic Line and the defeat of the Axis forces was imminent, the centre of diplomatic and political activity shifted to Milan and Como. Mussolini was entertaining the idea of a final stand in the Valtellina, trying in these last days of the war to distance himself from the Nazis. His route north into the Alto Adige (Sudtirol) was discounted primarily because the Nazis had already claimed this as their territory since their invasion in September 1943. For Mussolini, the Valtellina offered  a possible last stand if he could summon up enough supporters. Meanwhile neutral Switzerland was the only place where potential peace negotiations could be conducted with the allies or in contact with the Papal Nuncio in Berne. And the easiest route into Switzerland or to the Valtellina was via Como.

lake-como-hotel-lobby-01

Villa Roccabruna – the lobby of the Hotel Mandarin Oriental.

Mussolini arrived at the Como Prefecture in Via Volta in the late evening of 25th having cut short his negotiations with Cardinal Schuster in Milan. He was accompanied by Gina Ruberti whom he recommended to seek accommodation at the house of his former mistress, Magda Brard, in the Villa Roccabruna in nearby Blevio.  She, her child Marina and the nanny moved in there on the very day that Magda Brard was taken into custody by the CLN and imprisoned in Como’s San Donnino prison accused of collaborating with the Nazifascists. Her parents, Guido and Teresa Ruberti, were already accustomed to staying on Lake Como at the Villa dei Giussani in Torno along with Teresa’s brothers Vitangelo and Umberto Tangorra. Umberto’s daughter, Maria Antonietta, was already living in the Villa degli Ambrosoli in Lemna above Faggeto Lario. Mussolini’s eldest son, Vittorio, briefly took up residence in the Villa Stecchini at No. 13 Via Ferrari before seeking refuge and hiding in the infirmary of the Collegio Gallio. He would later call on the assistance of the church to use the ratline to Argentina via Genoa established by ex-Nazis and their sympathisers. Once the CLN had completely taken over from the fascist regime in the city, Gina’s parents were saved from partisan revenge by the local CLN commander Colonel Sardagna who placed them in the requisitioned home of Alfredo Degasperi in Via Fiume.

epoca casa del fascio

Terragni’s Casa del Fascio in Como during the Nazifascist occupation.

Gina settled down to a sad existence within the gloomy and dull atmosphere of Villa Roccabruna. The eccentric proprietor, Enrico Wild, continued holding his seances seeking communication with the spirit world and exhibiting odd behaviour like sleeping while standing up. Gina lived under a false name for some time and occupied herself by travelling most days by bicycle to and from the home of her parents in Como. She also spent hours in confessional conversation with the local priest, Don Giuseppe Conti. 

moltrasio torno 2

Torno (on the far bank of the lake) and Moltrasio face each other at the narrow entrance to the ‘primo bacino’ leading to Blevio, Cernobbio and ultimately Como.

It was just over a year after the execution of her father-in-law when tragedy was to strike. On 3rd May 1946 Gina as usual travelled by bicycle to spend the day with her parents in Como. She returned in the evening to Villa Roccabruna to receive a visit from a friend, the Marchesa Isa De Marchi. The Marchesa was accompanied by three British soldiers stationed in Milan namely her fiance, an English captain called Tony, a Major Parker and their driver. At around 9.00pm they all took the Villa’s motorboat for a brief trip over to the Ristorante Imperialino on the other side of the lake in Moltrasio. A sharp wind was developing and so the party spent little at the restaurant to set out on their return trip to Blevio.

imperialino

Moltrasio – Bar Ristorante Imperialino

However they had only got half way over the lake when the boat started taking on water through a gash in the bow which may have been caused as they had docked in Moltrasio. It was at about 11.00pm when within sight of the shore, the boat’s engine died due to the intake of water. The Marchesa and Major Parker swam out to raise the alarm and get help. Gina was the only one in the party who could not swim so Tony and the driver swam alongside to support her as they too tried to reach the shore. It appears that all three of them were swallowed up by a strong eddy and died on the spot. Isa De Marchi was the sole survivor since Major Parker died three days later in hospital from ingesting water mixed with the boat’s engine fuel. Gina’s body was recovered by fishermen that same night but the bodies of the two British soldiers were never found.

gina funeral

The body of Gina Ruberti

According to Maria Antonietta Tangorra – Gina’s cousin –  news of Gina’s death was brought to her the following day by Pier Bellini delle Stelle, who as the partisan commander ‘Pedro’ had been the one who took Benito Mussolini into custody in Dongo in the previous year. Colonel Sardagna broke the news to the devastated parents of Gina in Como.  

Lake Como had brought nothing but ill fortune on the Ruberti family and so it must have been some relief for them to return to Rome the following November with their orphaned grandchild Marina and her nanny.  If Mussolini could have had any inkling of the tragic consequences to both his country and his family of the military alliance he entered into with Germany back in 1939, he might well have listened more carefully to the misgivings of his son-in-law, Count Ciano, and not set his country and his family on such a tragic trajectory. 

Further Information

Local historian Roberto Festorazzi’s book ‘Bruno e Gina Mussolini’ (published by Sperling and Kupfer, Milano 2007) was invaluable in researching this article.

Bruno-e-GinaA documentary entitled ‘Bruno e Gina – Amore, Guerra e Morte’ was made in 2014  but I have only found a trailer for it available on You Tube.

Further Reading

There are a number of articles in Como Companion covering the last few days of the Nazifascist regime including:

25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection

‘James Bond’ Returns to Lake Como

From Liberation Day to May Day

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Overnight on the Via dei Monti Lariani

View from Pigra

The spectacular view of Lake Como from Pigra.

The border with Switzerland runs along the crest of the mountains above the western shores of the lake. The border was fortified in the past with a series of garrison posts for the Guardia di Finanza to try to control the main economic activity of the area – smuggling. Most of these barracks have now been converted into ‘rifugi’ offering food and accommodation for hikers. Whilst the latter is undoubtedly basic, the former can achieve the sublime heights of traditional cuisine. These rifugi provide the opportunity to undertake a prolonged hike extending over two or more days. Here is the account of the two day trip taken by my brother and I in late summer. We started out from Argegno arriving there on the C10 bus from Como and ending up in Tremezzo (although our original intention was to reach Menaggio) and returning home on the lake. 

This walk is not particularly strenuous following as it does the old military road along the defensive Cadorna line. This road with its impressive defences was constructed during the Great War to discourage an invasion from Swiss territory. The effort required by the young soldiers to engineer the trenches and gun emplacements at an altitude ranging from 1000 to 1700 metres must have been massive.  While this road’s defensive value was never put to the test, its legacy is to leave a singularly pleasant and well-tended hiking path for future generations to exploit.

original route

This route was our original intention but after overnighting at the Rifugio Venini at the summit of Monte Galbiga, we deviated towards Monte Crocione.

Our walk forms a section of the ‘Via dei Monti Lariani’ which starts from the summit of Monte Bisbino above Cernobbio to the Torre Nuovo above Sorico – a total distance of 124 kilometres. Thus there is ample scope to extend the hike beyond a mere two days with rifugi strategically placed along the route for food and accommodation. Extending a hike beyond a brief excursion only serves to magnify the pleasures derived from trekking on Lake Como’s mountains. 

Looking down on Pigra

Looking down on Pigra and the diagonal fold of the Val D’Intelvi

From Argegno we took the cable car up to the village of Pigra, a small village at the eastern end of the Val D’Intelvi. We thus gained 900 metres above sea level and a marvellous view down over the lake for no effort and small cost. From Pigra the walk involves a steady incline through trees before opening up to the grassy slopes of the Alpe di Colonno (at approximately 1400 metres above sea level) where we stopped at the baita for coffee and home-made tart. Here the views open up to the north and west as the military road winds gently downhill towards the Rifugio Boffalora above Lenno and Ossuccio.

Looking to Boffalora

After the Alpe di Colonno the path opens up to pass through extensive pastureland with the Rifugio Boffalora just out of view.

We stopped at the Rifugio Boffalora for an early lunch (merely acceptable) and the house red wine which is best avoided.

Boffalora

Rustic poison

One can afford to be critical over the quality of food and wine even in these remote spots because for every establishment offering something questionable there is another where the cooking will be exceptional. The proprietor did however tell us about a unique olive oil producer – a UK refugee –  down the valley in Lenno whose limited production has won him prizes as far away as New York. His oil can only be bought directly from his home in Roveglio. (See Further Information for contact details).

Paths descend down from Boffalora to Lenno or to the charming ruins of the San Benedetto monastery above Ossuccio. Back in the last war, that same path down to Lenno was used by the local hero of the resistance, Captain Ugo Ricci, and his troop of partisans. Their mission was to kidnap the RSI Minister of the Interior Guido Buffarini Guidi whom they believed was staying at the Hotel Lenno on the lakefront.  That ill-fated mission ended up without the capture of Guidi who was not even in Lenno on that day but with the death of Ugo Ricci caught in ambiguously accidental friendly fire.

Venini in the distance

Our overnight destination is on the left of the picture just below the mountain crest

Leaving the spirit of Captain Ricci behind us, we continued on the military road towards our first day’s destination – the Rifugio Venini. This rifugio is in a strategic location just below the mountain ridge that looks down onto the valley linking Menaggio with Porlezza. The summit of Monte Galbiga (1,600m) is a short ten minutes walk behind the rifugio. From the summit, you get a view to the west over Lake Lugano and to the east across Lake Como. There are a series of robust artillery emplacements along the path, each with a strategic range across the valley. These emplacements continue along the military path such that the original line of defence would have made any attempt to invade along the road from Porlezza highly dangerous. 

Over the crest to Ceresio

From Monte Galbiga there is a view down to both Lake Como and Lake Lugano, shown here with Porlezza at its eastern end.

The Rifugio is placed in the middle of an extensive alpine pasture with uninterrupted views over Lake Como. The terrace catches the sun for most of the day, and, as night falls and temperatures drop sharply at this altitude, there is a roaring fire in the heart of the dining room. The dinner here was excellent offering typical mountain food such as pizzoccheri and polenta with various sauces. And the house wine was more than acceptable. In fact, the food is so good that many of the clients seem to have made the journey there just to eat. Or so we thought…

Venini

The warm and welcoming interior of the Rifugio Venini where we sat down to an excellent dinner before a somewhat troubled night’s sleep.

An early bedtime was strangely interrupted by a repetitive techno bass line vibrating through the building. All became clear when we left early the next morning before the party goers had stirred to see a long row of mini 4x4s parked up along the edge of the military path. The rifugio certainly makes a great location for a summer party, and there are of course no neighbours to complain about noise levels. Yet in spite of our troubled night, we still left the Rifugio in a positive mood due to the quality of our evening meal and the overall splendour of the location.

Bellagio and Lago di Lecco

Early morning sun shines from over the Grigne mountains with Bellagio in the middle distance dividing the lake eastwards to Lecco and south to Como.

Our interrupted night’s sleep was also more than compensated by stepping out into the crisp early morning air and seeing the sun rise up above the Grigne mountains to our east. The only other early risers were a group of hunters using their dogs to raise hares from the undergrowth. However the cool air was making it difficult for the dogs to pick up the scent and for me to correctly interpret the map.

Monte Crocione

By mistakenly following the crest of the mountains we arrived at Monte Crocione shown here.

To have continued on to Menaggio by descending the north facing sides of the valley, we should have crossed the ridge at the Rifugio and counter-intuitively, taken a path starting out to our left. Instead we continued along the ridge and then confounded our mistake with a further error when we ignored a relatively narrow hiking path marked as the military road in preference for a broader path with more artillery defences pointing over the valley. Our mistake led us to the conical summit of Monte Crocione (1,700m). From here we could see Bellagio on its peninsular and the course of both the Como and Lecco legs of the lake running southwards. But the price we had to pay was a tricky descent down the immediate summit on a hiking trail no better than a goat path. This brought us thankfully down to join the military road which at this stage was no broader than a path. This path descends down to Tremezzo through a long series of hairpin bends and through a narrow man-made tunnel with the lake constantly in view as it  gradually got closer and closer. 

Bellagio

As we descended, Bellagio became ever closer

Down in Tremezzo we were in the heart of Lake Como’s most prestigious tourist area with Bellagio across the way and Villa Carlotta nearby. It was as if  the early morning hunters,  the sparse number of hikers on the Via dei Monti Lariani and the Rifugio Venini, even with its hedonistic clientele, occupied a different universe. Such is Lake Como where altitude is the great differentiator. A short vertical climb will soon lift you above any possible lakeside confusion even during the most frenetic weeks of the summer calendar. 

Bellagio 1

Ferries and water taxis on the lake, tour buses and cars on the road – the frenetic summertime activity on the lakefront is in marked contrast to the tranquillity in the mountains.

Summary

Day 1 Route

The route taken on Day 1

Day 1 Profile

day 2

Route taken on Day 2

Day 2 Profile

 

Further Information

For details of the various ‘rifugi’ in our area, go to this link.

More information on the 4 stage walk of the entire Via dei Monti Lariani is available at this link.

For more information on acquiring the prize-winning ‘Extravergine Olio di Oliva di Roveglio‘ contact Paul on 07718 785556 or write to info@lake-como-holiday-home.co.uk

Check out our section on Walks for details of other excursions in our area.

Cow

Posted in Itineraries, Places of interest, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Queen of England’s Como Court

villa d'este

Images of the Villa D’Este at Cernobbio at the time of Princess Caroline of Brunswick

On 16th July 1815 Princess Caroline of Brunswick – the wife of the heir to the throne of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Hanover – purchased the Villa D’Este on the lakefront in Cernobbio, a small town just outside of Como itself. Here she set up her court and established a base for subsequent travels around the Mediterranean. She spent prolonged periods at Cernobbio over the next two years until her debts forced her into selling the villa. She continued to stay there albeit for shorter periods until the end of 1819. The Princess had launched herself on a self-imposed exile in a bid to exercise more freedom of expression and find more happiness away from the oppressive atmosphere of her estranged husband’s court. She returned to Britain on the death of her father-in-law George III in the hope of securing a better financial settlement due to her new status of Queen. She had always planned on returning to Italy but she died following a sudden illness shortly after. The Villa D’Este subsequently went on to become one of the world’s most luxurious hotels.

Caroline,_Princess_of_Wales,_1798_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Princess Caroline, 1798. Sir Thomas painted a number of Caroline’s portraits and was alleged to have been her lover.

Caroline’s failed marriage

george-iv-marriage

Prince George marries Princess Caroline of Brunswick

Caroline initially considered her betrothal to her cousin Prince George as an escape from her highly restricted upbringing in the suffocatingly dull household of the Duchy of Brunswick. However she was unaware of the spoilt, weak and shamefully self-indulgent character of her husband-to-be. The fact that she was met off the boat from Calais in Dover by Lady Jersey, Prince George’s principal mistress at the time, gave her a foretaste of what was to come. Neither bride nor groom were physically attracted to each other with Prince George collapsing drunk on his wedding night unable to face the ordeal of the night ahead of him. However, in spite of apparently only managing intercourse on three occasions, Caroline did become pregnant giving birth to a baby girl, Princess Charlotte, on 7th January 1796.

800px-Princess_Charlotte_of_Wales_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

Princess Charlotte, the daughter of Princess Caroline and Prince George, painted as a young girl by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Princess Charlotte spent years forcefully separated from her mother. She died tragically young in 1817 from complications following child birth. Prince George failed to inform his wife of their daughter’s death.

The relationship very soon broke down in its entirety with Prince George continuing his series of infatuations while also insisting that his favourite, Lady Jersey, act as Princess Caroline’s main lady-in-waiting. He was singularly unpopular in the country at large representing as he did the worst of aristocratic arrogance. Caroline was conversely very popular and would remain so in the general public’s estimation throughout the various scandals and vicissitudes of her life until just before her untimely death in 1821. George developed a seething hatred for his wife stating how he would ‘rather see loads of vipers crawling over my victuals than sit at the same table with her.’ He was adamant in keeping Caroline away from his royal court at Carlton House.  Yet he also sought to limit and control her household so as to prevent Caroline from establishing a powerful rival court. This rivalry and hatred spawned associated intrigues and legal contests that dominated the royal couple’s lives until Caroline’s death. The relationship also dominated the political life of the times fuelling rivalry between Whigs and Tories but more dramatically, stoking the emotions born out of the French Revolution for reform, republicanism and popular revolution.

Manchester-Square-24 (1)

Prince George was very unpopular in the country due to his various excesses. In a period of vitriolic political cartooning, his obesity and habits were a gift to cartoonists such as Gilray or Cruikshank.

Her London Households

Princess Caroline was never going to take subordination and bullying from the Prince without a fight. She declared her intention to enjoy her own freedom as expressed in this formal letter to the Prince:

‘I have been two and a half years in this house [Carlton House]. You have treated me neither as your wife, nor as the mother of your child, nor as the Princess of Wales. I advise you that from this moment I have nothing more to say to you and that I regard myself as being no longer subject to your orders.’

Further arguments continued between the Princess and Prince as, in keeping with her declaration,  she sought increasing independence and he, while happy to keep her out of his company, sought to retain control over her behaviour and finances. 

Kensington_Palace

Kensington Palace, London where Princess Caroline briefly lived before leaving for Italy. This was also to be the home of the other fated royal Princess Diana.

Caroline’s estranged household in London would frequently move but one of the more constant and popular locations was Blackheath where she lived from 1796 until 1813 when she started to spend more time in Kensington Palace.  Blackheath was a sufficient distance from the royal court to allow Caroline some scope in determining the company she wished to keep. The countryside also meant those spies sent down by the Prince to gather compromising evidence of moral turpitude could more easily be identified. But the Prince still exercised control on who served as ladies-in-waiting and both where and who looked after Caroline’s daughter, Princess Charlotte.

lord-george-byron-con-il-costume-albanese-riproduzione-di-thomas-phillis-1835-national-portrait-gallery-londra__f5425c4a_800x1246

Lord Byron in Albanian national costume.

Among her regular guests was the court painter Sir Thomas Lawrence with whom she was alleged to have had an affair. Literary guests included Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. It was also rumoured that she had an affair with George Canning, the young Tory politician who went on to have an illustrious career in spite of being hated by Prince George and who resigned his post towards the end of Caroline’s life in 1820 in sympathy with the way the Princess had been treated by Parliament. He later went on to become Prime Minister.

Caroline developed a more serious, possibly adulterous, relationship in 1813 when she took up singing lessons from a handsome Italian musician, Pietro Sapio. The Prince sent a spy out to seek evidence of adultery without success. The affair ended after a year when Sapio and his elderly parents left for Paris. Caroline remained friends with the entire Sapio family and invited them over to Lake Como three years later by when she had established a much more open and long lasting relationship with a dashing Italian beau. 

The Delicate Investigation

the green bag

The Green Bag was the name given to the folder of evidence gathered by George’s spies to present to the government and subsequently the court in a bid to prove Caroline guilty of adultery, and thus, high treason.

In spite of the Prince’s own numerous infidelities, he was intent on gaining a divorce or formal separation from Caroline on the basis of her adultery. He therefore set in motion an investigation in May 1806 into the Princess’s moral behaviour. This became known as the Delicate Investigation and would initially remain secret to all those who had not sworn an oath and also to the Princess herself. If proven, the Princess’s adultery would result in a charge of high treason both for her and her partner. High treason still carried the death sentence although that was never likely to form any eventual outcome as it would have provoked immediate revolt amongst the population at large who wholeheartedly took the Princess’s side, irrespective of any moral failings on her part. Needless to say, the Prince’s own serial and open adultery did not face any legal challenge.

The allegations put together by spies and allies of the Prince  were finally made public and brought to the Cabinet for consideration. The politicians wanted little to do with this issue since they recognised that the breakdown in the royal relationship was becoming an increasingly political matter with Whigs and Radicals supporting the Princess fuelled by the sympathies of an entirely disenfranchised and potentially revolutionary public. Ever since the French Revolution, Britain’s ruling class had become nervous of popular sentiment and, particularly in London, they lived in growing fear of the mob.  The cabinet was therefore happy to reject all of the accusations against the Princess – a solution much favoured by George III who had always been critical of his son and supportive of the Princess.

Escape on the Grand Tour

On the initial but illusory first ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, the Princess expressed a desire to travel on the continent – to take the Grand Tour. Parliament had recently increased her allowance and so, with travel across France and in all the other territories previously under Napoleonic rule now open, she decided on her travel companions and left forthwith for Calais. Prince George was happy to see her leave the country but also ensured he had spies accompanying her travels in the hope they could provide evidence for divorce.

Empress_Marie_Louise_of_the_French

Empress Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife, met with Princess Caroline in Berne when Napoleon was imprisoned on the island of Elba.

Her sense of relief to be away from the stultifying atmosphere of accusation, open espionage and control soon went to her head on arrival in Switzerland. Normally the regular Grand Tour pause in Geneva was intended to give a final inoculation of Protestant ethics before travellers faced the perceived temptations of Catholic corruption over the Alps. Reports back from the Prince’s spies told of Caroline dancing naked to the waist in Geneva and consorting in Berne with Napoleon’s second wife, the Empress Marie Louise. the daughter of the Emperor of Austria. Neither of these estranged wives mentioned their husbands. Her open admiration of Napoleon throughout her time abroad was a cause of irritation and consternation to aristocrats and Tory politicians back over the Channel.

On reaching Italy, Princess Caroline took an immediate liking to Lake Como. She first stayed at the lake in October 1814 taking up residence in the Villa Saporiti on Como’s lakefront. This villa, often referred to as La Rotonda, was known at the time as Villa Villani after Eleonora Villani who commissioned its construction in 1790. It may have amused Caroline that Napoleon himself was a guest here seventeen years prior to her visit.  She used her time at the Villa Saporiti to negotiate the purchase of the Villa D’Este in Cernobbio.

Villa Saporiti

The Villa Saporiti on Como’s lakefront.

The Villa D’Este’s Backstory

Villa D'Este

The Villa D’Este and gardens with the reproductions of the fortifications captured by General Pino during Napoleon’s campaign in Spain. They were commissioned by the General’s wife, the Contessa Calderara Pino.

The Villa D’Este was originally known as the Villa Garovo, named after the mountain stream that runs through its grounds having flowed down from Monte Bisbino to Rovenna and on through the beautiful Giardino della Valle to enter the lake. It was built for Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio in 1568. In 1806 the villa was inherited by Vittoria Peluso who went on to marry Conte Domenico Pino, the Italian General in Napoleon’s army who had achieved great success during Napoleon’s campaigns in Spain. Vittoria Peluso had the series of false fortifications built on the upper slopes of the villa’s exterior gardens as reproductions of the Spanish forts of Hostarlich and Gerona in Catalonia captured by her illustrious husband. On Napoleon’s defeat in Northern Italy and the return of Lombardy under Austrian domination, the General and his wife accepted retirement and gracious exile to their lakeside home in Cernobbio.

Princess Caroline at Como

pergami and como

Satirical cartoon of Caroline’s lover, Pergami, riding to hell on the back of a goat with the Villa D’Este in the background

Princess Caroline completed the purchase of the Villa Garovo in 1815 and renamed it the Villa D’Este after the branch of her ancestors who back in the 11th century left Bavaria to establish the Este dynasty in Ferrara. She may or may not  have been aware that there was a secret patriotic society of so-called Este cells vowed to overthrow Austrian rule. Caroline’s actions could not help to be interpreted politically in this period of heightened political turmoil but she seems to have been respectful to all rulers on her travels including the re-established Austrians in Lombardy and equally to the Napoleonic Court in Naples or the Muslim Sultans in Tunisia. As long as the local courts paid tribute to her royal status she in turn would remain respectful of them irrespective of their political outlook. 

Princess Caroline travelled extensively during her time abroad but the Villa D’Este would remain her principal address for the next two years. She went on to sell the Villa in 1817 due to shortage of funds but she continued to make return visits to Cernobbio but of shorter duration for the following two years. During her period of ownership of the villa she financed the building of a road from the Villa del Grumello on the outskirts of Como to Cernobbio, thus earning herself the gratitude of the local population. Prior to this investment, the villa could only be accessed from the lake. Apart from an extensive programme of decoration and refurbishment of the villa, she also commissioned the building of a new wing and a small theatre. 

villa del grumello

The Villa del Grumello on the northern outskirts of Como was the summer residence of Giambattista Giovio who had died two years prior to Princess Caroline’s arrival. She commissioned the building of a road from this villa to Cernobbio.

The villa’s payroll included a caretaker, three footmen, cooks, local boatmen, carriers, blacksmiths, laundresses, woodmen, tailors, hairdressers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers all coming from Cernobbio, Como or the surrounding villages, thus providing even more reason for the local population to be grateful for the Princess’s patronage.

The Princess herself was delighted with her new home writing in a letter that ‘I have now settled myself in a most beautiful grotto upon the Lac of Como. The place is romantic, superb…I have seven barges with boats….grand cascades, fountains in abundance, all possible fruit trees.

Her Royal Court in Como

On arrival in Italy, Princess Caroline not only acquired the Villa D’Este but also a tall handsome servant and lover, the thirty-year old Bartolomeo Pergami. Pergami had served General Domenico Pino during his Russian campaign and had also acted as courier to the General’s wife, the previous owner of the Villa D’Este. Pergami remained faithful to Caroline for the rest of her life and was amply rewarded for doing so. Caroline even bought Pergami a baronial title so as to elevate him into the ranks of nobility and thus allow him to accompany her within the rigidly class conscious European courtly circles. Pergami introduced other members of his family to assist in running the Villa D’Este estate such that the Princess’s own court gradually became almost exclusively Italian.

teatro sociale

The building of the Teatro Sociale in 1811 reflected the growing influence and wealth of the upper bourgeoisie in Como and its active intellectual life in the late Enlightenment period.

She launched her court in Cernobbio with a grand reception held on 24th August 1815 with invitations sent out under the name of Caroline D’Este. She then established herself within the social and intellectual life of Como which was going through a particularly rich period at the time. Regular visitors to the court included the scientist Alessandro Volta and his follower Professor Pietro Configliacchi who lived in the nearby Villa Sucota. Her court physician was a local doctor called Mocchetti who was also a renowned art expert. Mocchetti accompanied the Princess on her travels around the rest of Italy providing her with an informed commentary on the treasures she visited. She also patronised a young poet of arguable merit called Bernardo Bellini who had described the Princess as ‘the most exquisite flower of the Este stock.’ Here is his equally florid poetic tribute to the Villa D’Este:

Where Lario, laughingest of lakes,

Mirror for Pliny’s cradle makes,

The sun-tipped towers to her breast she takes,

Beloved of Love and the Mother of Love,

Whilst hills bedecked with bosky woods

Surround the silvery solitudes,

And day, in gladsomest of moods,

Smiles from the heavens above.

Caroline would undoubtedly have been aware of the recently deceased  local historian and intellectual Giambattista Giovio – the travelling companion of Volta, and father-in-law to Italy’s Byron, Ugo Foscolo. Giovio’s summer residence was the nearby Villa del Grumello. She would also have visited Como’s Teatro Sociale, built in 1811, as well as being in regular contact with  the Austrian Governors of both Como and Milan.

caroline-and-bartolomeo_pergami_in_the_bath

Both Princess Caroline and Bartolomeo Pergami offered rich inspiration for the cartoonists back in London.

She was accompanied throughout her Grand Tour by Willy Austin, whom she had adopted from a family living in Deptford when Willy was a mere three months old. He attended school in Como at the Collegio Gallio – a school founded by the same Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio who had also commissioned the building of the Villa D’Este.

The Milan Commission

The villa also hosted Baron Ompteda who had been insinuated into Caroline’s court by the Austrian Emperor with the express purpose of spying on Caroline in order to provide sufficient proof of adultery to pass on to Prince George back in London. George had not let up in his efforts to gain a divorce from his wife.

'How to get un-married, ay, there's the rub!', 1820. Artist: JL Marks

‘How to get un-married, ay, there’s the rub!’, 1820. George IV and Queen Caroline are tied back to back; the Queen’s hand is held by the figure of Justice; Lord Brougham stands on the left; the King is pulled by Viscount Castlereagh, Lady Conyngham, and Sidmouth. The cartoon refers to George IV’s attempt to dissolve his marriage to Caroline after his accession to the throne. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Prince George sent out to Italy two British aristocrats to establish a secret investigation into Caroline’s behaviour that came to be called the Milan Commission. Their task was to gather as much evidence of the Princess’s infidelity to put before the British courts through contacts such as Ompteda and others. Ompteda had managed to get Caroline’s German stableman Moritz Crede to steal a set of keys to the royal bedroom but no incriminating evidence was forthcoming. Following this incident, Caroline petitioned the Como authorities to provide a party of soldiers to stand guard over the villa. Unfortunately fights then broke out between these soldiers and the villa’s servants. Numerous attempts were also made to extract incriminating statements from Caroline’s staff without immediate result. In fact for a number of years the various members of the royal household exploited the expenses on offer by the Commission for travel and accommodation in Milan – and later still, to appear as witnesses in the English courts.

Modesty_1821This intense spying and insinuation of immorality poisoned the atmosphere for Caroline and also brought about a deterioration in her reputation with the local community. Caroline’s own indiscretions did not help as when she replied to a question about her audience with the Pope by stating that all will be visible in nine month’s time. At one stage Cernobbio’s local priest delivered a sermon advising that mothers should not allow their daughters go near the foreign Princess’s villa. 

A certain Antonio Augustoni of Chiasso wrote to Baron Pergami in December 1818 complaining of the Milan Commission, ‘For some days past, there have been people here, lurking about, and running from one person to another with questions….they have even found those who have dared to tell untruths….the most respectable of them are but porters and watermen.

Escape to Pesaro

Villa-Caprile-Queen-Caroline

Villa Caprile, Pesaro – the house Princess Caroline bought and settled in safe away from the spies and intrigues of Milan, Como and the Villa D’Este

The constant spying, the changing attitudes of the locals and ongoing financial issues finally forced Caroline to abandon her visits to Como and Cernobbio. Instead she, Baron Pergami and their immediate inner circle moved to Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. Here she was free of the influence of the Milan Commission in a town where the presence of any potential spies was more immediately obvious. And here she remained until the death of King George III meant that she was now Queen of Britain and the House of Hanover. Her intention now was to return to London and claim an enhanced allowance as the Queen. 

Return to Britain

caroline returns

Queen Caroline returns to Britain and is perceived as standing up for the Radicals and reform. She retained her popularity until the King’s coronation.

The Queen had always hoped that her return to England would be temporary. The government had always hoped she would stay abroad knowing that her presence would only further stoke the spirit of rebellion and demands for parliamentary reform. The London Mob cheered the Queen’s procession into London seeing her as their champion against the establishment. George IV saw her return as the opportunity to bring her to trial on charges of adultery using the spurious evidence gained from her former employees at the Villa D’Este by the Milan Commission. 

image(1)

A souvenir jug produced by the Queen’s supporters at the time of her trial for adultery in the House of Lords.

The government did everything possible to avoid a trial but could not prevent it going ahead in the House of Lords. The Queen was well represented for her defence but she had also asked that the Como lawyer, Avvocato Giuseppe Marocco be granted a visa to allow him to aid her defence. The dubious quality of the witnesses produced by the prosecution and the doubtful methods employed by the Milan Commission to extract their evidence meant the Queen was exonerated and deemed innocent. The London Mob became ever more incensed during and after the trial attacking numerous members of the government or stoning their residences. The loyalty of some of the troops could also not be relied upon. It seemed as if Caroline had unintentionally provoked a revolutionary situation.

image(7)

Sir-Thomas-Lawrence-painting-of-King-George-IV

Sir Thomas Lawrence, George IV (1762-1830), 1821. The glory of the Coronation service and the procession which followed it won over the hearts of the London Mob against Queen Caroline.
Credit: Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

However the fickleness of the London Mob was to show itself at the King’s coronation in July 1821. George IV was adamant that Caroline should not attend. She was determined to be recognised as the Queen and to take her allotted space within the ceremony. However all entrances to Westminster Abbey were barred to her in spite of her appeals of ‘Let me pass; I am your Queen.

The London Mob seemed to have been seduced by the grandness of the coronation ceremony and the glories of the royal procession. They perceived Caroline’s attempts at gaining entry to the abbey as undignified and pathetic. This rapid change in the mob’s sentiments revealed their lack of political sophistication; the reformist politicians, keen on stressing their respectability, never did want to associate themselves with unruly behaviour. The Queen no longer had any allies or moral support within the country.

It was a mere three weeks after the King’s coronation when Caroline was taken ill, rapidly declined and died. 

Further Reading

Flora Fraser’s ‘The Unruly Queen – The Life of Queen Caroline’ proved invaluable in researching this article. Her book is not only well written and highly informative about the life of Caroline but also provides insights into the atmosphere and attitudes of the time that are hard to find in standard politico-economic histories.

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Maslianico’s Smuggler Paths

Maslianico sits right on the border with Switzerland on the road from Cernobbio. Its smuggler paths consist of a set running more or less horizontally at different altitudes on the lower slopes of Monte Bisbino. These paths played a critical part in the commercial life of the town when smuggling was the key economic activity. The clandestine crossings were also used over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for political ends either for importing banned texts and pamphlets or in providing political opponents and persecuted groups exit passage to freedom or clandestine entry into Italy.

Alpini map

The map of the Sentieri del Contrabbando produced by the local branch of the Associazione Nazionale Alpini.

The map above, which is duplicated on all the main points of entry to the smuggler paths, has been put together by the Maslianico branch of the Associazione Nazionale Alpini. They have also taken on the task of maintaining and signposting the paths. The map shows the three separate paths with the highest known as ‘Senterun’ (Sentiero Uno) followed by ‘Ul Riz’ (the Rice Path) and finally  ‘Ul Terz’ (the Third). Ul Riz is so named because it was the preferred route for smugglers carrying over rice to the Swiss during the last war. All three of these paths cross the border into Switzerland through gaps in the high barbed wire high fencing that still runs alongside the valley of the mountain torrent, Guasto. On the Italian side of the border there is a long series of stone steps that run all the way up from Roggiana (bottom left of the map) to where Senterun crosses over at headstone number 58 – marked as Cippo 58. These steps are known as Scala di Ronda and I assume they were constructed to aid border patrols in the past.

Walking Ul Terz

This walk is perhaps not the most scenic to be had on Monte Bisbino – the low elevation limits the panorama to a view over Chiasso and its hinterland. But the mass of its  historical associations accord its own unique atmosphere. Walkers can always choose to extend the hike upwards to join Senterun from where they can eventually reach the Croce dell’Uomo with its spectacular views over the southern end of the lake. 

I chose to start the walk from the eastern end at Cava dei Pini as shown on the map below.

komoot map (1)

My walk started from Point A and continued by following the line of ‘Ul Terz’ before descending the Scala di Ronda to the border crossing point at Roggiana. From there I walked back to the start along the Via Scaletto. The numbers on the map refer to the photos taken en route.

start

Photo 1. Starting point on Via Scaletta. Note the Alpini’s map attached to this as one of the three possible access points to the Sentieri del Contrabbando.

On leaving the road the path climbs some steps before a right turn leads you to a clearing at the base of a cliff known as the Cava dei Pini with seating and barbecue facilities. 

cava dei pini

Photo 2: Cava dei Pini

The path continues beyond the clearing and starts its climb up towards the source of the Cosio stream – the ‘Sorgente Cosio’.  At the Cosio the path turns a sharp left to join  Ul Terz. The right hand turn, crossing the stream, takes you towards Piazzola, a delightful mountainside community on Monte Bisbino.

sorgente cosio

Photo 3: Sorgente Cosio. Turn sharp left to continue on the smuggler path. Crossing the stream will lead you towards the mountain village of Piazzola.

Following on from the Sorgente Cosio up to the junction with the Ul Ris path at Casgnolo includes a steep section shown in Photo 4 below. This gives you some indication as to the continuing effort required if you chose to continue along the Ul Ris. Given a temperature above 30° when I was out walking, I decided to continue on Ul Terz on the route well maintained by the Alpini, with the route marked out by them as shown in Photo 5.

first climb

Photo 4: As the contour lines on the Alpini’s map gather closer together, the path gets steeper and more rugged. The junction at Casgnolo gives you the option to continue climbing on Ul Ris or take the less demanding Ul Terz.

 

signposting 2

Photo 5: The yellow and blue markings guide you on the Ul Terz, the one path of the three best maintained by the Alpini. The markings have faded in some parts but there is little danger in losing one’s way since from Casgnolo onwards, there is only the one path to follow.

When the path gets to just below the Tana Tasso, there is a type of rest area marked by the painted logo of the Alpini with a spring but the water is not suitable for drinking. There are in fact no drinkable water supplies along this route so be sure to bring your own. A short diversion up from this spot will lead you to the Tana Tasso.

below la tana

Photo 6: The Alpini logo marks the rest area just below the Tana Tasso.

As you continue a gradual descent towards the border you pass a junction as signposted in Photo 7 below where you could shorten your walk by turning left down towards Ronco.

signposting

Photo 7: The junction signposted down to Ronco or, as I would recommend, continuing on Ul Terz to the border crossing and down to Roggiana.

The full historical significance of this path and its emotional associations become apparent when you arrive at Ul Terz’s border crossing.  Photo 8 shows the now rusted three metre high barbed wire fence running the length of the border, but with a defined gate and border control cabin (Photo 9) to show that this would have been at one time a legitimate crossing point, unlike that of Ul Riz higher up the hillside. 

ul terz border

Photo 8: The border fence and gateway of Ul Terz.

 

scala di ronda guard hut

Photo 9:The border hut at the Ul Terz gateway with the stone steps of the Scala di Ronda leading up the hillside.

From this point you would need to climb a further 1,100 of the stone steps of the Scala di Ronda to arrive at the crossing point of the Senterun. Turning left we descend a further 250 steps to reach Roggiana. Descending the Scala di Ronda is more difficult than ascending due to the inconsistent depths of each step. As you descend you will note a number of gaps in the fencing forced by the passage of wildlife who have no understanding and zero respect for national borders. Neither do we have to be much concerned by this border nowadays with Switzerland being within the Schengen agreement but it may be advisable to carry an identity document with you if you choose at this point to continue on into Swiss territory to explore the beautiful upper Breggia valley.

scala di ronda

Photo 10: Looking down the Scala di Ronda towards Roggiana.

Roggiana is now an unmanned border post in Maslianico marked by a customs shed and a chapel dedicated to the Madonna di Rongiana (Roggiana). All along this route and particularly at this point one cannot help thinking of all the human dramas enacted here, so many Jews hoping to escape deportation from Italy but with fear of being turned back at the Swiss border, or further back in time, those followers of Alessandro Mazzini bringing in political leaflets and campaigning for the independence of Lombardy-Veneto from Austrian domination. 

Roggiana crossing

Photo 11: The Roggiana border post in the background with the Italian customs shed alongside the Chapel to the Madonna di Rongiana.

An easy walk back down the Via Scaletta will return you to the turning towards the Cava dei Pini. I doubt that after this walk you will carry away unforgettable memories of the beauty of the landscape but you will undoubtedly have sensed the historical significance of this border country. Many others have passed this way throughout the 19th and 20th century by fleeing in a bid to save themselves from persecution or re-entering the country in a bid to fight for freedom and independence.

marzopino poem

This plaque mounted at Roggiana includes a verse from the local dialect poet Marzo Pino calling on the Madonna di Rongiana to turn a blind eye to the smugglers passing by at night with their backpacks full of contraband – as they return from another night’s mission on the Sentieri del Contrabbando.

SUMMARY

tour profile

Altitudinal profile of the walk starting from Cava dei Pini

Distance: 2.84 km

Time: 1 hour

Climb: 180 m

Descent: 180 m

Difficulty: Intermediate, good fitness and sure footedness required, sturdy shoes

Further Reading

For more information on the Jews and other enemies of the state who sought safety in Switzerland from deportation to German extermination and labour camps, read:

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

Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino

We have written a number of articles on the history of smuggling in and around Como, including:

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

Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

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The Road to Rome (via Como)

Ambra Garancini

Ambra Garancini, President of Iubilantes and Rete dei Cammini seen superimposed on the cover photo of her recent publication ‘La Via Francigena Renana’.

Congratulations are due to Ambra Garancini and the cultural association ‘Iubilantes’ on the recent publication of ‘La Via Francigena Renana a Piedi’. This book – the fruit of many years of research – is a guide to walking one of the lesser known but historically significant transalpine routes. The book offers walkers practical information and a detailed cultural guide covering the section of this long-distance trail starting in Chur (Coira in Italian) – the capital of the Swiss Grisons  – and ending on the southern border of Lombardy on the banks of the Po at Corte Sant’ Andrea. Its publication marks the rediscovery and promotion of a long distance trail first recorded in Roman times that ran from the mouth of the Rhine in Rotterdam, over the Alps at Splugen, to the Po where it linked up with the other Via Francigena on its way to Rome. 

What is the Via Francigena Renana?

BROCHURE A5 int. 2

The Via Francigena Renana runs the length of the Rhine from its mouth in Rotterdam to cross the Alps at the Splugen Pass and to continue on to Rome having passed Como and Milan.

Visitors to the Val D’Aosta and Piedmont may well be aware of or have noticed signs for the Via Francigena. However there are a number of Vie Francigena with the name ‘Francigena’ signifying ‘coming from France or Germany’. Ambra’s new book focuses on the ‘Via Francigena Renana’ with ‘Renana’ referring to the Rhine. As such, the trail starts in Rotterdam at the mouth of the Rhine and follows the river’s course to Cologne, Mannheim and then down the Franco-Germanic borderlands to Strasbourg and Basle before continuing down the southern shores of Lake Constance to Chur. At Reichenau, just to the west of Chur, the path takes the southern fork of the Rhine known as the ‘Hinterrhein’ (known in Italian as the Reno Posteriore) before turning off at Splugen to cross the Alps over the Splugen Pass and the dramatic gorge known as the Via Mala. Once over the Splugen Pass, the route continues on to Chiavenna and then down the western shores of Lake Como to Como itself where it continues south through Cantù to the old Roman Imperial capital, Milan. From Milan it leads to the River Po where it links with the Via Francigena from the Valle d’Aosta onwards to Rome – and beyond to Bari for those pilgrims seeking to visit the Holy Land. In modern days, the route of the Via Francigena Renana is matched by the cycle route Eurovelo 15 which follows the trail until parting ways at Reichenau. In Medieval days it corresponded to the map known as the Romweg, produced by Erhard Etzlaub in 1492 which used the same route to link Edinburgh with Rome. His map was published to coincide with the demand from pilgrims wanting to make the journey to Rome for the 1500 Jubilee. The Romweg represents the route running from south to north with the section described in Ambra’s book highlighted within the area bordered in red.

romweg

Erhard Etzlaub’s headed his map with the phrase ‘This is the Road to Rome’. Lake Como can clearly be seen within the highlighted zone even with a hint of its two southern legs going to Lecco or Como. The map also shows the junction at Chur with the Jakobsweg, the German branch of the Cammino di Santiago.

The Via Francigena Renana is known to have been used from Roman times when travel on water was used as much as possible. Julius Caesar developed Como due to its strategic location. Three hundred years later under Imperial Rome, one of only four Imperial fleets were based here to defend access to the lake due to its importance for trade and the military. Travelling up from Milan, Imperial Rome’s capital city, the Via Francigena Renana gave access to the entirety of the Rhine river system. Equally, by diverting to the east at Chiavenna and continuing up the valley of the River Mera and traversing the Passo del Maloja, soldiers and traders could then descend the valley of the River Inn leading to the Danube. Como could thus be seen as a gateway south to Milan, Pavia, Venice (via the River Po) and Rome or north and east to both the North and the Black Seas. 

Linking Rome to the Holy Roman Empire

barbarossa arrives in Como

Every year in September, the Palio di Barbarossa celebrates the arrival of Federico Barbarossa journeying from his Swabian kingdom down Lake Como to protect the city from the Milanese.

With the arrival of Christianity and in particular, the integration of Europe under the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, the route took on a religious as well as a military and commercial significance with pilgrims using it as the route to Rome and on to the Holy Land. Successive Holy Roman Emperors such as Federico Barbarossa continued to use it whenever they needed to journey south to put pressure on the Papacy or re-establish control over rebellious Italian comunes such as those within the Lombardy League, seeking as they did to maintain their control over access to Lake Como. For pilgrims, the Via Francigena Renana linked up with the Jakobsweg (the German branch of the route to Santiago di Compostela) at Chur. 

From Chur to the Po

Ambra’s guide focuses on the 15 stages of the walk that start from Chur, the capital of the Grisons, to the northern banks of the River Po. Ten of these stages can in turn be grouped under four sub-sections, each of which correspond to long-established shorter trails with their own historical significance. They are 1) Via Spluga, which runs from Thusis to Chiavenna 2) Via Francisca, from Chiavenna to Samòlaco (Dascio) 3) Via Regina, from Samòlaco to Como and 4) Cammino di San Pietro Martire from Como to Milan. 

Chur to Chavenna by schweizmobil

The website Schweizmobil provides clear maps of all major trails in Switzerland including the Via Francigena Renana shown as Path 50 on this extract from Chur to Chiavenna.

Chur (Coira)

Chur itself is well worth a visit as the capital of the Grisons and also possibly the oldest city in Switzerland. Ambra’s guide states:

Chur has a very old and well conserved centre with beautiful medieval towers, remains of the ancient walls, museums, well-kept modern areas, lots of green space, a lively cultural life and a thriving cultural and sporting tourism. 

Chur_783_T

The centre of Chur, capital city of the Grisons and said to be the oldest city in Switzerland.

Via Spluga (Stages 2 to 5)

This section takes you through the most dramatic Alpine landscape. The Via Spluga is an ancient trail that has served for centuries in linking the towns of Thusis and Chiavenna, and the Graubünden, Rhaeto-Romansh, Walser and Lombard peoples. Most of the Via Spluga winds along mule tracks, where the original structure is largely maintained or has been restored. The total length of Stages 2 to 5 is 65 kilometres.  Starting from Thusis (720 metres above sea level), it crosses the famous Via Mala gorge to Splügen (1457 m). From Splugen it turns south, going up to the Splugen Pass, which is the highest point of the route at 2,115 metres. From here, the descent begins, crossing the entire Spluga Valley and down to Chiavenna at 333 metres. 

via mala gorge

The Via Mala Gorge. This path is one of the options for traversing the gorge.

Mary Shelly described the route taken by her in 1840 in ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’ published in 1844:

Via_Mala

The road that traverses the Via Mala gorge through a series of single span bridges as noted by Mary Shelley in 1840

“A few years ago, there was no path except across this mountain, which being very exposed, and difficult even to danger, the Splügen was only traversed by shepherds and travellers of the country on mules or on foot. But now, a new and most marvellous road has been constructed – the mountain in question is, to the extent of several miles, cleft from the summit to the base, and a sheer precipice of 4,000 feet rises on either side. The Rhine, swift and strong, but in width a span, flows in the narrow depth below. The road has been constructed on the face of the precipice, now cut into the side, now perforated through the living rock into galleries: it passes, at intervals, from one side of the ravine to the other, and bridges of a single arch span the chasm. The precipices, indeed approach so near, in parts, that a fallen tree could not reach the river below, but lay wedged in mid-way. It may be imagined how singular and sublime this pass is, in its naked simplicity. After proceeding about a mile, you look back and see the country you had left, through the narrow opening of the gigantic crags, set like a painting in this cloud-reaching frame. It is giddy work to look down over the parapet that protects the road, and mark the arrowy rushing of the imprisoned river. Mid-way in the pass, the precipices approach so near that you might fancy that a strong man could leap across.”

Mary Shelley had followed the Via Francigena Renana from Coblenz as far as Colico but from there she took the Viandante down to Lecco in order to cross over to Bergamo before returning to Milan.

Via Francisca (Sixth Stage)

This section of the trail takes us from Chiavenna to what historically would have been the top end of Lake Como in the comune of Samòlaco. The origin of the name Samòlaco is said to stem from the Latin Summus Lacus or ‘the end of the lake’. Samòlaco is a comune without a major urban centre and so it may be best to identify this stage as ending at Dascio. Starting from Chiavenna at 333 metres, the section runs for 22 kilometres ending at Dascio (159 metres). Ambra includes plenty of detail along the route of the various items of cultural interest including the suggested brief diversion to visit the chapel illustrtaed below where one of the founding warrior saints of Como, San Fedele, met his end back in the third century.

San Fedelino

The small Romanesque chapel of San Fedelino was constructed on the site where San Fedele was said to have been killed back in the 3rd century. His bones were taken up from this site and carried to Como where they were kept in the Basilica San Fedele. They were later transferred to Milan on the orders of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo.

The name ‘Francisca’ has nothing to do with ‘Francigena’. Instead it apparently stems either from medieval French for ‘to cross’ – franchir, or possibly ‘franc’ meaning safe from piracy because it was public and well-known. 

Via Regina (Seventh to Tenth Stage)

The Via Regina takes us from Dascio to Como travelling down the western shores of Lake Como from the moment it arrives at the present-day head of the lake at Gera Lario. The whole length of this section is 75 kilometres and walkers get to appreciate the changing aspects of the lake and the tourism associated with it from top to bottom. 

Waterfall

The Camoggia waterfall on the Antica Strada Regina near to Colonno.

As with the name ‘Francisca’ the name ‘Regina’ needs clarification since it does not relate in any way to regina as in Queen or owe its origin, as some think, to Regina Teodolinda, the Lombard Queen whose famous iron crown is held on display in Monza Cathedral. Instead the name stems from ‘Strada Regia’ meaning the main route or principal public path, as in the name used for the trail that leads from Brunate above Como to Bellagio.

Iubilantes, the association responsible for the current rediscovery of the Via Francigena Renana from Chur to the Po, can also take credit for identifying the course of the ancient Via Regina thanks to their major role in a cross-border Italo-Swiss project called ‘I Cammini della Regina’.  This project has provided maps and signposting along the route, as well as an online application to assist walkers. Many may also be aware of a route known as the Greenway which follows part of the Via Regina through the comune of Tremezzina. Even if these different trails may have their individual variations, they all essentially form a part of the Via Francigena Renana – with all paths eventually leading to Rome!

Cammino di San Pietro Martire (Stages Eleven and Twelve)

San Giovanni Pedemonte 2

Saint Peter Martyr was the prior of the Dominican convent complex known as San Giovanni Pedemonte which lay outside the walls on the western side of the city. It was demolished by Napoleon’s troops at the turn of the 19th century. Como’s main train station was built on the site and takes the name of San Giovanni.

This last section takes us from Como to Cantù and on via Seveso to Milan, the capital city of Imperial Rome from the third century.  The route takes its name from a Dominican Friar, St. Peter of Verona, who headed the convent of San Giovanni Pedemonte on the western edge of Como. This convent was eventually destroyed by Napoleon’s troops during their brief occupation of Northern Italy but treasures and paintings from the church can still be seen in Como’s art gallery. Saint Peter was murdered on his way from Como to Milan just outside of Seveso by assassins sent by disgruntled landowners. Needless to say, the work of rediscovering this ancient route was not easy as it makes its way through all the modern day development that has formed around the ancient nuclei of Brianza’s communities. The result makes it still possible to walk these ancient paths and still gain some sense of the atmosphere of the past and to reacquaint oneself with the pace and rhythm of ancient travel, in spite of traversing what is essentially an extension of the Milanese conurbation.

No greater is this impression of gaining an insight into the past than when walking the section through Milan as it passes by one significant historical monument after another, making evident from amongst its modernity, its importance since Imperial Roman times as a key European cultural, religious and economic centre. 

milano-romana

Milan, the capital of Imperial Rome from the third century.

Walking the Via Francigena Renana

logo renanaThe Iubilantes guide is indispensable for those wanting to trek the section from Chur through Lombardy via Como. In addition to directions, it also lists places to stay or eat and identifies all places of geological, cultural or historic interest worth visiting along the way. It even suggests short diversions from the main route wherever there is something worth seeing via a brief detour. 

The book is available online from Edicicloeditore at €16.50. The same publishing house have also printed guides for the main Via Francigena. However, for the Via Francigena Renana, those interested can also obtain Ambra’s book directly from Iubilantes at a discounted cost by contacting the association via email at iubilantes@iubilantes.it. You can also download the set of GPX files covering all 15 stages described in the book from the Edicicloeditore site to load onto any trekking app such as Komoot.

Needless to say, the signposting for the Via Francigena Renana is a lot more thorough in the Swiss than in the Italian sections. From Chur to Splugen, the route is identified as path 50. There are also some very informative and practical Swiss websites to assist trekkers, such as https://www.viaspluga.com/en/itinerario/via-spluga/ or https://www.schweizmobil.ch/en/summer.html. The Schweizmobil site also offers an app to download to help you plan and track your hikes. 

For the Via Regina, go to http://viaregina.como.polimi.it/laps/mobile.html#mappage to download an online map to computer or mobile phone.

Itinerario Antonini 1542

Title page of a 16th century publication of the Itinerario Antonini listing the main routes established during the Roman Empire.

The route north from Milan to Chur was documented in the third century in the Itinerario Antonini which was a collection of routes established in Imperial Roman times but not mapped. The first graphic representation of the route across the Alps is in the Tabula Peutingeriana now kept in the Viennese Hofbibliothek. This map is essentially a graphical representation of the routes identified in the Itinerario Antonini without however any attempt at geographical accuracy other than including some obvious natural features such as Lake Como shown as the blue rectangle in the middle of the extract illustrated below. In this extract we can see Mediolanum (Milan) shown to the right of the lake and Como and Chiavenna shown above it on the route leading horizontally to Chur (Coira). 

Tabula Peutingeriana

This is an extract showing Milan (Mediolanum) and Como on the Tabula Peutingeriana duplicated in 1598 from an original made in either the 11th or 12th centuries which itself was a copy of a map made in the times of Charlemagne based on a Roman original.

Further Reading

A number of walks that follow the Via Regina have been described in Como Companion including:

Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina 

Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina

Argegno to Colonno

From Laglio to Moltrasio

Our article entitled Lake Como: The 19th Century Super Highway describes the importance of Lake Como as a strategic communication link over the Alps through the centuries.

Iubilantes

iubilantes logoIn addition to the research done on the Via Francigena Renana, the Cammina di San Pietro Martire and the Via Regina, Iubilantes have also published a large number of multi-lingual brochures describing some of the key religious sites in our area. They are also responsible for a very useful set of online walking guides around Como and nearby cities known as ‘CamminaCittà’ and available via this link.

For more information about this association visit their multi-lingual website at iubilantes.it where you can also view a list of their publications which, if still available, can be requested by contacting the association directly via mail at iubilantes@iubilantes.it 

book cover

This guide can be bought at a discount by contacting Iubilantes directly otherwise by purchasing online via Amazon.it or the publisher, Edicicloeditore.

Posted in Culture, History, Itineraries, Places of interest, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Water Taxis and Lake Como’s Vaporina

vaporina

The distinctive profile and ergonomic design of Cantiere Ernesto Riva’s Vaporina built for the Hotel Il Sereno.

A ride in a water taxi on Lake Como,  either taken out of necessity or convenience, is a pleasure in itself. Water taxis go far beyond their evident practicality by offering comfort (with added extras if requested) and inimitable style. Yet while the style of these boats has long been dominated by Venetian design, Lake Como is in the process of re-establishing its own brand of boat  – the Vaporina – which retains all the appeal  of stylistic travel but adds ergonomic design specifically adapted to our lake’s aquatic environment. These boats are all constructed by the Cantiere Ernesto Riva in their workshop at Maslianico. 

Venetian Style

buzzing around

Two venetian-style water taxis cross paths in the waters off Laglio.

Venetian water taxis have developed iconic style status and have over the last eighty years have become more beautiful and ever more luxurious. Clearly Venice requires a fleet of efficient and comfortable water taxis given that the traditional gondola may well be the symbol of Venice itself but can hardly whisk you down the Grand Canal, over to the Lido or back to Marco Polo airport in time for tea. Venetian boatyards such as Serenella, Cucchini and Tagliapietra dominate the market and have gained international success by maintaining high standards of artisan craft and continual innovation. 

venice water taxi

Sleek and stylish, the Venetian water taxi has become a symbol of La Serenissima

So it is no surprise that most of the water taxi companies operating on Lake Como also deploy these Venetian-style water taxis. The experience they offer the passenger is thrilling with the enclosed sleek deck-house giving shelter from rain or spray and the rear seating free for those who want to feel the fresh wind on the face, to have an unimpeded view of the lakeside or for gazing up onto a starlit sky. Yet, great as these boats are, they were designed for travel on canals and over the Venetian lagoon and not over the deep and sometimes choppy waters of Lake Como buffeted as it is by its two winds, the Breva and Tivano.

vaporina and primo bacino

Vaporina takes time out with Como’s Villa Olmo in the background. The Vaporina’s profile is unique and readily identifiable when on the lake.

It was therefore only a question of time before one of the many long-established boatyards on Lake Como put their mind to designing a water taxi in line with local tradition and suited to local conditions. It was the oldest of the lake’s boatyards, Cantiere Ernesto Riva, who came up with the idea of redefining fin de siecle boats called Vaporine to modern needs and tastes.

The Vaporina’s Ancestors

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Depiction of an early luxury gondola on Lake Como

Travellers by road around the Como leg of the lake in summer might appreciate how important or even preferable it can be to travel instead by boat. After all it wasn’t until 1876 when Torno, a very near neighbouring town, was actually connected by road to Como. Torno then had to wait until 1911 to have a road going north to Bellagio. Neither of these roads was tarmacked until the 1950s. Water taxis were then as much a necessity as a luxury.  Wealthy residents could however afford to pay for the labour needed to power their own luxury boats  which for most of their time remained moored as an adornment to the private docks in front of their lakeside villas.

inglesina dulcinea

The ‘Dulcinea’ now on display at the Museo Barca Lariana in Pianello del Lario. This boat, built by Cantiere Taroni in 1920 modified the traditional Inglesina design to allow for an early outboard motor although most were man-powered.

The most common form of man-powered water taxi in the 1800s was the ‘Inglesina’, so called due to its derivation from the pleasure boats deployed on the River Thames. Most of the boatyards on Lake Como built Inglesine either for private customers or to add to the fleet of boats used as taxis to ferry residents and visitors around the lake. The Inglesina Dulcinea was built in 1920 by the Cantiere Taroni in Carate Urio and on display at the Boat Museum in Pianello del Lario. (Cantiere Taroni are now based on Lake Maggiore in Stresa.) This hybrid model, designed to be either motor driven or man powered,  shows some of the design origins of the Vaporina. However the original Vaporinas were, as their name suggests, steam powered and again it was the River Thames that provided the inspiration for Lake Como’s boat builders.  One surviving example of an English ‘Vaporina’ is the Waterlily which was renovated back in 1977. It was constructed in 1866 by the Thornycroft Boatyards for the use of the Thornycroft family themselves and was converted from steam to a petrol motor in 1919. 

Waterlilly Thames Launch 1866

Waterlily, built by Thornycroft in 1866. One of the first steam powered Thames launches.

Waterlily Steam Engine

Waterlily was renovated back in the 1970s and had her original steam engine re-installed. Steam engines were heavy, put strain on the boat’s wooden hulls and were of course also quite dirty.

Throughout the early twentieth century the basic shape of the Vaporina became the standard form for boats intended for a limited number of passengers. The Boat Museum in Pianello have a number of examples including the ‘Quo Vadiz’ built in 1925 by the Cantiere Taroni. This boat was originally located by Villa Carlotta in use as a water taxi for the general public. It later passed into the hands of Oscar Kiss Maerth, a textile tycoon who acquired Villa Passalacqua in Moltrasio in the 1970s. There he moored the ‘Quo Vadiz’ and an earlier Vaporina the ‘Lario’ also built by the Cantiere Taroni in 1903 and now also housed in the Pianello Museum. Villa Passalacqua has recently reopened as a super luxury hotel and will no doubt soon be commissioning its own Vaporina to transport its guests if only to keep up with its prestigious neighbour, the Hotel Villa D’Este in Cernobbio, which has a Vaporina built by the local Cranchi boatyard in 1960.  None of these 20th century boats were powered by steam but the name Vaporina has stuck as identifying a particular style of boat of a certain dimension and common profile. 

vaporina quo vadiz museo

The ‘Quo Vadiz’ was built by Cantiere Taroni in 1925 and went into service as a water taxi near to Villa Carlotta. It then was purchased for use at Moltrasio’s Villa Passalacqua. It is now on display at the Museo Barca Lariana.

Cantiere Ernesto Riva

There is one boatyard on Lake Como, actually the oldest one, which has made a speciality of renovating and re-introducing Vaporinas on the lake. That is the Cantiere Ernesto Riva, established back in 1771 in Laglio where they still retain offices but with their main workshop now in Maslianico.  Ernesto Riva restored the Vaporina Laura, built in 1908 and operated by Barindelli Taxi boats (a company still providing a water taxi and boat hire service in Bellagio) both for transporting tourists but also for assisting in the movement of contraband goods from Switzerland. 

Vaporina Laura

Cantiere Ernesto Riva renovated the Vaporina Laura

Looking at Laura, we can see the cockpit in the stern is similar to that of the Inglesina Dulcinea while the deck-house is derived from Waterlily which in turn is reminiscent of the luxury man-powered gondolas of the 18th century. 

Il restauro di Gandria, un trasporto passeggeri del 1948

Cantiere Ernesta Riva completed renovation of the 1948 Vaporina Gandria back in 2013.

In 2013 the Ernesto Riva boatyard restored a larger Vaporina, the Gandria, constructed in 1948 and named after the town on Lake Lugano where it was in service. All of this recent experience meant the boatyard was more than qualified to take on a prestigious commission when approached by the owners of the Villa Pliniana in Torno. They wanted a water taxi for the use of their guests at the Villa Pliniana and for their nearby hotel then under construction, Il Sereno.

Como Style and Practicality – the New Vaporina

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Staircase of the hotel Il Sereno whose interior and exterior were designed by Patricia Urquiola who also designed the interior of the Vaporina’s deck-house.

Il Sereno exudes luxury and style built using traditional materials of wood and stone but offering wide open vistas over lake and mountain. The interior and exterior design was entrusted to Patricia Urquiola who made best use of the hotel’s idyllic location. While the hotel’s design pays reference to the traditions of local construction, its design is uncompromisingly modern, So whilst we can readily appreciate the commissioning of a boat constructed out of wood by artisans like Cantiere Ernesto Riva, we might wonder why they approved a seemingly retro design. I believe they wished to retain all the past associations with the lake, particularly those of style and luxury, but to redefine them in a boat that applies the latest technology to ensure a practical and ergonomic design –  a small reflection in part of the hotel’s own design brief. They wanted a boat  (and a hotel) that could become as iconic of Lake Como as those sleek water taxis have become for Venice.  It makes perfect sense that Patricia Urquiola should be asked to complete her brief by also designing the interior of the Vaporina’s deckhouse.

Bertorello

Professor Bertorello

Apart from the interior of the deckhouse, the Vaporina was designed by Professor Carlo Bertorello, a naval architect with more than 40 years experience who is currently an academic teaching and researching ship design at the Federico II University in Naples.  A first glance at the boat’s profile shows it has more in common with Waterlily, Laura or Gandria than in any of the sleek Venetian launches. It stands taller, appears broader with its squared deck-house making an immediate visual impact.  The wheelhouse is at the front,  reminiscent of the early days of chauffeur-driven cars where the driver remained open to the elements. The cockpit at the back provides open air seating for guests.

vaporina woodwork

This detail of the Vaporina’s prow shows the quality and beauty of the workmanship in wood – mahogany and Oregon cedar.

But its what cannot be seen that makes the Vaporina so innovative. Based on  the studies of Professor Bertorello and the knowledge and expertise of the boatyard, the hull has been built slightly twisted so as best to cut through the typically short wavelengths found on our lake. 

This adaption means the Vaporina does not require the same degree of power to drive it through the water as do other boats. It does so creating less spray with a reduced wake which makes the ride more comfortable and quiet. The comparison of the reduced wake and the calmer waves arriving to shore with those of a Venetian launch travelling at the same speed is remarkable and can only be good news for the environment.

The Vaporina may look a little retro but its ergonomic design creates less turbulence, is quieter and more energy efficient. As a result, although the original Vaporina was powered by diesel, they quickly went on to take advantage of the design’s ergonomic efficiency to build other models entirely powered by electricity – the Elettra. 

elettra

Elettra – the latest Vaporina from Cantiere Ernesto Riva, entirely powered by electricity.

Further Innovation

A novelty this year for Il Sereno’s guests is to take a gourmet hamper prepared in the hotel’s kitchens for an outing on a newly-renovated Inglesina – also from the Ernesto Riva boatyard.  Here is how the ‘Inglesina’ experience has been advertised:

New for 2022, the Inglesina is a beautiful rowing boat built right on Lake Como in the 1930s for English tourists, according to the characteristics of the Thames boats, by Daniele Riva’s great-grandfather, who built the other boats of Il Sereno a mano. This classic and elegant boat – later used in a hotel in St Moritz for 30 years, on Lake Varese in the 60s and near the island of Cypresses – then returns to its native land. The guests of Il Sereno Lago di Como will thus be able to enjoy a romantic trip lulled by the waters of the most famous lake in Italy, also pampered by a luxury picnic, designed by Chef Lenzi and proposed in an elegant basket handmade by the Milanese boutique Larusmiani.

While the yard continues the manufacture or renovation of traditional boats like the Inglesina or the Lucia, they have not halted their programme of innovation. Their latest high-tech project is done in collaboration with Mani Frers, the German yacht designer. It is a 7 metre electric powered E-Commuter. 

German_Mani_Frers

Mani Frers presenting his E-Commuter project at the Laglio yard of Ernesto Riva

Conclusion

The name Vaporina has been adopted for a style of boat which is developing into a Lake Como native. Design elements may have been borrowed over the years from various sources but Lake Como’s modern day Vaporina has been designed to meet the very specific hydrological characteristics of our lake. The Venetian style taxis are undoubtedly elegant but the Vaporina has that more imposing profile which makes her stand out no matter how far from shore. She can also travel as fast as the Venetians if asked but why would you want to rush your time aboard her. 

Much of the success of the Vaporina must also be put down to the skills and experience of the Cantiere Ernesto Riva. Back in the early part of the 20th century the Cantiere Taroni, then based in Carate Urio,  may have led the field in the building and design of these water taxis. But when Taroni moved to Stresa they left the field open to Ernesto Riva and their current director, Daniele Riva, to build boats custom designed for Lake Como’s waters. It was also their  foresight to remain committed to wooden construction when many others were moving over exclusively to fibreglass.  This meant that all the necessary skills were in place to allow them to undertake prestigious renovation projects like Gandria. In turn they could then apply these skills to further innovative design such as the Vaporina and beyond.

Further Information

Como Classic Boats are the rental arm of the Cantiere Ernesto Riva. Contact them to hire one of the beautiful boats from their fleet. They are based in Laglio at the old boatyard site. Contact them via info@comoclassicboats.com or on +39 327 74 62 571.

Tours of Cantiere Ernesto Riva’s production site in Maslianico and yard in Laglio can be booked via https://ciceroexperience.com/it/experience/cantiere-riva-lago-di-como

There are a number of water taxi companies operating on the lake. Go to our page Boat Hire and Water Taxis for more information.

More details about the luxury hotel Il Sereno are available on their website and also that of Studio Urquiola.

More details about the Cantiere Ernesto Riva are available on their website. 

For anyone interested in the tradion of boat building on Lake Como, a visit to the Museo Barca Lariana is highly recommended.

Further Reading

Boat building is one of the primary artisan skills around the lake and Lake Como’s boatyards have won worldwide acclaim for their products as well as having picked up numerous trophies and awards. We have written two previous articles about them with Lake Como’s Boatyards: The Champions  focussing on successes in power boat and sail boat racing and Lake Como’s Boatyards: Luxury Boats  giving a more general view of luxury boat production through the centuries.

‘Concordia’ is the last remaining fully renovated steam passenger ship in active service since 1926 on the lake. This article goes into its history with photos of its elegant interior and exterior. Check the website of Navigazione Laghi for details of when she is in service or if they are reintroducing Sunday evening mini-cruises with aperitif.

Concordia

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Como Destroys Neighbouring Torno (500 Years Ago)

moltrasio torno 2

Torno (on the far bank of the lake) and Moltrasio face each other at the narrow entrance to the ‘primo bacino’ leading to Blevio, Cernobbio and ultimately Como. An enmity between the residents of these two towns arose following the destruction of Torno in 1522 by forces sent from Como.

June 11th will mark the 500th anniversary of the sacking and almost total destruction of Torno by a Spanish led army consisting of mercenaries and residents of Como. That event stands alongside the destruction of Isola Comacina in 1169 by Federico Barbarossa’s Como army as one of the more brutal acts of aggression meted out by near neighbours on our leg of the lake. The anniversary is being marked by a series of events in Torno. These include a one day convention on June 11th where historians and other experts on the Middle Ages will come together to share insights into life in Torno at that period alongside the background to and the impact of the town’s destruction back then. 

acqua e fuoco

Publicity for one of the events organised in Moltrasio leading up to the 500th anniversary.

June 11th also happens to be the saint’s day of Saint Barnabas, the patron saint of Moltrasio – Torno’s neighbour just over on the western bank of the lake’s Como leg. When Moltrasio rang the church bells to celebrate their saint, the Tornaschi believed they were instead celebrating their neighbour’s devastating misfortune. As explained in this account written by Francesco Ballarini  in 1619:

“… on which day (11 June 1522) men from Moltrasio of the ducal estate, placed in front of you on the other side of the Lario, rang the festive bells for the solemnity of San Barnaba, their titular saint, so that they were always hated by the Tornaschi from the hinterland onwards, under the pretext that this sounding was done for the joy of the fire of the enemy land.

Subsequent anniversaries have become occasions to reaffirm the value of peace between neighbours as well as to promote further research into life on the lake in medieval times. 

Historical Background

1200px-French_-_King_Francis_I_of_France_-_15-1928_-_Saint_Louis_Art_Museum

Francis I of France who ascended to the French throne in 1515.

Italy experienced ongoing conflict in the period from 1499 to 1559 as France, Spain and the Papal States sought overall European hegemony. Conflict between Como and Torno was a byproduct of the attempts by the French and the Spanish to wrest control of the Duchy of Milan. Torno had over time become associated as Francophile alongside Menaggio and Lecco. Como instead was happy to be at the bidding of whoever controlled the Duchy. The potential differences in allegiance between near neighbours could literally prove to be incendiary as was to be witnessed in June 1522.

In 1515 Francis 1 became King of France. He immediately sought to recapture the Dukedom of Milan from the Spanish. He faced the Spanish forces which mostly consisted of Swiss mercenaries at Melegnano and won.  Como was not happy to find itself again under French rule but Torno was delighted. 

Near Rivals

Carlo V

Charles V. He became Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria in 1519 as well as King of Spain, Lord of the Netherlands and Duke of Burgundy.

Normally one would not expect two towns a mere ten kilometres apart to become embroiled in bloody conflict, but the geopolitical importance of the lake on a key line of communication either for trade or military links with the rest of Europe meant that local disputes rapidly developed into proxy conflicts.

Torno at that time was one of the richest cities on the lake with a population of about 5000 inhabitants and an economy based on the sale of wool. Torno had developed a cross-continental trade buying bails of raw wool from England, France or Spain, to then spin, weave and finish the cloth for export across Continental Europe. However their relationship with Como had moments of friction partly arising from the pressures of competition since Como was also an important producer of woollen cloth. 

Como and Torno were both concerned about the others ability to control shipping on the lake. Both towns managed large fleets of merchant and military ships and conflicts often arose when one or the other party complained that the other was denying passage. The French had used Torno as a base to control Brianza and had built up a large fleet so as to keep their ally well provisioned. The Comaschi complained that on occasion the Tornaschi used this fleet to impede their own trade. Como called on the Spanish back in 1515 to punish Torno for just this cause. The Spanish sent an army of Swiss mercenaries over the Alps and down the lake where they then set about destroying Torno’s commercial infrastructure.  But later that year France defeated the Spanish at Melegnano and Torno could rebuild its trade without fear of reprisals from Como.

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The document in the possession of Como’s Public Library issued by the French Governor of Milan in 1517 awarding the town of Torno special privileges and a grant to compensate for damage previously inflicted by the Spanish.

A document now archived in Como’s public library reveals just  how Torno profited from the French victory at Melegnano. This document, issued on 1st June 1517 by Count Odetto di Foix (the French Governor of the City and Dukedom of Milan),  grants Torno special dispensations from taxes such as the Salt Tax and reductions in the duties liable on the import of raw wool or the export of cloth. Additionally  it awarded the city a grant of 2000 Tourinese pounds (a currency emanating from the French city of Tours) as recompense for the damages inflicted by allies of the Spanish in previous years, such as the Swiss attack two years previously.

Francesco II Sforza

Francesco II Sforza

Francesco II Sforza, reclaimed the Duchy of Milan in 1522 thanks to the support of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He was to all effects a puppet of the Spanish king.

On 4th April 1522 Francesco II Sforza, allied to the Spanish Hapsburg King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, retakes Milan with a small army paid for by Charles and the Pope. He defeated the French army made up of Venetians and 8000 Swiss mercenaries who all retreated to Monza. Francesco and the army of the Lega Santa seal their conquest over the French on the following 27th April at Bicocca, then a village half way between Monza and Milan and now an important industrial area. 

The retreating French troops take shelter in Como where for two days they manage to resist the attacks of the Spanish troops under the command of the Neapolitan Marchese di Pescara, Fernando D’Avalos. The Spanish are now back in control offering the Comaschi another chance to settle scores with the Tornaschi.

The Conflict of 1522  According to Benedetto Giovio

Benedetto Giovio (1471-1545), the elder brother of the better-known Paolo Giovio, was a contemporary witness to the conflicts of 1522 and recorded them in his Historiae Patriae (1532). His account was written in Latin and subsequently translated into Italian in 1890 and now rendered into English by Google. He records the build up to the fateful June 11th as follows:

April 1522

Those of Torno and Lecco, in deference to the French, cluttered the lake not letting the city pass the supplies…. Exhausted by so many misfortunes, the Comaschi made constant reminders to Count Martinengo (Count of Villa Chiara Governor of Como) to…. make the lake free and safe for sailors. Therefore the Duke Francesco (II Sforza) hastened the enterprise of Torno. The ships that were ready were soon supplied with cannons and rowers… Anchises Visconti on the side of the lake, with the militias; Calcagno Origoni…. With his team climbing the mountains behind, the Count of Villa Chiara to direct the company…. That expedition, due to the leaders’ discord, failed.

May 1522

The Tornaschi and the French, boasting great pride, mocked the foolishness of their enemies and believed themselves invincible. And indeed they had closed that village so well, without defense, with walls, with embankments and with cannoncelli placed at all outlets, that few were enough to defend it against a large body of enemies.

11 June 1522

However, having gathered new people and having prepared the boats, Count Martinengo of Villa Chiara arranged a new  Torno expedition. He gives command of the fleet to Domenico the Mad, and when he leaves, he prescribes what boundaries to contain. The same count with one thousand and five hundred men gains the mountains above the village and falls upon the enemies…. The French with all the villagers, seeing themselves defeated so easily, retreated to their ships, which the Mad, according to his orders, allowed them to disband … After the Tornaschi were scattered, the count sacked and burned all the houses. And it was on the 11th of June. Moreover, the churches, rich in gold paintings and organs, were laid bare and profaned, and the sacred bronzes lowered from the bell towers. Then the pier was ruined by the sappers and the palaces were razed to the ground; the houses emptied, the vows of the chapels stripped, the iron and all the remains prey to looting. The people were banned and their assets seized as tribute.

Benedetto Giovio was from Como and so this contemporary account stating how the population was spared may not be entirely accurate. 

sacking of Torno

The sacking of Torno

It is true to say that all the previous inhabitants of Torno were banished and their city and its defences were destroyed. The population escaped to resettle further up the lake,  to Lecco and even as far away as Bergamo. It was only ten years later when Franceso II Sforza allowed the Tornaschi to return home to rebuild their houses and try to re-establish their commercial activity.

Port of Torno

The port of Torno – nowadays one of the most tranquil and pleasant spots on the Como leg of the lake but a scene of chaos and destruction on June 11th 1522.

The enmity towards Moltrasio due to the sounding of their bells in what appeared as celebration of their fate led bands of homeless Tornaschi to mount raids on the western shore in revenge.

Linking the Past to the Present

The Italian aphorism ‘O Francia o Spagna purché se magna’ translated as ‘Either France or Spain, as long as we eat’ whose origin is attributed to the medieval Florentine diplomat and historian, Francesco Guicciardini, is as relevant now as a statement of realpolitik as back in the 16th century. And whatever occurred on the shores of Lake Como back in June 1522 has relevance today in the impact it had on the futures of local families and lakeside communities.  But the task of seeking to untangle some form of objective understanding of those times is by no means easy. However the Associazione Culturale Via de Benzi 17, like its counterpart Pro Moltrasio over the water, is a very active group of local volunteers working hard to recover knowledge of Torno’s past and disseminating that knowledge to residents and visitors alike. They are currently seeking government funding for a program that would provide grants to students prepared to undertake historical research under the supervision of Professor Paolo Grillo from the State University of Milan. They clearly appreciate the need to link the past to the present as well as recognising how such research can only increase the potential for cultural tourism. Let’s hope they get their funding but we can rest assured that they will in any case continue to organise exhibitions and conferences to disseminate awareness and increased understanding of their historical and cultural heritage.

associazione de bensi

Part of the brochure for the convention organised partly by the Associazione Culturale Via de Bensi 17 to foster greater understanding of Torno’s past.

Further Information

Anyone wishing to learn more about Torno’s history should contact the Associazione Culturale Via de Benzi 17 directly at that address or by phone to +39 031 419555.

Professor Paolo Grillo has written a number of books on the medieval history of Northern Italy but none are available in English as far as I am aware. His most accessible book for non-specialists is ‘Le Porte del Mondo’ (2019, Mondadori) in which he describes the globalised markets across Europe in trade such as the fine woollen cloth from Torno.

There are a number of walks described in this blog either starting from or arriving at Torno including, Torno Circuit: Piazzaga and Monte PiattoStrada Regia – From Torno to PognanaComo to Torno Revisited

We have also written another article on the history of Torno and its conflicts with Como focusing on the town’s apparent possession of one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Go to Santo Chiodo for detail.

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Como’s Latest Art Acquisition

pagani pinacoteca

The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Paolo Pagani, Pinacoteca di Como on loan from Guglielmo and Marianna Poletti

There is a new painting on display in the Pinacoteca di Como’s Salone d’Onore – ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ (1690s)  by Paolo Pagani. This large canvas joins two other major works in the same room both taken from the destroyed church of San Giovanni in Pedemontana – namely ‘The Triumph of the Archangel Michael’ (1630) by Carlo Nuvolone and ‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’ (1608-9) by Il Morazzone. All three represent the Archangel Michael driving the devil and his rebel angels out of heaven. The Pagani painting is on a five year loan to the gallery from its owners, Guglielmo and Marianna Poletti. 

pinacoteca st michael

The Triumph of the Archangel Michael by Carlo Nuvolone, Pinacoteca di Como

Who Was Paolo Pagani?

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Detail from Pagani’s ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’

Paolo Pagani was born 1655 in Castello, a district of Valsolda on the northeastern shores of Lake Lugano. He moved to Venice where he studied art. He teemed up with other skilled craftsmen from Northern Italy to decorate palaces and churches throughout Austria, Germany, Poland and Moravia. In 1690 he was invited to Vienna to work in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. Following his successful career in Eastern Europe, he returned in 1696 to the town of his birth, Castello in Valsolda.

On his return he immediately set about decorating the vault of the local  Chiesa di San Martino thereby gifting his birth town with some of Italy’s finest late baroque decoration. He also had the good fortune to develop a close friendship with his namesake but no relation, the Marquis Cesare Pagani of Milan. Cesare Pagani was a wealthy and well connected diplomat with the ambition to fill his extensive villa in Milan with a large collection of art. He commissioned many of Paolo Pagani’s later works including the ‘The Fall Of the Rebel Angels’  now on display in Como’s art gallery.

Pagani chapel 2

One of the scenes in the series of frescoes adorning the vault of the Chiesa di San Martino in Castello, Valsolda.

Cesare Pagani’s marriage had not produced any male heirs to whom he could bequeath his considerable fortune. In 1691 he had adopted a five year old slave boy of Turkish origin whom he had converted to Christianity and baptised as Michael choosing this name ‘for my particular devotion I openly profess for that glorious archangel [Michael] – my very clement protector’.  However his adopted son Michael may not have met the rigorous requirements of noble ancestry to qualify as a beneficiary. Cesare Pagani then turned to his friend Paolo Pagani’s son Angelo, born in 1694 in Moravia as a suitable person to inherit his lands and property. But for Angelo to qualify, his father had to provide proof of his family’s noble heritage.   Either by fortune or design, Paolo Pagani unearthed documentation during the renovation of his house in Castello that showed that the Castello Paganis were related to three pagan African kings who conveniently converted to Christianity on moving to Italy. This was sufficient proof for Angelo to become Cesare Pagani’s principal beneficiary on the Marquis’s death. One of the scenes of Paolo Pagani’s frescoes in the Chiesa di  San Martino depicts the conversion of pagans to Christianity.

The Cult of Michael, Archangel

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The 10th century Sacra di San Michele in the Val Di Susa, Piedmont.

Michael is a saint of considerable importance to Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. For Muslims, Michael alongside the Archangel Gabriel instructed Mohammed in the Koran. He is also deemed the protector of Jewish people. In Christian mythology he is ‘the supreme ruler of the heavenly army and warrior against the enemies of the Church’. He was particularly venerated in our part of Italy by the Lombards and their Queen Teodolinda who adopted Michael in the 6th century. They compared him with their pagan god, Odin. 

A number of impressive monasteries dedicated to Michael have been built along an ancient ley line running from Ireland to Israel known as the Sacred Line. These include Mount Saint Michael in Cornwall, Mont St. Michel in Normandy, the 10th century Sacra di San Michele in the Piedmontese Val di Susa and the 6th century Monte Sant Angelo on the Gargano peninsula in Puglia. 

defende nos

‘Defend Us in Battle’ – the name given to the prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII calling on the Archangel Michael to protect the Catholic church from Satan. This plaque is from the St. Michael Chapel in Como’s Bishops Palace.

A prayer dedicated to the Archangel Michael was composed by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 following a mystical experience which left the Pope horrified by a vision of ranks of triumphant demons gathering in the skies above Rome like a flock of crows ready to attack the city. An abbreviated form of this prayer known as ‘Defende nos in proelio’ (Defend us in battle) was recounted on bended knee at the end of Catholic Holy Mass from that date up until 1964 (and used, of course, during exorcisms). It reads:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle,and be our help  against the wickedness and the snares of the devil. We supplicants beg you: may the Lord command him! And you, Prince of the celestial militias, with the power that comes to you from God, drive Satan and the other evil spirits that roam the world to perdition of souls into hell.

This literal belief in the existence of Satan was even reiterated by Pope John Paul in 1994 when he stated that even if the prayer was no longer recited at the end of mass ‘I invite you all to not forget it but to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world.

Paolo Pagani’s Museum, Castello

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‘The Descent of Christ into Hell’ 1690s by Paolo Pagani, Paolo Pagani Museum, Castello in Valsolda

Works by Paolo Pagani can be seen in museums and art galleries around Europe but, other than Milan, the best place to view his works locally is in the Museo Casa Pagani in Castello.  If you have previously viewed his ‘Fall of the Rebel Angels’ in Como then you will immediately be struck by the similarity between this and the largest canvas in the Castello Museum depicting ‘The Descent of Christ into Hell’. The colour palette is very similar with the preponderance of flesh tones to accompany so many representations of the human physique. In both studies he uses light and shade to distinguish between the forces of good and evil. And of course, both canvases are of similar size and visual impact. In fact they were both commissioned by Cesare Pagani to adorn his Milanese home. 

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‘Nymph Surprised by Satyrs’ by Paolo Pagani, Paolo Pagani Museum, Castello.

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Detail from ‘The Nymph Surprised by Satyrs’

The whole first floor of the museum is dedicated to his works with most of the other canvases dedicated to religious subjects with the exception of a ‘Nymph surprised by Satyrs’. This depicts a voluptuous nymph depicted with rich skin tones not seemingly too bothered by the voluptuous attention of two satyrs with the elder of the two looking particularly lecherous.  Here may lie the clue to the sort of satanic temptation that Pagani’s patron, Cesare Pagani, called upon Saint Michael to help him resist! 

Whilst in Castello, it is also well worth visiting the Chiesa di San Martino to view its frescoed vault. The church is accessible during the museum’s opening hours.  

Further Reading

Early Lombardy Baroque is well represented in Como by the works of Morazzone and later on by the local Recchi brothers. Read Como and Early Lombardy Baroque or Early Lombardy Baroque: Fratelli Recchi for more information about them.

Visiting Chiasso

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‘The Martyrdom of Saint Vitale’ by Paolo Pagani in the Chiesa di San Vitale in Chiasso

If in Como but without time to visit Valsolda, another of Pagani’s works can be seen in the Church of St. Vitale in Chiasso. This is entitled ‘ The Martyrdom of St. Vitale’ and was painted for the benefit of Baldasar Fontana, a sculptor with whom Pagani collaborated closely when both were working in Moravia and Poland. Fontana was from Chiasso.

Visiting Cracow

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The Church of Saint Anne in Cracow, Poland decorated by Baldasar Fontana and Paolo Pagani.

The interior of the Church of St. Anne in Cracow was decorated with sculpture and plasterwork by Baldasar Fontana and with frescoes by Paolo Pagani. Fontana took responsibility for managing the entire project. Their partnership is just another example of the way itinerant artists and craftsmen from the Como region migrated across Eastern Europe to decorate palaces and churches during the Baroque period. Read Stucco and Scagliola – Two of Como’s Baroque Specialities for more information on some of the artists from the Val D’Intelvi  employed in this way.

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