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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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

museo-paesaggio-lago-di-como-03

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

IlSerenoHotel_PatriciaUrquiola_cPatricia-Parinejad_2979_LOW-1024x682

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.

documenr

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.

Pagani bacchus detail

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

Paolo_Pagani,_Martirio_di_San_Vitale

‘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

Church_of_St._Anne_(interior),_13_sw._Anny_street,_Old_Town,_Krakow,_Poland (1)

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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Como’s Heart Lies in the Bronx

piazza cavour 1860

The port before it was filled in to form Piazza Cavour in 1860

Back in time, Como had a heart – a place from where the lifeblood of the city radiated out up to and  beyond the city walls. This was the old port which, resembling a key piece in a jigsaw puzzle, anchored the city to its lake. 

Then, in 1860, the city government (the Comune) decided to fill in the port to create the only one of Como’s piazzas to face the lake – Piazza Cavour. But the new piazza looked bare and soulless, as it does quite frankly to this day. So in 1870, a Milanese financier and philanthropist, Sebastiano Mondolfo, gave the city 20,000 lire to purchase a fountain from the privately owned Palazzo Litta in Lainate.

Villa Litta

The Fontana di Galatea in the gardens of Palazzo Litta in Lainate. Sebastiano Mondolfo’s first idea was to buy this fountain to place in Piazza Cavour.

This was the baroque Fontana di Galatea built from 1720 to 1786.  This idea was rejected on the grounds that it was probably unethical to purchase and transform a privately owned work of art into a piece of public sculpture. So Mondolfo changed his plan and instead two years later hired a local sculptor, Biagio Catella, to design a fountain for Piazza Cavour. 

Piazza Cavour Vasconi 1890

Photo copyright of Vasconi of Piazza Cavour in the 1890s with Biagio Catella’s fountain fully working.

In almost record time, Biagio Catella created a three-tiered fountain carved from Carrara marble representing a swan at its apex surrounded by a variety of sea creatures including sea horses and dolphins ridden by cherubs. These creatures rested on shells supported by mermaids and mermen. The fountain also served the practical purpose of providing drinking water.  On September 23rd 1872, the water to the fountain was turned on.

1873-Sebastiano-Mondolfo-busto-min-698x1024

Sebastiano Mondolfo, Milan financier and philanthropist who had a second home, the Villa Volontè, in Como.

But from the start, some of Como’s inhabitants began to find fault with the fountain on both practical and aesthetic grounds. The main practical concern was that the supply of drinking water to the poor inhabitants of the area, which included at the time the labyrinthine quarter known as the Cortisella, would cause shortages at the water’s source on Monte Olimpino.  The aesthetic judgements ranged from complaints that the swan more closely resembled a goose and that the naked torsos of mermaids were inappropriate for children and disturbed  the sensibilities of the more puritanically minded. Others felt that the imagery of sea creatures like dolphins and sea horses was inappropriate to its setting alongside a freshwater lake. Thus the fountain became the subject of polemical debate. Sebastiano Mondolfo died in 1873 and was therefore spared having to witness his act of selfless generosity to the city where he maintained his weekend retreat being treated so ungratefully and scorned by the vociferous band of ‘anti-fontanisti’.

The fate of the fountain went from bad to worse. The constant flooding of Piazza Cavour from the lake and the erosion of the landfill under the piazza caused damage to the fountain which the Comune did not have the resources to repair. The Comune either could not or would not find the funds to maintain it. The fountain was dismantled and removed from Piazza Cavour in 1891, a mere 19 years later. It stayed in storage with a price tag of 3,500 lire to anyone prepared to take it off the Comune’s hands.

mermaid

One criticism of the fountain was that the naked mermaids might upset youthful sensibilities

The fountain’s saviour was the American oligarch founder of Standard Oil, the multi-millionaire William Rockefeller Jnr, who had much admired the fountain on previous visits to Como. He bought it in 1902 from the Comune for the asking price and then paid out $25,000 to transport it to New York City where it was installed in the Bronx Zoo in 1903. It was subsequently relocated to its current location in the zoo in 1910. The population of New York City fortunately took a very much more positive attitude to the fountain than the citizens of Como. It was even designated an official New York City landmark in 1968, and there it stands to this day. It is apparently a popular backdrop for newly-married couples posing for photographs during the post-wedding ‘passeggiata romantica’.

Rockefeller-Fountain-Bronx-Zoo1

The Rockefeller Fountain in the Bronx Zoo

While the fountain is now commonly referred to as the Rockefeller Fountain, there have been no attempts to deny its place of origin. The inscription on the fountain reads:

THIS FOUNTAIN

FROM THE CITY OF COMO, ITALY

WAS PRESENTED BY WILLIAM ROCKEFELLER

AND BY HIM ERECTED ON ITS PRESENT SITE

1902

William-Rockefeller

William Rockefeller Jnr,

In more recent times, the fountain has had to undergo extensive restoration and one very imaginative Como citizen was able to take full advantage of this cultural link to New York. Daniele Travi, the owner with his wife of the Sorsasso vineyard in Domaso, was guest of honour back in September 2008 at the ceremony revealing the latest work of restoration.

Daniele Travi was billed as the ‘special envoy’ to the Como City Council sharing top billing with the Italo-American tenor Michael Amante at the unveiling ceremony. As Como’s Ambassador Daniele Travi stated:

It is very rewarding for us to have this beloved work of art representing Como here at the Bronx Zoo. Como and its people are deeply touched and proud that this symbol of Italy – and our hometown in particular – graces such a place of beauty and inspiration in New York City. Thank you for caring for ‘Our’ Italian Fountain.

rockefeller fountain 1

The Rockefeller Fountain — named for benefactor William Rockefeller — at the Bronx Zoo in The Bronx, one of five county-level divisions within sprawling New York City, New York. The largest metropolitan zoo in the United States and among the largest in the world, this zoo, which opened in 1899, attracts more than two million visitors each year. It comprises 265 acres of parkland and naturalistic habitats, through which the Bronx River flows. Dedicated here in 1903, the fountain once stood in Como, Italy.

Reports of the ceremony went on to mention how the ‘celebrations were enhanced by a donation of wine from Como’s only vineyard by Daniele Travi’. Needless to say, that vineyard was Il Sorsasso in Domaso. 

Piazza Cavour today

Piazza Cavour – a space looking for a function

Meanwhile Piazza Cavour remains a piazza without a heart – an empty space left looking for a role. While nearby Piazza Volta rocks with life and activity, Piazza Cavour still hasn’t found a true purpose. It is unable to exploit its one major advantage of looking directly out on to the lake on its north side because of the major traffic route that separates it. And unless something is done about that, there is no reason why the new lakefront will in any way enhance this public space. At least the flood defences may at last solve the erosion issues affecting Piazza Cavour’s foundations so maybe any future donation of public art might stand a better chance of acceptance and survival within Como’s hostile civic environment.

Villa Volonte

One wing of the neo-classical Villa Volontè, on the lakefront near to Villa Olmo. This was the weekend retreat of Sebastiano Mondolfo.

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Moltrasio: The Power of Civic Pride

moltrasio

Moltrasio – from top to bottom

Moltrasio is a small town on the western shores of Lake Como 10 kilometres north of Como itself. It nestles within a valley carved out by two mountain streams, the Pizzalo and Arbusel,  which come together at the town’s centre.

arbusell

The Arbusel is the second of Moltrasio’s mountain streams which cascades down through the centre of the town where it joins the Pizzallo to then flow into the lake.

The town lies on the old Roman Via Regina that ran from Cremona to Chiavenna via Milan. The same road also formed the later medieval Via Francigena Renana, a route from Rome that crossed the Alps into Northern Europe by the Splugen Pass. A roman bridge, known locally as the Ponte del Pasett, still stands where the Via Regina crosses the Pizzallo. With a mere population of 1,600 people, but with an abundance of cultural, architectural and archaeological interest, Moltrasio plays way above its weight in the welcome it extends to all visitors.  

So many communities on the lake are vying with each other to attract the attention of visitors. Bellagio is undoubtedly the winner and clearly justifies its title of jewel of the lake. Bellagio is a beautiful town but to my mind, its attractions stop there. Moltrasio is not so perfectly groomed as Bellagio but its charms are more varied;  its atmosphere is more relaxed and its welcome more sincere. Bellagio’s combination of exclusivity and magnet for day trippers runs the risk of it becoming a living museum or a rich man’s ghetto like Portofino. Moltrasio runs no such risk – it is a living community of all ages and, what is more, a proud community committed to the well-being of their town.

Pro Moltrasio

lavatoia

Just one of the many publications by Pro Moltrasio promoting local tourism. The association also provides bi-lingual information boards at all of the sites of historical, cultural or archaeological interest.

The work and commitment of voluntary associations is of primary importance in supporting the quality of everyday life in Italy – maybe more so here than in other developed countries due to the limited funds, functions and efficiency of state organisations.  ‘Pro-Loco’ associations that promote the social, cultural and economic life of their communities thrive in many small towns. Moltrasio is fortunate to have a particularly active ‘Pro-loco’ working to attract sustainable tourism to the town. They have achieved some considerable success and can boast a great bi-lingual website that provides visitors with a mass of information and suggestions on what to see and visit. 

The recent success of the FAI Open Day in Moltrasio is just one illustration of this group’s effectiveness. FAI (the Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano) is an equivalent organisation to the United Kingdom’s National Trust. Their bi-annual Open Days offer the general public the opportunity to visit sites of special cultural or historic interest guided by local experts. The latest FAI weekend was on the 26th and 27th March and in the case of Moltrasio, there was no specific villa on show but the whole town itself. Over the weekend groups of up to 15 people departed every 15 minutes from Piazza San Rocco alongside the Imbarcadero on a round tour of the town taking about two hours. This called upon a mass of volunteers to either guide the groups around the town or to provide information at any of the key points of interest along the route. 

Stone and Water

cascata Pizzallo

The Cascata Pizzallo visible from the main road from Como to Argegno

Even those driving through Moltrasio on the direct road (rather than the lakeside route) to Argegno will notice the massive waterfall alongside the viaduct that goes over the heads of the houses below. This is the Cascata Pizzallo named after one of the town’s two main mountain streams. Further down in the town, the waters of the other stream, the Arbusel, tumble down precipitously toward the lake. Moltrasio in the past made good use of these streams to power up to eleven separate mills. 

old mill

The workings from one of the old mills now transferred and preserved in a building near to the Cascata di Cam. The mill stone is made from granite – not the natural stone of Moltrasio but brought down to the area by glaciation from the Valtellina.

Moltrasio’s other gift of nature is stone. Moltrasio stone is used in construction all across Lake Como. It is a hard sedimentary rock that is relatively easy to separate out into slabs of differing thickness. It is the stone used in Como’s city walls, in the terracing that covered the hillsides around the lake, in numerous buildings and with the waste shards used to pave the old mule tracks and mountain paths. 

sentee di sort

The Sentee di Sort is a path that links Moltrasio to Rovenna above Cernobbio. The path here is made from slabs of Moltrasio stone as are the walls of the terraces. The path passes some of the now disused stone quarries.

The mountain path that links Moltrasio to Rovenna above Cernobbio  – the Sentee di Sort – takes you past many of the old quarries. The old ways of working stone were demonstrated on the FAI Open Day by Pro-Moltrasio members at the disused quarry at Cavirolo. Householders whose properties backed on to the mountainside would also have profited from their location to quarry the stone in their back gardens and use it either for their own building or for the use of others. 

From Stone and Water to Food and Culture

Stone and water provided the basis for Moltrasio’s economy in years past to which must be added the profits made during the romantic era of smuggling with the Swiss border running right by the Rifugio Bugone above the town. It has also been a popular tourist destination for many years with visitors from Como and beyond coming out in the summer months to enjoy an ice cream at La Vecchina right by the Imbarcadero. 

The range of dining options in Moltrasio matches the range of its social classes – and as elsewhere on the lake, the town’s social strata tend to follow the geographical layout. So, you can dine in exclusive and more costly circumstances on the lakefront itself at the Ristorante Imperialino with its magnificent terrace directly on the lake or move up the valley to dine equally well but in more modest surroundings and at less cost in the long-established co-operative La Moltrasina just behind the town’s main church. 

fine dining

The terrace of the Ristorante Imperialino on the lakefront.

The Moltrasina co-operative was established in the 1900s with the aim of providing food and wine to the town’s residents at reasonable cost. It, like the Association Pro-Moltrasio, is a living example of the civic pride of Moltrasio’s citizens in that the co-operative still boasts over 280 active members still committed to its original aims. It continues to provide a social and cultural centre for the locals as well as being open to everyone to come and eat well at a modest price.

If you are looking to try out genuine local cuisine you can also head for the Crotto Val Durino to eat missoltini, risotto di pesce persico or the gut-busting cazuela when the season is right. 

For those prepared to climb up to the summit of the mountain behind the town, you will also satisfy the appetite gained by eating at the Rifugio Bugone – a former border guard post with an honourable history during the war of assisting Jews, ex Prisoners of war and others escape the fascist state to reach safety in Switzerland.

bellini memorial

The memorial to Vincenzo Bellini by local artist Massimo Clerici. Bellini lived in Moltrasio from 1829 to 1833, a period in which he composed many of his best known operas.

Two sculptures by local artist Massimo Clerici on the lakefront highlight Moltrasio’s cultural connections with its star visitor being Vincenzo Bellini who lived on and off in Moltrasio with his lover, Giuditta Cantù, from 1829 to 1833 either in the Villa Salterio Ecker rented by her or as a guest at the nearby Villa Passalacqua. Bellini’s muse, Giuditta Pasta for whom he wrote Norma, lived across the water in Torno.  

The other sculpture was erected more recently in 2019 to honour the memory of Virgilio Ranzato, the so-called Italian king of operetta. He also spent years living in Moltrasio to where he returned shortly before his death in 1937.  

Villas

villa passalaqua

The Villa Passalacqua is due to open as a luxury hotel in June this year. Its terraced gardens descend down to the lakefront.

The lakefront at Moltrasio is as beautiful as anywhere else on the lake and a number of wealthy aristocrats or industrialists in the past have built and renovated villas along its shores. The largest and most impressive of all is the Villa Passalacqua, a neo-classical structure first erected by the Papal Odescalchi family in the late 1600s on the grounds of a former monastery. It subsequently took its current name once purchased by Count Andrea Lucini Passalacqua in 1787.

interno villa passalacqua

The Villa Passalacqua

The villa is on a level with the heart of the town above the lake but with an extensive terraced garden that goes right down to the lakefront.  It had a varied history throughout the twentieth century even being occupied for some time immediately after the last war by the British Secret Service. In 2021 it came under auction and was purchased by the De Santis family. De Santis has been renovating the villa and will reopen it as a deluxe hotel with its doors due to open in June (2022). De Santis is also the owner of another of the most luxurious hotels on Lake Como, the Grand Hotel di Tremezzo. The lobby of the villa boasts a sculpture at the bottom of the grand staircase by Auguste Rodin and many of the rooms on the piano nobile have frescoes by Andrea Appiani.

Illustrious Visitors

In addition to Vincenzo Bellini staying at the Villa Salterio Ecker, we should mention Gianni Versace who bought the Villa Fontanelle also on the lakefront. Napoleon was said to have spent some time at the Villa Passalacqua and more recently, Winston Churchill came to stay in Moltrasio after his election defeat in 1946 at the Villa Donegani – now known as the Villa La Rosa.

villa donegani

Villa Donegani, now known as Villa La Rosa where Winston Churchill stayed in the summer of 1946

Churchill’s visit to Lake Como has subsequently caused a mass of speculation as to his motives for the stay. Some historians and believers in the Churchill-Mussolini correspondence conspiracy (far too complicated to touch on here) believe he was trying to track down copies of these letters to prevent any disclosures. The Villa Donegani was occupied at the time by the British Army while the British were aiding its owner, the industrialist and director of what was to become Montedison, Guido Donegani, in avoiding arrest for corroborating with Mussolini’s fascist regime. An apartment in the Villa La Rosa is available for holiday rentals so current day visitors can, if they choose, follow in Churchill’s footsteps.

Conclusion

Pro loco quarries

Members of Pro Moltrasio demonstrating the traditional techniques for quarrying Moltrasio stone at the old quarry in Cavirolo during the FAI Open Days in March.

There are a number of excellent reasons for visiting Moltrasio and a look at the bilingual Pro Moltrasio website outlines much better than here what there is to see and do. Above all else, it is the pride taken by the locals in their promotional work which deserves recognition given how they have so helpfully set about making  so much information available to those wishing to visit. But for me what makes Moltrasio such a pleasure to visit is the sense that this is a living community determined to optimise the present and ensure the future for its inhabitants of all ages. 

View to Torno

A view from the top of Moltrasio over to Torno. In the past, Moltrasio and Torno were vowed enemies and Torno sacked the town back in 1522.

Their civic pride shows itself in many small ways, in the quality of the signposting of the different attractions, in their willingness to staff open days with so many volunteers and in the way they all seem to take care of their local environment. One very telling piece of evidence of this civic pride was that Moltrasio suffered no serious damage resulting from the massive rainfall that fell last July which caused mountain streams to surge downhill with destructive force. Whole buildings were destroyed in nearby Laglio by the force of the rocks and detritus brought down where two mountain streams converge. But in Moltrasio, where two equally forceful torrents converge, there was no damage and the ancient Roman bridge over the Pizzallo remained untouched. The difference was down to the fact that the Moltrasio inhabitants have always ensured they keep their water courses clean and free of rubble and their woods cleared of broken trunks and branches. Such commitment paid off then and will continue to pay off into the future as Moltrasio presents itself proudly to the world.

madonna del latte

The Romanesque Church of St. Agata contains some early frescoes including this example of the Madonna del Latte. This image can be found repeated in a number of ancient churches around Lake Como and was venerated to encourage fertility.

Further Reading

Moltrasio has featured in a variety of Como Companion’s previous articles.

For walks, try out Sentee di Sort as well as the route from Carate Urio to Moltrasio via the Rifugio Bugone. 

The heroism and sacrifice of some members of the Guardia di Finanza assisting Jews and others to gain safety during the war in neighbouring Switzerland is described in Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust.

Moltrasio even features as the setting of a famous turn of the 20th century true crime in our account of the Trunk Murder.

Moltrasio’s lido is an excellent spot for swimming in the lake. A look at our data on the quality of the water for bathing in the lake confirms the positive record for this beach over the last few years.

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Como’s City Walls

T_Marco Cappelletti_città murata_02

The ‘Citta Murata’ looking north. The towers on the south side are from left to right, Torre Gattoni, Porta Torre and Torre San Vitale. The walls that still stand follow the avenues of trees visible on the south, west and east sides of the old city.

Como has a lot of ‘history’ and the city’s walls provide visible evidence of the fact. Como was first fortified back in 51 BCE but only a few traces of those early Roman walls remain. What can be seen today dates back to 1158 when Federico Barbarossa, the Swabian Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned a new set of walls to be built just beyond the Roman originals.

Federico_Barbarossa_1_federico+barbarossa

Federico Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and Como’s saviour in liberating the city from Milanese control.

The works took thirty years to complete and then underwent a variety of vicissitudes and modifications over the coming centuries until finally in 1975 the City Council decided that no further changes should ever be made. 

Most other Lombardy cities in Medieval times were fortified but most of these walls, as in the case of  neighbouring Cantù, have subsequently been demolished. Como’s walls owe their survival to the city’s unique geographical position as a gateway to or from the Splugen Pass over the Alps via Lake Como. This route was used for both military and commercial ends offering access north over the Alps to the Rhine and Danube river systems (as exploited by Julius Caesar) and south to Milan, Pavia and eastwards via the River Po to Venice and the east. In wartime, Como’s walls provided protection from attack and resistance to siege while in more peaceful times, they forced traders into paying taxes and levies as they sought to pass their goods through the city on their way to their final markets – a constraint long resented by the merchants of Milan.

Roman Days

citta murata

Plan of the Roman Walls (shown in red) superimposed on the current street map. The green lines show where the city expanded in later Roman times.

Como was granted the status of a municipality by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. This signified that the citizens of Como (the Comaschi) could claim the same level of social rights as citizens of Rome. In keeping with this status, and in recognition of the city’s strategic significance, Caesar set about improving the city’s defences by building a defensive wall around all four sides of the rectangular settlement. Building started in 51 BCE.

Only a few traces of this original wall are still visible but enough to be able to trace where the perimeters lay on the south, east and west sides. The north facing course of the wall towards the lake is much harder to discern. The  wall would have been two metres thick and eight metres high with an additional castellated walkway giving a further two metres in height. The main gateway was the Porta Pretoria on the south side not far from where the Porta Torre now stands. The ruins of the original Porta Pretoria are visible below the Liceo Classico and are, sadly, only occasionally open for the public to view. 

roman remains

Remains of the Roman wall can be seen on the left with the Medieval wall seen on the right.

Early Medieval Period

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Como found itself on the path of hostile armies from the north invading the old Roman capital of Milan and the even richer city of Pavia. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman walls were reinforced in a bid to resist these invading Germanic and Burgundian tribes. It wasn’t until the Gothic Wars of 535 to 553 CE allowed the Byzantines to reclaim total control of Como and the rest of the Pianura Padana. They set about reinforcing the Castel Baradello guarding the southern entry to the city and Isola Comacina on the lake which guarded the northern access to the city. Both Castel Baradello and Isola Comacina were to prove of strategic importance for centuries to come although Isola Comacina’s allegiance to Como, as with many other lakeside communities, was anything but constant.

porta-pretoria-sezione-romana-agora-albate

The foundations of the Roman Porta Pretoria are occasionally opened for visits from the public.

The Byzantines also improved the city’s defences by building new towers along its walls, destroying all buildings that lay in close proximity to their exterior and then digging a nine metre wide and two and a half metre deep ditch along its entire perimeter. 

Isola Comacina

Isola Comacina is small but, as the only island on Lake Como, proved of strategic importance throughout the years.

The Germanic tribe of Lombards, the Longobardi, took the place of the Byzantines between 569 and 572 CE setting up their capital in Monza. However the independent-minded Isola Comacina was not captured until 588 under the reign of Queen Teodolinda whose iron crown is now on display in Monza’s cathedral. 

The Lombards went on to rule the area until 774 CE during which time they allowed Como’s walls to suffer damage through neglect and lack of maintenance.

Middle to Late Medieval Period

Moltrasio Stone

Como’s walls and towers are built from Moltrasio stone.

The 9th to 11th centuries proved to be a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Como started to profit from exacting dues and tariffs from the passing trade. The two small communities outside the city walls north to the west – Borgo Vico – and to the east – Coloniola – were in turn fortified primarily to ensure no evasion of customs duties. The city now took on the form of a crab, the so-called ‘Urbs Cancrina’.

Ten Years War with Milan

Porta Torre

Porta Torre, situated close to the original Roman Porta Pretoria, Porta Torre was the main gateway into the city from Milan and the south.

At  the start of the 12th century, in the era in which individual communes assumed more power over any overarching political entity, Milan  became increasingly aggravated by the demands for duties imposed by the  Comune of Como on any goods passing through its territory. Milan formed an early version of the Lombardy League allying itself with Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Genoa in a bid to facilitate trade and withstand those more closely allied with the Holy Roman Empire. They focussed their antagonism against Como and managed to get the strategically important settlement of Isola Comacina on their side along with other towns on the lake such as Torno, Nesso and Lenno. 

Torre San Vitale

The Torre San Vitale is on the south eastern corner of the city’s walls. The two arches at its base were made to accomodate the tramway in the last century once the decision was taken to bar trams from the historic centre.

Milan instigated a period of war with Como from 1117 that was to last ten years following a defined season of aggression starting in Spring and ending in Autumn. Como was singularly successful in fighting off this alliance thanks to its naval fleet on the lake and its robust city walls.  But Como’s success did not last forever and the conflict was to end in 1127 when Milanese forces broke through the walls and proceeded to sack, pillage and burn the city. They also destroyed the walls and in the subsequent peace settlement, forbade Como from rebuilding them and from levying duties on trade. Thus Milan kept Como subjugated for the next thirty years until salvation arrived from the north.

Federico Barbarossa

castel baraDELLO

The Castel Baradello existed from Byzantine times but was rebuilt by Federico Barbarossa.

Federico Barbarossa, as the Holy Roman Emperor,  decided it was about time he reasserted his sovereignty over the rogue Italian communes to his south who swore allegiance to the Papacy rather than to himself. He had in mind those cities that had formed the Lombardy League. He first invasion south from Germany was in 1154 when he came to note the strategic advantage to him of both Isola Comacina and Como. Not having managed to fully subdue Milan and its allies, he returned again to Lombardy in 1158. By 1162 he had managed to force Milan into lifting all the restrictions to trade and defence it had previously imposed on Como. He turned his attention to strengthening Como’s defences and set about rebuilding the walls that had lain destroyed since 1127.

The Federican Walls

walls and porta torre

The south facing city walls with Porta Torre.

The city walls we see today are ostensibly those that Federico Barbarossa started to build in 1158. The work continued until 1192. His walls more or less followed the path of the previous Roman walls but were extended further out. They were built higher than before and castellated. He, like the Byzantines, also dug a ditch along the wall’s external perimeter. The city must have presented a very foreboding presence to those approaching it since no buildings inside the walls were allowed to surpass their height.

baradello tower

Remains of the Castel Baradello looking down onto Como

He also built the tower at what is now called Porta Torre on the southern entrance to the city from Via Milano. Castel Baradello was rebuilt and the main customs post was moved from Borgo Vico out of the city to Camerlata.

Barbarossa himself suffered a defeat by the forces of the Lombardy League at Legnano in May 1176 CE. He was feared killed but did manage to escape back to the Castel Baradello to rejoin his wife whom he had left there in the safe hands of the local garrison. 

Castello Della Torre Rotonda

castello torre rotonda 2

The Castello Della Torre Rotonda. The second square tower was a later addition.

The conflict between The Holy Roman Emperor and the supporters of the Pope developed into a conflict between local aristocratic families with the side supporting the Papacy, known as the Guelphs and those allied to the Holy Roman Emperor known as the Ghibellines. The Como Guelphs were represented initially by the Vittani family and later by the Delle Torre (or Torriani). The Ghibellines were initially represented by the Rusca family and later by the Milanese Visconti. These two sets of families then battled it out for control of the city over the next hundred years with the Rusca/Visconti having the upper hand. Loterio II Rusca built himself a castle where the Teatro Sociale and the Arena now stand. The building was  started in 1284 but was never intended as a defence against external attack. Its purpose instead was to ensure internal control of the city and to keep the city rulers safe from popular insurrection. Loterio Rusca also extended the walls on the eastern side to encompass the Bishop’s Palace and the military port area just north of the Como Nord station. 

The growth in the civic power of elite families heralded the period of the ‘Signorie’ lasting from the second half of the 14th to the end of the 15th century. While Florence had the Medici and Mantua the Gonzagas, Como was governed by the Milanese Visconti family. The Ruscas handed power over to Azzone Visconti in 1335. Visconti further strengthened the two southern gates of Porta Nuova and Porta Torre but, more significantly decided to enlarge on the fortified area of the Castello Della Torre to create another defensive line within the city. 

Cittadella Viscontea

stemma visconti

The crest of the Visconti family. This crest can be seen on many of the aristocratic villas, castles and palaces in Lombardy, for example above Como’s Villa Olmo.

The Cittadella Viscontea formed a type of ‘green zone’ within the cite to protect the city rulers, including the bishops, from the rest of the urban population. The walls of the Cittadella extended beyond the castle to cover the area of San Giacomo Church and modern day Piazza Roma. This included the naval military garrison, the Church of San Provino and the bishop’s palace. No traces can be seen of Como’s Cittadella but those established by the Visconti in Piacenza and Bergamo remain.

The Cittadella Viscontea lasted until 1447 when the last in the family line, Filippo Maria Visconti, died. A brief republic was set up in Milan and this gave the inhabitants of Como the opportunity to destroy the Cittadella’s walls. However the period of the Signorie was not yet over as the Sforza family soon came to take the place of the Visconti.

Como Again Under Attack

The start of the 16th century saw Como in the path of the expansionist aims of France, Austria and Spain with the French initially taking control of the city and consolidating its city walls against invasion from the Austrian Emperor Maximilian who was allied to the Milanese Sforza family. In 1508 the French Governor, Jean de Bassey, reduced the number of entrances to the city to just three gates in the walls with Porta Portello on the east side by the castle, Porta Torre to the south and Porta Sala on the west where Via Garibaldi now stands. He also deepened the ditch around the perimeter and flooded it to form a moat.

torre gattoni 3

The Porta Nuova is just alongside the Torre Gattoni on the south western edge of the city walls.

The Spanish lay siege to Como in 1521 as part of their conflict with France and although the French defended strongly, the Spanish breached the city walls near to modern day Porta Nuova. The French surrendered on 21st December and the Spanish followed this by sacking the city.

In 1532 the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes at the north end of Lake Como on what is now called the Pian di Spagna. This was built as defence against the possibility of further expansion from the Swiss Canton of the Grissons down the Valtellina and to discourage any further spread of Protestantism. For the Spanish, Como had no real strategic value and they certainly were not concerned about the city’s ability to set tariffs on passing trade. 

Towards the Modern Era

viale varese walls

The walls on the western side of the old city with the avenue of trees established over the old moat.

Fortunately the 17th and 18th centuries proved a relatively quiet period for Como even if under foreign rule. The walls lost much of their defensive purpose and so the owners of the private villas just within their limits were allowed to build the ‘hanging gardens’ that now characterise some sections of the walls on their west and southern facing sides. In 1783, the Comune purchased the walls from the military authorities. They then filled in the moat and turned it into avenues of trees. 

Mantero Hanging Garden

The hanging garden in the old headquarters of Mantero on the south western corner of the walls.

One symbol of this growing period of Enlightenment was the use made of the tower beside the Porta Nuova on the south western corner of the city walls. This tower was bought by the Gattoni family back in 1784 and was used by Alessandro Volta to undertake some of his early experiments into the nature of electricity. The tower is now commonly referred to as either Torre Nuova or Torre Gattoni. 

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was demolished in its entirety in 1811 to make way for the new opera house, the Teatro Sociale.

Teatro Sociale

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was destroyed in 1811 to make way for the building of the Teatro Sociale.

Under Napoleonic rule, the defensive role of the walls was reduced further by knocking down the bastions built around the gates to the city and getting rid of the wall’s castellations. The walls still served to mark out the customs area and ensure the payment of tariffs. For this reason entrances to the city were still limited to Porta Sala on the west, Porta Portello on the east and Porta Torre on the south or from the lake to the north. Some minor gates did exist including a gateway allowing Alessandro Volta to exit the city directly from his garden. This was subsequently blocked up again after his death. 

Porta Sala

Via Garibaldi is located where the Porta Sala gave access to the city from Borgo Vico on the west side.

In May 1859, Garibaldi led his soldiers after their victory over the Austrians at San Fermo through the gates of Porta Sala to a hero’s welcome. Full unification of an independent Italy would follow a few years later and the fortifications of Porta Sala pulled down. This is still a main entrance way into the old city with the street renamed Via Garibaldi and the area immediately outside the gates of Porta Sala called Piazza Cacciatori delle Alpi – the name given to the troops who fought the Austrians at San Fermo.

Internal customs borders were abolished in 1867 with the walls finally losing their other main role throughout history. From that day new entrance ways into the city began to open up and the only remaining gateway dating back to Federico Barbarossa is the Porta Torre.

old entry

One of the gateways into the city as depicted in the 1800s

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‘James Bond’ Returns to Lake Como

Dick and Christine Mallaby

Dick Mallaby with his wife, Christine

Back in June 2021 we recounted the exploits of Dick Mallaby, a British secret agent who, on being parachuted into Lake Como and immediately arrested, went on to provide the only communication channel available for those negotiating the Italian Armistice in September 1943.

Faggeto Lario

Dick Mallaby parachuted into Lake Como around 2.00am on August 14th 1943 in the area of the lake shown in this photo between Faggeto Lario in the foreground and Carate Urio on the further bank. He was detected immediately and arrested.

He then spent most of the remaining war years in a training role but he had not seen the last of Lake Como. Dick was an agent of  the British Secret Operations Executive (SOE) reporting to its boss in Bern, Jock McCaffery. The Americans also had their own secret organisation based in Bern known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headed by Allen Dulles. 

Although desperate to undertake another mission behind enemy lines, McCaffery was concerned that Dick would be too readily recognisable in Italy due to the fame of his former exploits. However, come February 1945, when allied victory was almost guaranteed, SOE relented and sent him once again to Lake Como.  It initially appeared as if fortune was going to be no kinder on this occasion than in 1943. He was almost immediately arrested and again carted off to Como to be interrogated by Paolo Porta, the fanatical Head of the local Brigate Nere, who  was to face execution with other fascist leaders on the lakefront in Dongo just over two months later. Dick was able to keep good luck on his side as he managed, truthfully or otherwise, to pose as a potential go-between in secret peace negotiations between the fascist authorities and the local heads of the allied Secret Services based in Bern, Switzerland. Once again Dick Mallaby found himself an active participant in another crucial moment of diplomatic intrigue.

The Mission

alla_scoperta_della_val_cavargna

The Val Cavargna above Carlazzo with Lake Como in the distance

The ‘official’ purpose of Dick Mallaby’s second trip into enemy-occupied Italy was for him to meet up with the Catholic forces of resistance – the Fiamme Verdi partisans operating principally in the Province of Brescia. He was accompanied on his mission by three Italians. They were a radio operator with the code name of Anselmo and two Catholic priests, Don Mario Zanin and Don Giovanni Barbareschi. Both priests were closely linked to the Fiamme Verdi. 

fiamme verdi

British SOE preferred supporting catholic Fiamme Verdi to other communist groups

The party of four met up at the British Embassy in Lugano on February 13th and made their clandestine crossing into Italy to the north east so as to descend the Val Cavargna. They spent the night of the 14th in a mountain hut outside of Carlazzo and on the next day crossed Lake Como from Menaggio to Varenna. There they failed to make contact with someone due to help their ongoing journey and so hitched a ride down the lake to Lecco. 

mallaby route (1)

Dick’s route on his 2nd mission started at Point 1, descended the Val Cavargna (2), overnighted in Carlazzo (3) before crossing the lake at Menaggio (4) to Varenna (5). They moved on to Lecco (6) where they were arrested with Dick being taken to Como (7). He would later return at the end of his mission to stay overnight in the Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio before crossing to Chiasso.

According to the young priest Don Barbareschi, the group had taken his advice to change their destination to Milan so they could all meet up with Milan’s Archbishop, Cardinal Schuster. Don Barbareschi was in fact Cardinal Schuster’s trusted go-between who had been aiding secret negotiations between the Catholic church with the support of the Fiamme Verdi and the heads of Mussolini’s puppet state through the offices of the British SOE in Bern. Schuster was seeking to arrange for the peaceful surrender of the Italian fascists in exchange for their promise to cease fighting and not destroy any of the civil and industrial infrastructure. Since Don Barbareschi was also highly trusted by Jock McCaffery, the SOE Head in Bern, there is every good reason to believe that Mallaby’s mission was always intended to support Cardinal Schuster and use the radio operator Anselmo to facilitate communications between Milan and the British in Switzerland. 

lecco lakefront

The lakefront at Lecco

At Lecco, the four members of the party went into a bar and, according to Dick Mallaby, the two priests began to attract unwanted attention to themselves through some injudicious and easily overheard comments. The police duly arrived and, although their identity documents passed scrutiny, suspicions were aroused by the fact that all four had given the same address in Milan as their residence – the address given was the actual Milan residence of Don Barbareschi. All four were arrested and initially detained in Lecco. Don Mario Zanin managed to take advantage of confusion during an air strike to escape and seek shelter in a nearby seminary. Dick Mallaby was separated from the remaining two and transported to face interrogation by Paolo Porta in Como.

Dick Mallaby becomes Captain Richard Tucker

epoca casa del fascio

The Casa del Fascio in Como where Dick would have been interrogated by Paolo Porta

All captured enemy secret agents faced summary execution on arrest. Agents were trained to use whatever means they could when captured to prolong their lives short of giving away critical information in a bid to play for time to organise some form of rescue. One way to prolong interrogation was to provide false information that would need to be checked assuming of course this did not compromise any actual plans. While advised to be imaginative in their stories, they were also told to keep to verifiable facts wherever possible. Dick Mallaby’s inventiveness and imagination would now be put to the test.

Rodolfo_Graziani_1940_(Retouched)

Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces under Nazi occupation

He told Paolo Porta that he was on a secret commission on behalf of the Allied Military Commander in Italy, General Alexander. To give some credence that he would be authorised for such a mission he promoted himself to Captain giving his name as Richard Tucker. He stated his message from General Alexander was intended for none other than Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces. He would not reveal the content of his message to any other except to say that it involved a possible peace proposal. Dick Mallaby would have been fully briefed on the political situation at that time where it was obvious that both the Germans and leaders of the Italian fascist regime were considering how to prepare themselves for defeat. I believe it is also highly likely that his original mission was to facilitate further negotiations initiated by Cardinal Schuster with the British SOE. However he may not have been on a mission directed by General Alexander. In any case, Paolo Porta was impressed and invited Dick to stay overnight at the officers’ mess before being taken down to Milan on the 16th February to meet with the overall Commander of the fascist Brigate Nere – Brigadier General Edouardo Facdouelle.

All seemed to be going well for Dick aka Captain Richard Tucker as he shared a convivial lunch with the Brigadier and to quote his biographer his ‘equally cordial daughter’. Dick explained how he could only convey General Alexander’s proposal directly to Rodolfo Graziani and no-one else. Facdouelle then accompanies Dick to Graziani’s headquarters but Graziani refuses to meet with him explaining through Facdouelle that he was worried that the Germans would learn about the hearing. Instead Graziani orders Dick to be taken to the headquarters of the fascist state’s secret services known as the Servizio Informazioni Difesa (SID) in Volta Mantovana to be interrogated by Colonello Candeloro De Leo who headed the organisation. 

On the 18th February Dick faced his interrogation with De Leo, a man with a fearsome reputation as a skilful  interrogator and the head of one of the more effective of the fascist state’s organisations. Dick knew at this stage, following Graziani’s refusal to get involved, that he would have to divulge the presumably fictitious proposal from General Alexander. He duly presented a five point plan for a peaceful surrender aimed to  protect Italian infrastructure from German sabotage  and ensure no partisan reprisals against Italian fascist forces, backed up by Allied military intervention wherever needed. He added that he himself would need to return to Switzerland to procure a radio transmitter so that he could return with it to facilitate all further communications between the two parties. De Leo passed on this plan to Graziani the next day, February 19th. Graziani duly informed the German SS of everything Captain Tucker had to propose.

Lake Garda

A storm gathers over Lake Garda

Dick Mallaby Meets the German High Command

Karl Wolff

Karl Wolff, SS-Gruppenführer

Once De Leo had concluded his amiable interrogation, Dick was told to pack his bags and accompany a Captain in the German SS waiting for him in the hall of the villa housing the Italian SID. Needless to say, this turn of events caused him severe worry which only increased on finding himself transferred to the headquarters of the German SS’s intelligence arm, the SD, in the Palazzo delle Assicurazione in Verona.

He now spent a week facing numerous and rigorous interrogation sessions but no torture.  His interrogators had introduced themselves as not as gullible or as credulous as their Italian counterparts. But Dick had by now bought himself sufficient time to consolidate and embellish his story. Try as they might his interrogators could not uncover any inconsistencies between the various statements recorded.  

On the 26th February he was transferred to a luxurious villa in Fasano on Lake Garda where he was introduced to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and General of the Waffen SS, Karl Wolff, the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy – the man responsible for the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps and for the vicious anti-partisan campaign across occupied Italian territory.  Having convinced all others so far of his sincerity, Dick Mallaby now managed to convince the most powerful representative in Italy of the Nazi regime that he really was Captain Richard Tucker and that he genuinely came with a peace proposal from General Alexander. He also repeated the need for him to return to Switzerland and to return with a radio transmitter as he had originally explained to De Leo.

villa carminati

Villa Carminati in Cernobbio was the Border Control Headquarters of the SS for North West Italy. Its strategic location close to the Swiss border meant that it hosted a number of people needing to enter Switzerland during the secret negotiations of a peace settlement.

With his agreement to return as soon as possible from Switzerland, Dick was transferred back to Verona from where on February 28th he was subsequently escorted to the SS’s local headquarters in Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli ready to cross the border at Chiasso the following day.

Dick Mallaby Falls Out of Favour

Dick’s apparently improvised plan for ending the war in Italy started to fall apart the moment he crossed the Italian border into Switzerland at Chiasso at 07.00am on 1st March 1945, because Allen Dulles and his team of agents working for the American OSS had a better plan now known to history as ‘Operation Sunrise’.

allen dulles 2

Allen Dulles seen with John F Kennedy later in life as Director of the CIA

Unknown to Dick or to his boss Jock McCaffery in Bern, or at this stage to Karl Wolff, a plan for bringing together Germans and the Allies to discuss a peace settlement had first been  proposed to Allen Dulles back on February 21st when Dick was under detention at the SD Headquarters in Verona. This plan already had the backing of the Swiss secret services, the sponsorship of some high ranking SS officers and was on the way to being adopted also by Allen Dulles. Karl Wolff was briefed by one of his officers on this fresh proposal on the very day that Dick crossed over to Chiasso. The Americans would have previously been made aware of Dick’s alternative plan and when he was due to cross the border because the SS Officer in command at Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli, Captain Joseph Voetterl, was in fact an American double agent. 

varenna to menaggioDick’s plan was now seen as an amateurish meddling with the inherent danger of confusing the various parties launching Operation Sunrise or worse still, sowing distrust between them. And so it may come as no surprise that the Swiss secret service refused to recognise Dick’s well established  cover as one of their own officers on presenting himself at the Chiasso border control. He was immediately detained and from that date on, effectively silenced and kept out of action. He remained in detention until released on 13th March when he was then able to debrief Jock McCaffery on his various exploits since entering Italy back in mid-February. Under pressure from London, McCaffery returned Dick into Swiss detention on 20th March where he remained until finally released by the Swiss one week later. By that time all the necessary agreements and understandings between the parties of Operation Sunrise had been secured and it only awaited the final approval of the Allied political leaders to activate the proposed armistice agreement. Operation Sunrise was ultimately successful and led to the signing of German surrender on April 29th at the Allied Army Headquarters in Caserta. 

Back in Cernobbio

The SS Border Control HQ in Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio was used extensively in these last weeks of the war as a practical location for hosting those senior German officials and the variety of agents and double agents acting as go-betweens in the negotiations for a peace deal. Just as Dick Mallaby stayed there on 28th February, so did others use it as a practical point of departure for or return from clandestine meetings in Switzerland. The American OSS were kept informed of all these comings and goings by their double agent, Joseph Voetterl. 

il-ribelle

Don Giovanni Barbareschi was one of the young priests who at great risk to themselves published an occasional illegal anti-fascist paper called ‘Il Ribelle’. The majority of those writing for the paper were executed.

Among those invited to the villa to his utmost surprise was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi, who had been arrested alongside Dick Mallaby back in Lecco on 15th February. Don Barbareschi had been held in prison in Lecco until he was unexpectedly released on 9th March and taken to Villa Locatelli. There he was met by none other than SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff. Wolff asked him to undertake a mission on his behalf to relay a message to the SOE chief in Bern, Jock McCaffery, informing him (and SOE) of his involvement and commitment to the Operation Sunrise peace negotiations that were progressing with the Americans, and of the fate of Dick Mallaby held in detention over the Swiss border. Until that moment, SOE had been given no information on these talks conducted by their allied partners in the American OSS nor did McCaffery know at that time of Dick Mallaby’s fate.

book jacket

Gianluca Barneschi has written a fascinating account of Dick Mallaby’s missions into Italy using information taken from official sources and Dick’s unpublished personal diaries and papers.

McCaffery must have been deeply embarrassed by having been kept ignorant of what had been going on when he duly informed London the next day of the secret American peace plans and of the fate of his own agent, Dick Mallaby. London did not hesitate in giving their approval  for the American OSS to continue as the senior partner in the talks with the Nazi leadership. They also directed McCaffery to suppress any news of Dick’s own links with Wolff or of the proposals put to him. Dick himself was only able to debrief McCaffery three days later in between his periods of Swiss detention.

Conclusion

Dick Mallaby was very reluctant later in life to talk about his exploits during the war. It is almost impossible yet to evaluate to what extent the proposals he presented to De Leo and Wolff were imaginative improvisation on his part or a genuine proposal from British SOE to seek an agreement with the Italian fascists. It is however evident that there was a serious lack of coordination between the two allied secret services and that by the time the war ended, the Americans were very much the senior partner in taking the initiative on shaping the new European order following the collapse of Nazism. 

false id card of don giovanni

The false ID card carried by the young priest, Don Barbareschi

Perhaps the one person with the best view and understanding of all the various peace negotiations at the time was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi. He would have been involved in Cardinal Schuster’s dealings with Mussolini and Graziani, had accompanied Dick Mallaby on his mission and was briefed by Wolff in the early days of Operation Sunrise.  Don Barbareschi was also very reluctant after the war to discuss what he knew or go into any detail of his time with Mallaby. 

 

If buildings could talk then the best one to interview would be Villa Carminati/Locatelli since many of the significant players in the complex series of secret diplomatic talks passed through its doors. Villa Carminati/Locatelli was to witness even more drama towards the end of April 1945 when the Como countryside was crisscrossed by eminent allies and enemies playing out the final dramatic act of the Nazifascist occupation of Italy. But that is another story!

Further Reading

For our account of Dick Mallaby’s first mission to Lake Como, read ‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como.  For more information on what went on within Villa Carminati/Locatelli and the role of American double agent Joseph Voetterl, read Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

A documentary film is currently under production on the life and exploits of Dick Mallaby promoted by his son, Vacky Mallaby. Follow this link for a preview in Italian with English subtitles. 

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