Cantù is famous for its master craftsmen and its long tradition of artisan furnishings and cabinet making. It is the spiritual home of the Brianza-based furniture industry yet, at only 10 kilometres from Como, remains off the main tourist map. Undoubtedly this would not have been the case if it had only been able to retain its monumental medieval city walls. Fortunately two of its historical gems do remain and those are the Basilica di San Vincenzo and its baptistery shown here on the map as Gaiano or as spelled today, the monumental complex of Galliano. Hopefully this article will convince you of at least two good reasons for visiting modern-day Cantù.
When arriving at the city, head for its main piazza, Piazza Garibaldi, at the top of the hill. Take the tall bell tower of the San Paolo church as your landmark standing on the northern edge of the piazza with a view over the city. This church was to take over the role as Cantù’s parish church from the Basilica di San Vincenzo when built towards the end of the 11th century.
On the western side of the square a dominant neo-classical building houses the ‘Permanente Mobili’ – an exhibition space for showing off the work of Cantù’s artisans in the design and production of both classical and contemporary furniture. Students of design should definitely include this exhibition in any itinerary of Milan and its hinterland, particularly if the Permanente is hosting exhibitions like the recent one dedicated to architect and designer Gio Ponti, the architect of Milan’s Pirelli skyscraper. Gio Ponti worked with many of the Cantù artisans to produce the furniture he designed for the Rinascente chain.
What he and other designers appreciated was not just the quality of the local craftsmanship but the evidence of creativity and imagination in the use of materials and in the application of new production techniques.
Cantù’s artisans have a long tradition of maintaining and updating their skills and knowledge thanks to the foresight of ancestors like the town’s mayor from 1881 to 1885, Mosè Arconati. He encouraged local craftsmen to start exhibiting their works in Milan. He set up the Scuola d’Arte that ensured continuity and growth in the design skills needed for both the silk and furniture industries. He also established the first co-operatives designed to combine purchasing power and thus acquire the craftsmen’s raw materials at reduced prices. It was this approach that led on to the establishment of the Permanente as a means of marketing the products directly to the public. In the post-war heyday of the sixties and seventies, the exhibition hall would be full of members of the general public, many coming up from Milan at the weekend to view the latest in modern furniture design, as in the work of Gio Ponti’s fellow collaborator, designer Carlo de Carli.
With the globalisation of markets, the role of the Permanente as a sales channel has declined significantly in recent years, alongwith the associated services that used to be provided to all active members. However, for the casual visitor, it still offers examples of work by some of the most influential designers of the last century and an ongoing testimony to the skills of Cantù’s local craftsmen. The ground floor exhibition space is dedicated to local furniture makers Emmemobili, whose products go to show how Cantu’s craftsmen’s reputation for quality, innovation and design is still very much evident.
(Whilst modern day politicians might well profit from working out how they can best support rather than hinder artisans in competing in the contemporary marketplace, they do also need to pay attention to the ever-present threat to civil life from organised crime. It came as a shock recently when nine members of an ‘ndrangheta mafia clan were arrested in Cantù. Details of these arrests for threats and violence against local bar and club owners in and around Piazza Garibaldi are covered in our update to our article on the Mafia in the North available at this link.)
Let’s turn our attention now to the other glorious reason for visiting this small city – the monumental complex of the Basilica di Galliano. This is a fifteen minute walk from Piazza Garibaldi leading you to the slight hillside rise on top of which sits the Basilica alongside the baptistery. These austere Romanesque structures were started towards the end of the 10th century under the instructions of Ariberto da Intimiano, who later went on to become Bishop of Milan. The basilica and baptistery were built to replace pre-existing Christian buildings erected in the 5th century on a site that had sacred significance for the Romans from as early as 300 BC.
The buildings have had a checkered history over their 11 centuries of existence being deconsecrated for a while and falling into use as modest dwellings for farm workers. However, even throughout this period, the local population used to come to pray in front of the image of the ‘Madonna Della Latte’ in the hope that she would bring fertility.
This fresco is from the mid 14th century. However the true artistic treasures are the 11th century frescoes adorning the concave walls of the apse and the two sides of the nave. Needless to say, few 11th century frescoes remain and these also are not in the best of condition. However they are of such a quality that they still carry visual impact and provide a tantalising glimpse into the mindset of those early Christian devotees whose priests and bishops wielded the bible in one hand and a sword in the other.
The Baptistery is pure austere beauty, maybe enhanced for our modern tastes by the simple whitewashed walls that contrast with the bare stone facades. It is an intimate space which focusses all eyes towards the central font and to its one and only purpose.
As you walk around this complex, you can view out towards the Alps on the northern horizon. The location conveys an indescribable sense of calm and serenity. It is no surprise that it has performed some form of spiritual function from Roman times, and possibly even earlier. This sense of calm persists even though the town has grown around the Basilica. Ariberto intended it as a gift of spirituality and artistic excellence to both God and his patrons. It has now passed through all the vicissitudes of eleven centuries to become a gift for us to enjoy – well worth the visit to Cantù!
Basilica di Galliano
Many more photos of the Basilica are available in our Photo Gallery.
A more detailed description of the interior and history of the Basilica and Baptistery is available from Wikipedia but there is also an excellent brochure in three languages available at the site published by Iubilantes.
Opening times: Summer (April to September) Closed Monday, Tuesday to Friday 15.00-18.00, Saturday and Sunday 09.30-11.30 and 15.00-18.00. Winter (October to March) as during the summer but it closes an hour earlier in the evening.
The Permanenza Mobili’s exhibition halls are open from Monday to Friday all day but closed over lunch, and on Saturdays in the morning only.
Follow this link for the Permanente’s website.
Follow this link for Emmemobili’s website.
Much of the production from Cantù’s artisans is done on behalf of the many design houses based in Brianza such as Poltrona Frau or Emmemobili. However you can contact some of the workshops directly if you wish to commission your own made to measure pieces, for example kitchen or bathroom furnishings. The following three websites are intended just to give an idea of the skills available. I can personally recommend the work of Colombo Giovanni, a family run carpentry business linked to a consortium of other artisan workshops to provide complete solutions including design. Other sites are Boiserie Italia, and another Colombo, the Fratelli Colombo.