The recent find in Como amounting to more than four hundred gold coins unearthed in a terracotta amphora during the redevelopment of Teatro Cressoni has drawn both international attention and significant interest from archaeologists of the Roman period. The sheer quantity and value of the coins make this a highly significant find which may reveal more about Novum Comum, as Como was called by its founder, Julius Caesar. First reactions are that this horde most likely belonged to some state or civic institution given its size. Most of the treasure will revert again to the state but representatives from the Ministry of Cultural Affairs have intimated that at least a part of it will be donated to the city of Como for display alongside the number of other Roman artifacts in the Museo Archeologico in Piazza Medaglie D’Oro. Up to a quarter of the value may be awarded to the owners of the building site, a more than fair recompense for the inevitable delays to the development to allow for further study of the site.
Como has always been recognised for its strategic location through the ages. For Julius Caesar, Como was a port city at the end of the lake providing a staging post for goods and soldiers making their way from Milan to cross the Alps. For the Swabian Emperor, Federico Barbarossa, Como provided a gateway to his Italian territories. He developed the town’s defenses by rebuilding the Roman walls and also by extending the Baradello Castle and tower to keep sentinel across the Pianura Padana.
Como’s importance in medieval times is shown on the Romweg, one of the earliest maps representing a pan-European route from Edinburgh in Scotland to Rome – a route used by religious pilgrims and by merchants alike. For traders, it linked the wealthy city of Milan to the cross-Alpine routes giving access to the transport links provided by the Rhine and Danube river systems. Even in more modern days, the A9 autostrada from Milan to Como was the first super highway built by the Fascist government in the 1920s. This role throughout the ages is reflected in the historical fabric – the buildings and physical structures of the city.
The Roman baths, medieval towers and walls, or the Baradello tower are the most obvious visual evidence of the importance and prolonged history of the town. In a less direct way, the historic fabric of the city can also be seen in the evolution of many of its buildings as they were adapted for varying uses over the centuries. Some of the more readily visible modifications include the redesign of doorways or windows.
Modern internal restoration of old buildings can still be quite radical in Italy where the high costs of energy and government-set standards encourage the adoption of modern insulation technologies. However the exteriors often seek to preserve as many original elements as possible. Many exteriors contain such clues as to how the structure may have looked in previous centuries.
Coats of Arms
One visual element that has remained on some ancient buildings is the crest or coat of arms of the original inhabitants. These coats of arms were carved onto the keystone above the principal doorway to a noble family’s villa. The best preserved of these is the ‘Pear’ family in the street named after the most famous family member – Adamo del Pero. Adamo del Pero was a ‘condottiero’ or naval captain of the Como fleet under the warrior Bishop Grimoldi during the city’s ten year war with Milan starting in 1118. Other coats of arms can be seen in Via Balestra including the badly eroded one of the Lucini family, whose ancestor Arnaldo Lucini was also a captain of the Como forces but he took part in the later wars against Milan headed by Federico Barbarossa in the 1170s. (For Como these wars were about maintaining access to the lucrative trade routes across the Alps. For Barbarossa it was more about the ongoing conflict for domination between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy.)
With the passing of time, the pavements trodden by those original citizens of Como have become buried under layers of earth and debris brought about by floods, earthquakes and centuries of urban development. The ground level of Roman Como is now from about one to two metres below current levels as can be seen under the Valduce car park in the ground level of the Roman Baths or again when visiting the Praetorian gates. Other proof is in the hidden columns supporting the blocked arches along Via Rodari and in the sunken level of the Roman column at the centre of the photographer’s studio also on Via Rodari.
Fainter still, some parts of Como’s historical fabric are recorded using purely symbolical traces as with the two rings of steel laid to denote where the twin lost towers of San Giacomo used to stand. The church of San Giacomo used to be twice current dimensions with twin towers crowning its main entrance. One of these towers abutted the Broletto. Similarly close by, a small section of tram tracks remain as a reminder of former times.
The plethora of churches and convents that flourished in the middle ages has meant that a number of them have been converted as lay populations grew. The deconsecration and subsequent conversion of churches is perhaps the most common change of building use over the years – a trend not unknown in more recent times in UK cities. Here the conversions were undertaken much earlier and without the intention necessarily of retaining any of the former aspects of ecclesiastical architecture. The faint impression of the former triple window can be seen in the image below.
An interesting form of building conversion concerns at least two former ice houses (nevere) whose original outlines are still discernible but which have now been re-purposed as a private residence behind San Fedele in one instance and as a clothes shop in the other.
The clothes shop behind the Banca D’Italia is particularly revealing since here you can freely view the interior of the nevera. Originally this structure had an open roof to allow the snow to fall in and accumulate on the floor and subsequently be pressed down to form ice. The room next to the entrance was the original shop where the blocks of ice were sold. It was located right in front of the old fish market. Clearly there has been a distinct change in climate over the years since it rarely snows in Como these days.
This last nevera and the long-lost fish market were in a quarter of the town known as the Cortisella. Little now remains of the area of Cortisella other than the nevera, Via Vitani and the fishermen’s houses that front on to Via Fontana. The area was Como’s ‘Les Halles’ or London’s ‘Seven Dials’ – an area considered unsanitary and unsafe. The fascist government particularly didn’t like the narrow alleys which defied surveillance or the undisciplined population who tended towards ‘disobedience’. It was redeveloped in the 1920s and replaced by the monolithic and now redundant Banca D’Italia building. The ‘spirit’ of Cortisella lives on though as a romanticised urban mythology dear to many of Como’s present-day citizens. Another item of lost history is the church of San Giovanni on the western side of town sacrificed to make way for the train station which at least continues to bear the church’s name.
In this rapid review of historical fabric, we have touched on visible and hidden traces of the past but we need also to be aware of ‘false’ history or those buildings put up in the ‘eclectic’ period of architecture that borrowed from former architectural styles. The main example of this is the Carige bank, on Piazza Grimoldi designed by Federico Frigerio and built for the Banca Commerciale from 1923 to 1927. Whatever its merits may be, it isn’t as old as it looks. Frigerio also designed the neo-classical Tempio Voltiano on the lakefront which again may well be elegant but dates from no earlier than the late nineteenth century, and to my eye at least, lacks the delicacy of earlier neo-classical architecture.
Old buildings require considerable upkeep and the economic burden of maintaining Como’s architectural heritage is not inconsiderable – a burden shared across much of Italy due to its patrimony. Federico Frigerio was responsible for designing critical restoration work on the cathedral by devising a means of preventing the frontal elevation from continuing to bow out and ultimately collapse. He also redesigned the cathedral’s cupola following its partial destruction by fire in 1935. He also restored the Broletto tower and showed both technical ingenuity and aesthetic sensitivity in helping to preserve some of Como’s most prestigious architectural structures.
Pot of Gold
Back to that pot of gold lying in the mud of an excavated basement on Via Diaz – those gold coins in their terracotta amphora have certainly drawn international media attention to Como.
The find is the most significant ever uncovered in Northern Italy and exceeds that of 400 coins unearthed in 2004 in Maremma. It has now been confirmed that in addition to the estimated 400 gold coins, the treasure also includes jewels and ingots. One immediate impact of the find is to focus attention on how the city can make the most of its obviously rich archaeological patrimony to promote further cultural tourism. Alongside this, there is renewed interest in attempting to define what is known about Novum Comum. For example, was the forum actually in Piazza San Fedele and does this latest find suggest that the ex-Cressoni site was an extension of it? Was the Roman theatre close to modern day Piazza Grimoldi or in Via Vitani? Como has been built over too many times to allow for the discovery of a complete urban complex like the forum in Rome, or in nearby Brescia. What remain here are only the foundations two to three metres down below ground. All the other original building materials have been reused through the middle ages and the Renaissance. The Roman origins of the city have been incorporated into the very fabric of modern-day Como. Roman, medieval and renaissance structures all go to make up the city’s structural DNA – for which there still is plenty of visible evidence whilst no doubt more of the hidden fabric will at some time be revealed.
For more information about Roman Como, refer to From Out of the Swamp, Novum Comum – Roman Como
Prior to Roman times, there was a significant prehistoric community living in the foothills above the lake, refer to Up in the Hills – Prehistoric Como for more information.
Refer to Cortesella – The Mythical Heart of Old Como for more information about this lost quarter behind Piazza Cavour.