Within the comune of Fagetto Lario, on the road from Como to Bellagio and suspended about 300 metres above lake level, are three small medieval towns – each as beautiful as the other. From the lake you see them nestled in the mountainside in a string above Faggeto starting with Molina to the south, Lemna in between with Palanzo at the end.
Palanzo has decided this year to show off its very particular appeal to a broader audience than usual by holding an exhibition and various events over the three weekends between 15th and 29th June. It’s an artistic event designed to celebrate the town’s unique virtues. And quite rightly so since all three of these towns possess a singular quality of peace and serenity, with Palanzo perhaps exceeding its siblings through a touch more beauty in its architecture and in the advantages of its natural setting.
The exhibition is staged in various parts of the small town and curated by Roberto Borghi and Stefano Ceresa. They have produced a fascinating guide to the exhibition which can be downloaded in PDF format. I was particularly impressed by the written introduction to the guide by both curators. Stefano Ceresa cites the importance of the old wine press at the centre of the town (which dates from 1572 and is a national monument) as almost representing the original soul of the community. He mentions how the town is surrounded on all sides by impressive dry stone walled terracing used in the past for the production of grain and fruit and for the extensive cultivation of black grapes. Many of these walled terraces remain although agricultural production has ceased to be important and wine production a distant memory. But the wine press (il torchio), and the soul of the town, lives on.
I have often mused to myself as to what is the best elevation for viewing the lake. Is it on the lakefront itself, or half way up the surrounding hillsides or viewed from way above when walking on the crest of the mountains? I have come to believe that Palanzo and its sisters share the ideal, more or less at two hundred fifty metres above the lake level. At this height the lake is not so far down to not be in constant sight, yet it is away from the more intense commercial activity or the numbers of people to be found at lakeside, particularly in the summer months. It and they are also very much welded into the mountainside with Monte Palanzone rising to over one thousand metres behind them.
Roberto Borghi’s introduction in the ‘Palanzo in Mostra’ catalogue identifies how Palanzo’s reality is defined by the three physical factors of sky, lake and mountain with rock and water forming the vital elements. Buildings and terraces are made from locally quarried stone. Water is present in the abundance of the lake and also in the streams, springs and waterfalls that surround the town. He goes on to introduce the exhibition in the form of a metaphor where the artworks on display form a type of glossary to Palanzo, the story. And if Palanzo is a story, the routes to follow from one set of exhibits to another form the narrative lines. Water for Borghi is the main protagonist in this metaphorical story of Palanzo with an implicit, actual and symbolic presence.
Maybe I have now been living in Italy long enough to become accustomed to the type of metaphysical hyperbole in Borghi’s description of the town, but I believe Palanzo warrants it. Palanzo (and her sisters) deserve both the hyperbole and strangely enough, the meta-physicality. Borghi describes the work of one set of exhibitors, the Como-based visual installation co-operative ‘OLO Creative Farm’ as representing a pilgrimage to the town. It’s true to say that when you enter Palanzo you leave one world behind and enter a different reality, one that Borghi sees as being mysterious, silent, thoughtful inspiring contemplation, as shared with the pace and reflection of pilgrimages in the past. He admits that all this serenity may not be to everyone’s taste, and certainly it may not be so easy to live in such a community if unaccustomed to the silence of its indolent rhythm. And who knows, maybe that serenity starts to fade as new arrivals become more accustomed to the place and aware of the various forms of intrigue commonly found in most societies. But he totally captures the spirit of the town to those of us visitors willing to be impressed.
The exhibition itself consists of six different sets of works displayed across the small town. All of the works are relevant to Palanzo in one way or another – as Borghi says, providing a glossary or a set of footnotes to the town. The catalogue suggests an ‘itinerario espositivo’ that starts off with the sculpture by Como-born Carmen Molteni on two sides of the large doors to No. 3 Via Stretta. Moving on to a courtyard by the town’s wine press you see the large canvases depicting Palanzo’s view down onto the lake. These are the work of Milan-born Alberto Colombo who now has his studio in nearby Torno.
The Bar Dolores is the only bar in Palanzo and so it is not hard to imagine how central it must be in the social life of the town, particularly for those whose working life is over and who have the time to meet and talk. Borghi describes it as ‘Simenon-esque’ Photographer Jeanette Muller, Swiss-born and resident in Como Province, has taken a series of images of some of the bar’s former and current habitues and these are on display here.
Palanzo does boast a very small but well maintained library and this now houses the exhibition of photos taken by the members of the OLO Creative Farm collective when on their ‘pilgrimage’ from their base in Como to Palanzo.
So many towns and cities in Italy retain the communal laundry facilities known as ‘lavatoio’. These are no longer used but they seem to be preserved, if not intentionally, to provide a collective reminder of a not-so-distant past where everyday life was materially much poorer but socially richer. Palanzo boasts a particularly fine and extensive example of a lavatoio, and it has been used to display the sculptures by Milan-born Ornella Piluso, better known as Topylabrys in the art world. The final installation is the sculpture by Roberto Biondi in the portico of Chiesa della Madonna del Soldo. His suspended empty frames look down onto a view of the lake which is itself framed by the arches of the church’s portico – a work which exploits the unique qualities of Palanzo’s natural setting.
To accompany the exhibition, a series of events have been organised for each weekend starting on the 15th June and ending on the 29th. Visit the site of the organisers, the Associazione Amici del Torchio di Palanzo, for more information on these events, about the Torchio itself or on the other events they organise throughout the year.
Palanzo can be reached from Como on Bus C31 but note that no buses operate there on Sundays. Alternatively, if you have time to enjoy a walk taking in all three of these medieval towns, read our article on the stretch of the Strada Regia starting from Torno and ending at Pognana.