On the weekend of 21st and 22nd September, those fortunate to be in Como can, for the price of €8, visit a whole series of secret gardens and courtyards within, and sometimes on, the old city walls. This very welcome initiative is called ‘Bellezze Interiori – I Giardini Segreti di Como’. An organisation known as TIKVA is to be thanked for this along with their partners, Como’s Conservatorio music school and the cultural association Iubilantes.
Anyone walking the streets in Como’s old centre must have peeked into the numerous courtyards or sought a glance through open doors onto the private gardens concealed within wishing they could only just step further into any one of these tranquil spaces so definitively separated from the tumult outside. Now, at least on this one weekend, we can.
The purpose of the Bellezze Interiori initiative is best left to the organisers to describe in their own words on their website but crudely translated by myself since the site is still under development. They say:
Bellezze Interiori is an ambitious project established to give public access to places until now known only to a few.
It is an innovative project already duplicated successfully in other Italian locations intended to spread awareness of local treasures, to promote respect for our urban environment and to rediscover the beauty of our historical and cultural heritage through opening up green spaces.
Their statement of aims gets more hyperbolic at this stage as can often be the case in Italy, this land of harsh realities and impossible romantics. They continue:
This isn’t just the physical opening of the gates but also an internal opening up to others in a genuine real moment of shared urban experience contributing to adding value and access to one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Como and its secret courtyards and gardens do however merit the hyperbole and, again thanks to the selfless initiative of some civic-minded individuals and owners, we can all check this out for ourselves. Locations are all described on their website where you can also purchase the €8 ticket online (€5 for those above 65, free for the disabled and for children under 10). You will in any case need to go to the project headquarters over the weekend in Palazzo Lambertenghi (Via Lambertenghi 41) to pick up your bracelet that will ensure access to all the locations and events over the two days. You may also buy tickets there on the day.
Porticoed courtyards, originating out of monasterial cloisters or the more domestic enclosed yards of medieval dwellings, are bit of a renaissance speciality – and they abound in Como’s urban palaces. Some of these interior treasures are permanently open for all to see and enjoy such as the nymphaeum in the courtyard of the Palazzo Giovio, now the Museo Civico, or the courtyard with terracotta highlighting in Palazzo Rusca. Other treasures like the exterior of the Chiostrino Artificio or the Teatro Sociale’s Sala Bianca can be seen when attending a scheduled event. This does however leave the majority of Como’s architectural delights hidden away from the public, often behind stout ‘portone’ which remain resolutely closed against the outside world.
There are fortunately some public-spirited owners who have shown themselves prepared and willing to share their good fortune by allowing occasional access on their property to the general public. They appreciate that sites of particular cultural or aesthetic value form part of a shared heritage. The Italian equivalent of the UK’s National Trust, the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) have done much in organising open days to many of these privately-owned treasures. For example, this year FAI organised visits to the Palazzo Odescalchi in Piazza Roma which is undergoing renovation and conversion into apartments for private purchase.
Here was a chance to see some of the 16th century frescoes by the Recchi brothers before the renovated units get sold off into private hands. They also organised visits to the Collegio Gallio, one of Europe’s oldest teaching institutions where the public were able to see the frescoes by the 17th Century Intelvi master from Scaria, Carlo Carloni, on the ceiling of the grand staircase and decorating the walls of the Aula Magna. Visitors to Bellezze Interiori will also be able to visit the Collegio Gallio.
When visiting Palazzo Lambertenghi, be sure to note the 16th century frescoes in the Sala Affrescata by Giovanni Battista Recchi and his brother Giovanni Paolo. The room is also referred to as the Sala Recchi. These brothers had a studio in Via Borgo Vico, a street which still hosts the studios of contemporary artists such as Ester Negretti, from where they undertook commissions across Lombardy and Piedmont including decorating their local church of San Giorgio. Their painting above San Giorgio’s main altar, ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Mark’ was removed and is now on view at Como’s Pinacoteca in Via Diaz.
Another of the Bellezze Interiori sites is the Palazzo Albricci Peregrini in Via Rovelli. The main villa here was renovated towards the end of the 15th century and still has a remarkably well preserved fresco from that period on the inside of the main doorway.
Behind the villa there is a beautiful garden and alongside that lies a medieval building which has been lovingly restored by the owners of the villa to make one of the most atmospheric Bed and Breakfast locations in the city. It even contains exposed stone walling from Roman times. This is just another, if not entirely secret gem, at least one that deserves a visit and to be better known .
Not all the buildings on the list are necessarily old. For example the Palazzo Arturo Stucchi, also known as Palazzo Delle Torre, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 and then extensively renovated by Como’s eclectic-style architect Federico Frigerio for Arturo Stucchi who was a textile magnate. What is of main interest here is the Nymphaeum and the statues representing the Four Seasons in the niches that flank it. This Palazzo is on Via Volta where you will also be able to visit the birthplace of Alessandro Volta. I am not sure if the house itself will be open to the public. Half is now occupied by the Order of Engineers and the other half by a law firm. They have generously given public access to the house in the past. You will certainly be able to visit the gardens of the house and also the gardens down the road at the old silk factory and headquarters of Mantero. Here within the gardens on the corner of the old defensive walls is the tower known as Porta Nuova within which Alessandro Volta undertook some of his early experiments in harnessing electricity. By the way, the whole of the Mantero building, the gardens and the ancient communal salt and tobacco warehouse across the road are for sale.
Both the Volta and Mantero gardens are examples of what are called ‘giardini pensili’ or hanging gardens. These are gardens built on top of other buildings as for example along Via Volta where the gardens have been built on top of the old ramparts and remains of the original Roman wall defences. From Volta’s house, the gardens are accessed directly from the first floor and then paths lead you up onto the top of the walls overlooking the park and across Viale Varese to the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso. Other hanging gardens along Via Volta will also be open to visits.
No matter how noisy and populated the streets in the old city might be, once the main doors are closed on them the interior courtyards and gardens retain a surprising serenity which, perhaps more than anything else, helps convey the spirit of days past. This upcoming weekend in September organised by Bellezze Interiori will offer access to the largest number of private dwellings of cultural or aesthetic interest ever available at any one time. The modest charges go to cover administrative costs and to help plan future events. Not all the details for this year’s weekend have yet been finalised and there may well be more owners signing up to give access to their properties, along with other events. The initiative deserves every success and I certainly hope that it is something that rapidly becomes a reliably regular highlight in Como’s cultural calendar.