Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, daughter of the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and author of arguably the most renowned gothic novel of all time – Frankenstein – loved Lake Como. In June 1840 she set out with friends and her son to spend the summer on the lake.
She had previously visited Lake Como when she had lived in Italy from 1818 to 1823. She and her husband had even rented the Villa Pliniana near Torno, then in a very poor state of repair, for a short period as well as visiting all the main cities on the early 19th century cultural tourist route, namely Rome, Florence and Venice. However her stay in Italy had been marred by tragedy. She lost her husband who was drowned whilst boating off the Tuscan coast and in addition her two eldest children, Clara and William who both succumbed to diphtheria. So, as she set off from Dover with her one surviving son, Percy, she left full of joy at the prospect of returning to her beloved Italy after an absence of 17 years but also with some trepidation that her stay might reawaken memories of the tragic past. She maintained a journal of her travels, the last of her published works, under the title ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’. I propose that we take the vicarious pleasure of following her journey as described in that book given that we are temporarily unable to view the lake for ourselves and, in any case, her journal shows her to be an insightful, sympathetic and expressive leader for a virtual tour.
Italy at the time was not independent with Lombardy being part of the Austrian empire. She supported the independence movement undoubtedly influenced by Giuseppe Mazzini who had recently been exiled in London and by literary figures like Alessandro Manzoni. She described Italy as ‘the most illustrious (country) and the most unfortunate in the world.’ She was a true Italophile but by no means an uncritical one:
‘When we visit Italy, we become what the Italians were censured for being, – enjoyers of the beauties of nature, the elegance of art, the delights of climate, the recollections of the past, and the pleasures of society, without a thought beyond.’
These are all aspects that remain positive and relevant today although I would also now add the quality of the cuisine – something which Mary Shelley either did not get to experience or was not interested in!
She crossed from Dover to Calais mid June 1840 and immediately travelled by ‘diligence’ to Paris regretting the lack of a rail link having become more accustomed to travelling by train back in England.
In Paris they planned their route to Como deciding to go via Metz and then down the Moselle to Coblenz where they would follow the Rhine to Mainz and then somewhat strangely up to Frankfurt. From there they were to travel south through Heidelberg, Baden Baden, Schaffhausen, to Zurich to cross the Alps at Splugen and then descend from Chur down past Chiavenna to join Lake Como at Colico. Her journal records the different modes of travel, whether it by boat (on the Moselle and Rhine), diligence (in France and Switzerland), train (briefly from Mainz to Frankfurt) or voiturier (a German form of coach). Having left Paris on June 25th, they arrived in Colico on July 14th. There were some highlights on this journey such as the section of the Rhine from Coblenz to Mainz, and others which were both slow and tedious. Yet nothing surpassed her spirits than first hearing Italian spoken and then descending the southern slopes of the Alps into Italy itself.
All Italian travellers know what it is , after toiling up the bleak, bare, northern, Swiss side of an Alp, to descend towards ever-vernal Italy. The rhododendron, in thick bushes, in full bloom, first adorned the mountain sides; then, pine forests; then, chestnut groves; the mountain was cleft into woody ravines; the waterfalls scattered their spray and their gracious melody; flowery and green, and clothed in radiance, and gifted with plenty, Italy opened upon us. Thus, – and be not shocked at the illustration, for it is all God’s creation, – after dreary old age and the sickening pass of death, does the saint open his eyes on Paradise.
From Colico she took the steam-powered boat ‘Lario’ to Cadenabbia. She had wanted to stay in Bellagio but there was no direct boat service to there from Colico and Cadenabbia was at the time, and still is, a favourite resort for English tourists. She booked into what she refers to as the Albergo Grande della Cadenabbia which at the time was better known as the Grand Hotel Bellevue having been established in 1802, with the name Locanda Cadenabbia, as the very first tourist hotel on the lake. The hotel has gone from strength to strength over the years and was extensively extended and renovated eleven years ago.
Cadenabbia is now part of the larger municipality of Griante and is located at the very heart of Lake Como’s most renowned tourist region to the south of Menaggio on the doorstep of Villa Carlotta and looking over the lake to Bellagio and Varenna. It has been appreciated by international visitors over the years ever since the Locanda Cadenabbia was established. For example, Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia was for many years the summer retreat of the ex-German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The villa now hosts the Adenauer Foundation. Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian ex-Secretary General of the United Nations took a prolonged holiday here once he had retired from his diplomatic post. There is even an Anglican church open throughout the summer season providing regular church services in English as well as hosting musical concerts and recitals.
Mary stayed in Cadenabbia from July 14th until September 9th, time enough for her to enter into the rhythm of days spent on the lakeside and to appreciate the essence of the location through her astute observation.
Having described the dramatic scenery around her, she continued:
‘I wish I could by my imperfect words bring before you not only the grander features, but every minute peculiarity, every varying hue, of this matchless scene. The progress of each day brings with it its appropriate change. When I rise in the morning and look out, our own side is bathed in sunshine, and we see the opposite mountains raising their black masses in sharp relief against the eastern sky, while dark shadows are flung by the abrupt precipices on the fair lake beneath. This very scene glows in sunshine later in the day, till at evening the shadows climb up, first darkening the banks, and slowly ascending till they leave exposed the naked summits alone, which are long gladdened by the golden radiance of the sinking sun, till the bright rays disappear, and, cold and gray, the granite peaks stand pointing to the stars, which one by one gather above.
Only ‘slow tourism’ can give a visitor the opportunity to identify and appreciate patterns and rhythms in the passing hours of the day. The rhythm of the lake is not just determined by the sun in the sky but also by the regular changes in wind and water and of course, the labour and habits of the local inhabitants. Mary also appreciated this aspect:
Each evening, too, at dusk, the girls from the silk mill close by, pass our inn on their way from work to their own village; they sing as they go, and look happy; some of them are very beautiful. They are all well conducted, I am told, keeping sharp watch on one another. The unmarried in Italy are usually of good conduct, while marriage is the prelude to a fearful liberty.’
I am not sure from where she gained that latter insight but it is an interesting observation which, unfortunately, she does not enlarge upon.
The heat as well tends to force one into appreciating the different phases of the day as Mary defines as ‘the repose necessitated by heat during the day, the revival in the evening, the enjoyment of the cooler hours, the enchantment of the nights’. These are all the joys of slow tourism unavailable to those who cannot spare the time needed to pick upon the patterns of repetition unique to each location. Possibly these patterns of repetition also gave Mary the inner calm for thought and reflection. She derived great pleasure from solitary reflection within, as in keeping with Romantic sensibilities, a sublime natural context:
When alone in an evening, I often walk towards Menaggio. I have selected a haunt among rocks close to the water’s edge, shaded by an olive-wood. I always feel renewed and extreme delight as I watch the shadows of evening climb the huge mountains, till the granite peaks alone shine forth glad and bright, and a holy stillness gathers over the landscape.
One of her main activities was visiting the villas and gardens in the area, in particular Villa Serbelloni and Villa Melzi in Bellagio – a short ride across the lake in the boat her son had hired – and Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo (then known as Villa Sommariva). Villa Serbelloni is now occupied by the Rockefeller Foundation on the site of what was one of the first residential villas on the lake.
In Mary’s time, the main attraction was the gardens built by Alessandro Serbelloni in 1802 which incorporated paths and tunnels providing views over both legs of the lake over to Varenna to the east and Menaggio to the west. It had been made famous by the patronage of the Austrian Emperor Francis I who had visited it in 1816 and again in 1825. Villa Melzi also had glorious gardens but Mary found them too formal for her taste. She certainly enjoyed visiting Villa Carlotta and viewing the sculptures there although she allowed herself to be slightly critical of Canova. On commenting on Canova’s Cupid and Psyche (still on view at the villa) she states:
The expression of their faces is tender and sweet; but – I like not to confess it – I am not an admirer of Canova’s women. He is said to have had singular opportunities of studying the female form; but place his Venus, or any other of his female statues, beside those of Grecian sculpture, and his defects must strike the most untaught eye.’
During her stay, Mary Shelley was more than content to stay in Cadenabbia and to make the occasional trip across the lake to Bellagio. However she did journey down to Como once to visit the opera house, the Teatro Sociale. In order to get there, she had to take the steam boat ‘Lario’. This was the very first paddle steam boat to ply its way between Colico and Como. It was built by Church of Liverpool in 1826 and presumably had to be assembled locally. The body of the ship was oak and the steam engine was designed and built by Boulton and Watt. Its first captain was an Englishman called Perham whose role would later be taken on by Italians once they had become familiar with the vessel. These early steam vessels had the disadvantage that their timber construction was not sufficiently resistant to take the weight and the torque of the boat’s engines. The ‘Lario’ was actually taken out of service in 1841, the year after Mary’s visit. It was replaced by the first iron-clad steamer on the lake – the ‘Veloce’. This ship had been built in London and assembled in Como.
The steamer, the ‘Lario’ (a better is promised for next year), is a very primitive and slow boat. I now made a voyage I had made years before, when putting off from Como in a skiff we had visited Tremezzo. How vividly I remembered and recognised each spot. I longed inexpressibly to land at the Pliniana, which remained in my recollection as a place adorned by magical beauty. The abrupt precipices, the gay-looking villas, the richly-wooded banks, the spire-like cypresses.‘
At Blevio she noted the home of Giuditta Pasta, the opera singer who was perhaps the most renowned opera singer at the time across Europe. Mary Shelley says of her singing ‘ never did any so move, so penetrate the human heart.’ She described her visit to Como’s Teatro Sociale thus:
It is bathos (having been reminded of the qualities of Giuditta Pasta) to return to the opera of Como – but it was very creditable. The house was clean and pretty. Teresa Brambilla sang the part of ‘Lucia’ very tolerably, and it was an agreeable change.
Performances to this day at Como’s Teatro Sociale can well be described as ‘very creditable’ and the interior is a delight.
Her long holiday on the lake eventually came to an end when on September 9th she hired a private boat to take her and her son to Lecco. From there they visited Bergamo primarily for the opera and then on to Milan where she was separated from the rest of her party since she had to wait the arrival of a letter with more money in it to finance her journey home. This delay saved her from the dramatic experience suffered by her companions as they travelled back via the San Gottard Pass through heavy rain which had caused landslides and rivers in flood.
The full account of Mary’s stay can be read in her ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843.’ She was sad at having to leave Cadenabbia. Clearly the location had won a place in her heart as it later did for Chancellor Adenauer and Kofi Annan. There is definitely something very tranquil and relaxing about Cadenabbia and Griante. Its true qualities are more easily appreciated just up from the lakeside itself and the best way to appreciate them is by taking the section of the Greenway or the Antica Via Regina described in our article .
Sentiero dei Sogni – a local association promoting cultural walks in and around Lake Como – have as one of their projects for 2020 the translation of Mary Shelley’s ‘Rambles in Germany and Italy’ into Italian. The first results of this project coordinated by Pietro Berra, prior to the complete translation of Mary Shelley’s text, are some video clips produced by students from Como’s Liceo ‘Teresa Clerici’ illustrating the descriptions of the locations visited by Mary in 1840. Three of these are now available on YouTube. The description of her visit to Como is at this address. Her visits to the gardens in Bellagio is at this address. Her description of Cadenabbia and the Villa Carlotta is at this address. Italian is a beautiful language and Mary Shelley would certainly have appreciated hearing her delightful text rendered so well by the students of the liceo.
Related Articles in Como Companion
Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina for a description of the walk from Griante (Cadenabbia) to Lenno.
Como’s Famous Daughters: Giuditta Pasta for more information on this local opera diva who became the most famous singer in Europe throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.
For more information about the history of the boats and ferry services deployed on lake Como see https://www.navigazionelaghi.it/historical-notes
The official website of the Grand Hotel Cadenabbia https://www.grandhotelcadenabbia.it/en/index
The website of the Anglican Church at Cadenabbia. http://www.churchonlakecomo.com/
The Boat Museum https://www.museobarcalariana.it/
Villa Carlotta, Tremezzo https://www.villacarlotta.it/
Villa Melzi, Bellagio http://www.giardinidivillamelzi.it/GIARDINI_DI_VILLA_MELZI/HOME_PAGE_ENG.html
For more information on the walks in the area, go to this link for the Greenway. Use this link for information about the Cammini della Regina.