Few travellers arriving by train at Como’s San Giovanni Station are aware that they are walking over the remains of a vast monasterial complex where thousands of innocent victims faced torture and a gruesome end by being burnt at the stake. The station is built on the site of San Giovanni Pedemonte established in the 13th century, deconsecrated in 1810 and then destroyed in 1814. It was the Como home of the Dominican Order who were entrusted with administering the Inquisition.
The Diocese of Como shares the gruesome record with Venice for the prosecution and execution of the highest number of those accused of Satan worship and witchcraft. At the height of this vindictive fervour in the late 1400s and early 1500s, around 1,000 cases were being tried a year. The accusations of witchcraft, mostly but not exclusively directed at women, were brought before a tribunal set up by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition.
The Inquisition had started in the 12th century but became a more formalised method of discouraging heresy under Pope Innocent IV in 1252. He entrusted the Dominican order with the task of conducting these tribunals which initially focussed on discouraging the Catharism and Waldensian heresies prevalent at the time in Southern France and Northern Italy. It was only later in the 15th century when the Inquisition turned its attention to the suppression of rustic rites with links to paganism. Out of this was born the misogynistic quasi-judicial process that led to the beheading and/or burning to death of those found guilty of dancing with the devil or flying through the air or of causing crop failures or provoking hail or thunder storms through satanic incantations. And both the tribunals and judicial burnings were held within the Dominican monastery which was part of the religious complex of San Giovanni Pedemonte established in the 1200s and finally destroyed by Napoleon’s army in 1814 – making way for the railway line from Milan to Lugano and in 1875 for Como’s main railway station that takes its name from the original religious site.
The Dominican monastery of San Giovanni was established as far back as 1235 located outside of Como’s city walls and at the base of Monte Croce, the tallest hill overlooking the city within the Parco Spina Verde. It would become a major religious complex for the city consisting of a church, three separate cloisters and a library. It became the church of preference for Como’s Benedetto Odescalchi who became Pope Innocent XI in 1676. His family’s patronage enabled the church to acquire some significant works of art which are now on display in Como’s art gallery. The church and the monastery were suppressed during Napoleon’s control over Lombardy and the buildings themselves were mostly destroyed by his troops on their return from Russia in 1814. The very final remains of the religious complex were cleared to make way for the railway station in 1875.
In 1251 Pope Innocent IV appointed the Dominican monk San Pietro da Verona as the very first Inquisitor for the Diocese of Como. Como’s diocese covered a massive territory which included most of the modern day Swiss Canton of Ticino, the Val Chiavenna and the Valtellina in addition to the Province of Como. In those early days, the Inquisition had not acquired the reputation for the torture, cruelty and intollerance it was to display in later years. San Pietro was a firm but fair judge much respected by the citizens of Como but hated by some of the aristocracy. He was to die in 1253 assassinated on the orders of two local aristocratic families near to Meda as he was walking from Como to Milan. He was later sanctified and became more commonly known as San Pietro Martire. He is Como’s second patron saint after Saint Abbondio.
The Inquisitors who followed San Pietro Martire in the 15th and 16th centuries developed a very different reputation. The Catholic Church was going through another period of insecurity but this time its efforts to control heresy were more often directed at the rustic rites and the beliefs that had remained active within the isolated rural communities in the hills and valleys towards the extremes of Como’s diocesian territory – predominantly in the Valtellina. This was the period in which Como gained the reputation for persecuting up to a thousand cases of witchcraft a year – a figure in Italy only surpassed in the diocese of Venice. The Dominican Prior Inquisitor who did more than any other to establish this grim record was Bernardo Rategno, born in Schignano above Argegno in 1450. He became Prior of San Giovanni Pedemonte in 1490 where he presided over the tribunals of the Inquisition until his death in 1510. He condemned up to 60 women to burn at the stake in a single year. His successor, Antonio da Casale, is estimated to have condemned from between 300 to 1000 women to the same fate in 1514. These deaths usually came after a period of torture with pressure to denounce others to which many succumbed also in the forlorn hope that they might avoid the standard means of execution – being burnt alive in public within the piazza in front of the Church of San Giovanni.
Thanks to Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ – where a trial of witches in the 17th century within the Massachusett’s town of Salem stands in part as an allegory for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist campaign through the 1950s and 1960’s – we are all too aware of how pressure on the accused to provide names and denounce others helps to perpetuate injustice and oppression through the fear of ‘political’ or ‘religious’ heresy. In the case of Como’s witch trials, the accused were predominantly women on whom blame was laid for plague outbreaks, crop failures, storm damage or any other form of ill-luck or misfortune. Many may have had knowledge of natural remedies and performed a valuable function as such but could end up accused of witchcraft if treatments went wrong or if others believed they were responsible for putting a spell or laying a curse on them. Some victims might just have been a little too individual, unusual, eccentric or independent for the likes of their conformist neighbours. Their names would be passed up from the local churches to the Inquisition with accusations of participating in satanic rites, dancing with the devil, sacrificing children, indulging in sexual orgies or flying through the air. Or they could be denounced for such participation by others facing torture or desperate to avoid execution. Above all else and leaving aside the absurdities of flying through the air, this was an attack directed on rural and rustic culture with its highly localised idiosyncrasies born out of the isolation of life in remote hills and valleys. The attack was persecuted by an urban elite in league with local representatives of the church who selected as their victims those least able to defend themselves.
The cultural conflict between town and country is born out by the location of the most common witch ‘hunting grounds’. In the 15th and 16th centuries these were Bormio, Chiavenna, Berbenno and Ponte in Valtellina. In 1523 the then Inquisitor Modesto Scrofeo (nicknamed ‘Il Sanguinario’) went on a witch hunt in the Valtellina from summer to autumn resulting in many executions.
However it appears that by the 17th century, the role of the Inquisition based in Como’s San Giovanni Pedemonte changed perceptibly from being the main accuser of witchcraft to becoming the last point of appeal against such accusations. By this time, it was not just the Inquisition who brought and executed cases of alleged witchcraft. The local churches in the remote areas of the diocese were becoming more extreme while the Inquisition in Como was becoming slightly more liberal under the influence of Cardinal Carlo Borromeo and then Federico Borromeo. They had instigated a slightly more tolerant attitude towards rustic custom and of course, were totally committed to resisting the forces of the Reformation which was leading to open conflict in the Valtellina. There the reformist church was spreading its influence over the hills from the Grissons and they were as severe in attitude towards the vestiges of pagan beliefs within the rustic communities as had been the Inquisitor’s forebears in the preceding centuries. As a result, the tribunal in San Giovanni Pedemonte could often find itself in disagreement with some of the local parishes. Knowing this, those accused locally of witchcraft realised that they may just get a fairer hearing if they were to appeal directly to the Inquisition in Como. Such was the case for a Margherita del Boseghe who in January 1640 travelled down from her town of Camignolo, near to Lugano to plead her case before Camillo Campeggi, the Dominican Prior Inquisitor. Margherita had previously been denounced as a witch by a Giovannina da Mezzovico who had herself been tried, beheaded and burnt as a witch in Lugano in November 1639. Giovannina had passed on Margherita’s name under torture claiming she had danced with the devil. Margherita was content to admit that she had accompanied Giovannina to a dance in the open under a large chestnut tree on Monte Ceneri. But she insisted this was just a get together of local people out to enjoy themselves and not ‘a ball to honour the devil’. We know all about the case because Camillo Campeggi described the proceedings in a letter sent to Rome seeking guidance. Margherita was subsequently found not guilty. What many supplicants to the Inquisition tribunals were seeking was the release of a ‘fede’ – a certificate of good faith. With such a certificate they could return to their local parish and be assured they could not be accused in the future of witchcraft. No doubt the Diocese also profited from the charge made for issuing these certificates.
In 1782 the Inquisition was formally closed and in 1810 the Dominican convent of San Giovanni Pedemonte was suppressed under the orders of the Napoleonic regime. Napoleon’s troops then destroyed the church and monastery in 1814. Some of the artwork from the church had previously been removed and is now housed in museums around Europe including works by Morazzone, Carlo Nuvolone and Giovanni Paolo Ghianda which are all to be found in Como’s art gallery.
Shortly before 1782, the last woman accused of witchcraft in the Valtellina died of exposure in the cold following banishment and excommunication by her local church in Ardenno. The church had become fed up of her selling her cures and potions and telling fortunes and so banned her from human contact. Over in Switzerland, due north from Chiavenna and not far out of the Diocese of Como, the last woman in Europe was to be tried, convicted and executed as a witch. This was Anna Goldi who was executed on 13th June 1782 in the town of Glarona. In 2008 the courts of Glarona, 226 years after her execution, absolved her of any crime declaring her a victim of judicial assassination. This is apparently the only case out of the thousands put through criminal trial and execution for witchcraft across Europe to receive formal apology.
It could well be the legacy of the many women burnt at the stake as witches in the mediaeval period which has contributed to the popularity of the winter ‘Festa della Giubiana’ – a festival celebrated in many towns around Lake Como and in Brianza in late January which involves the burning of an effigy of a witch on top of a huge bonfire. In the past those accused of witchcraft were blamed for all the negative vicissitudes of peasant life such as ill health or crop failure. Nowadays, the burning of the Giubbiana represents purging the community of all the ills from the previous year in order to welcome in better luck during the year to come. The shadows of the past still flicker in the flames of those January bonfires as perhaps the screech of steel on steel as trains enter Como’s San Giovanni station echo the screams of those innocent women as they faced torture and death.