What can be more memorable than a trip in the cabin or sat in the bows of a Venetian-style water taxi as its pilot skilfully and swiftly takes you to or from a lakeside restaurant on a summer evening. Sat on leather upholstery, set amongst brightly varnished mahogany and with sparkling chrome fittings, this luxurious experience may not be cheap but is nowadays at least accessible to many more of us than to our ancestors in years past. Since the middle of the seventeenth century up until today and hopefully well into the future Lake Como’s boatyards have and will be building, maintaining and restoring various forms of these luxury boats.
When Romans like Pliny the Younger built their summer villas on the shores of Lake Como, they undoubtedly had boats built to transport themselves in comfort. But no records remain of how they may have been constructed. Instead we must wait until those Italian aristocrats, who settled around the lake in the 18th century, required both a comfortable means of transport and a visible symbol of their status to remain moored alongside their villa’s personal jetty. And, as in the case of today’s water taxis, they looked to Venice for inspiration commissioning local boatyards to construct Venetian-style gondolas adapted to the choppier waters of the lake.
It was this growing demand for Venetian craftsmanship that persuaded Ferdinando Taroni to move from Venice and establish his boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790. Ferdinando had learnt his craft from the Venetian master craftsman Angelo Albanese. He set about modifying the Venetian design by avoiding the original’s asymmetry, flattening the hull, broadening the flanks, increasing the overall dimensions and adding a rudder. In making these changes Taroni took inspiration from the traditional fishing boats of the area built to suit the unique conditions of the lake.These enlarged boats were powered by a team of four to five oarsmen often dressed in the livery of their aristocratic employers.
The next major innovation in luxury travel was brought by the English gentry making their Grand Tour of Europe from the start of the 19th century. They introduced the so-called ‘Inglesina’ – a rowing boat designed originally for use on the River Thames. It allowed for comfortable seating at the bow and space for up to two or three oarsmen. The Inglesina also introduced the English preference for using mahogany in the construction of luxury boats – a choice also adopted by the Lake Como boatyards and continued to this day in spite of the growing problems of supply. This type of boat was made famous in the comic novel ‘Three Men in A Boat’ written in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome. The Lake Como version became very popular also as an early form of water taxi.
The Dulcinea on display in the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats is an Inglesina adapted to motorised propulsion. From the 1900s onwards, motorised luxury boats became more common aided by the development of petrol engines such as those of Alessandro Volpi.
Volpi, the proprietor of the lakeside Villa Pizzo outside of Cernobbio, established a strong friendship and collaboration with Ferdinando Taroni, the owner of the boatyard in Carate Urio first established by his similarly named ancestor back in 1790. One of the great successes of this collaboration was the so-called Vaporino – a fuel powered luxury passenger boat whose design recalled the steam-driven boats of the past. The Boat Museum in Pianello del Lario has at least two examples, the Quo Vadiz and the Lario, which were moored at the Villa Passalacqua in Moltrasio. Much more recently, the owners of the luxury hotels Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana commissioned the Ernesto Riva boatyard in Maslianico to build a Vaporino to transport their guests.
The development of inboard and outboard motors dispensed with the need for crews of oarsmen and heralded a new form of luxury vehicle – the so-called runabout. The beauty and popularity of this class of boat was to reach its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when boats such as the Riva Acquarama (built on Lake Iseo rather than on Lake Como) became iconic symbols of luxury and of mid-century Italian design. However, prior to that, the runabout went through a number of developments including use during the 20th century’s two world wars.
When Ferdinando Taroni moved his family business from Venice to Carate Urio in 1790, he set up a boatyard that spawned a tradition of luxury boat building that spread over the lake. From the Taroni yard came the names of Abbate, Mostes and Riva who each established boatyards that still exist to this day. To them we must also add the names of Molinari, Matteri, Cranchi, Colombo and Cadenazzi. While Taroni has now moved over to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, all the others still either produce, maintain or renovate luxury boats on Lake Como.
During the First World War, the Taroni yard in Carate Urio produced 18 anti-submarine boats known as MAS (Motobarca Anti Sommergibile). During the Second World War the Cranchi boatyard in Cadenabbia produced for the Germans a series of MTMs (Motoscafo Turismo Modificato). These, as the name suggests, were runabouts designed to be used as manned torpedoes in that the prow was packed with explosives. The pilot, positioned right at the bow, would jump off the boat once it was locked onto a collision course towards its target. The MTMs had one major success when they managed to disable the British cruiser HMS York near Crete on 25th March 1941.
With the war over, Lake Como’s boatyards could return to developing those runabouts that have now become such recognisable icons of luxury and design. As mentioned previously, it is the Riva yard at Sarnico on Lake Iseo which has achieved the greatest reputation for this type of boat. However there are two branches of Riva boatbuilders with the original Ernesto Riva yard established in Laglio (and now also in Maslianico) over 250 years ago while Paolo Riva set up in Sarnico in the 1840s. Giacomo Colombo trained in the Como yards of Abbate (Tremezzo) and Cranchi (Brienno and Cadenabbia) before moving to Riva in Sarnico. However he then set up his own yard back on Lake Como in Menaggio where he produced the stylish Colombo 007. The lasting appeal of these runabouts stems from the flair of their Italian designers to combine aspects of ostentatious detailing inspired by the American car industry with the traditional look of mahogany introduced from Britain – all put together through the craftsmanship of local artisans developed and maintained over years of practice.
All of these boatyards continue to produce super luxury yachts. The Abbate name continues with Bruno Abbate and his Primatist range of yachts with offices on the lake and with production in Sardinia. Cranchi have moved from Brienno to larger yards in the Valtellina at the top end of the lake. Ernesto Riva still have offices in Laglio but have moved production to Maslianico. Taroni’s yards in Carate Urio and Torreggia have both now been redeveloped as apartment blocks but their production continues at Stresa on Lake Maggiore. The yards of Mostes Matteri are still operating in Lezzeno. Cadenazzi are still based in Tremezzo. Many of these yards now organise private hire, offer various facilities for the storage and maintenance of boats or undertake renovation of vintage models.
The production of luxury boats is only one aspect of the historical heritage of boat craftsmanship on the lake. Read our article on the production of powerboats and sailing dinghies which describes how Lake Como’s boatyards have also gained international renown in this sector.
As recommended in this previous article, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is the best way to gain an appreciation of the scope, quality and importance of this local industry.
Many of the boatyards mentioned here also provide private hire of the Venetian-style water taxis. Contact information can be found on our page Boat Hire and Water Taxis.