Como has a lot of ‘history’ and the city’s walls provide visible evidence of the fact. Como was first fortified back in 51 BCE but only a few traces of those early Roman walls remain. What can be seen today dates back to 1158 when Federico Barbarossa, the Swabian Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned a new set of walls to be built just beyond the Roman originals.
The works took thirty years to complete and then underwent a variety of vicissitudes and modifications over the coming centuries until finally in 1975 the City Council decided that no further changes should ever be made.
Most other Lombardy cities in Medieval times were fortified but most of these walls, as in the case of neighbouring Cantù, have subsequently been demolished. Como’s walls owe their survival to the city’s unique geographical position as a gateway to or from the Splugen Pass over the Alps via Lake Como. This route was used for both military and commercial ends offering access north over the Alps to the Rhine and Danube river systems (as exploited by Julius Caesar) and south to Milan, Pavia and eastwards via the River Po to Venice and the east. In wartime, Como’s walls provided protection from attack and resistance to siege while in more peaceful times, they forced traders into paying taxes and levies as they sought to pass their goods through the city on their way to their final markets – a constraint long resented by the merchants of Milan.
Como was granted the status of a municipality by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. This signified that the citizens of Como (the Comaschi) could claim the same level of social rights as citizens of Rome. In keeping with this status, and in recognition of the city’s strategic significance, Caesar set about improving the city’s defences by building a defensive wall around all four sides of the rectangular settlement. Building started in 51 BCE.
Only a few traces of this original wall are still visible but enough to be able to trace where the perimeters lay on the south, east and west sides. The north facing course of the wall towards the lake is much harder to discern. The wall would have been two metres thick and eight metres high with an additional castellated walkway giving a further two metres in height. The main gateway was the Porta Pretoria on the south side not far from where the Porta Torre now stands. The ruins of the original Porta Pretoria are visible below the Liceo Classico and are, sadly, only occasionally open for the public to view.
Early Medieval Period
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Como found itself on the path of hostile armies from the north invading the old Roman capital of Milan and the even richer city of Pavia. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman walls were reinforced in a bid to resist these invading Germanic and Burgundian tribes. It wasn’t until the Gothic Wars of 535 to 553 CE allowed the Byzantines to reclaim total control of Como and the rest of the Pianura Padana. They set about reinforcing the Castel Baradello guarding the southern entry to the city and Isola Comacina on the lake which guarded the northern access to the city. Both Castel Baradello and Isola Comacina were to prove of strategic importance for centuries to come although Isola Comacina’s allegiance to Como, as with many other lakeside communities, was anything but constant.
The Byzantines also improved the city’s defences by building new towers along its walls, destroying all buildings that lay in close proximity to their exterior and then digging a nine metre wide and two and a half metre deep ditch along its entire perimeter.
The Germanic tribe of Lombards, the Longobardi, took the place of the Byzantines between 569 and 572 CE setting up their capital in Monza. However the independent-minded Isola Comacina was not captured until 588 under the reign of Queen Teodolinda whose iron crown is now on display in Monza’s cathedral.
The Lombards went on to rule the area until 774 CE during which time they allowed Como’s walls to suffer damage through neglect and lack of maintenance.
Middle to Late Medieval Period
The 9th to 11th centuries proved to be a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Como started to profit from exacting dues and tariffs from the passing trade. The two small communities outside the city walls north to the west – Borgo Vico – and to the east – Coloniola – were in turn fortified primarily to ensure no evasion of customs duties. The city now took on the form of a crab, the so-called ‘Urbs Cancrina’.
Ten Years War with Milan
At the start of the 12th century, in the era in which individual communes assumed more power over any overarching political entity, Milan became increasingly aggravated by the demands for duties imposed by the Comune of Como on any goods passing through its territory. Milan formed an early version of the Lombardy League allying itself with Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Genoa in a bid to facilitate trade and withstand those more closely allied with the Holy Roman Empire. They focussed their antagonism against Como and managed to get the strategically important settlement of Isola Comacina on their side along with other towns on the lake such as Torno, Nesso and Lenno.
Milan instigated a period of war with Como from 1117 that was to last ten years following a defined season of aggression starting in Spring and ending in Autumn. Como was singularly successful in fighting off this alliance thanks to its naval fleet on the lake and its robust city walls. But Como’s success did not last forever and the conflict was to end in 1127 when Milanese forces broke through the walls and proceeded to sack, pillage and burn the city. They also destroyed the walls and in the subsequent peace settlement, forbade Como from rebuilding them and from levying duties on trade. Thus Milan kept Como subjugated for the next thirty years until salvation arrived from the north.
Federico Barbarossa, as the Holy Roman Emperor, decided it was about time he reasserted his sovereignty over the rogue Italian communes to his south who swore allegiance to the Papacy rather than to himself. He had in mind those cities that had formed the Lombardy League. He first invasion south from Germany was in 1154 when he came to note the strategic advantage to him of both Isola Comacina and Como. Not having managed to fully subdue Milan and its allies, he returned again to Lombardy in 1158. By 1162 he had managed to force Milan into lifting all the restrictions to trade and defence it had previously imposed on Como. He turned his attention to strengthening Como’s defences and set about rebuilding the walls that had lain destroyed since 1127.
The Federican Walls
The city walls we see today are ostensibly those that Federico Barbarossa started to build in 1158. The work continued until 1192. His walls more or less followed the path of the previous Roman walls but were extended further out. They were built higher than before and castellated. He, like the Byzantines, also dug a ditch along the wall’s external perimeter. The city must have presented a very foreboding presence to those approaching it since no buildings inside the walls were allowed to surpass their height.
He also built the tower at what is now called Porta Torre on the southern entrance to the city from Via Milano. Castel Baradello was rebuilt and the main customs post was moved from Borgo Vico out of the city to Camerlata.
Barbarossa himself suffered a defeat by the forces of the Lombardy League at Legnano in May 1176 CE. He was feared killed but did manage to escape back to the Castel Baradello to rejoin his wife whom he had left there in the safe hands of the local garrison.
Castello Della Torre Rotonda
The conflict between The Holy Roman Emperor and the supporters of the Pope developed into a conflict between local aristocratic families with the side supporting the Papacy, known as the Guelphs and those allied to the Holy Roman Emperor known as the Ghibellines. The Como Guelphs were represented initially by the Vittani family and later by the Delle Torre (or Torriani). The Ghibellines were initially represented by the Rusca family and later by the Milanese Visconti. These two sets of families then battled it out for control of the city over the next hundred years with the Rusca/Visconti having the upper hand. Loterio II Rusca built himself a castle where the Teatro Sociale and the Arena now stand. The building was started in 1284 but was never intended as a defence against external attack. Its purpose instead was to ensure internal control of the city and to keep the city rulers safe from popular insurrection. Loterio Rusca also extended the walls on the eastern side to encompass the Bishop’s Palace and the military port area just north of the Como Nord station.
The growth in the civic power of elite families heralded the period of the ‘Signorie’ lasting from the second half of the 14th to the end of the 15th century. While Florence had the Medici and Mantua the Gonzagas, Como was governed by the Milanese Visconti family. The Ruscas handed power over to Azzone Visconti in 1335. Visconti further strengthened the two southern gates of Porta Nuova and Porta Torre but, more significantly decided to enlarge on the fortified area of the Castello Della Torre to create another defensive line within the city.
The Cittadella Viscontea formed a type of ‘green zone’ within the cite to protect the city rulers, including the bishops, from the rest of the urban population. The walls of the Cittadella extended beyond the castle to cover the area of San Giacomo Church and modern day Piazza Roma. This included the naval military garrison, the Church of San Provino and the bishop’s palace. No traces can be seen of Como’s Cittadella but those established by the Visconti in Piacenza and Bergamo remain.
The Cittadella Viscontea lasted until 1447 when the last in the family line, Filippo Maria Visconti, died. A brief republic was set up in Milan and this gave the inhabitants of Como the opportunity to destroy the Cittadella’s walls. However the period of the Signorie was not yet over as the Sforza family soon came to take the place of the Visconti.
Como Again Under Attack
The start of the 16th century saw Como in the path of the expansionist aims of France, Austria and Spain with the French initially taking control of the city and consolidating its city walls against invasion from the Austrian Emperor Maximilian who was allied to the Milanese Sforza family. In 1508 the French Governor, Jean de Bassey, reduced the number of entrances to the city to just three gates in the walls with Porta Portello on the east side by the castle, Porta Torre to the south and Porta Sala on the west where Via Garibaldi now stands. He also deepened the ditch around the perimeter and flooded it to form a moat.
The Spanish lay siege to Como in 1521 as part of their conflict with France and although the French defended strongly, the Spanish breached the city walls near to modern day Porta Nuova. The French surrendered on 21st December and the Spanish followed this by sacking the city.
In 1532 the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes at the north end of Lake Como on what is now called the Pian di Spagna. This was built as defence against the possibility of further expansion from the Swiss Canton of the Grissons down the Valtellina and to discourage any further spread of Protestantism. For the Spanish, Como had no real strategic value and they certainly were not concerned about the city’s ability to set tariffs on passing trade.
Towards the Modern Era
Fortunately the 17th and 18th centuries proved a relatively quiet period for Como even if under foreign rule. The walls lost much of their defensive purpose and so the owners of the private villas just within their limits were allowed to build the ‘hanging gardens’ that now characterise some sections of the walls on their west and southern facing sides. In 1783, the Comune purchased the walls from the military authorities. They then filled in the moat and turned it into avenues of trees.
One symbol of this growing period of Enlightenment was the use made of the tower beside the Porta Nuova on the south western corner of the city walls. This tower was bought by the Gattoni family back in 1784 and was used by Alessandro Volta to undertake some of his early experiments into the nature of electricity. The tower is now commonly referred to as either Torre Nuova or Torre Gattoni.
The Castello della Torre Rotonda was demolished in its entirety in 1811 to make way for the new opera house, the Teatro Sociale.
Under Napoleonic rule, the defensive role of the walls was reduced further by knocking down the bastions built around the gates to the city and getting rid of the wall’s castellations. The walls still served to mark out the customs area and ensure the payment of tariffs. For this reason entrances to the city were still limited to Porta Sala on the west, Porta Portello on the east and Porta Torre on the south or from the lake to the north. Some minor gates did exist including a gateway allowing Alessandro Volta to exit the city directly from his garden. This was subsequently blocked up again after his death.
In May 1859, Garibaldi led his soldiers after their victory over the Austrians at San Fermo through the gates of Porta Sala to a hero’s welcome. Full unification of an independent Italy would follow a few years later and the fortifications of Porta Sala pulled down. This is still a main entrance way into the old city with the street renamed Via Garibaldi and the area immediately outside the gates of Porta Sala called Piazza Cacciatori delle Alpi – the name given to the troops who fought the Austrians at San Fermo.
Internal customs borders were abolished in 1867 with the walls finally losing their other main role throughout history. From that day new entrance ways into the city began to open up and the only remaining gateway dating back to Federico Barbarossa is the Porta Torre.