June 11th will mark the 500th anniversary of the sacking and almost total destruction of Torno by a Spanish led army consisting of mercenaries and residents of Como. That event stands alongside the destruction of Isola Comacina in 1169 by Federico Barbarossa’s Como army as one of the more brutal acts of aggression meted out by near neighbours on our leg of the lake. The anniversary is being marked by a series of events in Torno. These include a one day convention on June 11th where historians and other experts on the Middle Ages will come together to share insights into life in Torno at that period alongside the background to and the impact of the town’s destruction back then.
June 11th also happens to be the saint’s day of Saint Barnabas, the patron saint of Moltrasio – Torno’s neighbour just over on the western bank of the lake’s Como leg. When Moltrasio rang the church bells to celebrate their saint, the Tornaschi believed they were instead celebrating their neighbour’s devastating misfortune. As explained in this account written by Francesco Ballarini in 1619:
“… on which day (11 June 1522) men from Moltrasio of the ducal estate, placed in front of you on the other side of the Lario, rang the festive bells for the solemnity of San Barnaba, their titular saint, so that they were always hated by the Tornaschi from the hinterland onwards, under the pretext that this sounding was done for the joy of the fire of the enemy land.
Subsequent anniversaries have become occasions to reaffirm the value of peace between neighbours as well as to promote further research into life on the lake in medieval times.
Italy experienced ongoing conflict in the period from 1499 to 1559 as France, Spain and the Papal States sought overall European hegemony. Conflict between Como and Torno was a byproduct of the attempts by the French and the Spanish to wrest control of the Duchy of Milan. Torno had over time become associated as Francophile alongside Menaggio and Lecco. Como instead was happy to be at the bidding of whoever controlled the Duchy. The potential differences in allegiance between near neighbours could literally prove to be incendiary as was to be witnessed in June 1522.
In 1515 Francis 1 became King of France. He immediately sought to recapture the Dukedom of Milan from the Spanish. He faced the Spanish forces which mostly consisted of Swiss mercenaries at Melegnano and won. Como was not happy to find itself again under French rule but Torno was delighted.
Normally one would not expect two towns a mere ten kilometres apart to become embroiled in bloody conflict, but the geopolitical importance of the lake on a key line of communication either for trade or military links with the rest of Europe meant that local disputes rapidly developed into proxy conflicts.
Torno at that time was one of the richest cities on the lake with a population of about 5000 inhabitants and an economy based on the sale of wool. Torno had developed a cross-continental trade buying bails of raw wool from England, France or Spain, to then spin, weave and finish the cloth for export across Continental Europe. However their relationship with Como had moments of friction partly arising from the pressures of competition since Como was also an important producer of woollen cloth.
Como and Torno were both concerned about the others ability to control shipping on the lake. Both towns managed large fleets of merchant and military ships and conflicts often arose when one or the other party complained that the other was denying passage. The French had used Torno as a base to control Brianza and had built up a large fleet so as to keep their ally well provisioned. The Comaschi complained that on occasion the Tornaschi used this fleet to impede their own trade. Como called on the Spanish back in 1515 to punish Torno for just this cause. The Spanish sent an army of Swiss mercenaries over the Alps and down the lake where they then set about destroying Torno’s commercial infrastructure. But later that year France defeated the Spanish at Melegnano and Torno could rebuild its trade without fear of reprisals from Como.
A document now archived in Como’s public library reveals just how Torno profited from the French victory at Melegnano. This document, issued on 1st June 1517 by Count Odetto di Foix (the French Governor of the City and Dukedom of Milan), grants Torno special dispensations from taxes such as the Salt Tax and reductions in the duties liable on the import of raw wool or the export of cloth. Additionally it awarded the city a grant of 2000 Tourinese pounds (a currency emanating from the French city of Tours) as recompense for the damages inflicted by allies of the Spanish in previous years, such as the Swiss attack two years previously.
Francesco II Sforza
On 4th April 1522 Francesco II Sforza, allied to the Spanish Hapsburg King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, retakes Milan with a small army paid for by Charles and the Pope. He defeated the French army made up of Venetians and 8000 Swiss mercenaries who all retreated to Monza. Francesco and the army of the Lega Santa seal their conquest over the French on the following 27th April at Bicocca, then a village half way between Monza and Milan and now an important industrial area.
The retreating French troops take shelter in Como where for two days they manage to resist the attacks of the Spanish troops under the command of the Neapolitan Marchese di Pescara, Fernando D’Avalos. The Spanish are now back in control offering the Comaschi another chance to settle scores with the Tornaschi.
The Conflict of 1522 According to Benedetto Giovio
Benedetto Giovio (1471-1545), the elder brother of the better-known Paolo Giovio, was a contemporary witness to the conflicts of 1522 and recorded them in his Historiae Patriae (1532). His account was written in Latin and subsequently translated into Italian in 1890 and now rendered into English by Google. He records the build up to the fateful June 11th as follows:
Those of Torno and Lecco, in deference to the French, cluttered the lake not letting the city pass the supplies…. Exhausted by so many misfortunes, the Comaschi made constant reminders to Count Martinengo (Count of Villa Chiara Governor of Como) to…. make the lake free and safe for sailors. Therefore the Duke Francesco (II Sforza) hastened the enterprise of Torno. The ships that were ready were soon supplied with cannons and rowers… Anchises Visconti on the side of the lake, with the militias; Calcagno Origoni…. With his team climbing the mountains behind, the Count of Villa Chiara to direct the company…. That expedition, due to the leaders’ discord, failed.
The Tornaschi and the French, boasting great pride, mocked the foolishness of their enemies and believed themselves invincible. And indeed they had closed that village so well, without defense, with walls, with embankments and with cannoncelli placed at all outlets, that few were enough to defend it against a large body of enemies.
11 June 1522
However, having gathered new people and having prepared the boats, Count Martinengo of Villa Chiara arranged a new Torno expedition. He gives command of the fleet to Domenico the Mad, and when he leaves, he prescribes what boundaries to contain. The same count with one thousand and five hundred men gains the mountains above the village and falls upon the enemies…. The French with all the villagers, seeing themselves defeated so easily, retreated to their ships, which the Mad, according to his orders, allowed them to disband … After the Tornaschi were scattered, the count sacked and burned all the houses. And it was on the 11th of June. Moreover, the churches, rich in gold paintings and organs, were laid bare and profaned, and the sacred bronzes lowered from the bell towers. Then the pier was ruined by the sappers and the palaces were razed to the ground; the houses emptied, the vows of the chapels stripped, the iron and all the remains prey to looting. The people were banned and their assets seized as tribute.
Benedetto Giovio was from Como and so this contemporary account stating how the population was spared may not be entirely accurate.
It is true to say that all the previous inhabitants of Torno were banished and their city and its defences were destroyed. The population escaped to resettle further up the lake, to Lecco and even as far away as Bergamo. It was only ten years later when Franceso II Sforza allowed the Tornaschi to return home to rebuild their houses and try to re-establish their commercial activity.
The enmity towards Moltrasio due to the sounding of their bells in what appeared as celebration of their fate led bands of homeless Tornaschi to mount raids on the western shore in revenge.
Linking the Past to the Present
The Italian aphorism ‘O Francia o Spagna purché se magna’ translated as ‘Either France or Spain, as long as we eat’ whose origin is attributed to the medieval Florentine diplomat and historian, Francesco Guicciardini, is as relevant now as a statement of realpolitik as back in the 16th century. And whatever occurred on the shores of Lake Como back in June 1522 has relevance today in the impact it had on the futures of local families and lakeside communities. But the task of seeking to untangle some form of objective understanding of those times is by no means easy. However the Associazione Culturale Via de Benzi 17, like its counterpart Pro Moltrasio over the water, is a very active group of local volunteers working hard to recover knowledge of Torno’s past and disseminating that knowledge to residents and visitors alike. They are currently seeking government funding for a program that would provide grants to students prepared to undertake historical research under the supervision of Professor Paolo Grillo from the State University of Milan. They clearly appreciate the need to link the past to the present as well as recognising how such research can only increase the potential for cultural tourism. Let’s hope they get their funding but we can rest assured that they will in any case continue to organise exhibitions and conferences to disseminate awareness and increased understanding of their historical and cultural heritage.
Anyone wishing to learn more about Torno’s history should contact the Associazione Culturale Via de Benzi 17 directly at that address or by phone to +39 031 419555.
Professor Paolo Grillo has written a number of books on the medieval history of Northern Italy but none are available in English as far as I am aware. His most accessible book for non-specialists is ‘Le Porte del Mondo’ (2019, Mondadori) in which he describes the globalised markets across Europe in trade such as the fine woollen cloth from Torno.
There are a number of walks described in this blog either starting from or arriving at Torno including, Torno Circuit: Piazzaga and Monte Piatto, Strada Regia – From Torno to Pognana, Como to Torno Revisited
We have also written another article on the history of Torno and its conflicts with Como focusing on the town’s apparent possession of one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Go to Santo Chiodo for detail.