Swimability Datafest for Lake Como

For wild swimmers a warm sun glistening off clear fresh water is one of the most enticing of summer pleasures – but one that needs to be consumed with care following a minimum of preparation. For instance, how do you choose where best to take to the water? Our datafest is here to help you select your favoured destination.

clean water

The tempting prospect of a wild swim in the cool, clean and calm waters of Lake Como.

lake como map

We report the data for water quality for each of the locations marked with a blue spot on the Como leg of the lake – from Como to Griante on the west and Como to Bellagio on the east.

In recent years we have tried to report on the data collected by the Italian Ministry of Health and published on their website Portaleaque. This site provides data collected over the summer months on the water quality of most coastal and fresh water bathing sites in Italy including Lake Como. Last year these results for beaches in our area of interest (the southern section of the Como leg of the lake) were not published on time probably due to the Covid pandemic. We have therefore decided to publish a bumper set of data now including the figures for the entire 2021 season running from April to September alongside those results for the preceding years of 2019 and 2020.

The epithet applied on the government site to the vast majority of Lake Como’s beaches is ‘Eccelente’  and we believe the historical data give continuing reassurance on the regularity of the controls undertaken and of the quality of the water on Lake Como’s beaches. They do however reveal some differences between sites and the risk of extraneous events producing anomalous results. For example those water purification plants in the larger centres of population do sometimes fail or find themselves unable to cope with run-off after particularly heavy downpours. Unfortunately climate change is resulting in more numerous instances of dramatic precipitation. In July of last year, for example, ferocious downpours caused flooding, physical damage and washed a mass of detritus down the mountain torrents to form a huge agglomeration along Como’s lakefront. 

detritus

28th July 2021, detritus brought down by mountain streams in flood over previous days fills up the lakefront in Como

Those of you less familiar with our area may be surprised by what are called beaches. While towards the north end of the lake there are relatively long (yet narrow) stretches of lakefront that resemble a traditional beach, down in the south these are rare due to the local geology. Our area is characterised by a series of small communities nestling in valleys cut into mountains that descend steeply to the water’s edge.

careno beach 2

Careno, between Pognana and Nesso on the road to Bellagio, is nestled into a narrow valley with a delightful but unofficial beach besides its Romanesque church.

Beach space is often limited and sunbeds are placed close together (although Covid restrictions limited this temporarily). Most sites described as lidos do provide the option of a swimming pool with more facilities and including somewhere to eat and drink. Some of the Grand Hotels such as Cernobbio’s Villa D’Este have used even more ingenious options such as  ‘floating’ pools and certainly don’t make any compromise to comfort. 

lierna

Lierna is on the Lecco leg of the lake and has a larger beach than most. It is very popular on summer weekends helped by its direct rail link from Milan.

The dedicated wild swimmer may not be interested in anything approaching the formality of a public beach and there are a number of other locations where one can easily access the water. For these locations, swimmers must use common sense and a degree of careful observation and perhaps also take note of the data from any nearby official location. 

Beaches from Como to Griante

Como

geno lido

The lido in Viale Geno only recently reopened.

como data
The lido at Villa Olmo also has a swimming pool as well as access directly on the lake. The lido at Villa Geno only has lake access. With both sites on the edges of the largest centre of population within our area of interest, we can expect figures to vary according to the efficiency of the local water purification plants and their ability to cope with extreme meteorological conditions. 

The lido at Villa Geno has only recently been reactivated following delays in granting a licence to new management. We can only hope that the site opens fully this year given the beauty of its location and the extensive space it occupies on the lakefront.

Cernobbio

cernobbio data
The beach monitored in Cernobbio is within the old galloping track of Villa Erba and at the mouth of the Breggia river. Upriver and just across the border into Switzerland there is a water purification plant that has had issues in the past and no doubt explains some of the poor results shown in the table above. However, somewhat unusually, the beach is not really open to the public but is used instead by a canoeing club. 

For those wishing to swim in Cernobbio there is a lido on the lakefront with a swimming pool but no lake access. Guests of the Villa D’Este have use of the hotel’s attractive ‘floating’ pool over the lake.

Moltrasio

Moltrasio data
The lido in Moltrasio offers access to the lake only. 

Brienno

Going north from Moltrasio there is an unofficial lido with lake access only in Carate Urio and a beach in Laglio undergoing development which has been ‘temporarily’ closed for the last three years. So the first official monitored site after Moltrasio is in Brienno. 

Brienno data
The Brienno location is a lido offering lake access only via a series of wooden platforms for sunbathing served by a bar offering light snacks. 

Argegno

Argegno

View across to Argegno and the start of the Valle Intelvi on the opposite shore.

Argegno data
Argegno’s lido is close to the mouth of the Telo river running down from the Val D’Intelvi. It is in a beautiful location and offers both lake and swimming pool access. 

Colonno

Colonno data

Sala Comacina

La Tirlindana at Sala Comacina

Isola Comacina viewed from the terrace of the Restaurant La Tirlindana in Sala Comacina

Sala Comacina data

Ossuccio

Ossuccio data

This and the nearby beach in Sala Comacina are perhaps in one of the most picturesque locations in our area with views over to the nearby Isola Comacina. Ossuccio does however seem to have a better record for water quality than its near neighbour. 

Lenno

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

Lenno data
Tremezzina

Tremezzina data

Results for Tremezzina are more varied than most with the beach in the Parco Olivelli being closed due to some pollution incident towards the end of last year’s season.

Griante

Griante data

Whatever caused the poor figures for Parco Olivelli in nearby Tremezzina may also have impacted the beaches in Griante which is a pity since the figures for Banderan earlier last year were amongst the best on the lake.

Beaches from Como to Bellagio

Faggeto Lario

Faggeto lido

The lido at Faggeto Lario pictured off season in uncharacteristically high wind.

Faggeto Lario data

Faggeto Lario’s lido offers lake access only managed by a bar that boasts a plastic free environment. The area is small but the location is glorious and the water quality consistently good.

Nesso

Bridge at Nesso

The Civera Bridge in Nesso.

Nesso data
Lezzeno

Lezzeno data
The town of Lezzeno stretches along the lakeside with three distinct beach areas. However the Rivabella Crotto site has been closed due to pollution for the last three years but fortunately the other two sites fare much better with Bagnana winning out with a more consistently good water quality.

Bellagio

View of Bellagio

Bellagio ‘the pearl of the lake ‘ – viewed from San Giovanni

Bellagio is described as the jewel of the lake and fortunately its two beaches also live up to this reputation.

Bellagio data

fish and birds

Let’s all hope for a great 2022 summer season with plenty of opportunity for wild swimming.

Posted in Itineraries, Lake, Places of interest, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

Alberto Ascoli

Alberto Ascoli in 1919 when at the age of 29 he undertook a tour of hydro-electric plants in the mountains. From the CDEC Library

On the 17th September 1943 Alberto Ascoli crossed into Switzerland from Como to Chiasso along with his wife and three children. They thus managed to avoid arrest and deportation to a Nazi-run extermination camp.  Alberto, 53 years old at the time, had been educated at the Politecnico di Milano as an electrical engineer. He later gained a doctorate  and went on to become Director of Supplies for Edison before being dismissed and classed an enemy of the state under Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws of 1938.  He and his family returned safely to Milan on the 3rd May 1945. 

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi

His sister, Olga Luigia Ascoli (better known as Luigina), and her husband Guido Levi went to make the same crossing six days later on 23rd September. The elderly couple had moved from Milan a year earlier to avoid the mounting number of bombing raids on the city. They had been living at No. 28 Via Volta and had, up to two weeks earlier, no intention to seek safety in Switzerland. Luigina had recently told relatives that ‘We aren’t going to move, we are old, they won’t do anything to us’. 

Levi-2021

Plaque inserted in the pavement in front of Guido Levi’s home on Via Castel Morrone, Milan. These plaques are placed around Europe outside the homes of those murdered in the Holocaust. This initiative was introduced by German artist Gunter Demnig as a means of confronting those who deny the Holocaust. The German name for these plaques is ‘Stolpersteine’. Those for Guido Levi and his wife Luigina Ascoli were laid on 29th January 2021 during the Covid lockdown.

Ascoli-2021

Once Mussolini had been overthrown, the official Italian government signed a peace treaty with the Allies (the  Italian Armistice) on 8th September 1943. This was immediately followed by the Nazi occupation of all parts of Italy not yet liberated by the Allied armies making their way up from the south. Como itself was occupied by the Nazis on 12th September 1943.  The Nazis then reinstated Mussolini as head of a puppet fascist state.  From this date on, the future for both foreign and Italian Jews in Italy turned decidedly worse. While previously Jews had suffered severe discrimination effecting their livelihoods, they now faced a persecution risking their very lives – so much so that Luigina and Guido had decided to follow Luigina’s brother’s example to expatriate. They set out on that fateful morning of the 23rd by trolley bus to Maslianico – the town just outside of Cernobbio on the border with Chiasso. There they had alighted at the town hall to wait in the nearby Giardinetto Hotel for a good moment to make the crossing. But they were both taken prisoner by a Nazifascist border militia, the 2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’ Brigade, and held temporarily in Como’s San Donnino prison.

swiss border parco spina verde

Remains of the fence marking the Swiss border in the Parco Spina Verde to the west of Como. While it was easy to cross the border here, it was also easy to police it. Many therefore chose to cross over Monte Bisbino just to the north of Como accessible from Carate, Moltrasio or Cernobbio.

1938 Race Laws

Prior to September 1943, no foreign or Italian Jews had been deported from the country although Mussolini had introduced  anti-Semitic race laws back in 1938 and life for Jews had been getting progressively difficult. Many foreign Jews had previously migrated to Italy from France, Germany, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In fact Italy had placed no restrictions on immigration prior to March 1938 although foreign Jews were only given six months within which to organise their onward emigration and were not permitted to work. They faced severe hardship unless they had the means for further emigration. Most had sought to enter the USA, Brazil or get permission to enter Switzerland. But from the moment the Nazifascist state was constituted, the fascist authorities joined their Nazi allies in effecting the policy of deportation to Nazi-run extermination and labour camps. The Italian authorities were fully aware what fate awaited those they were deporting.

DifesaRazza

Using stereotypical caricature, this Nazifascist poster summarises the restrictions imposed by Mussolini’s 1938 Race Laws.

When the armistice was signed on 8th September, all previous prisoners of war and political enemies of the fascists were released from prison. But the almost immediate German occupation of the northern and central part of the country left this mass of released prisoners of war, anti-fascists and demobbed soldiers anxious to escape either to the liberated zones to the south or over the Swiss border to the north. To their number must be added those Jews who now fully recognised the severity of Mussolini’s anti-Semitism and the risks to life of remaining within Nazi occupied territory. One of the easiest of the routes into Switzerland was via Como.

Bellinzona internment camp

Male refugees were placed alongside ex-Prisoners of War in Bellinzona’s internment camp if they managed not to be turned back by the Swiss authorities.

Swiss Immigration laws did not recognise the right of asylum for racial motives until July 1944 and had officially denied entry to all males over the age of sixteen from September 1938. In reality the Swiss authorities in Ticino would allow entry to those ‘in grave danger of their lives’ if they felt they had the capacity to house males in the Bellinzona internment camp and place females within those households prepared to receive them.  In the period immediately following the Armistice and the Nazi occupation of Como (from 9th to 16th September 1943) the border at Chiasso remained unguarded and 14,000 people entered Canton Ticino. 

The Nazi authorities immediately recognised the importance of the Como to Chiasso border and by 18th September had set up ‘Grenzwache’ (Border Control) contingents in Como and in other border provinces such as Varese and Sondrio, They actually occupied the Chiasso border crossing on 20th September and prevented passenger trains from continuing any further than Como. From this point on, all migration to Switzerland would have to be clandestine. 

view to moltrasio

Looking back on the road up to Monte Bisbino. Moltrasio is in the foreground with Carate Urio behind it.

The main clandestine routes over the border were in the Province of Varese although the area from Brienno, Moltrasio, Carate Urio, Cernobbio up to to Monte Bisbino and across to Sagno and the Valle di Muggio was much used particularly by the ex-prisoners of war and Italian deserters. The CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale),  the anti-fascist opposition, had set up clandestine routes using local smugglers for years during the fascist regime as a means of allowing people and propaganda to move freely in or out of Switzerland. They established a degree of assurance about the price and reliability of those smugglers approved by them to guide escapees across the border. Many of the local border control police (the Guardia di Finanza) also assisted those seeking to make a clandestine crossing over the mountains. Many other local priests and other individuals aided those seeking to escape. 

Valle di Muggio from Bisbino

Looking down from the summit of Monte Bisbino across to the Valle di Muggio in Switzerland with Monte Generoso (also on the border) in the background. Crossing into Swiss territory was no guarantee of safety since many seeking to expatriate were returned across the border by the Swiss authorities.

On 30th November 1943 Mussolini’s Ministry of the Interior passed a decree calling on the police to arrest all Jews irrespective of nationality, to place them in concentration camps, and to seize all their worldly possessions. But in Como the  2nd Legion ‘Monte Rosa’  hadn’t waited for this official order.  The group boasted to the local Prefecture that they had arrested 58 Jews in the initial period of persecution from September to December 1943, and had even increased this to 137 by the end of February 1944. Within that same period (from September 43 to February 44) 117 locals had been arrested for ‘aiding and abetting’ expatriation. The fascists had used a number of techniques to achieve these results including infiltrating the rescue groups by posing as Jews seeking asylum. Those arrested included Primo Mazza who used his trattoria in Brunate  – the ‘Volta’ – as a base for organising clandestine border crossings. While many individuals like Primo Mazza, including local priests and partisans were assisting escapees, there were others all too keen to denounce their Jewish neighbours out of spite or in exchange for the monetary rewards on offer by the fascist state. 

Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio

Cernobbio-Villa Locatelli

Villa Locatelli is on Cernobbio’s lakefront. The SS also occupied Villa Carminate further uphill towards Rovenna.

Right from the start of their occupation with a few notable exceptions, the Nazis were happy to leave the hunt and capture of Jews to the Italian fascist authorities while they took responsibility for organising the deportations to extermination and labour camps in Eastern Europe – the most common destination being  Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazi administration of the Holocaust was characterised by a gruesome charade of quasi-legalistic bureaucracy through which detainees were processed.  Under the authority of the German SS, they established an office in Cernobbio to administer the processing of detainees across the western half of their occupied territory. This office – the Grenzbefehisstelle West – was run by Captain Joseph Votterl, who was later to play a critical role in facilitating the peace negotiations between Karl Wolff, Head of the SS in Italy, and Allen Dulles, Head of the American Secret Service  – the OSS. 

Villa Carminati

Villa Carminati

Cernobbio offered the ideal location with its proximity to the Swiss border and at the foot of Monte Bisbino – one of the main routes for clandestine crossings. Within Cernobbio, Votterl’s group occupied two buildings, Villa Carminate and Villa Locatelli. Joseph Votterl who had emigrated to the United States in the 1920s before returning to Germany, was in fact a double agent working  for the Americans while also administering the Nazi policy of exterminating Jews. His role was to determine the fate of those Jews brought to his office by the Italian fascist police and militias.

Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli, the elderly couple arrested in Maslianico on 23rd September 1943, were taken to Joseph Votterl’s offices in Villa Locatelli for interrogation. The Nazi administration of the Shoah in Italy was complicated by the varying nationalities of those detained and by the need to consider if not respect any rights these nations claimed towards the repatriation of their own citizens. Votterl’s group served to provide this semblance of respect for the law and to confirm the Italian fascist state’s right to seize the possessions of those arrested. The group in Cernobbio may also have been responsible for organising the transport of deportees from Milan to Auschwitz. After their interrogation at Villa Locatelli, Guido Levi and Luigina were transferred to Milan’s San Vittore prison. Votterl then sent a letter to the Prefecture in Como dated 2nd November 1943 stating that they could proceed to seize all  the couple’s possessions in their Como home on Via Diaz and at their main Milan residence at Number 12, Via Castel Morrone. 

Binario 21

binario 21

Platform 21 – the underground platform at Milan’s Stazione Centrale where deportees were loaded into cattle trucks for the five or six day journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

At Milan’s Stazione Centrale the underground track used to load and unload mail bags was converted for loading cattle trucks with human cargo destined for the Nazi extermination and labour camps. The so-called Binario 21 (Platform 21) was deemed perfectly suited for this as it was out of sight of the local population. The very first convoy to leave Binario 21 was made up exclusively of Jews destined for Auschwitz. It was named Convoy No. 5 and left Milan on 6th December 1943 with 155 deportees, picking up a further 95 with stops at Verona and Trieste. The convoy arrived in Auschwitz five days later on 11th December. Out of those 250 deportees, only six would survive.

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi were among those 250 deportees on Convoy No. 5.  They were killed on arrival at Auschwitz. Also on board was Guido’s brother, Pacifico Levi. Pacifico was 76 at the time – 15 years older than Guido. He was also killed immediately on arrival. There is no record of when Pacifico was arrested but he alongside his brother and sister-in-law had been detained in Milan’s San Vittore prison. 

Luigi Del Monte

Gigi Del Monte

Luigi Del Monte, from the Archives of the CDEC

Luigi Del Monte was another Jew deported on Convoy 5 from Binario 21. He with his wife, Anna Levi, their two children Ugo and Mirella and Anna’s father Giuseppe and his two sons (Anna’s brothers)  Samuele and Guglielmo had all left their home town of Napoli to re-establish themselves in Milan in 1942.

giuseppe levi

Giuseppe Levi

The entire family then moved to Moltrasio, alongside many other Milanese, seeking to avoid the regular heavy allied bombardments and to be near the border in case of the need to expatriate in a hurry. But the Germans arrived too soon for them to escape when they interrupted the family dinner on 26th October 1943. Anna and the two children evaded capture by rushing out the back door of their home and hiding overnight in a dense grotto at the rear of their garden. Luigi, his father-in-law and Anna’s two brothers were arrested and taken to Milan’s San Vittore prison with Luigi subsequently deported alongside those other 154 Jews loaded into the cattle trucks on the 6th December destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. He would never return home.

Nor would his father-in law and Anna’s two brothers fare any better but their deportation was delayed until they were placed in a convoy leaving the Fossoli Concentration Camp on 16th May 1944 to arrive in Auschwitz seven days later. None of them survived. What caused the delay to their deportation was the fact that all three held Portuguese passports in spite of Anna’s family being Greek in origin.

samuele levi

Samuele Levi

Some foreign embassies in Nazi occupied territories, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese, had issued some passports in a humanitarian gesture to assist Jews facing Nazi deportation. The Spanish and Portuguese had offered some nationality rights to those who could claim ancestry links to the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Spanish peninsula back in the 15th century. There were some cases where foreign embassies had managed to intervene and safeguard expatriation for a number of Jews using this means. Giuseppe had acquired such passports for his family from the Portuguese Embassy which had also moved out of Milan to occupy the same house as Luigi to avoid the heavy bombardment.  It was down to Captain Joseph Votterl in his headquarters at Villa Locatelli to adjudicate on whether Portuguese citizens of Jewish origin should be shown any leniency and if so to judge the validity of the passports issued to Giuseppe and his sons. Votterl established that the family was not Portuguese and would thus face deportation.  He communicated his judgement in the letter shown below to the Como Prefecture. In this he confirms that the fascist authorities could go ahead and seize all the family possessions. 

votterl letter

Letter from Joseph Votterl to the Como Prefecture sealing the fate of Giuseppe, Samuele and Guglielmo Levi.

Ugo del Monte

Ugo Del Monte became a Professor of General Pathology at the University of Milan. He died in July 2017

Anna, Ugo and Mirella waited until the early hours to climb over their garden’s back wall to take refuge in the nearby home of their elderly neighbour, Emma Ripamonti. Emma kept the family safe until they could reach their second home in the village of Sant’Anna above Argegno a week later. Here they stayed for a further four weeks while trying to organise an escape into Switzerland via Porlezza. This proved too difficult so Anna brought her children back towards Moltrasio where she had the good fortune to meet up with another elderly lady in Carate Urio. This lady’s sons were local smugglers who agreed to guide Anna and the children over the border by Monte Bisbino. So they, as in the case of Luigina Ascoli’s brother, Alberto, found safety in Switzerland and were able to return home to Italy once the war was over.

Conclusion

Fascism is powered by nationalistic enmity of the ‘other’ and in this respect Mussolini’s Italy was no different from Hitler’s Germany. Once Nazi Germany had occupied Northern Italy, Italian fascism’s appeal to a nationalistic patriotism was patently bogus leaving Mussolini entirely dependent on exploiting enemies within to fuel his shrinking populist appeal. And for that the fascists were prepared to sacrifice their own citizens, the majority of whom had been loyal supporters of the regime in former years. The Brigate Nere and the Legions of the National Guard (Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, or GNR) were very quick to take on the task of hunting down Jews following the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy. The Italian authorities were fully aware of the fate that would await those they handed over to the Nazis for deportation. Beyond the strategy of creating an enemy within, from a moral perspective it hardly matters what else motivated Mussolini’s government to participate so enthusiastically with the Nazis – whether over time it had adopted Nazi racial fanaticism or sought to profit from the seizure of its condemned population’s property and valuables or both. Nor can the fascists excuse themselves by arguing that a much lower percentage of their Jewish population faced murder than those from most other nations occupied by the Nazis. The numbers were only lower due to the shorter time available for the Nazifascists to implement the Shoah on Italian soil and the fact that the allies were gradually gaining control over more of the territory freeing those deemed ‘enemies of the state’  purely due to their race from the risk of deportation. 

via volta

Via Volta, Como. Guido Levi and Luigina Ascoli lived in No. 28 for a year prior to attempting their crossing into Switzerland on September 23rd 1943.

Sources

Francesco Scomazzon, Maledetti figli di Guida, Vi Prenderemo!: la caccia nazifascista agli ebrei. Published in 2005 by Arterigere-Chiarotto Editrice.

CDEC – Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea

For a recent evaluation of Italian antisemitism in the years leading up to and including the Shoah and why so many Italian Jews chose not to confront the dangers before it was too late, read Shira Klein’s Italy’s Jews from Emancipation to Fascism, published in 2018 by Cambridge University Press and available in English on Kindle.

Local publisher Nodo Libri have recently reprinted Rosaria Marchesi’s account of the fate of Jews in the Province of Como titled Como Ultima Uscita: Storie di Ebrei nel capoluogo lariano 1943-1944.

Further Reading

Thanks to its position close to the Swiss border, its proximity to Milan and as a gateway north over the Alps, Como became the location for some of the most notorious events during the Second World War apart from the actual fighting between the allied armies and the Nazis.

Read Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust for some accounts of those who aided Jews and other state enemies escape over the Swiss border, including members of the Border Police – the Guardia di Finanza.

Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino describes the impact of the Race Laws of 1938 and one Jewish family’s experience in crossing over to safety.

Many ex-Italian soldiers, trades unionists and anti-fascists were deported to work in Nazi labour camps. Read Como’s Ines Figini, Auschwitz Survivor – A Celebration for International Women’s Day for the account of this young woman’s arrest and deportation for supporting a strike in Como’s largest silk factory.

Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes the heroism of a local priest, Don Carlo Banfi, in aiding escapees.

There had been a long tradition of smuggling along the border with Switzerland and smugglers played a key role in assisting escapees using their knowledge of the mountain paths and how to avoid border patrols. Not all smugglers were honourable and there are cases of some betraying those they had been paid to help. We have written a number of articles about the smuggling tradition including The Romantic Era of Smuggling: A Game of Cat and Mouse on Lake Como and Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?

Lake Como witnessed the last days of Mussolini and his lover, Claretta Petacci who were killed locally along with other members of the fascist hierarchy before their bodies were carried down to be displayed in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. 25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection describes what happened in and around Como during Mussolini’s last few days.

 

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Lake Como Boatyards: Luxury Boats

taxi boat cernobbio

One of the captains piloting a Venetian style water taxi belonging to Cernobbio Taxi Service.

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. 

water taxi

A ‘Vaporino’ style water taxi on the Sant’Agostino jetty in Como.

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.

gondola villa carlotta

A Como-style gondola in service at the Villa Carlotta

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. 

Ending the journey, coming into RIchond

An original British ‘Inglesina’ used to recreate the trip taken on the River Thames as described by Jerome K. Jerome in his novel ‘Three Men in a Boat’ – seen here at Richmond

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. 

Como-piazza-Cavour-Volta -1914-G

Como, Piazza Cavour 1914 with a row of ‘Inglesine’ water taxis in the foreground. Copyright Collezione Piero Vasconi

Cranchi inglesina

An ‘Inglesina’ on display at the Lake Como Boat Museum. This model was built by the Cranchi boatyard in Cadenabbia.

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.

dulcinea

The Dulcinea, an Inglesina built by Taroni of Carate Urio in 1920 with a bow adapted to house an outboard motor. On display at the Lake Como Boat Museum.

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.

ernesto riva 2016-07_Vaporina_11

The Vaporino built recently by Ernesto Riva of Laglio and Maslianico for the proprietors of the Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana hotels.

Vaporino Ernesto Riva

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. 

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The iconic Acquarama built by Riva of Sarnico on Lake Iseo. From the 1950s onwards Lake Como’s boatyards also focussed on designing and building similar runabouts which became icons of mid-century Italian design.

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.

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An MTM torpedo boat built by Cranchi of Cadenabbia and converted after the last war for domestic use. Housed in the Lake Como Boat Museum.

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Poster of the film celebrating the exploits of the ‘human torpedoes’ (MTM boats) which successfully disabled HMS York in Crete in 1941.

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.  

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The bow of the Colombo 007 built in the Colombo yard in Menaggio in 1964. Housed at the Lake Como Boat Museum.

 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.

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Maintenance and renovation work being undertaken by Cantiere Cadenazzi in Tremezzo

Further Reading

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. 

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A modern runabout, a Pegaso 28 Evo , the Mostes boatyard in Lezzeno.

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.

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Lake Como Boatyards: The Champions

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A map illustrating the large number of businesses involved in boating on the western shore and Como leg of Lake Como.

It was Julius Caesar back in 49 BCE who first established the craft of boat building on Lake Como. He set up colonies of Greek artisans to help build and maintain the boats needed to transport his troops and to defend the lake as part of the trade routes he established over the Alps. The Byzantines added their expertise such that a boat building tradition was established that lasts to this day.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Lake Como had become a favoured location for aristocratic villas and so started a further expansion of local boat building to include luxury man-powered launches and gondolas. Ferdinando Taroni migrated from Venice to set up the family boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790.

From out of that business numerous other family dynasties of boat builders established themselves on the lake. Not all but most of those families are still involved in one way or another in boat building. In addition to Taroni, they include Riva, Cranchi, Mostes, Matteri, Molinari, Abbate, Colombo, Cadenazzi  and Posca  – all originating on Lake Como. With the increased use of the lake for recreation, some of these boatyards developed international renown in building competition sailing boats and powerboats. 

Power Boat Racing

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The Centomiglia del Lario, organised by the Como Yacht Club, was first held in 1949 and proved a catalyst in developing the lake’s powerboat businesses.

Every year the Como Yacht Club hosts the powerboat racing gala, the Centomiglia del Lario. The race was first established in 1949 with funding provided by Remo Cademartori, proprietor at the time of a large villa in Blevio and owner of the cheese empire that still bears the family name. Cademartori also provided the funding needed to revive the fortunes of the Taroni boatyard in Carate Urio which had been established by Ferdinando Taroni back in 1790.  A powerboat built in the Taroni yard at Carate Urio won the very first edition of this long distance race.

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Advertisement for the Cantiere Timossi listing their successes in powerboat competitions.

Another boat builder further up the lake in Mezzegra was interested in power boat racing. This was Guido Abbate who won one of the first Gold medals awarded by the Federazione Italiana Motonautica travelling at a record breaking 80 km/h in a boat named Pamblo. The Abbate yard had first been established in 1873 but under Guido it became world famous for building so-called ‘Three Point Hydroplanes’. Guido himself was a very successful power boat pilot and won the Centomiglia del Lario three years running from 1955.

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The first three point hydroplane brought over to Italy from the United States – Blitz III powered by a V* engine.

Three Point Hydroplanes 

In 1949, the Americans brought over to Europe the first so-called three-point hydroplane with a V8 engine. This revolutionary design allowed the boat to rise when powered up such that there were only three points of the hull touching the water. This design opened up a new era in powerboat racing and massive opportunities for Lake Como’s boatyards to dominate the sector. 

Cantiere Mostes

The Cantiere Mostes in Faggeto Lario is just one of the boatyards on Lake Como that produced winning hydroplanes during the golden era of powerboat racing

The story goes that Guido Abbate stole the design of Blitz III by breaking in overnight to its storage under Como’s Stadio Sinigaglia on Viale Puecher and jotting down all its particulars. Others have claimed the industrial espionage was done by the Verona based producers of marine motors, BPM, while Blitz III was competing at Trieste. Whatever the truth, Guido Abbate was just one of the Lake Como yards to go on to design record breaking 3 point hydroplanes. 

The apex of success for Italian pilots of three point hydroplanes and the Lake Como boatyards which produced them came on  December 27th 1953 at the Orange Bowl Regatta in Miami Beach. As the Associated Press agency reported:

Three Italian power-boat racers took first, third and fourth today in the international Grand Prix, feature event of the four-day Orange Bowl regatta.

The winner was Mario Verga, a Como industrialist in a boat called Laura 2 built on Lake Como in Mezzegra by Cantiere Giulio Abbate. The other Italians mentioned were Ezio Selva whose boat Moschettiere was built in the Cantiere Carlo Timossi and Achille Castoldi piloting a boat also built by Carlo Timossi.

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The Cantiere Timossi in Azzano. Timossi was eventually incorporated into the nearby Cantiere Giulio Abbate.

The Cantiere Carlo Timossi was based in Azzano on Lake Como. Carlo Timossi started as a designer for the famous yard of Pietro Riva based in Sarnaco on Lake Iseo. Riva permitted him to develop specialist hydroplanes whose production soon moved over to Lake Como. Timossi’s greatest success came from his collaboration with the champion pilot, Ezio Selva, and the series of his hydroplanes called Moschettiere powered by Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engines. 

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Dramatised illustration of Ezio Selva’s fatal accident in Miami while trying to break the world speed record in his hydroplane, Moschettiere

Ezio Selva gained fame as an Olympic diving athlete who, on retiring from that sport, took up speed boat racing in 1950. He won Italian and European Championships in 1951, 1952 and 1954. In December 1957, in trials before the Orange Bowl Regatta at Miami Beach, he improved on his own personal  record of 141 mph to break the world speed record for his class at 146.1 mph, aided by the same Alfa Romeo Formula 1 engine used by Manual Fangio in 1951. Three days later his boat, Moschettiere, flipped over at 100mph in front of the judge’s podium during the second heat of the Orange Bowl Grand Prix. His son dived into the water to save his father but tragically he had already been killed on impact with the water.

Carlo Timossi also built the Ferrari Timossi Arno XI for Achille Castoldi. Castoldi decided to concentrate on seeking to break world records once Mario Verga replaced him as Alfa Romeo’s  principal competition pilot in 1953.  He also decided to switch to a Ferrari V12 to power his hydroplane in a bid to beat the world speed record for boats in the 800kg class. Castoldi duly did break that record on the 15th October 1953 at Sarnico on Lake Iseo travelling at 242.708 km/h. Since that class of boat no longer exists, Castoldi’s record stands to this day. The Ferrari Timossi Arno is now displayed in the Ferrari museum.  

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Carlo Timossi stands beside his Ferrari Arno Timossi built for Achille Castoldi in which Castoldi beat the world speed record for this class on Lake Iseo

Ferrari Timossi

The restored Ferrari Timossi Arno XI in the Ferrari Museum.

Meanwhile, in the Abbate boatyard in nearby Mezzegra, Guilio Abbate was building Laura for Mario Verga. Verga owned a silk printing business on Como’s Val Mulini which provided him with the funds he needed to indulge his love of speed boat racing. His boats, all named Laura after his daughter, were powered by Alfa Romeo as were the Moschettiere of his friend and rival, Ezio Selva. In 1953, with Laura 1, he won the World Championship in the 450kg class. In the same year he won the 800kg championship in Laura 2. He then turned to the Timossi boat yard to build Laura 3 with specifications he hoped would win him the world speed record. Trials of this new boat started in July of 1954 with Mario keen to get the record before Donald Campbell’s jet-powered Bluebird could enter the competition. On 9th October 1954, Mario set to break the record on Lake Iseo but, as the boat reached 190 mph it bounced twice on the water with its nose rising ever higher until it mounted into the air, backflipped and crashed down into the lake. The rescue boat found Mario dead in the cockpit. Thus ended the golden era of Italy’s powerboat racers – but not the continuing international success of Como pilots and boatyards.

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Laura 1 built for Mario Verga by Cantiere Giulio Abbate

Laura 1

The renovated Laura 1 originally built by Cantiere Giulio Abbate and now kept in the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Painello del Lario

Tullio Abbate

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The logo of the Cantiere Tullio Abbate incorporating 5 as the number of his winning hydroplane in the Centomiglia del Lario

The Timossi boatyard was bought up in 1980 by Tullio Abbate who had taken over his father’s boatyard in Mezzegra in 1975. Tullio introduced new construction materials as early as 1969 to his father’s boatyard as he gradually moved away from wood and aluminium to fibreglass bodies. He was also a very keen and successful speedboat pilot who beat his father’s record of victory at the Centomiglia del Lario by taking the cup eleven times over his career. He broke the world speed record for his class of boat in 1997 travelling at 223 km/h. 

Tullio’s boatyard became synonymous with speed and he attracted a vast range of clients from the world of motor racing as well as other celebrities interested in purchasing one of the yard’s speedboats such as the Sea Star range. His client list included Schumacher, Piquet, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Maradona, Matthaus, Prost, Airton Senna, Vialli, Mancini, Giacomo Agostini, Arturo Merzario, Bruno Giacomelli, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Stefano Casiraghi as well as  Silvester Stallone, Madonna and the Versace family – many of whom visited his boatyard in person. As he has stated: 

Here we have been used to hosting celebrities a good thirty years before Clooney arrived. Here in this boat yard that was originally a textile mill and where they made tennis rackets and skis – because I am a man of the lake and I will never leave this corner of the world.’

Unfortunately Tullio Abbate did leave this world recently on 9th April 2020 struck down by Covid-19 in Milan’s San Raffaele Hospital. He was 75 years old. His boat yard is now in the hands of his children. Elsewhere the Abbate name continues through Bruno Abbate and his boatyards in Grandola ed Uniti on the lake as well as larger production sites in Sardinia. Bruno Abbate has continued the tradition of powerboat production and the Primatist range of luxury yachts.

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Tullio Abbate in the hydroplane Number 5 in which he won the Centomiglia del Lario

While Giulio Abbate and Carlo Timossi started off the local tradition of building three point hydroplanes, other boatyards also took up the challenge. Particular mention needs be made of the Molinari family with Eugenio, Renato, Livio and Angelo all producing three point hydroplanes. Some of these can be seen in the Eugenio Molinari Museum in Lezzeno

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Logo of the Cantiere Nautico Lucini in Lipomo

A boatyard in Lipomo named Lucini e Frigerio started 3 point hydroplane production in the 1970s and gained significant success throughout the 80s and 90s. The yard still exists and it is now the main site for renovation of old boats. For example the Lucini yard renovated the Ferrari powered hydroplane owned by Count Guido Monzino, the owner of the Standa chain of department stores and the last private proprietor of Villa Balbianello

Count Guido Monzino 

Guido Monzino was not a regular competition pilot but he was the owner of a hydroplane he had built for him by the San Marco yard in Milan. Monzino was born in 1928 into an aristocratic family living in Moltrasio. He went on to take over the directorship of the family business, the Standa chain of department stores.

monzino

The adventurer Guido Monzino used to commute from his home on the lake to Como in his San Marco Ferrari V12 hydroplane

However he was also an explorer and an adventurer who had financed and led a successful expedition to the North Pole in 1971 and to the summit of Mount Everest in 1973. Back in 1957 he had bought a Ferrari V12 engine salvaged from a fatal crash in 1953 during the Mexican Carrera Panamericana. Monzino had this engine mounted into the San Marco hydroplane and then used it for his daily commute on Lake Como to the Como Yacht Club on Viale Puecher. From there he would get into his Ferrari car to continue on his journey to the Milan headquarters of Standa. In 1958 he competed with this boat  in the Raid Pavia Venezia, the longest river race in the world. He came a very respectable third.  He later lost interest in the boat and dedicated more of his time to exploration. In 1974 he achieved a lifetime ambition by buying the Villa del Balbianello, and so devoted his energy to restoring the villa to its present day glory. So in 1969 the boat, now in a sorry state, was sold in auction to Dody Jost, an Austrian student who was studying at the time at the Milanese Brera Academy. In 1992 he gave the hull over to the Cantiere Lucini in Lipomo and the engine to Ferrari with restoration finally completed by 1998.  The boat is now viewable (along with other hydroplanes) in Jost’s museum attached to the Hotel Nautilus at Moregge on the western shores of the Lecco leg of the lake. 

ferrari monzino

The San Marco Ferrari V12 previously owned by Guido Monzino and bought in 1969 by Dody Jost and restored in 1998 by Cantiere Nautico Lucini

Star Class Sailing Yachts

Specifications for Star Class yachts were first established in 1911. The class first entered the Olympics in 1932 at Los Angeles and has since proved to be the longest lasting of the Olympic classes. In recent years the world market for this type of boat has been dominated by only three suppliers – two of which are based on Lake Como. They are Lillia Cantiere Nautico, a boatyard originally set up in the 1950s in Musso but  building Star class since 1975 and now based in Pianello del Lario, and Folli Lariovela established in 1977 in Abbadia Lariana.

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A Lillia Star Class yacht in action

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Star Class specification

While production of power boats has been mainly based on the Como leg of the lake, these sailing boatyards are found where the lake winds Breva from the south and Tivano from the north predominate – all the way up the Lecco leg and across the northern part of the lake.

The success of these two yards in the Star class is phenomenal. Folli and Lillia came second, third and fifth in the 1980 World Championships. In the Athens Olympics of 2004, Lillia took gold, silver and bronze. Lilla have won five Olympic, twenty nine World, forty one European and fifty National titles. Folli have also shared similar successes.

Lillia’s Star class production was started by Gianni Lillia leaving his brother Domenico, better known as Meco, to run the family butcher shop in Musso. Gianni died tragically young from cancer in 1981 at which point Meco, in spite of having no knowledge of boat building, decided to take over the business and keep his brother’s vision and ambitions alive. Lillia logoIt was thanks to Meco’s collaboration with Torben Grael, a then young gifted Brazilian yacht racer, that he turned the business into a world leader. Grael went on to become the so-called ‘Maradona of Yacht Racing’ while Lillia achieved world wide predominance alongside Folli in the production  of these boats.

Danilo Folli, originally from Milan,  was himself a keen sailor and yachting competitor.   He decided in 1977 to set up his own boatyard in Abbadia Lariana dedicated to the production of Star class yachts.  He and his family moved up at the same time to live in nearby Mandello Lario

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Folli Lariovela logo

Thanks to a collaboration with designer Gilberto Colombo, Folli Lariovela soon established itself alongside Lillia as a world leader. Danilo’s name lives on in the annual Danilo Folli Memorial Trophy race held in Mandello. Both Folli and Lillia are still family-run businesses producing boats apprised for their quality around the world.

Where to Visit

For anyone interested in the history of boat production on Lake Como, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is a must. Here you can see the reproduction of Mario Verga’s Laura, many other hydroplanes and a collection of the sailing boats produced elsewhere on the lake. I cannot recommend this museum sufficiently. It has been well resourced to create excellent displays with multi-lingual information. 

primatist-b41-28 and Villa balbianello

Bruno Abbate, descendent of Giulio Abbate, now focuses production on customised luxury yachts with one of the Primatist range on display in front of the Villa del Balbianello

Examples of three point hydroplanes can also be seen at the Eugenio Molinari Museum in Lezzeno and the Giulio Abbate Museum in Grandola ed Uniti. 

Examples of Lake Como boats powered by Ferrari motors can be seen at the Ferrari Museum in Maranello and Modena while Alfa Romeo boats can be seen at the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho on the outskirts of Milan. The San Marco Ferrari V12 hydroplane commissioned by Count Guido Monzino and other hydroplanes can be viewed at the Scuderia  Dody Jost in the Hotel Motel Nautilus in Moregge.

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Hydroplanes in the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho

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Dolinski ‘Sui Muri’ of Como’s Villa del Grumello

This article follows on from meeting up with Debra recently and a visit to her permanent exhibition in the Villa del Grumello.

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Debra Dolinski with one of her wall studies

On the 30th September this year Debra Dolinski was able to fulfil a long standing ambition to see her art works permanently installed in what she considers to be their perfect location – the Villa del Grumello. The permanent exhibition is entitled ‘Sui Muri’ – on the walls – and it consists of digitised photographic studies of the impact, effect and changes of light on simple walled surfaces – walls on walls.  

Pink Sweater

This series entitled ‘Pink Sweater’ consists of 8 panels recording the changes in light over a set period of time on a single day.

The Villa del Grumello is a delightful summer pavilion set in the midst of a botanical park along the so-called Kilometro di Coscienza running from Villa Olmo to the Villa Sucota. The building dates back to the 1500s but has seen many modifications as ownership has changed hands down the centuries. In the 1950s the occupier at the time, the Contessa Giulia Celesia, donated the villa to the Ospedale Sant‘ Anna. They subsequently allowed for the Como Chamber of Commerce to form the Associazione della Villa Del Grumello which then set about the restoration needed to transform the villa into a cultural centre for the benefit of all. 

pink sweater location

The ‘Pink Sweater’ series are displayed on the right-hand side of the villa’s first floor landing – the diffused lighting and the shades of colour compliment the display particularly well.

Debra recognised the villa’s unique qualities – its south-facing exposure to light with reflections from the lake, the contrast between its decorative stuccoed ceilings and monochromatic surface decoration – would all go to provide a perfect background for her very particular and individual art. Debra has always been mindful of the influence of setting when exhibiting her works. She will reject any offers of display if the exhibition space fails to compliment the installation. Her works derive from close observation of changes in light on form and colour – often recorded in series of images captured from the same vantage point. Their full impact for the viewer depends on the absence of any nearby visual distractions or irrelevancies. Her patience and perseverance in acquiring a permanent exhibition at Grumello must represent a significant milestone in her career seeing how the villa and her art compliment each other so well. Although the Villa del Grumello is not always open to casual visitors, the Associazione are rightly proud of the exhibition and will readily allow for viewings by appointment. Contact details are provided at the end of this article.

Meeting room and Il Tempio

‘Il Tempio’ takes pride of place in the Villa del Grumello’s meeting room on the first floor.

Debra Dolinski’s artistic career has developed over fifty years while living the majority of that time in Como. She discovered where her creative interests lay when studying  at Cornell University’s Faculty of Art and Architecture back in the early 1970s. She has worked diligently at her artistic evolution ever since. Her oil paintings from those art school days reveal her initial interest in focussing on the changing nature of views from a single fixed location. Those shown below were views from her studio window. 

Compare those images above with the photographic studies below of the differences in the quality of light on a single area of wall over a given time sequence. Each image is identified solely by a time stamp – precise to the exact minute. 

These studies above  formed part of an exhibition also named ‘Sui Muri’ held in 2013 in Como’s San Pietro In Atrio gallery on Via Odescalchi. One might casually mistake these studies of light on walls as being abstract but they are not. They are, like all of Debra’s work, based on acute observation of the physical world around us. She uses low resolution settings for her photographic studies to add some texture to the images but that is the only form of artifice allowed. There is no use of photo shop or digital manipulation. The images hope to be an accurate record of actual light situations. Altering the images would bely that intent. 

Behind this spectacular evolution in her style is a continuing commitment to the key elements of her figurative training – to the aspects of line, form, space and colour – but with a focus on observing the qualities of light.  The progression towards an abstract appearance in her art is explained by art critic Stefania Carrozzini’s comment that  ‘Debra eliminates the superficial to arrive at the essential’. Debra herself explained how she does not want figurative elements to be ‘telling you what to see’. She does not want to limit the scope of the  viewer’s own observation.

Skies, 1979 to 1985

The subject matter of her studies has changed over the years and these changes have coincided  with other major life events. For example it was the birth of her first daughter which prompted Debra to start a series of studies of skies. She was adamant that she would not allow motherhood to discourage her continuing development as an artist – a fate she had seen happen to too many of her contemporaries. So she vowed every day to record in water colour the portion of the sky visible from a fixed location in her home which was then on the lake in Ossuccio. 

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These Sky Diary studies and examples of Sky Watch and Sky Tiles can be seen on Debra’s website.

Debra’s website presents a comprehensive collection of the different sets of sky paintings categorised as Sky Diary, Sky Watch and Sky Tiles. For Sky Diary, Debra fixed a north-facing viewpoint and then recorded the sky on 10cm squared paper every day. She exhibited some of these sketches in Milan back in the 1980s in a space which almost miraculously accommodated precisely 365 of them to complete the wall space provided. 

Sky Watch introduces a more precise time stamp to the pictures by depicting the sky from the same viewpoint but at different times throughout a single day. 

Sky Tiles provide another means for presenting the Sky Diary paintings by transferring them on to porcelain. Debra admits to not being good at promoting her work commercially which is a shame because I think her Sky Tiles present an excellent way to commemorate a special event. For example, what could be a better way to recall memories of a special day than to have a series of sketches that capture the changing light of the sky over the course of the event. Looking at those sketches would I am sure evoke the emotions of the day in possibly a more profound way than would a conventional set of photographs. 

Walls, 1988 to 2018

sui muri

Part of the ‘Sui Muri’ exhibition in the Villa del Grumello

In 1988, Debra and her husband moved to the centre of Como for a variety of reasons including to be near the schools of her two daughters. They found an attic apartment in need of radical renovation which they subsequently converted into a much-loved family home. Debra is particularly inspired by the large south-facing glass wall that floods the sitting room with light. This new location and the effects of the light on its various surfaces inspired a new output. Her daily presence at the cultural association Borgovico 33 provided ample time to study light conditions and these studies were initially exhibited in San Pietro in Atrio in 2013 from which some examples are now installed in the Villa del Grumello.

Mountains, 2018 – 

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An example of Debra’s current focus on mountains.

The large window in Debra’s home in Como is not a ‘picture window’. It is not designed to offer an external view over the roofs of the old town, but rather to provide a variety of changing light to the apartment’s interior. It is only relatively recently that Debra has rediscovered an external artistic interest thanks to the views from her garden up in Rovenna, above Cernobbio. From there she has an unimpeded view over to the mountains around Brunate.  She admitted previously to thinking these mountains were as much an obstacle to viewing what lay beyond them rather than an interesting subject in their own right. But her attitude has now changed as she now begins to explore the changes in light and colour accentuated by natural lines with their various folds and contours. 

Como

As a migrant and long term resident in Como, I wanted to ask Debra about her personal and professional attitudes to her adopted city. Professionally speaking, she found promoting her work much easier when living in Switzerland where her membership of the now defunct artistic association known as Movimento 22 helped her gain exposure. Como has proved more difficult with more of a need to gain the support of some key individuals to unlock opportunities. However appreciation and understanding soon follow once those connections are made, as in the case of Villa del Grumello. 

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Villa del Grumello

Como’s landscape has until very recently seemed entirely irrelevant to Debra’s art. More important instead is the quality of the light. Debra could never have been a London-based artist. She appreciates both the quality and quantity of light found here and the way that its qualities change through the very distinctive seasons.  

Being based in and around Como also allowed her to study at the Brera Academy where she followed a course on colour given by Luigi Veronese – an abstract artist of international renown with a background in textile design who had strong links to  the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’ such as Manlio Rho. I had to ask if she had been in any way influenced by the Astrattisti Comaschi who had all mostly progressed from figurative to abstract painting. Given that Debra is not an abstract artist, it was unsurprising to hear that she was more inspired by early Renaissance innovators such as Piero della Francesca although she does admire the work of Como’s group such as Carla Badiali. 

Como RIP 2

Back in February 2020 (just before Covid lockdown) a demonstration was held to challenge the council administration’s apparent disregard for culture with this coffin placed on the steps of the Teatro Sociale symbolising the death of culture in Como.

In spite of Como’s exceptional heritage in the areas of innovative art and architecture, it is a city that appears nowadays to be resistant to change where, on an administrative level at least, promoting culture and exploiting the city’s numerous exhibition spaces is not given much priority. Debra expressed a frustration over this shared by many residents who long to see sites like San Pietro in Atrio, Spazio Natta, Villa Olmo and so many others back in use after what seems like an overlong hibernation. As she pointed out, the cultural activity in Lugano, Mendrisio or even Chiasso puts Como’s weak efforts to shame. 

Debra’s family have grown up in Como and this second generation do not and are not considered as outsiders in any way. She herself though still feels herself a foreigner but interestingly, she sees this an advantage. Professionally it might spark some additional interest and socially, it allows her a degree of licence to either ignore or transgress some of those intricate laws of etiquette that operate particularly strongly within provincial settings. 

Conclusion

Il Tempio

‘Il Tempio’ on permanent display in the Villa del Grumello

Debra’s art is not accompanied by any manifesto or explicit message but it must, if only through example, prompt us also to apply our own powers of observation to the world around us. That in itself is a valuable lesson but additionally her observation becomes introspective by being paired down to ‘arriving at the essential’. That introspective quality gives the viewer the time and space to think – almost like an aid to meditation. Many of us may lapse into reflective moments while staring at the sky, or looking up into the folds of the mountains, or even simply by staring into the corners of a wall – Debra’s art reflects those moments. 

Hers is an art that is figurative while seemingly abstract, and personal yet universally accessible. Her subject matter has shifted from the sky out of her window in Ossuccio to  walls and now to the mountains above her garden in Rovenna – but all have been viewed consistently with close attention to the quality of light and a grasp towards the essential. While she will willingly recognise the importance of time in her work, I also believe that place has also played its anonymous part. And that is why I see her as a Como artist who has justifiably found a fitting home for some of her works in the Villa del Grumello. 

The Contessa Ceiling

The frescoed celing in the meeting room which houses ‘Il Tempio’. The fresco was commissioned by the Villa del Grumello’s last private owner, the Contessa Giulia Celesia.

Contact Information

Debra hosts occasional open days at her studio in the centre of Como. If you would like to be invited to the next of these or want any information on sales or commissions, please email debradolinski@gmail.com.

To make an appointment to view Debra’s ‘Sui Muri’ exhibition in the Villa del Grumello, contact the Associazione on +39 031 228 76 20 or on mobile  +39 347 444 51 53. They can also be contacted by email at eventi@villadelgrumello.it

Further Information

Go to Debra’s website www.debradolinski.it  for a presentation of her Sky series.

More information about the Associazione Villa del Grumello with details of all upcoming cultural events are available at www.villadelgrumello.it

Como Companion has written a number of articles celebrating Como’s artistic and architectural heritage. In particular, go to Astrattisti Comaschi for our feature on this innovative group of artists who put Como on the worldwide cultural map during the mid twentieth century. Our archives also include articles on Como’s rationalist architects as well as on those artists from the Val D’Intelvi  who spread baroque decoration across the churches and courts of Europe in the 17th century. 

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True Crime in Como – the Molteni Murder

oggi

Taken from an article published in Oggi on 12th October 2016 following the arrest of Alfio Molteni’s ex-wife, Daniela Rho and her accountant/lover Alberto Brivio for his murder

True crime stories have always been popular within the traditional media and are now even more prevalent on subscription services and podcasts. Behind interest in the most compelling of these stories may lie some of the characteristics which fuelled the success of tragedians from Sophocles, through Shakespeare to Henrik Ibsen. One such story is the murder of Alfio Molteni, an interior designer who lived in Carugo, a town to the south east of Cantù in the Province of Como. His fate, and that of those responsible for it,  is a local example of a crime possessing some quasi-Shakespearean elements for our own times.  It maintained media interest right from the victim’s murder on 14th October 2015 until the final confirmation in February 2021 by the highest court in the land of the life sentences passed down on those deemed most responsible.

The Victim

Alfio Molteni

Alfio Molteni, an architect with a successful interior design studio in Mariano Comense with both national and international clients.

Alfio Molteni was an interior design architect with a studio in Mariano Comense. Professionally he was very successful with commissions that included the design of the interiors of villas owned by Russian oligarchs on Lake Como, and international clients in the Arab Emirates. One of his projects was the luxury Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai Creek. He had an excellent private and professional reputation and was known for his personable and pleasant manner. However he had not had the same fortune in his emotional life having gone through an ugly divorce from his second wife back in 2013  in which they argued over access rights to their two young daughters. 

Park-Hyatt-Dubai-P333-Pool-Bar.16x9

One of the interiors of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai designed by Alfio Molteni

The Crime

After the divorce, Molteni went to live in his parents’ home in Carugo. It was there on Wednesday October 14th 2015 where two people lying in ambush  shot him on his return home. The neighbours called the police and an ambulance took Molteni to Cantù Hospital. The assassins had made their escape in his elder son’s stolen Volkswagen Polo which was later found abandoned and burnt out on the Milano-Meda road. One of the shots fired by the assassins had severed an artery in Molteni’s leg. He died in hospital that same evening.

omicidio-molteni-il-caso-e-chiuso-in-carcere-lex-moglie-e-linvestig_7d2a8272-6589-11eb-8941-9475f521dec4_900_566

The scene of the murder at the home of Alfio Molteni’s parents in Carugo, a town to the south east of Cantù in the Province of Como

His death came as the culmination of a series of recent incidents intended to intimidate. These had started back in May when his Range Rover had been set on fire. In June a Molotov cocktail had been thrown through his parents’ basement window and in July a masked gunman had fired eight shots in broad daylight at one of the home’s  shuttered windows. 

daniela-rho-e-il-padre-armando-indagati-ma-il-delitto-non-centra-eva_4a7ccbd8-9566-11e7-9cd9-d9b91b9bcd64_998_397_original

The Rho family own a factory based in Brianza producing furniture primarily for the Arab and Russian market

Investigators immediately discounted the involvement of organised crime but did consider the likelihood of some business-related motive such as revenge for the non payment of a debt. However there was no evidence that Molteni had any such  ‘enemies’ with the possible exception of his ex-wife who had been seeking in court to get an amendment to the divorce settlement to gain better terms of contact with her two daughters.

i-funerali-di-alfio-molteni-lultimo-saluto-allarchitetto-ucciso-davanti-a_f12c3c08-77e4-11e5-a865-126bf7491159_998_397

A scene from the funeral of Alfio Molteni in Carugo on 20th October 2015

Molteni’s funeral later that month in Carugo was attended by around one thousand people. The wreaths from business contacts included one from the family of the ex-President of Kosovo, Behgjet Pacolli, owner of the Swiss Mabetex construction group and husband of Anna Oxa, a once famous Italian singer and television presenter. Another was signed enigmatically from ‘The friends of Moscow’ as well as from ‘Armando Rho and employees’. This latter company was a local successful furniture factory owned by the father of Molteni’s ex-wife, Daniela Rho. The personal and business relationship between Molteni and the Rho family had deteriorated markedly since his divorce from Daniela two years previously.

macbeth

It may be fanciful to compare the protagonists and victim in our true crime story to those in Shakespeare’s Macbeth but their fate did follow a similar if less spectacular trajectory.

As a tragic victim, Molteni did not have the regal status of Duncan, the Scottish king who fell victim to Macbeth’s ‘overarching ambition’ in Shakespeare’s tragedy. But the Rhos and Moltenis could aspire to belonging to a privileged class in contemporary Italy with a status gained from success in business and the outward appearances of respectability. The media certainly presented him as a seemingly innocent, thoroughly decent and widely respected individual echoing the tragedian trope of Duncan’s death marking an upset to the natural and moral order and provoking the ensuing chaos.

The Investigation

Five months later, the Carabinieri made their first arrests, the 44 year old Michele Crisopulli and 27 year old Stefano Posca – both originally from Calabria but resident locally. In July 2016 a further three people were arrested including the man charged with firing the actual shot at Molteni – Vincenzo Scovazzo. The investigators were also getting closer to understanding who had commissioned the murder and what was their motive when they arrested Luigi Rugolo, a security guard, accused of organising the series of intimidation that preceded the fatal shooting. 

luigi rugolo

Luigi Rugolo, the security guard commissioned by Alberto Brivio to put together a gang to intimidate Molteni and make it appear as if he was involved in drug trafficking and organised crime.

Both Scovazzo and Rugolo were adamant that they had never intended to kill Molteni. They had been hired just to intimidate him. They claimed the shots fired at Molteni had not been intended to kill him.  This became a common line of defence throughout the ensuing trials and all subsequent appeals. Their claim was they were not to blame if one of the shots to the leg accidentally severed an artery. This argument was consistently rejected in the courts. 

But who had commissioned Rugolo to put together this gang of miscreants and set in motion a programme of intimidation resulting in tragedy and for what motive?  

Nearly a year after Molteni’s death, on 5th October 2016, the carabinieri arrested his ex-wife, the 46 year old Daniela Rho and her accountant, 49 year old Alberto Brivio. The cast of ‘rude mechanicals’, put together by Luigi Rugolo to carry out their brutal commission, could now be left aside to allow the investigators finally to uncover why the gang had been hired in the first place. 

The Embittered Wife and her Lover

alberto brivio

Alberto Brivio, the accountant to Armando and Daniela Rho who was also Daniela Rho’s lover.

When the carabinieri examined the mobile phone records of Rugolo, they saw that over the 24 hours prior to Molteni’s death there was a peak in the number of calls to and from him and Alberto Brivio – the accountant for both Daniela Rho and her father Armando Rho and their businesses. They then went on to note a similar peak in calls over the same period between Brivio and Daniela Rho. 

Brivio with defense lawyer Aldo Turconi

Alberto Brivio in consultation with his defence lawyer Aldo Turconi during the hearing at the Assize Court in Como.

Subsequent investigation revealed that Brivio and Rho were lovers and that they had both perceived a plan to restrict Molteni’s access to his young daughters. The programme of intimidation was intended to present Molteni as a character of dubious morality with links to the criminal world. Daniela Rho presented the acts of violence against Molteni to the courts as evidence of his unsuitability to retain custody of their daughters due to his obviously dangerous and immoral lifestyle. Her campaign was having some success particularly when her evidence to court was reinforced by the testimony of an ex-Carabiniere private detective called Giovanni Terenghi who claimed his investigations revealed Molteni’s close involvement in a drugs ring. 

Giovanni Terenghi

Giovanni Terenghi, an ex-Carabiniere private detective commissioned by Daniela Rho to uncover evidence of her ex-husband’s involvement in drug trafficking and crime. He produced false evidence in court.

It was Alberto Brivio who had the necessary contacts in the criminal world to recruit the  corrupt ex-Carabiniere Giovanni Terenghi and Luigi Rugolo, the security guard who put together the band of intimidators and hired the eventual assassin, Vincenzo Scovazzo who fired the fatal shot that severed Molteni’s artery. 

vincenzo scovazzo

Vincenzo Scovazzo, accused of firing the shot that killed Molteni.

The full scale of the programme of intimidation came out during the court hearings including such instances as the failed attempt to plant drugs in Molteni’s car. Daniela Rho’s mother, Antonietta Caimi, in her testimony dismissed these various acts as nothing more than practical jokes. Her testimony went on to illustrate how complete the breakdown in relations had been between Molteni and the whole of the Rho family. The Armando Rho furniture business specialises in expensive over-decorated and flamboyant pieces designed for those more interested in wanting to display their wealth than their taste. The Armando Rho business and Molteni shared some of the same clients possibly including the ‘Friends from Moscow’. Yet, after the divorce, the Rhos claimed that Molteni directed some of their former customers to other competitors. The Rho family assumed a united front in seeking to discredit Molteni and support Alberto Brivio. The family’s behaviour was fuelled by an exaggerated and totally unjustified sense of entitlement that in time was undermined by the immorality of the family business’s involvement in false accounting organised by their trusted accountant, Alberto Brivio.  

armando rho furniture

An example of the ostentatious style of furniture produced in the Armando Rho factory

The Convictions

Court judgements might be the closest one can get in modern days to the tragedian’s sense of catharsis. While a hefty sentence may not in itself cleanse the public of the forced contact and contamination with unnatural forces, it is supposed to offer a degree of closure. So, accepting that the concept of closure can only be a weak shadow of Aristotelian catharsis, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the convictions in the Molteni case passed down by the Assize Court in Como, were then confirmed by the Court of Appeal in Milan and finally by  the equivalent of the Supreme Court, Il Corte di Cassazione, in Rome. The defence that Molteni’s death was just the result of a practical joke gone wrong was unsurprisingly rejected by each court.

Brivio and Turconi

Alberto Brivio receives notice of his conviction and life sentence handed down by the court in Como and later approved by both the Court of Appeal in Milan and the Corte di Cassazione in Rome.

In total ten people were found accused of the various acts of intimidation leading up to the murder of Molteni. Vincenzo Scovazzo received a life sentence and the organiser, Luigi Rugolo, received 19 years. The brother of Michele Crisopulli, convicted to 18 years and 8 months, had committed suicide back in October 2016 on being found guilty of firing 8 shots at the shuttered window of the Molteni residence. The corrupt ex-Carabiniere Giovanni Terenghi received 5 years for giving false evidence denigrating the character of Molteni.

Alberto Brivio was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role as the overall mastermind of the plot while his lover, Daniela Rho, received a twenty year sentence. She had been under house arrest since July 2017 but on the 9th February 2021 when the Corte di Cassazione confirmed her sentence, she had to pack her bags to start her lengthy stay in Como’s Bassone prison. 

Conclusion

The wheels of Italian justice move slowly. It took almost six years for the convictions against the main protagonists to be finally confirmed. During that time, Brivio’s affair with Daniela Rho ended with him seeking to put all the blame on her. Two young children lost their father and access to their mother. The investigation into Brivio’s affairs had also revealed the involvement of Armando Rho in false accounting as well as an even larger system of money recycling between Italy, Germany and Austria. In some respects the crime is of its era illustrating the desire to maintain social standing and respectability yet with a readiness to avoid paying taxes, corrupt justice and break the law in defence of family and business interests –  a set of behaviours that proved all too common during the Berlusconi era. 

Further Reading

For more true crime on Como Companion try:

Murder on the Dance Floor- Italy’s Crime of the 20th Century on Lake Como

Lake Como’s Moltrasio Trunk Murder

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Walking Lake Como’s Wayfarer Way

This article has now been moved to Walking Lake Como’s Wayfarer Way

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Como’s Changing Lakefront

Como is justifiably famous for the beauty of its natural surroundings and of its ancient walled city, for the inventiveness and quality of its silk production and for the creativity and skills of its artists and artisans throughout the centuries. The list of positives does not end there but it also ranks as the city with the longest, worst managed and corrupted civil engineering project throughout Northern Italy – a project that saw the imprisonment of its first citizen and which has tried the patience of its residents over the last eighteen years. An end to the sorry saga is now in sight, but the shadow of Como’s administrative shame may well linger for years to come.

finished lakefront

Artist’s impression of the completed Como lakefront once all anti-flood defence works are completed in 2023. Copyright Infrastrutture Lombarde 2018

Long term residents of Como may well have despaired of seeing an end to the project aimed at strengthening the city’s flood defences, known locally as ‘le paratie’ (barriers) . The project was first identified in 2003 but did not actually start until 2008. This delay was just a brief foretaste of things to come when all work was suspended in 2012 as the council and its contractors fell into a long legal dispute. Como’s city council had commissioned the project, secured the budget, appointed directors of work and other specialists from their staff and awarded the contract to SACAIM, one of Italy’s large civil engineering companies based in Venice.  

plan oct 2018 1

Artist’s impression of the enlarged walkway covering the two massive cisterns for capturing run-off from the city. Copyright Infrastrutture Lombarde 2018

But now, 18 years after the project was first mooted and nine years since it hit the buffers, an end is finally in sight. Como will get all of its lakefront back by 2023.  Nor is this just another vain promise since visible progress is there for all to see. And we now also know what our lakefront will look like when we reach the end of this prolonged and tortuous saga.

vasca a

Positive progress can now be seen – July 2021,

Why the Delays?

In retrospect, the project grew too big for the council to manage. But they had allowed it to grow out of hand by seeking to implement a series of modifications to the original contract. This was a typical case of project creep – a risk known to all project managers but one with severe impact on large civil engineering projects of this sort. In fact many of the changes requested by the council may well have had technical merit (and the final solution does seem to have incorporated them). But the way the council sought to commission them was all wrong and caused them and their key contractor legal issues on all sides. 

Not only was the prime contractor concerned about the financing of these changes but they and the council had started implementing them without gaining appropriate planning approvals or going through the correct tendering process. You don’t go changing the profile of the lakefront without first establishing your right to do so. Some personal financial interests in enlarging the project were also implicated prompted by the promise and temptations offered by the ever-growing budget. These led to the start of anti-corruption enquiries.  

Streetscape 2016

This representation of the famous fictional liar, Pinocchio, formed part of Como’s Streetscape 2016 exhibition. Originally Pinocchio was placed facing the city’s council buildings but, to avoid undue controversy, he was turned around to face the barriers barring a view of the lake. The symbolic intent remained unaltered.

The council proceeded even more slowly once the anti-corruption enquiries began, particularly after the first arrest of council officials in 2016. By this stage, the Lombardy Region had finally lost patience with the ability of the Como City Council to restart let alone finish the project. The Region stepped in to take over all responsibility for the project from 2017. However even further time elapsed as the old contractor SACAIM tidied up and left the site before a new contractor could be appointed. 

The new invitation to tender now managed by the Lombardy Region was not even published until July 2019. Further delays put down to the Covid pandemic meant the new contractor, Aria SpA, was not appointed until May 2020. But finally from that date, fixed periods of 21 months for completion of the first phase and a further 11 months for the second phase were published. Promises of biweekly updates to the public were then made and work in earnest recommenced. Now with an end date in sight, a conclusion can finally be envisaged to what had seemed to be Como’s own never-ending story.

The Impact of Delays

passeggiata

Fortunately throughout the works, the beauty of the passeggiata towards Villa Olmo (shown here) and on the other side along Viale Geno were not impacted.

Como’s lakefront runs on three sides with the beautiful Passeggiata from Villa Olmo to the Tempio Voltiano and the lakefront gardens to the west, the Lungo Lario Trento and Trieste passing Piazza Cavour in the centre and finally the stretch running along Viale Geno on the east. It was the central section of the lakefront that was the worst affected by the stalled project. Wooden barriers had been erected along this stretch at the start of the project in 2008 cutting off all views of the lake. These barriers remained in place, in spite of a total lack of activity, until 2015 when the local business organisation, Amici di Como, paid for the temporary renovation of the section running from the Navigazione’s ticket office to the start of the lakeside gardens. However the wooden barriers running from the old ticket office along Lungo Lario Trieste were left in place for yet another two years. Deprived of their lake view, Como’s residents and visitors were instead confronted by these fixed screens still displaying the old posters placed by SACAIM advertising what the end result of this phantom project should look like. 

lake blocked

These wooden barriers running along Lungo Lario Trieste remained in place until 2017 in spite of no work on the defences since 2012.

Italy’s anti-corruption agency ANAC, established in 2012 to prevent corruption in public entities, first began to take interest in Como’s flood defence project in 2015. This led initially to the arrest of two engineers employed by the council to direct the works. Their investigations led to the arrest of a further five officials including the then mayor, Mario Lucini. All seven accused finally faced sentence at the start of 2019 with the main Director of Works, Pietro Gilardoni, receiving a four year sentence and the mayor, Mario Lucini imprisoned for a year and a half. The others received custodial sentences ranging from six months to two years. 

pietro gilardoni

The luckless Pietro Gilardoni, the council’s overall director of works during a court hearing which would result in him receiving a four year custodial sentence.

Needless to say, the image of the city council and its centre-left political administration suffered badly faced with their inability to move the project forward and reinforced by the charges of corruption brought against the mayor and his other appointees. The financial journal ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ publishes a yearly ranking of council leaders’ approval ratings. When Mario Lucini first took up his post he came 5th in this poll nationally with a 74.9% approval rating. By 2017 he had fallen down to 56th position with a 53.5% approval rating. Even that judgement by Como’s residents seems generous in retrospect.

July 2017

The Region provided funding for tidying up the mess left by the suspended works once they had dismissed the original contractor, SACAIM.

The President of the Lombardy Region was Roberto Maroni, a stalwart of the Lega who no doubt took some delight in putting his political opponents to shame when he and the Region stepped in to take control of the project. He immediately granted budget for the removal of the remaining wooden barriers and restoring parts of the lakefront. Nor did he lose the opportunities offered for gaining some positive publicity as in the case of an article in the Corriere di Como written in October 2016 and  addressed to the citizens of Como. In this he stressed how the council had been entrusted with a budget of €13 million at the start of the project in 2003 but, in spite of the budget rising to €19 million by 2016, nothing had been achieved with ‘works not done and the beauty of the lake obscured from you and the tourists’.

In the council elections of 2018, the centre-left administration was defeated.

The Technical Solution

paratie

Work progressing on installing the barriers (paratie) along the length of Lungo Lario Trieste (July 2021)

The flood defences have two elements to them. The first will be a series of barriers housed within the pavements running alongside the lakefront. These barriers will be made of aluminium. They will be raised by hand up to a range of levels above normal lake height. These barriers (paratie) will run from just before the Funicular station along Lungo Lario Trieste and on to Lungo Lario Trento crossing Piazza Cavour and ending at the start of the lakeside gardens. 

The other form of defence consists of a couple of very large cisterns that will hold run-off water from excessive rainfall which might normally cause flooding in the centre (particularly in Piazza Cavour) when combined with a rise in the water table and high levels on the lake. Drains within a 1.5 km radius of Piazza Cavour will capture this rainfall and direct it into the two cisterns built beside the lake. When flood levels recede, the water accumulated in the cisterns will be pumped into the lake. One of these cisterns known as Vasca B already exists under the gardens opened up by the Amici di Como towards the lakefront gardens. However further work is needed to make it earthquake safe. Work is currently underway at building the other cistern, Vasca A,  beside Lungo Lario Trieste.

le vasche 2

The two cisterns known as Vasca A and Vasca B will collect excessive run-off water from the city centre and store it until lake levels subside

le vasche

Vasca B already exists below the Passeggiata Amici di Como but needs to be made earthquake resistant. Vasca A is yet to be built.

Conclusion

Paratie Dec 2014

Construction of the cistern known as Vasca A stopped in 2012. It will now be completed by February 2022.

Twenty years from conception to completion has to rank as one of the slowest civil engineering projects in the whole of Italy even exceeding the disastrously compromised attempts to complete the A3 motorway in Southern Italy running from Salerno to Reggio Calabria. There are some depressing parallels between these two projects. The A3 motorway extension to Reggio Calabria was initiated in 1997 with a due completion date set for 2003. The actual project was ‘officially’ completed in 2015, a full 12 years behind schedule.  The Como flood defence scheme will also come in12 years behind schedule.  The A3 motorway project became a symbol of local corruption and was widely perceived as showing  the relative backwardness of the South. The European Union at one stage even demanded the return of the money they had invested. The Como project has not attracted nearly the same level of negative attention or opprobrium. Similar levels of corruption and ineffectiveness do not seem to count when experienced in the heart of Lombardy, Italy’s economic power house.  

progetto-paratie-como-6-1200x600

Artist’s impression of the lakefront by Piazza Cavour with the new Navigazione’s ticket office and waiting room.

But, when all is said and done, Como’s residents and visitors can at least look forward with confidence to reclaiming the entirety of their lakefront and they will undoubtedly enjoy the delights of the broad walkway facing on to the lake. All good things are ultimately worth waiting for.

Further Reading

The Lombardy Region has published an informative presentation outlining the history of the anti-flood defence project from which some of the contents have been incorporated in this article. Follow this link to access the full presentation (in Italian).

Como Companion previously published an article entitled ‘Liberating the Lakefront’ on the partial opening up in 2017 that followed on from the Region taking over the project. 

We also featured the work of Pierpaolo Perretta, the artist responsible for the ‘Pinocchio’ statement in Piazza Cavour as part of Como’s Streetscape street art exhibition.

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Como: The Potential for Cultural Tourism

Como Companion supports slow tourism – the sort of tourism that takes an interest in the culture and history of the places visited. This is why I started a new section under Culture called Cultural Itineraries. These itineraries suggest walks through the city following a specific cultural theme. The latest itinerary covers part of Como’s modern architectural heritage by focussing on the rationalist buildings in just one section of the city. But here I would like to expand on why Como is so well suited to developing cultural tourism with a potential that to this day remains underdeveloped.

Como RIP 2

The death of culture in Como? Before the start of the Covid pandemic, there was concern about the city council’s commitment to supporting cultural activities. Demonstrators left this coffin in front of the Teatro Sociale to symbolise the death of culture in the city. Fortunately the council now seem more supportive of the arts but we are yet to see if they can respond to the opportunities provided by cultural tourism.

Como’s cultural patrimony is immense but not made immediately obvious to any temporary visitor, or even to many long-term residents. With the one exception of Alessandro Volta, Como seems singularly reticent about celebrating the achievements of its other remarkable sons and daughters. While we all celebrate the stunning beauty of the city’s natural setting, so many other aspects of local interest can get overlooked. The city’s true potential can so easily be unlocked with a concerted and co-ordinated push to promote cultural tourism. 

What Is Cultural Tourism?

“Cultural tourism ….. enables people to experience the different ways of life of other people, thereby gaining at first hand an understanding of their customs, traditions, the physical environment, the intellectual ideas and those places of architectural, historic, archaeological or other cultural significance which remain from earlier times. (ICOMOS Charter for Cultural Tourism, Draft April 1997)”

Ca Morta Funeral Carriage

Funerary Cart, Ca’ Morta circa 450BCE, Como Museum of Archaeology

With archeological interest ranging from the Golasecca communities on the Parco Spina Verde, through the Roman remains to the ex-industrial sites associated with silk production; with architectural interest starting with the Romanesque craftsmen in the Middle Ages to Rationalism in the last century; with art represented by Paolo Giovio’s first European collection of portraiture,  Lombardy Baroque and the Astrattisti Comaschi; with a history starring Julius Caesar, Frederick Barbarossa, and Mussolini; with a musical tradition encompassing Vincenzo Bellini and Giuditta Pasta; with the scientific heritage of Alessandro Volta; with its overall geopolitical significance as a border town on a major route across the Alps ….. Como’s cultural capital lies ready for exploitation.

The Advantages of Cultural Tourism

teatro sociale

Como’s Teatro Sociale matches the splendour of its interior with the quality and imagination of its productions.

The economic challenge for local tourism is to extend the time visitors’ stay on the lake. A survey in 2018 revealed that the average visitor’s stay in Como was 3.32 days, below the Lombardy average of 3.64 days. However for foreign visitors it was a mere 2.6 days. Meanwhile Brescia and Lake Iseo achieved an average stay of 5.72 days. A longer stay per visitor means a greater return per euro spent on marketing or infrastructure. And the difference between us and Brescia just shows Como’s potential gain if it could just advertise its cultural credentials as well. Brescia’s act of inspiration was to put itself on the international cultural map by hosting the massive Floating Piers art installation by Christo and Jeanne-Caude on Lake Iseo in 2016.

Floating Piers

The Floating Piers installation on Lake Iseo gained international publicity for Brescia and its province boosting the average length of visitor stays.

Cultural tourism is also a sustainable form of tourism, not requiring the development of the complex infrastructure required to cope with massive visitor  numbers –  just the investment needed to encourage the current number of visitors to extend their stay by a few more days. Cultural tourism, as opposed to mass tourism, enhances visitors’ understanding and appreciation of where they are visiting and seeks to protect the local culture and folklore. Mass tourism or purely recreational tourism tends to subvert local culture through its tendency towards simplistic and cliched presentation of local attractions. 

religious art

The local churches around the lake are mostly always open to visitors and house great works of art such as this life-sized tableau of the Last Supper in Dongo.

Additionally it is not just visitors who profit from cultural tourism since residents will also appreciate an increased awareness of their cultural patrimony while not having to suffer from the inconveniences imposed by purely recreational forms of tourism. 

Como in 5 Days

The official Como website ‘Como Lake Experience’ includes two short videos promoting visits to Como – ‘Como in 24 hours’ and ‘Como in 48 hours’. Both videos include mention to many cultural attractions such as the museums, the art gallery, the Volta memorial and some of the key architectural gems such as Villa Olmo. The 48 hour overview extends its scope to mention the city walls, the main villas on the lake, Isola Comacina and the attractions of hiking and cycling. Of course both videos  also mention the recreational delights of a trip on the lake, an evening aperitif and dining alfresco, or a trip up to Brunate – the balcony of the Alps. 

pliny younger

The naturalist Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were from Como. Pliny the Younger had a villa in the city and another on the lakeside. He dedicated a library ro the city of which no trace remains. However there is plenty of other evidence of Como’s Roman origins. The Pliny statues sit either side of the main entrance to the cathedral

Baradello

The Castle Baradello stands sentinel over the southern approaches to Como – part of the city’s defences strengthened by Federico Barbarossa in the 13th century.

But what could a promotional ‘Como in 5 Days’ include? How about a reference to Roman Como, its Praetorian Gate and the other Roman sites. Or that, in addition to the Roman carvings and mosaics, the Archeological Museum contains an impressive collection of local prehistoric artefacts. Or that the Art Gallery includes a whole series of early Renaissance portraits curated by Paolo Giovio and originally housed in a gallery which inspired the Medici to establish the Uffizi in Florence. Or that the Pinacoteca also includes fine works by the Como group of abstract artists. Or that Cernobbio once had the largest silk factory in Europe and, while this is now an archeological site, the silk industry in Como is still alive and well. Or that it was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who in the 13th century commissioned the Baradello tower and strengthened the current city walls as a defense against attack from Milan, and that his arrival in the city is re-enacted in an annual festival. Or that there are three long distance hiking trails to be enjoyed around the lake and a series of mountain-top refuges offering food and accommodation. 

The Cultural Challenge

On August 21st, 2019, local journalist and poet Pietro Berra published the following challenge in Como’s ‘La Provincia’ 

[If the problem] …is the inability to keep tourists for more than 2 days in a city that is home to 12 festivals, appears in over one hundred films, has been eternalized by another hundred internationally renowned painters and writers, is the cradle of Romanesque, Futurism, Rationalism and Abstractionism, is a candidate for Unesco Creative City for silk, has a network of over 600 km of pedestrian paths studded with natural and architectural pearls, it means that it is essential to create a system that engages the different skills of tourism operators with those of cultural experts helped by a public administration acting as facilitators and promoters. It is time to invest in the  ideas, projects and skills needed to change the current narrative, perception and use of our area, to move from the “fragmentation of the museum network” to the extraordinary uniqueness of an open-air museum city teeming with a creative energy that enhances it.

Como’s Cultural Innovators

poets way

Como’s Poets Way starts in Maslianico and ends above Brunate. Along its way you find selected quotes from many of the literary figures who have visited Lake Como.

Pietro Berra’s challenge was directed at the  local authorities to take the initiative in coordinating and consolidating the cultural offer. There are many associations and organisations contributing to that offer but their consolidation and a consistent and far-reaching promotion of that offer remains undone to this day. For example, Pietro Berra himself and the association Sentiero dei Sogni have created a Poetry Way which leads walkers along a route marked by relevant literary quotes and cultural references. This is just one example of the number of initiatives from a variety of local associations, businesses and individuals that enrich an appreciation of Como’s cultural and historical heritage.

monumenti apertiOther examples include the initiatives of  Iubilantes, a local cultural association that provides an app Camminacitta with multi-lingual guides to various walks around the city of Como. Since 2018 they have also embarked on  leading a cultural initiative in Como and Cantu called ‘Monumenti Aperti’ –  a national project that educates secondary and tertiary students, in  the knowledge and sustainable and social development of the cultural and environmental heritage of the area in which they live. As a result  these students will in turn be able to communicate their knowledge and appreciation of these local features to other interested residents and visitors, safeguarding this patrimony for years to come.

missultin

Missoltino – pickled lake fish – served with polenta.

Similar initiatives abound in most other areas of local culture. In particular, there is a growing appreciation of the area’s culinary heritage with different festivals throughout the year focussed on the traditions of individual communities. While visitors to London can select restaurants on an ethnic basis, here they can take the time to appreciate the differences in regional cuisine, and come to appreciate the influence of the lake and mountains on culinary tradition. 

Conclusion

Given all this local potential, the enthusiasm of so many local associations and the support of the Como and Lecco Chamber of Commerce,  there would just seem to be one vital coordination element missing. The city already possesses a beautiful and imaginatively managed theatre and a variety of museums. The remaining infrastructure needed is already in place. There is no reason why visitors should not be spending any less time in Como than in Brescia if they were only made aware of all there is to see and experience here. Lets hope that Como’s post-Covid renaissance includes revived eforts to promote cultural tourism.

villa olmo

Villa Olmo at dusk – a council owned property which has remained underused over recent years but which is now hosting musical festivals and art exhibitions. A hopeful sign of things to come!

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‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como

dick mallaby book cover

The story of Dick Mallaby is meticulously researched and presented in this book by Gianluca Barneschi, also published in English under the title ‘An Englishman Abroad’.

Dick Mallaby, an Englishman brought up in Tuscany, is said to have inspired Ian Fleming’s secret agent hero, James Bond. Mallaby was on ‘His Majesty’s Secret Service’ when, as a trained ‘licensed to kill’ agent he parachuted down into Lake Como on 14th August 1943. He was caught almost immediately and, with Italy still allied with Germany, he faced summary execution as an enemy spy. 

Mallaby’s drop into Lake Como was a first in two respects for Britain’s wartime ‘dirty tricks’ division of the Secret Intelligent Services (SIS) – the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It was the first time an SOE agent was parachuted behind enemy lines, and also the first time SOE had attempted to place a UK national to serve as a wireless operator and sabotage expert into hostile Italy. 

The mission was fatally flawed from the start – Mallaby landed almost straight into the arms of the awaiting Italian authorities. However our gallant hero would prove to have luck on his side. His capture happened at a fortuitous moment for Mallaby resulting from Italy being in the midst of a major political and constitutional crisis following the King’s dismissal of the Mussolini-led fascist government back in July. Through a mixture of quick creative thinking and exceptional luck, Mallaby was to find himself in the crucial role of aiding the new Italian government negotiate a peace deal with the British and American allies. With his clandestine wireless transmitter and his signals training, he offered  the only means of providing confidential communication between all parties. The centrality of his role in establishing the armistice meant that he would eventually be accompanying King Vittorio Emanuele III and Prime Minister Badoglio as together they boarded the boat that took these leaders to Brindisi and to safety in the newly liberated area of Italy. But this fortuitous end would have seemed beyond all possibilities as he languished in Como’s San Donnino prison unaware that fate was about to offer him a chance to avoid execution.

Casino Royale Gaeta

Lake Como is no stranger to either factual or fictional secret agents. Daniel Craig starred in Casino Royale – filmed on location at Villa Gaeta in San Siro (seen above) and Villa Balbianello in Lenno.

What was SOE?

Special  Operations Executive was a secret organisation created in 1940 on similar lines to the American equivalent forerunner of the CIA  – the OSS. SOE agents were trained to support resistance groups, maintain communications with headquarters, and undertake sabotage while operating behind enemy lines. Life expectancy of SOE agents was measured in weeks since they were invariably executed if caught on active service. Financed by secret funds and not given any official recognition, SOE came to be called ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ or ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. By 1943, they had established clandestine operations in France and the Balkans but were only just beginning to develop activities on the Italian mainland. Although SOE did coordinate activities with the American OSS in other countries, they were keen to establish themselves as the more dominant organisation in Italy – a situation that was to be reversed by the end of the war. 

sabotage

Sabotage activities, use of explosives, support of resistance groups with arms, money and clothing and providing wireless communications were key activities for SOE and its agents in Europe.

SOE Agents were members of the British Army. They were subjected to a rigorous training covering sabotage techniques, unarmed combat, survival, silent killing, how to resist interrogation and torture, parachuting, wireless telegraphy and ciphers – a programme that could well have suited James Bond himself. They even had their own ‘Q’ department not quite up to modifying Aston Martin DB5s but certainly with the imagination to come up with exploding rats. The idea was for SOE agents to position dead rats whose stomachs had been stuffed with explosives inside enemy facilities. The hope was that the rats would then be collected  up for incineration whereupon they would explode.

Aston MArtin DB5

‘Q’ provided our fictional James Bond with the famous Aston Martin DB5 with extras. SOE also developed special gadgets along with some absurd ideas like the exploding rats.

Who Was Dick Mallaby?

dick mallaby

Dick Mallaby, born in Sri Lanka, brought up in Italy speaking perfect Italian and English as well as French and German.

Dick Mallaby was born in 1919 and died prematurely on 1st April 1981. It was back in 1939 aged 20 that he left the family home in Tuscany for London to enlist in the allied war effort. He joined SOE in 1942 as the need for fluent Italian speakers became more obvious following the campaigns in North Africa and the imminent allied invasion of Sicily. He was a reckless, courageous adventurer like many of the young men who seemed to be heroes straight out of ‘Boys Own’ magazine. He was a multilingual athlete who had already qualified as both a paratrooper and a wireless operator when first recruited into SOE. However he was not originally selected to work behind enemy lines in spite of his perfect Italian and knowledge of the country due to his Nordic good looks. His key identification data put on file for Agent D/H 449 in February 1943 describes him thus:

Sergeant Cecil Richard Mallaby, unmarried, not interested in politics, able to speak perfect English and Italian, very good French and also good German; completed schooling in Italy and England.

REAL AGE: 23

APPARENT AGE: 21

HEIGHT: 1.79m

WEIGHT: 70kg

FACE: Long. Fresh, clear complexion

FRONT PROFILE: Oblique and irregular

EYES: Sky blue and deep set

NOSE: Straight. Nostrils visible

MOUTH: Full

CHIN: With a light dimple, well defined and clean shaven

HAIR: Straight, combed back, blond but credibly brown for operational purposes

DISTINCTIVE MARKS: Scars on the right cheek, right elbow and both shins. Heart-shaped tattoo on the left forearm, red spot on the right thigh. Walks in a very upright manner.

SOE  wanted to establish a clandestine wireless operator in Northern Italy to team up with what they believed to be friendly resistance groups. Their previous candidates proved either unsuitable or unwilling and so the opportunity was passed to Dick Mallaby who assumed the codename of Agent Olaf and started preparing for Operation Neck. 

The purpose of  Operation Neck was to make contact with so-called Agent 900, an Italian national,  and then provide Agent 900 with communications support. Agent 900 had apparently arranged a safe house for Olaf in 1 Via Borgo Vico, Como. The problem was that Agent 900 was in fact a double agent of the Italian secret services – the Servizio Informazioni  Militare (SIM) – who had managed to gain the unquestioning confidence of SOE bosses. In this way Agent 900 and SIM (judged to have been the most efficient of all the European belligerents’ spy agencies) had perverted all of SOE’s understanding of the resistance groups they had decided to support. These groups were entirely fictitious as was the safe house in Como where Dick’s contact was yet another double agent of SIM. When Dick climbed aboard a Halifax plane on 13th August 1943 with Lake Como as his destination, his mission was doomed from the very start. 

Dropping Into Lake Como

Pognana 2

Looking down lake Como south from Pognana. Dick dropped into the lake between here and Faggeto Lario. His intended drop was near to Torno.

Dick’s flight from Blida in Algeria left at 10.02 pm on 13th August and set a course over Minorca, South-Eastern France and then Lodi in Lombardy before approaching Lake Como from the south west. The flight had not been easy in that it faced flak above Savona and searchlights around Pavia. 

At 2.48am on 14th August 1943, Dick Mallaby bailed out at 600 metres above Lake Como on a clear, moonlit night. His target had been Torno where it was hoped the lakeside would be in darkness and no-one would be around on the ground. However lights were shining brightly from all the villages around the lake and the sky to the south was bright due to an intense allied bombing raid on Milan. The lakeside was actually full of refugees avoiding the heavy bombardment of Milan over the previous days. And the Italian anti-aircraft batteries were on full alert thanks to Agent 900’s prior warning. Dick’s parachute was spotted by Domenica Aquilini from her balcony in Carate Urio as it descended into the lake between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. She raised the alarm.

carate

Carate Urio, on the western banks of the Como leg of the lake. Dick was spotted landing in the lake by observers in Carate Urio.

Four men from Carate Urio then set out in a rowing boat to look for whoever had just parachuted into the lake. They came across Dick Mallaby in his inflatable dinghy off the coast at Pognana. His attempt to explain himself came to nothing when the English lettering on his dinghy sonn gave him away.  An eyewitness, Annamaria Rusconi – a young girl at the time – remembered  the night well and stated the following in an interview published in La Provincia in 2016. 

‘He was wearing a camouflage suit which they stripped off him and found something. He was hidden away for a day but I don’t know where.’

annamaria rusconi

Gianluca Barneschi was able to interview some of the original witnesses to Dick Mallaby’s parachute drop including Annamaria Rusconi who was a young girl at the time. She went on to teach in the local Elementary School and run the local library.

He was taken to the Carate Urio town hall and interrogated by the Como Commander of the Carabinieri. Incriminating materials including parts of a wireless transmitter and code books were soon found and his captors immediately realised they had an important prisoner.  He was then transferred to counter espionage services in Milan while remaining incarcerated in Milan’s San Vittore prison. His capture was made public on Wednesday 18th August when the Milanese newspaper, ‘La Sera Il Secolo’ published the headline ‘The Man Who Fell from the Skies was Betrayed by Moonlight’.  Following more allied bombing of Milan, Dick was transferred back to Como’s San Donnino prison while SOE headquarters tried to work out some means of getting him out.

During subsequent interrogation Dick was able to fabricate a story that fortunately fitted into the political confusion of the time and which did not contradict whatever SIM’s double agents including Agent 900 had been able to learn about the purpose of his mission. Additionally he managed to interest the Italian security services sufficiently for them to refrain from executing him. In any case, SIM was not a purely fascist organisation. Its ultimate loyalty was to the king and Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele III had dismissed Mussolini’s fascist government twenty days earlier on 25th July.

Landing Within a Political Maelstrom

armistice

King Vittorio Emanuele III and Pietro Badoglio in a newspaper article declaring the peace agreement with the allies. Dick was to play a crucial and central role in facilitating the negotiations for this armistice.

King Vittorio Emanuele III had supported fascism from its inception until 25th July 1943 when he dismissed Mussolini and appointed one of Mussolini’s senior generals, Pietro Badoglio, to head a new government. The allies were left uncertain as to whether Badoglio would sue for peace with the allies or continue the fascist policy of partnership with Germany. With German agents completely surrounding the Italian government and royal palace in Rome, it was very hard to make contact with Badoglio or sustain confidential communications. Thus, Dick continued to fester in San Donnino whilst the uncertainty over what Badoglio intended to do continued. 

san donnino

The forbidding exterior of the old San Donnino prison in Como’s old town.

Little did Dick realise that his salvation was on its way thanks to the secret mission of Italian Brigadier General Giuseppe Castellano to Portugal.

Castellano had been tasked with negotiating a peace with the allies without the Germans learning about it. Badoglio’s government had decided its future policy – to dissolve their partnership with Germany with as little harm as possible and without getting into a fight with them. Once secret negotiations kicked off in Portugal, there then followed the need to continue discussions and clarify details with communication between Rome and the Allies’ base in Algeria. But the only way these negotiations could remain confidential and undiscovered by the Germans was through the use of a clandestine wireless set and an operator well-versed in cryptography. The Commander in Chief of Allied Forces, General Eisenhower insisted on this and charged UK’s future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan with organising it. Macmillan turned to the head of SOE who informed him that the very man they needed was currently languishing in Como’s San Donnino prison. 

On 30th August 1943, Dick Mallaby was released from San Donnino and transported down to Rome’s Regina Coeli Prison, having been previously and unknowingly promoted by SOE to second lieutenant. 

From Como to Rome

Regina Coeli Prison

Regina Coeli Prison, Rome

Dick Mallaby knew nothing of the crucial role he was about to play in the historic peace negotiations between the new Italian government and the allies. After all, he had only exchanged one dismal lodging in Como for an equally dismal cell in Rome’s Regina Coeli. But he knew something was afoot when the next day a luxury car came to escort him to Palazzo Vidoni, the headquarters of the Supreme Command of the Italian Army. He was immediately introduced to Brigadier General Castellano who gave him the wireless transmitter provided by the allies with a curt order to immediately contact the Allied Forces HQ in Algeria. Mallaby at first refused stating he could not take orders from any other than a British officer. He was then shown the authorisation from the SOE Director. It was then at around 4.00pm on 29th August 1943 that he sent his first coded message to SOE headquarters in Algeria, as follows:

‘Sergeant C.R. Mallaby to Allied Forces HQ North Africa: I have been instructed by General Castellano to establish radio contact between the Italian Government and Allied Headquarters. I request instructions.’

He received the reply: ‘Proceed. Continue transmissions.’  Which he duly did, from an office in Palazzo Vidoni only metres away from the number of German and Italian VIPS forever in and out of the building. He was given the codename Monkey and Allied HQ responses were codenamed Drizzle. These communications were the ONLY means in which the Italian government was able to communicate with the Allied leaders. The  full set of Monkey-Drizzle communications have now provided historians with the most accurate, complete and verifiable record of the negotiations leading up to the signing on the 3rd September and the subsequent publication of the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943 – the day before the Americans were to make their beach landings at Salerno and when it was also hoped they would be able to make a landing to liberate Rome.

Palazzo Vidoni

Palazzo Vidoni, headquarters during the war of the Italian Supreme Command. Dick was transmitting messages to Allied HQ in Algeria while German officers were constant visitors in the adjoining rooms.

Announcing the Armistice

The timing of the announcement of the Armistice was not to the liking of the Badoglio government who believed they had until 12th September by when they hoped the Americans would have liberated Rome. Eisenhower was intent though on forcing Badoglio’s hand possibly fearing that the Italians were not seriously intending to surrender. Badoglio though was concerned about making the surrender public while the German army was still in control of Rome. Dick Mallaby’s communications were still the only means of contact between the two parties throughout this tense period. Eisenhower would not allow for any further delay in publishing the armistice commenting in a message earlier on September 8th to Badoglio via Dick Mallaby that there were sufficient loyal Italian troops in Rome to ‘ensure the momentary security of the city’. Eisenhower then announced the armistice at 6.30pm Rome time. Badoglio then made the following broadcast via radio to the nation at 7.42pm:

‘The Italian Government, recognizing the impossibility of continuing the unequal struggle against the overwhelming enemy power, in order to spare the nation from further and more serious disasters, has requested an armistice from General Eisenhower, commander in chief of the Anglo-American forces.

The request was accepted. 

Consequently, every act of hostility against the Anglo-American forces must cease by Italian forces everywhere.

However, they will react to any attacks from any other source.’

The Germans interpreted that very last phrase to mean that the Italian Army was from that moment an enemy force. They set about the immediate imprisonment of all Italian military within their areas of occupation. They subsequently captured and disarmed over one million Italian soldiers, half of the entire Italian army. Of those one million, 196,000 managed to escape during deportation and 13,000 were killed while being transported from the Greek islands. Only 94,000 accepted the immediate offer to fight alongside the Germans leaving 710,000 imprisoned as slave workers in German concentration camps. A further 103,000 in the camps later agreed to fight with the Germans leaving between 600,000 and 650,000 slave workers. Of these it is estimated that about 40,000 died during their time in the concentration camps. 

Meanwhile the situation back in Rome for King Vittorio Emanuele III, Badoglio and his government and Dick Mallaby had become highly dangerous.

From Rome to Brindisi

Early in the morning of 9th September, King Vittorio Emanuele and Badoglio fled from Rome by car towards Pescara on the Adriatic coast. Dick was told to pack a suitcase and his wireless transmitter and go immediately to the airport where he boarded a cargo plane with an unknown destination. That very same day, the British landed in Puglia as previously planned with the Badoglio government to take over control of the Italian Royal Navy in Taranto and Brindisi. 

Mallaby’s destination was Pescara. On landing he was instructed to set up his wireless transmissions from within the airport and recommence the Monkey-Drizzle links so the allies could resume contact with Badoglio and the King. He was soon told to pack up again having been told their destination was now to be Taranto. He and the group from Rome travelled by car down the Abruzzo coast to Ortona where he was told to await boarding ship. 

Corvette Baionetta

The Corvette Baionetta left Pescara with the Admiral of the Italian Royal Navy and Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio on board. It stopped at Ortona to pick up King Vittorio Emanuele, his family and Dick Mallaby

Amongst total confusion at the port with a crowd waiting to board the corvette Baionetta, Dick realised he was standing  just behind the royal party. Gathered on the dock and also waiting to board was King Vittorio Emanuele III, his wife Queen Elena, Prince Umberto and the Supreme Commander of the Italian Army, General Vittorio Ambrosio.  They and Dick all boarded to join Pietro Badoglio and the Chief of the Italian Royal Navy who had embarked in Pescara. Spaces on board were limited with no space for Dick until General Ambrosio ordered his embarkation since Dick was ‘by now part of the Supreme Command’s nucleus’. The ship then left Ortono with its VIP list of passengers just after 01.00am on 10th September. Dick was the only Englishman amongst the other 56 passengers. 

Their ship was met by a light cruiser, Scipione near to Vieste on the Gargano peninsula which accompanied them down to Brindisi. Dick, the King, the senior officers of the Italian Armed forces and the leaders of the Italian government docked in Brindisi at 2.40pm on 10th September.  Meanwhile a few hours earlier back in Rome, Italian troops had surrendered to the Germans commencing their occupation of most of Italy. 

Brindisi

Brindisi

On landing, Mallaby yet again set up his wireless transmitter choosing to base himself in the grounds of the castle overlooking the harbour. Allied HQ in Algiers were relieved to be back in contact and to learn news of whatever had happened to the leaders of the Italian government over the preceding 24 hours. They seemed completely unaware of the King and Badoglio’s escape and the subsequent fall of Rome. 

Conclusion

faggeto

Faggeto lario – Dick had travelled the length of Italy since dropping close to Faggeto on Lake Como on 14th August 1943

It had just been under a month since Dick dropped into Lake Como between Faggeto Lario and Pognana. His mission had gone disastrously wrong at the start but he had used his training to keep his interrogators interested in him and delaying any possible execution. Events then seemed to fall in his favour and he just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time. He found himself as the most critical facilitator of the highest level of negotiations between the allies and the leaders of the defeated Italian nation.  

His achievements did not go unappreciated. General Eisenhower himself recognised the importance of the negotiations that Dick had so ably facilitated stating he played a part in:

‘ …negotiations, secret communications, clandestine journeys of secret agents and frequent meetings in hidden places …plots of various kinds were hatched, only to be abandoned because of changing circumstances … if encountered in the fictional world, would have been scorned as incredible melodrama.’

Dick received more formal and individual acknowledgment on 7th December 1943 when he was awarded the Military Cross. His citation talks of him ‘dropped alone into lake of Como by parachute…in conditions of unexpected difficulty that tested his courage…handcuffed and beaten… (demonstrating) exceptional coolness, perseverance and devotion to duty.’ 

His exploits also won the SOE considerable gratitude from Winston Churchill and the British General Staff since, as mentioned in his citation, if it was not for his role ‘the Allied landings on the Italian mainland may have been made with Italy still an enemy.’

Just as James Bond  always ends his cinematic escapades with a well deserved scene of rest and ‘recuperation’, so we can imagine Dick, in a new clean officer’s uniform, recovering in a bar overlooking the Brindisi seafront, and thinking back over one amazing month in his wartime career.

Villa Balbianella

Daniel Craig as Bond and Caterina Murino as Solange Dimitrios in a ‘romantic’ scene from Casino Royale in the gardens of Villa Balbianello

Postscript

SOE was to establish its first base on Italian soil in Brindisi. Dick stayed in Italy and was occupied over the next two years in training up other agents to be dropped off behind enemy lines to support partisan groups in occupied Italy. However he had not seen the last of Lake Como. 

With his incredible sense of critical timing, he set off on secret mission from Lyon in France on 15th December 1944 in the company of some of the most senior leaders of the Italian Committee of National Liberation. He crossed the Swiss border into Italy on 14th February only to be arrested the following day having crossed Lake Como to Varenna. From there he was transferred to Como where he faced interrogation first by the Italian fascists and later by the Chief of the SS, Karl Wolff. And herein lies another extraordinary escapade since Dick just happened to be back on Lake Como when equally momentous military and political upheavals were developing. The last months of the war in Italy are shrouded in deep mystery and the role of both the American OSS and British SOE in the secret negotiations with Karl Wolff and their possible involvement in the death of Mussolini remain highly ambiguous. Dick happened to be there – but that is all another story. 

Acknowledgments

This article is based on the research undertaken by journalist and independent researcher, Gianluca Barneschi and published in his excellent account of Dick Mallaby’s SOE service entitled ‘An Englishman Abroad’. The book is available from Amazon and in Kindle format in both English and Italian. It is a great read.

Further Reading

In addition to Gianluca Barneschi’s meticulously researched book cited above, I can recommend the official history of the SOE in Italy written by David Stafford and entitled ‘Mission Accomplished – SOE and Italy 1943-1945’. This is also available from Amazon and in Kindle format.

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