Two Local Poets for International Women’s Day

alda merini

Alda Merini born Milan March 1931, died November 2009

Lake Como has inspired poetic sensibilities throughout the ages including those of two of Italy’s most renowned poets of the 20th century – Antonia Pozzi and Alda Merini. Both these writers’ works are available in English translation giving also us the opportunity to appreciate their creativity. See below for details. They shared an almost mystical appreciation of nature gained through a prism of existential social pressure and isolation. Alda suffered years of mental illness in which she was incapacitated from writing. Antonia tragically cut her own life short when only twenty six due in her own words to ‘mortal desperation’. All of her work was published posthumously.

Antonia Pozzi portrait (1)

Antonia Pozzi, born in Milan Feb 1912, died Dec 1938.

Antonia and Alda were both from Milan but had  close associations with Lake Como. Antonia spent at least three months of the year in the family’s country villa in Pasturo, a small town in the Valsassina on the Lecco leg of Lake Como. It was the wild nature of the valley that inspired her poetry which contains not a single reference to Milan. Alda took more inspiration from her urban environment but was deeply attached to Brunate, the small town above Como where her paternal grandparents lived. 

Antonia Pozzi

Antonia was born in 1912 into an aristocratic family with literary antecedents. Her mother was the granddaughter of Tommaso Grossi, the writer and friend of Alessandro Manzoni. Her father was a lawyer well-established within the Fascist hierarchy. She attended the Liceo Manzoni in Milan and went on to study languages and philosophy at university. She was an excellent  photographer as well as a poet. Her first poems were written at the age of seventeen. She went on writing,  keeping both her poems and letters within a series of notebook diaries. 


An example taken from Antonia’s notebooks which formed her original manuscripts. This poem ‘Pudore’ (Modesty) was written in 1933. 

Here is a translation of ‘Pudore’ by Nicholas Benson:


If a word of mine

pleases you

and you tell me

even just with your eyes

I open wide

in a joyful smile –

but I tremble

like a young mother

who even blushes when

a passerby tells her

her little boy is handsome.


1 February 1933

One of her tutors at University was Antonio Banfi, a philosopher who propounded a ‘rationalist’ aesthetic in literature deploying simple and accessible language. She describes her own style of writing as a ‘desire to reduce the weight of words to the minimum’. In this sense, she was fully aligned to the modernist and rationalist philosophies also evident in the architectural and design theories of Como’s Antonio Sant’Elia and Giuseppe Terragni and in the fine art produced by the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’. The equivalent school of poetry was known as ‘Crepuscolarismo’ – a movement that originated at the start of the 20th century based on a rejection of the grandiose and heroic in favour of the spirit found in everyday life expressed in simple free verse. As with Terragni’s architectural rationalism, this movement had grown out of Italian Futurism. 


Antonia spent her summer months in the family home in Pasturo, a small community in the Valsassina running off the eastern leg of Lake Como.

One critic has commented: “Her Modernist verse is lyrical and experimental, pastoral and erotic, powerfully evoking the northern Italian landscape and her personal tragedies amid the repressive climate of Fascism”. Unfortunately for Antonia, her father’s strong commitment to fascism with its misogynistic anti-feminist creed created conflict at home. The family’s obsession with maintaining their social standing and reputation led her father to deny Antonia access to her lover and later on, to censoring the publication of any of her poems deemed inappropriate. Her escape was walks in the mountains around the family’s summer home in Pasturo. 

Pozzi family villa

The Pozzi family home in Pasturo



Antonia’s study in Pasturo. The house is now in private hands and the collection of manuscripts previously on display has been moved to the Universita dell’Insubria in Varese.

In Antonia’s words “poetry has this sublime task: to take all the pain that foams and bounces in our soul and to appease it, to transfigure it into the supreme calm of art, just as rivers flow into the celestial sea.” However her ability to appease the pains in her everyday life was to prove beyond her. On top of the oppressive atmosphere at home and the dispiriting climate of the fascist regime, Antonia found the passing of the anti-semitic Race Laws in September 1938 a final blow. She declared at that moment “forse l’età delle parole è finita per sempre (maybe the time for words is over forever)”. Four months later she committed suicide out of ‘mortal desperation’ aged just 26.  She took an overdose of barbiturates and lay down to die in a snow-covered field overlooking the beautiful Chiaravalle Abbey to the south of Milan. Her parents gave pneumonia as the cause of her death.

Up to that moment only a few close friends knew of her poetic output. Her father, Roberto Pozzi, undertook a strict censorship of her poems and paid for the private publication of this collection entitled ‘Parole, Liriche’.

Portofino Antonia Pozzi

Photograph entitled ‘Portofino’ by Antonia Pozzi

The initial print run for the book was for 300 copies published in Milan by Mondadori in 1939. However Antonia’s full poetic output was only truly revealed in 1986 thanks to research undertaken by Sister Onorina Dino who is now the established curator of Antonia’s poems.

onorina dino

Suora Onorina Dino from the Congregazione delle Suore del Preziosissimo Sangue di Gesu in Monza. She is the official curator of Antonia Pozzi’s manuscripts which have now been entrusted to the Universita dell’Insubria.

Suora Onorina compared the poems in Antonia’s notebooks – her original manuscripts – with the versions printed in the 1939 edition. She discovered that Antonia’s father had modified some of the poems by altering both the metre and vocabulary in parts. He had also penned over some of the poems and cut out pages to censor those he did not like. The nun’s diligent research led to finding a secondary source of these missing works passed on from a close friend of Antonia who had been entrusted with handwritten copies.   


It was only in 1989, on the publication of the unadulterated and complete works of Antonia Pozzi, that critics could make a true assessment of their literary value. Maria Corti, a much respected commentator on contemporary Italian literature who died in 2002 wrote:

“Her spirit made us think of those mountain plants that can only expand at the edge of crevasses, on the edge of the abyss. She was hypersensitive, with a sweet creative anguish, but at the same time a woman with a strong character and a beautiful philosophical intelligence; she was perhaps the innocent prey of a paranoid paternal censorship of life and poetry. No doubt she was in crisis with the closed religious family environment. The beloved Lombard land, the nature of plants and rivers certainly consoled her more than her peers.”

Antonia Foto

Another photograph by Antonia Pozzi of the mountains close to Pasturo

Antonia has been compared with Emily Dickinson and some may well see similarities with Sylvia Plath but ultimately she is an Italian rationalist poet born into the Modernist period with a spiritual dimension unrelated to any belief in God but more to an interest in the idea of God. She is also very much a product of her geographical background with an almost mystical appreciation of nature perhaps arising from the sharp contrast between her urban upbringing in Milan and those idyllic months spent in the foothills of Le Grigne above the shores of Lake Como. 

Pasturo Valsassina

Pasturo, its people, their work and the surrounding countryside inspired Antonia’s poetry.

Her source of inspiration was the countryside around the family villa in Pasturo where she is buried in the town’s cemetery. To honour their famous daughter, the local council have defined a poetic walk (Percorso Poetico) so visitors to Pasturo can themselves appreciate some of her works within the setting that inspired their creation.

Alda Merini

Merini Poem

The footpath from Como to Brunate has been named ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in recognition of her links with the area. Examples of her works and those of other poets are posted along the route.

Alda Merini was born in Milan in 1931, just seven years before the untimely death of Antonia Pozzi. She died in 2009. Her paternal grandfather was from an aristocratic background but had been disinherited on marrying Alda’s grandmother who was from a peasant family. Her father was supportive of Alda’s education but tried to discourage her from becoming a writer on receiving early encouragement from her tutors. Her mother felt all ambition for her daughter to be inappropriate and urged her into just accepting a future based on marriage and motherhood.  She applied to study at the same secondary school as Antonia Pozzi, Milan’s Liceo Alessandro Manzoni, but was rejected ironically due to her ‘poor Italian’. Her early promise as a poet was interrupted in late adolescence by the onset of a severe bipolar condition which plagued her until better managed in later life. In spite of this she enjoyed rich periods of creativity resulting in being put forward twice for a Nobel Prize – in 1996 by the Academie Francaise and in 2001 by the Pen Club Italiano. 

Alda Merini’s paternal grandparents lived in Brunate and Alda took much inspiration from the mountains around Como. The footpath from Como to Brunate has now been named the ‘Sentiero Alda Merini’ in her honour. Small excerpts from her poems have been posted along its route forming part of the initiative by Sentiero dei Sogni of creating a Poets Way from Maslianico on the Swiss border to San Maurizio above Brunate .

We have not given as much space to Alda in this article not because she does not warrant it but because we have already featured her and her poetry in our article entitled Poets’ Way: Como to Brunate.


Pozzi foto

Photograph by Antonia Pozzi

Both these local poets display exceptional talent. While Antonia Pozzi came from a literary background, Alda Merini was more proletarian yet they shared many aspects in common.  Both were brought up in Milan but were strongly drawn to the countryside around Lake Como.  Both displayed acute poetic sensibility at an early age with accompanying mental fragility.  Both adopted a deceptively simple and highly accessible writing style. Both had to deal with paternalistic societal pressures seeking to limit their creative expression. Both have achieved posthumous recognition of their talents in spite of life’s obstacles. Both are admirable women. 

Further Reading

percorso poetico

The ‘Percorso Poetico’ in Pasturo has been created to honour the town’s famous poet, Antonia Pozzi.

For a bilingual collection of Antonia Pozzi’s poems and letters, look for Breath: Poems and Letters by Antonia Pozzi translated by Lawrence Venuti and published by Wesleyan University Press. This book is available on Amazon.

For our articles on Modernism, Rationalism and the Como School of Abstract Art, refer to the following:

Como’s Internationally Renowned Urban Visionary

‘Rationalism’ – Open Days from 15 to 17 April

The Como Group of Artists – ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’



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Carate Urio to Moltrasio via Rifugio Bugone

View from Bugone

The view from the Rifugio Bugone down on to Lake Como.

This walk, from lakeside to the crest of the mountains on the Via dei Monti Lariani and then down, is rewarding but not for the fainthearted. The first section climbing up from Carate and past Monte di Urio requires stamina but the well-defined path offers changing views over the lake as you climb higher. You are at your highest altitude when you reach the Colma del Crinco to join the old military road which now forms the Via dei Monti Lariani. We turn left here to enjoy a level walk to the Rifugio Bugone. From the rifugio we descend down to Moltrasio following the old smugglers’ route now used for an annual alpine running competition described as a ‘killer’ and called La Culman. This is a route favoured with nearby mountain retreats offering food, drink and accommodation. You can easily divert from our suggested route to the Rifugio Murelli or to the Vetta Bisbino. You can also make this a circular route by following a small section of the Via Verde through the narrow streets of Tosnacco back to the Santuario Santa Marta in Carate.

la Culman

La Culman is a particularly tough annual alpine running competition ascending the path on which we descend, but then continuing back down to Moltrasio only to climb again to the Rifugio Murelli.

Starting Point, Santa Marta in Carate Urio

Via Santa Marta

If arriving at the lakeside, take the Via Santa Marta shown here with its Via Crucis which goes under the main road and ends at the Sanctuary of Santa Marta.

The steepest section of the walk is the old smuggler path called  La Culman which reaches a 70% gradient towards the Rifugio Bugone. I prefer to descend rather than climb such steep slopes so I chose to start the walk from Carate Urio and end it by following La Culman down to Moltrasio. So, taking either Bus C10 or C20 from Como, you can either get off at the San Marta bus stop if you are on a ‘via panoramica’ bus (the route that keeps to the high road up from the lakefront) or at the Urio Genesio bus stop down on the lakeside.  The Santa Marta Sanctuary is on a slight promontory looking south towards Como and surrounded by an olive grove on well maintained terracing. Head out south on the so-called Via Verde which is marked out by painted green spots on the stone paving. After at most ten minutes you cross a mountain stream that flows down to the Church of San Quirico and Giulitta in Urio and you arrive at the gates of the Urio Cemetery.  Facing south and to the right of the cemetery’s entrance are two paths. The one on the level is the continuation of the Via Verde while the other rising steeply to the right is our path going to Monte di Urio. 

Climbing to Monte di Urio

Monte di urio sign

Signposts direct you off the Via Verde to start your ascent to the right of the Urio Cemetery.

The path to Monte di Urio is steep but well maintained passing through woods which provide shelter from sun in summer and views over the lake in winter. You arrive after one hour of hard climbing at the small alpine community of Monte di Urio, 800 metres above sea level. From here there are marvellous views to north and south along the lake. Paths diverge at the small chapel at the heart of the village with the option of taking the direct path to Rifugio Bugone on the left or to carry on to the Colma del Crinco by following the sign for the Rifugio Murelli. 

The route towards Rifugio Murelli is possibly less steep overall than the climb up to Monte di Urio but it is still somewhat challenging in parts. However, after following the path north for about 2 kilometres, you make a decisive turn to the left and will then see that you are not too far from the crest of the mountain. It comes as quite a relief to reach that crest and, leaving the view of the lake behind you, look over towards the twin peaks of Monte Generoso and Switzerland. 

Monte di urio

The alpine village of Monte di Urio is 800 metres above sea level.

You are now on the old military road now called the Via Dei Monti Lariani, a long distance hiking path that starts from Monte Bisbino and continues along the Val D’Intelvi before crossing the valley to continue on to the north end of Lake Como. 

Monte Generosa

Once on the Via dei Monti Lariani your views are over towards Monte Generoso, the Sasso Gordona and the Swiss Alps.

Via Dei Monti Lariani

Colma del Crinco

You join the Via dei Monti Lariani at the Colma del Crinco at 1,160 metres above sea level. Turn right for a 20 minute walk to Rifugio Murelli or left in a slight descent to the Rifugio Bugone.

There is the option on reaching the Colma del Crinco of turning right and continuing for around 20 minutes to reach the Rifugio Murelli. This rifugio was, like Rifugio Bugone, one of the string of barracks built to house the guards deployed to prevent smuggling (somewhat unsuccessfully) across the Swiss border. They were occupied by members of the Guardia di Finanza, many of whom actively helped Jews, partisans, allied soldiers and others escape across the border during the last war.  They now offer walkers with food, drink and accommodation but it is advisable to check if they are open before setting out if hoping to stop for refreshment.  Murelli is usually always open but call  +39 335 843 4493 to be sure. 

The Colma del Crinco is at 1,167 metres above sea level which is the highest point on our walk. If you were to divert to the Rifugio Murelli, you would only climb a further 33 metres but if you turn left rather than right towards Rifugio Bugone, you will descend by 50. The path is well maintained and clearly signposted taking you through woods that offer views over to the Sasso Gordona and Monte Generoso on your right before arriving at the Rifugio Bugone.

Rifugio Bugone

The Rifugio Bugone is open all week during the summer and at weekends through the rest of the year for food and drink. You are however advised to use the contact information to check on opening before setting out on your walk.

The Rifugio is open every day during the summer but only at weekends for the rest of the year. However, it is always best to contact them to check either by emailing stones or calling +39 031 0350027.

The views from Bugone point down again over Lake Como. The Rifugio is on a hiking crossroads with the option as you face the lake of taking a sharp left turn down to Monte Liscione before reaching Tosnacco. You could also continue on the Via dei Monti Lariani to Monte Bisbino or take the path between these two options signposted for Monti di Lenno. For our route, we start off by taking this latter option. 

Start of la Culman

Look out for the yellow markers on stone and tree that mark the start of the La Culman trekking path leading left off the path for Monte di Lenno. If conditions are slippery, I advise you continue to descend via Monte di Lenno.

Descent to Moltrasio on La Culman

la Culman 1

The route of La Culman marked out for the annual alpine running challenge starting off in Moltrasio.

As you follow the path signposted for Monte di Lenno, look out after about 150 metres for yellow painted stones that mark the start of the steep descent to Moltrasio on the old smugglers’ path known as La Culman. This path is particularly steep at the start of the descent and is far from being well defined. However the way down through the rocks is clearly marked out with splashes of yellow paint. These markings are designed particularly for the competitors in the annual alpine running competition. This race, openly described as a ‘killer’, takes place in October with runners ascending from Moltrasio up to Bugone through the trees and the rocks following a route used by local smugglers in the past. The yellow markings are designed for those climbing rather than descending so, if you find yourself unable to pick out the next marking, just look back to orientate yourself.

la Culman 2The path gradually becomes more clearly defined as it eventually joins a disused mule path. This in turn leads you down to the southerly end of Tosnacco on Via Colombo from where you can either descend further to Moltrasio or continue north on Via Colombo to go through the labyrinth of Tosnacco’s narrow streets towards the Via Verde.  Follow this to return to your point of departure at Santa Marta in Carate. Another option is to turn right on arriving at Via Colombo to pick up the Sentee di Sort which starts close to this point and continue walking on to Rovenna above Cernobbio.

Santuario Santa Marta

The Sanctuary of Santa Marta in Carate seen from the Via Verde as you return from Moltrasio,

To return to Como you can take your luck finding a C10 bus at the bus stop across from the pharmacy on the main road or increase your options by going down to the imbarcadero on the lakeside. Here you can choose either the bus or the boat to get home.

Returning to Santa Marta


The Church of Saint Quirico and Giulitta in Urio looking down from the Via Verde. It’s possible to see Como’s Villa Olmo in the far distance just to the right of the bell tower.

The time added to the route for returning you to your point of departure is not included in the summary below. You will however be pleased that the additional two kilometres are not onerous since the Via Verde is mostly on the level. It also takes you through the delightful medieval centre of Tosnacco before continuing on a path paved with Moltrasio stone around the headland to Carate. 



Distance: 8.6 Kilometres

Time: 4 hours 10 minutes

Climb: 900 metres

Descent: 1000 metres to the lakeside

Difficulty: Good fitness required and sure-footedness. I do not recommend descending on La Culman if the ground is wet.

Rifugi profile

Note the sharp gradient at the start of the descent. An alternative descent is to stay on the hiking path for Monte di Lenno from the Rifugio Bugone. 

Torno Moltrasio

View as you descend the La Culman path of Torno across the lake and Moltrasio in the foreground.


Posted in Itineraries, Lake, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cleaning Up Como’s Tax Office

Agenzia delle Entrate

The offices of the Agenzia delle Entrate on Viale Cavallotti whose director was arrested in July 2019 following an investigation of corruption at the highest level of the organisation in Como.

Key officials in the Province of Como’s tax office (the Agenzia delle Entrate) have been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for heavily discounting local businessmen’s tax bills. The state has lost out on over €2 million in tax revenue as a result of a system for defrauding the authorities hatched by the actual chief of the tax office in league with one of the most prominent accountants in the city. To this date sixty people have been arrested linked to thirty five individual cases of corruption. These amount to six senior officers of the Agenzia delle Entrate including the previous Director, its Head of the Legal Office and another official from the Milan office. The scale of the scandal, first exposed in July 2019, has uncovered an institutionalised system for obtaining massive discounts on the tax liabilities of businesses or individuals in exchange for illicit cash payments. Such backhanders are known here as ‘tangenti’, made famous in the ‘tangentopoli’ scandal centred on Milan in the 1990s which brought about the fall of Bettino Craxi and Italy’s First Republic. Como’s scandal is a provincial rather than a metropolitan ‘tangentopoli’  and thankfully does not involve politicians. Yet it is similar to the Tangentopoli trials of the 1990s in revealing a murky side to supposedly respectable society. It has cast an unfavourable  light on a particular strata of Como’s provincial society piercing through layers of social pretension to reveal greed and corruption. 

What Is the Agenzia delle Entrate?

Agenzia delle Entrate logoAn office of the Agenzia delle Entrate exists in every Italian province forming part of a national structure of public administration under the responsibility of the Ministry of Finance. All residents will have had to apply to it to obtain the all-important ‘codice fiscale’. Property owners will have greater contact since the office determines the level of all property taxes including those incurred through changes of ownership including inheritance. They have overall responsibility for the administration and collection of both local and national taxes including VAT payments. They identify errors in tax returns and call upon the help of the Guardia di Finanza to investigate and prosecute cases of tax evasion. It is therefore more than ironic that Como’s Guardia di Finanza ended up investigating its own Agenzia delle Entrate and arresting the Director, Roberto Leoni, and its Head of Legal Office, Stefano La Verde on charges of corruption. 

Rotten Apples in Como’s Tax Barrel

Casa del Fascio

The headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza in Terragni’s Casa del Fascio. The Guardia di Finanza undertake many of their investigations on behalf of the Agenzia delle Entrate. This time they found themselves ingestigating the agency itself.

The easiest way to establish a system of corruption is to have it initiated and promoted from the very top of the organisation. Roberto Leoni was the Director of the tax office in Como.  He actually moved from Como to take over as boss of the Varese office six months before his arrest in July 2019. However by that time he had established a system of corruption alongside other executives such as Stefano La Verde. No doubt he would have instituted a similar corrupt regime in Varese given enough time. But Leoni and La Verde have now been sentenced to four years imprisonment. The Head of Personnel at the Milan tax office was subsequently arrested for advising Leoni that he was under investigation. 

‘Creative’ Accounting

Antonio and Stefano Pennestri

Stefano and his father Antonio Pennestri. Antonio Pennestri is said to be the author of the system of fraud linking accountants to corrupt executives within the Agenzia delle Entrate.

One way to become one of the leading groups of accountants in Como was by going well beyond legal tax avoidance advice.  For an enhanced fee, the Studio Pennestri could guarantee you the full cooperation of the tax office in accepting  a significantly reduced calculation of your tax liabilities. You could also add to your unique selling point by promising to give your clients forewarning of any likely visits from the Guardia di Finanza to check up on your management of VAT receipts, the validity of your invoices or in pursuit of suspected fiscal fraud of any sort. And what about offering a sizeable reduction in any inheritance tax liabilities or any of the other taxes incurred with the sale or purchase of property? Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano were able to offer all these ‘under the counter’ services thanks to their arrangement with Roberto Leoni who exchanged these favours for envelopes stuffed with bank notes.

Antonio Pennestri

Antonio Pennestri – charismatic but corrupt

Antonio Pennestri was the evil genius behind what has become named the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. It brought many clients to his door aware of the extra-commercial relationship he shared with key players in the Agenzia delle Entrate. Unfortunately, the Guardia di Finanza had become suspicious of these activities. They captured video evidence of the Pennestri handing over cash to Stefano La Verde. Pennestri and son were arrested alongside Leoni in July 2019 with the father now sentenced to over fours years and his son to three years imprisonment.

Antonio Pennestri may well have seen himself and been seen as a respectable member of Como’s elite with his many valuable social and business connections.  But this was not the first scandal he had masterminded. In fact Antonio Pennestri has had a string of convictions including a one and a half year spell in prison back in 2013 for authoring the so-called ‘Sistema Comense’. 

Sistema Comense


The basketball club Comense was reconstituted in 2015 after Pennestri had stepped down as president. There is no suggestion the club has been involved in the Sistema Comense in recent years.

Antonio Pennestri had always been involved in local sport and was even the President of Comense – Como’s local basketball club which had been at the top of the national Serie A until, under Pennestri’s presidency, it was expelled from the Federazione Italiana Pallacanestro (FIP) and lost its Serie A ranking. Whilst acting as the basketball club’s president, he devised what appeared to be a win-win opportunity for his accountancy clients and for local sports clubs like Comense. The ‘system’ worked like this.  He encouraged his commercial clients to make large sponsorship contributions to Comense, from which they gained legitimate tax relief against profits. In exchange, the sporting club would issue false invoices to their sponsors – invoices which were never intended to be paid. The profits of the clients’ businesses would appear to be reduced when the false invoices were added to the company accounts resulting in a further lowering of their tax bills. His clients paid less tax and the sports clubs got their sponsorship.  

This scam was uncovered in 2012. Comense was expelled from the FIP and Pennestri was handed down a prison sentence that could not be suspended due to a previous conviction. In spite of this sad history, Comense has subsequently bounced back under new presidency.  Once taken back into the Federation, it recovered its reputation and some of its former justifiable sporting prowess. 


Pennestri became master of the Como lodge of the freemasons – the Grande Oriente D’Italia.

Antonio Pennestri also bounced back after serving his sentence with his social position not unduly effected by his criminal convictions. He was later appointed the Master of the Como lodge of the freemason organisation, the Grande Oriente D’Italia. This freemason group gained some infamy in the 1990s due to revelations that its P2 lodge managed by Licio Gelli had constructed a shadow state associated with Gladio (an organisation based on the Verga Battalion stationed on Lake Montorfano during the war) ready to spearhead a neo-fascist coup d’etat. There is no evidence that Pennestri had any similar political objectives but he certainly had not given up on his Sistema Comense. In 2019, when the Guardia di Finanza were investigating his newly-minted Sistema Pennestri, they also looked into his attempts to revitalise the Sistema Comense as well as checking on any possible involvement of the freemasons.

Antonio Pennestri is undoubtedly a creative genius and his breathtaking capacity to bounce back socially must be due to a certain charisma tied to boundless energy and self confidence. It’s just a pity he chose to apply these qualities into devising illegal activities . 

Three Waves of Arrest


Caught red-handed by a hidden camera set up by the Guardia di Finanza – Stefano La Verde seen receiving a €2000 cash payment from the Pennestri in his office at the Agenzia delle Entrate

The original arrests back in July 2019 were limited to Roberto Leoni, the then Director of the Agenzia delle Entrate, Stefano La Verde the Agency’s Legal Director and the two accountants – Antonio Pennestri and his son Stefano. These were not people comfortable in spending much time in Bassone, Como’s prison. Their plea bargaining for reduced sentencing soon allowed the authorities to extend their investigations leading to a second round of arrests in May 2020. These included Roberto Colombo, the head of all property-related taxation at the Agency. He admitted he had received his first ‘tangenti’, or illicit cash payment, way back in 2012.


Time spent on remand in Como’s Bassone prison encouraged those arrested to cooperate with the investigators on the basis of plea bargaining. This led to a total of three waves of arrests.

This second wave also netted Roberto Santaniello who had become a form of ‘illicit’ business development manager procuring corruptible accountants and linking them to the appropriate officials in the agency. 

The number of those officials was added to in the third wave of arrests in November 2020 with the names of Vincenzo Ferraro, the Agency’s expert on property inheritance tax, and Patrik Orlando, an expert on the taxation of off-shore funds. 

Como from Brunate

Como’s old town seen from the funicular to Brunate.

The first wave of arrests had cut off the original source of demand with the incarceration of the Pennestris. But this did not stop his studio from continuing the ‘Sistema Pennestri’. Its management was now entrusted within the studio to Simona Secchi who had been instructed to reassure clients that the system would continue to operate in spite of the arrests. 

Revelations made by Stefano La Verde in particular also led to the arrest of many more accountants and financial professionals unconnected to the Pennestris. These accountants  had been recruited into the scandal by Roberto Santaniello. La Verde’s role was to determine the cost to these clients for whichever illicit service they required. For example La Verde determined that one accountant pay €3000 for the voluntary disclosure of off-shore funds to Patrik Orlando while a similar client was asked to pay €2,000. 

The full extent of the spread of this system of corruption was revealed in this last wave of arrests. By now the total number of those charged with corruption amounted to a further fifty two people beyond the eight originally detained in July 2019. 

La Verde was the contact inside the Agenzia delle Entrate who calculated the fees for each favour. His testimony revealed how the Sistema Pennestri had developed from a few high value cases originating from a single Como-based accountancy firm into an institutionalised practice of corrupt negotiation with accountants from around the province. It appears as if the ‘business development’ strategy implemented by Roberto Santaniello had been to go for quantity as much as quality with the word going out to financial professionals across the province that tax bills could be negotiated for a fee. 

The rate of payment determined by La Verde depended on the number of cases brought by each accountant and their relative worth. Some accountants only sought one or two cases for which they might typically have to pay a tangenti of two to five thousand euro.  Massimo Mariangeloni, an accountant from Cernobbio, was atypical in having to pay €34,000 for five higher value cases. He received the judgement of a two year suspended prison sentence typically handed out to most of the second or third wave accountants. However he also had to pay a €29,500 fine. 


As far as we know there was no involvement of organised crime in the Como tangentopoli scandal. But it is not hard to see parallels between it and the ‘Nuovo Mondo’ mafia investigation we reported on recently. Both crimes were based on a ‘system’ devised by corrupt accountants. For Nuovo Mondo, the evil genius was Massimiliano Ficarra, a known mafioso. For the Agenzia delle Entrate, the author was the seemingly respectable Antonio Pennestri. Pennestri’s studio was just around the corner from that of Bruno de Benedetto, Ficarro’s trusted financial professional also convicted in the Nuovo Mondo investigation. Pennestri and De Benedetto subsequently became neighbours incarcerated together in the local prison at Bassone. Both systems defrauded the state. Both systems offered unfair competitive advantages to their participants. Both seem to be born out of and sustained by a similar culture of greed and entitlement. Given all this, it does become easier to appreciate how the mafia continue to find it relatively easy to insinuate themselves within sections of the provincial commercial community.  With such temptations to criminality emanating from the state’s own fiscal entity, one has to admire the majority of individuals who continue to prefer honesty and integrity no matter at what cost to them individually or to their businesses. The other saving grace arising from this story is the apparent incorruptibility of the Guardia di Finanza – long may it last!

Casa del Fascio 1

The Casa del Fascio may hopefully become a museum dedicated to Rationalist Architecture but in the meantime it is the headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza who have proved to be excellent custodians of this architectural gem.

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Lake Como’s Bears, Wolves … and Werewolves


Looking out from Brunate above Como to Monte Rosa and the high Alps on the Piedmont border with Switzerland – a rapid transition from urbanisation to remote isolation.

The lakeside cities of Como and Lecco are on the northern boundaries of Milan’s conurbation, with only the Alps constraining further spread.  In contrast, if you travel just a few kilometres from the shores of the lake, you find yourself in some of the most remote and mountainous areas of Europe –  an area favoured by wild animals including wolves and bears. 


The image of a wolf caught in 2015 by a remote camera placed in the Valle Albano.

Wolves and bears have been making a return to the Alps since the turn of the century after an absence of 100 years. Our area of the Alps is perhaps one of the last to see their return. Wolves were always present in the Apennines but they have recently been spreading up through Liguria and into Piedmont before moving east. Bears instead first re-established themselves in Trentino and the Alto Adige before spreading west. This can explain why recent sightings of wolves have been on the west side of the lake while bear sightings have been, up to now, restricted to the Lecco leg of the lake above its eastern shores.

Bear and wolf pic 2


wolf2The first sighting of wolves was made in 2012 when two adults were seen in the Parco Ticino to the west of Malpensa airport.  In 2015 a pack of five wolves was identified living in the Valle Albano close to Garzeno which is an area 10 kilometres south west from Gravedona at the top end of the lake’s western shores. It is fascinating to note that such a wild animal could have become established so close to one of the most popular areas for visitors on the lake. Since 2015, this pack may well have multiplied by up to four times.

Parco Valle Albano

The Valle Albano is known to host large numbers of deer and other wild animals providing ample prey for wolves.

It is estimated that there may well be between one thousand to one thousand five hundred wolves living nowadays in the Apennines while there are still only a few hundred in the Italian Alps. Numbers and details of wolves in all Alpine countries are recorded by Life Wolfalps EU, an organisation committed to ‘coordinated actions to improve wolf-human coexistence‘.  The return of wolves to the Alps has not been without problems given that they had previously been hunted to extinction by farmers seeking to protect their herds of sheep and goats grazing on the Alpine pastures.

deer at Garzeno

Wolves grab their prey by their throat and use the pressure of their jaws to complete the kill quickly and efficiently.

A wolf’s diet is almost exclusively carnivorous consuming from three to six kilos of meat per day. This amounts to an average of twenty deer in a year. The Valle Albano is particularly rich in wild deer and is within a territory that provides the wolves access to over 200 square kilometres in which to hunt their prey, extending over the Swiss border.  Their other favoured prey are wild boar who, prior to the return of the wolves, met with no natural predators. Wild boar numbers have increased exponentially in recent years and so the return of the wolves does something to restore the ecological balance.

cavargna goats

Goat herders are at the forefront of the conflict between farmers and wolves with the fear of losing members of their herds as they graze on the high alpine pastures.

However, for those farmers managing their flocks of sheep and goats on the high alpine pastures, the return of the wolves is more problematic. Firstly wolves have a fearful reputation and stories abound of wolves attacking babies and children. This may have been more likely in the past when children and babies would accompany their parents to live and work in the high alpine pastures. Wolves will always out of preference hunt the weak or the slow but there are no recent reports of any attacks on humans.  Secondly there is the fear that in the cold winter months, the wolves might descend from the mountains in search of food as do the wild boar. Again there are no proven reports yet of domestic animals being attacked in the Valle Albano. This may be down to the still plentiful supply of wild deer and also to the suggestion that it is only lone wolves who attack domestic animals. The same is not the case in the Val Cavargna.


The Val Cavargna

The Val Cavargna lies around ten kilometres due north of Porlezza, a town on the eastern end of Lake Lugano. In August 2017 reports came in of thirty goats killed by wolves. In August 2020 there was a further report of ten goats killed out of a flock of sixty left to pasture on the Alpe Stabiello at 1,702 metres above sea level. The wolves were apparently able to separate out this group of ten from the main flock and drive them into the woods where they were killed. This follows on from a further twenty goats killed earlier in the year. The same pack of wolves may also have been responsible for another twenty attacks on ten alpine farms across the nearby Swiss border. It is relatively easy to identify a wolf attack since they usually apply the same method to kill their prey by locking their jaws around the throat of their victims applying up to 100 kilograms per square centimetre of pressure to strangle and sever the carotid artery.

wolf demo

Ecologists welcome the return of wolves to the Alps but some local farmers are less enthusiastic as in the case of these demonstrators in Ossola above Lake Maggiore .

There is a complex psychological relationship between man and wolf as revealed in fables like Red Riding Hood with its contrast between animal cunning and childhood innocence. Stories of the big bad wolf abound as is the case of a particularly large and savage wolf that was said to live in a lair guarding the route between Brunate and Torno. The Sasso del Lupo (the wolf’s stone) is a large granite boulder brought down from the Valtellina by glaciation and left, as the ice retreated, to almost block the route of the ancient Strada Regia to the south of Monte Piatto. The local myth goes that the wolf used this massive granite ‘erratico’ as its lair from which it would jump out at any passing children who had been particularly disobedient or badly behaved – a terrifying prospect if you had to make regular use of this mountain path. 

Sasso del lupo

The Sasso del Lupo is on the section of the Strada Regia between Brunate and Monte Piatto. It is a granite boulder brought down by glacier from the Val Masino in the Valtellina, 20 metres long by 10 wide and 8 high.



The Brown Bear (Ursus Arctos) is making a successful return to the Alps, particularly in the Trentino area which is where those bears seen around Lake Como originate from.

Bear sightings are restricted to the eastern side of the lake in locations that run alongside the Viandante, the 45 kilometre long hiking trail that starts to the the north of Lecco and extends north to Colico. In May 2012 evidence of bears were seen in Somana, an area to the east of Mandello del Lario, where a deer and two sheep had been killed with  a further two injured.  Bear tracks had been found nearby. At the same time two bears were seen in the area above Colico. In April 2013 the same bear seen close to Mandello was again seen in the Valsassina and identified as a four year old known by trackers as M7 and known to have originated from a pack living in Trentino. It was seen raiding a bee hive and eating bees and honey. The apiarist was compensated for his loss and farmers in the area advised to bring all their animals in overnight. Bear sightings were recorded in the same area in 2015 and again in 2017. This bear hotspot is above Dervio between the hamlets of Premana and Primaluna. 


The Valsassina running east from Dervio on Lake Como is the area with most bear sightings.

Bears may well present a frightening spectacle when rearing up on their hind legs but there have been no cases of these brown bears inflicting injuries on humans in over 150 years. A bear on its hind legs is only trying to get a better view of what might be threatening it and, once it has identified the threat, will almost invariably retreat. Bears are a protected species like wolves and their numbers and welfare are monitored by an organisation called Life Arctos

…and Werewolves?

werewolf in Milan

A Werewolf in Milan

The myth of the man wolf or werewolf is almost universal.  Film and fiction have acquainted us with its features with the apparent influence of the full moon causing this shapeshifting phenomenon. The recent discovery on January 29th of naked large footprints crossing the snow-covered roofs of up to six houses in the remote village of Buggiolo was reported in La Provincia (the local paper) as being possibly made by a ‘lupo mannaro’  (werewolf).  Strange noises in the starlit night of a full moon with evidence in the morning of these footprints and of pieces of wood thrown down from the rooftops led one local resident, Piermario Cremella, to comment as follows:

‘I was told of the episode by some of my neighbours so I went to take a look expecting to find a logical cause but when I climbed up to the edge of my roof I had to reconsider. I saw these footprints in the snow crossing the roof. They were not made by shoes and on the balcony below, also covered in snow, there were these pieces of wood thrown down from above. I can’t think of a logical explanation and amongst us we began to think the unthinkable.’

Buggiolo, with its tiny population of 160,  is in the Val Rezzo, the valley that runs parallel to the Val Cavargna where so many actual wolves have been recorded.

Clearly the remoteness and isolation of our nearby alpine communities does not just favour the return of iconic wild animals like wolves and bears but also the residual belief in some of our ancient myths and fables. 

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Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino

The Sanctuary on the summit of Monte Bisbino, one of the routes favoured by refugees seeking to cross the border into Switzerland.

To honour Holocaust Memorial Day I would like this year to recount the experience of Anna Sacerdoti, born 1925, who successfully managed to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps by escaping over the border from Cernobbio with her family.

Smuggling’s game of cat and mouse between ‘contrabandisti’ and border guards formed a key part of our local economy up until the 1970’s. However, during the war both these players would often cooperate in helping enemies of the fascist state escape over the border to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps. Anna Sacerdoti, a young girl from a Jewish family,  made that escape with her family in 1943. Her account of her experience provides insight into how life changed from 1938 with the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws until 1943 when Mussolini’s Repubblica di Salò defined all Jews as ‘enemies of the state’ at the Congress of Verona.  

The Rifugio Bugone above Moltrasio was one of the chain of barracks for border guards set up to deter smuggling. Many guards helped refugees cross the border using their knowledge of the mountain to outsmart the Nazi soldiers or the fascist Brigate Nere. Mussolini eventually barred the border guards from operating on the mountains due to their untrustworthiness.

Anna Sacerdoti was born into a family with one elder brother, a mother who kept house and a father with a textiles shop and tailor’s studio in the Porta Venezia area of Milan.  She and her family survived the war to later become a politician, a renowned astronomer and the joint owner with her husband of Como’s largest independent bookshop in Via Mentana. She recounted her wartime experiences in an interview recorded by Como’s Istituto di Storia Contemporanea (ISC) and available in Italian online. The details in this article are taken from that interview with the ISC.


Headline announcing the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws of 1938.

Throughout the 1930s Jewish families from Germany had emigrated to Italy in the belief that they would be safer here. The fascist government had showed its capacity for racism in its deplorable conduct of the war in Ethiopia but there had been no recent history of anti-semitism. However, possibly under pressure from Hitler or as part of the evolution of his own racist thinking, Mussolini changed this when he published the ‘Leggi Razziali’ in 1938.  This convergence of Italian fascism with German Nazism came to be codified in the ‘Patto D’Acciaio’ (Pact of Steel) Treaty of 1939, sealing the fate of the Italian economy and the sacrifice of up to 70,000 of its own citizens to murder in Nazi death camps. 

The main clauses in the Racial Laws were the following:

  • Jews could not marry ‘aryian’ Italians.
  • Jews were forbidden from employing ‘aryians’ as domestic workers.
  • No Jews could be employed in public administration, banks or any company offering public services.
  • Foreign Jews could no longer enter the country.
  • All foreign Jews had their Italian citizenship revoked if granted at any time after 1919.
  • No Jew could be employed as a lawyer or journalist.
  • No Jewish children could attend state schools unless they converted to Catholicism.
  • No books published by Jews could be used in state schools.
  • Special schools for Jewish pupils were created in which only Jewish teachers could work. Jewish teachers were banned from working in state schools.

The fascist regime fell in 1943 with the signing of an armistice with the allies on September 8th. The racial laws were revoked. All political prisoners. allied prisoners of war and Jews then in detention were freed. However, the period of freedom was short lived since it was quickly followed by the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy.  

On the Nazi’s reinstatement of Mussolini in 1943, the so-called Republic of Salò passed  Article 7 of the Congress of Verona. This article defined all Jews living in Italy as ‘enemies of the state’ and it applied equally to all residents whether they be foreign refugees or those with Italian citizenship. Enemies of the state – which also included political opponents and ex-soldiers or others avoiding military service –  risked arrest, onward deportation and death in Nazi extermination camps. Most Jews from Italy were transferred to Auschwitz where 7,680 died leaving only 1,000 able to return home. 10,000 political prisoners and between 40 to 50 thousand ex-soldiers suffered a similar fate.

The Sacerdoti Family

The district of Casnedo within Cernobbio where the Sacerdoti family moved to avoid the allied bombardment of Milan and to be close to the Swiss border if they needed to make a quick escape.

Prior to 1938, Anna’s family were living in Milan. Her father, Renato – an avowed antifascist who kept his home free of any fascist influence – ran a textiles shop importing mainly English cloth  and a tailoring studio in the Porto Venezia area. It was not a religious family and so they did not insist that Anna or her brother were not to attend the daily prayers at the start of the school day. Anna recounts how they stood up with all the other children ‘out of respect’ but didn’t have to participate. She was not aware at that time of any anti-Semitism.

Her father though had sensed the way fascism was going and the increasing likelihood of war. He took the family on the long summer holiday to Cernobbio where he also  cultivated friendships with the local smugglers and the border guards. 


Mussolini and fascist leaders at a young person’s rally in Milan’s Arena

The start of the school year in October 1938  was heralded by Mussolini’s customary attendance of a grand gymnastic display by school children in Milan’s Arena. Anna was a skilled gymnast and was taking part in rehearsals when her teacher tearfully had to inform her and two other companions that they could no longer  take part. Anna, at twelve years old, began at this point to understand the impact of fascism. 

During that summer in Cernobbio she had been taking extra lessons in German from a Jewish Russian refugee. She needed German as a condition of entry into the Scientific Lyceum – her preferred choice for secondary schooling. But the racial laws meant she was denied access to that or any other Italian school. She and her brother enrolled into the British Institute, unimpacted by the racial laws since it was linked to the British Embassy, but they did not get on with instruction in English. From then on Anna received no formal education until she went back to complete matriculation after the war, sitting as an adult in the 5th year class in the Liceo Scientifico ‘Paolo Giovio’ in Como.

Move to Cernobbio

Anna’s father’s textile shop and studio had been seized from him and he was forced into earning money from a variety of informal jobs. In any case, with the increasing overt racism of the state and the start of the allied bombardment of Milan in 1939, he decided to move the family to safer ground. In 1940 they made a permanent move to the district of Casnedo in Cernobbio, where Renato had already established good relationships. Como and Cernobbio were spared allied bombardment and they were in easy reach of the Swiss border if ever there came the need to make a hasty escape. 

Sign in a shopfront in Milan ‘discouraging’ Jewish customers.

A still taken from Roberto Benigni’s film ‘La Vita e Bella’ in which he parodied these exclusion notices with the fantasy that on certain days it was the turn of Visigoths and spiders to be denied entry.

The next blow to the family came when they were forced to sack their household help of many years – a girl originally from Friuli called Maria. Both Maria, Anna and the rest of the family were devastated by this. Anna had grown up with Maria and thought of her as a second mother. Maria had become part of their household and it was difficult for Renato to find another family who would employ her on similar terms and conditions. For Anna, it was just another example of how everyone, not just Jews, suffered as a result of the Racial Laws.

Armistice Day, September 8th 1943

The fall of the fascist government with the arrest and imprisonment of Mussolini brought widespread relief and the freeing of all allied soldiers from prison camps. Most of these allied soldiers then did their best to reach home with many coming up to cross over the border into Switzerland.  In the meantime, those Italian soldiers in Italy were quick to divest themselves of their uniforms and return to civilian life. Anna’s father helped some of the border guards posted on Monte Bisbino by giving them civilian clothes in exchange for their military uniforms. His fine instinct for survival had calculated that these uniforms might prove useful in the future.

The initial euphoria following the fall of fascism was soon cut short when the Nazis occupied the central and northern part of the country. They made a daring raid to snatch Mussolini from captivity and then reinstated him as leader of a puppet state nicknamed the Republic of Salò. The Republic of Salò lost no time in carrying out the nazifascist policy of mass extermination. 1943 saw the first train loads of Jews leave Milan’s Central Station destined for Auschwitz. The Shoah had reached Italy. 

From December 1943 to January 1945, 23 trains left Platform 21 of Milan’s Central Station containing mainly Jews but also partisans and political dissidents with Auschitz as their direct destination. The platform is now a memorial to the Holocaust.

Crossing over to Switzerland

Switzerland’s policy towards refugees during the war was complex with access being allowed and then denied whenever the individual cantons felt they lacked the resources to manage the numbers. Most refugees were interned and none were allowed to work. Initially the one group allowed access were soldiers. Following the Nazi occupation, there were many ex-soldiers who resisted being conscripted into the Republic of Salo’s army. Some of them formed the first bands of partisan antifascists. Others sought refuge in Switzerland. At that time the Swiss Canton of Ticino was only allowing ex-military to cross over the border with Italy. Anna’s father used the uniforms he had exchanged with the Border Guards to help Anna’s brother and his companions to pose as military and so pass safely over the border at Chiasso.

Renato then had to get the rest of his family to safety ever aware of the roundups of Jews by the German army and their Italian allies, the fascist Brigate Nere. Many of the local people were doing their best to safeguard their Jewish neighbours as we have recounted in previous articles and Renato was able to call upon the help of the smugglers he had befriended in Cernobbio. 

The Sacerdoti family then made their first attempt to cross the border on Monte Bisbino with the help of the smugglers who led their party to where they had cut a hole in the border fencing. The family crossed over safely but, as they descended towards Breggia, they were intercepted by Swiss border guards who refused them further entry and forced them to return into Italy. If they had returned via the official border they would all have been immediately detained and face immediate detention and eventual deportation. However they were allowed to return to the very gap in the border fence through which they had entered and so return home.

Their second attempt was made on December 19th 1943 once Renato had made a deal with the Italian border guards manning a pedestrian crossing into Switzerland at Rongiana on a footpath from Piazza Santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio next to the family’s home in Casnedo. The guards, part of the Guardia di Finanza, had agreed to open the gates to the family in exchange for their bicycles. This time they were not turned back by the Swiss who however did separate the family, as was their custom with refugees, by interning Anna and her mother in the local cinema and her father within the sports ground. 

The view over Switzerland from Monte Bisbino. The ridge in the foreground marks the border.

The Family Whistle

Anna’s mother soon understood that the Swiss were only going to allow those refugees who had crossed over more than twenty four hours previously to stay on. The more recent arrivals, namely Anna and her family, would be sent back into Italy. She decided that they would tell the Swiss authorities they had in fact crossed earlier from Monte Bisbino but had spent the night on the mountain since it was dark. The story would hold up only if they could get a message to Anna’s father for him to corroborate it. Anna’s mother persuaded a sympathetic guard to convey her message to the sports ground where her father was being held. The problem was how would this guard be able to identify Signor Sacerdoti from the hundreds of other detainees being held there. 

Through these years of anxiety, the family had devised a means of identifying themselves to each other as for example whenever approaching the house in Casnedo. This was by whistling a specific tune known to all of them. Anna’s mother taught the Swiss guard the tune and he duly walked around the sports ground whistling this Sacerdoti tune. On hearing it, Renato approached the guard and was passed the all-important message which ensured the family would be briefly reunited and transported together to another camp in Bellinzona.

Return to Italy

Photo by Christian Schiefer taken at Ponte Chiasso showing disarmed German soldiers waiting to cross the border into Switzerland, April 1945.

Those refugees who had successfully gained permission to stay in Switzerland were interned in separate camps for men and women during the remainder of the war. This did not stop Anna joining the Communist Party which was as clandestine in Switzerland as it was in Italy. She spent most of her time in internment except for one period when she was allowed to work as a housemaid for a wealthy Swiis-Italian family who unfortunately would lock her in her room every weekend when they left for their second home. Anna decided that internment was preferable and waited her time until she got news of the allied advance beyond the Po and the liberation of Bologna.  She made her way to Chiasso and arrived there on the 23rd April 1945 when the roads were full of German soldiers retreating from Italy. Mussolini was about to embark on his last flight out of Italy within a column of German troops making its way up the western shores of Lake Como.  

Christian Schiefer took a number of photos during the last days of the war including those of Mussolini and Clara Petacci’s corpses displayed in Piazzale Loreto, Milan. Here we see German soldiers having crossed over into Switzerland at the Chiasso border post.

This time she was initially refused entry into Italy by the authorities who had closed the borders fearing the clandestine return of  fascists seeking to disguise themselves within the flocks of returning refugees. However a border guard heard her give her name as Sacerdoti, and, thinking that she was the daughter of a family he knew, he allowed her to pass.

The army barracks – Caserma De Cristoforis – in Como. Citizens had rushed to the barracks in September 1943 to arm themselves after the initial fall of fascism. Anna went immediately to these barracks on her return to Como in 1945 to enlist in the Committee of National Liberation whose task was to guide the region in those first days of peace.

Como was in a complete state of chaos in those days leading up to the capture and execution of Mussolini. There were still some German soldiers and plenty of fascists in the area. Anna went immediately to the Caserma De Cristoforis and through her party membership she registered as a member of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) – the organisation that had coordinated resistance and, following liberation, provided the immediate civil order and administration. Her and Italy’s war was over and she and her family had survived through a fortunate combination of far-sightedness, ingenuity, help and good fortune. 


Anna formed an astronomical society which has an observatory on Monte Calbiga above Lenno.

On returning to Como, Anna continued her career in local politics maintaining her commitment to socialism, antifascism and the promotion of peace and culture. She established a number of cultural associations including the astronomical society, the Gruppo Astrofili Lariani with their observatory on Monte Calbiga. In 1962, alongside her husband she opened the most important independent bookshop in Como, the Libreria Mentana, which she ran until 1987. On retiring from the bookshop Anna decided to complete the secondary education that had been so brutally denied her under Mussolini’s Racial Laws back in 1938. She sat alongside those much younger than her to complete her matriculation at the Liceo Scientifico Paolo Giovio in Como.  She was then able to enrol in the University Science Faculty to further her interest in astronomy.

The interior of the Libreria Mentana set up by Anna in 1962 and managed by her until her retirement in 1987. The shop eventually closed in 2019.

Her long and fulfilling life came to an end in August 2015. Just this one single example of her achievements in peacetime, made possible by that escape over the border in Cernobbio, goes to illustrate how much human potential was sacrificed in the criminal slaughter of the millions of victims of the Shoah. 

Further Reading

Our article Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust describes how the Border Guards (Guardia di Finanza) based in Moltrasio helped refugees to escape across the border to safety in Switzerland.  

Our article  Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes how local priests also helped refugees. 

The world of the smugglers around Como is described in Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?  Even the fascist puppet state took to smuggling in an attempt to gain some financial independence form the Nazi masters. This is described in Como’s Lake Montorfano: Commandos, Contraband and the CIA.


Other articles commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day are:

Como Remembers the Holocaust

Testimonies and Remembrance: Como Recalls the Shoah

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Shadow of the Mafia over Como

Lario Connection

The logo of the Progetto San Francesco, part of the Centro Studi Sociali Contro Le Mafie, uses the metaphor of an octopus appropriately to suggest the many ways in which the mafia insinuate themselves within the fabric of society. The gun is less relevant for the new variant of financial crime infecting our area, but it still sits within their armoury.

Organised crime is like a virus whose bacteria spread across society breaking out from time to time in various hotspots, mutating along the way to evade the best efforts of law enforcers. The mafia have learnt to avoid attracting attention through their past acts of violence and intimidation. Instead their disease is more likely to attract attention these days once hotspots become self-evident or new variants are uncovered. Such is the case here in Como following the declared bankruptcy and closure of one of the most popular local restaurants – Pane e Tulipani, in the heart of the old city in Via Lambertenghi.  Links soon appeared between this bankruptcy and the arrest of 34 people in the Province of Como and Calabria in an anti-mafia investigation codenamed ‘Nuovo Mondo’. 

Pane e Tulipani

The now vacant site of ‘Pane e Tulipani’, formally one of the most popular and fashionable of Como’s restaurants in the old town.

Although the quality of the food and service had deteriorated of late at Pane e Tulipani, it still came as a surprise when the restaurant declared itself bankrupt on the 18th October 2018. Suspicions that all was not as it should be were confirmed four days later when the Guardia di Finanza intercepted a couple of Tunisians in a car close to the restaurant without a permit to enter the old city. In full view on the passenger seat of their car was a box containing financial documents belonging to the restaurant.  The Tunisians had been instructed by the restaurant’s accountant, Alberto Caremi,  to pick up and destroy incriminating financial documents relevant to the restaurant’s bankruptcy. What these documents and subsequent  illegal attempts to sell off company assets revealed was a clear case of fraudulent bankruptcy.  Company partners and accountants for Pane e Tulipani were immediately arrested. 

Guardia di Finanza

The Guardia di Finanza (financial police) led the inquiries into the bankruptcy of Pane e Tulipani and the other companies registered in the Province of Como and the Calabrian city of Gioia Tauro which were deliberately forced into bankruptcy.

Pane e Tulipani – The Scam

Subsequent investigations revealed an elaborate scam to cheat the tax authorities and make money out of a fraudulent bankruptcy. The scam worked by creating two companies linked to each other with one, Pane e Tulipani itself, responsible for running the restaurant and for all associated costs, and the other, Napo Srl, which took out a mortgage to purchase the restaurant’s premises. Although both companies were owned by exactly the same partners, Napo set out to bleed Pane e Tulipani dry by charging it €13,000 a month for rent.  This left the restaurant unable to pay its tax bills leading eventually, inevitably and deliberately to bankruptcy. The partners then hoped to conclude the scam by selling the property in 2019 thus paying off the mortgage, freeing them of the guarantees provided to cover that mortgage and leaving them with a good profit from the sale unhindered, due to bankruptcy, of having to pay the creditors of the restaurant including the tax authorities. 


Acsm Agam is a utilities company part owned by the Comunes of Como, Varese, Sondrio and Monza

The mastermind and chief architect of this scam was Paolo Lanzara, a 51 year old accountant from Como who also happened to be on the board of the utilities company Acsm Agam, representing the interests of the Comune di Como as part owners who had sponsored that appointment. (His association with Acsm Agam resulted in further embarrassment to the current mayor of Como, Mario Landriscina, when it was revealed that Lanzara had failed to mention his previous arrest in 2018 when the mayor first sponsored his appointment.) 

Also involved in the scam was another Como financial professional, Bruno De Benedetto – a person behind a host of businesses in and around Como either as a partner, financial advisor or the real power behind a series of figurehead directors. De Benedetto had been working with Lanzara in attempting illegally to sell off the bankrupt company’s assets and also to purchase the physical premises of the restaurant. 

Bruno De Benedetto – Villain and Victim?

Bruno De Benedetto is no saint. He was the ‘trusted’ financial advisor to Massimiliano Ficarra, an accountant with residence in Gioia Tauro in Calabria but domiciled in Lomazzo in the Province of Como. Ficarra is a mafioso – a member of the Cosca Piromalli, one of the largest of Calabria’s ‘ndrangheta clans operating not just there but in Lombardy and other European cities. Ficarra is at the heart of the Nuovo Mondo investigation and is now facing a 12 year prison sentence. 

Villa Olmo Restaurant

The restaurant on the lakefront in Villa Olmo’s gardens, owned by the Comune di Como who grant license for its management following public auction.

De Benedetto’s personal stake in restaurants in and around Como is extensive and tumultuous. In addition to the illegalities associated with the failure of ‘Pane e Tulipani’ he is also accused of falsely applying to manage the Lido in Villa Olmo with its bar and the adjoining restaurant. His company, Villa Olmo Lago,  had previously run the restaurant attached to the lido for the previous ten years but in 2019 it was forced into bankruptcy left owing €500,000 in unpaid taxes.

Villa Olmo Lido and Bar

The bar and lido in the gardens of Villa Olmo now managed by a company granted license by the owners, the Comune di Como following public auction. The current managers are not associated with Bruno De Benedetto or implicated in any way in the Nuovo Mondo investigation.

The Comune di Como own a number of businesses around the city which they license others to manage in response to public competition. In recent years it would appear that many of these license competitions have not run smoothly, for example the lido in Viale Geno has remained closed now for two years since all applicants so far have failed to meet the competition’s criteria. When the Comune published the competition for licenses to run the Lido in Villa Olmo and the adjoining  restaurant, De Benedetto applied either directly or through frontmen. However, as a result of the Nuovo Mondo investigation and the previous bankruptcy of  De Benedetto’s Villa Olmo Lago – his company that had previously managed the restaurant for 10 years –  it became clear that De Benedetto’s new application to manage both restaurant and lido was illegal. It is an offence to participate in a  competition for public contracts if you lack the relevant means, skill or experience – a measure no doubt put into law to avoid cronyism. De Benedetto was held in Como’s prison, Bassone, on these additional charges of ‘turbativa d’asta’ in addition to the charges relating to the forced bankruptcy of ‘Pane e Tulipani’.

Lido Viale Geno

Recent competitions for licenses to manage some of the Comune di Como’s properties have been fraught with difficulties and delays with the lido on Viale Geno remaining closed for the last two tourist seasons resulting in loss of revenue to the Comune and loss of facilities to residents and visitors alike.

De Benedetto’s companies do not like paying taxes. Even his boutique hotel ‘The Avenue’ in Piazzolo Terragni was accused at the start of the year of not handing over €40,000 due to the Comune and representing the city tax levied on all hotel guests. This represents a non payment over a four year period which it appears the Comune themselves never took active steps to recover. That lack of concern and other possible irregularities are now being looked at more closely prior to the case coming to court later this Spring.

Avenue Hotel

The Avenue Hotel in Piazzolo Terragni, accused of allegedly not handing over the city tax charged on all overnight guests.


Faced with the ever increasing number of charges against him with the revelations of his connections to organised crime, De Benedetto has decided to present himself as a victim. He has denounced three local financial professionals with usury claiming he borrowed a total of €1 million to cover his debts to tax authorities for which he had to pay back €1.6 million. The annual rate of interest on these loans ranged from 80 to 600%, far exceeding the legal limit of 21% beyond which a loan is deemed as usurious. Two of the accused – Gabro Panfili, 74 years old and resident in a lakeside villa in Laglio and Paolo Barrasso, 59 years old and resident in Como –  have previous convictions for usury and so have been imprisoned awaiting trial. The third, Giovanni Gregorio, 82 years old and resident in Bellagio, is under house arrest. De Benedetto is also claiming that Gregorio issued his loans under the condition that De Benedetto put a Nigerian woman on the books of those employed at the Avenue Hotel, so that she would then be able to obtain a residency permit. Her wages of around €54,000 a year would then be paid directly to Gregorio. We do not know if the woman was asked to pay Gregorio for this favour. 

Organised Crime

Gioia Tauro

The mafia activities in the Province of Como revealed in the Nuovo Mondo investigation are linked to companies and people from Gioia Tauro in Calabria, the site of Italy’s largest container port. This is also the base of the Piromalli ‘ndrangheta clan.

We now move our focus away from Como  further south to the comunes of Lomazzo, Fino Mornasco, Cermenate and Cantù where links between local businesses and the ‘ndrangheta have been known to exist for some time. They have been charged for drug trafficking and the corruption of local officials in order to obtain favourable contracts – as well as the gradual infiltration into some specific industrial sectors such as building and waste management.  The extent of their influence can be gauged by the daytime execution in 2008 of Franco Mancuso in a bar in Cadorago in front of witnesses who remained silent. Mancuso had publicly ‘dissed’ Bartolomeo Iaconis of Fino Mornasco – the local ‘ndrangheta boss attached to the Piromalli family. That killing was intended to underline the message that the area around Lomazzo was mafia territory.

Antimafia Demonstration

Young people express their revulsion of organised crime at an antimafia demonstration in Como

The ‘ndrangheta have always favoured establishing themselves in the smaller towns around the Milanese hinterland where it is relatively easier to corrupt local public administrations, as in the case of Lomazzo. Here Marino Carugati, 77 years old, was mayor in 1987 and was subsequently linked to the ‘ndrangheta. Carugati’s colourful past includes having to call upon the help of national politicians in 2008 to get him out of solitary confinement in Eritrea where he had been imprisoned under the accusation  of supplying faulty wood working machinery to his Eritrean partner. More recently in October 2019 he and 33 others in and around Lomazzo and in Calabria were arrested as a result of the lengthy ‘Nuovo Mondo’ investigation.

Nuovo Mondo – the ‘New World’

Nuovo MondoWhy a new world – because, thanks to the two major architects of a new scam operating since 2010, the mafia had developed a novel form of white collar financial crime which allowed them to stay back in the shadows. No guns or intimidation were needed, just wily accountants and an army of dupes prepared to act as figureheads for bogus companies. The major, but not the only victim of this crime, was the state due to lost tax revenue. The major beneficiary was the ‘ndrangheta who could use the false companies to launder money from their other illicit activities and redirect their untaxed profits into further infiltration and corruption of local business and public administration. 

The two architects of the scheme were Massimiliano Ficarra, an accountant resident in Gioia Tauro in Calabria and Lomazzo and a banker from Milan, Cesare Pravisano also resident in Lomazzo. Their scheme was similar to that of Pane e Tulipani in that it played on the relationship between two separate legal entities, namely a cooperative of industrial workers and a consortium.  As with Pane e Tulipani, the scam works by pairing an ‘active’ company with a ‘passive’ one in which the active entity undertakes the physical activity and incurs all related costs. It is then deliberately set on a course to bankruptcy. Meanwhile the ‘passive’ partner  retains a semblance of legality while profiting from extracting all value from its ‘active’ member to which it appears to be entirely independent. The relationships are complex but this is how I have best been able to understand how it worked. The consortium, on gaining a public or private contract, would sub-contract the work to the cooperative. 

  1. The work cooperatives were headed up by figureheads but were actually controlled by the consortia who remained separate legal entities. 
  2. The cooperatives took advantage of their legal status to delay payment of taxes and insurance contributions for their workers who should in any case have been treated as partners.
  3. The cooperatives provided the workforce and other services under subcontract to the consortia who could then expense these charges for services which consisted mainly of manpower and included the percentage for VAT which the cooperatives should then have passed on to the state.
  4. The consortia avoided any direct employment of workers and so had no liability for insurance contributions. 
  5. The profits of the consortia were reduced on paper by the cooperatives issuing false invoices whose payment went directly to the fraud originators. 
  6. The cooperatives deliberately failed to make the necessary tax returns or the due payments of VAT and so, claiming they were unable to do so, declared themselves bankrupt. Bankruptcy would typically follow after two years of operation. 
  7. The fraudsters then created a new cooperative with exactly the same partners and employees of those made deliberately bankrupt. Employees of these cooperatives would remain entirely ignorant of the fact that they were now working for a new legal entity. 
  8. The consortia would remain entirely within the law with the correct payment of taxes but on profits massively reduced by the false invoices issued by the now defunct cooperative. 

From 2010 until 2019  it is alleged that 40 cooperatives had been set up with the deliberate purpose of driving them into bankruptcy. 34 people were arrested for involvement in this scam including the two main architects, the figureheads for the cooperatives and the related consortia and others such as Bruno de Benedetto for his attempt to derail the contracts for the management of the lido and restaurant in Como’s Villa Olmo.

The charges brought against them were for:

  1. Causing deliberate bankruptcy
  2. Issuing false company accounts
  3. Issuing fake invoices
  4. Disrupting public contracts.

A Victimless Crime?

Certainly white collar crime does not result directly in victims like Franco Mancuso in 2008 at Carugo but the impact goes way beyond losses to the state’s tax coffers which in this case were immense. The other main losers are all those legitimate businesses who lost out in their bids for public and private contracts in favour of the mafia’s consortia. The mafia had been able to undercut them since the lower bids had no need to reflect the actual costs of delivering the required services. Additionally all the employees of these cooperatives were victims. They not only lacked what should have been the benefits of participation in a working cooperative but were treated as mere employees exploited by lack of national insurance cover and without contributions made to their eventual pension entitlement. The physical environment also suffered through entrusting works to businesses totally prepared to ignore regulations governing the management and transportation of waste and other forms of environmental control. 

Pane e Tulipani Terrace

Pane e Tulipani’s terrace on the corner of Via Tatti now shows degradation resulting from its mafia association.

The beauty of the scam for the mafia was that they were able to stay in the background, casting their shadow undoubtedly but sheltering behind the facade of one or two known associates. But this description of one of the scam’s chief architects, Massimiliano Ficarra by the Como Carabinieri should leave us in no doubt as to whether the mafia were behind the scam:

 «Massimiliano Ficarra is a dependable and ubiquitous accountant, at the service of various criminal families of accredited ‘Ndrangheta membership. It is immediately obvious that he is constantly used to maneuvering in those environments. He is one of the principal members involved in organized and effective money laundering activity, with particular attention to the reuse, in economic activities, of the money coming from the Molè Piromalli mafia association “.


Bruno De Benedetto was Ficarra’s financial professional ‘of trust’. De Benedetto partnered with Paolo Lanzara in masterminding the Pane e Tulipani bankruptcy. Paolo Lanzara was the Comune of Como’s representative on the board of the utilities company Acsm Agam. Another of Ficarra’s co-defendants, Alessandro Tagliente, resident in Appiano Gentile, was the right hand man of ‘ndrangheta boss Bartolomeo Iaconis, convicted for ordering the murder of Franco Mancuso. The mafia, with this new variant of their particular disease, have certainly cast a deep shadow over the city and Province of Como.

Between June and November 2020 sentences have been passed down on many of the Nuovo Mondo defendants including 12 years imprisonment for Ficarra and 11 for Pravisano. No doubt much more will emerge in coming months including further detail of De Benedetto’s activities and his accusations of usury. In the meantime Como is in the grip of another financial scandal involving some local businessmen and their accountants accused of avoiding tax in exchange for illicit cash payments (tangenti) to senior officials in the city’s tax office – the Ufficio Entrate. But that is another story for the near future!

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Argegno to Colonno

climbing up from Argegno

Climbing up from Argegno and looking back towards Como

The hike from Argegno to Colonno via Pigra has to be one of the most scenic routes on the western side of the lake. Climbing up to Pigra, you look back on the mountains rising up from the Val D’Intelvi. You then enjoy an easy section following the contours of the hills and crossing numerous streams until you reach the delightful alpine hamlet of Corniga. Descending from this point you have open views to the north and south of Lake Como taking in Isola Comacina, the Lavedo peninsula across to Bellagio and the tips of the Grigne mountain range behind.

San Zeno

The church of San Zeno on top of its conical mountain in the Val D’Intelvi

Argegno is a great starting off-point for hiking in the Val D’Intelvi or for joining the Via dei Monti Lariani heading towards the north end of Lake Como. The route described here takes us from the centre of Argegno, up the mule track to Pigra and then on to Corniga to descend down the Valle della Camoggia arriving back on the lakeside at Colonno.  This walk will take you about two hours thirty minutes with an ascent of around 650 metres. Those wishing to take a longer excursion can decide to follow the path to Costone from Pigra which will lead you on to the Alpe di Colonno. From there you can descend to Corniga and on to Colonno. This extension adds a further four hundred metre climb and an additional three hours to the walk. All the paths on this route are good quality mule tracks or better and the signposting is clear and consistent.

Antica Regina

The newly opened section of the Antica Strada Regina from Argegno to Colonno. Signposts for following the path starting from Colonno are not so clear as from Argegno.

A further option exists to follow the newly reopened section of the Antica Strada Regina which links Colonno to Argegno. This route was opened up in July of 2020. It runs above the lakefront rising at its highest point to 250 metres above the level of the lake. This option would allow you to make a round trip starting and returning to Argegno. It would add a further fifty quite arduous minutes to your walk. However be aware that the path for this section is not so well maintained or signposted  as elsewhere with some parts being both steep and narrow. Safety handrails are fortunately provided where deemed necessary. This latter extension to the walk is described in an appendix to the main article. 


I travelled out to Argegno from Como on the C10 bus. On alighting in front of the Embarcadero, walk into the old town behind the main piazza and cross the Roman bridge. From here follow the cobbled road making its way up to the Church of Saint Sisinnio. We will be following signs for the Mulatteria di Pigra clearly signposted along our way and also accompanied by the white rectangular route mark with a purple stripe. 


Signposting is good along the entire walk following clear well maintained mule tracks up to Pigra and on to Corniga.

It would of course be possible to follow this route in reverse starting from Colonno, passing through the alpine hamlet of Corniga and then descending down to Argegno from Pigra. However I would recommend starting from Argegno since the initial climb is on a well maintained and well signposted path with views over to San Zeno behind you. The section from Pigra to Corniga is the least onerous since it follows the contours of the hillside. When you make your way down the Camoggia Valley after Corniga, you have glorious views over Lake Como accompanying your descent. 

The only time the signposting lets you down is as you enter the district of Dizzasco called Muronico above Saint Sisinnio. The path comes to a cross roads beside a chapel on your right hand side with no indication which of the three options to take. However, just continue your steady climb upwards taking the path straight ahead of you. 

Pigra Hens

Pigra is very quiet during the winter months although the cable car to and from Argegno is still open. Here the hens feel free to wander over the roundabout without fear.

You will know when you are approaching Pigra when you start to see that the terracing is being maintained and the hillside opens up for agriculture. The south-facing alpette  must offer fertile grazing ground over the summer months but the town is very quiet over winter with hens free to roam around the town’s only roundabout just up from the cable car station.  


Leaving Pigra

As you leave Pigra following the sign for Corniga and Alpe di Colonno, you pass this chapel on your left.

Pigra is definitely a hikers’ crossroads with trails leading off towards San Fedele Intelvi, Costone and Corniga as well as a sharp right turn to a panoramic beauty spot. All these routes are marked out on a noticeboard just by the hen’s roundabout. For our chosen route, follow the directions marked out for Alpe di Colonno. This path leads to Corniga where we then start our descent for Colonno. If you want to take the longer route, follow the signs for Costone from where you will pick up the military road to Alpe di Colonno and then descend down to Corniga. You will know you are on the direct path to Corniga when you pass the Chapel dedicated to the Madonna del Soccorso as you leave Pigra.

The path now follows the contours of the hillside passing a number of mountain streams before finally crossing the largest, the Camoggia, and making your way on the stream’s northern banks towards Corniga. As you enter Corniga, you look down past the stone roofs of this delightful alpine hamlet to the southerly expanse of Lake Como beneath you. 



The alpine hamlet of Corniga, well-maintained and partly occupied even in winter.

During the winter months Corniga is very quiet but not entirely deserted. It is in a splendid location and surrounded by south facing fertile alpette. Most of the stone cottages look well maintained although there are still some that have not stood up to the test of time. The mule path we will follow down to Colonno is passable in a small 4×4 vehicle but communications cannot be easy. 

Leaving Corniga

Leaving Corniga for the descent to the lake at Colonno. Beautiful views of the lake along the way.

As you enter Corniga you will see the continuation of the path we have followed pointing to Alpe di Colonno. At this point, we turn right to start our descent on the mule path to Colonno.

The path continues to be well maintained along its entire length with steps cut into it in some of its steepest sections aiding the descent. At a certain point along the way, you will hear and then get glimpses through the trees of a magnificently long waterfall. Its a pity that a full view isn’t possible. The Camoggia makes a very rapid descent towards the lake and there is a much better opportunity to view another of its waterfalls if you decide to take the newly-opened footpath from Colonno back to Argegno.

As you get closer to the lake you will note more terracing supporting olive groves. This area all around Lenno is the centre for olive oil production on Lake Como.

Entering Colonno

Olive groves as you get closer to Colonno.


Colonno end of walk

Colonno does not look so appealing seen from the main road but all changes when you venture into its labyrinthine streets.

When you arrive in Colonno you can either decide to take the bus back to Como or take the newly opened continuation of the Antica Strada Regina but bear in mind that this path is a lot more challenging than those encountered previously on the walk. It does however offer the only reasonable alternative to making your way back to Argegno since the main road has no pavement and is in no way suitable for pedestrians. 


argegno to colonno via pigra

Argegno to Colonno via Pigra, crossing the Camoggia Valley and Corniga. Corniga is marked by the number 1.

Distance: 9.3 km

Time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Climb: 650 metres

Descent: 660 metres

Difficulty: Good fitness required, easily accessible paths, well signposted

argegno to colonno via pigra profile

Pigra is at the highest point on the walk and so the initial climb is sharper than the descent to Colonno.

Appendix: Walking the Antica Strada Regina from Argegno to Colonno


The Camoggia waterfall on the Antica Strada Regina near to Colonno.

The Antica Strada Regina is an ancient walkway linking Italy to Switzerland and extending from Como to Sorico on the western shore of the lake and intersecting with the Via Spluga and Via Francisca. In some parts of the route, the ancient path has been incorporated into the present day main road and is no longer suitable for hiking. This was the case from Brienno, passing through Argegno and on to Colonno where the steep mountainsides did not allow for any alternative path above the lakefront. However a hiking path was opened up this summer to open up a section from Argegno to Colonno. Carving out this path required some ingenuity in avoiding private property and fenced off areas of land. As a result, the route can be challenging and does actually have to rise to over 250 metres above the level of the lake in its bid to avoid these obstacles. The main reward for those braving the path comes as you near Colonno since it takes you to the foot of the Camoggia valley with its glorious waterfall.

Summary Argegno to Colonno on the Antica Strada Regina

argegno to colonno strada regina

This profile follows the start of the route just north of the Saint Sisinnio church in Argegno. The Camoggia waterfall is marked by the number 1.

Distance: 3.5 km

Time: 45 minutes

Climb: 150 metres

Descent: 240 metres

Difficulty: Good fitness required, some narrow and steep sections with safety handrails paths, signposting difficult from Colonno to Argegno.

Further Reading

Other walks along the Antica Strada Regina include:

Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina

From Laglio to Moltrasio

Walking the Greenway and the Antica Via Regina

Taking Argegno as your base, you may be interested in Argegno to Argegno: Up and Down the Telo Valley

From Corniga

Descending from Corniga you see Isola Comacina, the Lavedo peninsula, Bellagio, the Grigne mountain range and beyond


Posted in Itineraries, Lake, Uncategorized, Walks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

R.I.P. Noir in Festival at Como

Poster, Noir in Festival’s 30th Edition to be held in Milan

In 2016 the annual celebration of detective fiction –  Noir in Festival – moved location from Courmayeur in the Val D’Aosta to Como and Milan. Last December the festival was again held in Como and Milan albeit with a reduced presence in Como. In 2020, due to Covid 19 and perhaps also to a lack of commitment from Como’s city council, the face-to-face events of the festival will be postponed until March and will take place only in Milan. So is this the death of ‘Noir in Festival’ for Como? Let’s hope not but if so, it may well fall as another victim to our current city administration’s lukewarm support  for the arts – hence the ‘noirish’ coffin left by demonstrators on the doorsteps of the Teatro Sociale. ‘Noir in Festival’ does however limp on wounded, restricted at present to featuring only Italian authors and constrained to presenting them only online.

The death of culture in Como?

For me back in 2018 I loved nipping out of the house in the late afternoon of a frosty day during the build-up to Christmas to attend any one of the interviews with Italian and foreign authors. These were held in the delightful Sala Bianca of the Teatro Sociale. This year we must content ourselves with the Festival’s series of online interviews available on their You Tube channel. There are two sets of these  interviews with the first featuring the five finalists for this year’s Scerbanenco Prize and the winner of the readers’ vote. The second set consists of  interviews with four of the most well-established current Italian ‘noir’ authors. All interviews focus on the most recent publications from these authors and seek to gain insight into the inspiration behind plot, protagonists and their setting. 

Most of these authors have their works translated but translations into German, French or Spanish seem more common than in English. Maybe these publisher preferences reflect a greater similarity in ‘noir’ themes across Continental Europe than in Britain where the public might be more attuned to Scandinavian ‘noir’. The recent death of John le Carré does however remind me that he is perhaps the most ‘noir’ of British novelists and certainly his themes of moral ambiguity and hidden duplicity executed within the overall context of state-sponsored exploitation of the powerless match very closely those of Italian noir. 

The Scerbanenco Prize

Giorgio Scerbanenco

This literary prize is named after Giorgio Scerbanenco, a Russian-born writer of ‘gialli’ (detective fiction) resident in Milan whose main output was during the 1960s. 

It is awarded annually to an author of detective fiction written in Italian with a book published within the preceding twelve months. The winner this year was Tullio Avoledo with ‘Nero Come La Notte’. The other finalists included in descending order Francesco Abate with ‘I Delitti della Salina’, Lorenza Ghinelli with ‘Tracce dal Silenzio’, Bruno Marchio with ‘Dove Crollano I Sogni’ and Cristina Cassar Scalia with ‘La Salita dei Saponari’. The readers’ vote went to ‘Psychokiller’ by Paolo Roversi

Tullio Avoledo was this year’s winner of the Scerbanenco Prize

Each of these books respect the broad features of the ‘noir’ genre yet retain individuality in terms of plotting (Roversi’s novel is for instance more of a thriller while Lorenza Ghinelli incorporates some aspects of fable). Many have also established the unique traits of their main protagonists – the detectives – by characterising them across a series of novels. One distinct feature of Italian noir is the importance of location with many of the writers incorporating aspects of their detective’s home town as if it were another character in the plot. This partly is a reflection of the marked regional differences across the country determined by separate cultural, economic and political development over the centuries. Scerbanenco himself gave his adopted city of Milan a starring role in his novels as this quote from his Wikipedia entry records:

His writing, in the best known books, is Milanocentric, seldom if ever referencing other cities and regions of Italy, showing a degree of sympathy and appreciation for the Lombard city and its inhabitants which is rarely to be found in other writers. While denouncing the evils of the rampant consumeristic and greedy way of life taking hold from the 60s onward Scerbanenco always has a warm word for the peaceful, quiet, hard-working Milanese.

Cristina Cassar Scalia with another novel featuring her detective Vanina Guarrasi

Paolo Roversi also sets his novels and his detective Enrico Radeschi in his adopted town of Milan. None of his books appear to have been translated into English. Morchio’s detective is called Bacci Pagano and the action is set in the atmospheric port city of Genoa. His ‘The German Client’ has been translated into both English and German. Tullio Avoledo even stood for election campaigning for autonomy for the North East region of Friuli. His novel ‘The Girl from Vajont’ is available in English. Francesco Abate’s entry is set in Cagliari, the capital city of Sardinia. He has works translated into Dutch. Cristina Cassar Scalia’s novels featuring her detective Vanina Guarrasi are set in Catania. Unfortunately I have only found French and German translations of her books.

Francesco Abate’s I Delitti della Salina

Taking a look at this first set of authors – those who were shortlisted for the Scerbanenco Prize – is one way of noting how noir is developing in Italy. While all these writers retain a local focus in terms of setting, it would be wrong to think they are parochial or that their themes lack universality. For example the Sicilian writer Cristina Cassar Scalia, through her detective Vanina Guarrasi, deploys local Catania dialect in her dialogue. Yet she would see herself in a tradition of other Sicilian writers such as Pirandello and would share Leonardo Sciascia’s maxim that anyone who understands Sicily will understands Italy. (And I can add that anyone understanding Italy, admittedly a very hard task, will understand Continental Europe). The use of local dialect has long been in decline but it acts as a nostalgic symbol of an era before mass consumerism perverted values of community and solidarity. This quote from Valerio Varese’s ‘The Lizard Strategy’ (available in English) illustrates the connection:

[Our detective hero Commissario Soneri].. went to Alceste’s restaurant to find something authentic. He chose not to go into the dining room itself but to linger in the kitchen where the official language was dialect and the aromas provide solid anchorage for an identity which outside he saw dissolving and melting in rivers of cash, cocaine and alcohol. The tortelli d’erbetta…’

Varese’s detective, Commissario Soneri, is based in Parma – a city he feels has sold its soul to consumerism and corruption where the local river may look attractive but ‘there are piles of toxic waste along the river bed’ but one can still at least taste a genuine ‘tortelli d’erbetta’. 

Top Ranking Italian Noir

The second series of interviews feature well-established writers

The second set of ‘Noir in Festival’ interviews featured some of the most established of contemporary Italian noir authors, all of whom have registered international success. The purpose of the interviews is to update us on their latest works which may not yet be available in English. The featured writers were Maurizio de Giovanni, Donato Carrisi, Giancarlo de Cataldo and Marco Vichi

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, a TV series set in this district of Naples

Maurizio de Giovanni’s novels are set in Naples and feature his detective Commissario Ricciardi who has the unsettling capacity of sensing imminent tragedy. He is also the writer behind the television series ‘The Bastards of Pizzofalcone’.  Donato Carrisi and Giancarlo de Cataldo base their stories in Rome. Carrisi has worked extensively in film and television as well as an author of detective fiction. He runs a course at the U.I.L.M. University on writing noir fiction. De Cataldo was a judge at the Rome Court of Appeal and used his insights into the criminal world to produce his greatest success – ‘Romanzo Criminale’  – a fictional account of the various members of the so-called Banda della Magliana who operated in Rome during the late 1970s. He also wrote ‘Suburra’ depicting the battle for the illicit control of Rome through links between local politicians, the Papacy and organised crime. This was made into a film directed by Michele Placido and now forms the base of a television series on Netflix with the same name.

Actor Francesco Acquaroli in the TV series Suburra plays ex-neo fascist terrorist, Samurai, in a chilling depiction of the banality of evil

Marco Vichi has  written a series of detective novels featuring his Commissario Bordelli and set in Florence in the 1960s. All these novelists have works published in English. Not featured this year but always worth a mention is the noirest writer of Italian noir – Massimo Carlotto. His depiction of noir stems from his harrowing personal experience of being accused and judged guilty of murdering a young woman – charges for which he has finally been exonerated after a lifetime’s struggle with the judicial system. His works have been translated into many languages including English. 

Ex-judge of the Rome Court of Appeal and Noir author, Giancarlo de Cataldo

All these interviews forming the online version of this year’s ‘Noir in Festival’ are available on the festival’s YouTube channel. They are all conducted in Italian. The live events including the film showings will take place later in March in Milan. We hope the festival organisers will overcome the Como city administration’s seeming indifference and return in force at the end of next year. Their absence this year, along with all the other cultural events cancelled due to Covid, has been sadly missed.

Local Como Noir

Shadows on the Lake by Cocco and Magella

In the meantime you may want to console yourself by reading Lake Como’s own detective novels. The married couple Giovanni Cocco, born in Como, and Amneris Magella from Milan have written a series of detective novels set in Como and on the lake featuring their detective Stefania Valenti. One of these – – ‘Shadows on the Lake’  – has been translated into English as well as into French, Dutch and German.  The lake has also proved to be a popular setting for some true crime stories of passion or greed. Our article Murder on the Dance Floor- Italy’s Crime of the 20th Century on Lake Como recounts a post-war high society crime of passion committed in the ballroom of the exclusive Villa D’Este Hotel in Cernobbio. Our other article Lake Como’s Moltrasio Trunk Murder recalls how a young American tourist dispatched his wife on their honeymoon in Moltrasio in a bid to clear his debts.  Previous articles have also covered the Noir in Festival for the years 2018 and 2019. We just hope we can return to reporting future editions from next year in the build up to a Como Christmas. 


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Gifts for Lovers of Lake Como

Lake Como Carate

Autumn mist on the lake at Carate

This article features a personal selection of gifts that lovers of Lake Como may well appreciate. Those of us lucky to live nearby cannot help but to love the lake’s evocative and dramatic landscape. It also retains a lasting impression on the memories of past visitors as well as projecting an enticing image for those yet to come. So much so that many people may well be delighted to receive a present closely linked to this charmed corner of the world. 

citta del balocchio

Christmas 2109 with the illuminations provided by Citta dei Balocchi.

The range of items selected below can all claim such a close association and might just, in their different ways, pass on something of the unique spirit derived from their place of origin. However this selection is far from complete and some of them may be difficult to purchase if intended for delivery outside of Italy or Europe. If you have set your heart on one of these items but require more information, do not hesitate to make contact directly with the supplier. Personal contact still counts for so much in Italy, 

Lake Como Winter

Every season reveals a different aspect of the lake’s landscape. Here the snow caps the slopes of Monte San Primo as seen from Como.

The range of products featured reflect the main economic activities around the lake, namely silk production, tourism and local foods but with some surprising and somewhat eccentric additions. What I regret not being able to include are those items produced by the very many individual artists, artisans or small enterprises who take inspiration from our glorious natural setting. Refer to this article by fellow blogger ‘Lake Addicted’ who has some further suggestions in this category (article in Italian).


Acqua del Lario

acqua del lario perfume

Acqua del lario have a shop in Como and another in Torno open during he summer. They are also on-line.

Lario is the original Roman name for Lake Como, and this company seek somehow to capture the essence of the lake within perfumes and scented candles – presumably in the same way that the better-known Acqua di Parma does for that agro-industrial town in Emilia Romagna. 

Acqua del Lario describe themselves in the following typically overblown terms:

Acqua del Lario is born out of a harmonious combination of love for perfume and a passion for the landscape and traditions of Lake Como. 

Based on creativity and professionalism, the brand is dedicated to producing fragrances for people and the home, scented burners and candles, using high quality ingredients and craftsmanship to create products distinguished by their uniqueness and exclusivity. 

acqua del lario

Acqua Del Lario’s shop in Via Pantero Pantera, just off Piazza San Fedele in the centre of Como.

Undoubtedly exclusivity does form part of Lake Como’s reality but for the very few. In this sense, achieving exclusivity through the purchase of a perfume or candle will cost much less than gaining the same by spending a night at Torno’s Villa Pliniana.

Outlets: Acqua del Lario have a shop off the Piazza San Fedele in the centre of Como and another in Torno open during the summer months. You can also purchase online from their website. Contact them on +390315007988 for any queries and for more information on transportation costs.

Other Products: They also offer scarves and foulards with designs inspired by Lake Como on silk printed and finished here.

Acqua del Lago di Como

acqua del lago di como

Acqua del Lago di Como

This is another company producing perfumes that attempt to recreate the essence of the lake and which are marketed under the slogan ‘The Classy Souvenir’. They do not have their own outlet but their website describes their range of products and a price list. You can always contact them on +390315007988 for further information.

Lake Como does actually have its own brand of bottled natural water called Chiarella. A bottle of Chiarella will cost a very small fraction of the other Como ‘acquas’ and you can be assured that it is a genuine Lake Como product bottled and distributed from its spring above Menaggio.


Lake Como’s own natural water from the spring above Menaggio

By the way, there is nothing ‘exclusive’ about the attractions or the essence of Lake Como. Its charms are immediately accessible to anyone visiting by just looking out on the scenery. In fact, in my experience, those seeking or requiring exclusivity are by definition excluding themselves from the full reality and joys of the location and its local culture. 


Rivo Gin

If Acqua del Lario or Del Lago di Como seek metaphorically to represent the essence of the lake, Riva Gin captures these essences literally through foraging on the mountainsides for the local herbs to incorporate into their artisan gin. To quote in their own words from their website:

‘For centuries, local women have scoured the mountainside meadows for herbs and flowers to prepare medicines and remedies. While some may have considered them witches we see them as pioneers of herbal medicine. And it is the theme of magic that inspired our packaging and labelling.Crisscrossing geometrical lines create abstract interpretations of the two key elements of Lake Como’s geography: the mountains and the waves.

Outlets: Rivo Gin is available in local wine shops and also on If in the UK, try purchasing from to avoid excessive delivery costs. More information is available on their own website.

rivo gin

The lake also stars as the backdrop to this publicity shot from Rivo Gin

Nero di Como

Strong liquor can induce ‘a carefree happiness’ as is suggested in the description of this liquor’s origins taken from their website:

‘It was right during one of these party nights that the finest Calabrian licorice, vintage Carribean rum and local honey were mixed. It came out a delicious liquor, dark and mysterious as a night without the moon. The creator, obviously, called it Nero di Como and soon It became a cult between all the guests of these exclusive soirées by the lake. The word-of-mouth was unstoppable and everyone tried to be invited to taste the particular aroma of Nero di Como, which light up the night and give a carefree happiness. Time seems stopped, because today, just like yesterday, the night lights up with Nero di Como.’

nerodicomo (1)

Dark, mysterious and potent – Nero di Como

Even if the only truly local ingredient of this liquor happens to be honey, we might cynically add that the lake now shares a less desirable link with Calabria beyond liquorice – the unwanted attentions of the ‘ndrangheta, Calabria’s version of the Mafia now undeniably active in many parts of Lombardy and the Province of Como. Yet this should not detract from this liquor’s capacity to light up the night in spite of yet another claim to the spurious and dubious suggestions of exclusivity. I fondly look forward to the day when marketeers flip to extolling the virtues of ‘inclusivity’.

Outlets: Presumably this is also available in local wine shops and also online from the site’s website. Contact them by email at for further information and details of delivery.


Lake Como at Dongo

Lake Como at Dongo. Vineyards can be found further north on Lake Como around Domaso.

The mass production of wine around Lake Como never recovered after the last war following the effects of disease and a general migration off the land even though vineyards just across the border in Ticino continue to thrive. That wine was never of the highest quality and in fact was used to dilute stronger wines from the south. However more recently wine production has started up again particularly on the western shores of Lake Como around Domaso. There are two main vineyards in this area, Sorsasso and Cantine Angelinetta and they both produce wines of quality with the Cantine Angelinetta  in particular picking up prestigious awards for their barrel-matured Sauvignon called Occhi Blu. Cantine Angelinetta state that the area of Domaso is best suited to the production of high quality white wine as opposed to the predominance of red wine from the neighbouring Valtellina. One of the white wines they produce is made 100% from a grape variety to be found exclusively on Lake Como, namely Verdese. Now this is a genuine bit of Lake Como exclusivity unrelated to marketing hype and thus also beyond any form of reproach. 

cantine angelinetta

The product range from Cantine Angelinetta with their award-winning Occhi Blu in poll position

Outlets: Sorsasso wines are freely available in local wine shops or by purchasing directly from the vineyard. Cantine Angelinetta wines are produced in reduced quantity and are not so easy to find particularly the much-prized Occhi Blu but they can be tasted and purchased directly from the vineyard.

Contact Sorsasso on +39 0344 910022 or Silvia who speaks English on +39 333.9061392. Contact Cantine Angelinetta on +39 0344.490095

Olive Oil

Rivo Gin’s foragers collect mediterranean herbs that flourish on the lake’s mountainsides thanks to the particular microclimate – the same conditions that have for many years also favoured the production of olive oil in one of its most northerly outposts. The area around Lenno in particular is well known for the production of a highly valued oil and the largest commercial producer there is Osvaldo Vanini. Vanini olive oil is not cheap since production is limited. Also due to its high reputation, Lake Como’s olive oil is commonly faked. So be sure to buy from a reputable producer such as Vanini.

Olive Grove Griante

An olive grove in Griante further up the lake from Lenno.

olio vaniniOlive groves were planted right at the start of the Roman colonisation of the lake when introduced and managed by Greek slaves. It was apprised by none other than the Lombard Queen Teodolinda who lived from 570 CE to 627 CE and so olive oil has the longest history of any Lake Como product. 

Outlets: Check out Vanini’s website for a list of prices and compare these with what is being asked in local shops such as the Enoteca Castiglioni or the Enosalumeria del Centro, both in the centre of Como. The oil is also available in the UK via Amazon. The Enosalumeria state they can supply worldwide so contact them via their website or by calling +39 031 273174 for further information and details of delivery charges.

Enosalumeria del Centro

The Enosalumeria del Centro on Via Independenza in the centre of Como.


The silk industry remains as important to the local economy of Como as is tourism. And while little silk weaving is now done here, quality silks are brought to local factories by many of the world’s major fashion houses for printing and finishing. Locally produced silk products are available from the major retail outlet in Piazza Cavour or the shop in Via Vittorio Emanuele. The major producers Mantero and Ratti both have discount outlets connected to their factories on the edges of Como accessible for those living locally. Otherwise Incomo offer online purchase with shipping worldwide. 


Incomo’s retail outlet – their products are also available online.

Outlets: Incomo’s website for online purchases. Contact them on +39 031 505000 for further information. The Mantero factory outlet is on  Via Riccardo Mantero 4, Grandate and Ratti is on  Via Madonna 32, Guanzate. 


Negretti Como

One of Ester Negretti’s landcapes displayed in her studio on Via Borgo Vico.

One of the most pleasurable ways of retaining the essence  of Lake Como is by purchasing artwork which captures in a personal way those aspects of the landscape most memorable to us. We have featured a number of local artists in the past who take inspiration from our inimitable landscape. The area seems to favour both fine artists and illustrators irrespective of whether or not they take inspiration from the lake itself. While all these artists are deserving of attention and patronage, I would single out  Ester Negretti working in her studio on Via Borgo Vico not just because she produces magnificent landscapes but also due to the range of options she offers for presents. These include providing signed prints of any works from her catalogue as well as incorporating her images on silk scarves, foulards or even on cotton covers.  Go to her website to review her catalogue and also to see the various ways she reproduces her work on different mediums. You can also contact her via the website for more information on costs and shipping.

Negretti cover

Ester Negretti displaying a cover printed with one of her designs.


There are many beautiful books available describing Lake Como with marvellous illustrations. Last year I was gifted ‘Italian Gardens of Lake Como’ by Lucia Impelluso and published by Electra. This is just one example of the many beautifully illustrated volumes that capture the beauty of the area and no doubt can easily be found online. There is also a local publishing house called ‘Editrice Lariologo’ who publish a whole range of materials referring to Lake Como ranging from greetings cards to fridge magnets, jigsaw puzzles and  board games. It was this latter item that attracted my attention with their ‘Gioco del Oca’ in particular.


Il Gioco dell’Oca by Editrice Lariologo

This is a very simple board game without any complex rules which transports the players around the entire borders of the lake from Como or Lecco up to Colico. It too may be one way of recording times spent on Lake Como or for considering which other parts of the lake remain to be discovered.

Outlet: Editrice Lariologo’s products are available from a large range of bookshops around Lake Como but also from their online store which also arranges delivery within and beyond Italy. 

Further Information

If you wanted to follow up within this blog on any of the themes associated with the products highlighted in the article, select any of the following links.

  • Rivo Gin mention how the ancient knowledge of local herbs was often associated with witchcraft. Our article Como’s Train Station, Witches and the Inquisition describes how Como became renowned for the very high numbers of women accused of witchcraft throughout the Middle Ages.
  •  Calabria has, among its many qualities, gifted liquorice root to the making of Nero di Como but the one tragic export from that area has been the increased influence of the ‘ndrangheta in Lombardy and beyond. Our article Don’t Mention the Mafia! describes the results of recent investigation into this regrettable phenomenon.
  • I regret the marketing appeal to exclusivity in the presentation of products like Nero di Como and Acqua del Lario. Our article Tourism on Lake Como – Then and Now includes the Villa Pliniana –  one of the most exclusive and expensive destinations for visitors to the lake.
  • We have written various articles on local artists including Ester Negretti. Ester Maria Negretti – Como’s’Traditional’ Contemporary Artist includes an interview with the artist in which she describes her approach to her art. Other artists featured in our blog include Sonja Christoph, Sarah Aller, Irma Kennaway and Adriano Caverzasio in addition to the internationally renowned group of artists known as the Astrattisti Comaschi.
  • The silk industry is central to Como’s recent history and, in my opinion, is a key factor in producing such a strong artistic tradition in and around the city. Our interview with Irma Kennaway  in Como Silk – Memoirs of a Textile Designer looks into that history and describes what it was like working as a designer for one of Como’s leading silk producers.
  • This year the city of Como will not have the glorious illuminations usually provided by the Citta dei Balocchi. This gallery of photos is a reminder of what Como would look like during the holiday period in any normal year.
Lake Como at Como

Looking out north from the gardens of Villa Olmo in Como.

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Como’s Pantero Pantera and other Admirable Admirals

Teatro Sociale

Visitors to Como’s Teatro Sociale will recognise the stage curtain that depicts the death of Pliny the Elder brought on by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. This painting 14.5 metres wide by 8.5 metres tall was designed by Alessandro Sanquirico and commissioned to adorn the opening of the theatre in 1813.

With one of Como’s historical naval commanders called Pantero Pantera and the other Pliny the Elder as opposed to the Younger, the attraction of an alliterative title to this article was irresistible.


Como Cathedral with statues of Pliny the Elder (left of the photo) and Pliny the Younger

Pantera was a commander in the Papal Navy based in Civitavecchia from 1597 to 1615 while Pliny the Elder was appointed by Emperor Vespasian in 76 CE as  ‘Prefect’, or overall Admiral of the senior fleet of the Roman Imperial Navy based in Miseno in the Bay of Naples. Whilst Pliny, also known as Gaio Plinio Secondo, is known even to this day for his work and publications as a naturalist, Pantero Pantera has sunk into obscurity despite the fact that he published one of the first and certainly the most complete manual on naval warfare entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’ in 1614. Both are thus illustrious sons of Como.

Pliny the Elder

Pliny the Elder was born in Como into a wealthy ‘equestrian’ order family. He was raised in Como as was his sister and her son who took on the name of Pliny the Younger when Pliny formally adopted him. He was appointed by Emperor Vespasian as prefect (akin to Admiral) of the Classis Misenum – the largest of the Imperial fleets based at Miseno in the Bay of Naples and charged with patrolling the western Mediterranean.


The red marker is on Miseno, the port to the north east of the island of Procida which housed the most important fleet of the Roman Imperial Navy.

This appointment followed a long and successful  career as a lawyer and procurator in various provinces of the Roman Empire. However his time as the admiral of the fleet was cut short tragically by his death in the major eruption of Vesuvius in 79CE.  Mount Vesuvius, which was not known at the time to be volcanic, lay across the Bay of Naples from Miseno. Pliny took to the sea in his flagship and headed for Pompeii and Herculaneum on hearing news of the first earthquakes and on seeing the plumes of smoke from those early eruptions. He had initially intended just to investigate this unusual natural phenomenon but he set his fleet on a rescue mission as soon as the scale of the danger became apparent. 

pliny and Vesuvius

Pliny the Elder launched his fleet across the Bay of Naples to rescue those fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.

His fleet did manage to save many of those residents from Pompeii and Herculaneum before the main eruption but Pliny himself was overcome by the fumes and ash as he tried to escape from Stabia to the south of Pompeii. He died aged 56. His sister and nephew, Pliny the Younger, were living with Pliny at Miseno at the time and his nephew later came to give the only existing first hand account of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in letters written to Tacitus, the Roman historian.  Here is a small excerpt from one of those letters.

[Pliny the Elder] ..changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated…..

Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. – Pliny the Younger, Letters VI 

I recommend those who are interested in the story of Pliny’s mission to Vesuvius to follow up on the suggestions for further reading at the end of this article. The poem quoted below by Primo Levi, scientist, author and holocaust survivor, illustrates the extent to which the Vesuvius eruption and Pliny’s end have retained their fascination on our collective consciousness to the present day: 

Primo Levi: Pliny

Don’t hold me back, friends, let me set out.

I won’t go far; just to the other shore.

I want to observe at close hand that dark cloud,

Shaped like a pine tree, rising above Vesuvius,

And find the source of this strange light.

Nephew, you don’t want to come along?  Fine; stay here and study.

Recopy the notes I gave you yesterday.

You needn’t fear the ash; ash on top of ash.

We’re ash ourselves; remember Epicurus?

Quick, get the boat ready, it is already night:

Night at midday, a portent never seen before.

Don’t worry, sister, I’m cautious and expert;

The years that bowed me haven’t passed in vain.

Of course I’ll come back quickly.  Just give me time

To ferry across, observe the phenomena and return,

Draw a new chapter from them tomorrow

For my books, that will, I hope, still live

When for centuries my old body’s atoms

Will be whirling, dissolved in the vortices of the universe,

Or live again in an eagle, a young girl, a flower.

Sailors, obey me: launch the boat into the sea.

23 May 1978

Primo Levi (1919-1987): Pliny, translated by Ruth Feldman with Brian Swann, in Collected Poems, 1988

quinquereme and liburnum

The large galley is similar to Pliny the Elder’s flagship. It is a quinquereme (with five rows of oarsmen) accompanied by ‘liburni’ – much smaller galleys with a single row of oarsmen. Liburni were deployed extensively in the Classis Comensis, Como’s lake fleet.

The ships launched by Pliny for the rescue were the largest in the fleet – quadriremes – consisting of four banks of oars (remi in Italian). These boats were 39 metres long and four metres wide and powered  by 232 oarsmen.  These galleys did have a sail but it was of secondary importance and never used when in conflict. Mediterranean warships from pre-Roman times until the early 17th century were propelled by oarsmen.

Classis Comensis

Pliny the elder

Pliny the Elder, Como Cathedral

Pliny was admiral of the main Imperial Navy charged with maintaining the security of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Western Mediterranean. The second most important fleet was the Classis Ravennitis, based in Ravenna and responsible for patrolling the Adriatic Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. There were a number of other Imperial navies based across the Roman Empire including the Classis Comensis – Como’s own Imperial Fleet charged with maintaining the security of transport on Lake Como and ensuring free access to the Val Chiavenna and thus across the Alps into Germany via the Splugen Pass. 

Como’s origins are as a military fortress established by Julius Caesar in recognition of its strategic position in giving access to Alpine crossings and as a key defensive location protecting Milan from Transalpine invasion. He in turn established colonies of Greek immigrants in both Como and around the lake to encourage settlement but also to provide local skills in shipbuilding. The lake’s military fleet did not deploy the massive quadriremes deployed on the Mediterranean but instead they used the much smaller ‘liburnians’ modified from their original Greek design. These much smaller boats usually had a single row of oars but were light, fast and less visible and so were well designed to tackle piracy which was the main security threat on the lake. Later on around the 4th and 5th centuries in the Byzantine period, Como’s fleet was sufficiently important to warrant it being commanded by one of only four admirals of the imperial fleets. Two of these admirals commanded the traditionally important fleets based in Miseno and Ravenna. The other admiral managed a fleet based in Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic positioned to protect the Empire from invasion from the north, as was also the case at Como. 

Forte Montecchio

Lake Como is strategically placed to defend Milan from northern invasion. Defences have been built along its course from Roman times, as at Colico where the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes in the 1600s and the Forte Montecchio was built in 1914 as part of Italy’s defense against attack across the Splugen Pass.

Not only did Como have a military fleet under the command of one of only four Imperial admirals but, in keeping with its military origins, it also boasted a naval military training school – the ‘Collegio dei nauti comensi’. This military school had two main responsibilities. One was to provide sufficient horsepower and carriages to maintain public services and the other was to teach ‘centurions’ how to conduct protection and warfare on lakes and rivers. The college also provided technical training for the three main artisan crafts needed to support the navy and military. These were training of ‘centonari’ – those who made defensive fabrics for sailors and other woven material including sails, ‘dolabrari’ who made the iron weapons for sailors (picks and axes) and ‘scalari’ who made the ladders used for boarding enemy vessels. Como was known as a centre for iron production and no doubt the navy protected the transport of iron ore down the Valle Albano to Dongo and then down the lake to Como. Steel production in Dongo only ceased very recently. 

Pantero Pantera

Collegio Gallio

Courtyard of the Collegio Gallio, Como, founded in 1583 as a school for poor adolescents by Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio

So with this well established naval tradition in Como, it may not be too surprising that another local citizen should achieve a remarkable career as a sailor, albeit this time in the Papal rather than the Imperial Navy. This was the much lesser known figure of Pantero Pantera born to a noble Como family in 1568. He was sent to Rome following his father’s death and under the protection of Cardinal Tolomeo Gallio. However he was not suited to either of the two principal careers on offer in Rome – within the church or apprenticed to an artist’s studio. He therefore enlisted in the Papal Navy as a captain aboard the galley San Bonaventura. This was one of the ten galleys under Pope Sixtus V. These were deployed to protect the Papal States from Barbary pirates. 

16 century galley

Pantera’s challenges as a galley captain were twofold. Firstly he needed the seamanship skills needed to handle the relatively fragile boat and prevent it from sinking. The 16th century galleys deployed in the Papal Navy had evolved from the triremes (three rows of oars) and biremes( two rows of oars) of the Roman Imperial Navy. Seven of these vessels from the Papal Navy had been deployed as part of a combined European fleet at the major sea battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571 when Pantera would have been three years old. Pantero himself described these galleys in his manual ‘L’Armata Navale’ published in 1614:

‘The galley is long, thin and low. It has a single cover which is divided into six rooms. The room at the prow is for the captains, gentlemen and others ‘of respect’. The ‘scandolaro’ is the room adjacent to the prow. Here some of the arms are stored and other possessions of those in the prow along with some barrels of good wine. After the ‘scandolaro’ is the company’s room which serves as a dispensary of wine, preserved foods, oil, vinegar and cheese. After that there is the ‘pagliolo’ where biscuit, flour, rice, water, bread, beans and garlic are stored.’

His second challenge was maintaining order amongst the crew so they obeyed commands and did not mutiny. In this respect, his task was probably much harder than a captain in Pliny’s fleet since the Romans did not deploy slaves. Most of Pompey’s crew would have been recruited from Egypt and could hope to be granted Roman citizenship after 25 or 27 years service whereupon they would receive a reasonably generous cash payment. In Pantera’s day the crew was formed from Turkish slaves (many of whom may have been captured following the Battle of Lepanto) and so-called ‘galeotti’ who were prison inmates deemed suitable for service onboard – hence the modern day Italian term ‘galera’ for a prison. These slaves and prisoners remained chained to their oars. Pantera describes their daily food ration as follows:

‘Two pounds of biscuit, half a pound of cheese or four sardines, a pint of wine, an ounce of oil and a head of garlic’.

Torre Pantera

The Torre Pantera in Piazza Verde, Como

Pantera was promoted Commander of the galley Santa Lucia in 1597 which captured four pirate vessels just in the one year of 1598. He continued his career at sea for a total of fifteen years in which he tried to improve conditions for his crews. He then took up an administrative post on land. He served at a time when warships driven by ranks of oarsmen were being replaced by those using sail. The hybrid form known as ‘Galleazza’, developed by the Venetians, first appeared at the Battle of Lepanto. These massive boats armed with cannon used both manpower and sail for propulsion and manoeuvre. As the 17th century progressed, manpower gave way increasingly to sail and the long era of galleys ended.

Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto in the collection of the National Maritime Museum, London. The larger vessels firing cannon are the ‘galleaza’ – a hybrid vessel developed by the Venetians and powered by both sail and oar.

In 1614 Pantera published his manual on seamanship entitled ‘L’Armata Navale’. It covered a comprehensive set of subjects including the principles of boat construction, battle tactics, logistics and fleet administration. In the following year he retired from the Papal Navy and returned to Como to take up a role in public administration. Here he lived in a villa on the edge of Piazza Verde where the Torre Pantera is still visible. In 1617 he had a villa built on the lakefront at Blevio which no longer stands but  has been replaced by the Villa da Riva which has passed through many different owners, recently including the Istituto Angelicum di Milano which provided accommodation for young unmarried mothers. While living in Blevio he published another account of his time with the Papal Navy before he died in 1625, at the age of 57 – just one year longer than Pliny the Elder.

villa da riva

Villa da Riva, Blevio built on the site of Pantero Pantera’s villa built for his retirement in 1617

Unlike Pliny the Elder, Pantero Pantera remains relatively unknown and unrecognised. Throughout Italy there is just one street named after him in Como along with a piazza in Rome. Strangely enough Pliny the Elder has given his name to a craft beer from Portland, while Pantera’s name was adopted by a Como-based company producing a line of clothing. Initially the use of the name Pantero Pantera was challenged unsuccessfully in the courts by the French jewellers Cartier who claimed it was too close to their series of jewellery named  ‘Panthère’. 

Further Reading

There are no significant further sources of information about Pantero Pantera but there is a lot out there for Pliny the Elder. In particular the blog article by Will Mather for the Western Australia Museum provides a detailed description of Pliny’s rescue mission to Pompeii and his death. The article by Tom Clark entitled ‘The Death of Pliny the Elder’ includes the Primo Levi poem quoted above and excerpts from Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus describing the eruption of Vesuvius and his uncle’s involvement.

The British author Daisy Dunn wrote ‘In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny’ available in all formats on Amazon. 

The Italian archeologist and author Flavio Russo has also written many books on the eruption of Vesuvius including an account of the scientific analysis of the presumed remains of Pliny the Elder uncovered in an archeological dig in 2014.

Refer to Como’s Historical Fabric and its Pot of Roman Gold for more information on Roman Como and the recent discovery of an amphora containing more than 500 gold coins from the Byzantine period. This horde might be associated with the importance of Como as a military base including its fleet and nautical school.

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