Como’s City Walls

T_Marco Cappelletti_città murata_02

The ‘Citta Murata’ looking north. The towers on the south side are from left to right, Torre Gattoni, Porta Torre and Torre San Vitale. The walls that still stand follow the avenues of trees visible on the south, west and east sides of the old city.

Como has a lot of ‘history’ and the city’s walls provide visible evidence of the fact. Como was first fortified back in 51 BCE but only a few traces of those early Roman walls remain. What can be seen today dates back to 1158 when Federico Barbarossa, the Swabian Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned a new set of walls to be built just beyond the Roman originals.


Federico Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor and Como’s saviour in liberating the city from Milanese control.

The works took thirty years to complete and then underwent a variety of vicissitudes and modifications over the coming centuries until finally in 1975 the City Council decided that no further changes should ever be made. 

Most other Lombardy cities in Medieval times were fortified but most of these walls, as in the case of  neighbouring Cantù, have subsequently been demolished. Como’s walls owe their survival to the city’s unique geographical position as a gateway to or from the Splugen Pass over the Alps via Lake Como. This route was used for both military and commercial ends offering access north over the Alps to the Rhine and Danube river systems (as exploited by Julius Caesar) and south to Milan, Pavia and eastwards via the River Po to Venice and the east. In wartime, Como’s walls provided protection from attack and resistance to siege while in more peaceful times, they forced traders into paying taxes and levies as they sought to pass their goods through the city on their way to their final markets – a constraint long resented by the merchants of Milan.

Roman Days

citta murata

Plan of the Roman Walls (shown in red) superimposed on the current street map. The green lines show where the city expanded in later Roman times.

Como was granted the status of a municipality by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. This signified that the citizens of Como (the Comaschi) could claim the same level of social rights as citizens of Rome. In keeping with this status, and in recognition of the city’s strategic significance, Caesar set about improving the city’s defences by building a defensive wall around all four sides of the rectangular settlement. Building started in 51 BCE.

Only a few traces of this original wall are still visible but enough to be able to trace where the perimeters lay on the south, east and west sides. The north facing course of the wall towards the lake is much harder to discern. The  wall would have been two metres thick and eight metres high with an additional castellated walkway giving a further two metres in height. The main gateway was the Porta Pretoria on the south side not far from where the Porta Torre now stands. The ruins of the original Porta Pretoria are visible below the Liceo Classico and are, sadly, only occasionally open for the public to view. 

roman remains

Remains of the Roman wall can be seen on the left with the Medieval wall seen on the right.

Early Medieval Period

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Como found itself on the path of hostile armies from the north invading the old Roman capital of Milan and the even richer city of Pavia. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman walls were reinforced in a bid to resist these invading Germanic and Burgundian tribes. It wasn’t until the Gothic Wars of 535 to 553 CE allowed the Byzantines to reclaim total control of Como and the rest of the Pianura Padana. They set about reinforcing the Castel Baradello guarding the southern entry to the city and Isola Comacina on the lake which guarded the northern access to the city. Both Castel Baradello and Isola Comacina were to prove of strategic importance for centuries to come although Isola Comacina’s allegiance to Como, as with many other lakeside communities, was anything but constant.


The foundations of the Roman Porta Pretoria are occasionally opened for visits from the public.

The Byzantines also improved the city’s defences by building new towers along its walls, destroying all buildings that lay in close proximity to their exterior and then digging a nine metre wide and two and a half metre deep ditch along its entire perimeter. 

Isola Comacina

Isola Comacina is small but, as the only island on Lake Como, proved of strategic importance throughout the years.

The Germanic tribe of Lombards, the Longobardi, took the place of the Byzantines between 569 and 572 CE setting up their capital in Monza. However the independent-minded Isola Comacina was not captured until 588 under the reign of Queen Teodolinda whose iron crown is now on display in Monza’s cathedral. 

The Lombards went on to rule the area until 774 CE during which time they allowed Como’s walls to suffer damage through neglect and lack of maintenance.

Middle to Late Medieval Period

Moltrasio Stone

Como’s walls and towers are built from Moltrasio stone.

The 9th to 11th centuries proved to be a prolonged period of peace and prosperity. Como started to profit from exacting dues and tariffs from the passing trade. The two small communities outside the city walls north to the west – Borgo Vico – and to the east – Coloniola – were in turn fortified primarily to ensure no evasion of customs duties. The city now took on the form of a crab, the so-called ‘Urbs Cancrina’.

Ten Years War with Milan

Porta Torre

Porta Torre, situated close to the original Roman Porta Pretoria, Porta Torre was the main gateway into the city from Milan and the south.

At  the start of the 12th century, in the era in which individual communes assumed more power over any overarching political entity, Milan  became increasingly aggravated by the demands for duties imposed by the  Comune of Como on any goods passing through its territory. Milan formed an early version of the Lombardy League allying itself with Pavia, Brescia, Bergamo and Genoa in a bid to facilitate trade and withstand those more closely allied with the Holy Roman Empire. They focussed their antagonism against Como and managed to get the strategically important settlement of Isola Comacina on their side along with other towns on the lake such as Torno, Nesso and Lenno. 

Torre San Vitale

The Torre San Vitale is on the south eastern corner of the city’s walls. The two arches at its base were made to accomodate the tramway in the last century once the decision was taken to bar trams from the historic centre.

Milan instigated a period of war with Como from 1117 that was to last ten years following a defined season of aggression starting in Spring and ending in Autumn. Como was singularly successful in fighting off this alliance thanks to its naval fleet on the lake and its robust city walls.  But Como’s success did not last forever and the conflict was to end in 1127 when Milanese forces broke through the walls and proceeded to sack, pillage and burn the city. They also destroyed the walls and in the subsequent peace settlement, forbade Como from rebuilding them and from levying duties on trade. Thus Milan kept Como subjugated for the next thirty years until salvation arrived from the north.

Federico Barbarossa

castel baraDELLO

The Castel Baradello existed from Byzantine times but was rebuilt by Federico Barbarossa.

Federico Barbarossa, as the Holy Roman Emperor,  decided it was about time he reasserted his sovereignty over the rogue Italian communes to his south who swore allegiance to the Papacy rather than to himself. He had in mind those cities that had formed the Lombardy League. He first invasion south from Germany was in 1154 when he came to note the strategic advantage to him of both Isola Comacina and Como. Not having managed to fully subdue Milan and its allies, he returned again to Lombardy in 1158. By 1162 he had managed to force Milan into lifting all the restrictions to trade and defence it had previously imposed on Como. He turned his attention to strengthening Como’s defences and set about rebuilding the walls that had lain destroyed since 1127.

The Federican Walls

walls and porta torre

The south facing city walls with Porta Torre.

The city walls we see today are ostensibly those that Federico Barbarossa started to build in 1158. The work continued until 1192. His walls more or less followed the path of the previous Roman walls but were extended further out. They were built higher than before and castellated. He, like the Byzantines, also dug a ditch along the wall’s external perimeter. The city must have presented a very foreboding presence to those approaching it since no buildings inside the walls were allowed to surpass their height.

baradello tower

Remains of the Castel Baradello looking down onto Como

He also built the tower at what is now called Porta Torre on the southern entrance to the city from Via Milano. Castel Baradello was rebuilt and the main customs post was moved from Borgo Vico out of the city to Camerlata.

Barbarossa himself suffered a defeat by the forces of the Lombardy League at Legnano in May 1176 CE. He was feared killed but did manage to escape back to the Castel Baradello to rejoin his wife whom he had left there in the safe hands of the local garrison. 

Castello Della Torre Rotonda

castello torre rotonda 2

The Castello Della Torre Rotonda. The second square tower was a later addition.

The conflict between The Holy Roman Emperor and the supporters of the Pope developed into a conflict between local aristocratic families with the side supporting the Papacy, known as the Guelphs and those allied to the Holy Roman Emperor known as the Ghibellines. The Como Guelphs were represented initially by the Vittani family and later by the Delle Torre (or Torriani). The Ghibellines were initially represented by the Rusca family and later by the Milanese Visconti. These two sets of families then battled it out for control of the city over the next hundred years with the Rusca/Visconti having the upper hand. Loterio II Rusca built himself a castle where the Teatro Sociale and the Arena now stand. The building was  started in 1284 but was never intended as a defence against external attack. Its purpose instead was to ensure internal control of the city and to keep the city rulers safe from popular insurrection. Loterio Rusca also extended the walls on the eastern side to encompass the Bishop’s Palace and the military port area just north of the Como Nord station. 

The growth in the civic power of elite families heralded the period of the ‘Signorie’ lasting from the second half of the 14th to the end of the 15th century. While Florence had the Medici and Mantua the Gonzagas, Como was governed by the Milanese Visconti family. The Ruscas handed power over to Azzone Visconti in 1335. Visconti further strengthened the two southern gates of Porta Nuova and Porta Torre but, more significantly decided to enlarge on the fortified area of the Castello Della Torre to create another defensive line within the city. 

Cittadella Viscontea

stemma visconti

The crest of the Visconti family. This crest can be seen on many of the aristocratic villas, castles and palaces in Lombardy, for example above Como’s Villa Olmo.

The Cittadella Viscontea formed a type of ‘green zone’ within the cite to protect the city rulers, including the bishops, from the rest of the urban population. The walls of the Cittadella extended beyond the castle to cover the area of San Giacomo Church and modern day Piazza Roma. This included the naval military garrison, the Church of San Provino and the bishop’s palace. No traces can be seen of Como’s Cittadella but those established by the Visconti in Piacenza and Bergamo remain.

The Cittadella Viscontea lasted until 1447 when the last in the family line, Filippo Maria Visconti, died. A brief republic was set up in Milan and this gave the inhabitants of Como the opportunity to destroy the Cittadella’s walls. However the period of the Signorie was not yet over as the Sforza family soon came to take the place of the Visconti.

Como Again Under Attack

The start of the 16th century saw Como in the path of the expansionist aims of France, Austria and Spain with the French initially taking control of the city and consolidating its city walls against invasion from the Austrian Emperor Maximilian who was allied to the Milanese Sforza family. In 1508 the French Governor, Jean de Bassey, reduced the number of entrances to the city to just three gates in the walls with Porta Portello on the east side by the castle, Porta Torre to the south and Porta Sala on the west where Via Garibaldi now stands. He also deepened the ditch around the perimeter and flooded it to form a moat.

torre gattoni 3

The Porta Nuova is just alongside the Torre Gattoni on the south western edge of the city walls.

The Spanish lay siege to Como in 1521 as part of their conflict with France and although the French defended strongly, the Spanish breached the city walls near to modern day Porta Nuova. The French surrendered on 21st December and the Spanish followed this by sacking the city.

In 1532 the Spanish built the Forte di Fuentes at the north end of Lake Como on what is now called the Pian di Spagna. This was built as defence against the possibility of further expansion from the Swiss Canton of the Grissons down the Valtellina and to discourage any further spread of Protestantism. For the Spanish, Como had no real strategic value and they certainly were not concerned about the city’s ability to set tariffs on passing trade. 

Towards the Modern Era

viale varese walls

The walls on the western side of the old city with the avenue of trees established over the old moat.

Fortunately the 17th and 18th centuries proved a relatively quiet period for Como even if under foreign rule. The walls lost much of their defensive purpose and so the owners of the private villas just within their limits were allowed to build the ‘hanging gardens’ that now characterise some sections of the walls on their west and southern facing sides. In 1783, the Comune purchased the walls from the military authorities. They then filled in the moat and turned it into avenues of trees. 

Mantero Hanging Garden

The hanging garden in the old headquarters of Mantero on the south western corner of the walls.

One symbol of this growing period of Enlightenment was the use made of the tower beside the Porta Nuova on the south western corner of the city walls. This tower was bought by the Gattoni family back in 1784 and was used by Alessandro Volta to undertake some of his early experiments into the nature of electricity. The tower is now commonly referred to as either Torre Nuova or Torre Gattoni. 

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was demolished in its entirety in 1811 to make way for the new opera house, the Teatro Sociale.

Teatro Sociale

The Castello della Torre Rotonda was destroyed in 1811 to make way for the building of the Teatro Sociale.

Under Napoleonic rule, the defensive role of the walls was reduced further by knocking down the bastions built around the gates to the city and getting rid of the wall’s castellations. The walls still served to mark out the customs area and ensure the payment of tariffs. For this reason entrances to the city were still limited to Porta Sala on the west, Porta Portello on the east and Porta Torre on the south or from the lake to the north. Some minor gates did exist including a gateway allowing Alessandro Volta to exit the city directly from his garden. This was subsequently blocked up again after his death. 

Porta Sala

Via Garibaldi is located where the Porta Sala gave access to the city from Borgo Vico on the west side.

In May 1859, Garibaldi led his soldiers after their victory over the Austrians at San Fermo through the gates of Porta Sala to a hero’s welcome. Full unification of an independent Italy would follow a few years later and the fortifications of Porta Sala pulled down. This is still a main entrance way into the old city with the street renamed Via Garibaldi and the area immediately outside the gates of Porta Sala called Piazza Cacciatori delle Alpi – the name given to the troops who fought the Austrians at San Fermo.

Internal customs borders were abolished in 1867 with the walls finally losing their other main role throughout history. From that day new entrance ways into the city began to open up and the only remaining gateway dating back to Federico Barbarossa is the Porta Torre.

old entry

One of the gateways into the city as depicted in the 1800s

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‘James Bond’ Returns to Lake Como

Dick and Christine Mallaby

Dick Mallaby with his wife, Christine

Back in June 2021 we recounted the exploits of Dick Mallaby, a British secret agent who, on being parachuted into Lake Como and immediately arrested, went on to provide the only communication channel available for those negotiating the Italian Armistice in September 1943.

Faggeto Lario

Dick Mallaby parachuted into Lake Como around 2.00am on August 14th 1943 in the area of the lake shown in this photo between Faggeto Lario in the foreground and Carate Urio on the further bank. He was detected immediately and arrested.

He then spent most of the remaining war years in a training role but he had not seen the last of Lake Como. Dick was an agent of  the British Secret Operations Executive (SOE) reporting to its boss in Bern, Jock McCaffery. The Americans also had their own secret organisation based in Bern known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) headed by Allen Dulles. 

Although desperate to undertake another mission behind enemy lines, McCaffery was concerned that Dick would be too readily recognisable in Italy due to the fame of his former exploits. However, come February 1945, when allied victory was almost guaranteed, SOE relented and sent him once again to Lake Como.  It initially appeared as if fortune was going to be no kinder on this occasion than in 1943. He was almost immediately arrested and again carted off to Como to be interrogated by Paolo Porta, the fanatical Head of the local Brigate Nere, who  was to face execution with other fascist leaders on the lakefront in Dongo just over two months later. Dick was able to keep good luck on his side as he managed, truthfully or otherwise, to pose as a potential go-between in secret peace negotiations between the fascist authorities and the local heads of the allied Secret Services based in Bern, Switzerland. Once again Dick Mallaby found himself an active participant in another crucial moment of diplomatic intrigue.

The Mission


The Val Cavargna above Carlazzo with Lake Como in the distance

The ‘official’ purpose of Dick Mallaby’s second trip into enemy-occupied Italy was for him to meet up with the Catholic forces of resistance – the Fiamme Verdi partisans operating principally in the Province of Brescia. He was accompanied on his mission by three Italians. They were a radio operator with the code name of Anselmo and two Catholic priests, Don Mario Zanin and Don Giovanni Barbareschi. Both priests were closely linked to the Fiamme Verdi. 

fiamme verdi

British SOE preferred supporting catholic Fiamme Verdi to other communist groups

The party of four met up at the British Embassy in Lugano on February 13th and made their clandestine crossing into Italy to the north east so as to descend the Val Cavargna. They spent the night of the 14th in a mountain hut outside of Carlazzo and on the next day crossed Lake Como from Menaggio to Varenna. There they failed to make contact with someone due to help their ongoing journey and so hitched a ride down the lake to Lecco. 

mallaby route (1)

Dick’s route on his 2nd mission started at Point 1, descended the Val Cavargna (2), overnighted in Carlazzo (3) before crossing the lake at Menaggio (4) to Varenna (5). They moved on to Lecco (6) where they were arrested with Dick being taken to Como (7). He would later return at the end of his mission to stay overnight in the Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio before crossing to Chiasso.

According to the young priest Don Barbareschi, the group had taken his advice to change their destination to Milan so they could all meet up with Milan’s Archbishop, Cardinal Schuster. Don Barbareschi was in fact Cardinal Schuster’s trusted go-between who had been aiding secret negotiations between the Catholic church with the support of the Fiamme Verdi and the heads of Mussolini’s puppet state through the offices of the British SOE in Bern. Schuster was seeking to arrange for the peaceful surrender of the Italian fascists in exchange for their promise to cease fighting and not destroy any of the civil and industrial infrastructure. Since Don Barbareschi was also highly trusted by Jock McCaffery, the SOE Head in Bern, there is every good reason to believe that Mallaby’s mission was always intended to support Cardinal Schuster and use the radio operator Anselmo to facilitate communications between Milan and the British in Switzerland. 

lecco lakefront

The lakefront at Lecco

At Lecco, the four members of the party went into a bar and, according to Dick Mallaby, the two priests began to attract unwanted attention to themselves through some injudicious and easily overheard comments. The police duly arrived and, although their identity documents passed scrutiny, suspicions were aroused by the fact that all four had given the same address in Milan as their residence – the address given was the actual Milan residence of Don Barbareschi. All four were arrested and initially detained in Lecco. Don Mario Zanin managed to take advantage of confusion during an air strike to escape and seek shelter in a nearby seminary. Dick Mallaby was separated from the remaining two and transported to face interrogation by Paolo Porta in Como.

Dick Mallaby becomes Captain Richard Tucker

epoca casa del fascio

The Casa del Fascio in Como where Dick would have been interrogated by Paolo Porta

All captured enemy secret agents faced summary execution on arrest. Agents were trained to use whatever means they could when captured to prolong their lives short of giving away critical information in a bid to play for time to organise some form of rescue. One way to prolong interrogation was to provide false information that would need to be checked assuming of course this did not compromise any actual plans. While advised to be imaginative in their stories, they were also told to keep to verifiable facts wherever possible. Dick Mallaby’s inventiveness and imagination would now be put to the test.


Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces under Nazi occupation

He told Paolo Porta that he was on a secret commission on behalf of the Allied Military Commander in Italy, General Alexander. To give some credence that he would be authorised for such a mission he promoted himself to Captain giving his name as Richard Tucker. He stated his message from General Alexander was intended for none other than Rodolfo Graziani, Head of Mussolini’s armed forces. He would not reveal the content of his message to any other except to say that it involved a possible peace proposal. Dick Mallaby would have been fully briefed on the political situation at that time where it was obvious that both the Germans and leaders of the Italian fascist regime were considering how to prepare themselves for defeat. I believe it is also highly likely that his original mission was to facilitate further negotiations initiated by Cardinal Schuster with the British SOE. However he may not have been on a mission directed by General Alexander. In any case, Paolo Porta was impressed and invited Dick to stay overnight at the officers’ mess before being taken down to Milan on the 16th February to meet with the overall Commander of the fascist Brigate Nere – Brigadier General Edouardo Facdouelle.

All seemed to be going well for Dick aka Captain Richard Tucker as he shared a convivial lunch with the Brigadier and to quote his biographer his ‘equally cordial daughter’. Dick explained how he could only convey General Alexander’s proposal directly to Rodolfo Graziani and no-one else. Facdouelle then accompanies Dick to Graziani’s headquarters but Graziani refuses to meet with him explaining through Facdouelle that he was worried that the Germans would learn about the hearing. Instead Graziani orders Dick to be taken to the headquarters of the fascist state’s secret services known as the Servizio Informazioni Difesa (SID) in Volta Mantovana to be interrogated by Colonello Candeloro De Leo who headed the organisation. 

On the 18th February Dick faced his interrogation with De Leo, a man with a fearsome reputation as a skilful  interrogator and the head of one of the more effective of the fascist state’s organisations. Dick knew at this stage, following Graziani’s refusal to get involved, that he would have to divulge the presumably fictitious proposal from General Alexander. He duly presented a five point plan for a peaceful surrender aimed to  protect Italian infrastructure from German sabotage  and ensure no partisan reprisals against Italian fascist forces, backed up by Allied military intervention wherever needed. He added that he himself would need to return to Switzerland to procure a radio transmitter so that he could return with it to facilitate all further communications between the two parties. De Leo passed on this plan to Graziani the next day, February 19th. Graziani duly informed the German SS of everything Captain Tucker had to propose.

Lake Garda

A storm gathers over Lake Garda

Dick Mallaby Meets the German High Command

Karl Wolff

Karl Wolff, SS-Gruppenführer

Once De Leo had concluded his amiable interrogation, Dick was told to pack his bags and accompany a Captain in the German SS waiting for him in the hall of the villa housing the Italian SID. Needless to say, this turn of events caused him severe worry which only increased on finding himself transferred to the headquarters of the German SS’s intelligence arm, the SD, in the Palazzo delle Assicurazione in Verona.

He now spent a week facing numerous and rigorous interrogation sessions but no torture.  His interrogators had introduced themselves as not as gullible or as credulous as their Italian counterparts. But Dick had by now bought himself sufficient time to consolidate and embellish his story. Try as they might his interrogators could not uncover any inconsistencies between the various statements recorded.  

On the 26th February he was transferred to a luxurious villa in Fasano on Lake Garda where he was introduced to SS-Obergruppenfuhrer and General of the Waffen SS, Karl Wolff, the Supreme Commander of all SS forces in Italy – the man responsible for the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps and for the vicious anti-partisan campaign across occupied Italian territory.  Having convinced all others so far of his sincerity, Dick Mallaby now managed to convince the most powerful representative in Italy of the Nazi regime that he really was Captain Richard Tucker and that he genuinely came with a peace proposal from General Alexander. He also repeated the need for him to return to Switzerland and to return with a radio transmitter as he had originally explained to De Leo.

villa carminati

Villa Carminati in Cernobbio was the Border Control Headquarters of the SS for North West Italy. Its strategic location close to the Swiss border meant that it hosted a number of people needing to enter Switzerland during the secret negotiations of a peace settlement.

With his agreement to return as soon as possible from Switzerland, Dick was transferred back to Verona from where on February 28th he was subsequently escorted to the SS’s local headquarters in Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli ready to cross the border at Chiasso the following day.

Dick Mallaby Falls Out of Favour

Dick’s apparently improvised plan for ending the war in Italy started to fall apart the moment he crossed the Italian border into Switzerland at Chiasso at 07.00am on 1st March 1945, because Allen Dulles and his team of agents working for the American OSS had a better plan now known to history as ‘Operation Sunrise’.

allen dulles 2

Allen Dulles seen with John F Kennedy later in life as Director of the CIA

Unknown to Dick or to his boss Jock McCaffery in Bern, or at this stage to Karl Wolff, a plan for bringing together Germans and the Allies to discuss a peace settlement had first been  proposed to Allen Dulles back on February 21st when Dick was under detention at the SD Headquarters in Verona. This plan already had the backing of the Swiss secret services, the sponsorship of some high ranking SS officers and was on the way to being adopted also by Allen Dulles. Karl Wolff was briefed by one of his officers on this fresh proposal on the very day that Dick crossed over to Chiasso. The Americans would have previously been made aware of Dick’s alternative plan and when he was due to cross the border because the SS Officer in command at Cernobbio’s Villa Carminati/Locatelli, Captain Joseph Voetterl, was in fact an American double agent. 

varenna to menaggioDick’s plan was now seen as an amateurish meddling with the inherent danger of confusing the various parties launching Operation Sunrise or worse still, sowing distrust between them. And so it may come as no surprise that the Swiss secret service refused to recognise Dick’s well established  cover as one of their own officers on presenting himself at the Chiasso border control. He was immediately detained and from that date on, effectively silenced and kept out of action. He remained in detention until released on 13th March when he was then able to debrief Jock McCaffery on his various exploits since entering Italy back in mid-February. Under pressure from London, McCaffery returned Dick into Swiss detention on 20th March where he remained until finally released by the Swiss one week later. By that time all the necessary agreements and understandings between the parties of Operation Sunrise had been secured and it only awaited the final approval of the Allied political leaders to activate the proposed armistice agreement. Operation Sunrise was ultimately successful and led to the signing of German surrender on April 29th at the Allied Army Headquarters in Caserta. 

Back in Cernobbio

The SS Border Control HQ in Villa Carminati/Locatelli in Cernobbio was used extensively in these last weeks of the war as a practical location for hosting those senior German officials and the variety of agents and double agents acting as go-betweens in the negotiations for a peace deal. Just as Dick Mallaby stayed there on 28th February, so did others use it as a practical point of departure for or return from clandestine meetings in Switzerland. The American OSS were kept informed of all these comings and goings by their double agent, Joseph Voetterl. 


Don Giovanni Barbareschi was one of the young priests who at great risk to themselves published an occasional illegal anti-fascist paper called ‘Il Ribelle’. The majority of those writing for the paper were executed.

Among those invited to the villa to his utmost surprise was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi, who had been arrested alongside Dick Mallaby back in Lecco on 15th February. Don Barbareschi had been held in prison in Lecco until he was unexpectedly released on 9th March and taken to Villa Locatelli. There he was met by none other than SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff. Wolff asked him to undertake a mission on his behalf to relay a message to the SOE chief in Bern, Jock McCaffery, informing him (and SOE) of his involvement and commitment to the Operation Sunrise peace negotiations that were progressing with the Americans, and of the fate of Dick Mallaby held in detention over the Swiss border. Until that moment, SOE had been given no information on these talks conducted by their allied partners in the American OSS nor did McCaffery know at that time of Dick Mallaby’s fate.

book jacket

Gianluca Barneschi has written a fascinating account of Dick Mallaby’s missions into Italy using information taken from official sources and Dick’s unpublished personal diaries and papers.

McCaffery must have been deeply embarrassed by having been kept ignorant of what had been going on when he duly informed London the next day of the secret American peace plans and of the fate of his own agent, Dick Mallaby. London did not hesitate in giving their approval  for the American OSS to continue as the senior partner in the talks with the Nazi leadership. They also directed McCaffery to suppress any news of Dick’s own links with Wolff or of the proposals put to him. Dick himself was only able to debrief McCaffery three days later in between his periods of Swiss detention.


Dick Mallaby was very reluctant later in life to talk about his exploits during the war. It is almost impossible yet to evaluate to what extent the proposals he presented to De Leo and Wolff were imaginative improvisation on his part or a genuine proposal from British SOE to seek an agreement with the Italian fascists. It is however evident that there was a serious lack of coordination between the two allied secret services and that by the time the war ended, the Americans were very much the senior partner in taking the initiative on shaping the new European order following the collapse of Nazism. 

false id card of don giovanni

The false ID card carried by the young priest, Don Barbareschi

Perhaps the one person with the best view and understanding of all the various peace negotiations at the time was the young priest, Don Giovanni Barbareschi. He would have been involved in Cardinal Schuster’s dealings with Mussolini and Graziani, had accompanied Dick Mallaby on his mission and was briefed by Wolff in the early days of Operation Sunrise.  Don Barbareschi was also very reluctant after the war to discuss what he knew or go into any detail of his time with Mallaby. 


If buildings could talk then the best one to interview would be Villa Carminati/Locatelli since many of the significant players in the complex series of secret diplomatic talks passed through its doors. Villa Carminati/Locatelli was to witness even more drama towards the end of April 1945 when the Como countryside was crisscrossed by eminent allies and enemies playing out the final dramatic act of the Nazifascist occupation of Italy. But that is another story!

Further Reading

For our account of Dick Mallaby’s first mission to Lake Como, read ‘James Bond’ drops into Lake Como.  For more information on what went on within Villa Carminati/Locatelli and the role of American double agent Joseph Voetterl, read Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

A documentary film is currently under production on the life and exploits of Dick Mallaby promoted by his son, Vacky Mallaby. Follow this link for a preview in Italian with English subtitles. 

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Swimability Datafest for Lake Como

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

clean water

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

lake como map

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

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

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


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

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

careno beach 2

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

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


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

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

Beaches from Como to Griante


geno lido

The lido in Viale Geno only recently reopened.

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

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


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

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


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


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

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



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

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


Colonno data

Sala Comacina

La Tirlindana at Sala Comacina

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

Sala Comacina data


Ossuccio data

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


7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

7. View to Lenno and the Dosso di Lavedo

Lenno data

Tremezzina data

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


Griante data

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

Beaches from Como to Bellagio

Faggeto Lario

Faggeto lido

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

Faggeto Lario data

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


Bridge at Nesso

The Civera Bridge in Nesso.

Nesso data

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


View of Bellagio

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

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

Bellagio data

fish and birds

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

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

Como to Chiasso – Trying to Escape the Holocaust

Alberto Ascoli

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

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

Luigina Ascoli and Guido Levi

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


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


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

swiss border parco spina verde

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

1938 Race Laws

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


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

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

Bellinzona internment camp

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

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

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

view to moltrasio

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

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

Valle di Muggio from Bisbino

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

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

Villa Locatelli, Cernobbio

Cernobbio-Villa Locatelli

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

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

Villa Carminati

Villa Carminati

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

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

Binario 21

binario 21

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

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

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

Luigi Del Monte

Gigi Del Monte

Luigi Del Monte, from the Archives of the CDEC

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

giuseppe levi

Giuseppe Levi

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

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

samuele levi

Samuele Levi

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

votterl letter

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

Ugo del Monte

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

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


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

via volta

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


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

CDEC – Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Lake Como Boatyards: Luxury Boats

taxi boat cernobbio

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

What can be more memorable than a trip in the cabin or sat in the bows of a Venetian-style water taxi as its pilot skilfully and swiftly takes you to or from a lakeside restaurant on a summer evening. Sat on leather upholstery, set amongst brightly varnished mahogany and with sparkling chrome fittings, this luxurious experience may not be cheap but is nowadays at least accessible to many more of us than to our ancestors in years past. Since the middle of the seventeenth century up until today and hopefully well into the future Lake Como’s boatyards have and will be building, maintaining and restoring various forms of these luxury boats. 

water taxi

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

When Romans like Pliny the Younger built their summer villas on the shores of Lake Como, they undoubtedly had boats built to transport themselves in comfort. But no records remain of how they may have been constructed. Instead we must wait until those Italian aristocrats, who settled around the lake in the 18th century, required both a comfortable means of transport and a visible symbol of their status to remain moored alongside their villa’s personal jetty. And, as in the case of today’s water taxis, they looked to Venice for inspiration commissioning local boatyards to construct Venetian-style gondolas adapted to the choppier waters of the lake.

gondola villa carlotta

A Como-style gondola in service at the Villa Carlotta

It was this growing demand for Venetian craftsmanship that persuaded Ferdinando Taroni to move from Venice and establish his boatyard in Carate Urio in 1790. Ferdinando had learnt his craft from the Venetian master craftsman Angelo Albanese. He set about modifying the Venetian design by avoiding the original’s asymmetry, flattening the hull, broadening the flanks, increasing the overall dimensions and adding a rudder.  In making these changes Taroni took inspiration from the traditional fishing boats of the area built to suit the unique conditions of the lake.These enlarged boats were powered by a team of four to five oarsmen often dressed in the livery of their aristocratic employers. 

Ending the journey, coming into RIchond

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

The next major innovation in luxury travel was brought by the English gentry making their Grand Tour of Europe from the start of the 19th century. They introduced the so-called ‘Inglesina’ – a rowing boat designed originally for use on the River Thames. It allowed for comfortable seating at the bow and space for up to two or three oarsmen. The Inglesina also introduced the English preference for using mahogany in the construction of luxury boats – a choice also adopted by the Lake Como boatyards and continued to this day in spite of the growing problems of supply. This type of boat was made famous in the comic novel ‘Three Men in A Boat’ written in 1889 by Jerome K. Jerome. The Lake Como version became very popular also as an early form of water taxi. 

Como-piazza-Cavour-Volta -1914-G

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

Cranchi inglesina

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

The Dulcinea on display in the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats is an Inglesina adapted to motorised propulsion. From the 1900s onwards, motorised luxury boats became more common aided by the development of petrol engines such as those of Alessandro Volpi.


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

Volpi, the proprietor of the lakeside Villa Pizzo outside of Cernobbio, established a strong friendship and collaboration with Ferdinando Taroni, the owner of the boatyard in Carate Urio first established by his similarly named ancestor back in 1790. One of the great successes of this collaboration was the so-called Vaporino – a fuel powered luxury passenger boat whose design recalled the steam-driven boats of the past. The Boat Museum in Pianello del Lario has at least two examples, the Quo Vadiz and the Lario, which were moored at the Villa Passalacqua in Moltrasio. Much more recently, the owners of the luxury hotels Il Sereno and Villa Pliniana commissioned the Ernesto Riva boatyard in Maslianico to build a Vaporino to transport their guests.

ernesto riva 2016-07_Vaporina_11

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

Vaporino Ernesto Riva

The development of inboard and outboard motors dispensed with the need for crews of oarsmen and heralded a new form of luxury vehicle – the so-called runabout. The beauty and popularity of this class of boat was to reach its heyday in the 1950s and 60s when boats such as the Riva Acquarama (built on Lake Iseo rather than on Lake Como) became iconic symbols of luxury and of mid-century Italian design. However, prior to that, the runabout went through a number of developments including use during the 20th century’s two world wars. 


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

When Ferdinando Taroni moved his family business from Venice to Carate Urio in 1790, he set up a boatyard that spawned a tradition of luxury boat building that spread over the lake. From the Taroni yard came the names of Abbate, Mostes and Riva who each established boatyards that still exist to this day. To them we must also add the names of Molinari, Matteri, Cranchi, Colombo and Cadenazzi. While Taroni has now moved over to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, all the others still either produce, maintain or renovate luxury boats on Lake Como.

cranchi mtm

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


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

During the First World War, the Taroni yard in Carate Urio produced 18 anti-submarine boats known as MAS (Motobarca Anti Sommergibile). During the Second World War the Cranchi boatyard in Cadenabbia produced for the Germans a series of MTMs (Motoscafo Turismo Modificato). These, as the name suggests, were runabouts designed to be used as manned torpedoes in that the prow was packed with explosives. The pilot, positioned right at the bow, would jump off the boat once it was locked onto a collision course towards its target. The MTMs had one major success when they managed to disable the British cruiser HMS York near Crete on 25th March 1941. 

With the war over, Lake Como’s boatyards could return to developing those runabouts that have now become such recognisable icons of luxury and design. As mentioned previously, it is the Riva yard at Sarnico on Lake Iseo which has achieved the greatest reputation for this type of boat. However there are two branches of Riva boatbuilders with the original Ernesto Riva yard established in Laglio (and now also in Maslianico) over 250 years ago while Paolo Riva set up in Sarnico in the 1840s. Giacomo Colombo trained in the Como yards of Abbate (Tremezzo) and Cranchi (Brienno and Cadenabbia) before moving to Riva in Sarnico. However he then set up his own yard back on Lake Como in Menaggio where he produced the stylish Colombo 007. The lasting appeal of these runabouts stems from the flair of their Italian designers to combine aspects of ostentatious detailing inspired by the American car industry with the traditional look of mahogany introduced from Britain – all put together through the craftsmanship of local artisans developed and maintained over years of practice.  

colombo 007

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

 All of these boatyards continue to produce super luxury yachts. The Abbate name continues with Bruno Abbate and his Primatist range of yachts with offices on the lake and with production in Sardinia. Cranchi have moved from Brienno to larger yards in the Valtellina at the top end of the lake. Ernesto Riva still have offices in Laglio but have moved production to Maslianico.  Taroni’s yards in Carate Urio and Torreggia have both now been redeveloped as apartment blocks but their production continues at Stresa on Lake Maggiore.  The yards of Mostes Matteri are still operating in Lezzeno. Cadenazzi are still based in Tremezzo. Many of these yards now organise private hire, offer various facilities for the storage and maintenance of boats or undertake renovation of vintage models.

cadenazzi maintenance

Maintenance and renovation work being undertaken by Cantiere Cadenazzi in Tremezzo

Further Reading

The production of luxury boats is only one aspect of the historical heritage of boat craftsmanship on the lake. Read our article on the production of powerboats and sailing dinghies which describes how Lake Como’s boatyards have also gained international renown in this sector. 

mostes pegaso-28-Evo-7

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

As recommended in this previous article, a visit to the Lake Como International Museum of Vintage Boats in Pianello del Lario is the best way to gain an appreciation of the scope, quality and importance of this local industry.

Many of the boatyards mentioned here also provide private hire of the Venetian-style water taxis. Contact information can be found on our page Boat Hire and Water Taxis.

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Lake Como Boatyards: The Champions

boatyard map

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

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

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

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

Power Boat Racing


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

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


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

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


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

Three Point Hydroplanes 

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

Cantiere Mostes

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

Ferrari Timossi

The restored Ferrari Timossi Arno XI in the Ferrari Museum.

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


Laura 1 built for Mario Verga by Cantiere Giulio Abbate

Laura 1

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

Tullio Abbate


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

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

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

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

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

tullio-abbate-giro-del-lario number 5

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

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


Logo of the Cantiere Nautico Lucini in Lipomo

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

Count Guido Monzino 

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


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

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

ferrari monzino

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

Star Class Sailing Yachts

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


A Lillia Star Class yacht in action


Star Class specification

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

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

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

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

folli logo

Folli Lariovela logo

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

Where to Visit

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

primatist-b41-28 and Villa balbianello

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

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

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

alfa romeo cars and boats

Hydroplanes in the Alfa Romeo Museum in Rho

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

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


Debra Dolinski with one of her wall studies

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

Pink Sweater

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

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

pink sweater location

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

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

Meeting room and Il Tempio

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

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

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

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

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

Skies, 1979 to 1985

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

sky diary

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

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

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

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

Walls, 1988 to 2018

sui muri

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

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

Mountains, 2018 – 


An example of Debra’s current focus on mountains.

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


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

villa del grumello

Villa del Grumello

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

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

Como RIP 2

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

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

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


Il Tempio

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

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

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

The Contessa Ceiling

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

Contact Information

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

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

Further Information

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

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

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

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True Crime in Como – the Molteni Murder


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

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

The Victim

Alfio Molteni

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

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


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

The Crime

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

The Investigation

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

luigi rugolo

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

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

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

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

The Embittered Wife and her Lover

alberto brivio

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

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

Brivio with defense lawyer Aldo Turconi

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

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

Giovanni Terenghi

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

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

vincenzo scovazzo

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

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

armando rho furniture

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

The Convictions

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

Brivio and Turconi

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

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

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


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

Further Reading

For more true crime on Como Companion try:

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

Lake Como’s Moltrasio Trunk Murder

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Walking Lake Como’s Wayfarer Way

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

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Como’s Changing Lakefront

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

finished lakefront

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

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

plan oct 2018 1

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

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

vasca a

Positive progress can now be seen – July 2021,

Why the Delays?

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

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

Streetscape 2016

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

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

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

The Impact of Delays


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

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

lake blocked

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

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

pietro gilardoni

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

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

July 2017

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

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

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

The Technical Solution


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

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

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

le vasche 2

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

le vasche

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


Paratie Dec 2014

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

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


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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

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