Cantù – The Good, (The Bad) and The Beautiful


Cantù in 1582

Cantù is famous for its master craftsmen and its long tradition of artisan furnishings and cabinet making.  It is the spiritual home of the Brianza-based  furniture industry yet, at only 10 kilometres from Como, remains off the main tourist map. Undoubtedly this would not have been the case if it had only been able to retain its monumental medieval city walls. Fortunately two of its historical gems do remain and those are the Basilica di San Vincenzo and its baptistery shown here on the map as Gaiano or as spelled today, the monumental complex of Galliano. Hopefully this article will convince you of at least two good reasons for visiting modern-day Cantù.


When arriving at the city, head for its main piazza, Piazza Garibaldi, at the top of the hill. Take the tall bell tower of the San Paolo church as your landmark standing  on the northern edge of the piazza with a view over the city. This church was to take over the role as Cantù’s parish church from the Basilica di San Vincenzo when built towards the end of the 11th century.

Piazza Garibaldi

Piazza Garibaldi

On the western side of the square a dominant neo-classical building houses the ‘Permanente Mobili’ – an exhibition space for showing off the work of Cantù’s artisans in the design and production of both classical and contemporary furniture. Students of design should definitely include this exhibition in any itinerary of Milan and its hinterland, particularly if the Permanente is hosting exhibitions like the recent one dedicated to architect and designer Gio Ponti, the architect of Milan’s Pirelli skyscraper. Gio Ponti worked with many of the Cantù artisans to produce the furniture he designed for the Rinascente chain.

Gio Ponti Rinascente

Designed by Gio Ponti for Rinascente, displayed at the Permanente Mobili Cantù

What he and other designers appreciated was not just the quality of the local craftsmanship but the evidence of creativity and imagination in the use of materials and in the application of new production techniques.

artisan marquetry.png

Cantù craftsmanship on display – marquetry topped table, Permanente Mobili Cantù

Cantù’s artisans have a long tradition of maintaining and updating their skills and knowledge thanks to the foresight of ancestors like the town’s mayor from 1881 to 1885, Mosè Arconati. He encouraged local craftsmen to start exhibiting their works in Milan. He set up the Scuola d’Arte that ensured continuity and growth in the design skills needed for both the silk and furniture industries. espo permanente garibaldiHe also established the first co-operatives designed to combine purchasing power and thus acquire the craftsmen’s raw materials at reduced prices. It was this approach that led on to the establishment of the Permanente as a means of marketing the products directly to the public. In the post-war heyday of the sixties and seventies, the exhibition hall would be full of members of the general public, many coming up from Milan at the weekend to view the latest in modern furniture design, as in the work of Gio Ponti’s fellow collaborator, designer Carlo de Carli.


Leather and chrome armchair, by Carlo de Carli 1969, on display at the Permanente Mobili Cantù

With the globalisation of markets, the role of the Permanente as a sales channel has declined significantly in recent years, alongwith the associated services that used to be provided to all active members. However, for the casual visitor, it still offers examples of work by some of the most influential designers of the last century and an ongoing testimony to the skills of Cantù’s local craftsmen. The ground floor exhibition space is dedicated to local furniture makers Emmemobili, whose products go to show how Cantu’s craftsmen’s reputation for quality, innovation and design is still very much evident.

Hubert by Ferruccio Laviani for Emmemobili

‘Hubert’ dresser by Ferruccio Laviani for Emmemobili

(The Bad)

Piazza Garibaldi 2

Legitimate change of management or forced out from Piazza Garibaldi?

(Whilst modern day politicians might well profit from working out how they can best support rather than hinder artisans in competing in the contemporary marketplace, they do also need to pay attention to the ever-present threat to civil life from organised crime. It came as a shock recently when nine members of an ‘ndrangheta mafia clan were arrested in Cantù. Details of these arrests for threats and violence against local bar and club owners in and around Piazza Garibaldi are covered in our update to our article on the Mafia in the North available at this link.)

The Beautiful

Complex exterior

The Monumental Complex of Galliano in Cantù

Let’s turn our attention now to the other glorious reason for visiting this small city – the monumental complex of the Basilica di Galliano. This is a fifteen minute walk from Piazza Garibaldi leading you to the slight hillside rise on top of which sits the Basilica alongside the baptistery. These austere Romanesque structures were started towards the end of the 10th century under the  instructions of Ariberto da Intimiano, who later went on to become Bishop of Milan. The basilica and baptistery were built to replace pre-existing Christian buildings erected in the 5th century on a site that had sacred significance for the Romans from as early as 300 BC.

Basilica Crypt with Madonna della Latte

The Crypt with the Madonna della Latte to the right

The buildings have had a checkered history over their 11 centuries of existence being deconsecrated for a while and falling into use as modest dwellings for farm workers. However, even throughout this period, the local population used to come to pray in front of the image of the ‘Madonna Della Latte’ in the hope that she would bring fertility.

This fresco is from the mid 14th century. However the true artistic treasures are the 11th century frescoes adorning the concave walls of the apse and the two sides of the nave. Needless to say, few 11th century frescoes remain and these also are not in the best of condition. However they are of such a quality that they still carry visual impact and provide a tantalising glimpse into the mindset of those early Christian devotees whose priests and bishops wielded the bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

Basilica Apse

The apse of the Basilica with 11th century frescoes

The Baptistery is pure austere beauty, maybe enhanced for our modern tastes by the simple whitewashed walls that contrast with the bare stone facades.  It is an intimate space which focusses all eyes towards the central font and to its one and only purpose.

Baptistry Interior 4

The Baptistery of Saint John


Fresco of Ariberto presenting a model of his basilica

As you walk around this complex, you can view out towards the Alps on the northern horizon. The location conveys an indescribable sense of calm and serenity. It is no surprise that it has performed some form of spiritual function from Roman times, and possibly even earlier. This sense of calm persists even though the town has grown around the Basilica. Ariberto intended it as a gift of spirituality and artistic excellence to both God and his patrons. It has now passed through all the vicissitudes of eleven centuries to become a gift for us to enjoy – well worth the visit to Cantù!


Basilica di Galliano

Many more photos of the Basilica are available in our Photo Gallery.

A more detailed description of the interior and history of the Basilica and Baptistery is available from Wikipedia but there is also an excellent brochure in three languages available at the site published by Iubilantes.

Opening times: Summer (April to September) Closed Monday, Tuesday to Friday 15.00-18.00, Saturday and Sunday 09.30-11.30 and 15.00-18.00. Winter (October to March) as during the summer but it closes an hour earlier in the evening.

Permanenza Mobili

The Permanenza Mobili’s exhibition halls are open from Monday to Friday all day but closed over lunch, and on Saturdays in the morning only.

Follow this link for the Permanente’s website.

Follow this link for Emmemobili’s website.

Much of the production from Cantù’s artisans is done on behalf of the many design houses based in Brianza such as Poltrona Frau or Emmemobili. However you can contact some of the workshops directly if you wish to commission your own made to measure pieces, for example kitchen or bathroom furnishings. The following three websites are intended just to give an idea of the skills available. I can personally recommend the work of Colombo Giovanni, a family run carpentry business linked to a consortium of other artisan workshops to provide complete solutions including design.  Other sites are Boiserie Italia, and another Colombo, the Fratelli Colombo.

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Streetscape 6  – Facing a Credibility Crisis?


Como is currently hosting the 6th edition of the street and urban festival called Streetscape – a total of 10 (+1) installations are dotted around or just outside the old town. Well established in its 6th year, Streetscape now forms part of the changing seasonal agenda when the city shifts focus from the lake attractions of high summer to a more cerebral celebration of its urban structure in autumn. This year Streetscape runs from mid-October until 19th November, coinciding partially with another art/technology event, the 8208 Lighting Design Festival, which also consists of art installations dotted around the town. Whilst the Lighting Design installations can only be appreciated after nightfall, Streetscape is ideal for those looking for a good reason for walking around the old town during the day. Just pick up a copy of the exhibition’s brochure, unfold it and follow the map! Last year I was unable to track down at least two of the art works. This year I have found all of them except the one flagged as being in Via Petrarca.


The Great Wave by Mr. Savethewall, on the wall of the Caffe dei Viaggatori , Via Giovio 13

However I did discover the +1 unlisted in the brochure which officially is unattributed but has the hallmark of Como’s resident street artist and polemicist – Mr. Savethewall. Full details of this work are available on the Facebook site of Pierpaolo Perretta  – aka Mr. Savethewall. (Follow this link for CC’s recent interview with Mr. Savethewall). ‘The Great Wave’ has all the characteristics of a Savethewall classic, namely ambiguity, iconic referencing to other artworks and cultures, political polemics and social awareness.


Dicotomania by Alberonero in the courtyard of the Biblioteca Civile.

Viewing art seems by necessity to include a degree of personal evaluation ranging from emotional or aesthetic  impact leading possibly on to personal interpretations of ‘meaning’.  Part of this process for street art may well include considering how the work fits into its urban setting.  For example the work by Alberonero entitled ‘Dicotomia’ is described as ‘using squares as a means of pure expression of single colours chosen to reproduce the modularity of the architectural elements present on the site’. If this is the case, are we left to judge the work negatively if we don’t ‘get it’?


Spiderman by Domenico Pellegrino at Via Volpi 1.

One work whose setting most definitely sparked off a lot of consecutive thoughts for me was ‘Spiderman’ in Via Volpi. I loved the contrast between the domestic scale of its Como location to the original Marvel Comic habitat of its superhero antagonists. And it prompted a warm glow of affection for the human scale and warm colours of this Como environment compared with the distopian vision of Gotham City or wherever it is that Spiderman normally hangs out.


Hoarding in Via Castelnuovo by Waone

One challenge for the curators of an exhibition of this sort must be balancing the needs for security with the sometimes conflicting need for free access. After all, the nature of street art is something freely available to all, to be enjoyed almost accidentally and accessed with the minimum of restriction. But these are works by professional artists who may not take kindly to public modification or outright vandalism of their work. Maybe the one work from a well-established artist which manages to maintain all its street credentials including spatial impact without the need for additional security is the work by Ukrainian street artist Waone on Via Castelnuovo. Installed as an advertising hoarding on a nondescript section of dual carriageway on the periphery of the old town, this is a truly accidental treasure for those who come across It – a gem of fantasy to brighten the day of those driving to and from work on this stretch of road which offers little else in the way of visual stimulation.


Work by Andrea Fiorino installed in the old greenhouse, Piazza Martinelli


Work by Francesco Diluca, Museo Archeologico

Unfortunately the need for security has in most other instances driven the installations behind railings or within the secured grounds of the art gallery or Civic Museum.

If your art is installed behind railings, it should preferably be two dimensional and bright – as is the case with Andrea Fiorino’s work behind the railings of the old greenhouse in Piazza Martinelli. Last year’s installation in this spot was two dimensional but not colourful and so had the impact of a dirty rag slung across a clothes line.

You can also look through the railings of the Museo Archeologico to view Francesco Diluca’s work in the museum’s courtyard but do try to go inside to view this sculpture in the round so as fully to appreciate it.


Work by Icio Borghi under the portico of the Chiostrino Artificio

Icio Borghi’s work in cardboard is safely installed within the Chiostrino Artificio under the portico thus protected from the elements. Here the restrictions on access (only visible when the Chiostrino is open) are of less importance than the fact that the artwork is upstaged by the charm and beauty of its setting. The Chiostrino is a glorious architectural gem worth visiting at any time or for any reason.


Filippo Borella at the Pinacoteca

Security gets even more severe to the point of paranoia at the Pinacoteca where Filippo Borella’s wooden sculptures are not just accessed within the inner courtyard of the art gallery but in addition close contact is barred by a security tape as used to partition off crime scenes. The sanctity of their display area was also reinforced by the lady on reception warning me to respect the taped-off ‘scene of the crime’.

However the ultimate security arrangements are reserved for Nei Alberti’s piece entitled ‘I.C.’ for Italia Como dislocated from below the Broletto. This work has been removed ostensibly due to problems of bad weather and has been replaced by a photograph of the original installation. This goes beyond irony .


A photo of the photo of the uninstalled installation by Nei Alberti under the Broletto.

Yet perhaps I am not being fair in making fun of the security conscious curators particularly when considering the installation on the stone wall of Como’s Lago railway station. This installation consists of a variety of shoes stuck to the wall to make the word GO. Some of these shoes have already either fallen or been taken from their setting – thus underlining the fragility of art put before the masses, or the need for some people to match up a much-loved but singular shoe.


Work by Urbansolid, Como Lago Station

Fears of vandalism seem not however to have afflicted the curators of the 8208 Lighting Design installations. This urban exhibition went live on Friday 4th November and runs until the 27th November with 6 different works to be seen. These also offer a good excuse for walking around the city although obviously after dark. Two of the installations are in the Giardini di Tempio Voltiano, and at Porto Torre, Molo di Sant’ Agostino, Via Pretorio and finally at the Villa Bernasconi in Cernobbio. ‘Horizontal Interference’ by Kasjo Studio is also interesting enough during the day without artificial light!


Horizontal Interference, by Kasjo Studio – part of 8208 Lighting Design Festival.

The Comune di Como is to be congratulated for their imagination in supporting these urban art initiatives but maybe the Streetscape curators need to be just a little less risk averse when seeking to protect the authenticity of their artists’ works.

pinacoteca light festival.pngAfter all, Street Art should by definition be open to public modification yet as it too assumes ever increasing commercial value, its authenticity requires greater protection which in turn causes it to become ‘gallery art placed outside’. Street artists need to be prepared in the manner of Mr. Savethewall,  to have their art modified, vandalised or even removed as the price to be paid for true street credibility.


Streetscape 6 runs until the 19th November. The 8208 Lighting Design Festival consists of the 6 installations around town, an exhibition at the Pinacoteca Civile named ‘Black Light Art’ and a number of other events. Details are available on their website.

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The Poetry and Joy of Urban Portraiture – Adriano Caverzasio

If you aim to impart joy through your art, you best do it with a big smile – just like Adriano Caverzasio’s when I met him recently! And, if your art is intended to bring pleasure to all ages, how much better it is when the company of the artist himself gives as much pleasure as his artistic output. For it was certainly a great pleasure for me when I interviewed him during his exhibition entitled ‘Visioni Arbitrarie’ at the gallery of San Pietro in Atrio on Via Odescalchi.


Adriano Caverzasio alongside two of his studies of the Asilo Sant’Elia designed by Giuseppe Terragni.

This exhibition was mainly but not entirely devoted to his study of some of the iconic buildings in Como, treated in either two or three dimensions. It also included portraiture with a series of some of the most influential artists from the 1900’s.

Adriano explained the importance of some of these artistic figures to me later in the interview but I wanted to start by understanding more about his interest in architecture.

heroes 1

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Ritratti’ 2017, Acrylics on chipboard. From left to right:  Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keefe and Sergio Giacometti


AC: More than anything else, I have borrowed from architecture so as to do my own thing. In the way children seek to dismantle their toys to find out how they work or are put together, I have sought to do the same with architecture. I pull things apart to get rid of the austerity and to uncover the soul or heart of a construction. I do the same with my portraits – I want to see what’s inside the subject – to bring out the most simple, pure, clear aspects.

Adriano has developed a very singular way of representing architecture to render the ‘spirit’ of the individual constructions visible and appreciable within the limits of a picture frame.


Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como ‘Novocomum 1’’ 2017, Acrylics on canvas. Based on the building designed by Giuseppe Terragni.

These studies are examples of urban landscapes but given a very distinctive treatment; such that the pictorial or sculptural art form that arises adds to the appreciation of the architecture that originally inspired it. So his art has impact – the images or sculptures have their own identity and cohesion but they also convey an appraisal of the original structures. Perhaps it may be best to describe these studies not as urban landscape but as urban portraiture given Adriano’s purpose in seeking to make evident the ‘soul’ or inner spirit of the buildings.

teatro sociale

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como ‘Teatro Sociale’’ 2017, Acrylics on canvas

For those of us who have lived in or visited Como, many of Adriano’s architectural subjects are well known. Como has a rich heritage of architecture ranging from the original Roman fortifications, through to the renaissance villas, neo-classicism, art nouveau and then more recently, international renown for the rationalist masterpieces of Terragni and others, inspired by the designs of the visionary modernist, Antonio Sant’Elia. Given this local patrimony, it is maybe not surprising that Adriano, born and raised in Como, would have reflected on it at some time during his artistic career.

Tempio voltiano

Tempio Voltiano, designed by Federico Frigerio in 1927.

Most of the architectural studies in this exhibition were of neo-classical buildings, such as the Teatro Sociale or the Tempio Voltiano, or the works of Giuseppe Terragni. The Tempio Voltiano was designed by a contemporary of Terragni’s, Federico Frigerio, who represented the traditional eclectic school of architecture that was prevalent before the rationalists and modernism gained influence. The two best-known architects working in Como in the first part of the 1900s, Terragni and Frigerio, could not have been more different in style. This difference has led some to take sides in a rather fruitless debate as to who may have been the ‘better’ architect. Adriano was not going to enter into any polemic on this.

Casa del Fascio Actual

Casa del Fascio designed by Giuseppe Terragni in 1932

AC: No, the point is they were just different. Terragni was following the revolutionary principles of the Bauhaus. He was designing for simplicity and purity. Frigerio instead was continuing the established neo-classical and Liberty styles and doing it very well – but his was a style designed to display luxury. Rationalism however was born out of the idea of providing stylish housing for a less rich class of person. To keep costs down, they designed out all superfluous elements so as to arrive at the heart of the building. It is that ‘heart’ which interests me.


Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como ‘Transatlantico’’ 2017, Acrylics on canvas. White building designed by Giuseppe Terragni attached to a building in the eclectic style on Via Rosselli.

The portrayal of the Transatlantico, also known as the Casa Giuliani Frigerio, seemed to me at least to reveal a preference for the clean lines of the rationalist design compared to what is depicted as the barely distinguishable planes of the building fronting onto Via Rosselli.

AC: I have developed a deconstruction/reconstruction technique to get to the core of an architectural structure. I deconstruct the static shape by dividing the design into different zones and then give each zone its own supporting planes and its own perspective. I then ‘reconstruct’ by hanging these different zones together again, to create a feeling of depth.

This little snippet on technique was delivered quickly as if wanting to move on to the more important aspect as to why the technique is deployed – and the answer to that was in the sub-heading to his brochure – poetry. ‘There’s a danger of losing the poetry if you stay too focussed on the technique,’ he stated.

Azilo Sant Elia Actual

 Asilo Sant’Elia designed by Giuseppe Terragni in 1935.

With all this talk of architecture, Adriano wanted to point out that this recent exhibition was merely a reflection of current work and not representative of all his areas of interest. He remarked on how figurative art and architecture used to be taught locally within the same institution, the Brera Academy of Art in Milan, up until the 1930s when both disciplines borrowed freely from each other as he has done. Yet this was the third of his exhibitions to have been held during his career in San Pietro in Atrio, with each one having a different thematic focus. This mention of the Brera in Milan and the development of his art led me to ask about his own artistic education and training.

Madonna by Torildo Conconi

 Apparition of the Madonna di Caravaggio , wall painting by Torildo Conconi

AC: I qualified originally in Industrial Art here in Como and then followed a series of courses as a student of Torildo Conconi – a famous Lombardian artist. Then I worked as a furniture and textile designer until I went full-time as a professional artist in 2003. I was then finally able to realise my dream. I had my first exhibition here in 2005 but being able to dedicate myself fulltime to my painting and sculpture has since allowed me to make faster progress – and of course, scope to make the occasional mistake!

On a first visit to the recent exhibition, I had the impression that many of the paintings were monochromatic and I wandered if this was possibly due to rationalist architects not dealing in many colours other than white. Adriano’s response prompted me to pay closer attention!

AC: It’s not true to say they are all monochromatic – it depends. For example my paintings of the Teatro Sociale (see above) and Frigerio’s Tempio Voltiano are. That’s because it would seem strange to me to depict them with a celestial blue sky or an emerald green lawn. Instead I want to keep the viewer’s focus on the main subject of the painting – without distraction. You’ll see that other paintings do have more colour. It depends on each situation.

asilo sant elia

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como – Asilo Sant’Elia 5’’ 2017, Acrylics on canvas.

This one for example (pointing to his painting ‘Como –Asilo Sant’Elia 5’ shown above) is achromatic because there’s a night-time sky but with the school in daylight creating a surrealistic effect. What I look for are simple visual effects which will not distract so I will use colour if it helps achieve that.


The brochure to the exhibition entitled ‘Arbitrary Poetry’ stated that Adriano, in executing his designs, functioned without ‘premeditation’. This statement seemed to need some clarity so I was keen to understand what was this ‘arbitrariness’.

AC: It means that I am primarily guided by instinct; although for each project there is an initial period of research and reflection on how I might deconstruct and restructure my work. But after this, I allow myself to be guided by my own sensibility or instinct. I don’t like to do much prior calculation. When you think too much, you can end up just confusing yourself. I prefer if forms take shape naturally.

war memorial

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como ‘Monumento ai Caduti 2’’ 2017, Acrylics on canvas. 

My art is not conceptual – for me conceptual art is more like literature – mine is visual. I took inspiration from a group of Italian artists working in the 1970s who called themselves the ‘Transavanguardia’.

The Wikipedia summary of this movement states:

(they)…. responded to the explosion of conceptual art which found many mediums of expression, by reviving painting and reintroducing emotion―especially joy―back into drawing, painting and sculpture.[4] Transavantgarde marked a return to figurative art, as well as mythic imagery, which was rediscovered during the height of the movement.[5] The artists revived figurative art and symbolism, which were less frequently used in movements after World War II like minimalism. The principal transavantgarde artists were Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria and Mimmo Paladino.

Adriano was later to use the word ‘joy’ himself when summarising the impact he sought from his works.

Displayed at the back of the hall was the series of semi life-sized portraits of leading 20th century artists mentioned at the start of this article. Whilst these are not necessarily Adriano’s heroes, they do represent for him the major influences in pictorial art over the last century. They are Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, Sergio Giacometti, Mario Schifano and Keith Haring. As elsewhere during my interview with Adriano, I found myself learning from him – here it was from his insights into these artists. I am particularly grateful for the attention he placed on Duchamp, Haring, O’Keefe and Schifano since they were previously little known to me. When reading about  Giacometti, who was brought up in the nearby Swiss canton of Ticino, I came across this quote from him which might also serve as an insight into Adriano’s work. When asked how he came to sculpt his emaciated elongated human forms, he stated:

‘Figures were never a compact mass but like a transparent construction.’

Asilo Sant'Elia transparency

Transparency at the  Asilo Sant’Elia designed by Giuseppe Terragni.

I think the same could be said about how Adriano sees his architectural studies, of course aided by the rationalists’ own desire to maximise transparency as in the examples of the Casa del Fascio and the Asilo Sant’Elia.

The other way that Adriano has explored representing the soul of a building is through his sculpture which consists mainly of three dimensional artworks within a picture frame.

casa del fascio from the side

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como – Architettura’ 2013′, sculpture from treated wood.  Side view.

Just by adding 20 centimetres of depth to his works, the viewer enters into the shadows and spaces that are opened up. He himself had previously defined architecture as being a concrete art creating spaces you see from the outside which you can then enter and occupy. Pictorial art instead is made to contribute to or compliment the spaces we live in. His sculptures offer a more enhanced three dimensionality in order to convey the essence of these spaces we can normally enter. I have tried to capture the effect of this depth by taking side view photos of the sculptures.

Reaction to architecture must of course be personal but I have found that buildings in Como like the Casa del Fascio or the Asilo Sant’Elia give me an intense visual pleasure when I see them.

teatro sociale sideview

Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Como ‘Teatro Sociale 2’’, 2017, Sculpture with treated wood. Side view.

There is no need necessarily to stop and analyse why that might be – but my guess is that it is down to the very qualities that Adriano is also seeking in his works, namely purity, clarity and simplicity achieved through perfected proportions in the treatment of space. Adriano has managed to encapsulate and represent that nebulous ‘spirit’ within these perfectly proportioned buildings and represented it in microcosm in a different form of visual experience – not as space itself but as a pictorial compliment to space. And just as with the artists of the transavanguardia, he hopes this will above all convey a spirit of poetry and joy. He hopes we will view his works with the same uncomplicated pleasure of children as they perceive and explore the world around them. His exhibition certainly gave me a sense of joy only matched by the pleasure of listening to his explanation of it.


Adriano Caverzasio, ‘Portrait’ 2017 Acrylics on canvas.

For those of you not prepared to wait until Adriano holds his next exhibition in San Pietro in Atrio, he is always delighted to receive visitors in his studio if they call in advance to arrange their visit. The studio is right by the ‘Er Piu’ restaurant in Via Castellini 17. His telephone numbers are +39 031 267454 or mobile +39 340 3076881.  His website is

For details of art exhibitions in and around Como, check out our Exhibition listings on this blog or refer to the official Como newsletter.

For more information about Antonio Sant’Elia, check out our blog post entitled ‘Como’s Internationally Renowned Urban Visionary’.


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Cortesella – The Mythical Heart of Old Como

As Les Halles was to Paris or Seven Dials to London, so was the Cortesella to Como – the lost heart of the old town. The Cortesella (named after Via Cortesella) was a warren of narrow streets and alleyways to the south of Via Fontana running from Piazza Volta to Piazza Cavour and north of Via Muralto. It used to provide a tortuous route through to Piazza Cavour which was Como’s port until built over in 1869. At its centre was the church of San Nazaro built on the site of a roman basilica and supposedly housing a splinter from the cross as well as a tooth of St.Andrew’s.

Over time the district deteriorated as the buildings became ever more chaotic, the population ever denser, and the sanitation and services ever less adequate. Plans for its redevelopment were made from as early on as 1840. Further plans were put forward in 1891 and 1910 but nothing was actually done until demolition began in 1938 and ended finally in 1946.

piazza cavour

Piazza Cavour today looking east – Cortesella was to the south west of the piazza.

Yet as with Les Halles and other colourful inner city districts, the reasons for redevelopment were numerous. The primary motive was financial. Cortesella lay beside the wealthiest part of the old town alongside Piazza Duomo and so redevelopers were more than willing to invest in the project. Secondly the area had become anarchic in the eyes of the fascist regime which was paranoid about social control and the opportunities the area provided for ‘clandestine’ meetings in its maze of streets.

via vittani 2

Via Vittani, an extension of the Cortesella that still survives showing the Osteria del Gallo which unfortunately is not necessarily the site of the Osteria del Cervo

After all, it was already home to the irrepressible socialist barber Ercole Bianchi whose waiting clients in his hair salon had ample opportunity to bad-mouth the authorities. Ercole later moved his salon just out of the Cortesella into nearby Via Vittani which had a reputation as ‘off-limits’ to the authorities going back to the French Revolution when its Osteria del Cervo was known as a coven for Jacobins.

Additionally the area was increasingly seen as an affront to public decency housing at least three brothels or as they are euphemistically called ‘case di tolleranza’. And from an urban planning perspective, there was a need to open up north-south access to Piazza Cavour and the lakeside.

The left hand map is a detail of Como circa 1850 – note the curved outline to the Cortesella district leading some to suggest it was built around a former Roman arena. Piazza Cavour was still Como’s port until 1869. The right hand map shows the 1938 renewal plan. The dotted line is the boundary of the redevelopment area. The black outline identifies original facades to be maintained. The red outlines new construction e.g. Banca d’Italia superimposed on the Church of San Nazaro.

macelleria pubblica cortesella

Cortesella’s Macello Pubblico built in 1716 as the town’s meat market.

Yet, as with Les Halles, the demolition of the old quarter has provoked growing nostalgia for this lost popular district – for its spirit of independence, its transgressive atmosphere and for its lost architectural gems. Those gems included the 12th century villa of the Corticella family which collapsed ‘spontaneously’ during the demolition, the 13th century Casa Vietti which was initially saved from demolition but, with financial interests pushing for a blank canvas for redevelopment, was set on fire with only a few columns from the loggia and courtyard saved and now stored ignominiously in the cellars of the Civic Museum. Additionally the communal slaughter house and meat market, built in 1716, was destroyed. This was originally built to do away with all the individual butchers in the area and improve hygiene. The meat market existed in this building until the end of the 19th century when it turned to selling fish and vegetables.

cortesella mcelleria pubblica Vasconi 1928

Cortesella’s flood in 1928 with the Macello Pubblico on the right. Vasconi 






cortesella 2

Via Juvara, behind the Banca d’Italia where San Nazaro once stood – a modern glimpse of the old quarter.

The church of San Nazaro was destroyed but its interior fittings were reused in the modern church built in the outer district of Lora in 1938, the Chiesa of Santi Simone, Giuda e Andrea. Presumably the splinter from the cross and the St. Andrew tooth were transferred as well. The loss of this architectural heritage occurred in spite of the efforts of Como’s two most renowned architects, the rationalist Giuseppe Terragni and the mannerist Federico Frigerio.


Over time our attitudes towards conservation have become more favourable and no doubt the council’s outright rejection of Terragni’s plan to incorporate the courtyard of the Casa Vietti within his modernist structures would not happen today.

banca d'italia

Banca d’Italia built in 1950

Whilst old Les Halles has been immortalised in the works of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and others, and Seven Dials by Charles Dickens, old Cortesella has instead been immortalised on film (now safely digitised and available to all on YouTube thanks to Nodo Libri). Nodo Libri safeguarded their copy of a documentary made before and during the demolition works by Ico Parisi, a Comascan designer.

cortesella 4

The AXA Building, Via Boldoni and the corner of Piazza Perretta.

The state sponsors of the film have managed to lose both the original and any of the copies entrusted to them. It is a silent black and white work with occasional losses of quality but very well worth watching for the everyday life it captures and for its skillful cinematography. It was intended originally to be a ‘before and after’ study providing propaganda for this major urban renewal project. However only the first part was completed and its effect seems to be totally opposite to that intended. It conjures up a way of life lost in the past, victim to the redevelopment goals of a paranoid police state. Scenes of the fascist military hierarchy staging their involvement in the demolition with delicate strokes of their pickaxes reveals if unwittingly the arrogance of power. Even if possibly unintended, this film ensures the immortality of the quarter and the ongoing transition of the Cortesella from living memory through nostalgia and into myth.

cortesella terragni project

Terragni and the CM8’s  initial non compromising redevelopment plan 

Sources of Information

The following sources of information were used for this article:

  1. Vasconi photographs. Three generations of photographers and an archive of images of Como and the lake.
  2. A collection of old images and illustrations.
  3. JSC – Nodo Libri. Nodo Libri is a local publishing house and an invaluable source of historical and cultural information about Como. The site is in Italian.
  4. Politecnico di Milano. The Politecnico has published a series of articles in English about the development of Como’s old town.


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Quick Walks out of Como 2: Parco Spina Verde

This post has now been moved to Quick Walks out of Como 2: Parco Spina Verde

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Quick Walks out of Como 1. San Donato – Garzola

This post has now been moved to Quick Walks out of Como 1: San Donato – Garzola

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Como to Montorfano for Wild Swimming

This post has now been moved to Como to Montorfano for Wild Swimming


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Myth and Reality: Lake Monsters and Political Scandal

A piece of real ‘fake news’ turned up the other day in the local newspapers – a sighting of a prehistoric monster in the grounds of the long defunct textile factory, Ticosa, on the edge of Como’s historical centre. Regular readers of this blog will quickly be able to place the authorship of this fakery at the doors of our friend, Pierpaolo Perretta aka Mr. Savethewall, in his role as social activist.

False sighting

©Pierpaolo Perretta

Whilst it is of course disappointing that neither CNN nor the BBC actually troubled themselves to report on the presumed re-emergence of a mythical prehistoric creature, we can hardly blame their incredulity – is there really a monster in Como to rival that in Loch Ness? Could it really survive in the asbestos-contaminated grounds of this blighted ex-industrial site where all proposals put forward to develop it since the plant’s closure in the 1980s have come to nothing? Is this another Como mystery to rival that of Mussolini’s treasure lost at Dongo? Let’s look a little closer.

Leaving aside the Ticosa scandal for now (it has in any case still got many years to run), what about Como’s lake monster? Mr. Savethewall envisaged the re-emergence of ‘Lariosaurus’, and there is a local myth of a lake monster of that name. Whilst Lariosaurus, or ‘Larrie’ for short cannot match the notoriety of his/her more famous Scottish relative, ‘Nessie’, he or she can claim a series of sightings since the end of the last war.


Nessie can trace her source back to the sixth century AD but interest in the modern era started in the 1930s.  First sightings for ‘Larrie’ were reported in the 19th century but modern-day interest started in 1946 when the local newspaper at the time, the ‘Corriere Comasco’, reported a sighting in the waters off the Pian di Spagna at the top end of the lake. In 1954 the myth was reinforced by the apparent sighting by fishermen of an 80cm long creature with rounded beak, tail and flippers off the coast of Argegno. 1957 saw a creature of similar size resurface between Dongo and Musso and the sighting was apparently confirmed by scientists who explored the area as a follow-up in a submersible. They described ‘Larrie’ as being a large (up to a metre long) crocodile-like creature. The last sighting was in 2003 when fishermen off the coast of Lecco reported seeing a 10 metre long tapered creature resembling a massive eel.

Palazzo Belgoioso

Lecco’s Museo di Storia Naturale in the Palazzo Belgioioso where fossilised remains of Lariosaurus Balsamo are exhibited.

Whilst Nessie is much better known than Larrie, there is a greater reality behind the latter’s myth since a creature called Lariosaurus did exist in the Lake Como area but over 200 million years ago in the mid-Triassic age, older therefore than the dinosaurs. The first fossil was unearthed at Perledo, just inland from Varenna, by zoologist Giuseppe Balsamo Crivelli in 1830. He named the creature Lariosaurus Balsamo incorporating his second name and the Latin name for Lake Como, Lario. Further fossilised Lariosaurus Balsami were discovered in Lierna in the 1930s (on the eastern shore of the Lecco leg opposite Limonta).

These remains are now exhibited in the Museo di Storia Naturale di Lecco in the Palazzo Belgioioso in a room dedicated to them. Lariosaurus was a carnivore growing up to about 120cm in length with paddle-like front feet. It lived on the marshy fringes of the ocean adapted to both land and water.

Lierna and Varenna

Looking out on the Lecco leg of Lake Como from Limonta towards Varenna and Lierna

So, is there the possibility that, as plate tectonics shaped the world’s continents, Lariosaurus became trapped inland and evolved to live in Lake Como’s deep fresh water? Lake Como is certainly deep enough to hide a reticent lake monster throughout the millenia.

lake profile 2

It is 410 metres deep, one of the deepest in Europe and twice the depth of Loch Ness. However the city of Como itself is about 200 metres above sea level which means that the bottom of the lake is more than 200 metres below sea level which requires some explanation particularly when the profile of the lake reveals a V formation meaning that its valley was created originally by flowing water (a river) rather than through later glaciation. And rivers do not flow below sea level. The answer to this lies 50 million years back in time well after Lariosaurus when the Mediterranean sea was closed off from the Atlantic as land masses closed the current Straits of Gibraltar. Most of the sea then evaporated revealing a land mass well below the level of the oceans allowing the rivers flowing from the Alps to cut valleys down below current sea levels.

mediterranean 50 mill years

The precursor of the River Po runs down from white capped Alps into a long valley extending the length of the Adriatic Sea (The Mediterranean 50 million years ago)

So how realistic are the chances that Lariosaurus managed to adapt from its Triassic saltmarsh environment to live on the banks of a fast flowing river, and then through a prolonged period of ice cap and glaciation before finally evolving into a deep fresh water monster or even an inhabitant of a brownfield ex-industrial park?

Let’s take final stock of myth and reality behind this story.

Myth: ‘Larrie’ did not reappear recently in the grounds of the ex-Ticosa factory.

Reality: The ‘Larrie’ apparently seen off the Pian di Spagna, Argegno and Dongo did fit the description of the ancient Lariosaurus Balsamo but its evolutionary survival from the Triassic age is totally improbable.

Myth: The ’Larrie’ of 10 metres long seen in 2003 by fishermen off the coast at Lecco is most likely  the result of alcohol-fuelled group hysteria.

Reality: Lariosaurus Balsamo existed up to 200 million years ago on the continental shelf of the massive single land mass known as Pangea and the fossil remains from that time, found at Varenna and Lierna, are on display at Lecco’s Museo di Storia Naturale. The proof of its existence is on our doorstep. (Other fossilised exemplars are to be found in museums in the USA and Munich, Germany).

Myth: Any further possible sitings of ‘Larrie’.

Reality: The ex-Ticosa scandal.

Lariosaurus drawings

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Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina

This post has now been moved to Intrepid Exploration: Brienno to Laglio on the Via Regina


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Como Silk – Memoirs of a Textile Designer

Como has been a tourist destination from the days of the Grand Tour but it maintains equal significance as a centre for silk production. Current visitors to Como might think that the silk industry is a thing of the past given the number of its industrial archaeological sites.
villa bernasconi

Villa Bernasconi, Cernobbio – Liberty masterpiece built for Davide Bernasconi, founder of the largest textile plant in Italy.

Grand brick chimneys still stand proud from Cernobbio to Sant’Abbondio although no longer linked to the steam engines driving the mechanical looms. Even the presence of the silk museum suggests an activity assigned to the past. Apart from a couple of silk retailers, Como’s centre does not accurately reflect the current state of its industrial heritage. The industry is still here but now housed in factories freed up from the need to be close to the rivers and torrents running down from the mountains to provide power. They prefer to be located with easy links via motorway and airport to suppliers and customers that span the world. They occupy locations like Grandate or Guanzate where few tourists are likely to venture unless of course they are astute enough to be seeking out the factories’ cheap retail outlets.

For sure, the heyday of the industry has passed. All industries face the challenge of change whether technical, social or economic and none more so than Como’s silk industry which has over the years lost some of its scale and importance. Yet it has also secured a niche in the global market for printing and finishing high quality products for many of the leading fashion houses. Today the silk industry is either as economically important or arguably more so than the tourism inherited from the Grand Tour.

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The silk worm and the all-important mulberry tree were first introduced to Lombardy by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in the sixteenth century. All phases in silk production grew during the eighteenth century but the true phase of industrialisation was in the mid nineteenth century and was characterised in Como by a high degree of specialist separation of the different phases of production. Spinning of the yarn from the silk worm cocoons was, for example, more prevalent in the neighbouring province of Lecco and in Brianza. However that meant that Como gained prevalence in all the other phases of production such as colour dyeing, weaving, screen printing and all forms of finishing. Most of the company names from the first wave of industrialisation have gone but some of those set up in the twentieth century are still going strong such as Ratti, Mantero, Clerici, Verga and Bianchi.
Ratti factory Guanzate

Ratti factory, Guanzate

These are the companies that actually produce many of the products from the famous fashion houses such as Chanel or Dior. Key in establishing this predominant lead in the industry was the far-sighted vision of the early industrialists when in 1866 they set up a technical school for developing industry-specific expertise  – the so-called ‘Istituto Tecnico Industriale di Setificio di Como’ The school now exists both as a scientific ‘liceo’ and as a technical institute meaning that Como continues to maintain a high level of local expertise and specialist knowledge with three quarters of its students going on to  work in the silk industry either locally or world-wide.

Made in Como

The glory days for the industry were after the Second World War leading up to the 1990’s, now recognised as the heyday of production and known locally as the ‘anni d’oro’ when Como named itself the ‘città della seta’. Since then the pace of those three key aspects of change has transformed the industry. Globalisation has now seen the transfer of almost all spinning and much weaving activity away from Lombardy to India and China where costs are lower. Fashion continues to change the demand for certain products – how many of us men now regularly wear a tie? And technology, in particular computerisation, has changed all aspects of production with particular impact on fabric printing. Yet in spite of that, Como’s silk producers like Ratti, Mantero and Clerici have survived and thrive thanks to a focus on quality, creativity and skill.
mantero hq

Mantero’s headquaters on Via Volta, Como

It was also in the 1990s that local artist Irma Kennaway moved from Paris to Florence and then to Como to take up a post as a textile designer for Mantero S.p.A. She was here during those ‘anni d’oro’ when she also experienced the massive changes and challenges brought about by digitalisation. Having our own English-speaking expat as an active witness to those critical years was too good an opportunity for me to miss. I had to return to her home in Brunate where I had first interviewed her about her art (see Ice Cream and Vespas) to record her testimony of that crucial period.
IK: We worked in a huge design room at Mantero’s offices under the benign gaze of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio- a big airy room for 10 designers each with our own table and with a massive library of books we could consult. All that has now changed.
sant abbondio

‘Under the benign gaze of Sant’Abbondio…’

Top world designers came to Mantero. Some of the French houses included Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Ungaro and Chanel – Chanel was quite a story; we were hand painting our designs, scanning them on the photocopier then cutting out photocopies to make variants on each single design. For just one scarf we might well have had to produce up to twenty different variants. We might spend up to 2 or 3 days with piles of photocopies. We could well end up sticking 20 or 30 photocopies of separate design elements together to save cutting time but we still got callouses! The amount of paper going through our photocopier was vast and all 10 of us designers were queuing up to use it.
When we hand painted a design we often had to get out the hairdryer to dry off the designs in time for the courier to collect them for overnight delivery to Paris. We had huge Fedex bills and God forbid if a design got lost. All of that has completely changed – now designs are just sent over as an email attachment in seconds.
Pashmina Hand Painted

Hand-painted pashmina, Irma Kennaway

CC: Which Fashion Houses came to Mantero?
From the UK some fashion houses included Liberty, Aquascutum and Harrods. Then from the USA there was Judith Leiber, Ralph Lauren, and Diane Von Furstenberg. Which of us designers designed a scarf depended on the type of design required. For example, if the brief was for intricate detailed designs for Dior, then they would choose Fulvio who was incredibly precise. When YSL wanted big, bold and colourful, they asked for me. It was great working there – we had a marvelous sense of comradeship and there was no stepping on each other’s toes as we pulled together as a team.

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But by the end of the 90s we were moved into a small dark room – the big design room was almost empty and now we were sat in front of screens designing on the computer. It was quite depressing. Today you have people working on computers but not necessarily in a darkened room! There are still a few people just hand painting their designs, these then get scanned and processed on the computer using Photoshop.
mulberry tree

Como’s Museo della Seta, on Via Castelnuovo, with its mulberry trees

The really big change, where a lot of people lost their jobs, is in the area of screen printing which worked through colour separation. The engravers or ‘incisori’ had to make separate transparent sheets for each colour which then were layered on each other. That skill has now almost entirely gone. The ‘incisori’ had to know how to draw and to draw precisely but now it’s all done on the computer. Screen printing is becoming increasingly replaced by ink jet printing. Ink jet is like a huge plotter where the design is fed in via a CD or directly from a computer alongside the kilometres of fabric to be printed.

screen printing ticosa

Screen printing, Ticosa factory 1920s

So what do you do with all the screens? It was a huge problem for Mantero. They took up a lot of warehouse space and the nylon meshes would deteriorate over the years. They had to be kept in the dark. Companies like Liberty had evergreen designs, meaning they would be reprinted every year. But after ten to fifteen years they would have to remake the screens. That would be quite costly.  In the factory one could see the computer controlled mixing up of colours which were then poured manually onto the screens. There is an art in judging how much ink to pour onto the screen.’
The spinning of silk yarn is no longer done in Como. There is an excellent on-line ‘virtual’ museum in English or with sub-titled video extracts recounting  the experiences of those working in the spinning factories of Lecco at this link. Much of the information there is also on show at the Abegg Silk Museum in Garlate, just outside of Lecco.
Abegg silk museum

The Abegg Silk Museum in Garlate, near to Lecco.

The Museo di Seta at Como does however have three mulberry trees in its front yard as testimony to the past! Silk and other fabric weaving is however still important, as is printing and finishing although I am not sure of the contemporary significance of colour dyeing. Irma mentioned how some fabrics weaved in India, or more predominantly in China these days, may come back to Como for print and finish. Como has maintained its reputation for the printing and finishing of high-end quality textiles. It is the fashion houses that own the brands who have concerns over printing in the Far East due to the risk of copyright violations.

Ink-jet Printing
IK: Most companies have now invested in ink-jet technology. Fortunately I was able to persuade Mantero to get on the bandwagon because Paul Smith, who was always very avant-garde, was using ink jet. Mantero bosses were convinced to invest in inkjet machines starting off with one, then two and so on.  Now I have no idea how many they have. There are a number of other companies apart from Mantero that have important printing operations here, including Achille Pinto who prints for high-end British fashion houses and a lot of French designers. (Achille Pinto later acquired Franco Ferrari, another quality silk producer.) A lot of the big design houses don’t like to commit to a single producer and so they might get Mantero to do one type of design and some other company to produce designs on other fabrics.
Irma Colourways

Colourways – Silk scarf colour variants. Irma Kennaway

What are still done today are the different colourways. You wouldn’t normally have a design in a single colour combination. You have a ‘variantista’ or colourist take the design and adapt its mood by presenting it in different colour versions. Changes are made twice a year to coincide with the releases of the Spring/Summer and the Autumn/Winter collections. So a design created for the winter collection on wool may get reproduced again with some colour changes in the Spring/Summer collection but on chiffon, for example.
Some design houses sent in their finished designs ready to be printed whilst others came and looked into the archives to choose a design asking if they could label it as theirs. When I had some spare time I would work up some ideas, present them to some of the fashion houses and they were often accepted. Or sometimes, as happened with me,  a fashion house like Yves Saint Laurent would come and present a theme they wanted and ask us to come up with some ideas. Chanel  did the same thing. For them, we had to present 30 different ideas just for a single scarf design. However a design house like Paul Smith had very clear ideas about what they wanted. You couldn’t add your own ideas. It all depended on the customer.’
Having discussed screen and ink-jet printing and recording the days when the local river, the Cosia, would change colour according to what colour dyes were being produced, Irma was keen to mention her particular specialism – hand painting.
jes scarf

Personalised hand-painted scarf created for the artist’s niece. Irma Kennaway

IK: What brought me to Como originally was my experience of hand painting on silk in Paris for different fashion houses and hand painting my own scarves. Now that everything is so industrialised, you really need to go back to hand painting if you want something individual. But there again, some modern technologies can help with this. Now I can draw directly on the iPad, send the design straight to the printers and get a one-off scarf made up. With the technology available, it is actually very much easier for an individual to produce something. The beauty of inkjet is you can do a one-off whereas you could never have assumed the cost of possibly 20 different colour separations by screen printing.
jes scarf on lake

The artist and scarf on the lakefront

Nowadays there’s a market for small-scale freelancers to offer individualised products. For example, I suggest personalised scarves or other types of digitally-printed materials as wedding gifts or for wedding guests.’
It was those painterly skills Irma developed in Paris and at the Central St.Martin’s College of Art that qualified her for the post of textile designer at Mantero back in 1990s in an era when hand painting skills were crucially important. Now computerisation has changed that and much else to do with weaving, designing, printing and finishing silk. However, as Irma suggests, technology also opens up opportunities for personalisation or for one-off or limited production runs – and the creativity and talent plus the production facilities and materials for doing so are all present here in modern-day Como.
To learn more about Como’s silk industry, do visit the Museo della Seta on Via Castelnuovo. Follow this link for information on opening hours.
To see more of Irma Kennaway’s work on iPad follow this link.
comocrea trade show
The importance of Como’s silk industry is underlined by the two trade shows per year dedicated to textiles; details are available by following these links to Comocrea and Proposte Expo. Both are held in the Villa Erba Conference Centre in Cernobbio.
Both Ratti  and Mantero have factory outlet stores for those seeking a bargain. The addresses are:
Mantero: Via Riccardo Mantero 4, Grandate.
Ratti: Via Madonna 32, Guanzate
villa erba

Villa Erba, Cernobbio – childhood home of neo-realist film director, Luchino Visconti and modern-day exhibition centre

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