Situated at the southern tip of Lake Como, the northern Italian city of Como shares a border with Switzerland as well as with several smaller northern Italian communes. In the 1st-century b.c., Julius Caesar relocated the town from nearby hills to its dominant position right at the lower edge of the Lake. First, however, Caesar had to make this lakefront site habitable by actually draining the swamps (in contrast to a certain 21st-century pseudo “ruler” in the U.S.A. who has done no such thing, alas).
Caesar’s new city, Novum Comum, was the birthplace of several famous people, among them the poet Caecilius, the writers Pliny the Elder & Pliny the Younger, and Pope Innocent XI. For millennia, the beauty of Como’s setting had seduced the famous and the learned. As Percy Bysshe Shelly would write to Thomas Peacock while looking for a house there in 1818, “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.”
The shore of Lake Como is dotted with picturesque villages, each offering us today its luxury hotels and elegant, private villas. Since my wife and I only took a brief ferry ride and never disembarked, these few photographs hardly do justice to the individual character of these villages. Still , they manage to capture the intimacy shared between building and lake.
I love this metal and glass Ferry House at the Cernobbio dock. I would call it Gothic Revival in style because of the pointed arches of its three transverse bays which we can see peeking out above the two “transepts” which jut out into the water, and also because of the decorative cusps running down the roof crown of its longitudinal “nave.” Given its materials (iron, maybe also galvanized steel, and large panes of glass) it must date no earlier than the later 19th century; it might even date to the earlier 20th century. My on-line searches found nothing: no date, no architect, not even any reference to the building itself. But to my eyes, this structure is an architectural gem.
Two of the many passengers on the ferry, captured candidly and un-posed, as is my inclination as a photographer.
The next fifteen photographs were taken in Brunate, a town of maybe 1,800 residents located some 1,600 feet directly above Como. There is road access to Brunate, but more convenient access is to be had by a funicular railway.
These four photographs (above) are of the Bellavista restaurant and hotel. It was established in 1896, soon after the opening of the funicular railway. The decorative ironwork of this entry gate reveals clear flourishes of Art Nouveau (as does the distant building), indicating how au courant the owners were. Four details, further below, of private villas in Brunate underscore that same up-to-the-minute taste for this newest style and indicate the likelihood that most of the domestic buildings in Brunate were built as retreats by wealthy middle-class Milanese in the first years of the 20th-century.
The Funicolare Como-Brunate began operations in 1894 on a traction system powered by a steam engine. In 1911, it was converted from steam to electric power, which remains the case today, albeit with several refurbishings and modernizing of cars and equipment.
The descent from Brunate enabled me to take this photograph of the main cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It replaced an earlier, Romanesque cathedral, Santa Maria Maggiore. The construction of Santa Maria Assunta began in the late Gothic period and lasted until 1770, when the tall dome over the crossing was completed. Notably, the designer of that dome was the famous late-Baroque architect, Filippo Juvarra.
Had we more time in Como, I would have gone to the Cathedral, especially to see what Juvarra’s dome looked like from inside. I also would have sought out two other buildings of note designed by the modernist Italian architect, Giuseppe Terragni: Novocomum (1929) and Casa del Fascio (1936).
This is a line of people waiting to ride the Funicular Railway up to Brunate.
The Piazza Cavour is the main square of Como, and its north edge looks directly out onto the Lake. In fact, the space it occupies had been a marsh until it was expanded in 1335 into a working port. Only when that port proved too narrow to accommodate the first steamboat, in 1869, was it filled in to create the Piazza we see now. It is named for Italy’s first Prime Minister, the Count of Cavour.
Obviously, the buildings that surround and define this Piazza all date from the late 19th-early 20th century. The decorative details we see in the three photographs above are related to a technique popularized at least five centuries earlier known as sgraffito. Similar to fresco painting, sgraffito uses layers of tinted plaster, sometimes scratching through a top layer to reveal a different colored layer underneath. The very ornate topmost building, with its columns, swags and other decorative elements, visually refers back to the Renaissance. However, the building in the lower photograph, with its sinuous female figures and curvilinear forms, is clearly a product of the Art Nouveau style of the 1890s and following decade. The Brunate villas, pictured earlier, are decorated in the same manner.
Cements and concrete poured into molds for decorative purposes was practiced in the late 19th-early 20th centuries in Italy’s more industrial north as a way to continue a historical ornamental language while meeting the growing demand for new architecture and building. I was intrigued by these volutes, elegant in form, but brutal as they bare their stone aggregate like so many sharp teeth, waiting to nip the elbow of an unsuspecting pedestrian.
Among the famous natives of Como is Alessandro Volta, Italian physicist, chemist, discoverer of methane and inventor of the electric battery. This expansive Piazza is named in his honor. Inscribed on the base of his statue are four, simple words: A Volta–La Patria. To Volta–The Nation.
This causeway, beginning from a park just west of the center of Como and ending in the middle of the harbor, is named for Piero Caldirola, one of the founders of the Italian school of theoretical physics. It ends in an expanded circle to accommodate a 45-foot high, stainless steel sculpture designed by the architect, Daniel Liebeskind. The sculpture, titled The Life Electric, is inspired by and dedicated to Alessandro Volta (see following six photographs).
Liebeskind’s sculpture is highly polished in order to reflect sky, water, people, and causeway in continuously-changing patterns. Its main elements, two irregular, curving arcs, are intended to represent–in static form–the dynamic discharge of an electric current as it leaps the gap between two electrodes (or poles of a battery to emphasize the direct reference to Volta’s invention). In fact, the archaic term for that discharge is a voltaic arc. Here is a YouTube video [0.09] of such a discharge on an industrial scale, and here another voltaic arc [1:04] on a more-controlled lab scale. Stop these videos at various points and you will find close proximities to Liebeskind’s elegant, if static, abstract form.
Upon returning to land on the causeway, walk straight ahead towards those stairs seen in the background above. Here you will encounter a beautiful and evocative sculptural installation that speaks to all people and all ages. Children, as well as adults, may walk around it as well as into it. Play on it. Contemplate it. Weep on it, as I am sure many do. This is a monument to commemorate the victims of World War II–more precisely, those who were members of the Resistance and met their death at the hands of Axis Forces.
The designer of this monument was the Italian sculptor, Gianni Colombo, better known for his kinetic art and, later, as the director of the Accademia di Brera in Milan. The large stones for this project were collected from Nazi concentration camps and from the city of Hiroshima. Sections of Colombo’s monument also encase selected, hand-written messages by members of the resistance from the various European countries–messages written shortly before their executions.
Top Letter Fragment: Holland: …The dreams, the ideals, the splendid hopes that we have never had a chance to realize, all struck down and destroyed by this brutal reality (Anna Frank, fifteen year old Jewish student died in Bergen-Belsen, February 1945)
Middle Letter Fragment: Yugoslavia: There is no creation without sacrifice. There is no freedom without blood. (Ratko Zaric, student, shot 4. 6. 1943)
Bottom Letter Fragment: France: I see myself as a leaf falling from a tree to become part of the soil below. The quality of the [soil? illegible] depends on the quality of leaves. I [speak of] the French youth who I greatly trust. (Jacques Decour/ Jacques Decourdemanche, writer, shot 30. 5. 1942)
Top Letter Fragment: Hungary: Even now I will say it: it was worth it! (Istvan Pataki, pista worker, shot 24. 12. 1944)
Second Letter Fragment: Germany: Full of hope for life, I am moving towards death. I leave in the certainty of a better life for you all. (Elli Voigt, woman worker, shot 17. 7. 1941)
Third Letter Fragment: Romania: I still have one wish: that injustice should disappear from the face of the earth… (Filomon Sirbu, worker, shot 17. 7. 1941)
Bottom Letter Fragment: U.R.S.S.: …I am not afraid of death. I am sorry only that I have lived so little and done so little for my country…Tell my mother not to cry. (Irina Maldzon [or Malozon], Girl of the Komsomol, shot)
Top Letter Fragment: Bulgary: ….I entreat you to carry on the struggle for which I am about to die… (Ahmed Tatarov Ahmedov 16 05 1944)
Middle Letter Fragment: Norway: We feel at peace with the whole world…we feel hatred from none…from hate, nothing good can come…we couldn’t wish for a better death than this. (Borgen N. Bøe, business manager, 29. 12. 1941)
Bottom Letter Fragment: Czechoslovakia: Mankind, I loved you dearly; be ever watchful! (Julius Fucik, journalist, decapitated, 1943)
Top Letter Fragment: Poland: From our pain and our work of suffering Poland will be born and live again!!!! (taken from an inscription on a wall).
Bottom Letter Fragment: Austria: …those who live only for themselves, who seeking happiness only for himself will never find satisfaction or happiness. A man needs something above and beyond himself. ‘We’ is greater than ‘I’. (Fischer 28 01 1943)
Finally, this powerful public sculpture, was the first thing we encountered, as it is situated between the main railroad station above Como and the center of the city. It is dedicated to disabled service people. I failed to find either a name of the sculptor who made it or a date for the monument. However, here is a rough translation of an explanatory plaque that accompanied the piece. “One hand is actively serving the country in defense of institutional values. The other hand is wounded in the line of duty.”
And so we see one hand, raised in assertive defiance, the other extended to the ground, palm up in supplication. Imagine how much less powerful a statement would likely have been the case had the artist given us a sculptural grouping of several disabled people. The hand, by itself, can speak volumes. Artists have always known this, and some of humankind’s earliest Paleolithic art consists solely of stenciled hands. But then, we are in Italy, and most everyone knows that “Italians speak with their hands.”