Lake Como is of glacial origin, dating back to the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. It’s famous ‘Y’ shape was formed from the movement of an enormous glacier, which also displaced the huge mounds which now form the promontory, known as Bellagio which divides the two ‘legs’ of the lake. It is Europe’s deepest lake (410 metres at its deepest) and the third largest on the continent, with a perimeter of 170km. It is fed by the icy waters of the Adda River.
Lake Como has been home to various races dating back to historic times, but it only became of any real importance during the Roman occupation. The Romans built the Via Regina, which is still one of the two main roads running up the western shore of the lake. Under Emperor Augustus Lake Como was an important trade route between the Po and the Rhine Valleys, with tradesmen crossing the Alps into Switzerland.
In 49 BC Como town came into its own under the rule of Julius Caesar, who populated the town with its first 5,000 inhabitants and named the lake Larius (a name still seen in many guises today along the lake). Como itself was known as Novum Comum and played host to famous authors such as Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger during this time. The ‘Magistri Comacini’, a master builder’s guild made up of builders, stonecutters and decorators was formed and developed a reputation for fine craftsmanship throughout Europe.
After the Romans
Como flourished under Roman rule and became very wealthy, which encouraged invasions by jealous neighbours including the Goths and the Huns, who imposed hefty taxes on the wealthy citizens.
In 774 AD the Longobards freed the city and it continued to flourish, again leaving it open to invasion this time by the Milanese in the 12th century when power was passed between the hands of the two main families, the Visconti and the Sforza who built the Paderno Canal which connected the lake to Milan. During this time many of Como’s historic churches were built including San Carpoforo, Sant’Abbondio, San Fedele, San Giacomo, and the San Provino. The famous defensive towers, which can still be seen along the outer wall of the city, were constructed under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, between 1158 and 1162 when Milanese rule was finally brought to an end.
Spanish, French and Austrian rule
There followed periods of decline under French and Spanish rule with harsh taxes until Como fell under Austrian rule under Charles VI. Hefty taxes were reduced, allowing Como to flourish once more. The famous Duomo designed by Fontana was constructed during this period and the world-famous physicist Alessandro Volta was born in Como in 1745.
The impressive Duomo in Como city
Napoleon ruled Como for a short period between 1796-1815 until power was restored to Austrian rule after the Congress of Vienna. In 1825 Alessandro Manzoni wrote his famous novel ‘The Betrothed’ (‘I promessi Sposi’) which became one of the most famous and widely read novels of the Italian language. It is set in Lecco in 1628 during the terrible, oppressive years of Spanish rule. During the plague epidemic of 1630, which Manzoni describes in this book, the people of Bellagio avoided infection due to their isolated location on a peninsula and harvested uninfected corn, which they used to make bread to sell to the people of nearby infected Varenna. They would leave the bread on a large boulder (sasso del pane) just off the shore, where the bread was collected and replaced with money left in a jar filled with vinegar, which acted as a disinfectant.
During these and other times of hardship, the resourceful Comascans would do everything they could to survive, basing their diet on fish, polenta and homemade cheese which they also traded for money. Smuggling also formed a major part of their survival and the splendid isolation of Bellagio became a haven for hiding contraband brought in from Switzerland traveling on foot over the mountain passes.
1859 Lake Como joins the Kingdom of Italy
It wasn’t until 1859 that Lake Como became part of Italy under the House of Savoy after Giuseppe Garibaldi defeated the Austrians at the battle of San Fermo. Then for much of the 18th and 19th centuries it enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity as the area’s silk manufacturing became world-renowned. During the 18th and 19th centuries large villas and summer retreats were built along the lakeside and in the hills above Argegno, by rich Milanese, eager to escape the oppressive heat of a Milanese summer. Some of these Historic Villas of Lake Como are now world-famous and play host to thousands of visitors every year: – Villa del Balbianello, built in 1787 by Cardinal Angelo Durini, and more recently made famous by Star Wars and James Bond movies; Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo and Villa Melzi in Bellagio, famous for their stunning formal gardens; Villa Monastero in Varenna and Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio.
Villa Savoia in Moltrasio, one of Lake Como’s oldest villas
The stunning scenery also attracted artists such as Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley, acting as a muse to many poems including ‘The Daisy’ (Tennyson) and ‘Cadenabbia’ (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Great composers like Lisz and Verdi were also inspired by the lake. Many poems have been written about Lake Como both historically and more recently, but it’s not hard to see why the unrivalled beauty of the lake would inspire even the most amateur to put pen to paper.
20th Century Como
Como is still world-famous for its silk industry and has become a centre of fabric design with students traveling from all over the world to learn the art of silk-screen printing and design. It is also a leader in furniture design and manufacture with a world-famous exhibition centre at Villa Erba.
Tourism suffered a short decline after the 2nd World War, when Mussolini was captured in Dongo, at the northern end of the lake and then shot in Mezzegra (close to Tremezzo), leaving people with a sour taste for a while. Today however, Lake Como is one of Italy’s top destinations, frequented by celebrities and the wealthy as well as everyday tourists. Although its’ beauty is known to millions, ‘tourism’ is not allowed to take over, allowing Lake Como to retain its charm and sense of history.