The History of Lake Como, Italy
The Very Beginning
The entire region of Lake Como was under a massive sheet of ice during the last Ice Age, roughly 10,000 years ago. The ‘upside-down Y’ shape of the lake as we know it today, was actually carved out of the mountains due to the slow movement of this enormous glacier. The displaced boulders now found on the Bellagio promontory which divide the two ‘legs’ of Como are proof of its tremendous force.
An Important Trade Route
People have lived in Lake Como since prehistoric times as it played an important part in the communications of settlers living between northern and southern regions. When the Romans took over the area, they built the Via Regina which is the same road used today on the West coast of the lake in order to connect Italia with Raetia (a province of Rome which would geographically correspond to modern day Switzerland, SW Germany and W Austria).
Lake Como was a very affluent area in Roman times (under the emperor Augustus) as it became an important trade connection between the Po Valley (the location of modern-day Milan) and the Rhine Valley in the north (modern-day Germany) thanks to the passes in Switzerland which enabled travelers to cross the Alps.
The history of Lake Como’s largest city Como began with the Romans who occupied it and formed its first foundations. Julius Caesar populated the town of Como with 5,000 inhabitants after starting a wave of immigration of colonists into the area and gave the entire lake the Latin name of Larius. Two of the most famous people to live in Como at that time were Pliny the Elder who wrote 37 books entitled Natural History, and his nephew Pliny the Younger, a lawyer, Latin author and natural philosopher.
Conflicts with Neighbors
During the rise of Christianity, the people of Como were steadily evangelized with the help of saints such as St. Felix, Como’s first bishop and St. Abbondio, a representative of Pope Leo the Great.
However, barbaric tribes such as the Huns and Goths quickly became jealous of Como’s flowering economy and recurrently invaded the town imposing a heavy tax burden on its population.
Soon after, it came under Frankish rule when the Longobards (northern Italians) were defeated by Charlemagne’s army in 774 which made Como once again a free city and proved to be helpful for its economy.
Attacks by the Milanese
In the 12th century, nearby Milan also became jealous of Como’s prosperity and power changed hands between Milan’s wealthy Visconti and Sforza families. This was the time when many of Como’s magnificent Romanesque churches were erected such as the San Carpoforo, Sant’Abbondio, San Fedele, San Giacomo, and the San Provino.
The Visconti and Sforza families were responsible for creating the Paderno Canal which widened Lake Como’s Adda River to enable waterway transportation with Milan.
In 1158, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, helped to protect Como from Milan through the construction of several defensive towers until Milan was finally completely destroyed in 1162.
However, Lake Como’s only island of Comacina was completely burned down by the angry Comaschi 7 years later in 1169. Today, you can still visit many of the ruins from this bloody war which are found on the island.
Once Again…Changing Hands
After another short and unsuccessful rule by the French, Como fell under oppressive Spanish rule for two centuries (1535-1713) where citizens were subject to cruel taxation and a declining economy.
When Como fell under Austrian rule under Charles VI, the oppressive tax regimes were ameliorated which greatly helped Como’s industry. This period also witnessed the construction of Como’s famous Duomo designed by D. Fontana with the help of Filippo Juvara and the birth of world-famous physicist Alessandro Volta in 1745.
Napoleon ruled Como for a short period between 1796-1815 until power was restored to Austrian rule after the Congress of Vienna.
In 1825 when the lake was under Austrian rule, Alessandro Manzoni wrote his famous novel The Betrothed which becomes the most famous and widely read novel of the Italian language. It is set in Lecco, Italy in 1628 during the terrible, oppressive years of Spanish rule.
19th Century Lake Como
It wasn’t until 1859 that Lake Como joined the Kingdom of Italy under the House of Savoy after Giuseppe Garibaldi defeated the Austrians at the battle of San Fermo.
Envision a typical day in the 19th century, where you can hear craftsmen and toolmakers working away in their workshops, stonecutters and architects building the cities, and fishermen with their boats scattered across the lake.
The local inhabitants of Lake Como have wonderful stories to tell about their forefathers who did everything they could to survive, selling home-made cheeses, fishes and polenta (corn-meal), as well as smuggling all sorts of commodities on their backs while crossing the Alps on foot.
20th Century Como
Between the years of 1945-1965, many people were traumatized about the idea of visiting Lake Como after Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci were captured in Dongo and later shot in nearby Mezzegra in 1945.
However, Como soon became very famous for its textile and silk industry followed by furniture manufacture and design. And although millions of tourists visit Lake Como each year, each town maintains its ‘small-town’ feeling so that the lake never appears to crowded.
Today, many festivals celebrate Lake Como’s rich history. Around the last week of June, the Festival of San Giovanni is held on the Island of Comacina, celebrated with grand fireworks while in Sala Comacina, beautifully decorated boats scatter themselves over the lake, illuminated with snail shells burning olive oil – a setting reminiscent from the times of Alessandro Manzoni’s book, The Betrothed.