WHEN the Italian lakes are mentioned, the name of Como is very likely to rise first to the lips. It is a name which carries in its two short syllables a whole world of sparkle, colour, and joyousness, and an atmosphere redolent with the scent of perennial spring. Its delights constitute a permanent possession, a part of mankind’s stock in trade of terrestrial romance. Its praises are sung in distant lands, by foreign fire-sides, and it has gathered for itself a veritable constituency of appreciators from among those who love that peculiar classic blending of nature and art, in which the Italians are past masters.
Many travellers catch their first glimpse of the city of Como from the high-lying St. Gothard R. R. station. They look down into a charming water basin, a snug little pocket, shut in by steep slopes and bordered by white houses. From up there the place looks as though prepared for a siege, with its four gates and remains of walls. Water and mountains are seen to be brought into close contact and intimate relations, producing a particularly cosy effect. The slopes begin with a few vineyards and olive-trees and top off with forests of chestnut and walnut; their sides are well sprinkled with Italian villas in the customary white, yellow, or pink, perched on terraces. On the summit of the abrupt slope which overlooks Como on the east stands the Grand Hotel Brunate, reached by a cable road which has gashed a deep white line upon the green. But a carriage road also rises to the hotel on a gentle incline. Due north looms Monte Bisbino with a white church, and south the Baradello tower, a relic of the Visconti and Sforza days and a landmark of modern Como.
Descending into the city proper, we find the shore-front of Como lined with women in clusters kneeling to do the family washing, scrubbing and pounding their linen vigorously and loquaciously. By their sides lie glistening bundles of their work well done. Sharp-prowed boats are pulled up on the paved slant of the shore. Canvas awnings lighten up the scene. Carts, drawn by cream-coloured oxen and laden with wood or lime, crawl slowly along the quay, or a carriage with men in livery from one of the handsome villas goes by at a trot.
Como, the Roman Comum, is the most populous of the cities directly upon any of the Italian lakes. It is easily the most important from the standpoint of art and industry, and has quite a through trade with Switzerland. Its cathedral and its silk industry are both widely known, each for its own excellence, and during the course of its long history it has given the world a number of famous men, such as the two Plinies from Roman times and, in modern times, Volta, the electrician. The city, as a sightseeing centre, clusters very largely around the Piazza Cavour, where most of the hotels stand, and extends into the near-by cathedral square. On the water-front there is a public garden with lake baths; a jetty has been pleasantly prolonged into the open water to form a convenient harbour; there is a steamboat pier and a quay which serves the purpose of a promenade. Como also has a second railroad station for the lines running by Saronno to Milan and by Varese to Laveno.
A stroll through the streets assures us at once that we are in a warm-weather city. The architecture is adapted to shade and shelter from the rays of the sun. There are interior courts, arcades, loggias, and floors of rough stone or mosaic. Many little ways and means indicate a desire to let the air circulate; little stands like great chess-pawns, or stuffed cushions and bolsters are used to keep doors ajar. Should you make your entry into Como by landing at the pier, an interesting view awaits you at once across the Piazza Cavour, up a narrow street, to where gleam the fine façade and dome of the cathedral and a curious adjoining tower of rough stone.
The cathedral of Como ranks third among the Gothic structures of Italy, if the cathedral of Milan be counted first and the Certosa at Pavia second. It is in the form of a Latin cross. Originally begun in the Gothic style in 1396, it was transformed and enlarged by changes and additions in Renaissance style executed by Tommaso Rodari and his brother Giacomo in 1487 to 1526. These sculptor-architects were natives of Maroggia on Lake Lugano. The result of their work was to make this cathedral a masterly example of ” the fusion of Gothic and Renaissance styles, both of good type and exquisite in their sobriety,” as John Addington Symonds informs us in his “Sketches in Italy.” On either side of the main portal are statues of the two Plinies, seated under canopies. A relief shows the elder, the naturalist, studying Vesuvius in eruption; another shows the younger, the author, kneeling to his patron and friend, the Emperor Trajan. Within the cathedral are noted paintings by Luini and Ferrari, greatly prized by connoisseurs. A side portal goes by the name of the porta della rana, on account of a frog watching a butterfly which is carved there.
In strange contrast to the polished cathedral is the curiously gay Broletto, or town hall, which adjoins, and is built in stripes of black and white marble with a few patches of red. It was finished in 1215, according to an inscription, and stands on fine arches, under whose kindly shelter a fruit and vegetable market has long been in-stalled. At present the building is used as a record office, but at one time it was the centre of the municipal life of Como, and is still graced by a balcony for public ad-dresses, appropriately called the parléra. The people assembled below in parliamento, hence the modern word parliament. A rough-looking tower and a great ring in the wall are suggestive of prison punishment and clanking chains. Indeed the history of the city of Como has been in general an agitated one.
Its situation at the head of the principal arm of the lake caused it to attain some importance even under the Roman dominion. Indeed it was originally settled by a Greek colony, hence its Greek name Kome or city. It weathered the period of the Longobards, the Carolingian era, and struggled bravely to maintain municipal independence. Como passed through a period of almost constant warring with rivals, especially with Milan and Bergamo. Frederic Barbarossa and his empress once lodged in the castle Baradello. There was a period of peaceful development under Visconti rule. Two native families, the Vitani and Rusca, through their partisans fought for centuries for control of the city, alternately winning and losing, and under the Sforza sovereignty Como suffered severely from wars in which that family was involved. The city changed hands several times, coming later under Spanish and Austrian dominion. It took a prominent part in the Italian wars of independence and unity from first to last. The scene of Garibaldi’s famous entry into Como after his victory over the Austrians at San Fermo is the Porta delle Torre, now called the Porta Vittoria, near which stands a statue of the great leader.
In September a local rowing regatta is held which presents a striking feature not seen outside of Italy, and worthy of the attention of sportsmen from other lands. From the gondoliers of Venice the Italian oarsmen of the lakes have learned to row and race their shells standing. The outriggers rise high above the hull, and are securely braced to withstand the pressure. The effect is exceedingly fine and bold. The rower faces the bow of the boat; one leg is placed well forward of the other, the chest is out, and the weight of the whole body is thrown into the thrust forward. It would seem that great skill must be used in balancing these frail-looking boats under such conditions, and in feathering the oars properly. ” Catching a crab ” would surely mean a spill.
And what noble auspices for the races. A continuous series of villas line the western shore of the lake. The water glistens and sparkles. The colours come and go, and off to the north a little cloud on Monte Bisbino, the mountain which acts as weather prophet for this greatly blessed bay, reminds us of the popular saying in Como:
Se Bisbin mette il capella Corri a prendere il mantello.”
” When Bisbin puts on its cap Do you run to take your coat.”