Italian Lakes – Some Como Celebrities

Pliny the Elder

OF the two Plinies, whose statues have already been mentioned as adorning the façade of the Como cathedral, the elder was named Caius Plinius Secundus, and the younger, his nephew, Caius Caecilius Secundus. The former is known for his monumental ” Natural History” (Naturalis Historia) in thirty-seven books ; the latter for his charming and often valuable ” Letters.” They were both natives of the Roman Comum (Como).

Pliny the Elder saw much military and legal service in the Roman state, but his fame rests rather upon his capabilities as a student of natural phenomena and as an industrious compiler of physical facts. In his “Natural History,” which has come down to us almost complete, he tabulated observations and discoursed upon the stars and the earth, upon earthquakes, upon man, wild beasts, and domesticated animals, upon trees, fruits, the precious metals and precious stones, the art of painting, etc. He displayed extraordinary versatility and tireless industry in his researches.

His actual achievements as citizen and naturalist were, moreover, crowned by his personal investigation of the great eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A. D., in which catastrophe he lost his life. He was at the time in command of the Roman fleet at Misenum. Among the ” Letters ” of his nephew are two relating to this historic eruption, one de-scribing his maternal uncle’s movements and their sad consequence, and the other his own impressions and experiences and those of his mother during those trying days. These two letters acquire an added interest from the fact that they were written to the famous historian, Cornelius Tacitus, at the latter’s special request. In Book vi., i6, of the ” Letters ” we read:

” Your request that I would send you an account of my uncle’s death, in order to transmit a more exact relation of it to posterity, deserves my acknowledgment; for, if this accident shall be celebrated by your pen, the glory of it, I am well assured, will be rendered for ever illustrious, and notwithstanding he perished by a misfortune, which, as it involved at the same time a most beautiful country in ruins, and destroyed so many populous cities, seems to promise him an everlasting remembrance; notwithstanding he has himself composed many and lasting works; yet I am persuaded, the mentioning of him in your immortal writings will greatly contribute to render his name immortal. . . . He was at that time with the fleet under his command at Misenum. On the 24th of August, about one in the forenoon, my mother desired him to observe a cloud which appeared of a very unusual size and shape. He had just taken a turn in the sun, and after bathing himself in cold water, and making a light luncheon, gone back to his books: he immediately arose and went out upon a rising ground, from whence he might get a better sight of this very uncommon appearance. A cloud, from which mountain was uncertain, at this distance (but it was found afterward to come from Mount Vesuvius) was ascending, the appearance of which I cannot give you a more exact description of than by likening it to that of a pine-tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches; occasioned, I imagine, either by a sudden gust of air that impelled it, the force of which decreased as it advanced upwards, or the cloud itself being pressed back again by its own weight, expanded in the manner I have mentioned; it appeared sometimes bright and sometimes dark and spotted, ac-cording as it was either more or less impregnated with earth and cinders. This phenomenon seemed to a man of such learning and research as my uncle extraordinary and worth further looking into. He ordered a light vessel to be got ready, and gave me leave, if I liked, to accompany him. I said I had rather go on with my work; and it so happened he had himself given me some-thing to write out. As he was coming out of the house, he received a note from Rectina, the wife of Bassus, who was in the utmost alarm at the imminent danger which threatened her; for her villa lying at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, there was no way of escape but by sea; she earnestly entreated him therefore to come to her assistance. He accordingly changed his first intention, and what he had begun from a philosophical, he now carried out in a noble and generous, spirit. He ordered the galleys to put to sea, and went himself on board with an intention of assisting not only Rectina, but the several other towns which lay thickly strewn along that beautiful coast. Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he ‘approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger, too, not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again,; to which the pilot advising him, ` Fortune,’ said he, ` favours the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is.’ Pomponianus was then at Stabiæ [modern Castellamare], separated by a bay, which the sea, after several insensible windings, forms with the shore. He had already sent his baggage on board; for though he was not at that time in actual danger, yet being within sight of it, and indeed extremely near, if it should in the least increase, he was determined to put to sea as soon as the wind, which was blowing dead inshore, should go down. It was favourable, however, for carrying my uncle to Pomponianus, whom he found in the greatest consternation: he embraced him tenderly, encouraging and urging him to keep up his spirits, and, the more effectually to soothe his fears by seeming unconcerned himself, ordered a bath to be got ready, and then, after having bathed, sat down to sup-per with great cheerfulness, or at least (what is just as heroic) with every appearance of it. Meanwhile broad flames shone out in several places from Mount Vesuvius, which the darkness of night contributed to render still brighter and clearer.”

The account goes on to state that Pliny then went to bed and slept soundly, until the stones and ashes were so deep that a decision had to be taken to escape. The party finally decided to tie pillows over their heads and ventured forth, but down at the shore they found the waves still running too high to permit them to embark. There Pliny lay down upon a sail-cloth. At this juncture flames, preceded by a strong whiff of sulphur, dispersed the party, and Pliny was apparently suffocated by the noxious fumes.

In his other letter to Tacitus, Pliny the Younger gives a dramatic recital of his own feelings and those of his mother at Misenum, while waiting in vain for his uncle’s return, and wandering about in the phenomenal darkness. The mother and son both fortunately escaped unhurt.

Pliny the Younger

As revealed by his ” Letters ” and by the facts of his career, the younger Pliny was an excellent type of a public-spirited Roman gentleman, having considerable administrative and literary talent. Like his uncle, he belonged to the nobility of the Roman Co-mum (Como), where he was born in 6r or 62 A. D. His father died while he was still a boy, and he was placed under the guardianship of Verginius Rufus. He was sent to Rome to finish his studies; became a pleader in the Roman courts; and rose steadily in the service of the state, through various positions of trust and preferment. He was made a member of the Senate, and by steady advancement a military tribune, a quæstor, prætor, præfect, and consul. He saw service in Syria and as imperial legate in Bithynia and Pontica. His famous book of ” Letters” consists of a selection which he made from his correspondence with his friends. Besides the letters to Tacitus already mentioned, unique value attaches to Pliny’s correspondence with his friend, the Emperor Trajan, upon the subject of the Christians. This correspondence is considered of paramount value as historic evidence of the condition of the Christians toward the end of the first century and of the peculiar official Roman point of view toward a supposedly incomprehensible sect which was making great headway. Pliny’s inquiry of Trajan and the latter’s reply are here appended. In Book x., 97, we read:

” It is my invariable rule, sir, to refer to you in all matters where I feel doubtful; for who is more capable of removing my scruples, or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be made between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon, or, if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed toward those who have been brought before me as Christians is this : I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished : for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction. There were others also brought before me possessed with the same infatuation, but being Roman citizens, I directed them to be sent to Rome. But this crime spreading (as is usually the case) while it was actually under prosecution, several instances of the same nature occurred. An anonymous information was laid before me, containing a charge against several persons, who upon examination denied they were Christians, or had ever been so. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and incense before your statue (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought, together with those of the gods), and even reviled the name of Christ: whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians into any of these compliances. I thought it proper to discharge them. Some among those who were accused by a witness in person at first confessed themselves Christians, but immediately after denied it. The rest owned indeed that they had been of that number formerly, but had now (some above three, others more, and a few above twenty years) renounced that error. They also worshipped your statue and the image of the gods, uttering imprecations at the same time against the name of Christ. They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purpose of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal. From this custom, however, they desisted after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your commands, I forbade the meeting of any assemblies. After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavour to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate in their religious rites; but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition. I deemed it expedient, therefore, to adjourn all further proceedings, in order to consult you. For it appears to be a matter highly deserving your consideration, more especially as great numbers must be involved in the danger of those prosecutions, which have already ex-tended, and are still likely to extend, to per-sons of all ranks and ages, and even of both sexes. In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress. The temples, at least, which were once almost deserted, begin now to be frequented ; and the sacred rites, after a long intermission, are again revived ; while there is a general demand for victims, which till lately found very few purchasers. From all this it is easy to conjecture what numbers might be reclaimed if a general pardon were granted to those who shall repent of their error.”

To this letter Trajan replied, Book x., 98:

” You have adopted the right course, my dearest Secundus, in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought be-fore you. It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them. If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to be received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.”

Pliny the Younger inherited considerable property on and near Lake Como, both from his father’s and mother’s families. In Book ix., 7, of his ” Letters ” he writes to Romanus:

” I have several villas upon the borders of this lake, but there are two particularly in which, as I take most delight, so they give me most employment. They are both situated like those at Baiæ : one of them stands upon a rock, and overlooks the lake, the other actually touches it. The first, sup-ported as it were by the lofty buskin, I call my tragic; the other, as resting upon the humble sock, my comic villa. Each has its own peculiar charm, recommending it to its possessor so much more on account of this very difference. The former commands a wider, the latter enjoys a nearer view of the lake. One, by a gentle curve, embraces a little bay; the other, being built upon a greater height, forms two. Here you have a strait walk extending itself along the banks of the lake; there a spacious terrace that falls by a gentle descent toward it. The former does not feel the force of the waves; the latter breaks them; from that you see the fishing-vessels; from this you may fish yourself, and throw your line out of your room, and almost from your bed, as from off a boat. It is the beauties, therefore, these agreeable villas possess that tempt me to add to them those which are wanting.”

Various attempts have been made to find the sites of these two villas of Pliny, play-fully compared to the lofty and low cothurnus and soccus of the tragic and comic actors respectively. A reasonable inference, from the somewhat vague description given above, would place the ” Tragedy ” at Bellagio and the ” Comedy” at Lenno, on the opposite shore, south of Tremezzo. Pliny also owned a large estate in Etruria, a suburban villa near Rome, and others at Tusculum, Tibur, and Præneste. His acts of munificence and liberality toward his native city and his friends were remarkable. It is calculated that he spent no less than r,600,000 sesterces on Como for a school, a public library, and public baths, and various charitable bequests, also for the maintenance of boys and girls and of a hundred of his freedmen. In Book viii., 22, Pliny announces the following motto for himself, worthy of the Christians whom he persecuted: ” To pardon others as if one daily needed pardon himself.”

Alessandro Volta

Among Como celebrities mention must also be made of the man from whose name the electrical term volt has been derived. Alessandro Volta is now generally conceded to have been the originator of the electric pile. He is credited with having constructed the first contrivance by which electrical energy could be measured in definite units. Como has erected a statue to him and named a piazza in his honour.

In May of 1899 an electrical exhibition was held in Como to celebrate his discovery. Fire, however, swept over the entire exhibition and destroyed almost all the souvenirs of his career, which had been preserved up to that time. Electrical apparatus and machinery from many countries had been displayed. There had been a competition of telegraphers. In connection with the celebration the Italian and especially the Como silk industry had been largely represented, and electric launches and boats had constituted a prominent feature of the exhibition.

Alessandro Volta was born in Como. In 1774 he was made professor of physics in the gymnasium of his native city. He visited Switzerland and became intimately acquainted with De Saussure. Then he was appointed to the chair of physics in the university of Pavia. He later travelled through France, Germany, Holland, and England, and met nearly all the celebrities of that day in natural science. In 1791 he received the Copley medal of the Royal Society, and his electric pile was first described by him in a letter to Sir G. Banks, the president of that society in 1800. Honours were showered upon him. In 1801 Napoleon I. called him to Paris and a medal was struck in his honour. He was created a Senator of the Kingdom of Lombardy. In 1815 the Emperor of Austria made him director of the philosophical faculty of Padua. In 1819 he withdrew to his native city of Como and settled down there for the rest of his life.

Volta may be said to have carried forward the investigations of Benjamin Franklin. He followed closely the experiments of Galvani, and then showed that so-called ” galvanism ” and electricity were identical. He also corresponded with Priestley, and made experiments before Lavoisier and Laplace in Paris.