Switzerland may not a member of the European Union, but it is part of the Schengen border-free travel zone. Checkpoints between countries are put up only during emergencies. The recent influx of refugees led to a decision for the border to be sealed, making Lake Como a migrant frontline. Those with the means to do so have turned to locals to help them cross the Alps on their journey towards Germany or Britain.
The same Alpine paths were used during the Second World War. Monte Bisbino da Moltrasio is Como’s “local” mountain. As the Italian-Swiss border runs across its summit, it is a smuggler’s route. These “contrabandisti” acted as guides for Jews, prisoners of war, and partisans on their “viaggi di salvezza” (journeys of salvation) from Fascism.
Moltrasio, a small town on the Lake Como’s western coast, continues to figure in a narrative of migration that goes back to the late eighteenth century, the impact of which was felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
In May 1796 Napoleon’s army marched into northern Italy and removed an Austrian regime that had ruthlessly exploited Lombardy. For the local population it meant another invasion. Widespread pillaging left the province devastated, its agriculture destroyed, its industry in tatters. The French also introduced conscription to the region. Resisting the summons, men began to move away.
During the eighteenth century, scientific developments in northern Italy were closely monitored by the Royal Society in London. Como, birthplace of the great physicist Alessandro Volta, was also on the map of Grand Tourists and the skills of local instrument makers were communicated by numerous British travelers to the region.
Because of these links London became a destination of refuge, but the passage was perilous. After leaving Como, young (predominantly) male migrants crossed Lake Lugano and walked much of the arduous journey, carrying backs of tools and instruments. They headed for Airolo on the southern flank of St Gotthard in the Swiss canton of Ticino.
Having left the dangerous Pass behind, travellers moved towards Andermatt where they encountered the wild waters of the River Reuss crashing down the Schöllenen Gorge. They crossed the river via the narrow sixteenth century Devil’s Bridge (improved in the 1770s for carriages to pass). The dramatic landscape was captured by J.M.W. Turner in sketches made during his 1802 visit.
Proceeding past the Swiss Lakes into Basel, voyagers followed the Rhine towards Rotterdam from where they crossed the Channel. Their arrival in London came as a culture shock. Unable to speak the language, there were few fellow Italians to receive them, and no institutions to assist them in settling down. With a resilience born out of adversity, they pressed on and succeeded.
The principle of the mercury barometer was invented in 1643 by Evangelista Torricelli, a former pupil of Galileo. Once a connection was made between atmospheric pressure and weather patterns, the barometer became a vital tool for meteorologists.
Northern Italians were famous for intricate glass blowing, an expertise that was crucial for the development of instrumentation. While the scientific observation of atmospheric pressure lay behind their craft, political unrest and economic pressure compelled their departure. Early migrants included carvers, gilders, and makers of barometers.
In London, incomers from the Como region scattered across a few streets to the north of Holborn. Giovanni Maria Ronchetti arrived around 1780 and established his firm at no. 180 Holborn; Joseph Somalvico settled in the district about the same time; Domenico Manticha ran a shop at Ely Court, Holborn, between 1789 and 1805, to mention but a few of the pioneers who worked closely together, often in partnerships. The area of settlement would become known as Little Italy.
The sheer number of immigrant instrument makers living in close proximity created a competitive environment. Intermarriage was common and family members moved out to Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, and Edinburgh. Travel-hardened entrepreneurs looked further afield. America was calling.
On 24 September 1800 New York’s Daily Advertiser announced the arrival from London of the firm Corti, Vecchio, & Donegani. The craftsmen were described as ‘Italians, Carvers, Gilders, Print-Sellers, and Weather Glass Manufacturers’.
At their shop at 112 Broadway, they stocked maps, prints, coloured and gilt paper, paint brushes, and pencils. They also sold and repaired barometers, thermometers, telescopes, and spectacles. Both the Delvecchio [Del Vecchio] and Donegani families originated from Moltrasio.
A continuous feature of migration from the Italian peninsula has been the departure of actors, musicians, dancers, magicians, conjurers, jugglers, ventriloquists, and operators of puppet shows.
The origin of menageries as goes back to classical times. Both Roman Emperors and later European Royalty kept collections of exotic animals for entertainment and prestige. Public curiosity gave rise to the “Travelling Menagerie” as itinerant exhibitions that preceded zoological gardens. Entrepreneurs teamed up with colonial seafarers to acquire rare species. Animal abuse was just one step away.
Built in 1676, the Exeter Exchange on the Strand housed milliners and drapers. In 1793, Gilbert Pidcock purchased the complex to shelter his animal collection which included an Indian rhinoceros (George Stubbs produced a painting of this, the first British rhino). Having died a few months after its move, the owner exhibited the stuffed colossal to curious audiences.
When Pidcock passed away in February 1810, the business was continued by Stephano [Stephen] Polito who turned the Exchange into a “must see” sight visited by Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and many others. The collection included lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, antelopes, camels, llamas, sea lions, ostriches, and eagles.
Stephano was an entertainer and entrepreneur. Born in 1764, he descended from Moltrasio.
Performers were among the first Italian migrants who crossed the Atlantic. Italian-American theater began in 1805 when Lorenzo da Ponte (Mozart’s librettist) settled in New York. Acting as a cultural “ambassador without portfolio,” he provided the city’s Public Library with an Italian section. Lorenzo also constructed a mini-theatre at his home on lower Broadway where, in 1808, he staged a performance of Vittorio Alfieri’s play Mirra.
Da Ponte cultural efforts had been preceded by the showmanship of entertainers. Giovanni Donegani and Tommaso Delvecchio arrived in the United States from Moltrasio in 1788, making a living as itinerant performers.
Sturtevant in Who’s Who in the American Circus mentions a show in the week of 22 July 1789 by the “Italian Co. Donegani, slack rope tight wire and tumbling” in Salem, Massachusetts; and in January 1792 a wire act by “Donegani and Troupe” in New York. Also known as Donegani’s Tumblers, they staged gigs in Philadelphia and performed in Montreal and Quebec (where they described themselves as a French theatre group).
Gradually Donegani & Delvecchio turned into (thriving) entertainment entrepreneurs who introduced a variety of attractions – Herculean children, deformed animals, and bizarre natural objects – in the old European fashion. When Donegani died in 1799, Delvecchio opened the Auberge des Trois-Rois in Montreal which by 1824 was turned into a “Museo Italiano” of curiosities (the museum’s collections were dispersed in 1853).
During the 1790s the Moltrasio diaspora reached London, New York, and Montreal. The microhistory of a small town in Como province, no more than a dot on the map, turns out to be a tale of global relevance.
The “Resa di Caserta,” signed in April 1945, formalized the surrender of Nazi forces in Italy and signaled the fall of Mussolini’s regime. Following minor roads around Lake Como (the same route so many of his victims had been forced to walk), the Duce tried to escape to Switzerland under cover of a retreating German convoy. The group was stopped by partisans at Moltrasio.
Taken to nearby Mezzegra, Mussolini was executed. His mistress Clara Petacci was unintentionally killed in a hail of bullets. Their bodies were transported to Milan’s Piazza Loreto and hung upside down in front of an Esso petrol station.
Illustrations, from above: The summit of Monte Bisbino da Moltrasio (1325m); The Schöllenen Gorge from the Devil’s Bridge, 1802 by J.M.W. Turner (Tate Gallery, London); Exeter Exchange menagerie from Ackermanns Repository (1812); Portrait of Gilbert Pidcock’s Indian Rhinoceros by George Stubbs (Royal College of Surgeons); Lorenzo Da Ponte’s memorial. He is buried at an unknown location in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York City; and Mussolini (second from left), Clara Petacci (middle) and other executed fascists in Piazza Loreto, Milan, in April 1945.