Lake Como – a trip not just between places but through time

Anthony Majanlahti is a historian and writer specialising in Rome and other Italian subjects. He is a fellow of the British School of Rome and has written several academic books on Rome’s history and his book The Families Who Made Rome was a bestseller. Here, Anthony previews his fascinating tour to Lake Como with Art Pursuits Abroad in May.

Among the spectacular scenery of Lake Como, we will make a trip not just between places but through time. We will see the Roman city of Como, still built on its ancient grid and with its walls still in part surviving, and explore the lands of the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, who was to die far away, in the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii. Other figures from the past will be the warrior-archbishop Aribert of Milan, who rebuilt the basilica of S. Vincenzo at Galliano in 1007, between battles. He is there still, in a frescoed portrait in the apse, which is remarkable for its vividness, a thousand years later. We will discover the forbidden passions of the eighteenth-century prelate Angelo Maria Durini, who was laden down with many rich prebends and who never bothered to go to Rome to collect his cardinal’s hat, as he was too busy building himself three villas, the most beautiful being the Villa del Balbianello which we will visit.

We will explore the lakeshore and its surrounding towns, full of marvels like the Villa Carlotta, named after the Prussian princess who received it as a wedding gift in 1850, with its astonishing gardens, and several other villas, all representative of the Milanese and local nobility from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Perhaps my favourite place of all is the last one, Castiglione Olona, where the powerful and enlightened late-medieval humanist Branda Castiglioni commissioned the Tuscan artists Masolino da Panicale and Lorenzo di Pietro called “Il Vecchietta” to decorate not just his palazzo but the church he built at the top of the town and dedicated to Saints Stephen and Laurence. Branda Castiglioni (1350-1443) travelled widely as a career diplomat for the pope, and was also feudal lord of a town in Hungary where he spent an important part of his life. In his own little town he didn’t so much cast a long shadow as shine a bright light: he brought the Tuscan Renaissance to Lombardy. And we, on our travels, will follow his own motto: “Stop in the streets, look around; find out about the ancient trails, and which one is the good way, and walk along it, and you will find refreshment for your spirit.”

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