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Lake Como Italy Cultural Guide

The quiet tranquil beauty of Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy was perhaps most appropriately captured by composer and writer Franz Liszt who said of Lake Como, “I do not know of any place which is more demonstrably blessed by heaven; I have never seen another one where the charms of a life of love can appear more natural.”
Liszt isn’t the only one who thought so. Lake Como has inspired beauty and delight in its residents since the very first settlers were drawn to it centuries ago and it is still a popular, luxurious getaway for both the famous and everyday travelers who come from near and far.
Due to its natural beauty and agreeable climate, this lake of glacial origin is still sought out today by the elite yearning to escape the pressures of everyday life, particularly in the central and southern shores of the lake. Here, tucked amongst the base of craggy mountains dotted with green, visitors will find grand entertainment in the form of picturesque lakeside villas, top of the line spas, and leisure water sports such as windsurfing, kitesurfing, and sailing.
In contrast, the northern part of the lake offers a more authentic version of its historical roots. Here the rugged land flourishes wild and untamed, where locals can partake in freshwater fishing and agricultural farming. In many ways it is a true sanctuary of sorts for nature lovers. The resolve to protect and preserve the natural origins of the lake can be observed in institutions such as The Museum of Silk in Como or the Museum of Farming Culture in Colico.
Residents of Lake Como are in fact responsible for several industrial sectors that have achieved excellence over time. The world-renowned silk district is one of the finest examples of success. Since the early 1400s under the Sforza family, hundreds of mulberry trees were planted to attract hungry silkworms. Today, the silk district here receives orders for fine silk from across the globe. Due to the lake’s unique wind and weather conditions, the ship building industry continues to flourish. Historically, each ship builder’s creation was distinct in both style and technique, making the industry’s products widely diverse. Furthermore, the area around Lake Como was the first part of Italy to develop an industrial sector, and after the Industrial Revolution Lecco was known as one of the principal metallurgy centers in the world. Additionally, in gorgeous Mandello del Lario on the eastern border of the lake, Carlo Guzzi and Giorgio Parodi founded legendary Italian motorcycle business, Moto Guzzi. Today, Lake Como has a developed a commercial business sector as well as a construction industry and a metalworking industry.
Though each village, town, and hamlet on Lake Como is absolute in its gratitude toward nature and reverence for the lake itself, they are splendidly unique in their own tradition of culture, making a tour of the lake’s perimeter an enchanting experience. The area is rich in tradition and folklore with many annual events and local festivals that range from religious celebrations to secular events, including cultural and musical celebrations. The inhabitants of the lake’s small towns all participate in the local events fostering a strong bond with their native land. The events can be considered rituals of sorts that are passed down from generation to generation. Two examples of events deeply rooted in the culture of a particular town include Pesa Vegia and Carnival of Schignano. Pesa Vegia in Bellano is a celebration of a local event that occurred during the Renaissance as well as a celebration of the Epiphany. The Carnival of Schignano is a carnival parade with origins that date back to ancient times.
The exclusive beauty of this natural wonder has drawn celebrities as well as many Italian and world leaders. English statesman Winston Churchill found reprieve in the beauty and stillness of Lake Como after the turmoil of World War II. United States President John Fitzgerald Kennedy once stayed at the historic Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio. It is still common today for notable politicians, royals, and high-powered business executives to spend time on Lake Como for business, pleasure, or holiday.

ART AND ARCHITECTURE

The impressive, modern architecture of the lakeside villas is second only to the natural landscape and splendor of the area. Many of the villas have elements of Renaissance and Neoclassical styles in their interiors with exquisite frescos and high painted ceilings. The exteriors of these villas boast grand stairways, statues of Greek mythology, and immaculate gardens.
While some villas are located in more secluded and remote areas, others are nestled in the heart of local villages or sit lakeside in all their grandeur. At a quick glance, one can count more than seventy historic villas lining the lake that are easily accessible via designated pathways, boat, or ferry. A handful of the buildings are private, but most villas are open to visitors. Renowned villas such as Villa d’Este in Cernobbio or Villa Pliniana in Torno, both now luxury hotels, have hosted guests of Italian and European nobility, famous movie stars, and celebrated artists. If staying at one of the gorgeous villas of Lake Como, it is not unusual to be starstruck when crossing paths with a visiting celebrity.

Additionally, Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo, Villa del Balbianello in Lenno, Villa Olmo in Como, and Villa Monastero in Varenna are just a few examples of other spectacular villas located in the area with architecture that is sure to impress, not only for the buildings themselves, but also for the surrounding gardens. Several of these villas may also feature permanent or temporary art exhibitions throughout the year.
As a prosperous trade route under Roman rule, Lake Como was frequently subjected to invasions by foreigners. Today many of the remains of fortresses and castles once intended to protect the area are now a main attraction for travelers. From Castello di Baradello in Como to Castello di Rezzonico in San Siro to Castello di Vezio near Varenna, visitors can delight in exploring these ancient fortifications.
In Como, the Castle of Baradello is excellent for touring as well as taking in spectacular aerial views of the town below. Its 360-degree view of Como was used by defenders charged with spotting approaching invaders which earned the fortress the name of Protector of the Town. The castle’s tower is one of the most prominent landmarks in the surrounding area. Visitors should be sure to enjoy the archaeological museum inside the tower.
The Castle of Rezzonico can be traced back to the fourteenth century and is known for its high walls and trio of towers. Visitors should plan to tour the expansive garden as well as the Chapel of the Three Kings. Since the fortress is considered private property, tourists must check for availability well in advance of a visit.
The eleventh century wonder of the Castle of Vezio is as scenic as it is historic. Although it was once part of an ancient communication route running through the medieval village of Varenna, today it is a tourist favorite featuring a central tower, a functioning drawbridge, and surrounding olive trees, all of which make this castle one of the most picturesque in the area. Do not miss the unique demonstrations of falconers who work with trained birds of prey. The castle is generally open from March through November.
Lake Como is also home to quite a few churches and chapels including excellent examples of Romanesque architecture and beyond. Dominating the Como side of the lake is the cupola of the Duomo of Como. Constructed over a period of four centuries, the Duomo is a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles. Other key churches include the Church of San Fedele in Como, the Church of San Giorgio and Church of San Giovanni Battista in Varenna, the Basilica of San Pietro al Monte in Civate, and the Church of Santa Maria del Tiglio in Gravedona. There are also several abbeys and monasteries including the Abbey of Piona in Colico, the Abbey of San Pietro al Monte in Civate, and the Monastery of Santa Maria del Lavello in Calolziocorte.

SCIENCE

Pliny the Elder, an Ancient Roman author and natural philosopher, was born in Como. He is best known for Naturalis Historia, which aimed to cover all ancient knowledge of the natural world. Pliny’s nephew, Pliny the Younger, owned two villas on the shores of Lake Como and is renowned for his letters describing the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, during which Pliny the Elder perished.

Italian physicist Alessandro Volta revolutionized the early nineteenth century with the invention of the electric battery. With this invention, Volta proved that it was possible to generate electricity by chemical means, completely transforming the contemporary understanding of electricity. Volta’s invention inspired and spurred further research into the scientific fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, and the modern technology we have access to today. It is after Volta that the unit of electric potential is named, “volt.” Today curious travelers can learn more about Volta and his inventions at the Tempio Voltiano, a museum dedicated to Volta, located on the shores of Lake Como in the center of Como.

LITERATURE

One of the most important works of Italian literature, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni is set in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, with many scenes taking place in the Lake Como area. Manzoni takes great care to describe the panoramas of the lake. At the beginning of the work, Manzoni sets the scene with a description of the lake that reads, “Quel ramo del Lago di Como” which translates to “That branch of Lake Como.” This quote from the historical novel became incredibly well known and is closely associated with the culture of Lombardy.

The Italian realist writer Giovanni Verga, best known for writing about his native Sicily, spent time in Milan and Lake Como. Verga described the wistful atmosphere of the lake as, “like moving through a dream.” Italian author and poet Antonio Fogazzaro, wrote frequently about Lake Como and part of his novel Malombra is set in Torno.
Several important poets of English literature were both hypnotized and inspired by the fairytale qualities of the area. William Wordsworth was so taken with the area he dedicated part of an autobiographical poem to Lake Como, while fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once wistfully wrote in a letter, “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty.” Lord Byron is also believed to have spent time in Lake Como during his travels through Italy.
The lake’s inspirational effects on famous writers are well documented throughout the globe. Flaubert and Stendhal were two writers from France captivated by the area and its splendor. Renowned American writer Mark Twain once referred to the area reverently in his work The Innocents Abroad as a “heaven of quiet rest.”

MUSIC

Lake Como is not only a source of solace for those escaping day to day rigor but it is also an inspiration to various forms of art, including music. For centuries, musicians have been attracted to Lake Como drawing inspiration from its beautiful panoramas. One of the most notable examples is renowned nineteenth century composer Franz Liszt who resided in Como for a time, finding solace in the tranquility of the lake. It is believed that Liszt composed “Dante Symphony” while surrounded by the breathtaking nature of Villa Melzi d’Eril in Bellagio.

Renowned Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi found a deep connection with the beauty of the lake that can be identified in the notes of his works. In fact, Verdi composed the world famous La Traviata opera inside the walls of Villa Margherita in Griante. Other notable composers that have visited the lake include Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Puccini, and Gioachino Rossini. The last of these composed the opera Tancredi while staying at Villa Pliniana in Torno, while Vincenzo Bellini composed both La Sonnambula and Norma at Villa Passalacqua in Moltrasio.
In the 1950s, a famous musician that traveled to Lake Como as an escape was Frank Sinatra, who stayed at Villa D’Este with Ava Gardner and is believed to have been a fan of a local specialty: risotto with artichokes. Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger is also known to frequent the shores of the lake seeking solitude from invasive paparazzi. Additionally, American musician Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen frequently visits the area during the summer.

Lake Como also hosts the Lake Como International Music Festival each year from June to September. Founded in 2006, the annual festival celebrates classical music with concerts held in many of the lake’s historic villas and churches.

MOVIES AND CINEMA

With the majestic aesthetics of Lake Como, its presence in cinematography is no surprise. In fact, the lake’s cinematic ties date back several centuries and begin with the fathers of film, the Lumière brothers, who made a few of their early films on the shores of Lake Como at the end of the nineteenth century. A few decades later, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film as a director, The Pleasure Garden, included scenes set in Lake Como’s villas. Luchino Visconti, who spent his youth in Lake Como, directed 1960’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli, which included a scene filmed in Bellagio. In 1984, American actors Robert De Niro and James Woods starred in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, a crime drama with a scene filmed on the lake’s shores in Bellagio.

In 2002, scenes of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones were filmed with the natural scenery of Villa del Balbianello and Tremezzo as backgrounds. A few years later, part of Ocean’s Twelve was filmed at George Clooney’s villa in Lake Como. In 2006, Casino Royale, starring Daniel Craig as English spy James Bond, showcased the lake in multiple scenes requiring breathtaking background shots that make this blockbuster series a favorite among fans. In 2008, Lake Como and Villa D’Este served as a setting for the film The Other Man starring Liam Neeson and Antonio Banderas. Furthermore, the 2019 films Burnt Orange Heresy starring Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland as well as Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston were both filmed in Lake Como.
In addition to filming in the area, some actors and celebrities have been known to visit Lake Como regularly. Clark Gable of Gone With the Wind fame was a forerunner of this trend years ago. American actor Kirk Douglas was known to visit, and fellow American actor Robert De Niro regularly spends time with his family at the lake in the summer. American actor George Clooney went one step further and purchased Villa Oleandra in Laglio as a summer residence.

The beauty and tranquility of this stunning lake tucked away into the craggy mountain landscape of Italy is truly an unparalleled treasure for all who behold its beauty. Travelers who spend time among the quiet waters lapping the shores of Lake Como can agree that one visit is simply never enough. Many will spend a lifetime seeking it out time and time again for a peace and magnificence not found anywhere else.