Italian Lakes (2013)

THE MAKING OF THE LAKES

Situated at the gateway to the Italian peninsula, the Italian Lakes have long been a geographical prize, colonised – and contested – by a bewildering range of peoples. This is a landscape that bears the fingerprints of everyone from the Gauls to Garibaldi.

It was glacial action that carved out the rugged beds of the Italian Lakes. And it was not long after the last ice sheets retreated, around 14,000 years ago, that early man began to colonise the region. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were followed by Neolithic farmers, who carved delicate images into the rocks of the Val Camonica, near Lake Iseo (for more information, click here ).

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Catullus wrote forlorn love poems to Lesbia in this villa in Sirmione.

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Around 2,500 years later, there was what amounted to a social revolution: stone tools were replaced by ones made from metal – first copper, then bronze. These prehistoric people were outward-looking, making use of Alpine passes to travel and trade with other parts of continental Europe and, as the discovery of Oetzi the Iceman (see box) showed, had some knowledge of natural medicines.

Once a vast bay of the Adriatic, the northern plains gradually filled with nitrate-rich silt from the Po, the Adige and other rivers and became the most fertile region in Italy drawing prehistoric clans to the area.

Bronze Age advances in agriculture led to the growth of more permanent villages. Lavagnone, near Desenzano del Garda, was continuously settled for around 1,000 years. An oak plough found there (c .2000 BC) boasted a shrewdly designed replaceable ploughshare – and was probably pulled by oxen. Other Bronze Age finds in the area around the lakes include a spoked wheel, a dugout canoe and that sartorial survivor, the sprung safety-pin (a “fibula” in its earliest incarnation).

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Petroglyphs, Capo di Ponte, Val Camonica.

Fototeca ENIT

Iron Age people

With the Iron Age (c.1000 BC), the people of the lakes, such as the Camuni of Val Camonica, came into contact with new colonisers, notably the Etruscans and the Veneti, as well as the Liguri tribe, which had founded Brescia. By the 4th century BC, more belligerent Gauls (Celtic tribes) had swept across the Alps, driving out the Etruscans and putting their stamp on the landscape. They expanded Brescia, and founded Milan, Bergamo, Como and probably Trento, in modern-day Trentino. The Gauls then headed south and sacked Rome. The stage was set for conflict.

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Oetzi the Iceman.

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Roman province

The expansion of the Roman Republic had already led to war with Carthage, in modern Tunisia. In the First Punic War (264–241 BC), Rome took Sicily and Sardinia from Carthage, then turned its attentions north and drove the Gauls from what is now Milan (222 BC). The Romans named their newly conquered city Mediolanum. The Second Punic War (218–202 BC) saw the Carthaginian commander Hannibal lead his army – and elephants – over the Alps, establishing control over much of the lakes with the help of the Gauls. Rome, however, was not to be resisted and eventually destroyed Carthage, seized its vast empire and drove the Gauls from the lakes and fertile Po Valley. The Romans now controlled a vast northern Italian province – Gallia Cisalpina, literally “Gaul on this side of the Alps”. They began building the Via Aemilia, which linked Rimini on the Adriatic to Piacenza, and later extended the highway all the way to Milan. New settlements were founded, marshy ground drained, and Roman culture and language became dominant.

Frozen in Time

In 1991, high in the mountains of northern Italy, two hikers discovered the body of a man who had died thousands of years earlier in the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age. Preserved almost intact by the ice, Oetzi as he was named offered a unique glimpse into an ancient world. Analysis of his body and belongings allowed scientists to build up a detailed picture of his life and death.

Oetzi was well prepared for his mountain journey, dressed in a fur hat, thick coat, thigh-high leggings and leather lace-up shoes. He also had on a woven grass cloak and a backpack. Propped on a rock beside his body was a finely worked yew axe with a copper blade. He had a quiver, arrows and a bow. Of most interest was his medical kit – balls of a birch fungus with antibiotic properties, possibly to ease stomach-ache (parasitic worm eggs were found in his gut). Pollen analysis shows it was spring when Oetzi set out on his final journey. He never reached his destination as someone shot him in the back; a stone arrowhead was still in his body. More clues in this prehistoric murder mystery emerged with recent studies of Oetzi’s full genome which revealed that he had brown eyes, was blood type “O” and predisposed to heart disease.

Oetzi now resides in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano (Tue–Sun 10am–6pm; www.iceman.it ).

The boundary separating Gallia Cisalpina from Italic Rome was the Rubicon. Julius Caesar returned victorious from conquering Gaul, crossing this now legendary river with his army to seize control of the Republic. He wasted no time in developing the lakes, and had soon moved the original centre of Como to its current location, laying out a new town (Novum Comum) that had the status of a municipality. Mark Antony later “promoted” Gallia Cisalpina from a mere province to an official part of Italic Rome. This laid the foundations for the Italy of today.

Imperial era

The 1st century BC saw the Roman Republic segue into the Roman Empire, with Caesar’s chosen heir Octavian taking the title Emperor Augustus. He developed Brescia as an important trading centre and, recognising the strategic importance of the location of Mediolanum (‘Middle of the Plain’, which became Milan), made it the capital of Transpadania (15 BC), a region that included Como and Bergamo. The north began to make both an economic and a cultural contribution to the empire (the Plinys, Elder and Younger, came from Como, and the legacy of the poet Catullus, who was born in Verona, is also significant). Imposing structures such as the Forum in Brescia and Amphitheatre in Verona were erected, and wealthy Romans established the area as a rich man’s playground, building themselves luxurious lakeside villas – such as that at Desenzano on Lake Garda.

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The Roman columns in Milan.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

The empire remained stable until the 3rd century AD, when invaders began to breach its boundaries. The northern lakes were at the heart of much of the fighting – Lake Garda was the scene for the Battle of Lake Benacus (AD 268), in which Rome successfully beat off a vast Germanic army. Collapse was averted when Emperor Diocletian split his unwieldy empire in two. He went to Turkey to take control of the east (Byzantium), and co-emperor Maximilian was given control of the west – which he ruled from Milan.

Diocletian had persecuted Christians with brutal enthusiasm, but Constantine – who later converted – was more tolerant. After he met his co-emperor (and new brother-in-law) Licinius in Milan (AD 313), the Edict of Milan was issued. This allowed freedom of religious worship and effectively made Christianity the state religion of the empire. Milan soon became a jewel in the Christian crown.

When Licinius died, Constantine became sole emperor, reuniting both halves of the Roman Empire. He moved the capital from Rome to the city of Byzantium, building himself an imposing imperial city named Constantinople. Strategically situated between the Alps and the Po Valley, Milan assumed the role of second imperial centre.

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Ostrogothic King Theodoric.

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Barbarians and Byzantines

At the end of the 4th century, the empire was divided once again. Western Emperor Honorius initially made Milan his capital, but after it was attacked by barbarians, he moved the imperial capital southeast to Ravenna (in Emilia-Romagna), as its malarial swamps made it easier to defend. It was a disastrous decision, leaving much of Italy prey to raids. Rome was sacked and the lake settlements were continually harried. As the Western Empire crumbled, Como, Milan and Verona were besieged, and eventually Attila the Hun stormed the region, razing Milan in 452.

The later years of the 5th century saw further instability, with an uprising of mixed Teutonic invaders led by Odoacer, the son of a chieftain in Attila the Hun’s court. Odoacer took Ravenna and was eventually proclaimed rex Italiae – king of Italy, by the Eastern Emperor Zeno. He was crowned in Pavia.

Zeno came to see Odoacer as a threat and cunningly engineered his downfall by encouraging the Ostrogoth leader Theodoric to seize power. Theodoric’s forces took Verona in 489 and besieged Ravenna for an astonishing three years. Eventually, he and Odoacer agreed that they would both rule Italy. However, in a move worthy of a fictional villain, Theodoric held a celebratory banquet, toasted his new compatriot, then murdered him.

Theodoric became the new king of Italy, spending a great deal of time in Verona, but the threat from the east remained. Justinian became ruler of Byzantium (527–65) and embarked on a mission to retake the former Western Empire. The northern lakes became a battleground between Byzantium and the Ostrogoths during the Gothic Wars (535–54). Milan was besieged (again) and was eventually starved into surrender in 539. Many were massacred, and the city was virtually destroyed. Byzantine influence spread across Italy, and political instability allowed the Church to assume more authority.

The Lombard era

The later years of the 6th century ushered in a welcome period of relative peace for northern Italy. In 568, the Lombards (or Longobards), an industrious Germanic people, began their invasion (568–72) and soon had control of the lakes and much of the Po Valley. The Lombard era lasted until the 8th century and, as the name suggests, they wielded their greatest influence in what is now Lombardy. They established various duchies, the most important of which was at Pavia, which they intended to rival Ravenna (still under Byzantine rule). Other important centres were Brescia, Milan and Verona, and they also controlled Trento, Como and Bergamo.

The Lombards swiftly conquered most of what is now Lombardy, the Veneto and Tuscany, replacing the centralised Roman political system with locally governed “duchies”.

Lombard rule is traditionally seen as a Dark Age for Italy. However, they left a linguistic but also an architectural legacy. They began to build churches and monasteries, frequently incorporating earlier Roman structures and ushering in the Romanesque style. Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, San Zeno Maggiore in Verona and the Monastery of Santa Giulia in Brescia all bear the Lombard hallmark.

Pepin and the Pope

Around the middle of the 8th century, the Germanic Franks invaded Italy. Led by their king, the memorably monikered Pepin the Short, and with the blessing of the Pope, who had been increasingly worried by the strength of the Lombard kingdom, they grabbed Lombard territory and ushered in the Carolingian era. Pepin then unwittingly laid the foundations for generations of future conflict by strengthening the power of the Pope. In the Donation of Pepin (756), he granted land that had belonged to Ravenna, plus several Lombard duchies, to the Pope – effectively creating Papal States.

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Pope Zachary asking Pepin the Short for help against the Lombards.

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Perhaps as a way of ensuring a powerful Frankish–Lombard alliance, Pepin’s son and successor Charlemagne married one of the daughters of Desiderius, the Lombard king. It was a brief liaison: Charlemagne soon had the marriage annulled and married someone else. Such ungentlemanly behaviour provoked Lombard anger, and Desiderius seized a number of newly gifted papal lands. The Pope requested that Charlemagne get them back. Charlemagne duly invaded Italy (774) and conquered the Lombards (he was pointedly crowned with the Lombard crown in Pavia), creating a Frankish state. He went on to establish a mighty territory, across Italy and other parts of Europe, and was crowned emperor by the Pope in 800 – the first of the Holy Roman Emperors.

Pavia’s location on the Via Francigena brought in a valuable income from pilgrims on their way to Rome, who needed places to stay, eat, buy souvenirs and change money.

Carolingian rule continued after Charlemagne’s death, with control of northern Italy switching between French and German Franks (while the south began to succumb to the Arabs and then the Normans, creating a distinct cultural difference between north and south). The line died out in the late 9th century, and the ensuing power struggle allowed several cities in the north to assume autonomy. Even the imposition of order by German Otto I, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 962, failed to quell their rise.

Medieval Master Builders

The master builders of Lake Como and Lugano were the equal of any in medieval Europe. These skilled and patient craftsmen passed on their art from father to son.

The Maestri Comacini were a school of gifted stonecutters, sculptors, masons and master craftsmen who were responsible for the decoration of pulpits, portals and facades from the late 11th to 13th centuries. They have left their mark in Como’s churches of Sant’Abbondio and San Fedele, as well as in the slender bell-towers that grace the lake shore.

The Maestri’s sculptural techniques were influenced by the geometric designs of Lombard ironwork, which featured intricate interlacing patterns and mythical beasts. Given that the Lombards were inveterate travellers, some scholars have looked further afield for their sources of inspiration, citing the distant influences of Byzantine silks, Islamic sculpture and Coptic reliefs. Sant’Abbondio lends weight to these theories, as the bands of stone bas-reliefs reflect the patterns and design of Middle Eastern damask. Whatever the truth behind such cross-fertilisation, the school’s influence spread to southern Italy, Spain and Languedoc.

The Maestri Campionesi were the Lugano version of the Como master builders. Based in Campione d’Italia, an Italian enclave in Switzerland, the school was active throughout Lombardy, Veneto and beyond Italy’s borders. In the Middle Ages, the notion of the individual artist did not exist: sculptors simply worked in the service of God and the community and left their works unsigned. Although theoretically anonymous, many sculptors scattered their creations with clues, featuring themselves and their colleagues in their craft, and sometimes leaving masons’ marks inscribed in the stonework. The earliest document identifying masters from Campione by name is a 1244 contract between Ubaldino, director of the Cathedral Works of Modena (1230–63), and Enrico di Ottavio da Campione who agreed, on behalf of himself and his family, to work for the cathedral “for ever.”

In the second half of the 13th century, the style of the Campionesi master builders lost its distinctiveness, while their interest in early French Gothic sculpture became evident. By the 14th century, in Lombardy, Romanesque structural elements were gradually combined with Gothic details. The most eminent of the Maestri Campionesi in the first half of the 14th century was Giovanni da Campione, who mainly worked in Bergamo and Bellano.

Masters of the mysteries

The Maestri belonged to confraternities, brotherhoods which some dub Masonic and link to the long-lost skills of Roman architecture. A fanciful theory holds that the Maestri Comacini were secret heirs to the legendary Roman builders. Allegedly, the building techniques of antiquity were never truly lost but merely held in safekeeping, passed down within brotherhoods. The Maestri cultivated the air of mystery about their craft. Fans of medieval architecture should be able to join fans of the best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code in deciphering arcane stonework and statuary in Lombardy’s lake district.

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The Gothic-Renaissance spire of Como’s cathedral.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Enter Redbeard

Otto, his son and grandson (rather predictably Otto II and Otto III) ruled until the year 1002, establishing a strong link between Germany and Italy. When Otto III died, his cousin, the extremely devout Henry II, assumed control. Henry empowered the Church, and ecclesiastical buildings sprang up around the lakes.

Cities such as Milan and Como were now almost separate city states (comuni) , ruled by councils of clergy and powerful merchants. The relationship between Church and state, popes and emperors, became increasingly uncomfortable, especially when, in 1076, Emperor Henry IV decided to flex his political muscles by investing as archbishop of Milan a man he knew was unacceptable to Pope Gregory VII. Henry deposed Gregory, who promptly retaliated by excommunicating the emperor. The struggle continued until Henry V took the crown and diplomatically conceded to most papal claims.

As the comuni grew in wealth and power, so did rivalries between them. Early in the 12th century, the so-called Ten Years War (1118–27) broke out between Como and Milan – Como was eventually defeated and badly damaged. Then Arnold of Brescia led a reform movement against the Church, eventually moving to Rome and establishing a “republic” in defiance of the Pope. In 1154, Swabian ruler Frederick I (named “Barbarossa” because of his red beard) stormed into Italy, ostensibly to defend the papacy, but in reality to stamp his authority on this increasingly unruly region. He was crowned king of Italy at Pavia in 1154, and later Holy Roman Emperor. He rampaged across northern Italy and destroyed Milan in 1162 – an act that unexpectedly united the competitive comuni against this aggressive intruder.

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Frederick Barbarossa invades Italy, 1154, from a 15th-century manuscript.

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The Lombard League

Barbarossa’s belligerence led to the formation of an alliance of cities in the lakes. In 1167, at the village of Pontida, near Bergamo, Cremona, Mantua, Bergamo and Brescia united in an attempt to limit the emperor’s influence. They were later joined by other cities, including Milan and Verona. Pavia and Como, however, sided with Barbarossa while Trento, governed by prince-bishops since 1027, kept aloof. The league built a fortified settlement, named Alessandria (after Pope Alexander III). Relations between the Pope and the league got closer, especially after Barbarossa attacked Alessandria. It should have been an easy victory – Alessandria was known as “Straw City” as its roofs were made of straw – but the assault was unsuccessful. There was then another blow to imperial pride when the league defeated Barbarossa at Legnano, near Milan, in 1176.

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The walled town of Brescia, from the 16th-century Book of Privileges.

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An uneasy truce began, and eventually Barbarossa granted most demands. After he died, the Lombard League had to be revived more than once as his successors (members of the Hohenstaufen dynasty) made more attempts to extend imperial authority. Barbarossa’s grandson Frederick II declared war but was beaten back from Brescia in 1238 and he – and Hohenstaufen rule – died in 1250. But a distinct division had been established between supporters of the emperor – who felt he had the right to sanction popes (Ghibellines) and supporters of the Pope – who felt he had the right to crown emperors (Guelphs).

Southern Italy had now been opened up to French rule. In the north, the comuni became self-governing states ruled by secular councils (communes) made up of wealthy merchants and lawyers. This autonomy allowed cities such as Milan, Pavia and Verona to take full advantage of their location on lucrative European trade routes and increasingly busy pilgrimage paths. Banking, trade and commerce flourished, and the astute northern communes also encouraged agricultural innovation, fully exploiting the potential of the flat, fertile Po Valley.

The architectural legacy of La Serenissima is still evident in northern Italy: a bas-relief of a lion at Salò, a Venetian customs house at Lazise and Brescia’s Venetian-style Piazza Loggia.

Stellar Signori and La Serenissima

Freed from the need to fight against imperial powers, the cities now had the time to fight amongst themselves. Not only were there rivalries between cities (often based on Guelph or Ghibelline allegiances), there were also internal wranglings for control of the ruling councils. Cities began to look to members of powerful families for leadership, and control became centralised, wielded by signori (ruling lords).

In Milan, it was the archbishop, Ottone Visconti, who grabbed power. He became signore in 1278, and the city began to flourish as never before. By the early 14th century, the Visconti dynastic powerbase (aided by some enthusiastic violence and double-dealing) was decidedly impressive: Bergamo, Cremona, Como and Brescia were all ruled by Milan. Although the Black Death of 1348 inevitably slowed progress, the lakes survived the crisis. When ruthless Gian Galeazzo Visconti became duke of Milan in 1395, the city became the predominant power in northern Italy. You can still see reminders of the Visconti era today in monuments such as Milan’s stunning Duomo (for more information, click here ).

Visconti rule ended in 1447 with the death of Filippo Maria and passed to his son-in-law, Francesco Sforza, whose dynastic control lasted nearly 100 years. This was the time of the Renaissance, and the family’s wealth allowed them to harness this intellectual and artistic luminescence. They built the Castello Sforzesco and Ospedale Maggiore (Ca’ Granda) in Milan and, in an inspired move, brought Leonardo da Vinci to the city, where he painted the glorious Cenacolo (Last Supper; for more information, click here ).

It is worth noting that the signori effected not just cultural but also economic change on the Italian Lakes. They dug canals, began growing rice on the marshes and planted thousands of mulberry trees – so developing Como’s lucrative silk industry (for more information, click here ).

However, they did not have it all their own way: the Republic of Venice, La Serenissima, which had originated during the years of Lombard rule, also trailed its elegant fingers across the lakeland landscape. Its influence was first felt in Verona – the snake-pit of power struggles and family feuds that inspired Romeo and Juliet . Government was initially dominated by the Scaligeri (aka della Scala) family, who also ruled Lake Garda, scattering its shores with castles at Malcesine, Lazise and Torri del Benaco. But eventually they lost pole position to the seemingly unstoppable Viscontis. In 1405, the Venetians, fearing that expansion of Milan could threaten lucrative trade routes, seized Verona, followed by Brescia and much of Lake Garda (1426) and Bergamo (1428).

Spanish possession

The trouble with the signori was that they were unable to resist scheming. An alliance between Francesco Sforza and Cosimo de’ Medici had kept peace between Milan and its powerful southern neighbour Florence. But, at the end of the 15th century, Ludovico Sforza, hoping to garner an ally to counteract Venetian power, suggested that Charles VIII of France invade Italy and take Naples from the incumbent Spanish rulers. Although Charles (once cruelly described as “small… ill-formed… with an ugly face… and thick lips which are continually open”) could not hold Naples, it set the scene for strife.

The French attempted to take the duchy, but when François I took Milan in 1515, he came up against a powerful opponent, Charles of Spain. Charles was not just king of Spain, he was heir to the Austrian Habsburg lands, had claims to Naples, possessed vast territories in Europe – and was soon to become Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519). Though physically unprepossessing, with a misshapen jaw, gout and chronic indigestion, he was not a man to cross.

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Castello Sforzesco, Milan.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Charles’s troops defeated the French at Pavia in 1525, but although he allowed the Sforzas to resume their rule, the family had died out by 1535 and Milan was again contested. It was not until 1559 that the French eventually recognised Spanish possession and the Italian Lakes were reduced to the status of a heavily taxed Spanish province for the next 170 years. The only exceptions were Bergamo, Brescia and Verona (which Venice had just managed to retain), and Trento (still governed by Catholic prince-bishops).

The lakes also became the setting for ecclesiastical, as well as international, power struggles. The exuberance of the Renaissance had sparked the Reformation, and the papacy was determined to resist this Protestant challenge. From 1545–63, at sessions of the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church condemned Protestantism, and set the stage for persecution of “heretics” and “witches” (burnings at the stake frequently occurred in the Val Camonica). Attending this influential council was Carlo Borromeo (1538–84), whose family later left a flamboyant Baroque imprint on Lake Maggiore.

Habsburg rule

The economy declined during the first part of the 17th century, not helped by outbreaks of plague. In 1700, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs died and the French king laid claim to his – not inconsiderable – European possessions. It sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), in which the French and the Austrians fought for the Spanish spoils. The outcome, decided at the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), granted Naples, Sardinia, Mantua and most of the Duchy of Milan to Austria. Power in the lakes was now largely in Austrian Habsburg hands – and they soon put in place some energising reforms, influenced by Enlightenment thinking.

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Napoleon directs troops in the Battle of Rivoli.

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Brothers Alessandro and Pietro Verri worked with the Austrians to introduce reforms in education, promoted ideas of free trade and published a lively journal; their friend Cesare Beccaria (1738–94) published a book on crime and punishment that condemned the use of torture. In Milan, the Accademia di Brera was founded and La Scala was built (1778).

The 18th century also saw the start of the Grand Tour. Italy became a fashionable destination for young European men of means and Romantic poets, painters and imaginative thinkers were soon bringing their money and ideas to the lakes, especially Como and Maggiore. But in the midst of all this great thought, revolutionary France went to war against the Austrian imperialists – and Napoleon invaded Italy.

Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Risorgimento

After the restoration of Austrian rule, secret societies, such as the Carbonari, fermented revolution. In their newspaper Il Risorgimento , Cesare Balbo and Count Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont, campaigned for a constitution and gave a name to the movement for Italian unification.

In 1848, there was an uprising in Milan, and Carlo Alberto, the king of Piedmont, declared war on Austria. Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–82), who had made his name as a swashbuckling fighter in South America, had returned to Italy to support the Risorgimento cause and fought in Milan and Rome. Although the early battles were lost, Cavour was soon able to engineer an alliance with the French and, with their support, finally defeated the Austrians in Lombardy in 1859. Uprisings in Tuscany and Emilia led to their union with Piedmont, meaning that much territory was now in Italian hands. With the support of the British, Garibaldi collected a force of 1,000 men (the Expedition of the Thousand) and sailed to Sicily. Together with Naples, Sicily was under Bourbon rule, and Garibaldi managed to seize both. By 1860, unification was largely complete, but Garibaldi, who had fallen out with Cavour, had no political office and retired to the island of Caprera, off Sardinia.

Napoleon’s puppet

In 1796, Napoleon took Milan (where he was received with enthusiasm), Bologna and Verona. He then established the Cisalpine Republic (1797) in the north: it included the Duchy of Milan and the western parts of the Venetian territories, and had Milan as its capital. In the same year, he declared war on Venice. The Venetian Republic was finished – Napoleon granted the parts he didn’t want to Austria in return for other territories.

The Cisalpine Republic was a French creation and remained under French control. Napoleon renamed it the Italian Republic in 1802 with himself as president. In 1804, he promoted himself again – this time to emperor. He converted the Italian Republic to the Kingdom of Italy in 1805 and was crowned in Milan’s Duomo.

Napoleon’s quest for absolute power was eventually halted by his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, and at the Congress of Vienna in the same year, Austria was awarded Lombardy and the Veneto, as well as Trento. The old rule returned. But Napoleon had left an enduring legacy: revolutionary ideas and the concept of an all-embracing “Italian” state.

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Risorgimento forces clash with Austrian troops in Brescia, 1849.

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An Italian kingdom

From the Congress of Vienna in 1815 to the taking of Rome in 1870 by the troops of King Victor Emmanuel II, the history of Italy was one continuous struggle for reunification. The people of Lombardy hated the reimposition of Austrian rule. Although the region became relatively prosperous, the Austrians clamped down on freedom of expression. Secret societies grew and revolution fermented – the Risorgimento had begun. In 1848 the Milanese took to the streets for five days (the Cinque Giornate ) and ousted their rulers, and in 1849 Brescia held out against Austrian troops for 10 days, giving it the nickname the “Lioness of Italy”. In 1859, Risorgimento forces decisively defeated the Austrians at the battles of Solferino (a village between Milan and Verona) and Magenta (just west of Milan). Casualties were so appalling that they prompted the founding of the Red Cross in 1864.

Lombardy was finally ceded to the Savoy monarch Vittorio Emanuele II, the Bourbons were removed from the south, and in 1860, the Kingdom of Italy was born. Complete unification came after the Austrians were finally ousted from Venice and the Veneto (1866) and Rome (much to the fury of the Pope) was taken and annexed to the kingdom in 1870.

Lombardy prospered. Grand buildings, such as the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, were erected in Milan; the Gotthard rail tunnel through the Alps opened in 1882, facilitating trade with northern Europe; agriculture flourished in the fertile Po Valley and industrialisation proceeded apace. The Belle Epoque was a party time throughout the lakes – then war broke out once more.

The world at war

To some, especially the Irredentists, Italy was still not unified. The area around Trento, for example, was Italian-speaking yet remained an Austrian territory. When World War I broke out in 1914, Italy was neutral, but there were voices (including that of Benito Mussolini) in favour of war. In 1915, lured by the promise of gaining land, Italy joined the Allies and was rewarded with Trieste and Trentino. Reminders of the Alpine campaign can be seen at the Museo della Guerra Bianca in Adamello (for more information, click here ).

Immediately after the war, there was immense social unrest, with demonstrations and strikes in cities like Milan. In reaction, Mussolini formed his Fascist league of blackshirts and seized power in 1922. In 1940, Italy joined World War II allied to Nazi Germany but later switched sides. At the end of the war Mussolini was killed and his body strung up in Milan.

Post-war enterprise – and unrest

After the war, the king abdicated, and Italy became a republic in 1946. A close alliance was formed with America, and Lombardy led an economic boom. The old enterprising spirit, rooted in the autonomy of the medieval comuni , was revived. Milan, badly bombed in the war, grew into a slick financial and media centre. At a national level, the country was increasingly portrayed as divided between the wealthy, urban north and the poor, rural south.

Political unrest characterised the 1960s and 1970s, as protesters voiced their dissatisfaction with the government. Acts of terrorism, carried out by the far left and far right, shook the country during these Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) . There were assassinations, and bombs in Milan (1969), Brescia (1974) and Bologna (1980).

Yet the economy in the north was resilient, and with Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace and Miuccia Prada in the city, Milan became a fashionable as well as a financial force.

Mussolini

The jackboot of Benito Mussolini, one of the central figures of the fascist movement, left a firm imprint on northern Italy.

Born into a socialist family, Mussolini (1883–1945) showed no early dictatorial leanings, even moving to Switzerland in an attempt to dodge the Italian draft. His first job was in Trento (then in Austria), but he was expelled for political agitation. Back in Italy, he began editing the official Socialist newspaper Avanti , in Milan, opposing Italian entry into World War I, before changing his mind, influenced by the Irredentists.

Rise to power

Expelled by the Socialist Party, he founded his own pro-war paper Popolo d’Italia , but was himself conscripted. Wounded by a mortar bomb explosion in his trench, he was discharged from service in 1917. Mussolini returned from the front a violent anti-socialist. In 1919, he formed the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Veterans’ League) in Milan. Black-shirted members began rampaging across the country, even setting fire to the Avanti offices. In 1922, he marched on Rome, intimidating the king so much that he was invited to form a government. When politician Giacomo Matteotti dared to condemn Fascism he was murdered. Mussolini publicly declared: “I, and I alone assume the political, moral and historical responsibility for all that has happened.”

Ill-fated alliances

By 1925, Il Duce had absolute control. He cannily formed an alliance with the Pope, making the Vatican an independent state in return for papal acknowledgement of the Kingdom of Italy. He then imposed censorship of the press, drained the Pontine Marshes, invaded Ethiopia (assisted by liberal use of poison gas) and helped Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Mussolini supported Hitler’s annexation of Austria and in 1940 entered the war as a Nazi ally.

However, the war was not popular in Italy, and in 1943, after Allied forces landed in Sicily, Mussolini’s colleagues (who included his son-in-law) condemned his conduct and demanded that he go. After an audience with the king, Il Duce was arrested and imprisoned in the Abruzzi. The Germans spirited him away to Lake Garda, where he was made head of a puppet state, the Republic of Salò (for more information, click here ). Mussolini settled comfortably into the elegant lakeside Villa Feltrinelli with his mistress, Clara Petacci, conveniently ensconced nearby in the Villa Fiordaliso.

Downfall

On 25 April 1945, Il Duce delivered his last public speech at the Teatro Lirico in Milan and although he was no more than just a failed puppet ruler at this moment he was still very heartily applauded by the gathered crowds. On the same day, Mussolini and Clara tried to escape to Switzerland hidden in a German military transport. They were captured, however, by partisans on 27 April 1945 in Dongo, Lake Como, and taken to a farmhouse. The next day, partisan commander Colonel Valerio drove them to Mezzegra, where they were lined up against a wall and shot. On 29 April, their bodies, with those of 15 other executed Fascists, were taken to Milan and hung, upside down, from meat hooks in the Piazzale Loreto.

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Mussolini, by popular demand.

Alamy

Scandal, success and separatism

The 1990s saw a series of political scandals strike Italian society. Politicians, it emerged, were receiving backhanders (tangenti) for awarding lucrative business contracts. The Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) investigation began in Milan, spearheaded by judge Antonio di Pietro. A tangled web of corruption was revealed, and the Christian Democrat Party, which had dominated Italian politics since the formation of the republic, collapsed. It opened the way to the election of Milanese media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, who romped to power on an anti-corruption card with his right-wing Forza Italia party. Berlusconi’s business empire gave him almost complete control of the Italian media. No stranger to charges of underhand dealing, he was frequently accused of using his political office to further his business interests. He stayed in power until 2006, and was re-elected in 2008, but in 2011 one scandal too many finally ousted him from power for good. Berlusconi was succeeded by economist and academic Mario Monti. In 2013, Enrico Letta replaced Monti for a short while before being ousted by Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party in 2014.

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Lega Nord gathering in Pontida, Bergamo Province.

Alamy

The lakes continue as the engine of the Italian economy – albeit one that has suffered the effects of a global economic decline. Tourists flock to their romantic shores, gasp at their beauty, look for a glimpse of a celebrity – but there are iron- and steelworks, hydroelectric plants and silk factories here too. The area considers itself very different from the south (which it views as lazy and corrupt), and there is even a separatist party – the Lega Nord. Much of its support comes from Lombardy. A notable boost to the region’s economy came from the Milan Expo in 2015. Lombardy alone contributes about 20 percent of the Italian GDP, making it the richest region in the country and one of the richest in Europe.