Como: Best of Como, Italy

COMO, at the southern end of the eponymous lake, is the successor of a significant Roman town and indeed retains much of its plan. After a ferocious struggle with Milan in 1118–27, Como remained independent until 1335 when it was taken by the Visconti.

Thereafter the city was under Milanese control. The Piazza del Duomo, far from the port, lay at the centre of both civic and religious life. The Broletto was built in 1215, while the cathedral beside it was only begun in 1396. Como had a remarkable tradition of masons, supplying craftsmen to work throughout Italy, but the cathedral is their most impressive achievement. The early Renaissance façade with its profusion of sculpture repays close attention, but it is easier to access the key figure, Tommaso Rodari, in the Porta della Rana on the north front. The space within is unexpectedly dark, and it takes some time to adjust the eye to survey the tapestries suspended between the columns of the nave, many of which were devised by Giuseppe Arcimboldi. The altarpiece of the fourth chapel on the right is by Luini. He also painted the inside shutters of the Sant’Abbondio altarpiece, representing the two Adorations, which with Gaudenzio’s later Flight into Egypt and Marriage of the Virgin of the outer sides now flank the third altars on both sides of the church. As at Saronno, Gaudenzio emerges as the more inventive artist.

Cathedral, the Porta della Rana from the Broletto.

There are two other notable churches, the late twelfth-century San Fedele of particularly ingenious plan, and, in a now rather run-down area outside the walls, the Benedictine Sant’Abbondio, which was consecrated by Pope Urban II in 1095. Thoroughly but not unsympathetically restored in successive campaigns, this is an austere masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. The deep polygonal apse is decorated with a major fresco cycle of about 1350.Como is understandably famous for the villas beside the lake. The most accessible, some forty kilometres up the west side of the lake, is the Villa Carlotta at Tremezzo. Built in the early eighteenth century, this was acquired in 1801 by Count Sommariva, whose success in the service of Bonaparte was matched by his energy as a patron of neoclassical sculptors. A number of his acquisitions remained in the villa when it passed to the Saxe-Meiningens, notably Canova’s Palamedes and a version of his Magdalen in Penitence, now most unworthily displayed. The planting of the garden is equally abysmal, but this does not seem to diminish its popularity. Across the arm of the lake, but in easy reach by ferry from Cadenabbia, is the architecturally more distinguished Villa Melzi, built in 1808–10 in the most elegant neoclassical taste for another adherent of the French, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, and set in a lakeside jardin anglais. Numerous lesser villas can be seen from the road to Tremezzo, which passes a number of modest Romanesque churches.

Cathedral, the north door by Tommaso Rodari.

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