Saturday, 28 April 2018

Lilja Slutskaja: Fascinating artistic life

IH exists thanks to a network of friends, all with amazing stories. These are rare and true testimonials related to the history of the Insubrica region. Today, we will write about Lilja Slutskaja (also sometimes written as Lilija Sluckaja). We can consider ourselves privileged to discuss this wonderful artist, and we would like to thank sincerely Ferri and his mother Eliette who are closely connected to Lilja. 

Lilja Sluskaya
Lilja Slutskaja was born in Uzun-Ada in 1885, being the sister of Xenia (1888), Victor (Vitja) and Sasha. She was the second child of Elias Slutsky, who had Ukrainian origins, and was married to Tatiana. Lilja's family belonged to the middle-class. Her father, while being a trader in the cotton business, was also a pioneer in his soul, dreaming always to bring progress and change in the world. This fact could partially explain why the family lived a lot in remote places. 

In 1885, the family Slutskij arrived in Uzun-Ada, a Trans-Caspian Railway station, situated next to a sea-port built on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in the bay of Uzun-Ada of the Mikhailovsky Gulf in the Krasnovodsky district of the Trans-Caspian region of the Russian Empire.

The construction of a bigger port in near-by Krasnovodsk along with the harsh meteorological conditions forced the family Slutsky to leave very soon Uzun-Ada. A long journey brought them further all over to modern Uzbekistan:  in Katta-Kurga, Buchara (1889), Kokand, Samarkand (1904) and Tashkent (1908). During this adventure, two sisters Xenia (the grand-mother of Ferri and a close friend of IH in Ticino) as well as Lilja managed to attend  successfully a college in Odessa.

In 1910, two brothers, Vitja and Sasha, entered the Engineering Polytechnic School in Munich in Germany; therefore, the family left the Russian Empire for good. From 1910 to 1914, Lilja attended the Art Academy of Monaco. From 1914, she completed her studies at the Zurich Academy of Fine Arts (German: Kunstgewerbeschule); later, in 1916, she moved to Geneva, then to Lausanne, working for a small craft-work store till 1918.

During these years, she had contacts with Aleksej von Jawlenskij (1864-1941) who became in 1914 a resident in Switzerland and portrayed her in 1918 in his works called Mystischer Kopf (in English: mystic head). Lilja was a friend of Marianne Werefkina (1860-1938) too, a famous abstract artist of Russian origins who lived in the Canton Ticino. Werefkina's paintings are exhibited to the public in the Art Museum in Ascona.  

Lilja made her debut in the Italian artistic world in 1920 at the Twelfth Venice Biennale, where she exhibited, together with Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Jawlensky (1864-1941), her beautiful watercolor paintings. On this occasion, the critic Francesco Sapori defined her as "a strong watercolorist". In 1920, she resided in Ascona in the Canton Ticino and in 1923 moved to the nearby city of Locarno at the Hotel Metropole, formerly the Hotel della Corona, situated at the Piazza Grande.

Despite living in Switzerland, she didn't stop working in Italy: in 1923 she exhibited her works such as two interiors, two illustrations for a novel written by Andersen, and an illustration for a Russian novel, at the First International Watercolor Exhibition for the Society of Fine Arts and Exposition Permanent of Milan. Lilja's works were presented in the Russian section of the first and second edition of the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts at the Villa Reale in Monza (1923, 1925).

Lilja Slutskaya - Sintesi di Genova (1934)
She settled permanently in Italy in 1933, first in Genoa and then in Milan, in Via Monte di Pietà, not far away from the artistic thriving place of Brera. She actively participated in the Italian cultural life, establishing contacts with important artistic institutions. In particular, in 1933, she exhibited paintings, drawings and watercolors at the Genoa Naval League Exhibition.

In 1933 she exhibited at the Promoter of Fine Arts in Genoa and was present in 1937 at the Permanent of Milan; on the occasion of the Second National Association of "Mostra Nazionale Fascista Donne artiste e laureate",  Lilja showed 2 canvasses in black and white and original illustrations for children's books.

Children book with cover by
Lilja Slutskaya
In November-December 1939, she became a member of the autumn social exhibition alla Permanente. The same year, she exhibited, in Genoa at the "Società delle Belle Arti", a painting showing the dismantlement of an old ship.

In addition to participating in art exhibitions, she collaborated with some publishers, notably the Swiss Hoepli, Igis, Mondadori, and took care of illustrations in various periodicals such as "Il Giornalino della Domenica", "La lettura", "Il Corriere dei piccoli".

In 1938 she felt a wind social change related to the rising fascism in Italy. Consequently, Lilja decided to get baptised renouncing to her Jewish religion. She died in Milan on June 5, 1940. Many of her Russian friends gathered at her funerals, among them there were two nieces of Marianne Werekfina who sang for her for a last time with their beautiful voices.

  • Personal memories and notes  done by Lilja's niece, Hélyette, who lives in Ascona, Switzerland
  • Web "Arte russa a Milano", portrait on Lilja Slutskaja

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Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Bernardino Checco from Locarno: valiant captain of Venetians

IH researches local history with a great enthusiasm. A fascinating fact is that common people acquire outstanding regional noteworthiness if their story is explained through community context. Today we would like to write about Bernardino Checco. He was a native of Locarno and a valiant "capitano" (in English: captain) of Venetians during the 16th century. 

According to Leonardo Brolliet, the family name Checco comes originally from the family Cadassie from Cevio in the Valle Maggia. There were two branches: the first Checco stayed mostly in the Valle Maggia and the second Cadassie resided in Locarno, taking also the family name Checco. According to Brolliet, the latter is the family about which we have at present little information. It seems that the family Checco did not have a particular influence in Locarno, yet a prominent and valiant captain, Bernardino Checco, existed. 

Turkish siege of Famagusta
We know at present that Bernardino serviced citizens of Venice: an interesting aspect is that Venetians, together with French, defeated Swiss troops during the battle of Marignano in 1515.

Bernardino defended Famagusta on the Cyprus island against Turkish attacks. Venetians conquered Famagusta in 1489 from Genovese. Venetians transformed Famagusta into a thriving place where merchants and ship owners led luxury lives. A common belief at that time was that people's wealth could be measured by luxury churches they had built in various styles - the same phenomena was observed in the Insubrica region with Campanilismo. These churches, remaining still at present in that part of the Cyprus island, created "a district of churches". The development of Famagusta was focused on social lives of wealthy people and was centered upon the Lusignan palace, the Cathedral, the Square and the harbor.

Famagusta was in 1571 the last Cypriot port to fall into Turkish hands after a long siege, which costed lives at least of 50'000 Turkish soldiers. As a matter of fact, promised reinforcements to the city did not come from Venice, but the strenuous estate of the stronghold was instrumental keeping Turks occupied and allowing Venetians to win the naval battle of Lepanto. We don't know exactly which was the real role and position of Bernardino Checco during the siege, but he managed somehow to survive the captivity. Other Venetians, notably Commander Marcantonio Bragadin, were brutally tortured, mutilated and flayed alive by the Turkish army.

Extension of Venetians empire
Bernardino Checco was brought to Costantinople, today Istanbul, managing to escape and to return to Venice. His valiant behavior in the battle of Famagusta kept him for a very long time at service of Venetians. He was thus named the military governor and the city holder (in German: Statthalter) of Cephalonia. The island had been captured by a Spanish-Venetian army from the Turkish army in 1500, making it a rare Venetian success in the Second Ottoman–Venetian War. From that time, Cephalonia remained part of the "Stato da Mar" of the Venetian Republic, following the fate of the Ionian islands, completed by the capture of Lefkas from Turks in 1684. 

Bernardino Checco died in 1611, and  it is unknown where, most likely in Cephalonia. The family name disappeared rapidly from Locarno and can be considered as extinguished today. Bernardino remains however one of the most brilliant military men of Ticino and the Insubrica region.


  • Leonardo Brolliet, A cavallo delle Alpi. Ascese, declini e collaborazioni dei ceti dirigenti tra Ticino e Svizzera centrale (1400-1600), FrancoAngeli, 2014, pages 422-423

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Rationalist - sometimes called Fascist - architecture on shores of Lake Maggiore

There are not many examples of rationalist architectural design on the western side of Lake Maggiore, with the difference of Como that hosts several Giuseppe Terragni's works and buildings, in the Verbano region there are just few examples of this particular architectural style.

Examples of rationalist architecture in Italy
The sole, accessible for public visits, is a representative example of this type of architecture conceived by Luigi Vietti (Cannobio 1903 - Milan 1998).

It is located in Verbania-Intra, right on the lake shore, next to the ferry port (1). The building is called at present the "Palazzo Flaim" and was originally used as the "Casa del Fascio" under Benito Mussolini (Predappio 1883 - Giulino di Mezzegro 1945).

The "Casa del Fascio" was usually used as a building to host the local branch of the National Fascist Party and later, between 1943-1945, the Republican Fascist Party. During the time of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), the building was used as a military barrack by the Black Shirt brigade "Augusto Cristina", and the building in Verbania was built between 1932 and 1935 according to the design done by Luigi Vietti, who will be briefly introduced further.

The twentieth-century rationalism did not derive from a unified theoretical work, it started mostly from a common belief that the varied problems posed by the real world could be resolved by reason. In this context, the so-called rational architects followed the philosophy of René Descartes emphasized by geometric forms and ideal proportions. Rational Architecture thrived in Italy from the 1920s to the 1940s and was influenced by Deutscher Werkbund or Le Coubuisier. It was best represented by a group of young Italian architects like Carlo Enrico Rava (1903-1966), Sebastiano Larco (1901-?), Guido Frette, Adalberto Libera (1903-1963), Luigi Figini (1903-1984), Gino Pollini (1903-1982), and Giuseppe Terragni (1904-1943). They founded the so-called "Gruppo 7", publishing their manifesto in the magazine Rassegna Italiana. Their intent was to strike a middle ground between the classicism of the Novecento Italiano Movement and the industrially inspired architecture of Futurism.

Hence, "Gruppo 7" was aspired by a "spirito nuovo" in the architectural style, creating essentially a communication basis with Mussolini's idea of Fascism. The rationalist style brought a revival of the Italian classical epoch, connecting it from ancient Rome to modern times. But this connection with Fascism ideas and symbols stoped here. It's a bit awkward to consider rationalist architectural style as being only the Fascist style, even though it was so at the beginning. As a matter of fact, rationalists distanced themselves and their conceptions went far beyond from Fascism or Nazism ideologies.

Luigi Vietti in the 80's
Luigi Vietti was born in Cannobio. Already as a young architect, he designed many buildings used by Mussolini's Fascist government as symbols of his political movement like the Palazzo Flaim, the Casa del Fascio in Rapallo and several other Case del Fascio in Ligury as well as buildings such as Stazione Marittima Andrea Doria in Genova. Vietti was a leading representative of the rationalist architectural style but also very modernist in the interpretation of rationalism, conceiving even chairs.

Vietti survived the Second World War - at the difference of Giuseppe Terragni - dedicating himself to the realisation of prestigious villas and residences. Many buildings in Cortina d'Ampezzo and Dolomite Alps are done by Vietti searching for social representativeness and harmonious relationship with surrounding nature.

He moved to Costa Smeralda, Sardegna working for Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who commissioned him the design of many buildings. In the context of shifting from alpine settings, Vietti realised the center of the village of Porto Cervo and numerous hotels. The best examples are the Hotel Pitrizza, the Dolce Sposa complex and many prestigious villas such as the Cerbiatte, chosen by Prince Karim as his private home. Vietti died in Milan on March 28, 1998, at the age of 95.

Luigi Vietti worked in Verbania contributing to the development of the city landscape marking an magnificent presence of his forms and sizes within surroundings: on could see, for example, the now gone Teatro Sociale di Intra, or the Palazzo Flaim has a privilege to remain, even after more than 80 years, this building shows its monumental and scenographic shapes.

Palazzo Flaim, Verbania
Supported by large columns, the Palazzo Flaim was built with the aim of creating a large convention area that we actually find on the first floor. In the backyard - toward north -  it has no windows while in the other side a large fresco sang, now canceled, related to the fascist history. Ribbed windows were installed on the side towards the port and the tram. Upstairs there is a balcony, overlooking the living room allowing light to enter and making the interior very bright but avoiding reflections. Outside, there is a tribune leaning out towards to the city and the public; the background is a limpid wall covered with lightly colored marble slabs.

The palace is still the subject of harsh criticism: some consider it as an example of Italian rationalism, as important as some of Le Corbusier's works, others do not understand its meaning and consider it as a bad work, others still see it as a symbol of fascism and nothing more.

1. Luigi Vietti "Palazzo Flaim" matter of fact is not the only example of rationalism on the shores of Lago Maggiore. In Cannobio at the entrance of the village - in a part of the village called Punta Amore - coming from south Verbania, there is also another building designed by Vietti. The private house not accessible is called  Casa "La roccia", positioned on a rock promontory right in front of Lago Maggiore.


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Friday, 20 April 2018

From nature to weapons: Maggia estuary

The Maggia river rises from the Pizzo Cristallina and extends over 56 kilometers through the Sambuco Valley, the Lavizzara Valley and the Maggia Valley.

@Zeitschrift für Landschaftsarchitektur (1985)
Its estuary forms a wide delta between the towns of Ascona and Locarno. This delta opens into Lake Maggiore expanding constantly. On the picture situated on the left, there can be seen the development of the Maggia estuary from 1865 up to nowadays.
The blue box on the first picture corresponds to the placement of the former airfield in Ascona (see our article on Herbert von Karajan). 

The overall catchment area of the Maggia river is about 930 square kilometers with several inflows, the most important of which are Melezza, Rovana and Bavona.

Long dry periods and heavy rains characterize the specific climate of this Insubrica region. In times, heavy rains swelled the river very strong, where the ratio of minimum and maximum amount of water could range of 1/7000. 

The sediments carried from the river to the valley have been also considerable, that is why the estuary has been growing in size. The strong initial slope of the river and the gravel composition of the river bed, combined with the sparse vegetation, have created a permanent erosion effect, which is also reinforced by the river-stream. The Maggia estuary is very large, compared to other Insubrica rivers.

About ten hectares of the Maggia estuary have been shared between the municipalities of Locarno (93%) and Ascona (7%). It has been a beautiful wetland and a river basin, which is periodically submerged by floods of Lago Maggiore (with its main tributary, the Ticino river) and by the floods of the Maggia river. The establishment of the reserve dates goes back to 1985. Since 1990, it has been included among the protected areas of the Canton Ticino as one of the most important estuaries in the Insubrica region. 

The land of the natural reserve belongs largely to the Società Terreni alla Maggia SA. Only a small part belongs to the public domain. Terreni alla Maggia as well as the nearby luxury hotel «Castello del Sole» are wholly owned by two local families Bührle and Anda, the heirs of the Oerlikon Bührle Group. Oerlikon Bührle's family deserves a specific dedication on our Web site, but it is possible to anticipate few major aspects right now. 

Oerlikon Bührle acquired in 1923 a factory in Germany, entering thus the anti-aircraft defence business in 1924. In 1936, he founded a purely anti-aircraft development company, called Contraves (contra aves meaning in Latin "against birds"). In 1989, the Werkzeugmaschinenfabrik Oerlikon-Bührle and Contraves merged together, forming the Oerlikon-Contraves Group, later renamed to Oerlikon Contraves Defence. Oerlikon Contraves was purchased by Rheinmetall, a German armament manufacturer in 1999 and renamed Rheinmetall Air Defence AG on 1 January 2009. On the other side, Oerlikon Bührle Group was renamed in 2000 into Unaxis, then in 2006 into OC Oerlikon Corporation AG, which is controlled today by a company called Sonova, belonging to a Russian businessman with Ukrainan origins called Viktor Vekselberg (1957 - ).

  • P. Bürgi, L. Paolo, G. Cotti, P. Vanossi, Delta della Maggia = Maggia estuary (English translated), Zeitschrift für Landschaftsarchitektur 24 (1985), pages 28-32
  • There are many possibilities to visit the Maggia estuary. The most scenic is from the left bank (from the side of Ascona). You can park the car at Terreni alla Maggia and walk alongside the canalization dam. The estuary changes its shape according to the water level. Definitely, it has been the most interesting access to it during dry periods.
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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Another long gone castle: Castello di Tegna

IH has been putting together information about lost castles situated in the region of Locarno. Following up our two previous articles dedicated to the Castle of Magadino and the Castle of Gordola, we have created one more publication that puts emphasis on the Castelliere of Tegna, which is situated at the strategic cross point of the Valle Maggia and the Terre di Pedemonte.

Strategic placement of Castello di Tegna
This is how the vestiges of the castle
looks today. @Wikipedia
The discovery of this castle is recent dating to 1927. This was one of the first reports concerning ruins of ancient artifacts found on the summit of the Monte Castello, above Tegna. The interest in this discovery led to deepen the research with the first rudimentary excavations. These efforts attracted the attention of the cantonal historical authorities at the beginning of the 1940s.

In the forties, there were more detailed surveys carried out on these ruins, placed in a wonderful panoramic position just over 500 meters above the village of Tegna, allowing to bring to light vestiges dating to a pre-Roman period (around the year one thousand before Christ), in particular, several walls of a probable fortification, which took the name of Castelliere (in English: sort of a castle). According to scholars, some of these vestiges even dated to the late Bronze Age. Further clear evidences of a stable human settlement were traced back to the late Roman period. All this suggests that there has not been a single constructive moment of the fortified settlement that was left unnoticed. In other words, the defensive work had been subjected to various remakes and upgrades.

Castello di Tegna after A. Gerster
@Alban Gerster, 1969
The direction of the excavations was taken by Bernese architect Alban Gerster (1898-1986). On this occasion, interesting objects were found, including several bricks, fragments of ceramic vases, glasses, metal and glass utensils. The particular arrangement of the walls, with a square plan (22 meters on each side), suggested a military position (a sort of lookout post from which an eye was kept on the access to the valleys, important routes of the communication). 

The military position was designed to accommodate a small garrison. From up there, in fact, the view sweeps across the delta of Maggia and Lago Maggiore. At the centre of the building, there was a cellar well carved into the rock; not far from a well of water, there was a construction several meters deep, fed with rainwater. Another well, excavated outside, west of the main building, is still visible today. The walls of the buildings were in turf, an imported stone because it is not present in the valleys of Ticino. It is curious to discover that the remains of the prehistoric huts were probably destroyed by a great fire during previous eras.

  • A. Gerster, Castello di Tegna, Zeitschrift für schweizerische Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte - Journal of Swiss archeology and art history, Band 26, 1969, pages 117-151
  • Among many walks that Insubrica Historica has done in the region around Locarno, the hike to the summit of the castle is a very nice one. You will need to park the car in the centre of the village of Tegna and hike for about 35 minutes. The path is well marked, and you will enjoy a beautiful scenery from the top. Try to hike early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, you won't have any mist, and the view from the top will be spectacular. As for the scenery on the top of the summit, unfortunately, there is not much to discover, within ten minutes you will see all the vestiges - don't miss, please, the defence walls on the North side of the castle - direction Valle Maggia. 

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Monday, 16 April 2018

Polish Army in Insubrica region: case of Losone

During the German campaign in the West, in June 1940, 2nd Polish Infantry Division under command of Bronisław Prugar-Ketling (1891-1948) was sent to the French region of Belfort to support 8th French army. After being cut off from supply, approximately 12,000 to 13,000 Polish soldiers of 2nd Infantry Division, crossed the Swiss border on 19-20 June 1940, south of Ajoie, avoiding thus the German capture.

 The situation in June 1940
The soldiers were interned in Switzerland according to the Hague Convention. After a failed attempt to concentrate all Pole servicemen in only one camp in Büren an der Aare, Polish soldiers were dispersed throughout Switzerland. From 1941, barrack camps were set up in all Switzerland, where the Poles were interned until December 1945. In the Insubrica region, a lot of Polish soldiers were imprisoned in Losone, nearby Locarno-Losone-Ascona.

The captive Poles made mainly group-wise work assignments for the national defence related to the infrastructure like constructions of roads and bridges, drainage of swamps as well as in the agriculture. A total of 450 kilometers of paths, bridges and canals were built. At present, monuments and commemorative plaques commemorate the involuntary stay of imprisoned Polish people throughout the Canton Ticino. After the war, around 500 Poles were able to settle down in Switzerland, obtaining the Swiss citizenship.

In addition to building and paving roads between Arcegno and Golino in the Canton Ticino, the Polish army soldiers, interned in the Losone camp during 1941-1945, worked hard to reclaim approximately 100 hectares of the land in the municipality of Losone between "Saleggi" and "Gerre". This hard work reshaped radically the landscape of the region in the mid of the 1940s. 

Blurring of the area worked by Polish internees.
Map of 1946 with the map of 2016.
@swisstopo (
Polish barracks in Losone-Arbigo
Thanks to the intervention of Polish soldiers, a large amount of uncultivated agricultural areas in Ticino could be developed and, later, transformed in tourist and industrial zones. 

A hard work of Polish prisoners allowed a creation of a very important agricultural zone in Losone that persisted for many years until a construction of the famous 18 holes Golf place (shown in the centre of the map that can be seen above). 

Polish internees Losone S. Giorgio
Further in the North, in the 1980's, an important industrial settlement called "Zandone" was created (on the left side of the above shown map). The Polish work allowed to erect a large camping in Melezza and the "Scuderia delle cavalli delle Gerre" in the area of Zandone. Between Arcegno and Golino, Polish soldiers managed to pave a road, that is named today "strada dei polacchi" (in English: Polish road).

Polish soldiers were imprisoned in other parts of Switzerland and left unmistakable traces of their hard work. There are several the so-called Polenwegs, which are roads that were built by Polish soldiers during the Second World War in Switzerland.

  • C. Bernardo, Internati polacchi in Svizzera tra guerra, lavoro e sentimento, Armando Dadò Editore, Locarno, 2010 (link)
  • Strada dei polacchi aka Polish road, accessible from Arcegno. You can park at the nearby Pestalozzi Village, and walk the narrow road. On the mountain side on the rock is still visible the coat of arms of Poland, the White Eagle, in Polish named "Orzeł Biały".
  • The former place where the Polish internees had their barracks was located in Arbigo. During 1949-50 the Swiss military built a military centre for militia grenadiers, which was operated until 1973. The military installation was passed to the military sanitary service. Today it has been transformed into a reception center for asylum seekers.
Caserma Losone aerial view 1950's, former Polish barracks

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Friday, 13 April 2018

Herbert von Karajan (HvK): German virtuoso and pilot in Insubrica region

Not everyone understands the acronym HvK; even when we search on Google, there are not many answers. For IH, the acronym HvK means Herbert von Karajan. For young readers, this name doesn't mean much today, but HvK was an outstanding musician and a passionate of the private aviation as well as a Porsche driver

Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg on 5 April 1909. Actually, his full name was Heribert Ritter von Karajan. After having studied piano, he rapidly understood that his professional vocation was rather in conducting an orchestra. Before the start of the Second World War, HvK had already conducted the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra and the Berlin State Opera, specialising in Robert Wagner's drama operas like Tristan and Isolde. When Germany was under the Nazy regime, HvK managed to survive in Berlin even though being highly menaced because of his wife Jewish origins. 

HvK took an important decision at the end of 1944 moving to Milan, Italy. He hided himself from the SS-Police in constant fear of being captured and deported. He reported how along with his wife was present at the horrifying show of Piazzale Loreto, Milan, assisting to one of the best-known scenes in the Italian modern history, namely the public display of Benito Mussolini's (1888-1945) and his mistress Clare Petacci (1912-1945)  corpses, both had been captured and shot by the Italian partisans at northern part of Lago di Como. HvK remained in Italy till the end of 1945, living in Venice and Triest.

Today airspace around Ascona
But why does Insubrica Historica write about HvK? And what is a connection of HvK with the Insubrica region?

We admire HvK because he was effectively living on the fast lane. During the time when Germany was under the rumbles of the Second World War, HvK managed to resurface rapidly. He had passions and realised his dreams: for example, during the prohibition of the private aviation which the Allies ordered in the post-war Germany, Karajan came purposely to Ascona, Switzerland, in order to take private flying lessons in a small airport. In Ascona - now an abandoned airfield - HvK learned to fly receiving the Swiss Private Pilot License. In the 1950's, the private pilot license (PPL) would cost him CHF 1'800.00 or EUR 1.500. The required flying time for the licence was about 30 hours at the price of sixty francs per hour. During 1952-1953 stay in Ascona, HvK lived in a small humble pension, which at present has become the restaurant. His flight instructor in Ascona was pilot Edmond Dougoud who was very experienced and reputed.

HvK aircraft ownership started with a Cessna 172, in 1956 he switched to a more performant Beechcraft Bonanza. Due to the fact that HvK lived on a fast lane, he didn't took too long to take on to a LearJet callsign: HB-VBR. HvK pursued further his passions in the aviation managing to own at least six airplanes and flying also a Dassault Falcon 10 Jet.  With the risk to go off on a tangent, we will just recall to our readers that LearJet was in fact a Swiss made design. The result of a failed Swiss Air Force airplane project named P-16.

  • at present the abandoned airfield in Ascona is accessible all year. During hot days, the airport is still used by paragliders' landing strip, offering a tricky landing as the old runway still creates a huge terminal effect. If you want experience a real thrill of landing in Ascona, here there is a possibility.
  • there is the Restaurant Aeroporto situated nearby, more appropriately Ristorante da Nani, a good place to eat some fish or meat, even if it is not the cheapest restaurant in Ascona.
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Wednesday, 11 April 2018

American hero and astronaut Walter Schirra with family roots from Ticino

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo: Walter Schirra, Wally as his family used lovely to call him, was the only astronaut who took part in all three early US space programs.

Why does IH commemorate Walter Schirra?

Because he was certainly an US astronaut but with Insubrica roots. His father immigrated from the Canton Ticino, more specifically from the Onsernone Valley, to Canada. Walter came back to Switzerland, in Ticino, several times.

Schirra's story or that of his ancestors began in the CantonTicino in the fraction of Maltino (see Malten in the map below), where there were few stone houses in a small village of Loco, in the Onsernone Valley.

Onsernone is still today one of the most gorgeous and mysterious valleys in Ticino. Its particular characteristics are thick forests and spectacular, white waterfalls. It is still a rather isolated place that can be reached only by a winding road. The region borders in the North with Italy and the Valle Vigezzo.

Onsernone was economically a poor valley from where the male population was forced to emigrate, because of this fact, the region has, at present, a long history related to the emigration, typically touching upon people who happened to be masons, stonecutters, chimney sweeper and soldiers by education. For example, one of its most remembered soldier has been General Charles-Francois Rémond dit Remonda who served in the Napoleon army with General Mainoni.

In 1868, Walter Schirra's grandfather, Giovanni Schirra, emigrated with his three brothers across the Atlantic and settled down in the US, where he married an emigrated Schwyzerin. Walter's parents remained in the States and never came back to Ticino. After having served as an airplane pilot in the US Air Force, his father earned money doing double-decker air shows, and Walter, born in New Jersey in 1923, was used to manipulate regularly, as a 15-year-old boy, his father's airplane stick.

After having studied aerospace engineering, Walter Schirra began a career in the US Navy Forces, including flight operations in the early 50s during the Korean War. So, he was recommended for higher tasks. In 1959, he was presented to the public as a member of NASA's first astronaut group. NASA hiring of Walter Schirra, meant that he was part of the legendary team of the first seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton and as mentioned Walter Schirra. On 3 October, 1962, he left our earth for the first time. He completed his maiden flight into space when he circled the Earth nine times with a Mercury capsule.

He became the sixth human in space. During the Gemini mission in 1965, he led, for the first time, two space capsules, and three years later, he commanded the first Apollo flight that became a milestone for the flight on the moon.In 1969, Walter Schirra left NASA and became a manager, independent consultant and commentator. He spent 295 hours and 15 minutes in space, flying 196 times around the world. In 2007, he died of cancer in California at the age of 84.

Schirra came to Switzerland between 1967 and 1977, at least, four times. In 1976, Wally Schirra was given the honorary citizenship, which was handed over during a great ceremony in Loco, by Bundesrat (English Federal Council member) Flavio Cotti. And what was Schirra's opinion about Valle Onsernone? In fact, once being asked this question, Wally simply answered with the following phrase: " In space, I've never been as frightened as driving from Locarno to Loco in the car. "


  • Museo della Valle Onsernone in Loco. Charming little museum, which collects historical artifacts of this remote valley.
  • Loco can be also the departing point for a gentle stroll, on Sentiero della Vosa. It's a hike, more a descent, from Loco to the river Isorno, and up till Intragna. It takes about 3h times, best walked in late spring or early fall. A detailed description of this nice walk can be found here.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Bronze Age Discovery in Minusio: historical settlement near Locarno

The Bronze Age (2200-800 BC) coincided with a significant intensification of human vocational activities which left to us many burial sites and tombstones, but there haven't been still found a lot of traces of settlements around lake shores and alongside alpine roads. 

This amazing human development was connected with an increased trade between north-south areas as well as a wider accessibility of the alps. The discovery of copper deposits played an important role in the first handcraft works made of metal. High altitude pastures helped to have a positive economic impact. New lands were gained so that pastures and first forms of agriculture could be deployed. 

There was an intensification of manual work in agriculture with the development of basic swing plow which increased population, especially, in high altitudes. Heavy negative climatic changes (humidity, massive rains), around 800 BC, had negative consequences for palafittes, resulting in substantial glacier volumes, even at lower altitudes. Society became organised, dividing itself on peasants and traders. 

@Insubrica Historica
In 2015, during an ordinary construction procedure of a house in Minusio, in the Canton Ticino, an exceptional discovery was done. It opened a new chapter in Prehistoric Archeology for the Insubrica region.

A few meters from the Oratory of the church Madonna delle Grazie, built between 1671 and 1640, at present the place is called Via dei Vicini in Minusio, the Cantonal archaeological service brought to light a major settlement referred to the Middle Bronze Age (around 1500 B.C.), which persisted until the Roman times. 

The settlement was situated on a rocky promontory, overlooking Lago Maggiore, above the actual town of Minusio. The discovery was unique for the Canton Ticino and a rarity in Switzerland. 

@Insubrica Historica
Insubrica Historica had a chance to visit the premises, admiring the rest of the settlement. The archeological society of the Canton Ticino stopped for the necessary time the construction of a new building. After few months, all measurements and studies being realised, the construction of the house resumed.
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Sunday, 8 April 2018

Ascona and dynamite production

The quiet and picturesque town of Ascona, situated in the heart of Lake Maggiore in the Canton Ticino, had a bolstering dynamite factory in the past. Several explosions and accidents forced to relocate the operations to the islands of Brissago. However, the politics played some role, so that the company moved finally to Varallo Pombia in Novara, Italy. The factory managed to exist long enough, producing half a million of kgs of explosives, mainly used for the construction of the railway tunnel of Gotthard (1872-1882) in Switzerland.

The factory, producing dynamite explosive materials in Ascona, was established in 1873 in the area of Medere, most likely where, at present, is situated the retirement house Belsoggiorno. The factory of Ascona, providing the necessary amount of explosives for the construction works of the Gotthard tunnel, produced Alfred Nobel's dynamite under license and operated under the name of "Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie", legally registered in Geneva.

Ascona, dynamite production sites
@map.geo, - map of 1874
Dynamite production was a sort of alchimist procedure, back in time, resulting in multiple occurrent  disasters and accidents. The first notable accident for Ascona happened on Thursday May 14, 1874. Big explosions took place in two depots with 150 and 250 Litres of nitroglycerine. Its shockwave was so loud that many house windows in Ascona were broken.

Throughout the summer, several accidents continued to affect the production of the factory. The nasty fate of dynamite production in Ascona culminated with a major explosion on December 13, 1874, when houses were shaken as if by a big earthquake, with cracking in walls and ceilings. A subsequent great fire took place in which 4000 kilograms of nitroglycerin were inflamed with a terrible echo of successive explosions, heard in a radius of six km. Worker Federico Cattomio, aged of 23, born in Paris, France, was actively engaged in the prevention of the inflammation and reported killed.

Schw. Bundesblatt on Ascona dynamite
controversy (1875) Link
The municipality of Ascona decided to prohibit reconstruction works in the area. Supported by the Cantonal Council, a law was passed in 1875 stipulating that any future explosive related factories should be constructed, in Ticino, provided that a radius of at least five Km from habited places was mantained. Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie was obliged to pay a compensation of 16'000 Francs to the municipalities of Ascona, Locarno, Losone and Magadino for the caused disasters. 

Meanwhile, chief engineer of Gotthard tunnel Louis Favre (1826-1879) was under a huge pressure. Without a closely situated dynamite producing factory, this dangerous explosive goods had to be transported by sledge across the Gotthard pass. A pulling began. Favre attempted to coerce the local government to move the production to the inhabited island of Brissago, but it was considered too close to surrounding villages, also it was feared the negative impact for local fishermen. Thus, the factory had never commenced operation activities on the islands that remained empty till the famous arrival of the Baronin Antonietta de Saint Légier (1856 - 1948) for whom Insubrica Historica has a special publication in planning.

Chavannes, Brochon and Compagnie didn't stopped to look for a solution, most likely because of the fact that explosive business was considered to be highly lucrative even though there were many disasters. So, the company moved to Varallo Pombia in the Novara Province where a dynamite factory was built between Porto della Torre and Panperduto in 1876. It managed to produce about half a million of kg of dynamite used for the construction of the Gotthard railway tunnel. With the end of the tunnel works, in 1880, the factory ceased its operations.

  • The decision of the Federal Council concerning the appeal of Messrs. Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, for the creation of a dynamite factory on the islands of Brissago on Lake Maggiore. (From August 11, 1875.) (in German: Bundesratsbeschluss in Sachen des Rekurses der Herren Chavannes, Brochon & Cie. in Ascona, betreffend Erstellung einer Dynamit-Fabrik auf den Inseln Brissago im Lago Maggiore. (Vom 11. August 1875.) (Link)
  • Die Eisenbahn = Le chemin de fer, Ueber die Natur und Gefahren des Nitro-Glycerins und -Dynamits, Heft 21, Band (Jahr): 2/3 (1875), pag. 193-196 (Link)
  • Virgilio Gilardoni, Fonti per la storia di un borgo del Verbano. Ascona. Archivio Storico Ticinese Bellinzona, Bellinzona, p. 45
  • L. Galli e C. Mazzella, Una fabbrica di dinamite a Varallo Pombia per il traforo del Gottardo 1876-1880, Bollettino Storico della Provincia di Novara, fascicolo 1 1970, pag. 82-96 (Link)

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Saturday, 7 April 2018

Yugoslavian History and Insubrica region: story of Grassi's Family from Rancate

When travelling to Petrovaradin, Belgrade, Nis, Timisoara, the submerged island of Ada Kaleh-New Orsova, and Alba Iulia (see the map here), we can admire huge fortresses that are testimonials of a consistent military past. Only few visitors know that these fortresses, built by Austrian-Hungarians, were in fact all conceived by Swiss military engineer Nicolas Doxat (Yverdon 1682 - Belgrade 1738), who was called "the Austrian Vauban". Spending most of his life in the Balkans, Doxat was eventually sentenced to death and beheaded in Kalemgdan Belgrade Fortress by Austro-Hungarians. 

It is surprising but there were only two artistic personalities with a wonderful sense of creative thinking who arrived in the Balkans to work from the Insubrica region. We owe this research to Giuseppe Mondada, who published in 1964 a brief description, entitled "Ticinesi in Jugoslavia", appeared in Bollettino Storico della Svizzera Italiana. These artists were in fact a father and a son.

Zefferino Grassi altar
Zefferino Grassi (Rancate 1872 - Split 1929) was a proven stonecutter; he gained, most likely, the mastery of his art in Ticino. In the Dalmatian region, according to Mondada, Grassi he did many engraving works. Delightful testimonials of Grassi's masterpiece could be found in a small town of Opcina Ruzic such as an altar, created in a church in Kljaci, that was partially destroyed in 1990 during the Yugoslavian War. 

Zefferino Grassi was married twice in the region, continuing creating various artistic works. Another example of his masterpiece is the mausoleum of a local, wealthy shipping merchant Racic in Dubrovnik/Ragusa. It is believed that Ivan Meštrović (1883 – 1962) directed ensembles where Grassi realised the interior parts. The Mausoleum, built in 1921, on the place of the 15th century Chapel of St. Rocco, was created from a white Brač stone in form of a dome; there was not a single piece of wood used throughout the construction or any other materials besides bronze doors and the bell.

Interior St. Sava Temple Belgrade
Zefferino Grassi had a son, Giuseppe Pino (? - 1962), who did continue the prosperous career of his father, after having studied in Paris and Milan. He worked with Ivan Meštrović (1883 – 1962), doing stonecutting works, for example, for the monument to the Unknown Hero in Avala, near Belgrade, which was unveiled, in 1938, relocating to the South-East of Belgrade.

Another magnificent example of his creation is the Temple of St. Sava situated downtown of Belgrade. Here again, the son worked  embellishing the interiors of the temple as his father transforming artistically many wonderful places in Belgrade, for example, the French Embassy and the Jugo Export building as well as the House of the National Assembly of Serbia, stonecutting the sculptures like Karadjordje of Frano Krsinic.

  • Giuseppe Mondada, Ticinesi in Jugoslavia, Bollettino Storico della Svizzera Italiana, 1964/07, pages 119-122.
  • S. Stelling-Michaud, La mort de Nicolas Doxat et l'opinion publique dans le Pays de Vaud, Revue historique vaudoise, Band 44 (1936)
  • E. Bähler, Tragisches Schicksal eines altbernischen Offiziers in österreichischen Diensten : Generalfeldmarschallieutenant Niklaus Doxat von Iferten geb. 1682, enthauptet in Belgrad am 25. März 1738, Neues Berner Taschenbuch, Band 7 (1901)
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Friday, 6 April 2018

Executioner and butcher of Stans: Joseph Mainoni from Lugano

Joseph Antoine Marie Michel Mainoni was born in Lugano (but according to some sources the place of his birth was rather Porlezza), in 1754 in the Canton Ticino in Switzerland and died in Italy in 1807. He became a General in the Napoleon French army. Unfortunately, his name is synonymous of war crimes, committed in Nidwalden and Stans (Central Switzerland), against the civil population during the French occupation in 1799.

Mainoni came from a wealthy family from Lombardy. He was a son of Bernardo Giuseppe Mainoni (1727-1786) and Francesca Grossi. His wife, Francesca Clara Schweitzer (1755-1791), was the daughter of an Italian businessman and banker Franz Maria Schweitzer (1722-1812). According to Wikipedia the family Schweitzer was also close related to the lineage Brentano, which we discussed on the article about Konrad Adenauer.

Joseph Mainoni
Little is known about his childhood and school years in Lugano. But, in 1770, Joseph Antoine Mainoni began working in the family business, created by his grandfather Giuseppe Antonio Mainoni (1704-1776) in Strasbourg. He moved then to Frankfurt in order to run the new family shop in the city, while his father staying in Strasbourg to manage a second store. In Frankfurt, he married, in 1777, Francesca Clara Schweitzer with whom he had six children.

After the death of his father in 1786, he took over the family business in Strasbourg, being forced to liquidate the Frankfurt store in 1788. He entered military service on October 18, 1790, as a soldier in the National Cavalry of Bas-Rhin, going successfully through the ranks, becoming rapidly a captain on August 6, 1792. 

In October, he was promoted to a commander of 6th battalion of volunteers in Bas-Rhin. On 11 April 1793, while being at the headquarters at Mainz as a brigade commander, he was wounded in the leg during a raid. From August to November 1793, Mainoni was appointed as a National Officer for the District of Strasbourg. 

He became then the President of the Revolutionary Court of Strasbourg and held the position until January 1794. On 30 July of the same year, he took the lead of 92nd brigade. In July 1795, he was arrested and imprisoned in Strasbourg for having committed abuses as the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal, but charges were dropped, and he was acquitted on 12 September. He was appointed later as a brigade commander on 17 February 1796, in 44th demi-brigade. He served with distinction diverse armies of the Vosges, the Centre, and the Rhine.

Mainoni distinguished himself at the Battle of Biberach (Baden-Württemberg) on 2 October 1796; between 1796-1797, he was active in Rhine, and under command of Napoleon during the Italian campaign. In June 1798, Mainoni entered with his troops the city of Basel, in Switzerland. The return to his motherland would become for him a real tour-de-force; after Basel, he moved his troops to Kloten, Olten, Solothurn and Langenthal. Halted briefly in Bern, he continued moving towards to Thun, Meiringen and the Brünig Pass. His troops amounted to approximately 8'000 soldiers. The main battle in Nidwalden was held in Kerns, between Sarnen and Alpnach, on 9 September 1798.

The battle lasted fours days, resulting in a complete defeat of the Swiss Nidwalden troops. Mainoni's horde retaliated heavily, killing and raping the local population. In the German language, there is an expression for these acts: Schreckenstage von Nidwalden which means literally "Horror days of Nidwalden". Mainoni's presence in Nidwalden lasted till the end of October 1798, with widespread negative consequences for the locals. According to the Swiss sources, around 100 villages had been burned, many civilians tortured and raped: 435 deaths among which 118 women and 25 children.

French attack on Drachenried-Ennetmoos, Nidwalden @Wikipedia

Mainoni continued his tour-de-force to the South, meantime, being promoted to the rank of brigadier General on 19 November 1798. Having crossed the Gotthard Pass in Airolo, Mainoni arrived in Lugano, his native town, leaving behind him a trail of blood and war crimes. Here again, his troops persisted in crimes, committing violence and abuses everywhere in the Southern Ticino: Arbedo, Malvaglia, Lumino, Lugano, Mendrisio and Chiasso.

Mainoni was then asked to leave Ticino, heading for the Canton Grisons. He was captured, in March 1799, by the Austrians, but his captivity didn't last long. After four months of imprisonment in the Graz Fortress, he was exchanged in August 1799 for the Austrian General Franz Xaver von Auffenberg (1744-1815).

Second Battle of Zurich 1799
On 16 August 1799, he returned to France and was engaged within the Danube army on 9 September. On 25 September, he fought the passage of Linth, commanding the right wing of the division under Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult (1769-1851), his action was decisive for the French victory at the Second Battle of Zurich. 

He was then transferred to the command of 110th demi-brigade in Bern. In December, he moved to the command of the troops stationed in the Canton Valais, Switzerland, under General Louis Antoine Choin de Montgay (1747 - 1814).

On 18 March 1800, he was assigned to the reserve army, and, on 10 May, commanded the vanguard of the infantry division of General Jean Lannes (1769-1809) in Italy. Most likely, Mainoni played a role at the Battle of Montebello. Montebello was a lead-up to the battle of Marengo. At Marengo, he remained in the defence of the right bank of the River Po in Italy. Being a commander of three battalions of the division under General Francois Watrin (1772-1802), he placed his troop along the river, leaning on the dikes and the marshes behind San Cipriano. He was then engaged in a long and vigorous resistance, which gave valuable time to General Jean Lannes. On 14 June 1800, Mainoni was seriously wounded at nightfall in the chest by the gun fire.

On 1 July 1801, he was redeployed to the Cisalpine Army and was appointed Major General on 27 August 1803. He took command of the troops of Mantua Square on 3 October. He was received to the Legion of Honour on 1 December 1803 and became the Commander of the order on 14 June 1804. He died on 12 December 1807 in Mantua, as a result of his wounds that he had received in Marengo. He was buried in the chapel of Castello di San Giorgio in Mantua.

Mainoni belongs to five Swiss Generals whose names have been engraved on the Arc de Triomphe (column 26 for M.) in Paris. The other Generals, by alphabetic order, are: Girard dit Vieux (Geneva 1750 - Arras 1811), Gressot (Delémont 1770 - Saint-Germain-en-Laye 1848), Laharpe (Rolle 1754 - Codogno 1796), and Reynier (Lausanne 1771 - Paris 1814). 

  • Francesco Bertoliatti, Fu il luganese generale Mainoni veramente "il boia di Stans"?,Rivista militare della Svizzera italiana, 23 (1951), first and secondt part, p.62-67 (Link)
  • Arc de Triomphe Paris, Joseph Antoine Marie Michel Mainoni, Column 26
  • To be verified if Mainoni is still buried in the Chapel of Castello San Giorgi Mantua, Italy
  • Monument Allweg in 6372 Ennetmoos
  • The "Museo della Battaglia di Marengo" is located in Via della Barbotta, in Spinetta Marengo, Alessandria. This is exactly the place where most of the fights between the French and Austrian armies took place. 
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Thursday, 5 April 2018

April Fool's Day joke: BBC's Spaghetti-Tree filmed in Ticino

The OltreconfiniTi is an excellent Web Platform for those seeking information on emigration from the Canton Ticino, Switzerland, which is a part of the Insubrica region. The website was first launched in 2013, and it has a repository function for the valuable information about the emigration. 

One of the latest initiatives of OlteconfiniTI is to collect all movies and reportages that have been filmed in Ticino. Starting from 1915 up to the present day, its database is impressive comprising more than 130 fiction movies. It has movies for all tastes and for everyone: from Leni Riefenstahl (Das Blaue Licht 1932 shot in Foroglio Valle Maggia) up to James Bond/Pierce Brosnan with a breathtaking scene of a beautiful jump from the Contra dam of the Valle Verzasca. There is a wealth of famous international cinematographic directors and actors who worked in the Canton Ticino. 

Centro Elisarion, Minusio 2017
Insubrica Historica
IH admired in 2017, during the Film Festival in Locarno, the exhibition, held in Minusio in the Centro Elisarion, that was devoted to all major movies and reportages produced in Switzerland. They have put emphasis on the cinematographic heritage of the Insubrica region.

IH enjoined a BBC reportage which was broadcasted in April 1957 in the UK and was called "The spaghetti-tree". It was a brief  broadcast that lasted only three minutes shown on 1 April, during Fool's Day. It visualised a family living in Ticino, southern Switzerland, harvesting spaghetti from a family "spaghetti tree".

This short reportage was originally Albert Kuntz's idea who was the managing director of the Swiss Tourism Office in London. The production was realised by Charles de Jaeger (1911-2000) from the BBC channel. The actors, who, unfortunately, have all already past away at present, were ordinary employees of the Lugano Tourist Office.  The restaurant Taddei, shown at 1m55sec, has been long gone and has become today the Historical Archive of Città di Lugano, which is worth visiting.

At that time, the spaghetti were relatively little known in the UK, so that many Britons were unaware of their production procedures as well as their ingredients that included simply some wheat flour and water. As a matter of fact, a great number of viewers contacted afterwards the British Broadcasting Corporation asking for valuable pieces of advice on how to grow their own spaghetti-trees at their backyard.

According to CNN, this broadcast was even "the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled".  Enjoy the hoax:

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