Saturday, 30 June 2018

Louis Favre: dynamite and human costs for the first major Gotthard tunnel

Louis Favre (1826-1879) was born on January 28, 1826, in Chêne Thonex (Canton of Geneva). He studied as a carpenter in Neully-sur-Marne (near Paris) and followed courses of architecture and engineering.

The epoch of the first industrialization in the first half of the 19th century  shaped innovative transport means as the railway. In a few years after the first test of the steam locomotive (1804) and the first railway sections (1825-1829), the railway spread throughout the continent. Among the works of the Railway Construction Company, where Favre worked after the graduation, there were the railway lines of Charenton (1846-1851) and Montbart-Dijon (1852-1853).

After passing through the tunnels of Augné (1855), Crédo (1856-1858), Grandvaux and Cornallaz (1858-1860), Creuzot (1863-1865) in 1871, Favre won the tender for the Gotthardbahn tunnel and started to work hardly. The work began in September 1872 and was completed ten years later in January 1882. Favre, overruned by the difficulties of the company, died on July 19, 1879, of a heart attack in Göschenen and could no longer see the opening ceremony of the tunnel.

The Gotthard Railway Tunnel (1872-1882)
The objective in the construction of the railway lines were very large, they were built for commercial or military-strategic purposes at that time. Soon, the question arose of a transalpine railway; already in 1838 people thought about the distance from Chiavenna to Chur.

At first, in 1845, a railway over the Lukmanier, was built, then in 1852, it was finally built over the Gotthard. After the innoguration of the Suez Canal (1869) and the Frejus Tunnel (1871), a project for a railway through the Gotthard and its associated costs were approved by the Confederation as well as by Germany and Italy.

In 1872 construction began. In 1882, after many technical difficulties and financial crises, the work was completed. The opening ceremony of the railway tunnel which had the length of 15 kilometres between Göschenen and Airolo opens up completely new and previously unknown traffic opportunities for Europe.

  • The best sightseeing - albeit outside the Insubrica region - can be done from the Göschenen station, which alone has made history. From here you follow the information signs with the "G" and comes to 14 distinctive points of the village Göschenen, which shows the prehistory of the base tunnel. This tour is called "Gotthardtunneldorf Göschenen" and has been in operation since 2016. The tourist office Göschenen gives you more information.
  • On the south side at the station Airolo is another important example. The Monument to the Victims of Labor, created by Vincenzo Vela (Ticinese sculptor 1820-1891) on his own initiative and without payment. At the Gotthard tunnel construction, 177 dead and 403 seriously injured were killed.
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Friday, 22 June 2018

Bombardments on Lake Maggiore: commonly unknown history

A commonly unknown chapter of the final phase of the Second World War in the Insubrica region is related to the bombardment of two hamlets and the sinking of three ships in two days. And all of this happened precisely on Monday, 25 September 1944, and the next day on Tuesday, 26 September, between Luino and Baveno-Intra in Italy.

In order to efficiently understand the dynamics of the events, it is necessary to see the bigger picture of what was happening:

At the beginning of September 1944, the Allied military forces advanced rapidly in the Italian peninsula. The North of Italy (the area adjacent to Lake Maggiore) was occupied by the German military forces and was politically administered by the Neo-Fascist government called "la Repubblica Sociale Italiana" (RSI). An increased aerial activity was observed over Lake Maggiore, precisely in the regions of Ossola and Mottarone. This activity was mostly associated with allied transport airplanes that were used for intelligence missions in order to help the guerrilla movements fighting against Germans and Fascists.

The combat missions took place predominately in the dead of night. The military pilots, who helped the partisans, had Polish nationality. They departed usually from Brindisi, Southern Italy, heading towards the North. Their flying course was over the Adriatic See situated between Italy and the Balkans. Once, they used to reach Trieste, they turned to the west, taking 270' degrees course, over the Italian alps. As a matter of fact, this indirect path allowed them to avoid the German and Fascist anti-aerial artillery. And at the end of September 1944, the allied forces occupied the town of Pisa, so fighter storms began to operate with superior potential despite the limited autonomy of the airplanes like Spitfires.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the results of two bombardment days in September 1944 on Lake Maggiore will be seen in detail below. These days created an unprecedented panic wave among the civil population, especially in Luino, Baveno and Intra-Verbania in Italy. The civil population in Baveno and Intra was terrified the next days after the air strikes, being afraid of all aviation related activities.

Bombardment of Fondotoce on 25 September 1944 at 15:10 in the afternoon:
The fighter storm composed of six Spitfire airplanes arrived from the South, across the lake, in Verbania-Fondotoce. Two aircrafts bombed a house in Fondotoce. To date, it has been impossible to ascertain with confidence which house was touched.

Bombardment of Intra-Alta on 25 September 1944 at 15:10 in the afternoon:
Four airplanes attacked Fondotoce, bombing in this case a large civilian workers' house called "il Cassinone" in the region of Intra-Alta. The bombardment of the house caused the death of 9 civilians (according to other sources 11 civilians were killed) and several civilians were wounded. 

Air strike of Baveno and sinking of the boat "Genova" on 25 September 1944 at 15:30 in the afternoon:
The locality of Baveno was attacked with six military airplanes. The air attack resulted in the sinking of the boat called "Genova" that carried apparently only civilians: 34 passengers were killed. The boat "Genova" was builded in 1912 by Bacigalupo, and it was 43.3 meters long. Like similar ships "Milano" and "Torino", it could transport 500 persons on board. The boat sank near the lakeshore. To date, it is unclear if the wrecks have been still laying on the lake floor, or if they have been scrapped after the war. No official documents have been released concerning this matter. 

Air attack of Luino and sinking of the boat "Torino" on 25 September 1944 at 16:00 in the afternoon:
The aerial intervention on Lake Maggiore on Monday, 25 September, culminated with the sinking of the second boat called "Torino" which went down in the port of Luino.

Air attack of Intra and sinking of the boat "Milano" on 26 September 1944 at 9:30 in the morning:
In the the morning, on Tuesday, 26 September 1944, ignoring the precedent air attacks, the battalion commander, Major Giovanni Ledo (1907 - n.a.), of the Fascist unit "Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana" (GNR) of the stormtroopers "Venezia Giulia", decided to sail from Laveno to Intra. He ordered to load ammunition and other military goods on board of the ship "Milano". The board carried also 40 soldiers and 30 civilians. Once the board was in the middle of the lake sailing to its destination, it was attacked by fighter aircrafts. Officially 12 civilians and 14 soldiers were reported killed, but most likely, there was a greater number of victims. As a matter of fact, historians have been debating on the subject. Major Ledo survived but was heavily wounded and did not return to his post.

Air attack of Intra on 26 September 1944 at 10:00 in the morning:
Following the sinking of the third boat called "Milano", the aircrafts persisted their activity on the lakefront and at the port of Intra, albeit without dreadful consequences. 

Even to date, there are blindspots concerning these events: 
  • It is not clear which aircraft type was involved in the actions. 
  • On 26 September 1944, later in the night, there were two spy missions (Mangosteen and Chrysler) in the regions of Mottarone-Coiromonte, only 5km away from Intra. It is likely that the bombardments created the premises for their successful launch.
  • The precise number of victims, particularly those on the boat "Milano", is still unclear even after more than 70 years. The events related to the sunk boards "Genova" and "Milano" have been still commemorated in Italy, albeit only by the organisations of the right political spectrum.
  • The newspapers of the Canton Ticino like "Popolo e Libertà" and "Libera Stampa" reported with confidence in 1944 that the aircrafts departed from the airfield of Domodossola and were directly involved with the partisan operations (eg. "Popolo e Libertà", edition Friday 29 September 1944, article: "La Divisione Piave libera Cannobio").
The boat "Milano" has been finally found by the team of international divers, among them there was a Dutch professional diver, Pim van der Horst.

The boat was located at the depth about 236 meters underground. The highly complex immersion required the team composed of 40 divers and the helicopter surveillance. It was authenticated by the South African Nuno Gomes (world depth record holder) and included in the "World Guinness Book of Records".  

The wrecks of the board "Torino" were found in 1945 as the ship had sunk in the shallow water. The engine was replaced, and the boat was transformed into a motor vessel; its superstructures were completely rebuilt.  Some necessary uplifting was done in 1969 that gave to the board its current appearance, which made it look similar to the other 50-year-old motorboats, albeit with a slimmer hull. The vessel has been still today in the use on Lake Maggiore.

  • The boat Torino has been still sailing today on Lake Maggiore.
  • The victims of the sunk boats "Genova" and "Milano" are still officially remembered in Northern Italy. Every year, there is a ceremony that commemorates the victims.

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Friday, 15 June 2018

Picturesque route in Ticino: Tremola and its engineer

Francesco Meschini was born in Piazzogna (today the municipality of Gambarogno) on 4 August 1762. He was educated at the Academy of Brera in Milan. Becoming a young engineer and architect, he got his first assignment in 1790 in the context of the renovation project related to the church San Nazzaro built in the Neo-classic style in Gambarogno. Later, he led other reconstruction projects such as the parish church of Gordola (1829).

Chiesa San Nazzaro
@Voce del Gambarogno
During the period of the Helvetic Republic, he was a member of the administrative chamber of the Canton of Lugano in 1801-1803. As an inspector of the bridges and roads of Bellinzona and Lugano, he drew up an extensive series of plans for local road connections.

It is worth mentioning the following Meschini's major works: The road of the Leventina situated between Biasca and Airolo (1813-1821), the ramps of the Gotthard pass (1827-1832), and the bridge across the river Maggia in Ascona (1818). Meschini was also a member of:  the Grand Council of Ticino (1813-1830), the Government Council (1815-1827), and the Landammann (in English: chief magistrate) of the Canton Ticino (1825). He died at the age of 78, on 3 December 1840 in Piazzogna.

The Ramps of the scenic alpine road Tremola (1827-1832)
The Canton Ticino was created in 1803 as a fully-fledged state within the Swiss Confederation. The problematic of the necessary infrastructures in the canton appeared soon. The engineers asked themselves to what extend the existing roads could be renovated in order to meet new requirements, but it should be also outlined that the Canton Ticino had no modern road connections at that time.

As a result, the first phase consisted of widening and repairing the old main road that run from Chiasso and Magadino to Airolo. The objective was to allow a transit of wagons drawn by horses. The goal was achieved after more than 15 years of work (1804-1821).

While the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia - Piedmont - decided to support the construction of trade routes across Splügen and San Bernardino in 1818, it was difficult to reach an agreement between the Canton Uri and the Canton Ticino, promoting the modernisation of the old road across the Gotthard pass. Nevertheless, the 17-kilometre-long Tremola project delighted Francesco Meschini who finished a spectacular roadway in five years (1827-1832). This part of the old alpine road across the Gotthard pass has been still a beautiful example of the old time engineering that was already advanced in the first half of the 19th century.

  • You can travel across the Gotthard mountain by car which is really breathtaking; the drive across the cobblestoned Tremola runs through breakneck serpentine from Airolo and is considered to be one of the longest and prodigious roads in Switzerland. The road Tremola is largely preserved in its original eco-system, but during 1937-1941, the natural gravel coating was replaced by a granite pavement. As a result, the engineering artwork can be captured and experienced entirely. Unfortunately, various original components were replaced over the time, for example, many of the wegbegrenzenden stone steles were set new in a concrete cordon.

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Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Neuroni family from Lugano: battles against Turks

We saw earlier the mercenaries from the Insubrica region in the service of the Venice Republic, notably we wrote, last May 2018, about Bernardino Checco from Locarno. We wish to go further and to explore more in details mercenary connections between Ticino - Venice. Consequently, there is another family from Ticino that served the Venice Republic.

Neuroni family crest
@Patriziato Riva S.Vitale
The illustrious Neuroni family, from Riva San Vitale, Ticino, has been among the numerous names that drew our attention. This family was very devout, dedicated to the Church as well as to the military service.

According to Oldelli, Neuroni had an ancient family background: it originated from the name Nubiloni and thereafter Nuironi. The family had already established itself  in  Riva San Vitale, near Lugano, before 1290.

In 1400, the family core moved to Lugano, but other members were dispersed throughout various parts of Ticino. It is interesting to introduce the courageous members of this lineage who died on duty for the Venice Republic fighting against Turks. 

Siege of Candia 1648-1669
@Learning History
Captain Antonio Neuroni with his two brothers Fabrizio and Gian Pietro were killed in 1669 defending the walls of Candia. The Siege of Candia (modern Heraklion, Crete) was a military conflict in which the Ottoman forces besieged the city led by the Venetians.

The siege lasted more than 21 years from 1648 to 1669, becoming the second longest siege in the human history after the siege of Ceuta. The Ottoman soldiers were finally victorious despite the unprecedented resistance and struggle of Candia.

Colonel and general commander of the militia of the Venetian Republic, Gian-Maria Neuroni, was, according to Oldelli, in Corfu when Ottomans attacked the city. As a matter of fact, on 8 July 1716, the Ottoman army comprising of 33'000 soldiers began the assault of Corfu, the most important of the Ionian islands. Despite the indecisive naval battle, the Ottoman overland army continued that day its advancement towards the city.

On 19 July, after capturing outlying forts, the Ottomans started  the siege of Corfu. The defence was led by Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, who had in his disposition 8'000 men. The extensive fortifications and the determination of the defenders withstood several assaults. A great weather storm on 9 August 1716 —which the defenders attributed to the divine intervention of Corfu's patron saint called Saint Spyridon—caused numerous casualties among the besiegers, forcing the Ottoman army to brake off the siege, retreating from the outskirts of the city.

The heroic defence of Corfu inspired composer Antonio Vivaldi who wrote the allegorical oratorio called Juditha Triumphans, the Baroque masterpiece. Vivaldi's Venetian Juditha is like a symbol of triumph of the Venetian defence and victory of Corfu in August 1716. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Pietro Antonio Neuroni, the brother of Gian-Maria Neuroni who has been mentioned before in the article, served like his brother the militia of the Venetian Republic. According to Oldelli, he was on duty in Navarre Spain. Few details are known in fact about his service, except that he died in Pamplona.

There had been another "Ticinese" soldier who was most likely active in Pamplona during 1569-1570: his name was Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino (1520–1586) known as El Fratin  (in English: The Little Friar).  Paleari Fratino was from Morcote, situated near Lugano.

He was a military engineer who served the Spanish Emperor, Charles V, and then, to his son Philip II of Spain. He is known for having designed the first Martello tower as well as many other fortifications. IH will necessarily write about Paleari Fratino because Dr. Marino Vigano, our friend and the honoured history researcher, has published Paleari's biography.

  • Oldelli, Dizionario storico-ragionato degli uomini illustri del canton ticino, Veladini Lugano, 1807 pages 121-122
  • G. Martinola, La Compagnia Neuroni, Rivista militare della Svizzera italiana, Band 22, 1950
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Thursday, 7 June 2018

Smapshot: impressive research tool for aerial photography

IH continues to support the discovery quest of the Insubrica region heritage. We would like to introduce to our readers another new tool, following our article on  It is like a "participative time machine" which can help volunteers to geolocate historical images of Switzerland, taken in the time when GPS and other aviation aids did not exist. This article will also be about Walter Mittelholzer who was a fervent aviator. Besides, he was the co-founder of the famous airplane company Swissair. As we will see, he was an avid aerial photographer and had a penchant for the Middle East, particularly Persia, and for African cities beginning from Cairo to Casablanca.

Mittelholzer over Locarno in 1919
The website is a joint project done by la Haute Ecole d'Ingéniere et de Gestion du Canton Vaud, Hasler Foundation, ETH and Migros Shtiftung. 

You have to access the website, choose the given collection for eg. Walter Mittelholzer and start to browse. It seems that the graphical plugins best work with Microsoft than Apple even if all the pictures are still accessible with a Mac Book Pro.

We appreciate this application as it allowed IH to determine with accuracy when Walter Mittelholzer (1894-1937) flew above the Insubrica region and specifically above Locarno. 

As a matter of fact, Mittelholzer was a notable Swiss aviation pioneer. Most likely, he was the person who contributed most to aviation in Switzerland; if the company Swissair came into being, it was all thanks to Mittelholzer. He was a pilot, photographer, travelling writer, and also the one who became the first aviation entrepreneur. Mittelholzer supported his activities by selling photographs and receiving donations from patrons. 

Mittelholzer picture of Ascona in 1929
He created a great collection of pictures, combined together from his flights that was more than 9`000 copies in black and white. His pictures were taken at different altitudes, even the low ones. According to Smapshot, a rough distribution for the Insubrica region pictures done by  Mittelholzer's could be the following: 43 pictures in Valle Leventina, 31 around Bellinzona, 60 in the region of Locarno and 112 in the region of Lugano. 

For obvious reasons, as Mittelholzer was also an official Swiss Air Force pilot, he could not do pictures of the Italian part of the Insubrica region. It was not uncommon to have Mittelholzer flying around 300m to snap a picture of the beneath landscape. 

Mittelholzer flew above the Insubrica region already in 1919, taking pictures of Locarno and Lugano. In 1924-1925, he did a historic flight from Zurich to Persia which was from Zürichhorn to Pisa Marittima. 

Mittelholzer returned to the Insubrica region in 1929, at the end of April. He continued to fly over the Canton Ticino till 1933. He used essentially a Swiss aircraft Häfeli DH 3M, taking a wealth of pictures according to the Smapshot website. He died in 1937 in the climbing accident, being a member of the expedition in the Hochschwab massif in Styria, Austria.

  • Flieger Museum Dübendorf is well worth a visit if you want to admire the last Häfeli DH 3M in display. The museum itself is very interesting and worth a visit.
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Monday, 4 June 2018

Long gone castle in Ascona: San Michele

The castle of San Michele was located in the south-west of the town centre of Ascona, on a steep rocky promontory. The castle possessed a relevant extent of a rectangular shape with nine floors. The parameters of the caste were approximately the following: 130m by 50m which is about 6'500 m2. But all just part of the assumption! The true dimensions of the castle have been gone with the wind of the centuries. At present, at this historic place, private homes and the Church of Ascona have been built. The old church still has some parts of the fundaments based on the former walls of the castle. Sadly, for many tourists and history enthusiasts, there is almost nothing left to see today from the original castle of Ascona.

Sunset in Ascona. On the left: Brissago Islands. On the right: former castle and church San Michele
@Insubrica Historica

Nevertheless, the historians agreed that the castle of Ascona existed. As a matter of fact, it was mentioned for the first time in 1189. It belonged to the Duni family. The castle had been offered by the Bishop of Como, Anselmo Raimondi, to Pietro Duni who was a notable military commander. To date, it is not possible to say with confidence wether the castle was involved in the harsh war between the Guelfs and Ghibellines, or wether it was attacked by the Swiss Confederate troops around 1500. But most likely, it was simply abandoned at the time when the Duni's lineage stopped. The last member of the Duni clan was Giovanni Pietro Duni who died in 1690 and was buried at the Church of Saints Fabiano and Sebastiano in Ascona. Beginning from that year, the Duni family was extinguished.

To date, the primary architectural structures of the castle can been observed in the underground parts of the San Michele Church, which are situated in the Eastern part of the church. 

Like many for other castles in Ticino (for example, the one of Tegna on which we have already written), it seems that the Castle of San Michele could be founded before the Middle Ages. In fact, it could have rather a strategic position being situated at the entrance of a picturesque town of Ascona, above the lake, on steep slopes. This suggests that the castle could be settled and be used from the military point of view already from the Neolithic times (around approx. 3300 B. C). 

Many studies held by Johann Rudolf Rahn 1890, Giorgio Simona 1914, Emilio Clemente 1974 were done on this castle. They attempted to investigate and determine the size of the castle. The most pertinent study was done by Max Alioth in 1949. He used sketches and paints of the past in order to suggest a visual reconstruction of the castle. Max Alioth (1883-1968) was originally from Basle but lived in St. Moritz, Switzerland, being well known for his research skills. Alioth's drawings of 1949 showed a fairly big castle that was as large as the castle Montebello in Bellinzona. 

Castle San Michele according Max Alioth (1949)
@S. Lehman (2004)

It is interesting to note that the Castle of San Michele was one of the four medieval settlements of the town of Ascona. Let us name them all: San Michele,  San Materno, Griglioni and Carcano. 

  • S. Lehman, Ascona TI, Castello di San Michele : Quellen, Archäologie, Baubeschreibung, Mittelalter : Zeitschrift des Schweizerischen Burgenvereins, Band 9, 2004, pages 106-120
  • Gian-Alfonso Oldelli, Dizionario storico-ragionato degli uomini illustri del Canton Ticino, Francesco Veladini e Comp., 1807, page 18
  • The promontory of San Michele is accessible only on foot in the town of Ascona. The church of San Michele (rarely open) was conceived by Giovanni Battista Serodine and erected in the mid-17th century. We should say that the church was builded on the foundations of one of the corner towers of the ancient castle.
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Friday, 1 June 2018

First engineer of Gotthard: Pietro Morettini

Pietro Morettini was born in 1660 in Camanoglio, near Cerentino, in the Canton Ticino. Cerentino is still a tiny hamlet situated in the remote Valley of Rovana which is a part of the Valley Maggia, in the North-Eastern part of the Canton Ticino.

Camanoglio near Cerentino, birthplace of Pietro Morettini

Morettini's biography can be divided into five major periods:
  1. The apprenticeship with Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban who was one of the greatest French military engineers; his first military works were done in Besançon (1677-1687) and Landau (1688-1691) when he served, among other engineers, Louis XIV of France.
  2. Building of fortresses in Namur (1692-1696), in Bergen of Zoom, Grave, Njmegen and Steenbergen (1697-1702), when he worked for William III of Orange.
  3. His waterworks, bridges and roads done in the regions of Locarno, Bellinzona, Lugano and Gotthard (1703-08);
  4. Building of fortresses, military buildings and waterworks in the Catholic cantons of the Swiss Confederation (1708-1717) in Freiburg, Solothurn, Rapperswil, Bremgarten, Baden, Lucerne (1708-1914) as well as the Urnerloch (see below);
  5. Numerous roads constructed in the Republic of Genoa and Corsica, especially in Savona, La Spezia, Novi Ligure, Gavi, Sestri, Bonifacio, Ajaccio, and Calvi (1717-1736) (1717-1737).
Coming back in his home for a short vacation, he died at the age of 77 on 15 March 1737, in Locarno.

The "Urnerloch", built in 1707-1708, probably the first alpine tunnel 

Lithography portraying the
In the summer of 1707, when the old bridge called Twärrenbrücke was destroyed, a loud, terrible sound resonated over the mountains like the "anger of the water".

The old bridge was a transition way made of wood, which was freely suspended over the river on the slippery mounting wall. The idea was to create a direct path through the mounting from the direction of the Devil's Bridge, built in 1595, connecting the regions of Andermatt and Urserental.

The passage, called via Gotthard, had to become a link point between the Mediterranean and the Central-Nordic continent that was interrupted with great economic damages for the valley, which lived exclusively from the mule service and the customs duty.

With this new contract, signed on 20 September 1707, the Ursern corporation gave to Pietro Morettini, the military engineer from Insubrica region, the order to open the "Urnerloch".

A tunnel was drilled through the projecting rock and was inaugurated on 15 August 1708. The Urnerloch was the first Alpine tunnel and one of the oldest on the European continent.

  • Today, the original structure of the "Urnerloch" is characterized by the step-by-step developed modern street and in its original dimension and forms are no longer perceptible. Starting from the parking space of the restaurant Teufelsbrücke, you can approach the Urnerloch on foot.
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