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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Monday, 28 May 2018

Via delle Vose: great stroll in Onsernone, Ticino

We have written about the hamlet of Loco, situated in the Valley Onsernone, when we spoke about astronaut Walter Schira whose family roots were from there. Today, we would like to describe once again this beautiful valley in order to introduce one of the most wonderful and scenic walks that exist in the Insubrica region.
The discovery journey will plunge you into a peasant hard life which has been associated with an ancient mule-track road since the Middle-Ages, called in Ticino the "Via delle Vose". The aim for local peasants was to reach the valley floor, notably the  market and the harbour of the town of Locarno. This long way was indeed a principal communication road between the Locarnese region and the Valley Onsernone in the ancient times.

Via delle Vose
The "Via delle Vose" is an indexed road within the Swiss Federal Inventory of Historical traffic routes. It is about 6.5 km long unveiling a remarkable heritage of the region to tourists who are eager to experience the surroundings on foot. 

IH suggests to reach the village of Loco (686 masl) in Onsernone as the starting point. It is possible with a postal coach service from Locarno that has hourly departures, stopping right at the beginning of the "Via delle Vose", which is situated in the North of the village Loco. While being in Loco, it is wise to pay a visit to a small local museum called Museo Onsernonese with its ethnographic, historical and artistic collection related to the valley. 

The initial part of the trek is fairly steep, falling sharply and bringing you to the bottom of the Isorno valley (406 masl) in which the river Isorno flows.  

The original bridge was completely destroyed by the floods of 1978. It has been replaced in 2016 by a new construction conceived by a well-reputed bridge architect, Ing. Prof. Christian Menn (1927-). It has recreated the small bridge yet with a great aesthetic appeal that integrates itself perfectly in the wild surroundings of this remote part of the road.

Christian Menn bridge on Isorno river
Christian Menn is known for having designed bridges all over the world; notably, just to mention few works: the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, Sunniberg Bridge near Klosters/Graubünden and many other bridges in Switzerland and abroad.

After having left the brigde, you ascend and cross the small hamlets of Niva and Vosa, walking alongside traditional dry-stone walled terraces and three beautiful chapels that create an ensemble of an old Via Crucis, that are pure testimonials showing to us how this stroll was difficult as a journey in the past. 

In Niva, above the Isorno river, you can also admire a wine-press from the sixteenth century used to press the grapes. The two hamlets represents also an unique setting for Canton Ticino, since in the late Middle-Age, belonged politically to Losone situated next to Locarno.The hamlets were thus used as a summer pasture land for the peasants of Losone.

Vosa di Dentro
After Vosa, the path continues alongside of the valley descending toward the hamlet of Pila (590 masl) another beautiful mountain village. You will be surprised by the old school situated at the entrance of the village coming from Loco. Pila deserves a stop because it's a traditional hamlet of Ticino where the houses are made of ancient stones, standing on a sunny green hill with a pretty view over the town of Intragna, the gateway to Centovalli.

From Pila, the road descends to Intragna (339 masl). Your long walk can end in Intragna as the village is rich in hidden treasures, for example, the renowned San Gottardo church bell tower which is 65m height also the tallest tower in the Canton Ticino.

  • Via delle Vose is a nice track about 6.5 km. From Locarno main train station, you will need to have at least 4 hours of walk, and it can be a little more if you use the public transportation to Loco and from Intragna. 

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Thursday, 24 May 2018

Andrea Brilli: Ticino officer for the Russian Empire

The "Dizionario storico-ragionato degli uomini illustri del Canton Ticino", written by Gian Alfonso Oldelli, is a sort of encyclopedia of 1807 where Andrea Brilli is mentioned. It should be noted that all famous people ("uomini illustri") mentioned in this encyclopedia were indeed, according to the author, exclusively men. 

The original note on Andrea Brilli
@Gian Alfonso Oldelli, 1807
A quick search in the Internet concerning Andrea Brilli didn't give much information on his personality, but IH has managed to find out that he served for the Russian Zarist Empire, particularly under Peter the Great and Empress Anna Ioanovna. 

We decided to contact the Russlandschweizer-Archiv RSA (Russian-Swiss Archive) in Zürich in order to learn what was known about Andrea Brilli. Indeed, the archive had some information on him, albeit there were only few pages of a correspondence that dated to 1983 between Professor Carsten Goehrke and Mr. Luigi F.C. Naef of Lugano interested in Andrea Brilli. 

For sure, Andrea Brilli was born in Cureglia near Lugano on 12 September 1682. His father was Carlo Simone Brilli married to Anna Maria Soroli; they both were from Cureglia. Andrea's parents married in Cureglia on 24 January 1666. According to the Russian Biographic Dictionary of 1908, Andrea Brilli (in Russian: Andrej Brill or Andrej de Brill or in some sources even Andrej Brilly) had a military background gained in France, Sweden and Prussia. He was in Berlin in 1701 where he met the Russian Ambassador, Izmajlov. 

Brilli accepted his proposition to serve for the Zarist Empire and went to Moscow where he had to pass a professional exam on his military skills before entering the service. The exam was delivered by a French officer named Lambert. Brilli passed the examen successfully so that he was promoted to the rank of captain in the Engineering Corp. Brilli's previous military rank remains unknown, but most likely, he was ranking officer while serving the French, Swedish and Prussian armies.

Brilli managed to accomplish a brilliant military career in the Zarist Russia. In 1723, he was promoted to the rank of colonel. At the age of 43, he became a general in 1725. In 1731, he was then assigned to Eastern Ukraine where he was tasked to reorganise the militia of Malorossia.

The term Malorossia is formed originated from two Russian words: Malinki and Russia, meaning in English Little Russia. This term traced in fact its origin back to the medieval times and was widely used of that time as the name for a geographic territory that was much similar to our Insubrica region, meaning a vast territory but not referring particular to a single place. From the middle of the seventeenth century, the word Ukraine (in Russian: Ukrayina)  was used sporadically, until it was reintroduced in the nineteenth century by the conscious effort of several writers who wanted to awake the Ukrainian national conscience. It was not until the twentieth century when the term "Ukraine" started to prevail substituting completely the term "Little Russia" that fell out of use.

Surrender of Azov in 1736
During the period of 1736-1739, Brilli participated in several military campaigns against the Turks and Tatars, notably in the Russian armies of Count Burkhard Christoph von Münnich (1683 – 1767) and Count Peter von Lacy (aka Pyotr Petrovich Lacy (1678 – 1751). 

In 1736, Brilli fought in the Don Army which took the key citadel of Azov and, next year, crossed the Syvash marshes into Crimea, where Russians were forced to fight against 15'000 men during two battles on 12 and 14 June. In 1738, Brilli won Crimea taking the fortress of Çufut Qale near the Khan's capital, Bakhchisaray, defeating definitely (it would be more correct to write exterminating) the Tatars hordes out of Crimea.

Brilli left Crimea for Latvia, as he was apparently tasked to become a Governor of the city of Riga. The Swiss sources reported on this fact, however there has been no other trace that Brilli was ever a Governor of Riga. For sure, he was promoted in 1741 to a Lieutenant-General in Riga. 

On 30 August 1744, he was decorated with the Order of St. Alexander Nevskij; at that time, it was  one of the greatest military medals in the Russian Zarist Empire. The medal was a direct consequence of Brilli's role with the army commanded by General von Lacy during the Russo-Swedish War of 1741-1743. Brilli took part in the military attack of the Swedish city Villmanstrand (at present, Lappeenranta in Finland).

It is likely that Andrea Brilli stayed in Riga at least till 1751. On this date, the Münchner Zeitung wrote that Brilli together with Scottish General Maier Broune (most likely, General Browne) and German General Friderici were seeking to leave the Russian Zarist Empire other assignments.

In 1751, Andrea Brilli had to be 69 years old. But, the sources vary. For example, according to the Russian Biographic Dictionary of 1908, Andrea Brilli died already in 1746 or 1747. But it is somehow most likely that Andrea Brilli died later in 1762. This is possible because he was cited by Münchner Zeitung in 1762, and it makes us to believe that plausibly, he lived till 1762. It is not known whether Andrea Brilli was married or had children.

  • Gian Alfonso Oldelli, "Dizionario storico-ragionato degli uomini illustri del Canton Ticino" 1807
  • For more information about Andrea Brilli serving for von Lacy, consult: "Contemporary Memoirs of Russia" written in 1856 by Cristof Hermann Manstein

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Saturday, 19 May 2018

Typical Swiss business: Pellegrini's mercenary career for the French and Dutch Empires

One of the less described chapters related to the military history of the Insubrica region is the mercenary service of Ticino people carried out in behalf of other military powers. IH has already written about Generals Mainoni, Remonda and soon will about Andrea Brilli an officer in Russian service, but there are more personalities who are interesting to commemorate.

For example, Bernardo Pellegrini (1776-?) born on 18 August 1776 in Ponte Tresa, son of Francesco and Maddalena Scolari. He spent most of his life in the military, leading Napoleon and Dutch troops.

At the age of 21, he became a Lieutenant in the "Città di Lugano" (in English: city of Lugano).  Following examples of other Ticino natives, Bernardo was soon enrolled as a Lieutenant in the French Napoleon Army. Pellegrini fought in First Swiss Regiment which was created by merging together survivors of thirty three Swiss battalions of the old Confederacy. He spent 14 years in the military service under Napoleon, fighting in the campaigns of Danube and Russia, during 1803-1806 in Corsica, being later enrolled in the "Armata d'Italia". 

When Napoleon's army was defeated after the Russian campaign of 1812, Pellegrini returned in Metz in 1813 together with Captain Giovanni Maria Magatti, born also in Lugano, who had distinguished himself during the Russian campaign at the battle of Berezina. Consequently, Magatti was awarded in 1815 with the Swiss medal  of "Treue und Ehre" (in English: Honour and Fidelity).

As for Bernardo Pellegrini, he briefly joined the Swiss military service where he became on 2 June 1815 Lieutenant-Colonel of the "Ticinesi militia". He was used to a nomadic military life outside his homeland region and didn't stay quietly for a long time in Ticino as on 15 October 1815, he joined the Dutch military service in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, becoming a commander of Swiss Regiment 32 under General Auf der Mauer. Pellegrini hired for his unit several servicemen from Ticino, particularly natives from Ponte Tresa, Magliaso and Lugano.

The Wien Congress of 1815 reshaped the frontiers of Europe with a new emerging Dutch state that needed an experienced army. Renewing the tradition related to the engagement of Swiss natives in the military service for the Dutch Empire (see also our future article on military architect Pietro Morettini), King Wilhelm VI started in 1814 to recruit extensively Swiss natives, creating four Swiss Regiments for a total of approx. 10'000 men. For example, Fourth Regiment was composed of natives coming from the Roman-Catholic Swiss Cantons, Central Switzerland and Ticino.

The Swiss regiment was initially stationed in the garrison of Antwerp, later it was moved to a number of cities in the Netherlands, most likely in Louvain (Leuven), Mechlin (Mechelen), Bergen op Zoom, ’s-Hertogenbosch, Gorinchem, Dordrecht, Gouda, Brill (Brielle) and Hellevoetsluis. To be noted that the regiment never executed its military service abroad.

Swiss Regiment uniform in the Dutch Army
As a matter of fact, enrolling volunteers on mercenary service was a lucrative business of that time, and frauds were inevitably committed which affected particularly Fourth Regiment. The scam was related to an agreement called "Militärkapitulation", signed by several Swiss Cantons in order to provide human resources for the Dutch Empire. The terms of the agreement stipulated to select servicemen only of the Swiss nationality, but the Canton Ticino started also to sign up Italians from Insubrica.

Dutches were furious and reacted harshly between 1819 and 1821 checking scrupulously every single serviceman's origin. Consequently, the investigation resulted in 1821 in the dismissal of Commander Ludwig Auf der Maur (1779-1836) as well as in purging entirely Swiss Regiment 32. Most likely, the issue related to the abuse of the agreement was not only limited to the servicemen from Ticino as 15-25% of the overall military forces were dismissed from the Dutch service.  

Swiss Regiment uniform during the Dutch service
Bernardo Pellegrini was affected by the Dutch investigation and was forced to leave the Dutch service on 1 September 1821. The true reasons for his dismissal are unknown, but he was replaced by Colonel Göldlin von Tiefenau, a native from Lucerne. The Swiss engagement with the Dutch army ended in 1828 merely for financial reasons as keeping mercenary regiments became too costly for the Dutch Kingdom.  The last Swiss remaining unit was merged finally with the National Dutch Army.

The whereabouts of Bernardo Pellegrini after his dismissal from the Dutch service are unknown. Most likely he returned to the Canton Ticino to his native hamlet of Ponte Tresa.

  • G. Beretta, "Ticinesi al servizio mercenario dell'Olanda", Rivista militare della Svizzera italiana, 28 - 1956, pages 308-318
  • G. Beretta, " I Ticinesi nella campagna di Russia 1812", Istituto Editoriale Ticinese, Bellinzona 1937
  • Wagenbuur Website:

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

SS-Police crimes in Ossola and Lake Maggiore: unpublished facts

Our presentation on Saturday 12 May 2018, at Spalavera Bookshop in Pallanza, attracted interest of a major regional Italian newspaper. La Stampa Verbania Cusio Ossola presented in its Tuesday edition a long article in Italian that IH has translated in English for our readers.  

La Stampa, Italy

The name of the Nazi soldier who killed captain Beltrami, the hero of the Italian Resistance in the region of Ossola, has been discovered after 70 years. Unpublished facts, based on archive materials related to the SS-Police operating on Lake Maggiore, have become public.
by Teresio Valsesia - Edition 15 May 2018, Verbania

Unlike other reprisals committed by Germans during the Italian Resistance, those perpetrated in the regions of Verbania and Ossola have never been prosecuted by the Italian magistrate. In fact, an investigation was opened in 1966, but the Military Court of Torino classified it due to the impossibility to ascertain the precise identity of the responsible people. It seems incredible, but no one (investigators, historians or Italian researchers) has ever thought about viewing the German archives.

Presentation on 12.5.18 in Pallanza
@Insubrica Historica
Instead, Raphael Rues (Swiss-Ticinese, language expert and passionate researcher), has rigorously analysed the primary sources related to the war operations of the SS-Police, the German military body, that conducted activities against the partisans in the regions of Ossola and Lake Maggiore from the end of 1943 till the spring of 1945. 

The names of all German officers emerged from his research, being strictly codified in the documents and preserved not only in Germany but also in Switzerland and in England.

So, after more than twenty years of work, he must be credited for having reconstructed meticulously the events that have remained unpublished until now. In short, it is a real story, not just news.

One of his contributions has been included in the latest issue of "Verbanus"; the magazine has been directed by Vittorio Grassi, and his presentation was reported by Leonardo Parachini in the Spalavera bookshop in Pallanza. The work of Raphael Rues will be also presented as a book, published in Italian, German and English, that will be introduced on 21 June 2018 at the Casa della Resistenza in Fondotoce.

SS-Police Presentation 12.5.18
@Insubrica Historica
The documents have confirmed that battalions of the SS-Police intervened in the autumn of 1943 trying to cease the insurrection of Villadossola. In February 1944, Captain Ernst Simon left Varallo for Omegna with the task to eliminate the formation of Filippo Maria Beltrami. 

The unpublished fact is that the heroic «captain» of the Resistance was killed by soldier Heino Almstädt from Hamburg. Later, Simon left the area to move to Verona organising the convoys that brought Jews to the extermination camps.

Moreover - Rues pointed out - these battalions were itinerant across Europe and Italy; they arrived directly from Norway, but the bloodiest massacres took place in Eastern Europe where the victims were much more numerous than those of the regions of Verbania, Cusio and Ossola: the relationship was 1,500 against 1. 

As for the figures of the SS battalions and losses, the numbers have always been overestimated. For example, it was thought over 200 dead partisans and Germans during the roundup in the Val Grande; in reality, a dozen of casualties could be proved, especially in Miazzina and in the bloody battle in the area of Laurasca.

The terrible raid of the Val Grande was directed by two colonels of the SS-Police: Ludwig Buch and Ernst Weiss. The latter celebrated his 50 years birthday on 20 June 1944 in the Villa Caramora, where at the same time 43 partisans where executed massively in nearby Fondotoce. 

As for Colonel Buch, it has been claimed that he committed a suicide in Novara on 28 April 1945, when the Nazi-Fascist troops surrendered. In reality, Buch died in his bed after the war, as did Weiss who died in 1964 in West Germany, waiting for his trial for the crimes committed against Jews. Other SS officers, who operated in the region, were hired in the post-war period as police officers in Germany.

After the re-occupation of Ossola, in October 1944, the SS-Police stopped once in Stresa as it appeared in one of the unpublished photos retrieved by Raphael Rues. They went then to Lake Garda where they were honoured by Benito Mussolini. The epilogue of the war led to the abandonment of the Nazi-Fascist garrisons in the region of Ossola and Lake Maggiore, when the troops merged with the column commanded by captain Ludwig Stamm: there were about 300 men, attacked constantly by the partisans of Vergante.

Stamm, like several other German officers, reappeared after the war in Baveno, in the same hotel that Germans had occupied during the war. It was in 1954, and he was immediately recognised by the owner who did not report him to the authorities. The following morning, he resumed his journey to Florence. Stamm died in his bed in Argentina few years later.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Soviet Maps of Switzerland: case of Locarno

The most striking feature of Soviet General Military Staff maps for a Western European person is that all places and rivers are written in Cyrillic letters. It isn't surprising that familiar appellations look suddenly so different on Soviet maps. Many designations, especially those related to Swiss German locations, were transliterated phonetically in Russian, allowing thus an easy pronunciation to a Russian native speaker.
Soviet map of Zurich in 1952, with interesting colour sets
 As a matter of fact, reading and understanding a Soviet map requires some exercise, and it becomes much easier if you have some basic padronance of the cyrillic alphabet.

1:500'000 Soviet map related to Locarno, Insubrica region
@Insubrica Historica
For example, Ascona was written on Soviet maps as "ACKOHA". There was an exceptional specification of topographic symbols related to industrial and military assets. Bridges had also a very specific mention indicating which specific military tank could pass over a bridge.

Available Soviet maps for Ticino
@Insubrica Historica
IH has recently acquired two Soviet maps edited by "Voenno-topograficheskoe upravlenie General'nogo shtaba" (in English: General Military Staff); both maps are in Gauss Kruger Projection.

The first map is on a 1:500'000 scale with the reference L32-A, entitled in Cyrillic Bern. There are five maps which cover partially Switzerland, thus the most central is L32-A which however doesn't show the eastern part of Switzerland.

The contours on the map are placed at 50 meters intervals. A large amount of details can be observed related to roads, railways (even the one going in the Valle Maggia which had been dismantled  since 1920 canals, lakes, airports, airfields and etc. Transcriptions of the towns are written in different sizes related to the amount of respective inhabitants. 

The second set of maps in our possession is on a 1:50'000 scale map, L-32-66-4 Lugano and L-32-66-2 Locarno, the size of 1:1, with the dimensions 42 x 45 cm. There are at least 157 maps on a 1:50'000 scale covering Switzerland and bordering regions, all indexed under series L-32.

It is hard to discern which kind of sources the Soviets used in drawing these maps. The map "Bern" on a 1:500'000 scale is dated 1976, and despite this fact, it had already some major flaws that would not have been discovered with a simple field inspection or a plagiarism :( of a Swiss made map

The final results leave some room for doubts whether Soviets were ready to a potential invasion of Switzerland using these maps. In any case, the Soviet maps are a piece of history of the world torn apart by the Cold War, and for IH, they still contribute to our beautiful collection of historical maps.

  • Loadmap gives you the easiest possibility to access online to Soviet maps about Switzerland in scale 1:500'000. It is the most user-friendly among various download sites, since it shows the available maps overlaid on Google Maps. It makes it easy to identify maps you could possibly need. The lowest accessible scale for Switzerland is 1:500'000 (1cm to 5 km)

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