Five Minutes From Lake Como

“You are not going to stop at Lake Como!” said a snobbish friend when she learned my wife and I were planning to drive through northern Italy late last summer. “It’s Lake George, New York, with gaudier scenery,” she warned. “A body of water surrounded by resort hotels, gimcrack souvenir shops, and ice-cream parlors. Even the Milanese capitalists have barricaded themselves behind their villa walls, and busloads of middle-class tourists have taken over. You won’t like it, you won’t like it at all.”

Despite our friend’s gloomy warnings, we did like it. Lake Como, to be sure, has changed since Stendhal wrote “here everything is noble and touching, here everything speaks of love.” Lake Como has even changed, my wife found, since her undergraduate tour before the war. Her itinerary then included, as an unscheduled item, a moonlight stroll with a minor Italian prince in the gardens of the Villa d’Este, the stately deluxe hotel which still stands on the lake shore. Now Como is more likely to speak of motor horns than of love, as baby Fiats scurry along the narrow, winding corniche that clings to the rock wall above the lake; and the princes have departed for places like Portofino, where the international pickings are richer.

Yet if Lake Como — a mere thirty miles from booming, industrial Milan — has inevitably lost much of its eleganza, it remains one of the great natural holiday regions of the world. Its hotels overlook the soft blue mists that rise from the lake to an encircling ring of mountains. Its souvenir shops offer some of Italy’s best buys in silk scarves; this is the heart of the silk district. And the ice-cream parlors (actually outdoor cafés) serve up a voluptuous assortment of gelati and pasticceria.

Our Lake Como hotel was the modern Albergo Bazzoni, far less luxurious than the ancient Villa d’Este, but still marble-floored and decorated with Italian antiques. The hotel is at Tremezzo, a resort town barely one row of buildings deep, squeezed against the mountains about halfway up the western shore of the lake, which is shaped like an inverted Y about thirty miles long. Our balcony faced the heavily traveled shore road and Tremezzo’s landing stage, where busy lake ferries and excursion boats put in. The thunder of trucks in the night, the ululating cry of buses summoning their tour groups each morning, the blast of boat whistles all day long, composed a rackety Italian symphony.

Along the lake just to the north of Tremezzo stands a quiet refuge, the Villa Carlotta. This eighteenthcentury villa, open to the public, is surrounded by a park so large that one can lose oneself in the silence. In early spring, banks of azaleas and rhododendrons flower; and even in late summer when there is little bloom, the Italian gift for landscaping with shrubs and trees manages to provide a palette of greens from palest seafoam to black olive. There is also a miniature rain forest hidden in a ravine; on closer inspection it proves to be largely potted palms, a discovery which in no way detracts from the exotic effect. The interior of the Villa Carlotta displays a number of nineteenth-century marbles by Canova, including his famous Cupid and Psyche. Although the sculptor’s work is almost indistinguishable in spirit from the pastry in the cafés, the whole place has a gentle Victorian charm.

Directly across the lake lies Bellagio, self-styled Pearl of Lake Como. It is a golden-yellow town of hotels and villas among plane trees and pines. Its streets climb steeply from the lake front, some up flights of steps. They are lined with antique shops and silk shops, in which a tourist tide rises and falls as the lake boats land and depart.

One morning, after some days of exploring the lake’s most familiar attractions, I asked the proprietor of the Hotel Bazzoni to suggest an expedition somewhat off the track. He looked doubtful. “There is the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Soccorso,” he said. “The Madonna of the Rescue. You should see her fourteen chapels and the church. But you must go a piedi. Few Americans make the trip. Your countrymen are not used to walking.”

I asked him how to get there. “You drive south along the lake three kilometers to Campo,” he said. “Take the road that turns up from the lake at a ruined campanile, and go some meters until you can go no farther. Then you must leave your car and climb. Ask anyone the way to the Madonna del Soccorso. It is only five minutes from the lake.”

I have learned that in Italy directions always wind up as “five minutes” from some place. After you listen to a spate of rapid Italian studtied with “a destra, a sinistra, vada dritto,” you hear “cinque minuti,” and you know the instructions are finished, if incomprehensible.

We followed the proprietor’s directions and left the car in the tiny dead-end square of Ossuccio, a hamlet above Campo. We were about five hundred feet up from the lake. The day had dawned clear, but now the sky lowered and a misting rain fell.

“Alla Madonna?” I asked an old man leaning against the doorway of the single store in Ossuccio, “Cinque minuti,” he said, pointing up a narrow lane to the right.

We walked up the cobbled path parallel to the lake, between shoulder-high dry walls laid neatly stone on stone. Steeply terraced vineyards and olive groves extended up the mountain to the left and down toward the lake to the right. At the end of the walled lane we emerged into the open and came upon a white stucco chapel with a red-tiled roof surmounted by a cross. The chapel was not more than thirty feet high and perhaps twenty feet wide. Granite framed the doorway and windows. The exterior was plain and severe. On a side wall was a sign in four languages-Italian. French, German, and English. It said, “Whether you come as a pilgrim or tourist, you arc entering my house. The Virgin Marie.” Over the bolted door of the chapel was the Roman numeral V and a faded inscription: “La Disputa di Gesù coi Dottori nel Tempio.”

We gazed up and down the mountain. Spread out before us on the steep slope, in a zigzag line some three thousand feet long, were four similar chapels below and another nine above, crowned by a church at the top. It was apparent that because we had followed the special directions for lazy Americans and mounted as far as Ossuccio by car, we had entered the Sanctuary of the Madonna at the fifth of the fourteen chapels, “Jesus’ Debate with the Doctors in the Temple.”

I approached a heavy mesh screen over one window of the chapel. I immediately stepped back in alarm. A grinning, contorted boy’s face stared out at me from the gloom behind the mesh. I stepped closer to the screen and stared back. The only light entered through the windows. Inside, some twenty plaster figures, almost life-size and frozen at the peak of animation, debated in the Temple of Jerusalem. Their hands gestured furiously but did not move. The figure of the boy Jesus, astounding the learned doctors with His knowledge, stood in the center of the circle. To one side stood the Madonna, her arms extended in awe. The grinning face which had startled me at the window belonged to a beggar boy in the foreground. The figures were painted in fresh, alive colors; every vein and tendon stood out in the gesturing hands; the faces were Italian faces of the lake district; and the clothing was of the seventeenth century — robes of deep rich red and celestial blue. Trompe l’oeil frescoes covered the chapel walls. Although we stood outside, we seemed to be in the halls of the Temple, surrounded by a perspective of columns. A complete life seethed within the chapel, silently, as in a habitat group in a museum.

What had we come upon here on the mountain? We descended to the first chapel and began our ascent in proper order.

The fourteen chapels together with the church of the Sanctuary, I learned later, represented the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary — scenes in the life of Christ and the Madonna, starting with the Annunciation and ending with the Coronation of the

Virgin.Each chapel differed in design: some were rectangular, some octagonal, some round. They were built between 1635 and 1714, chiefly through gifts from pious men of wealth in the region. The astonishingly lifelike tableaux were the work of journeyman artists of the period, men whose names mean nothing to us now.

We moved up the mountain in wonder from one chapel to the next. The Way of the Madonna, some fifteen feet wide, was paved with wellworn stones almost overgrown with grass. In the steeper stretches we mounted by broad stone steps like a series of shallow terraces. Low stone walls and ancient oaks flanked the path. As we climbed, the green, mist-shrouded slopes and the lake receded below us.

The Way of the Madonna was empty until a middle-aged German couple panted up the slope behind us and paused to peer through the window of Chapel VII, “The Scourging of Jesus.” We had recoiled before the scene: the darkvisaged, black-bearded figures of violence, whose upraised hands wielded long-vanished whips. The couple stood there a long time.

They stood again before Chapel VIII, “Jesus Crowned with Thorns,” where a mocking peasant figure in the foreground threw back his head, revealing an enormous goiter above his tattered shirt. Of course! He was an iodine-deficient mountain man from nearby.

Then two heavy set Italian women passed us. They wore shiny black dresses, black lace scarves over their heads, and recited the Rosary aloud as they walked firmly up the path. Behind them came their husbands in stiff, square black suits. The men were silent. One of the women stepped up to a chapel, tucked a bunch of field flowers in the window, and made the sign of the cross.

A pair of young nuns fluttered by. They stopped before a sign at a steep zag in the path. The sign was again inscribed in four languages. The English version said, “I don’t want to see uncovered women and young girls at all, or females with long or short pantaloons. Dress my modesty [sic]. The Virgin Marie.”

The misty rain had stopped, and the clouds were breaking up by the time we reached the eleventh chapel, “The Resurrection.” Inside, an angel effortlessly lifted a huge marble slab from the sepulcher. Five Roman guards, armed and uniformed like seventeenth-century Italian mercenaries, stumbled back from the scene in terror. Framed by a golden aureole, a muscular, vigorous Jesus, clad only in a fold of white cloth trailing from his waist, rose into the sky bearing a silken banner. At that moment a slanting ray of sun penetrated the window of the chapel and illuminated the figure of Jesus. A solitary Frenchman stood beside us at the window. He had a long, skeptical Gallic countenance. “Merveilleux,” he muttered.

Each of the fourteen chapels told a story as vivid and as three-dimensional. In “The Journey to Calvary” the soldiers’ horses pranced and curvetted as if alive. In “ The Crucifixion” more than forty expressive figures surrounded three tall crosses as a group of goitrous soldiers in the foreground struggled with the impenitent thief, stripping him preparatory to crucifixion. And in “The Assumption of the Virgin,” the last chapel before the church, the Apostles stood dumb struck as a flight of angels carried their Queen to heaven on a gilded cloud.

At every turn in the Way of the Madonna the views of Lake Como became more spectacular. Finally, at the top, from the belvedere of the church, we looked down over a silvery olive grove on a slope so steep that the trees leaned out to embrace the lake.

The church of the Sanctuary, after the chapels, seemed at first to be an anticlimax. Started a century earlier than the chapels and completed more than a century after, it contained a mélange of ornate styles inside. But in a dim chapel to the left of the altar we found the explanation of the Sanctuary’s name, the Madonna of the Rescue. For here, where the Queen of Heaven herself sat enthroned behind a barred gate, the walls were covered with ex-voto paintings and embroideries, hung by near victims of disaster to celebrate their miraculous escape from death through the intercession of the Madonna.

Each painting memorialized the very moment of rescue. The earliest date I could decipher was “Anno Domini 1670,” inscribed in the corner of a murky sickroom scene. A nobleman, or at least a man of some importance, lay propped up in a great canopied bed, his hands clasped in prayer. His bedside table contained a single vial of medicine and a spoon, medication being simpler then than it is today. A blackcoated younger man — the patient’s soil perhaps? — knelt in prayer at the foot of the bed. From the nobleman’s lips emerged a balloon ol illegible Latin script. And in the upper corner of the painting, as in all the paintings, floated a tiny Madonna holding the Christ Child.

Inscribed with the name Bartolomeo Brantano. this picture was the work of a professional artist of sorts. But most of the offerings were clearly naïve primitives executed by local amateurs.

One small work represented a storm on Lake Como. Waves of extraordinary size tossed about a typical Como fishing boat — the kind with three circular hoops that support a canvas cover over the top. The cover was rolled up and lashed to the hoops against the storm. Amidships two figures prayed as they pulled on the oars for dear life. They prayed successfully, for the picture was inscribed, “Grazia Ricevuta [Grace Received], 8 Agosto. 1899. Alessandro Miano, Pietro Freiburger.”

Another brightly colored canvas depicted the collision of a streamlined Como steamer and a small rowboat. Two figures were hurtled from the little Graft into the water. The town of Bellagio was clearly visible in the background, with each of its buildings painted in loving detail. The two boatmen must have made it to shore; they inscribed their initials modestly on the painting, “B.M., P.L. 1956.”

In another part of the church a pair of pictures hung side by side, both painted by E. Marmori. The first portrayed the headlong meeting, on a precipitous cobbled street, of a motor scooter and one of those twowheeled carts used locally for transporting goods. The man on the scooter was bashed against a stone wall. This picture was inscribed, “Ponna [the name of a village] 10-61958. Pianarosa, Giberto.” In the companion picture, a woman with a child in her arms was falling sideways from a high flight of steps at her back door. And this inscription read. “Ponna 15-3-1959. Pianarosa, Gina.” How fortunate for the accident-prone Pianarosa family that, the Virgin was near.

Many framed offerings were of embroidered silk. One showed a richly cursive “G.R.” surrounded by green grape leaves, purple thistles, and yellow daisies. The inscription, also embroidered, read, “Leoni, Giovanni — salvato dal fulmine [saved from a thunderbolt], Ossuccio 9-61915.”

When we came out of the church on the mountain it was almost dusk, and the bells in the church tower were pealing. We walked slowly down the Way of the Madonna past the silent chapels. Now we could see nothing inside but shadows. We got in our car in the square at Ossuccio and drove down the hill. The sound of the bells followed us until we arrived at the lakeshore road and could not hear them in the rush of traffic.