One of places to visit on Lake Como:
The Comacina Island (which is 600 meters long and 150 meters large) is the only island of the Como Lake; its surface is about 6 hectares.
This glacial-originated island is covered with Mediterranean vegetation, just like the scenery which surround it; this area is called Zoca de L’Oli (a dialectical name) referring to the production of olive oil and the mild climate.
When we see it today, it is hard to believe how this island played a leading part through many historical events. The Comacina Island, known as San Giovanni Island, had a key role as a fortress because of its location between mountain passes and planes since the times in which Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) was head of the Romans; moreover, it is near to the so called Via Regia, one of the most important roads between Northern Europe and Italy.
Plinio Il Vecchio (Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher) was its minister maximum in I century a.d. According to the tradition, in V century the basilica of St. Euphemia was built over the ruins of a temple in honor of Zeus, because of the will of the bishop of Como, Abbondio. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire the island moved under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Although it is not a big island, it was able to face the Longobards attacks; it was such a safe place that could afford to give shelter to many artists of that time, such as the Magistri Comacini.
Autari, the Longobard’s king, was very interested in the Comacina, so he stormed it. But soon the islanders recovered the losses and their prosperity thanks to the trades, activity in which they mastered. The richest citizens of Como and the towns nearby moved in the island with all of their treasures guided by a general called Francione who carried on the Resistence.
Houses, churches and fortresses were soon built on the island. There is a legend which says that a British priest brought here the Holy Grail, that is why in that period the island was called Cristopolis, the city of Christ.
In X century the islanders were involved in the war between Otto I, emperor of Germany and Berengar II of Italy. During the Middle-Age the island was either enemy or friend of Como; it depended on circumstances and periods of time. In 1100 the Comacina became a Medieval Commune and reached increasing prosperity and wealth; it also expended its sovereignty on the mainland. It became so important that it could afford an alliance with Milan during the decade-long war against Como (1118-1127), which Como lost.
Federico Barbarossa (Frederick Redbeard) took the beaten city under his wing of protection and helped it. In 1169 he invaded the Comacina island and with help of Dongo, Gravedona and Sorico, he destroyed everything. Fortresses, houses and churches were destroyed and the stones were thrown in the lake. Pope Alexander III excommunicated the city of Como because of the destruction of the island and all of her churches. Accordingly Vidulfo, the bishop of Como, cursed the Comacina. In 1175 Redbeard forbade each reconstruction through a decree; nobody returned to live in the Island because of the curse. After the destruction some islanders founded a borough called “Isola” near Ossuccio and some other founded “Varenna” (town on the eastern bank of the Como lake).
In XVI century a group of people built a church dedicated to San Giovanni Battista (John the Baptist) in the northern part of the island. According to the tradition, John the Baptist appeared to a person that lived near the Comacina island; the saint told him that there was something important on a precise point on the island; the man dug in that point and found the remains of the old church, on which he should build a new church. The old church was probably the first parochial church of the island, dedicated to S. Giovanni (Saint John). The legend says that St. John itself suggested to come here every year, to celebrate St John’s day.
Nowadays this traditional procession does still take place. Comacina island had different owners, it has even been an episcopal property. In 1914 Albert I of Belgium inherited it from the owner of that time, Augusto Giuseppe Caprani. Not many years after, though, he returned the Comacina island to the State of Italy, as long as it would become a place where Belgian and Italian artists could relax. The state of Italy entrusted this task to the Brera Academy, and three small villas were built on the island; these accommodated artists and became very important and interesting for the local culture. The XX century was characterized by an artistic rediscovery of the Comacina. The archeological campaigns directed by the archeologist Ugo Monneret de Villard in 1914 and by the architect Luigi Mario Belloni and his wife, doctor Mariuccia Zacchinelli, from 1958 to 1978, gave new birth to lots of the ruins which once were the great treasures of the island. Their extraordinary and patient work brought to a deeper knowledge of the life on the Comacina Island; since 2004, the regional project “Accordo Quadro di Sviluppo Territoriale” has been carrying out these studies, in order to retrain the South-Central area of the Como lake. The project leaded off many restorations in the archeological sites of the island, but it is also working on the XIX-century villas of the lake and the Chapels of the Sacro Monte (Sacred Mountain) in Ossuccio, setting up museums, exhibition halls and promoting tourism.
Comacina Island Museum
The ancient Middle Age Hospitalis, a place where peregrines could rest, nearby the church of S Maria Maddalena in Ospedaletto, will soon become an Antiquarium. This means that it will be a visitor centre for the Comacina island and a museum where to keep and enhance the archeological finds of the campaigns. After a visit to the Antiquarium, tourists will get much information so that they can embark themselves to the island and will be able to see its archeological sites in a more conscious way, as they will know the story behind them. Visitors will be able to follow a multimedia path which will help them understand the matter of these archeological finds; this multimedia paths will be soon
available in the Antiquarium.
The museum is dedicated to the architect Mario Belloni and his wife because they found the archeological rests, collecting and cataloging them. In the museum there are marble fragments and slabs coming from the rests of the churches of the island, the
mensa ponderaria (a proof of the existence of the law on the island), Roman ossuaries and various finds, low medieval gravestones, and some architectural remains like column’s bases and a Corinthian capital from the churches of the island, and marble and soapstone manufactures.
The Basilica of St. Euphemia
Today only the remains of the churches, of the constructions and of the fortresses that were on the island are visible. The remains were found by the archeological excavations conducted by Monneret de Villard in 1914 and Luigi Mario Belloni between 1958 and 1978. The Basilica of St. Euphemia is considered one of the most representative monuments of the local Romanesque and the remains are still today called “le rovine del Duomo”, the ruins of the dome. This Basilica was built for the will of the Bishop of Como Agrippino, on the foundations of a pre-existent structure, already diocese. Sant’Abbondio, bishop and patron of Como, who lived around the 450 a.C. built the primitive church. In VII century the Basilica of St. Euphemia was restructured by the Bishop Agrippino who chose to be buried there, as an epitaph remember us. The sacred building was completely pose again in Romanesque style in XI century for the will of the bishop Litigerio. It became collegio canonicale in 1031 before being completely destroyed in 1169. Abbondio was the one who brought the cult of St. Euphemia in the local area (also spread by Agrippino), when he came back from Calcedonia. The Saint was important for the Tri-Chapter belief.