Friday, 20 April 2018

Short history of Maggia estuary: from nature to weapons

@Zeitschrift für Landschaftsarchitektur (1985)
The Maggia river rises from the Pizzo Cristallina and extends over 56 kilometers Sambuco Valley, the Lavizzara Valley and the Maggia Valley.

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

The overall catchment area of the Maggia river is about 930 km2 with several inflows, the most important of which are Melezza, Rovana and Bavona.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Another long gone castle: Castello di Tegna

Strategic placement of Castello di Tegna
Insubrica Historica has been investigating, assembling information about lost castles in the region of Locarno. Following our two previous articles on the Castle of Magadino and the Castle of Gordola, we have created today one more publication about the Castelliere of Tegna, which is situated at the strategic cross point of the Valle Maggia and the Terre di Pedemonte.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 April 2018

Polish Army in Insubrica region: case of Losone

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

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

The interned Poles made mainly groupwise work assignments for the national defense, the infrastructure (road and bridge construction, drainage of swamps) as well as in the agriculture. A total of 450 kilometers of paths, bridges and canals were built. Monuments and commemorative plaques commemorate the involuntary stay of interned people throughout the region. After the war, around 500 Poles were able to settle in Switzerland and to obtain later the Swiss citizenship.

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

Blurring of the area worked by Polish internees.
Map of 1946 with the map of 2016.
@swisstopo (
Polish internees barracks Losone-Arbigo
Thanks to the Polish soldiers' intervention, the uncultivated area was, at first, shaped as an important agricultural development and, then, as tourist and industrial zone. 

The Polish intervention created the most important agricultural zone in Losone, which persisted for many years until the construction of the 18 hole Golf place (in the centre of the above map). 

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

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

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

Friday, 13 April 2018

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

Not everyone understands the acronym HvK, even when we search on Google "HvK", there are not many answers. For Insubrica Historica, the acronym HvK means Herbert von Karajan. For many ouf our readers, this name doesn't mean much today, but HvK was an outstanding musician and passionate of the private aviation - and also Porsche driver - . 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

American hero and astronaut Walter Schirra with Ticino roots

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

Why does Insubrica Historica commemorate Walter Schirra?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Bronze Age Discovery in Minusio: historical settlement near Locarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Picturesque Ascona and Brissago islands: Dynamite Disaster !

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 April 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 April 2018

Executioner and butcher of Stans: Joseph Mainoni, native from Lugano

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mainoni distinguished himself at the Battle of Biberach (Baden-Württemberg) on October 2, 1796, between 1796-97, he was active in the Rhine, and under command of Napoleon during the Italian campaign. In June 1798, Mainoni with his troops entered the city of Basel in Switzerland. The return to his motherland would become for him a real tour-de-force, after Basel, he moved his troops to Kloten, Olten, Solothurn and Langenthal. Halted briefly in Bern, he continued moving towards to Thun, Meiringen and the Brünig Pass. His troops amounted to approximately 8'000 soldiers. The main battle in Nidwalden was held in Kerns, between Sarnen and Alpnach, on September 9, 1798.

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

French attack on Drachenried-Ennetmoos, Nidwalden @Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Motion pictures filmed in Ticino: what about Spaghetti-Harvest in Ticino?

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

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

2017 Elisarion Minusio
Insubrica Historica
Insubrica Historica admired in 2017,  during the Film Festival in Locarno, the exhibition held in Minusio, in the Centro Elisarion, that was devoted to all majors movies produced in Switzerland. Amazing movies! Maybe, they will not be liked by everyone but they have put emphasis on the historical heritage of the Insubrica region. 

So, a question could be asked: which movie is the best fiction movie ever filmed in Ticino? The answer may surprise you...
Surely, we are not cinematographic experts but, from our point of view, the winning reward goes to a BBC report which was broadcasted in April 1957 in the UK and called "The spaghetti-tree". It was a brief  broadcast that lasted only three minutes on 1 April, the so called "Fools' Day". It showed purposely a family in southern Switzerland, harvesting spaghetti from a family "spaghetti tree".

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

At that time, the spaghetti were relatively little known in the UK, so that many Britons were unaware of their production procedures and their ingredients that included some wheat flour and water; a great number of viewers contacted the BBC after having viewed the broadcast for valuable pieces of advice on how to grow their own spaghetti trees in England. According to CNN, this broadcast was even "the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled". Enjoy the hoax:


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

American Civil War in the context of Insubrica region

The American Civil War (1861–1865) was a civil war that took place in the United States of America opposing two fronts. Eleven Southern states, in which slavery was legal, formed the Confederate States of America (Confederacy). These states aspired to become independent from the rest of the United States, and Jefferson Davis (1808-1809) was chosen as a new President of this Confederacy. 

The US government and the rest of the states, which remained loyal to the original concept, were called the Union (pictured in blue in the map). Every state where slavery was illegal supported the Union. Most of these states were in the North. But, five states where slavery was legal also supported the Union. They were called the "border states", pictured in red.

The war began on 12 April, 1861, when the Confederate forces attacked the Fort Sumter which was held by a garrison of the Union. The conflict lasted four years and devastated completely the South. When the Union won the war in 1865, slavery was definitely abolished everywhere in the United States.

Till nowadays, there is no comprehensive study that puts emphasis on the participation of the Swiss people coming from the Canton Ticino and/or the Insubrica region who were actively involved in this conflict. During the Civil War there were about 55'000 Swiss in the United States. More than 50'000 lived in the North, with only about 5'000 living in the states of the Confederacy. The Swiss General Consul in Washington DC estimated that about 6'000 mens participated in the conflict with the Union. Hundreds of the Swiss mens should have fought for the Confederacy. Surely, the Swiss soldiers had a small presence compared to approx. 2.1 Mio soldiers fighting for the Union. Nevertheless, they managed to produced some fine examples of military skills and glory both in the North as well as in the South.

We would like to mention just few names of Swiss soldiers combating for the Union side: Captain Emil Frey (Arlesheim 1838 - id. 1922) was taken as a prisoner at the battle of Gettysburg, but he managed, after the Civil War, to embrace a political career in Berne, becoming in 1894, the President of the Swiss Confederation. General John Eugene Smith (Bern 1816 - Chicago 1897) served as a Union general during the American Civil War. General Hermann Lieb (Ermatingen/TG 1826 – Chicago 1908) was a commander of the Union forces at the Battle of Milliken's Bend in 1863.

We also wish to put in light one Swiss citizen who supported the Confederacy: Captain Henri Wirz (Zürich 1823 - Washington 1865). Wirz was best known as the Commandant of the Camp Sumter which was a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia. This place was infamous for its terrible conditions and the high mortality rate of Union detainees. After the Civil War, Wirz was executed for conspiracy and murders related to his command of the camp. He became one of two people who were convicted for the war crimes after the Civil War.

Alessandro Repetti
So, how many soldiers from the Insubrica region fought in the American Civil War? As stated above, there is no comprehensive study on this subject, but we can suppose the following: if 6'500 Swiss soldiers fought during the Civil War, approx. 5% were from the Canton Ticino. Consequently, the overall number could be approximately 300-350 soldiers from Ticino, but it is a pure estimation and, most likely, the reality counted just a few hundred of them from the Insubrica region.

Yet, there are two personalities from the Canton Ticino who took part in the Civil War and are worth writing. The first person is Alexander (Alessandro) Repetti (Genova 1822 - Rome 1890).

Originally from Italy, he came to Switzerland in 1847 and became quickly the owner of the Tipografia Elvetica in Capolago (southern tip of Lago di Lugano), which under his guidance had a considerable development, publishing subversive political works, clearly supporting the Italian unification. Forced to stop his publishing activities by the neutral Swiss government, Repetti emigrated, in 1859, to the United States.
Augusto Fogliardi @ASMZ 1966
He fought passionately during the Civil War as a Lt-Col. and commander of Garibaldi Guard. It was a unit formed in NY composed from Italians and Swiss-Germans.

Repetti returned to Switzerland, in 1862, because of health problems. His life experience in the US allowed him, in 1863, to be promoted to the rank of major by the General Staff of the Swiss Army.

The same year, from March to November 1863, he returned to the United States as a staff working for Swiss Colonel Augusto Fogliardi, whose mission was to observe the military operations. Having returned, in 1867, in Milan, he opened a small print shop as a publisher.

Ferdinand Lecomte
Source: D. Auberson
The second personality was Colonel Augusto Fogliardi (Marseille 1818 - around 1890 probably in modern Instanbul). He studied law at the University of Zurich (1846-47) and embraced later a military career in the Swiss Army, reaching the rank of colonel in 1855. In 1863, he took an official military assignment in behalf of the Swiss Federal Council and spent, together with Alessandro Repetti, a lot of time in 1863, inspecting the Union troops, visiting the battle fronts.

Fogliardi was the second Swiss observer, following Captain Ferdinand Lecomte (Lausanne 1826 - id. 1899), who studied the Union Army from 1861 till the beginning of 1862. For the sake of the record, Switzerland was the first nation in the American Civil War that sent military observers for the Union side. Fogliardi returned to Switzerland where he was engaged in a local political career.

  • On the original premises of the Tipografia Elvetica there is today a Casa d'Arte Miler (Piazza Duttweiler, Capolago) which holds a nice collection of the furniture designer Gustave Serrurier-Bovy

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer: his sincere love for Insubrica region

Konrad Adenauer (Cologne 1876 – Bad Honnef 1967) was, from 1949 to 1963, the first Bundeskanzler (chancellor) of the Federal Republic of Germany. He spent 11 years of his holidays in the Insubrica region, at first on Lago Maggiore, and then on Lago di Como.

Adenauer started his political career in 1906 in Cologne, becoming, from 1917 to 1933, and briefly in 1945, the mayor of the city. Opposed to the Nazi party, he managed to survive the war. After it, he became a founding member of the Christian democratic, liberal and conservative party (CDU), which was politically positioned in the centre. In 1949, he was elected as the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, and from 1951 to 1955, as the Foreign Secretary. Being reelected three times, he took his retirement in 1964 and died on April 19, 1967.

He began to travel to Switzerland in 1955. His first holiday, from 18. July till 27. August, was spent in Mürren / Schilthorn in the region of the Jungfraujoch. He stayed at the Palace-Hotel, in which the British Field-marshal Montgomery (1887-1976) had spent his holidays after the war. This Palace Hotel has become nowadays an inhabited ruin, which is a poor ending for a hotel that at the turn of the 19th Century was acclaimed as the Grandhotel des Alpes. But, Adenauer came back to Switzerland in 1956, precisely in the Insubrica region and kept returning here for the next ten years.  

Adenauer, still Bundeskanzler in office, spent three weeks during the spring of 1956 at the Hotel Monte Verità. He managed to relax, notwithstanding paparazzi's attention and a wide public interest. He managed to visit a tiny Brissago Island and many other surrounding places. However, his presence in Ticino and Switzerland attracted too much interest from the press and, somehow, put in an awkward position the Swiss neutral government. 

Nevertheless, his love for Insubrica brought him back to the region in 1957, and this time, he was not far from Lago Maggiore, spending his vacations on Lake Como, precisely in the district of Cadenabbia in the small town of Griante

Adenauer stayed in Griante at the Villa Rosa (called the Villa Berta at present), which was a magnificent villa built in 1903-1904, with 1000 square meters of living space and a beautiful secluded garden, with private beach and direct access to Lago di Como. In 2018, the Villa Berta is on sale for an undisclosed price. As for Adenauer, he returned to Griante in 1958, living in the nearby Villa Arminio.

Adenauer developed in a short time a strong attraction for the place, from 1959 to 1966, he spent his holidays in the Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia by Tremezzo, for 15 times in a row. The Villa belonged to a French couple, and it is likely that Adenauer rented the premise for the whole period, refurbishing it after many years of decay. During these years, Adenauer managed to visit Cadenabbia twice a year, welcoming numerous important politicians and personalities of his time. He was eased in the task by a beautiful and spectacular view, overlooking the lake and the picturesque Bellagio.

There may be a significant connection to why Adenauer chose this particular Villa. As a matter of fact, the family of his Foreign Minister from 1955 to 1961, Heinrich von Brentano (1904 - 1964), was originally from Tremezzo. The villa la Collina has been used since 1977 as an international meeting centre and a hotel by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. In 2004, the villa La Collina was classified by the Bundestag committee (the legislature body of Germany) as a memorial place of the national importance and it has become the only German related place of remembrance outside of the German territory.


Monday, 2 April 2018

Giovanni Bassanesi: Resistance flight from Bellinzona to Milan in 1930

Giovanni Bassanesi (Aosta 1905- Montelupo Fiorentino 1947) was an Italian anti-fascist. On July 11, 1930, at 10:30, he left Bellinzona, passing by Lodrino (Valle Leventina), in order to jettison over 150'000 anti-fascism propaganda flyers over the Fascist city of Milan. 

The Farman F.200, used for this exploit, was a civil utility aircraft produced in France in the 1930s. It was a parasol-wing monoplane with open cockpits in tandem for the pilot and one or two passengers. Intended, primarily as a trainer, it was also marketed as being suitable as a photographic platform or a mail plane.

In June 1930, the airplane Farman F.200 F-AJFD was purchased by Gaston Brabant, a captain of the French army and a managing director of the magazine "L'Avion". 

On July 5, 1930, Brabant and Bassanesi left Toussus-le-Noble, near Paris, in order to participate to the flying Rallye d'Auvergne. They continued the trip to Geneva via Lyon-Bron. On July 9, Bassanesi and Brabant left Geneva for the airfield in Bellinzona; at this point, Bassanesi was already sole owner of the airplane. - picture taken either
in Bellinzona or Lodrino
The airfield in Bellinzona was located near the military training zone; nowadays it is disappeared: the airfield would be situated between the public swimming pool and Via Francesco Chiesa, alongside the Ticino river (presumed location of the airfield in Bellinzona). 

The airplane landed on Thursday, July 10, in Bellinzona. In order to conceal the operation, Bassanesi decided to load the flyers not in Bellinzona but in Lodrino, about 10 minutes flight from Bellinzona toward the North. 

The next morning, on July 11, Bassanesi landed in the field in Lodrino (valle Leventina), close to the former military airfield, built ten years later during 1941-1943, only to refuel. 

Modern Valle Leventina, lower corner
left: Lodrino airfield, lower corner right:
Ambri airfield. @Insubrica Historica
Bassanesi managed with the help of the local people to take-off from Lodrino. The airplane F-AJFD with a co-pilot, flew to Milan, where Bassanesi jettisoned 150’000 flyers of anti-fascist propaganda over the city. Bassanesi managed to land again in Lodrino, at 13:30, without consequences. 

He lost much time in the afternoon by refuelling and changing the oil. Despite weather conditions worsening around the Alps, Bassanesi left for Zürich the same day at 17:00.

He crashed the airplane for causes of the bad weather near the Hospice of the Gotthard Pass at Monte Prosa, few hours later at 18:30.

He was badly wounding in the crash. Imprisoned by the Swiss authorities, Bassanesi was condemned, in Lugano, for four months of prison. Later, he was expelled to France. He died after the war.

  • Swissair 00, Geschichte Flugunfälle (Link)
  • Judicial sentence against Giovanni Bassanesi (Link)
  • Associazione Amici Giovanni Bassanesi (Link)
  • Wikipedia (italian) Giovanni Bassanesi (Link)
  • Pasquale Genasci, Il volo di Bassanesi su Milano, (Link)
  • The airfield in Lodrino exposes a DeHavilland Venom DH-112 with marking J-1580. Nearby, on the western side of the airfield, there is a monument to Giovanni Bassanesi.