We continue with the numbers of GardaConcierge. This time, we present 9 famous figures with links to Lake Garda.
What exactly is this about? It’s certainly not the umpteenth list of illustrious names of people who have lived, worked or holidayed on Italy’s largest lake, Lake Garda, or for whom it has served as a source of inspiration. But maybe it is – in the end this is a list with 9 names… So what has been our selection criterion? It is predefined by the MIT, one of the leading research facilities, which educated world-famous engineers, physicists and mathematicians and even produced Nobel laureates. A working group of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has realized the continuously evolving “Pantheon” project, which identifies the cultural input of famous figures with influence on global events, and ranks these figures according to prominence. How is this prominence actually measured? With the help of an algorithm – the scientists from Boston are top researchers after all – that uses data from both wikipedia and a scientific article*, which lists the best of the best from the 8th c B.C. up to 1950.
And now, on to our 9 famous figures… Who are they?
According to the MIT, Napoleon is the most famous figure among those with links to Lake Garda. The “Pantheon” places him 21st among the most famous figures of all times. The Italian campaign (1796-1797), which demonstrated Napoleon’s ability as a military strategist, brought the French general to Lake Garda. After the debacle of the Piemontese army and the defeat of Milan, Napoleon moved eastward and faced the Austrian troops in the battle of Castiglione, fought in the area of Castiglione delle Stiviere, Medole and Solferino in the province of Mantua on 5 August 1796. The brilliant tactical sense of Napoleon, who led a major pitched battle for the first time, brought victory for the French army and was considered one of the most important successes of the young general Bonaparte.
In reality this armed battle was not as decisive as that fought in Rivoli in the eastern hinterland of Lake Garda, the following winter, more precisely on 14 and 15 January. It took place in the high plateau of Rivoli, where Napoleon crushed the Austrians after a long day of battle by a swift night attack of the French cavalry. Those who wish to learn more about this episode of European history, should definitely visit the “Museo Napoleonico” in Rivoli.
Dante Alighieri is placed 26th in the “Pantheon” and 2nd on our list. During his exile, after he had been banned from Florence, various towns took the poet in, among them (twice!!) Verona. Dante probably saw Lake Garda during one of these stays with the great Scaligers Bartolomeo I. and Cangrande I. della Scala. The Florentine poet is part of the group of people listed here, because Lake Garda is mentioned as “Benaco” in the “Divine Comedy”. The 20th canto of the Inferno (Hell) speaks of the circle of hell and bedlam, where fortune tellers and diviners are relegated to. Their heads are on backwards, pointing to the fact that they had wanted to look too far ahead in life. This canto includes tercets dedicated to Lake Garda. Virgil, who accompanies Dante during his journey to the underworld, uses the sight of the relegated souls and the appearance of Manto as an opportunity to speak of the birth of his native city of Mantua. His digression starts with a description of the location of Lake Garda and the hydrographic system of the area.
Publius Vergilius Maro – known as Virgil
Now let us talk about the Latin poet of the “Bucolics”, the “Georgics” and the Roman epic poem par excellence, the “Aeneid”. According to “Pantheon”, he ranks 36th among the most famous figures worldwide and thus takes the last spot on our podium. As said before, Virgil is from Mantua. But it is his mention of Lake Garda in the “Georgics” – which is often seen as one of the masterpieces of Latin literature – that earns him a spot on our list. Virgil who writes of country life, cultivation and animal husbandry, describes “Benacus” – the Latin name of Lake Garda – as a lake so large and impetuous it resembles the sea. Lake Garda is also mentioned in the “Aeneid” – but only briefly, before Virgil focuses on the Mincio, an outlet of the lake.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
After talking about the 50 most famous figures of all time, let us now turn towards a group of writers, particularly Goethe, one of the greatest writers of world literature, which the MIT places 62nd in its ranking. The author, poet and playwright is the first person on our list to experience Lake Garda as part of the “Grand Tour”, an educational trip of various countries of the continent undertaken by sons of upper-class European families. Italy was one stop of the tour and often its final destination. Goethe gives an account of his experience in his opera “Italian Journey”. His journey to ‘Bella Italia’ starts in the first days of September in 1786, when Goethe reaches Trento with a false passport. He gets to Torbole on 12 September, where Lake Garda captivates him with its charm. He then travels to Verona, visits the city centre, immerses himself into the urban history and – just like tourists today – is enchanted by the Verona Arena.
Attila the Hun
Next to Goethe on the MIT list is a personality who differs very much, however, from the German writer in terms of profession. We are of course talking about the most famous army commander in history – Attila (the Hun). “Pantheon” ranks him 68th among the most famous people in the world.
The last great Hunnic ruler, who lived in the first half of the 5th century, came to the area of Lake Garda during the Italian campaign. According to a recent reconstruction of the route through the Po Valley, Attila stayed in the area halfway between Mantua and Lake Garda. It is presumed that he met the pope in the vicinity of Peschiera del Garda. Legend has it that it was the pope himself who prevented Attila’s foray into Italy. It is said that he caused the retreat of the Hunnic troops by simply showing them his crucifix. It is clear, however, that there are various different reasons for Attila’s retreat to the Pannonian area and that the slow and difficult advance into the area around Lake Garda is one of them.
Shortly behind the first 100 personalities, Albrecht Dürer ranks 102nd. The painter and engraver is also known for his research on geometry and perspective, about which he wrote theoretical works. The “Grand Tour” undertaken by Goethe, was not yet common during Dürer’s lifetime (end of the 15th to mid-16th century). The artist came to Italy twice, once for a visit between the years 1494 and 1495; the second time, he stayed for a few years from 1505.
Dürer stayed on Lake Garda in 1495, namely in Arco in Trentino. The watercolour “Castle and Town of Arco” testifies to this stay. It shows the castle, which was built on a rock formation, majestically overlooking Lake Garda. At the time of Dürer’s travel, Arco belonged to the Republic of Venice. The painter stopped over here on his way back to Nuremberg.
Today’s Germany is also home to the 7th personality on our list, who ranks 114th according to “Pantheon”: Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the philosophers who shaped the philosophical, scientific, literary and political thinking of the 20th century. In 1878, he was forced primarily for health reasons to quit his post at Basel university. For Nietzsche, a time of travelling begins in search of places with a climate beneficial for his health. He thus often stayed in montainuous regions or thermal baths and spent the winter by the sea, e.g. on the French Riviera or the Ligurian coast. One of his travels brought the thinker to Riva del Garda for a month in February 1880, where he found the calm necessary for his work.
Halfway between Salò and Gargnano, on the western shore of Lake Garda, the dictator founded the so-called “Salò Republic” in 1943 – a state created with the intention to govern the territories that were neither occupied by the Nazis during the 2nd World War, nor fell to the Allies. Benito Mussolini chose the area around Lake Garda, in order to revive fascist Italy. The area was suitable due to its distance from violent theatres of war, the big cities and the territories controlled by partisans. This area on Lake Garda is not far away from Limone on the northern shore of the lake, which at the time bordered on the Third Reich due to annexation of Trentino-Alto Adige shortly before. Mussolini ranks 122nd on the list of the most famous people according to the algorithm developed by the MIT for “Pantheon” and belongs on our list due to the location of the “Salò Republic”.
We continue to talk about politics, albeit for different reasons. Winston Churchill, listed 181st among the most famous figures internationally and thus 9th and last on our list, knew Lake Garda as a tourist. The prime minister of the UK came to Lake Garda twice, the first during one of the most harrowing conflicts in the history of the West, from 1940 to 1945, and the second time from 1951 to 1955, when he stayed on Lake Garda in between his first and second mandate.
Churchill visited Lake Como directly after the end of the 2nd World War and stayed at the Grand Hotel in Gardone Riviera on Lake Garda in 1949. During this stay, the statesman had the opportunity not only to see the western shore of Lake Garda, but also the eastern shore halfway between Garda and the Punta San Vigilio promontory. Among the various photos of his visit, one shows him sitting beneath two parasols and in front of an easel while painting Lake Garda.