Veneto: Torri del Benaco

Torri del Benaco.

The charming town of Torri del Benaco lies just north of the town of Garda, after which Lake Garda takes its name. The Latin name of Lake Garda is Lacus Benacus, and that explains the name Torri del Benaco. During the Roman era and the Early Middle Ages, the town was known as Tulles. It had a fort, possibly on the site where we now find the castle. At the start of the tenth century Torri del Benaco was surrounded by walls to protect the town against the invading Magyars, and at the end of the fourteenth century the Scaligeri of Verona built the castle at the harbour. It is very pleasant to walk along the lakeside boulevard, which was named after the poet Berto Barbarani (1872-1945), and then have a bite at one of the many excellent restaurants. From Torri del Benaco one can take the ferry to Maderno, while the so-called tower of San Marco is visible on the shore between Maderno and Salò. This is the spot where Mussolini used to meet his mistress Clara Petacci.

The Castello Scaligero at the harbour was built in 1383 by Antonio della Scala, lord of Verona between 1375 and 1387. The castle replaced an older castle from the tenth century, which in its turn may have replaced the Roman fort. Some historians assume the westernmost tower of the castle has Roman origins, but this is not yet certain. The Castello Scaligero protected the harbour, and from there the Scaligeri tried to control shipping traffic on Lake Garda. They did much the same at Sirmione, on the south side of the lake. Judging by the battlements of the castle, the Scaligeri were Ghibellines, Italian supporters of the Holy Roman emperor. Ghibelline battlements have the shape of a swallow’s tail.

Lake Garda at Torri del Benaco.

Remains of the Castello Scaligero.

Antonio della Scala did not enjoy his new castle for long, for in 1387 Torri del Benaco was taken by Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), lord of Milan, after a brief siege. The town later fell under the Carraresi of Padova for a short time, and was then taken by the Venetians in 1405. During the Venetian era the castle was used by the Capitano del Lago, but by the eighteenth century it had become ruinous and was partly demolished. In 1760 part of the inner court was transformed into a limonaia, a garden used to grow citrus fruit. This garden still exists, and visitors to the castle will not only find lemons here, but also turtles. The remaining rooms of the castle now provide accommodation to an ethnographic museum. Towns such as Torri del Benaco used to be highly dependent on fishing, so expect to find fishing vessels on display here. The museum furthermore has a relief featuring the coat of arms of Antonio della Scala and a piece of sculpture with a Fascist bundle of rods that refers to the year VIII of the Fascist era (i.e. to 1930).

Chiesa della Santissima Trinità.

At the harbour we also find the small Chiesa della Santissima Trinità, the church of the Holy Trinity. It has the flag of Italy flying outside and above the entrance one can read the text AI NOSTRI CADVTI (“for our fallen”). Above the text is the bust of a soldier wearing a World War One-style helmet. In 1925-1930 the small church was converted into a war memorial. The Santissima Trinità originally dates from the fourteenth century and served as the private chapel of the Manaroli family. As of 1697 it accommodated meetings of the Capitano del Lago and representatives from the Gardesana dell’Acqua, which was a kind of federation of the ten most important towns on the shores of Lake Garda. The meetings were later moved to the adjacent building, which now houses Albergo Ristorante Gardesana.

Inside the church the altar wall has large commemorative plaques with the names of those who fell in Italy’s wars. On the right we see the names of soldiers who were killed in battle or died of disease during World War One, which lasted from 1915 to 1918 for Italy. The plaque on the left is more complex. There is a central place for the fallen of World War Two, including men who died in German captivity. This must be a reference to the events after 8 September 1943, the day the Italian government surrendered to the Allies. As a consequence, the Germans lost an ally and gained an enemy. Almost immediately German army units invaded Italy and started to disarm the Italian troops. Over one million Italian soldiers were sent to prison camps, where several thousand lost their lives. A separate commemorative plaque refers to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. All the way at the top the soldiers who were killed in Africa are commemorated. One of them was killed in action in 1896 at Adwa against the Ethiopian Empire and another lost his life fighting the Turks in Libya in 1912.

Interior of the church.

The walls of the Santissima Trinità still have a couple of frescoes from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which have been restored very well. The best fresco represents Christ in a mandorla between Saint Catherine of Alexandria (see the wheel at her feet) and Bartholomew (with a knife in his hands). Surrounding the mandorla are the symbols of the four evangelists. Also interesting is a fresco of the Last Supper, although only the left side of the table has been preserved. Six apostles can be seen eating. One of them is cutting a fish and the apostle next to him is sticking a piece of bread into his mouth. The apostle on the far right may very well be Saint Peter, but unfortunately Jesus (who must have sat in the middle) has been lost. The year 1440 has been scratched into the fresco, but it is probably several decades older.

Fresco in the Santissima Trinità.

Last supper.

Less interesting, but still worth a visit is the eighteenth-century church of Santi Apostoli Pietro e Paolo. The construction of this church, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, started in 1719 under the direction of the architect Antonio Spiazzi (died ca. 1745). The building was only completed fifty years later, in 1769, and it was not until 1812 that the church was consecrated. Santi Apostoli Pietro e Paolo has a rich interior, although admittedly it is a bit thirteen-in-a-dozen.

Next to the church is a robust medieval tower that is known as the Torre di Berengario. This Berengarius was a great-grandson – through his mother Gisela – of Charlemagne. He initially ruled as margrave of the Friuli and then between 887 and 924 as king of Italy. To fend off the Magyar invasions he decreed that all the cities and towns in his realm should build walls. The decree was followed to the letter in Torri del Benaco. In 905 Berengarius took up residence in the town when he was on the run from his enemies. On that occasion he may have had the tower built that bears his name. Originally there must, by the way, have been four towers. In 915 Berengarius was crowned Holy Roman emperor by Pope John X (914-928). In 924 he was murdered in Verona.

View of Lake Garda.

Further reading: Evert de Rooij, Lago di Garda. Een meer vol verhalen, p. 39-43 (in Dutch).


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