By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds
Como is beautifully situated at the foot of Lake Como, with high mountains behind. In Roman times it was important as the southern terminus for transalpine passes, which, of course, it remains today (except that, for most traffic, the St. Gotthard pass has been replaced by a 10-mile (16 km) tunnel). In the time of Alessandro Volta, Como was under irksome Austrian domination. No other city in the world pays as splendid a tribute to a scientist as Como does to Alessandro Volta. The most spectacular memorial is the Tempio Voltiano, a neoclassical rotunda-like a temple to an old Roman god-which juts out into the lake, the centrepiece of Como’s lakefront. The building contains an excellent museum, one of the best in Europe devoted to a single individual and his work. We see Volts’s “piles” in all stages of development, the original “tower” of disks, a later “corona” of beakers connected by wires, and a “pile of troughs” that looks not unlike a modern auto-mobile battery. There are paintings of Volta demonstrating electric currents to an eager-to-learn Napoleon Bonaparte. An upstairs gallery has an impressive collection of books that Volta used either in his own training or as a professor at the University of Pavia. Many of them, including, for example, Joseph Priestley’s famous History of Electricity (1767), are in English. Most of the electrical apparatus in the Tempio actually consists of faithful reproductions. The city of Como mounted an exhibit of every genuine Volta pile it could find on the occasion of the 1899 centenary of the first discovery-unfortunately, a disastrous fire destroyed the lot.
Como also has a piazza named after Volta with a prominent statue of him, and a street, the Viale Alessandro Volta, which contains (at number 62) the grand townhouse where he was born. The high school where he first taught physics (the Liceo A. Volta) and the church where he was married are other places on the official Volta itinerary, as is the Torre di Porta Nuovo at the corner of Viale Verese and Viale C. Cattaneo. This tower is part of the surviving segment of the ancient city walls, and from 1783 to 1806 it was used as a physics laboratory by Volta’s friend Canon Gattoni. It is here that Volta actually carried out all of his experiments. Today (somewhat ironically) it houses an electric power relay station, and nothing of the old interior remains. Finally, at Camnago Volta, three kilometres from Como, we can see Volta’s former summer house and the mausoleum where he was buried.
The city of Como also remembers Pliny the Elder and his nephew and chronicler, Pliny the Younger. Interestingly, it does not do so in the form of some nineteenth- or twentieth-century move to give belated recognition, but by means of monuments dating back to about 1480. The two famous native sons grace the left and right of the main doorway of the Como Cathedral, a splendid edifice built entirely of marble. (A few kilometres northeast, near Tomo, is the much visited Villa Pliniana, occupying the site of a former country mansion of the younger Pliny.)