Thursday, August 02, 2012

Garantito IGP: Cornello dei Tasso, and The Postal System

This time, I take the stand:

The first few km of the Val Brembana, which goes extends into the Alps behind Bergamo, are decidedly nondescript, with an abundance of relatively recent buildings jumbled together on the valley floor. However, after a few tunnels the construction started to thin, and in the space of a few more km (and more tunnels) you'll find yourself at the bottom of a V, with mountains rising up all around you.

At Camerata Cornello turn off the main road and climb through a series of switchbacks; you'll soon reach a parking garage built for the residents of Cornello dei Tassi, who live a little further on, down the old Via Mercatorum, the medieval commercial route (a wide, well packed trail) that followed the flank of the valley due to an impassable gorge on the valley floor. The Via Mercatorum passes literally through Cornello -- the ground floors of the buildings on its path are porticoed, allowing people to pass under them -- and as a result Cornello was an important stopping point where merchants could rest their animals and themselves, and if the weather was bad enjoy some shelter. They could also trade, and talk, and we will return to this.

The town of Cornello can easily be seen in the space of an hour -- the porticoed section is about a hundred yards long, and the other major local attraction is the parish church, a XII Century Romanesque church dedicated to Saints Cornelio and Cipriano. To reach it, go through the porticoed section, turn right, and climb to a parallel lane. The church's façade is simple rather sever stone work, and you'll note that the tower is slightly out of kilter. Inside there are many frescoes dating to the XV-XVI centuries depicting people of all walks of life. Some are quite nice, but the one that really caught my eye is to the left as you enter: Sant'Elvio, the patron saint of Maniscalchi, or blacksmiths, who simply removes the horse's foreleg to affix the shoe to the hoof without worrying about what the animal is doing. A miracle, and then he (one assumes) reattaches the leg when he has finished. Beautiful.

As I said, the traders who stopped in Cornello also talked, and it didn't take long for the scions of the Tasso Family, one of the leading local families, to wonder if those who were talking might also want the services of a courier to send missives forward or back. So, in the XIII Century Odone De Taxo set up such a service. It proved successful, but one can only have so much success if one works from a town in an Alpine valley. So part of the family moved to Venice, and managed to become the Official Couriers for the Venetian Republic. They did well, and another branch of the family moved to Rome, where they became Maestri delle Poste Papali -- the Papal Postmasters.

Others instead entered into the service of the Holy Roman Emperor, and again did well: In 1512 the Emperor Maximillian bestowed a title upon the family, with a coat of arms featuring a badger (tasso) and a postal bugle, enriched by the Imperial Eagle. The family also worked for Maxiimillian's cousins, the Kings of Spain, and for several centuries various branches of the Tasso Family (part of the German branch became Princes of Thurn and Taxis) ran the postal system throughout much of Europe, establishing routes between hundreds of cities and precise schedules.

They became fabulously wealthy, and continued to provide postal services throughout Europe until well into the 19th century, by which time the various European governments had realized that government-controlled national postal systems were perhaps a good idea. Indeed, when the European governments met in the 1850s to discuss postal matters, the Tasso Family joined them at the table, and subsequently issued stamps for its routes, which continued to function until 1866, when the Prussians unified Germany and nationalized the German postal system. At this point the Tasso family ceded its operations to the various national postal systems and turned its attentions to other ventures.

Not bad for a family that started out sending packets up and down an Alpine valley! And they are well remembered in Cornello, which changed its name to Cornello Dei Tassi, and hosts a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Tasso family and the postal system they established, with stamps, letters, portraits of royal sponsors, and much more.

And why is Cornello now served by a mule track rather than a paved road, you wonder? Because in 1592 the Venetians, who ruled Bergamo at the time, overcame the obstacles on the valley floor and built a new, easier to travel road called the Via Priula. Cornello became isolated, and while this did mean hardships for generations of its inhabitants (an Abbot who visited in 1899 spoke of poor mountaineers who spent their summers working in France, to earn enough to survive the winters), because of the isolation the town remains unchanged, and is one of the best preserved Alpine trading villages anywhere. And well worth a visit.

Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.

We Are:
Carlo Macchi
Kyle Phillips
Luciano Pignataro
Roberto Giuliani
Stefano Tesi

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