An Englishman in the Ligurian Apennines: Frederic Lees in Torriglia, 1911

Frederic Lees was a British writer and journalist who walked through Liguria in 1911 and published an account of the trip. His local guide was ‘J. K.’, antiquarian and member of the Societá Ligure di Storia Patria of Sanremo, a local association which still promotes research on the history of Liguria. The book, which includes sixty photographs taken by the author, is titled Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (1912). It celebrates the idea of slow travel which was popular in the late Victorian and Edwardian period as exemplified, for example, by Jerome K. Jerome’s novel Three Men in a Boat (1889).  While he was based in Genoa, in March, Lees visited the surrounding Genovesato exploring the inland valleys of the Bisagno and the Scrivia, at the time increasingly popular amongst Genoese people as places devoted to the summer villeggiatura. Lees reached Torriglia, providing detailed descriptions of its history and landscape and leaving the first known written account in English of an area which, unlike the Riviera, was mainly unknown amongst British people. The lower Scrivia Valley was crossed by the Strada Regia dei Giovi, opened in the 1820s and the railway, the first in Liguria, inaugurated in 1853; both the tracks linked Genoa to Milan and Turin across the Polcevera Valley, West of Genoa, the Giovi Pass and the villages of Busalla, Ronco and Isola. Torriglia lies in the upper Scrivia Valley, below Monte Antola, in a marginal and remote location. The natural way to reach the area from Genoa is along the Bisagno Valley, east of the city, through the Scoffera Pass. Despite many projects, including that of a railway between Genoa and Pleasance, the area has always suffered from the underdevelopment of its infrastructure.

Lees writes that the town of Torriglia is ‘at all time of the year, save in the dead of winter, a most charming place: one of those nature spots which, since they are not merely beautiful, but have a story to tell, long remain in one’s memory’. Unfortunately for Lees, the landscape of the hills in March is still barren and, as he noticed, ‘Nature had by no means assumed her brightest colour when I ascended the Bisagno Valley towards Torriglia’ (1912, p. 242). However, he enjoyed the slow transition between the city and the rural landscape, although he noticed that the Bisagno valley was already ‘sadly marred with industrialism’ and the banks of the torrent ‘disfigured’ by manufactories and works (1912, p. 243). Those were the years of the industrial and urban expansion of Genoa, at that time one of the richest and most prosperous cities of Italy, which led to the establishment of La Grande Genova in 1926, when 26 autonomous councils, including many of the Bisagno Valley, were gathered in one large municipality of 580.000 inhabitants. The photograph taken by Lees of the Bisagno Valley, from the hills above the city centre near Righi, shows the area near the cemetery of Staglieno. This part of the valley was undergoing rapid urban development although, if compared with the current situation, the bed of the river was still relatively wide and open.

Bisagno Lear
Frederic Lees, Valley of the Bisagno, Genoa (1912)
Bisagno today
The Bisagno Valley today (Pietro Piana, December 2017)

Walking upstream towards the upper valley Lees reached La Presa, which takes the name from the fact that it is the point on the course of the Bisagno where the aqueduct of Genoa receives its principal supply of water. He observed that the aqueduct, today partly derelict, was a prominent feature of the landscape which one ‘cannot fail to observe’. After La Presa the stream assumes ‘more natural aspects’ and the banks of the Bisagno are ‘covered in heather and surrounded by dense chestnut woods, with millions upon millions of primroses and wood-cutters busy at work.  This active coppicing will have provided good light conditions for the spring flowers’.

Past the Scoffera Pass, Lees started descending along the upper Scrivia Valley, with the route ‘made pleasant by these flowers, interspersed now and then by patches of odorous violets’ (1912, p. 243). Lees made use of Davide Bertolotti’s Viaggio nella Liguria Marittima, an Italian guidebook published in 1834 which still constitutes one of the most important sources for the landscape history of nineteenth-century Liguria. In 1911 the guidebook was rather out of date, and Lees noticed that the town ‘to-day (is) undoubtedly less primitive than it was when Bertolotti visited it’, thanks to the construction of the ‘fine national road which put it in touch with civilization’ (1912, p. 244, 245). North of the Scoffera, Lees quotes from Bertolotti, ‘the waters flow towards the Adriatic’ and the ‘extensive chestnut groves cover the sides of the mountain, but more thickly planted at the bottom of the valley where we pass the principal confluent of the Scrivia’. Chestnut cultivation represented and important source of income for the poor population of the Apennines. If the Riviera enjoys a fine weather all year round, which allows a diverse agricultural production, including olive trees and vineyards, the northern side of the Apennines is characterised by colder climate, particularly in the winter. This was even more noticeable at the time when Bertolotti and Lees crossed the mountains and despite the increasing importance of this area for the summer villeggiatura, the mountains of the Scrivia and the Trebbia were already undergoing rural depopulation, a phenomenon which became particularly significant 1921 and did not stop until recent times.


The signs of the villeggiatura are some new ‘villas of well-to-do Genoese, who have chosen many of the most delightful spots on the hillsides, overlooking the valley and the distant purple hills, for their summer homes and gardens’ (1912, p. 246). The main feature of Torriglia’s landscape is its feudal castle, which can be best seen from ‘a pathway, near a little mountain stream, beneath a small cluster of houses, known as Torriglia Vecchia, at the head of the valley’ (1912, p. 246). Today this is the road which links Torriglia with the villages of the upper Trebbia Valley, on the other side of Monte Antola, in particular Bavastri, Bavastrelli, Caprile and Propata. We surveyed the area in a sunny December day in search of Lees’ viewpoint. Today the view of the castle is hidden behind the trees, but it still can be seen from other spots along the road. The castle in the photograph is derelict, but its structure is still detectable, particularly its tower and the walls. It stands on the top of a hill which was bare of any vegetation in order to guarantee the best visibility; by 1911, the castle had been abandoned since 1797, the date of the suppression of the Imperial Fiefs. Lees provides a detailed history of the castle, whose earliest reference is in a document dated 972 and which belonged for centuries to the feudal family of the Fieschi. He notes that on a sunny June afternoon of 1797 the ’revolutionaries’ assaulted the castle damaging it and the same night thieves ‘completed the work of destruction’ (1912, p. 255).

Frederic Lees, Feudal Castle, Torriglia, 1912
Torriglia today 2
Torriglia today (Pietro Piana, December 2017)

Today the castle is even more ruined but it is still a significant feature of the landscape of Torriglia. The hill remains open as the meadowss are still cut every summer . Compared to other areas of the Apennines, the amphitheatre where Torriglia lies, which faces south, is partly used for agriculture, although some areas show signs of rural depopulation. The mountain behind the castle in Lees’ photograph, for example, identified as Monte Spigo (1124 m), between Torriglia and the Pentemina Valley, is completely open and partly terraced. Today the area is covered in a wood of mixed broad leaved species including hornbeam (Ostrya carpinifolia), common oak (Quercus robur),  chestnut (Castanea sativa) and hazel (Corylus avellana). In the photograph the white track of the main road, below Monte Spigo, is very evident, surrounded by open fields and scattered buildings; today the same road, still in use, is barely visible due to the presence of new houses and new trees, mainly conifers which were planted as ornamental trees in the gardens. The church of Torriglia, dedicated to Sant’Onorato, is another visible landmark in both the historical and the current picture.

The ‘clear and exhilarating mountain air’ encouraged Lees to ‘cover mile after mile’ in Bertolotti’s footsteps, to the extent that he was nearly tempted to climb the top Monte Antola, 1597 m (1912, p. 256). The mountain has a  rich  flora of medicinal and other plants, and it probably owes its name tothe Greek word ‘Anthos’ (flower). The area today lies within the borders of the Parco Naturale Regionale dell’Antola, established in 1995 to protect the natural environment and the traditional landscapes of the Scrivia and Trebbia Valleys. Torriglia, where the park office is, is the ideal starting points to explore the park and enjoy its nature and a fine mountain landscape less than 40 km from the coast.

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