Lake Garda (Italian: Lago di Garda, Italian: [ˈlaːɡo di ˈɡarda], or (Lago) Benaco, Italian: [beˈnaːko]; Eastern Lombard: Lach de Garda; Venetian: Ƚago de Garda) is the largest lake in Italy. It is a popular holiday location in northern Italy, between Brescia and Milan to the west, and Verona and Venice to the east. The lake cuts into the edge of the Italian Alps, particularly the Alpine sub-ranges of the Garda Mountains and the Brenta Group. Glaciers formed this alpine region at the end of the last ice age. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the provinces of Brescia (to the south-west), Verona (south-east) and Trentino (n...Read more

Lake Garda (Italian: Lago di Garda, Italian: [ˈlaːɡo di ˈɡarda], or (Lago) Benaco, Italian: [beˈnaːko]; Eastern Lombard: Lach de Garda; Venetian: Ƚago de Garda) is the largest lake in Italy. It is a popular holiday location in northern Italy, between Brescia and Milan to the west, and Verona and Venice to the east. The lake cuts into the edge of the Italian Alps, particularly the Alpine sub-ranges of the Garda Mountains and the Brenta Group. Glaciers formed this alpine region at the end of the last ice age. The lake and its shoreline are divided between the provinces of Brescia (to the south-west), Verona (south-east) and Trentino (north).

Traces of human presence around the lake have been found related to the Middle Paleolithic, in particular flint tools, but only above certain altitudes, as at lower altitudes, the actions of the glaciers have cancelled all the clues that could have proved the presence of man. There are some signs of encampments from Upper Paleolithic, in particular on the slopes of Monte Baldo and Stivo. In the Neolithic the populations that inhabited the lake came into contact with the square-mouthed vases culture, as evidenced by the objects accompanying some tombs from this period found near Arco.

Bronze and Iron ages

The greatest evidence of human presence in prehistoric times dates back to the Bronze Age, when numerous aggregates of stilt houses arose in the lower lake before being abandoned during the Iron Age in favour of more strategic points. Lake Garda was a meeting point between the populations of Reti and Veneti, whose presence is testified in particular by the necropolis of Garda, as well as that of the Etruscans who came to trade in these areas. Also plausible is the presence of the Cenomani, who would have settled in the area between Brescia and the lake around the 6th century BC, leaving their traces mostly in the Lombard toponymy.

Roman times  Grottoes of Catullus in Sirmione

The integration between Romans and Cenomani, who controlled the Garda area, probably began in 225 BC, when there was a treaty of alliance between Cenomani, Veneti and Romans, even if the actual Romanization of the territory took place between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. In 89 BC the rights of Latin cities were granted to the Garda areas by the will of the Roman consul Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, while forty years later Roman citizenship was finally granted to Brixia (whose countryside included the western and northern banks of the Benaco) and Verona (which instead included the eastern shore). During the 1st century AD many roads were built, such as the via Gallica, which connected Verona to Milan passing through Peschiera (the ancient Arilica), and the via Claudia Augusta, which connected the plain with the Resia pass and therefore the northernmost territories, as well as some minor roads that connected the Adige valley with the Garda. Two pagi were also established: pagus Benacenses on Brescia and pagus Claudienses on Verona.

In 268 AD the Battle of Lake Benacus was fought between the army of the Roman Empire, commanded by the future emperor Claudius Gothicus, and the German federation of the Alamanni. The overwhelming victory obtained by the Romans allowed the expulsion of Alemanni from northern Italy, due to the very serious losses they suffered during the battle.

The Roman presence is amply testified also by settlements, villas (in particular the notes Grottoes of Catullus), by the remains of centuriation still visible today, by the remains of sanctuaries, tombstones and epigraphic testimonies.

Middle Ages  Scaliger Castle of Malcesine Scaliger Castle of Sirmione

In the Middle Ages Lake Garda was described by Dante in his Divine Comedy:

Suso in Italia bella giace un laco,
a piè de l'Alpe che serra Lamagna
sovra Tiralli, c'ha nome Benaco.

Above in beauteous Italy lies a lake,
At the Alp's foot that shuts in Germany
Over Tyrol, and has the name Benaco.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Garda region witnessed the passage of numerous Germanic populations, but the first one that settled there, after a long migration, was that of the Lombards. Their testimonies are mostly present along the southern and eastern shores, preferred to other areas due to their strategic importance: from here it was possible to control both the waterways of Garda and Mincio, and the Adige valley. During the Lombard hegemony, there was a first administrative reorganization, as well as the definitive Christianization of the area, begun in the previous centuries by Vigilius of Trent and Zeno of Verona. The lake remained on the border between three powerful Lombard duchies: Brescia, Verona and Trento.

The first documents that testify the presence of a Fines Gardenses, an entity with its own officials for the administration of justice, even if not autonomous with respect to the Count of Verona, date back to 825, while after the year 1000 county of Garda was established by the emperor Henry II. Starting from the 11th century, towns around the lake began to develop a differentiated policy compared to that of the major centres of influence – Brescia, Verona and Trento – and this greater autonomy meant that many centres became free communities. These possessed comfortable economic conditions compared to the inland countries and a strong social awareness and sense of community.

In the 13th century, however, the Signoria Scaligera was established and it soon subdued the eastern shore of the lake. The Scaliger built numerous defensive constructions, in particular, they built the castles of Sirmione, Malcesine and Riva, reinforced the port structures of Lazise and Torri del Benaco, and built a great defense system called Serraglio, the only one of its kind in Italy. This fortified system, completed by Cangrande II in 1355, included isolated castles in Ponti sul Mincio and Monzambano, serious continuous and uninterrupted castles and towers connected by defensive walls starting from the fortress of Valeggio sul Mincio and then continuing up to Nogarole Rocca. The Seraglio remained practically intact until the mid-19th century when it was partially dismantled.

Early modern history

In 1387, following the defeat of Antonio della Scala, the whole Garda area was subjected to the Visconti; as early as 1405 the eastern shore passed into the hands of the Republic of Venice, while the western shore remained afflicted by the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines. In 1426 the Visconti lost Brescia and the western shore of the lake, which thus passed into the hands of Venice: gathered under the flag of the Republic of Venice, the 34 Benacense municipalities obtained ample autonomy. The war returned in 1438, due to the struggle between Venice and Milan: an exceptional event, remembered with the name of Galeas per montes, was the passage of a fleet composed of six galleys and twenty-five ships on the slopes of Monte Baldo, pulled by 2,000 oxen. This fleet sailed on Adige and almost reached Rovereto, from where it was transported to Lake Garda by land through the valley of Lake Loppio. The fleet was then used to counter the Milanese one and had its greatest success in a battle at Riva del Garda, which was followed by the capitulation of the city.[1]

In 1508 the League of Cambrai was formed against the Serenissima: Venice strengthened the castles of its mainland domains, including those of Salò and Padenghe, and sent several galleys to the lake, as well as having new ones built directly on Lake Garda. During the war the Venetians lost part of their domains which were however recovered in 1512. In 1516 emperor Maximilian I came to Italy and the lake returned to German hands again, allowing the Serenissima to recover the lost territories.

In 1796 the territories of the Serenissima were involved in the Napoleonic wars: at the end of May, the French advanced to the lake and defeated the Austrians at Borghetto sul Mincio, conquering Peschiera. At the end of July, the French were defeated and had to retreat beyond Salò, which was then occupied by the Austrians. Numerous clashes took place between the adversaries on the battlefield of Lake Garda. In 1797 the French occupied Mantua, while Brescia valleys and towns on the lake rose up against the Napoleonic forces, even if the Republic of Venice maintained its neutral status and did not send aid to rescue. The Veronese, on the other hand, autonomously organized expeditions against the centres occupied by the French, but were defeated and forced to retreat to Verona, where on 17 April the anti-French insurrections called "Pasque Veronesi" (Pasque Veronesi) began. ". On 17 October the Treaty of Campoformio was signed: the southwestern shores went to the French, while the north-eastern ones went to the Austrians. In 1799 the war continued until the following year the lake returned to French hands: it became part of the Cisalpine Republic (later transformed into Italian Republic and then again in Kingdom of Italy, always under French control.

In 1815 following the definitive defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, during the Congress of Vienna it was decided to create the Kingdom of Lombardy–Venetia: in this way, the whole Garda region returned to Austrian hands.

Later modern and contemporary history  Tower of San Martino della Battaglia, built on the site of the battle of San Martino, part of battle of Solferino (1859)

The First Italian War of Independence saw an initial slow advance of the Piedmontese army towards the lake: at the news of its approach, Salò rebelled against the Austrians, several soldiers were taken prisoner and the Austrian insignia demolished. During the events also Riva del Garda and several towns on the Veronese side rose up. The Austrian army was forced to retreat to the Mincio line due to the advance of the Piedmontese troops and on 4 April the Austrians were driven out of Lonato and Desenzano, while the Piedmontese attempt to conquer Peschiera was unsuccessful. After the Piedmontese defeat of Custoza the pre-war status quo was restored. In 1859 the Second War of Independence began; on 18 June the Hunters of the Alps managed to enter Salò, from where Giuseppe Garibaldi wanted to leave to continue the advance towards Veneto crossing the lake with some boats, but new orders forced him to move the troops in the Brescia valleys. However, the Italian troops managed to sink an Austrian steamship before leaving Salò. Shortly after the battle of Solferino and San Martino was won by the Franco-Savoyards and Peschiera was besieged. With the armistice of Villafranca the war was put to an end: Garda returned to be a land border, on this occasion between Italians and Austrians. During the Third War of Independence Garibaldi returned to Salò again and from there he invaded Trentino. Meanwhile, the Austrians repeatedly bombed Gargnano and tried to impose their dominance. Despite the humiliating Italian defeat, in 1866 Veneto was finally handed over to the Kingdom of Italy, except for the northern part of the lake which still remained under Austrian control.

 Areal view of Vittoriale degli Italiani

During the First World War towns on Lake Garda were bombed several times. On 23 July 1915, the first aerial bombardment took place in the area, when Riva del Garda was hit. The steamers of the lake were requisitioned by the Italian army and were re-equipped as warships. The following year some guns and artillery batteries were installed, but on 20 February 1916, Riva was hit again. The following day three Austrian planes bombed Desenzano, while on 27 February bombs fell in Nago and Torbole. In 1918 Riva was bombed again. Later Limone and, once again, Riva were targeted, but with the end of the war, Trentino also passed into Italian hands.

In the period between the two wars the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio settled in Gardone Riviera, where the "Vittoriale degli Italiani", his residence and now a museum, would later be built.

Until 1943 the events of Second World War did not particularly affect the lake region, but following the birth of the Italian Social Republic the German command settled in Limone and, on 10 October, that of Benito Mussolini in Gargnano. The Ministry of Defense was located in Desenzano; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Popular Culture and the press agencies settled in Salò, which became the capital of the newborn German puppet republic. Fasano was the seat of the German embassy and Gardone of the Japanese one, while the Ministry of the Interior and the seat of the Republican Fascist Party (PFR) found accommodation in Maderno. The upper part of the lake was also occupied militarily by the Wehrmacht. In April 1945 the lake was freed by the Allies and later became part of the Republic of Italy.

^ Romanoni, Fabio (2023). La guerra d'acqua dolce. Navi e conflitti medievali nell'Italia settentrionale (in Italian). Bologna: Clueb. pp. 98–100. ISBN 978-88-31365-53-6. Retrieved 26 April 2023.
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