The stunning Lake Garda is Italy’s largest, and it is located in the northernmost reaches of Italy. Sandwiched between the regions of Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtiro, Veneto and Lombardy, the lake and the surrounding areas have always had an important strategic role in Europe. Countless battles for control of the area have left some hugely significant landmarks in Lake Garda over the years, making the history of Lake Garda among the most interesting in Europe. From the ancient Republic of Venice to Austrian rule, Lake Garda is, in effect, an ancient battleground, littered with landmarks and stories of immense bravery. Indeed, Lake Garda’s history is one of the main reasons why thousands of tourists flock to its stunning shores every year.
Lake Garda’s history is best defined by its most important battles, and there are few as important as the Battle of Lake Banacus. The Romans knew Lake Garda as Banacus, and they fought a bloody battle along its shores against vicious Germanic invaders. Led by Emperor Claudius – fresh from his victory over his challenger Marcus Aurelius – the Romans marched north to confront the Germanic tribes of the Alamanni and Juthungi. Of course, the well-equipped and expertly trained Roman army was victorious, and Claudius was bestowed the title of Germanicus Maximus. The entire, horrific Battle of Lake Banacus took place on the shores of Lake Garda.
Another battle to make Lake Garda history was the Battle of Rivoli. Fought between Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous French army and the Austrians, the hugely significant Battle of Rivoli was fought along the eastern shores of Lake Garda, and it was an outnumbered French army that eventually claimed victory. On a cold, January morning in 1797, Bonaparte’s army forced the Austrians back and claimed northern Italy as occupied territory. A total of 2,200 French soldiers lost their lives in the battle; however, that number was dwarved by the estimated 8,000 lost by the Austrian army – a sign of the French’s military excellence at the time. The Battle of Rivoli, therefore, has its dubious place in Lake Garda history.
Lake Garda history was yet again made – for all the wrong reasons – when the Battle of Solferino claimed more than 10,000 lives. This was the biggest battle to date fought on the shores of Lake Garda, and it was perhaps the most significant battle of Italy’s second war of independence. At the time, Italian territory was divided between France, Spain and Austria. The war to unify the country culminated in and around the villages of San Martino and Solferino, where 138,000 French and Sardinian troops were met by around 129,000 Austrian troops. Led by Napoleon III, the French and her allies claimed victory, but Napoleon was so affected by the terrible losses inflicted on both sides, he signed the Armistice of Villafranca later in 1859. Two years later in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was finally proclaimed. In many ways, the Battle of Solferino sowed the seeds of modern-day Italy. The horrific losses suffered during the battle also led to the Geneva Convention and the inception of the Red Cross.
The Lake Garda region would remain relatively peaceful until Italian dictator Benito Mussolini established his Italian Social Republic in a Salo villa in 1943. The town of Salo, located in the Province of Brescia, became the effective capital of Italy for the final two years of World War II – albeit at the behest of the Third Reich. Indeed, the entire town was taken over by Mussolini and his puppet government, with villas in the town used to house the police headquarters, the Ministry of Popular Culture, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the propaganda service known as the Stefani Agency.
From Scaliger Castle in the town of Sirmione to Castello Scaligero in Malcesine, ancient fortifications in the area tell a story. Despite the turbulent and often horrific nature of historic events around Lake Garda, however, the region is still one of the most beautiful and culturally rich in Italy.
Image: Christa Eder