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Limone sul Garda - a history


Limone Title Shot

This article is the sum of three articles published
in the Comboni Magazine during 2008.
It traces the history of Limone, the birthplace of St. Daniel Comboni.

The first four photographs show the kitchen in Comboni's house, his birthplace (expanded), the small chapel built in his house, and the family lemon gardens.

The name Limone
The name Limon - often transformed into Limonum , Limone and Limone - appears on many documents already in the 10th century. According to some people, the name derives from limen, which means border or Lima, which means river. It therefore does not come from the word lemon, but "derives from an ancient Celtic word, limo or lemos, which means elm (Irish- leamhán). The town was named Limone San Giovanni since 1863, and acquired its current name - Limone sul Garda - in 1904.

A little history of Limone
The first settlements found in the surroundings of the Benaco (which is the ancient name of the lake) go back to the Neolithic (later Stone Age when agriculture began to prevail). In the nearby valley of Ledro you can still visit a museum dedicated to the pile workhouses from the age of bronze found in that area. 600 BC The Celtic tribes inhabited the lake and were conquered by the Romans during the ( Charles the Conqueror ) , the Venetian Republic, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Italian Renaissance, the World Wars, up to the birth of the new Italian Republic. But the most important period for the social, economical and cultural development of Limone, however, was the domination of the Venetian Republic or "Serenissima" (the Splendid) as it was called during the first half of the 15th. century.

Growth of Limone as important centre

Due to the administration of the "Serenissima", Limone developed from a typical rural village based on fishing and the growing of olives to the most northerly centre for the cultivation of citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges and citrons. They built the world famous lemon groves called "Limonaia" with their high walls to protect the trees from the cold north -eastern winds. The huge columns in these groves are m meant to support wooden rafters to build a cover during winter, making it seem somehow like a greenhouse. But things were not as easy as it might seem. They had to import the earth for the lemon trees from the southern part of the lake because the original grounds were very poor, consisting only in gravel. The water supply for those lemon groves was a masterpiece of an irrigation system.

Sparkling words of praise from a voyager

In his diary, Travels in Italy, J. Wolfgang Goethe mentioned the lemon houses of Limone that he saw during a boat trip from Torbole to Malcesine on Lake Garda. This famous description immediately brought the town, its gardens and lemons to the attention of the international literary world. : "September 13, 1786 - The morning was magnificent; a bit cloudy, but calm as the sun rose. We sailed past Limone, with its terraced gardens perched on the hill slopes; it was a spectacle of abundance and grace. The entire garden is composed of squares of white pillars topped by heavy beams to cover the trees that grow during winter. The slow crossing made it possible to better observe and contemplate this pleasing spectacle."

Further production for the people of Limone

But beyond the cultivation of citrus fruits in the 19th century, during the reign of the Habsburg family, Limone was able to offer other products such as magnesia, paper, quicklime and due to the mild climate silkworms.

World War I brings drastic changes
Unfortunately during World War I all this prosperous business came to a sudden end caused by the specific location of Limone. In fact the whole area, being situated on the immediate border and with this in the active combat zone between the Austro- Hungarian Empire and the Italian Reign, was completely evacuated. When the people returned to their homes after the war there was nothing left from the former activities and they started again being fishermen and growing olives. During all this time the only ways to reach Limone were by water or over the difficult mountain paths. Only in 1932 Limone was connected directly to the next villages to the north and south by the famous Western Gardesana Road, still in use today.

The new Limone

With the construction of the Gardesana Road also a new economical source was discovered: Tourism. The constant development of tourism transformed the poor fishing village into one of the most prosperous centres upon Lake Garda.

About the 'Lemon houses'.

Lemon houses are one of the main tourist attractions of Limone. Last year more than 60.000 tourists visited the 'Castel' lemon house in Limone sul Garda. The area produces the perfect lemon. The Garda lemon was appreciated for its medicinal qualities as well: 'place a few drops of lemon juice in a spoon of olive oil every day and you will be fine for the day,' is the popular adage. Citrus fruits originated in China and India and arrived in Europe with the Arabs around the year 1000. These fruits were brought from the Liguria Riviera to Lake Garda during the 13th century by the monks of Saint Francis Monastery of Gargnano. They were being grown in Limone already in the early 17th century. Lodovico Bettoni (1770 - 1828) stated in his diary that the first lemon grove was planted in a garden of Garbera in 1610. A painting from 1658 displayed in the rectory of the parish church portrays Saint Anthony Abbot with Limone sul Garda and the pillars of a lemon house in the background. But it was in the second half of the 17th. Century, with the arrival of the Bettoni family, that the cultivation and sale of lemons gave a boost to the weak Limone economy. The merit goes to Carlo Bettoni and his sons who bought land in Garbera to expand existing gardens and build new ones.

The Lemon house
Water from a stream, a sheltered valley, a gently sloping hill, and proximity to the lake were fundamental requirements for building an enclosed lemon garden called lemon house or sardi in the local dialect. The lemon house was covered when the first frosts arrived in November, and against the cold, dry grass was used to seal all gaps. An old proverb said "By Saint Catherine seal them!" the sealing process had to be completed by November 25th. which was the feast day of the saint. The lemon tree and its fruit suffer when the temperature nears 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). If that happened the only remedy was lighting fires all along the terraces.

Growing lemons

Lemon trees flower several times a year, first in May then throughout the summer and autumn. The fruits of May are not as smooth and round as the fruits of June and July. These are the best fruits, while the lemons grown in August are considered less valuable. The trees bloom and fruit is also picked, but in minor quantity, in September and October. Taking into account the production over a decade, one tree in full production supplied between 500 and 600 lemons, on average, during the two main harvests of May and June.

The lemon trade

Once the lemons were picked, they were sorted according to size (fine, superfine, second-rate, rejects and overly ripe) different destinations. The lemons were given various names: fine lemons for Poland, fine lemons for Hungary, fine lemons for Russia, superfine lemons for Austria, rejects for commercial purposes, rejects for Milan, etc. Each type had a different price, which was given for one hundred lemons. Lemons were wrapped in tissue paper and placed in wooden crates; each could hold between 500 and 1,000 lemons. Transportation also had to ensure that the product arrived in good condition at destination, so crates were loaded and unloaded to prevent lemons from bruising and deteriorating in quality. Shipping the fruit to the most remote destinations was the biggest hazard. The Garda lemon was appreciated for its "medicinal" qualities, its "acidity", the "aromatic fragrance of its juice and peel", and "its freshness" that lasts longer than any others. As a result, Garda lemons are worth two to three times more than lemons from other areas of Italy. According to Lodovico Bettoni, Limone grew the "perfect lemon". A letter dated December 10, 1846, from the Bentotti Company to Giuseppe Della Casa, described the goods as being the best, and pointed out, "I am sending you lemons from Limone, which are the largest and have the best colour."

Lemon houses: a heritage to save
The lemon houses which are an incomparable historical and architectural legacy of Lake Garda are vestiges of a laborious and productive past. Several major projects have been launched to preserve them. The city of Limone restored the Castel and Vila Boghi lemon houses in 2004.

The Vila Boghi lemon house

The lemon house in the garden of Vila Boghi, which is at the junction of the lakefront boulevard and the Gardesana road, was built in the early 20th century. It has seven plots with a southern exposure. The pillars and roofing materials are new, and the seven lemon trees were planted in 2004.

The Tesol lemon house and Comboni family
Tesol is a town about 2 kilometres from Limone. In 1818, Luigi Comboni arrived at Tesol, where his brother Giuseppe worked as a gardener. Luigi married Domenica Pace, who later gave birth to their son Daniel (1831-1881), who we know as the missionary bishop and vicar of Central Africa and founder of the Work of the Good Shepherd (1867) and the Institute of the Pius Mothers of Nigrizia, the Comboni Missionary Sisters (1872). We recall how Daniel was proclaimed a Saint by Pope John Paul 11 on October 5th. 2003.

The 'olive groves' around Lake Garda

Olives and oil
Olive growing on Lake Garda developed in the medieval period, although there is sporadic testimony of olives grown here in more ancient times. Olive seeds dating from the late Roman Republican period were discovered, in fact, in the area of Bor; in Malcesine, an olive milestone with lateral channels for the collection of oil came to light, together with many Roman coins dating from the time of the Emperor Massenzio. The production was most probably valorised for liturgical uses even before it was for the purpose of food; the oil was used to administer sacraments and keep lamps in church tabernacles lit.

An eyewitness account
Explicit references to the olive orchard of Limone were made in the mid-sixteenth century by Silvano Cattaneo, as he described the trip made on the lake in about 1550; he remarked: "We are passing in front of a beautiful little village called Limone, which sits in the amphitheatre - like hollow between the mountain and the lake...nearby and around the village grows a hazy and extremely fertile wood of the most beautiful, thick and leafy olive trees in the area., which climbs up the surrounding hillside. The trees are always green, soft and laden with olives, which come into view as we pass, with a spring at the summit which irrigates and waters them. Although the site is narrow, prodigious and faithful mother nature has provided it with three magnificent privileges and gifts: first by giving the place abundant oil, to the extent that the inhabitants gather three times more in that small terrain than anywhere else, and it is better and tastier as well..." In fact at that time (1595) there were 20 oil presses in Limone!

Cooperatives among the olive grove owners
At the end of the First World War, Limonese olive growing made a leap forward in terms of quality. On 29 November 1919, twenty-eight small landowners, guided by the Parish Priest don Giovanni Morandi, established a company called "Cooperative among Olive Growers" for the purpose of milling their olives at a single cooperative press. On 4 December 1925, the Cooperative purchased a building that had previously been used as a paper mill to turn it into an oil press. Since that time, the oil press has gradually improved its production facilities, although it has maintained the traditional characteristics of cold processing with stone mullers. The production, supported by about 450 small proprietors, has today reached comfortable levels; during the 2007-2008 season, some 1.580,37 quintals of olives were pressed, with a production of 306, 46 quintals of oil.

Luigi Comboni's Olive Grove
After a decade of hard work at Tesol with the Ferrari family even Luigi Comboni (1803-1893), St. Daniel Comboni's father, bought an olive grove right at the other end of the Campaldi route near the present Cooperative. We are in year 1851 just three years before Daniel's ordination 99(1854). It was a medium size plot of second class quality. There were around 350 plants with an annual oil production between 5 and ten quintals according to the years.

Failure and then hope for abundant harvest
Luigi was very fond and proud of the oil his olives trees were giving him. On April 2 1869, he wrote to his son Daniel that "the yearly crop had been poor because of the "olive fly," suggesting that it was much "wiser" to buy quality oil in Naples. He had hoped for better and would have sent him much more.

After Daniel's death
Luigi survived his son Daniel. In Verona among the followers of his son he acquired the nickname of 'grandfather' Luigi. He continued to keep at heart his son's mission needs and was sending to the Seminary supplies of oil from his groves. On September 25 1882, the year after Daniel's death he wrote to Fr. Sembianti the Rector of the Comboni Missionaries House in Verona: "I have got here the usual barrel of oil ready to be despatched as a gift to the poor mission." On the other hand the threats of heavy taxation could have hindered his giving yet fortunately this fear passed away. Most probably in view of the constant and valued services of his niece Teresa, the olive grove was handed on to her. A map shows that this had been registered in her name on October 21 1889 whilst Luigi was still alive.

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