A brief history


by Saveria Masa

The geographical position of the Valmalenco has always acted as a background to its historic events. Situated above the chief town of the province of Sondrio, the Valmalenco looks out over Switzerland (Engadine, Val Poschiavo and Val Bregaglia). Over the centuries, it has been a major corridor connecting the Alps.

From far-off times, the unusual location of this area has played not only a strategic, political and economic role, but also a social and religious role. This was due mainly to the dependency and reciprocal aid, which united the Valley to the town of Sondrio. At the same time, it provided the main outlet towards Alta Rezia Curiense and the German territories, which the Valley guaranteed thanks to the presence of a thosand year-old arterial road, the over the Muretto pass. This road used to run longitudinally the entire length of the Valmalenco and across the Muretto pass (2,562 m) and directly connected the Valtellina with the Upper Engadine and Val Bregaglia.

Its historic importance developed during the 11th and 12th centuries, when the lords of Sondrio, the Capitanei family, extended their rule over the Valmalenco. Their destiny became inextricably woven with that of the Valley, especially when their military presence in Sondrio became of strategic importance during the interminable struggle for dominion over the town of Como. Thanks to their wise policy of alliance with the noble families of the Engadine and Bregaglia valleys, they were able create a link between their own Guelf front and those north of the Alps, led by the powerful bishop of Coira.

We presume that, in answer to the need to strengthen their military front, which directly connected the chief town with the nearby Swiss valleys, the lords of Sondrio built or perfected a system of defences and watchtowers along the Muretto road. Built at strategic points on alternate sides of the Mallero torrent, these constructions provided an effective network of signal lights to link with the castle of Masegra above Sondrio, residence of the Capitanei family.

The 14th century proved a significant era for the administrative and social development of the Valley, as until the mid-fourteenth century it consisted of a single district named ‘"quadra de Malenco"’. Over the century, this district became divided internally, perhaps as a result of an increase in the population, into "quadre", which corresponded to the main inhabited districts: San Giacomo (Church), Bondoledo, Campo and Milirolo (Torre di S.Maria), Caspoggio and Lanzada.

The administrative reorganisation of the Valley developed side by side with the acquisition of greater autonomy for Sondrio even as regards religion. The parish of the Valmalenco was to depend on the capital city until 1624 (year in which autonomous parishes were built). This meant a more efficient organisation of religious matters. During the fifteenth century, each village in the Valley built its own church for religious services, thus relieving the population from attending the only church available, that of Saints Giacomo and Filippo in Chiesa, which had been in the Valley since the 12th century.

Following the initial dominion of Grisons in the Valtellina (1512), the peripheral government of the Grigioni family based in Sondrio turned the Valmalenco into an area which linked the Free State of the Three Leagues with the centre of their new domain, via the Muretto road and pass. It soon became one of the Grigioni's politically strategic roads, as it was one of the most used for trade. The traffic along the Muretto road consisted mainly of Swiss merchants coming to the Valtellina to get supplies of various goods. First and foremost was the famous wine produced on the steep terraces of the area around Sondrio. Free trade with the Grigioni family boosted the economy of the Valmalenco considerably. It consisted mainly of the sale of dairy goods and products made of soapstone and slate. In fact, the production of split serpentine stone roofing tiles("piode") was the main economic activity in the Valmalenco from the late Middle Ages.

This arterial road had shaped and maintained the life and organisation of the Valley communities flourishing and lively until the mid eighteenth century and it remained untouched by the political events and wars that had badly affected it in the seventeenth century. It began to show signs of decline during the second half of the eighteenth century, probably due to increased volume of traffic on other easier roads in the network, such as the Bernina and Spluga. This decline turned into a veritable collapse, commencing in 1797 when the Grigioni government was replaced first by the Napoleonic and then by the Austrian governments. The Valley road was abandoned and it gradually narrowed to little more than a beaten track, used mainly by smugglers, shepherds looking for work in Engadine and the first tourists, mountain enthusiasts who went on to discover the beauty of the Alpine valleys in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 1862 marked the beginning of mountaineering in the Valley: four English climbers conquered the peak of Mount Disgrazia, the “glorious peak” (3,678 m). The dawn of a new century saw an unprecedented development of mountaineering and of Alpine tourism in general: hotels were opened, more refuge huts were built and the new professional figure of the Alpine guide began to become popular.

Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the closure of that century-old outlet to the north (the Muretto road) caused a considerable backlash in the Valmalenco: this was followed by a general impoverishment of society and the local economy. Alongside tourism which had difficulty in taking off, two world wars and the sacrifice of human life these caused, the agricultural and pastoral economy of the Valley was reduced to a mere level of subsistence. Similarly, the mining industry lacked the majority of its commercial outlets and contracted considerably. As a result, many inhabitants often decided to emigrate definitively to faraway lands, such as Argentina, America and Australia.

The general depopulation of the mountains, especially towards the town of Sondrio, featured throughout the second half of the twentieth century, despite the fact that mining began to flourish once again, with new employment opportunities linked to the construction of the hydroelectric basins in Campo Moro and Gera (1955-65).

For those who chose to remain in the Valley, the situation only began to change considerably with the beginning of the economic boom in the sixties. This encouraged a significant development in tourism, especially for winter sports. The construction of the Chiesa-Palù cable-way, of the ski-lifts on Sasso Alto, the increased number in the Municipality of Caspoggio, the rapid development of hospitality and commercial structures together with recreational infrastructures, as well as a growth in construction, all transformed the area in just a few decades and profoundedly changed the landscape of the entire Valley.


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