Above in beauteous Italy lies a lake
At the Alp’s foot that shuts in Germany
Over Tyrol, and has the name Benaco.
By a thousand springs, I think, and more, is bathed,
‘Twixt Garda and Val Camonica, Pennino,
With water that grows stagnant in that lake.
Midway a place is where the Trentine Pastor,
And he of Brescia, and the Veronese
Might give his blessing, if he passed that way.
Sitteth Peschiera, fortress fair and strong,
To front the Brescians and the Bergamasks,
Where round about the bank descendeth lowest.
There of necessity must fall whatever
In bosom of Benaco cannot stay,
And grows a river down through verdant pastures.
Soon as the water doth begin to run,
No more Benaco is it called, but Mincio,
Far as Governo, where it falls in Po.
Dante first shows us the tip of Lake Garda, encircled by the Alps that mark the border with Tyrol, Germany and the German world: the Dolomites. These are the mountains on which the Great War was fought.
Dante writes that a thousand springs feed the lake, closed to the east by the village of Garda and to the west by the Val Camonica; and at the junction of the waters there is a point where the bishops of Trento, Brescia and Verona could impart their blessing, because all three can claim the same right to the ideal centre of the Benaco.
The ramparts of Peschiera dominate the lower lake: built by the Scaligeris to keep the Brescians and Bergamasks at bay, they were later transformed by the Austrians into one of the fortresses against which the Italian soldiers and volunteers of the Risorgimento fought.
The next time you take a train from Venice to Milan, look out of the window as it skirts Lake Garda and you will see the landscape dear to Dante: the walls of Peschiera surrounded by water, the long, thin peninsula of Sirmione, the profile of Mount Baldo, on which you can ski in winter overlooking the lake, and the olive trees of Punta San Vigilio, with its small port built by the Venetians.
In 1439, Garda witnessed one of the most daring naval feats of all: thirty-three ships from the Serenissima sailed up the Adige River and were carried by force of arms into the lake to wage war against the Milanese, who were barricaded in Peschiera.
On the other side of the railway, you will see the tower of San Martino, where on 24 June 1859 the decisive battle to unify Italy was fought and won. And not far away is Belfiore, the little valley where the Austrians hanged at least eleven patriots and threw them into the lake.
But Dante’s description is not finished. The water overflows from the lake and becomes a river, the Mincio, which flows through green pastures as far as Governolo, where it flows into the Po. Here – according to the legend – Pope Leo the Great stopped Attila’s hordes.