Very few people realize that within Switzerland, there exists a tiny portion of Italian soil. Along the fabled shores of Lake Lugano, Campione d’Italia in the province of Como has about 2,000 residents, although the town is situated entirely with within the country of Switzerland. There is but one road that leads into the Italian enclave and for over a century, its biggest source of revenue has been its casino. First opened in 1917, it was created as an espionage front for gathering intelligence information from foreign diplomats during the First World War. Special status was provided to the town and in 1933, it was decree that income from the casino must cover the costs of operating the municipality. This law is still in place and although its intent was to provide a steady stream of cash flow to run the town, the decree now paradoxically may threaten to kill it.
For years the gambling revenues were good. Casinò di Campione was one of just a handful of controlled legal casinos and the municipality managed to thrive based upon the revenue. After years of planning and construction, in 2007, a massive new casino was opened with almost 600,000 square feet of space on nine floors. The timing could not have been worse. When the global recession hit, revenues plummeted. The beautiful casino sat on the shores of the beautiful lake looking for all intents and purposes like the white elephant it had become. In addition to the recession, the strengthening of the Swiss franc against the euro and the legalization of slot machines and other forms of gambling had taken a dramatic toll on the casino’s bottom line. Losses mounted, yet in the ensuing decade, Campione d’Italia municipal hiring and salaries continued to grow, swelling to more than 100 employees – a rather bloated figure for a town with only 2,000 residents. Today, hundreds of roulette, black jack, baccarat and poker tables sit dark and silent, gathering dust as they have since last July.
Now it may be game over for the historic casino. More than 200 creditors are taking their cases before the Como court in the latest effort of the tiny Italian town to stave off a community death spiral in the wake of its bankruptcy and court-ordered closure. According to court documents, the failed casino’s debt is now estimated to be around 73 million euros, with the list of creditors ranging from the village bakery to foreign investors.
The Como court ordered the casino closed in July 2018, while prosecutors investigate financial mismanagement. But Campione residents fear that if the state doesn’t step in soon, their paradise nestled below the Swiss Alps risks becoming a città fantasma, a ghost town haunted by the giant shuttered casino in its midst.
Switzerland has repeatedly offered to absorb the town, but offers have been rebuffed by the Italian government. What was once envied as a town of wealth and privilege may soon find itself without any options, other than to relinquish its unique status and become part of the country that surrounds it.
So how did this tiny enclave in Switzerland end up being part of Italy? The story starts with the Roman Empire, which was then impacted by the Vatican, then the unification of Italy and ultimately with Swiss neutrality. In the first century BC, the Romans founded the garrison town of Campilonum to protect their territories from Helvetii invasions. In 777, Toto of Campione, a local Lombard lord, left his inheritance to the Archbishop of Milan and the Abbey of Sant’Ambrogio. For many years it was administered by the nearby Bishop of Como.
Fast forward a few centuries to the reign of Pope Julius II, the Warrior Pope. Julius was well-acquainted with the Swiss. He had served as Bishop of Lausanne and was always impressed with the strength, endurance and stamina of men from the Alps. They proved great stock for fighting forces. When he became Pope in 1503, one of his first actions was to begin talks with the Swiss Diet to provide him with a constant corps of 200 Swiss mercenaries to protect the Vatican. After negotiations and securing of the funds, the deal was made and when the troops arrived in Rome on January 22, 1506, the famed Vatican Swiss Guards were formed.
As part of the payment for the Swiss Guards and in thanks for the support provided by Switzerland in the War of the Holy League, Julius transferred ownership of the area of Ticino on Lake Lugano to Switzerland. However, he provided that Milan’s Abbey of Sant’Ambrogio would still maintain control over what is now Campione d’Italia and some territory on the western bank of Lake Lugano, which now forms a natural border between Italy and Switzerland.
When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione chose to remain part of Lombardy. In 1848, during the wars of Italian unification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation, but this was rejected due to the Swiss desire for neutrality.
Following Italian unification in 1861, all land west of Lake Lugano and half of the lake were given to Switzerland so that Swiss trade and transport would not have to pass through Italy. The d’Italia was added to the name of Campione in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini and an ornamental gate to the city was built to emphasize its unique Italian status. The casino was reopened and the town became a playground for the rich and famous, even as the clouds of war gathered over Europe.
During World War II, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA), maintained a unit in Campione for operations in Italy. At that time, the Italian fascist regime did not have control over the exclave and the Swiss ignored the situation as long as the Americans kept a low profile.
After the war, the small community continued to thrive, due to its special status for the casino, but it now appears that the golden era of Campione d’Italia has ended and time will tell what the next chapter in its fascinating history will bring.