The Val Grande National Park stretches over the territory of 13 municipalities and protects one of the greatest natural areas in the entire Alpine arc, distinguished by an extremely low level of urbanisation and lack of major infrastructures. Rock incisions and the identification of archaeological sites have given rise to the hypothesis that the mountain was first settled during the transition stage between the Neolithic/Chalcolithic (6000-2500 BC) and the Bronze Age (2500-1200 BC).
In this period, there appears to have been a stable settlement, concentrated mainly on the natural terraces next to the stretches of water (such as Mergozzo, Feriolo and Suna) or on the rocky outcrops near the lakes (material from an ancient village perhaps dating back to the Neolithic period was found in Bieno at the end of the nineteenth century during work on a methane pipeline, and again in 1992, during maintenance work on the same pipe). During the same period, there were temporary, high altitude settlements, given the impervious nature of the place, founded simply to search for natural resources (minerals and metals), for drovers during the summer or for trading across the mountain passes.
Moving on to the Iron Age, the territories around Lake Maggiore – almost always areas lying along the bottom of a valley or near lakes – were settled by new ethnic groups, bringing the Golasecca Culture, which developed around today’s towns of Sesto Calende, Castelletto Ticino and the town with the same name of Golasecca.
Beginning in the 4th century BC, the area of Verbano and Ossola was involved in major changes with the arrival of the Transalpine Gauls, who settled here and mixed with the autochthonous populations. New settlements grew up, the life styles and burial customs changed. Now the rite of burial within a tomb marked by stone slabs prevailed, as can be seen in the necropoli of Piedmont in Ornavasso and Gravellona and in the mountain areas of Toceno.
The Roman conquest of the Lepontine Alps began a stable process of anthropisation of the mountains. The northern portion of the Park was full of flourishing towns, identified as Roman vici, such as Druogno, Santa Maria Maggiore, Toceno, Vocogno, Craveggia, Malesco, Folsogno di Re and the narrow valley of Cannobina, the latter for its link with the nearby Vigezzo Valley. The Roman conquest also brought new elements: the appearance of new ceramic shapes and new materials, the neglect of the Lepontine language and place names which favoured Latin and Roman names, as shown by a funereal epigraph with mixed Roman and Lepontine names on the wall of the parish church in Bieno. Incipient Romanisation also enabled the development of road infrastructures, as confirmed by an inscription in the rock in Vogogna referring to works to construct the Roman road of Ossola in the year 196 AD, a major road axis in the direction of the Alpine passes coming from Mediolanum and Novaria. The numerous finds discovered in the areas around Val Grande have enabled us to reconstruct across a very wide chronological order the existence of an economic structure based on the exploitation of timber (prehistoric axes and Roman adzes), the extraction of stone (iron picks and earthenware artefacts), agriculture, husbandry, hunting and fishing (weights for fishing nets). Further information on the products from the Alpine area are provided by the ancient authors, Strabo and Pliny the Elder, who mention cheeses, wool and animal skins, resin, pitch, honey and wax.
During the Late Middle Ages, thanks to the minor importance of the Sempione pass – even though it was the pathway for Lombard, Piedmont and Valle d’Aosta merchants – the territory of Val Grande appears to have escaped the barbaric invasions. A document from the early 11th century describes these lands as uncultivated and wild and describes the valley as a “Valdo”, or forest. Shepherds found shelter here in the characteristic “balme”, prehistoric depressions carved under the rock. Between the 10th and 12th centuries, as a result of the mild climate the valley landscape began to show a slow development following which the woods and wild lands became pastures, thanks to progressive deforestation (such as the Nembro Valley). Summer mountain pastures and spring and autumn meadows began to appear, often contested among the various communities. Alongside the poor art of humble dwellings and paved mule tracks, this period saw flourishing Romanesque art, such as the churches of San Bartolomeo in Villadossola, Sant’Abbondio in Masera and Santa Maria in Trontano. They were all the work of artisan ‘picasàss’, the stone masons from Ossola with their nailed boots, famous throughout Italy. They are said to have excavated the quarries of Candoglia at the entrance to the Park, which provided part of the marble used to cover the Cathedral of Milan. In the 13th century, the bishops of Milan and Novara contested the upper Verbano and Ossola valleys. They rose to the rank of free Communes and, in 1387, became the property of the Visconti family.
In the late sixteenth century, the Borromeo family transformed the entire area into a fiefdom and thus it remained until 1749 when, under the Treaty of Worms, Ossola and the Val Grande became part of the dominions of the House of Savoy
During the Second World War, Val Grande played a key role in the clashes between the Wehrmacht and the partisans, who had taken refuge here amidst its wilderness (in June 1944 the German army brutally searched the area and carried out mass executions in Pogallo, Fondotoce and Bèura).
After the war, the valley was gradually abandoned and the territory returned to nature: the wood regained its spaces and swallowed up mule tracks and other signs of the presence of man.