Already known in Roman times, the little town of Chiavenna had a remarkable importance in the early Middle Ages; after the year 1000 it became an independent municipality, although it was later submitted to the Bishopric of Como, passing then, in 1335, to the Visconti and Sforza families.

Finally, it was under the Grisons until 1797. The present old town dates back to the 16th century, since the medieval town was destroyed by fire in 1486, and new city walls were built by Ludovico il Moro (1452-1508).

From the late 18th century Chiavenna changed control several times. It was the domain of the French (under Napoleon), then the Austrians, then came first into the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1859 and then into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Etymology and origins of Chiavenna

About the etymology of Chiavenna, which the Romans called “Clavenna”, we must distinguish the traditional from the  contemporary hypothesis. The first of these was fairly intuitive and derived the name the from Latin term "Clavis" ("key"), referring to the location as a "key point" of the defence system against external invasions.

In fact Chiavenna is located near the “Splügenpass”, the "key" and "door" along the Alpine passes between Italy, Switzerland and Germany. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was clear to all scholars that " nomen a Clave venit", or "the name derives from the Latin 'Clave'" [1].

The traditional positions were summed up by G. Devoto [2], who quoted this passage: "[...] 'Claverna, a term that seems to stretch from the Etruscan root 'Clave', which is present everywhere in northern Italy, like the Chiavenna River, the city of Chiavenna, or 'Chiave' near Cortina and the like; the name also reflects the family name 'Clavius'."

The current hypothesis however, which goes back to the studies of G. Devoto, sees in this place-name a Mediterranean root, "Clava", which, according to G. Devoto, means "place of an alluvial cone", "landslide", or "stony" [3].

Today, this seems the most generally accepted etymology and also has good credentials as proposed by the Dictionary of C. Battisti - G. Alessio [4], which interprets the term 'Clava' to mean 'river delta' [5]. With the name of Chiavenna interpreted as "river mouth" A. Polloni also agrees: "Chiavenna has a relationship with the pre-Latin term 'Clava' ('river mouth')" [6].

See our detailed travel guide at Chiavenna.


1. See "Helvetia Antiqua et Nova", 1737, p. 285

2. “Tabulae Iguvinae”, Typis Regiae Officinae Polygraphicae, 1940, p. 356

3. See F. Formignani, “Parlarlombardo”: History and Reality of spoken Lombard, Ed. Del Riccio, 1978, p. 35

4. Italian Etymological Dictionary ", Barbera, 1968, Vol II

5. See also A. Costanzo Garancini, “La Romanizzazione nel bacino idrografico padano attraverso l'odierna idronimia”,  Florence, La Nuova Italia, 1975, p. 116

6. See “Toponomy of Romagna”, Olschki, 1966, p. 249