Thomas Maria Baron de Bassus: An extraordinary citizen of Poschiavo
Thomas Maria Baron de Bassus was born in Poschiavo in 1742. He attended school in Ingolstadt (Bavaria, Germany) where his relatives were living. They were wealthy property owners and well placed at court. While pursuing his studies, de Bassus became friends with the composer Johann Simon Mayr and theology professor Adam Weishaupt. In 1776 Weishaupt would found the Bavarian Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era secret society whose members included Goethe and Mozart. The young Baron de Bassus returned to Poschiavo a gentlemen with the good manners befitting his experience in the refined society of the German court.
In 1767, at the age of 25, he was elected Lord Mayor of Poschiavo, a title he kept for 5 years. In 1766 he married Cecilia Domenica Massella. After the early death of his wife’s parents, he inherited many properties in the Valtellina and Poschiavo valleys including the Palazzo Massella, today’s Hotel Albrici. In 1781 de Bassus inherited the title of Baron from his relatives in Bavaria and their estates of Sandersdorf, Mendorf, Eggersberg, Harlanden und Dachenstein. During this period he had maintained good relations with his friends in Ingolstadt. With the help of these friends he joined the Bavarian Illuminati, and at the end of 1780 he was asked to help spread the ideas of the Illuminati south of the Alps. As part of his work for the Illuminati, Baron de Bassus purchased a printing press in Bavaria and had it transported to Poschiavo. Since printing presses were very expensive, it was quite extraordinary at this time for such a small village to have its own printing press. With the help of the printer Giuseppe Ambrosini, another member of the Illuminati, de Bassus also opened a book shop. De Bassus’ press printed books criticizing the church and the pope, as well as the first edition of Goethe’s Werther in Italian. During this period Baron de Bassus was renowned for organizing cultural and literary events in his Poschiavo palace and summer homes in Cantone and Tirano. Discussions centred on literature, sciences, politics and law. He also organized many concerts and readings. Between 1787 and 1788 the composer Johann Simon Mayr, famous for composing over 70 operas and being the teacher of Donizetti, was his guest.
But the political winds were shifting against the Enlightenment and groups like the Illuminati. In 1787, just when Baron de Bassus had been recognized as the superior of the Illuminati in Italy, the Bavarian police raided his castle in Sandersdorf. There they found compromising documents and confiscated his estate. Soon the same hostility against Enlightenment ideas manifested itself in Poschiavo and Baron de Bassus decided to move back to Bavaria where it would be safer for his family. After the death of his wife in 1794, the Baron lost much of his spiritual attachment to Poschiavo, although he continued to have great interest in what was happening in his home country where he still owned a great deal of property. In 1815, De Bassus died peacefully in Sandersdorf and was soon forgotten.
Over time the De Bassus family lost contact with their original country as the Baron’s children married titled society in Germany. The palace on Poschiavo’s main square became a financial burden for the family and in 1828 it was sold to Poschiavo’s Mayor Pietro Albrici.