Samuel Butler.

Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino online

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This etext was prepared by David Price, email [email protected]
from the 1913 A. C. Fifield edition with some portions taken from
the 1881 edition. Many thanks to Paul Schwoerer for his invaluable
help in locating an 1881 edition for UK copyright clearance.


by Samuel Butler

Author's Preface to First Edition

I should perhaps apologise for publishing a work which professes to
deal with the sanctuaries of Piedmont, and saying so little about
the most important of them all - the Sacro Monte of Varallo. My
excuse must be, that I found it impossible to deal with Varallo
without making my book too long. Varallo requires a work to
itself; I must, therefore, hope to return to it on another

For the convenience of avoiding explanations, I have treated the
events of several summers as though they belonged to only one.
This can be of no importance to the reader, but as the work is
chronologically inexact, I had better perhaps say so.

The illustrations by Mr. H. F. Jones are on pages 95, 211, 225,
238, 254, 260. The frontispiece and the illustrations on the
title-page and on pages 261, 262 are by Mr. Charles Gogin. There
are two drawings on pages 136, 137 by an Italian gentleman whose
name I have unfortunately lost, and whose permission to insert them
I have, therefore, been unable to obtain, and one on page 138 by
Signor Gaetano Meo. The rest are mine, except that all the figures
in my drawings are in every case by Mr. Charles Gogin, unless when
they are merely copied from frescoes or other sources. The two
larger views of Oropa are chiefly taken from photographs. The rest
are all of them from studies taken upon the spot.

I must acknowledge the great obligations I am under to Mr. H. F.
Jones as regards the letterpress no less than the illustrations; I
might almost say that the book is nearly as much his as mine, while
it is only through the care which he and another friend have
exercised in the revision of my pages that I am able to let them
appear with some approach to confidence.

November, 1881.

CHAPTER I - Introduction

Most men will readily admit that the two poets who have the
greatest hold over Englishmen are Handel and Shakespeare - for it is
as a poet, a sympathiser with and renderer of all estates and
conditions whether of men or things, rather than as a mere
musician, that Handel reigns supreme. There have been many who
have known as much English as Shakespeare, and so, doubtless, there
have been no fewer who have known as much music as Handel: perhaps
Bach, probably Haydn, certainly Mozart; as likely as not, many a
known and unknown musician now living; but the poet is not known by
knowledge alone - not by gnosis only - but also, and in greater part,
by the agape which makes him wish to steal men's hearts, and
prompts him so to apply his knowledge that he shall succeed. There
has been no one to touch Handel as an observer of all that was
observable, a lover of all that was loveable, a hater of all that
was hateable, and, therefore, as a poet. Shakespeare loved not
wisely but too well. Handel loved as well as Shakespeare, but more
wisely. He is as much above Shakespeare as Shakespeare is above
all others, except Handel himself; he is no less lofty,
impassioned, tender, and full alike of fire and love of play; he is
no less universal in the range of his sympathies, no less a master
of expression and illustration than Shakespeare, and at the same
time he is of robuster, stronger fibre, more easy, less
introspective. Englishmen are of so mixed a race, so inventive,
and so given to migration, that for many generations to come they
are bound to be at times puzzled, and therefore introspective; if
they get their freedom at all they get it as Shakespeare "with a
great sum," whereas Handel was "free born." Shakespeare sometimes
errs and grievously, he is as one of his own best men "moulded out
of faults," who "for the most become much more the better, for
being a little bad;" Handel, if he puts forth his strength at all,
is unerring: he gains the maximum of effect with the minimum of
effort. As Mozart said of him, "he beats us all in effect, when he
chooses he strikes like a thunderbolt." Shakespeare's strength is
perfected in weakness; Handel is the serenity and unself-
consciousness of health itself. "There," said Beethoven on his
deathbed, pointing to the works of Handel, "there - is truth."
These, however, are details, the main point that will be admitted
is that the average Englishman is more attracted by Handel and
Shakespeare than by any other two men who have been long enough
dead for us to have formed a fairly permanent verdict concerning
them. We not only believe them to have been the best men
familiarly known here in England, but we see foreign nations join
us for the most part in assigning to them the highest place as
renderers of emotion.

It is always a pleasure to me to reflect that the countries dearest
to these two master spirits are those which are also dearest to
myself, I mean England and Italy. Both of them lived mainly here
in London, but both of them turned mainly to Italy when realising
their dreams. Handel's music is the embodiment of all the best
Italian music of his time and before him, assimilated and
reproduced with the enlargements and additions suggested by his own
genius. He studied in Italy; his subjects for many years were
almost exclusively from Italian sources; the very language of his
thoughts was Italian, and to the end of his life he would have
composed nothing but Italian operas, if the English public would
have supported him. His spirit flew to Italy, but his home was
London. So also Shakespeare turned to Italy more than to any other
country for his subjects. Roughly, he wrote nineteen Italian, or
what to him were virtually Italian plays, to twelve English, one
Scotch, one Danish, three French, and two early British.

But who does not turn to Italy who has the chance of doing so?
What, indeed, do we not owe to that most lovely and loveable
country? Take up a Bank of England note and the Italian language
will be found still lingering upon it. It is signed "for Bank of
England and Compa." (Compagnia), not "Compy." Our laws are Roman
in their origin. Our music, as we have seen, and our painting
comes from Italy. Our very religion till a few hundred years ago
found its headquarters, not in London nor in Canterbury, but in
Rome. What, in fact, is there which has not filtered through
Italy, even though it arose elsewhere? On the other hand, there
are infinite attractions in London. I have seen many foreign
cities, but I know none so commodious, or, let me add, so
beautiful. I know of nothing in any foreign city equal to the view
down Fleet Street, walking along the north side from the corner of
Fetter Lane. It is often said that this has been spoiled by the
London, Chatham, and Dover Railway bridge over Ludgate Hill; I
think, however, the effect is more imposing now than it was before
the bridge was built. Time has already softened it; it does not
obtrude itself; it adds greatly to the sense of size, and makes us
doubly aware of the movement of life, the colossal circulation to
which London owes so much of its impressiveness. We gain more by
this than we lose by the infraction of some pedant's canon about
the artistically correct intersection of right lines. Vast as is
the world below the bridge, there is a vaster still on high, and
when trains are passing, the steam from the engine will throw the
dome of St. Paul's into the clouds, and make it seem as though
there were a commingling of earth and some far-off mysterious
palace in dreamland. I am not very fond of Milton, but I admit
that he does at times put me in mind of Fleet Street.

While on the subject of Fleet Street, I would put in a word in
favour of the much-abused griffin. The whole monument is one of
the handsomest in London. As for its being an obstruction, I have
discoursed with a large number of omnibus conductors on the
subject, and am satisfied that the obstruction is imaginary.

When, again, I think of Waterloo Bridge, and the huge wide-opened
jaws of those two Behemoths, the Cannon Street and Charing Cross
railway stations, I am not sure that the prospect here is not even
finer than in Fleet Street. See how they belch forth puffing
trains as the breath of their nostrils, gorging and disgorging
incessantly those human atoms whose movement is the life of the
city. How like it all is to some great bodily mechanism of which
the people are the blood. And then, above all, see the ineffable
St. Paul's. I was once on Waterloo Bridge after a heavy
thunderstorm in summer. A thick darkness was upon the river and
the buildings upon the north side, but just below I could see the
water hurrying onward as in an abyss, dark, gloomy, and mysterious.
On a level with the eye there was an absolute blank, but above, the
sky was clear, and out of the gloom the dome and towers of St.
Paul's rose up sharply, looking higher than they actually were, and
as though they rested upon space.

Then as for the neighbourhood within, we will say, a radius of
thirty miles. It is one of the main businesses of my life to
explore this district. I have walked several thousands of miles in
doing so, and I mark where I have been in red upon the Ordnance
map, so that I may see at a glance what parts I know least well,
and direct my attention to them as soon as possible. For ten
months in the year I continue my walks in the home counties, every
week adding some new village or farmhouse to my list of things
worth seeing; and no matter where else I may have been, I find a
charm in the villages of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, which in its way
I know not where to rival.

I have ventured to say the above, because during the remainder of
my book I shall be occupied almost exclusively with Italy, and wish
to make it clear that my Italian rambles are taken not because I
prefer Italy to England, but as by way of parergon, or by-work, as
every man should have both his profession and his hobby. I have
chosen Italy as my second country, and would dedicate this book to
her as a thank-offering for the happiness she has afforded me.


For some years past I have paid a visit of greater or less length
to Faido in the Canton Ticino, which though politically Swiss is as
much Italian in character as any part of Italy. I was attracted to
this place, in the first instance, chiefly because it is one of the
easiest places on the Italian side of the Alps to reach from
England. This merit it will soon possess in a still greater
degree, for when the St. Gothard tunnel is open, it will be
possible to leave London, we will say, on a Monday morning and be
at Faido by six or seven o'clock the next evening, just as one can
now do with S. Ambrogio on the line between Susa and Turin, of
which more hereafter.

True, by making use of the tunnel one will miss the St. Gothard
scenery, but I would not, if I were the reader, lay this too much
to heart. Mountain scenery, when one is staying right in the
middle of it, or when one is on foot, is one thing, and mountain
scenery as seen from the top of a diligence very likely smothered
in dust is another. Besides I do not think he will like the St.
Gothard scenery very much.

It is a pity there is no mental microscope to show us our likes and
dislikes while they are yet too vague to be made out easily. We
are so apt to let imaginary likings run away with us, as a person
at the far end of Cannon Street railway platform, if he expects a
friend to join him, will see that friend in half the impossible
people who are coming through the wicket. I once began an essay on
"The Art of Knowing what gives one Pleasure," but soon found myself
out of the diatonic with it, in all manner of strange keys, amid a
maze of metaphysical accidentals and double and treble flats, so I
left it alone as a question not worth the trouble it seemed likely
to take in answering. It is like everything else, if we much want
to know our own mind on any particular point, we may be trusted to
develop the faculty which will reveal it to us, and if we do not
greatly care about knowing, it does not much matter if we remain in
ignorance. But in few cases can we get at our permanent liking
without at least as much experience as a fishmonger must have had
before he can choose at once the best bloater out of twenty which,
to inexperienced eyes, seem one as good as the other. Lord
Beaconsfield was a thorough Erasmus Darwinian when he said so well
in "Endymion": "There is nothing like will; everybody can do
exactly what they like in this world, provided they really like it.
Sometimes they think they do, but in general it's a mistake." {1}
If this is as true as I believe it to be, "the longing after
immortality," though not indeed much of an argument in favour of
our being immortal at the present moment, is perfectly sound as a
reason for concluding that we shall one day develop immortality, if
our desire is deep enough and lasting enough. As for knowing
whether or not one likes a picture, which under the present
aesthetic reign of terror is de rigueur, I once heard a man say the
only test was to ask one's self whether one would care to look at
it if one was quite sure that one was alone; I have never been able
to get beyond this test with the St. Gothard scenery, and applying
it to the Devil's Bridge, I should say a stay of about thirty
seconds would be enough for me. I daresay Mendelssohn would have
stayed at least two hours at the Devil's Bridge, but then he did
stay such a long while before things.

The coming out from the short tunnel on to the plain of Andermatt
does certainly give the pleasure of a surprise. I shall never
forget coming out of this tunnel one day late in November, and
finding the whole Andermatt valley in brilliant sunshine, though
from Fluelen up to the Devil's Bridge the clouds had hung heavy and
low. It was one of the most striking transformation scenes
imaginable. The top of the pass is good, and the Hotel Prosa a
comfortable inn to stay at. I do not know whether this house will
be discontinued when the railway is opened, but understand that the
proprietor has taken the large hotel at Piora, which I will speak
of later on. The descent on the Italian side is impressive, and so
is the point where sight is first caught of the valley below
Airolo, but on the whole I cannot see that the St. Gothard is
better than the S. Bernardino on the Italian side, or the
Lukmanier, near the top, on the German; this last is one of the
most beautiful things imaginable, but it should be seen by one who
is travelling towards German Switzerland, and in a fine summer's
evening light. I was never more impressed by the St. Gothard than
on the occasion already referred to when I crossed it in winter.
We went in sledges from Hospenthal to Airolo, and I remember
thinking what splendid fellows the postillions and guards and men
who helped to shift the luggage on to the sledges, looked; they
were so ruddy and strong and full of health, as indeed they might
well be - living an active outdoor life in such an air; besides,
they were picked men, for the passage in winter is never without
possible dangers. It was delightful travelling in the sledge. The
sky was of a deep blue; there was not a single cloud either in sky
or on mountain, but the snow was already deep, and had covered
everything beneath its smooth and heaving bosom. There was no
breath of air, but the cold was intense; presently the sun set upon
all except the higher peaks, and the broad shadows stole upwards.
Then there was a rich crimson flush upon the mountain tops, and
after this a pallor cold and ghastly as death. If he is fortunate
in his day, I do not think any one will be sorry to have crossed
the St. Gothard in mid-winter; but one pass will do as well as

Airolo, at the foot of the pass on the Italian side, was, till
lately, a quiet and beautiful village, rising from among great
green slopes, which in early summer are covered with innumerable
flowers. The place, however, is now quite changed. The railway
has turned the whole Val Leventina topsy-turvy, and altered it
almost beyond recognition. When the line is finished and the
workmen have gone elsewhere, things will get right again; but just
now there is an explosiveness about the valley which puzzles one
who has been familiar with its former quietness. Airolo has been
especially revolutionised, being the headquarters for the works
upon the Italian side of the great St. Gothard tunnel, as Goschenen
is for those on the German side; besides this, it was burnt down
two or three years ago, hardly one of the houses being left
standing, so that it is now a new town, and has lost its former
picturesqueness, but it will be not a bad place to stay at as soon
as the bustle of the works has subsided, and there is a good hotel-
-the Hotel Airolo. It lies nearly 4000 feet above the sea, so that
even in summer the air is cool. There are plenty of delightful
walks - to Piora, for example, up the Val Canaria, and to Bedretto.

After leaving Airolo the road descends rapidly for a few hundred
feet and then more slowly for four or five kilometres to Piotta.
Here the first signs of the Italian spirit appear in the wood
carving of some of the houses. It is with these houses that I
always consider myself as in Italy again. Then come Ronco on the
mountain side to the left, and Quinto; all the way the pastures are
thickly covered with cowslips, even finer than those that grow on
Salisbury Plain. A few kilometres farther on and sight is caught
of a beautiful green hill with a few natural terraces upon it and a
flat top - rising from amid pastures, and backed by higher hills as
green as itself. On the top of this hill there stands a white
church with an elegant Lombard campanile - the campanile left
unwhitewashed. The whole forms a lovely little bit of landscape
such as some old Venetian painter might have chosen as a background
for a Madonna.

This place is called Prato. After it is passed the road enters at
once upon the Monte Piottino gorge, which is better than the
Devil's Bridge, but not so much to my taste as the auriculas and
rhododendrons which grow upon the rocks that flank it. The peep,
however, at the hamlet of Vigera, caught through the opening of the
gorge, is very nice. Soon after crossing the second of the Monte
Piottino bridges the first chestnuts are reached, or rather were so
till a year ago, when they were all cut down to make room for some
construction in connection with the railway. A couple of
kilometres farther on and mulberries and occasional fig-trees begin
to appear. On this we find ourselves at Faido, the first place
upon the Italian side which can be called a town, but which after
all is hardly more than a village.

Faido is a picturesque old place. It has several houses dated the
middle of the sixteenth century; and there is one, formerly a
convent, close to the Hotel dell' Angelo, which must be still
older. There is a brewery where excellent beer is made, as good as
that of Chiavenna - and a monastery where a few monks still continue
to reside. The town is 2365 feet above the sea, and is never too
hot even in the height of summer. The Angelo is the principal
hotel of the town, and will be found thoroughly comfortable and in
all respects a desirable place to stay at. I have stayed there so
often, and consider the whole family of its proprietor so much
among the number of my friends, that I have no hesitation in
cordially recommending the house.

Other attractions I do not know that the actual town possesses, but
the neighbourhood is rich. Years ago, in travelling by the St.
Gothard road, I had noticed the many little villages perched high
up on the sides of the mountain, from one to two thousand feet
above the river, and had wondered what sort of places they would
be. I resolved, therefore, after a time to make a stay at Faido
and go up to all of them. I carried out my intention, and there is
not a village nor fraction of a village in the Val Leventina from
Airolo to Biasca which I have not inspected. I never tire of them,
and the only regret I feel concerning them is, that the greater
number are inaccessible except on foot, so that I do not see how I
shall be able to reach them if I live to be old. These are the
places of which I do find myself continually thinking when I am
away from them. I may add that the Val Leventina is much the same
as every other subalpine valley on the Italian side of the Alps
that I have yet seen.

I had no particular aversion to German Switzerland before I knew
the Italian side of the Alps. On the contrary, I was under the
impression that I liked German Switzerland almost as much as I
liked Italy itself, but now I can look at German Switzerland no
longer. As soon as I see the water going down Rhinewards I hurry
back to London. I was unwillingly compelled to take pleasure in
the first hour and a half of the descent from the top of the
Lukmanier towards Disentis, but this is only a ripping over of the
brimfulness of Italy on to the Swiss side.

The first place I tried from Faido was Mairengo - where there is the
oldest church in the valley - a church older even than the church of
St. Nicolao of Giornico. There is little of the original
structure, but the rare peculiarity remains that there are two high
altars side by side.

There is a fine half-covered timber porch to the church. These
porches are rare, the only others like it I know of being at Prato,
Rossura, and to some extent Cornone. In each of these cases the
arrangement is different, the only agreement being in the having an
outer sheltered place, from which the church is entered instead of
opening directly on to the churchyard. Mairengo is full of good
bits, and nestles among magnificent chestnut-trees. From hence I
went to Osco, about 3800 feet above the sea, and 1430 above Faido.
It was here I first came to understand the purpose of certain high
poles with cross bars to them which I had already seen elsewhere.
They are for drying the barley on; as soon as it is cut it is hung
up on the cross bars and secured in this way from the rain, but it
is obvious this can only be done when cultivation is on a small
scale. These rascane, as they are called, are a feature of the Val
Leventina, and look very well when they are full of barley.

From Osco I tried to coast along to Calpiognia, but was warned that
the path was dangerous, and found it to be so. I therefore again
descended to Mairengo, and re-ascended by a path which went
straight up behind the village. After a time I got up to the level
of Calpiognia, or nearly so, and found a path through pine woods
which led me across a torrent in a ravine to Calpiognia itself.
This path is very beautiful. While on it I caught sight of a
lovely village nestling on a plateau that now showed itself high up
on the other side the valley of the Ticino, perhaps a couple of
miles off as the crow flies. This I found upon inquiry to be
Dalpe; above Dalpe rose pine woods and pastures; then the loftier
alpi, then rugged precipices, and above all the Dalpe glacier
roseate with sunset. I was enchanted, and it was only because
night was coming on, and I had a long way to descend before getting
back to Faido, that I could get myself away. I passed through
Calpiognia, and though the dusk was deepening, I could not forbear
from pausing at the Campo Santo just outside the village. I give a
sketch taken by daylight, but neither sketch nor words can give any
idea of the pathos of the place. When I saw it first it was in the
month of June, and the rank dandelions were in seed. Wild roses in
full bloom, great daisies, and the never-failing salvia ran riot
among the graves. Looking over the churchyard itself there were
the purple mountains of Biasca and the valley of the Ticino some
couple of thousand feet below. There was no sound save the subdued
but ceaseless roar of the Ticino, and the Piumogna. Involuntarily
I found the following passage from the "Messiah" sounding in my
ears, and felt as though Handel, who in his travels as a young man
doubtless saw such places, might have had one of them in his mind
when he wrote the divine music which he has wedded to the words "of
them that sleep." {2}

[At this point in the book a music score is given]

Or again: {3}

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerAlps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino → online text (page 1 of 17)