Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter XIII

Viu, Fucine, and S. Ignazio

I must now return to my young friend at Groscavallo. I have published his drawings without his permission, having unfortunately lost his name and address, and being unable therefore to apply to him. I hope that, should they ever meet his eye, he will accept this apology and the assurance of my most profound consideration.

Delighted as I had been with his proposed illustrations, I thought I had better hear some of the letterpress, so I begged him to read me his ms. My time was short, and he began at once. The few introductory pages were very nice, but there was nothing particularly noticeable about them; when, however, he came to his description of the place where we now were, he spoke of a beautiful young lady as attracting his attention on the evening of his arrival. It seemed that she was as much struck with him as he with her, and I thought we were going to have a romance, when he proceeded as follows: “We perceived that we were sympathetic, and in less than a quarter of an hour had exchanged the most solemn vows that we would never marry one another.” “What?” said I, hardly able to believe my ears, “will you kindly read those last words over again?” He did so, slowly and distinctly; I caught them beyond all power of mistake, and they were as I have given them above:— “We perceived that we were sympathetic, and in less than a quarter of an hour had exchanged the most solemn vows that we would never marry one another.” While I was rubbing my eyes and making up my mind whether I had stumbled upon a great satirist or no, I heard a voice from below —“Signor Butler, Signor Butler, la vettura e pronta.” I had therefore to leave my doubt unsolved, but all the time as we drove down the valley I had the words above quoted ringing in my head. If ever any of my readers come across the book itself — for I should hope it will be published — I should be very grateful to them if they will direct my attention to it.

Another day I went to Ceres, and returned on foot via S. Ignazio. S. Ignazio is a famous sanctuary on the very top of a mountain, like that of Sammichele; but it is late, the St. Ignatius being St. Ignatius Loyola, and not the apostolic father. I got my dinner at a village inn at the foot of the mountain, and from the window caught sight of a fresco upon the wall of a chapel a few yards off. There was a companion to it hardly less interesting, but I had not time to sketch it. I do not know what the one I give is intended to represent. St. Ignatius is upon a rock, and is pleased with something, but there is nothing to show what it is, except his attitude, which seems to say, “Senza far fatica,”—“You see I can do it quite easily,” or, “There is no deception.” Nor do we easily gather what it is that the Roman centurion is saying to St. Ignatius. I cannot make up my mind whether he is merely warning him to beware of the reaction, or whether he is a little scandalised.

From this village I went up the mountain to the sanctuary of S. Ignazio itself, which looks well from the distance, and commands a striking view, but contains nothing of interest, except a few nice votive pictures.

From Lanzo I went to Viu, a summer resort largely frequented by the Turinese, but rarely visited by English people. There is a good inn at Viu — the one close to where the public conveyance stops — and the neighbourhood is enchanting. The little village on the crest of the hill in the distance, to the left of the church, as shown on the preceding page, is called the Colma di S. Giovanni, and is well worth a visit. In spring, before the grass is cut, the pastures must be even better than when I saw them in August, and they were then still of almost incredible beauty.

I went to S. Giovanni by the directest way — descending, that is, to the level of the Stura, crossing it, and then going straight up the mountain. I returned by a slight detour so as to take the village of Fucine, a frazione of Viu a little higher up the river. I found many picturesque bits; among them the one which I give on the next page. It was a grand festa; first they had had mass, then there had been the funzioni, which I never quite understand, and thenceforth till sundown there was a public ball on the bowling ground of a little inn on the Viu side of the bridge. The principal inn is on the other side. It was here I went and ordered dinner. The landlady brought me a minestra, or hodge-podge soup, full of savoury vegetables, and very good; a nice cutlet fried in bread-crumbs, bread and butter ad libitum, and half a bottle of excellent wine. She brought all together on a tray, and put them down on the table. “It’ll come to a franc,” said she, “in all, but please to pay first.” I did so, of course, and she was satisfied. A day or two afterwards I went to the same inn, hoping to dine as well and cheaply as before; but I think they must have discovered that I was a forestiere inglese in the meantime, for they did not make me pay first, and charged me normal prices.

What pretty words they have! While eating my dinner I wanted a small plate and asked for it. The landlady changed the word I had used, and told a girl to bring me a tondino. A tondino is an abbreviation of rotondino, a “little round thing.” A plate is a tondo, a small plate a tondino. The delicacy of expression which their diminutives and intensitives give is untranslateable. One day I was asking after a waiter whom I had known in previous years, but who was ill. I said I hoped he was not badly off. “Oh dear, no,” was the answer; “he has a discreta posizionina”—“a snug little sum put by.” “Is the road to such and such a place difficult?” I once inquired. “Un tantino,” was the answer. “Ever such a very little,” I suppose, is as near as we can get to this. At one inn I asked whether I could have my linen back from the wash by a certain time, and was told it was impossibilissimo. I have an Italian friend long resident in England who often introduces English words when talking with me in Italian. Thus I have heard him say that such and such a thing is tanto cheapissimo. As for their gestures, they are inimitable. To say nothing of the pretty little way in which they say “no,” by moving the forefinger backwards and forwards once or twice, they have a hundred movements to save themselves the trouble of speaking, which say what they have to say better than any words can do. It is delightful to see an Italian move his hand in such way as to show you that you have got to go round a corner. Gesture is easier both to make and to understand than speech is. Speech is a late acquisition, and in critical moments is commonly discarded in favour of gesture, which is older and more habitual.

I once saw an Italian explaining something to another and tapping his nose a great deal. He became more and more confidential, and the more confidential he became, the more he tapped, till his finger seemed to become glued to, and almost grow into his nose. At last the supreme moment came. He drew the finger down, pressing it closely against his lower lip, so as to drag it all down and show his gums and the roots of his teeth. “There,” he seemed to say, “you now know all: consider me as turned inside out: my mucous membrane is before you.”

At Fucine, and indeed in all the valleys hereabout, spinning-wheels are not uncommon. I also saw a woman sitting in her room with the door opening on to the street, weaving linen at a hand-loom. The woman and the hand-loom were both very old and rickety. The first and the last specimens of anything, whether animal or vegetable organism, or machine, or institution, are seldom quite satisfactory. Some five or six years ago I saw an old gentleman sitting outside the St. Lawrence Hall at Montreal, in Canada, and wearing a pigtail, but it was not a good pigtail; and when the Scotch baron killed the last wolf in Scotland, it was probably a weak, mangy old thing, capable of little further mischief.

Presently I walked a mile or two up the river, and met a godfather coming along with a cradle on his shoulder; he was followed by two women, one carrying some long wax candles, and the other something wrapped up in a piece of brown paper; they were going to get the child christened at Fucine. Soon after I met a priest, and bowed, as a matter of course. In towns or places where many foreigners come and go this is unnecessary, but in small out-of-the-way places one should take one’s hat off to the priest. I mention this because many Englishmen do not know that it is expected of them, and neglect the accustomed courtesy through ignorance. Surely, even here in England, if one is in a small country village, off one’s beat, and meets the clergyman, it is more polite than not to take off one’s hat.

Viu is one of the places from which pilgrims ascend the Rocca Melone at the beginning of August. This is one of the most popular and remarkable pilgrimages of North Italy; the Rocca Melone is 11,000 feet high, and forms a peak so sharp, that there is room for little else than the small wooden chapel which stands at the top of it. There is no accommodation whatever, except at some rough barracks (so I have been told) some thousands of feet below the summit. These, I was informed, are sometimes so crowded that the people doze standing, and the cold at night is intense, unless under the shelter just referred to; yet some five or six thousand pilgrims ascend on the day and night of the festa — chiefly from Susa, but also from all parts of the valleys of the Dora and the Stura. They leave Susa early in the morning, camp out or get shelter in the barracks that evening, reaching the chapel at the top of the Rocca Melone next day. I have not made the ascent myself, but it would probably be worth making by one who did not mind the fatigue.

I may mention that thatch is not uncommon in the Stura valley. In the Val Mastallone, and more especially between Civiasco (above Varallo) and Orta, thatch is more common still, and the thatching is often very beautifully done. Thatch in a stone country is an indication of German, or at any rate Cisalpine descent, and is among the many proofs of the extent to which German races crossed the Alps and spread far down over Piedmont and Lombardy. I was more struck with traces of German influence on the path from Pella on the Lago d’Orta, to the Colma on the way to Varallo, than perhaps anywhere else. The churches have a tendency to have pure spires — a thing never seen in Italy proper; clipped yews and box- trees are common; there are lime-trees in the churchyards, and thatch is the rule, not the exception. At Rimella in the Val Mastallone, not far off, German is still the current language. As I sat sketching, a woman came up to me, and said, “Was machen sic?” as a matter of course. Rimella is the highest village in its valley, yet if one crosses the saddle at the head of the valley, one does not descend upon a German-speaking district; one descends on the Val Anzasca, where Italian is universally spoken. Until recently German was the language of many other villages at the heads of valleys, even though these valleys were themselves entirely surrounded by Italian-speaking people. At Alagna in the Val Sesia, German is still spoken.

Whatever their origin, however, the people are now thoroughly Italianised. Nevertheless, as I have already said, it is strange what a number of people one meets among them, whom most people would unhesitatingly pronounce to be English if asked to name their nationality.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:42