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

Chapter XXI

A Day at the Cantine

Next day we went to breakfast with Professor Vela, the father of my friend Spartaco, at Ligornetto. After we had admired the many fine works which Professor Vela’s studio contains, it was agreed that we should take a walk by S. Agata, and spend the afternoon at the cantine, or cellars where the wine is kept. Spartaco had two painter friends staying with him whom I already knew, and a young lady, his cousin; so we all went together across the meadows. I think we started about one o’clock, and it was some three or four by the time we got to the cantine, for we kept stopping continually to drink wine. The two painter visitors had a fine comic vein, and enlivened us continually with bits of stage business which were sometimes uncommonly droll. We were laughing incessantly, but carried very little away with us except that the drier one of the two, who was also unfortunately deaf, threw himself into a rhapsodical attitude with his middle finger against his cheek, and his eyes upturned to heaven, but to make sure that his finger should stick to his cheek he just wetted the end of it against his tongue first. He did this with unruffled gravity, and as if it were the only thing to do under the circumstances.

The young lady who was with us all the time enjoyed everything just as much as we did; once, indeed, she thought they were going a little too far — not as among themselves — but considering that there were a couple of earnest-minded Englishmen with them: the pair had begun a short performance which certainly did look as if it might develop into something a little hazardous. “Minga far tutto,” she exclaimed rather promptly —“Don’t do all.” So what the rest would have been we shall never know.

Then we came to some precipices, whereon it at once occurred to the two comedians that they would commit suicide. The pathetic way in which they shared the contents of their pockets among us, and came back more than once to give little additional parting messages which occurred to them just as they were about to take the fatal plunge, was irresistibly comic, and was the more remarkable for the spontaneousness of the whole thing and the admirable way in which the pair played into one another’s hands. The deaf one even played his deafness, making it worse than it was so as to heighten the comedy. By and by we came to a stile which they pretended to have a delicacy in crossing, but the lady helped them over. We concluded that if these young men were average specimens of the Italian student — and I should say they were — the Italian character has an enormous fund of pure love of fun — not of mischievous fun, but of the very best kind of playful humour, such as I have never seen elsewhere except among Englishmen.

Several times we stopped and had a bottle of wine at one place or another, till at last we came to a beautiful shady place looking down towards the lake of Lugano where we were to rest for half-an- hour or so. There was a cantina here, so of course we had more wine. In that air, and with the walk and incessant state of laughter in which we were being kept, we might drink ad libitum, and the lady did not refuse a second small bicchiere. On this our deaf friend assumed an anxious, fatherly air. He said nothing, but put his eyeglass in his eye, and looked first at the lady’s glass and then at the lady with an expression at once kind, pitying, and pained; he looked backwards and forwards from the glass to the lady more than once, and then made as though he were going to quit a scene in which it was plain he could be of no further use, throwing up his hands and eyes like the old steward in Hogarth’s “Marriage a la mode.” They never seemed to tire, and every fresh incident at once suggested its appropriate treatment. Jones asked them whether they thought they could mimic me. “Oh dear, yes,” was the answer; “we have mimicked him hundreds of times,” and they at once began.

At last we reached Professor Vela’s own cantina, and here we were to have our final bottle. There were several other cantine hard by, and other parties that had come like ourselves to take a walk and get some wine. The people bring their evening meal with them up to the cantina and then sit on the wall outside, or go to a rough table and eat it. Instead, in fact, of bringing their wine to their dinner, they take their dinner to their wine. There was one very fat old gentleman who had got the corner of the wall to sit on, and was smoking a cigar with his coat off. He comes, I am told, every day at about three during the summer months, and sits on the wall till seven, when he goes home to bed, rising at about four o’clock next morning. He seemed exceedingly good-tempered and happy. Another family who owned a cantina adjoining Professor Vela’s, had brought their evening meal with them, and insisted on giving us a quantity of excellent river cray-fish which looked like little lobsters. I may be wrong, but I thought this family looked at us once or twice as though they thought we were seeing a little more of the Italians absolutely chez eux than strangers ought to be allowed to see. We can only say we liked all we saw so much that we would fain see it again, and were left with the impression that we were among the nicest and most loveable people in the world.

I have said that the cantine are the cellars where the people keep their wine. They are caves hollowed out into the side of the mountain, and it is only certain localities that are suitable for the purpose. The cantine, therefore, of any village will be all together. The cantine of Mendrisio, for example, can be seen from the railroad, all in a row, a little before one gets into the town; they form a place of reunion where the village or town unites to unbend itself on feste or after business hours. I do not know exactly how they manage it, but from the innermost chamber of each cantina they run a small gallery as far as they can into the mountain, and from this gallery, which may be a foot square, there issues a strong current of what, in summer, is icy cold air, while in winter it feels quite warm. I could understand the equableness of the temperature of the mountain at some yards from the surface of the ground, causing the cantina to feel cool in summer and warm in winter, but I was not prepared for the strength and iciness of the cold current that came from the gallery. I had not been in the innermost cantina two minutes before I felt thoroughly chilled and in want of a greatcoat.

Having been shown the cantine, we took some of the little cups which are kept inside and began to drink. These little cups are common crockery, but at the bottom there is written, Viva Bacco, Viva l’Italia, Viva la Gioia, Viva Venere, or other such matter; they are to be had in every crockery shop throughout the Mendrisiotto, and are very pretty. We drank out of them, and ate the cray-fish which had been given us. Then seeing that it was getting late, we returned together to Besazio, and there parted, they descending to Ligornetto and we to Mendrisio, after a day which I should be glad to think would be as long and pleasantly remembered by our Italian friends as it will assuredly be by ourselves.

The excursions in the neighbourhood of Mendrisio are endless. The walk, for example, to S. Agata and thence to Meride is exquisite. S. Agata itself is perfect, and commands a splendid view. Then there is the little chapel of S. Nicolao on a ledge of the red precipice. The walk to this by the village of Sommazzo is as good as anything can be, and the quiet terrace leading to the church door will not be forgotten by those who have seen it. Sommazzo itself from the other side of the valley comes as on p. 247. There is Cragno, again, on the Monte Generoso, or Riva with its series of pictures in tempera by the brothers Giulio Cesare and Camillo Procaccini, men who, had they lived before the days of academics, might have done as well as any, except the few whom no academy can mould, but who, as it was, were carried away by fluency and facility. It is useless, however, to specify. There is not one of the many villages which can be seen from any rising ground in the neighbourhood, but what contains something that is picturesque and interesting, while the coup d’oeil, as a whole, is always equally striking, whether one is on the plain and looks towards the mountains, or looks from the mountains to the plains.

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