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

Chapter V

Calonico (continued) and Giornico

Our inventions increase in geometrical ratio. They are like living beings, each one of which may become parent of a dozen others — some good and some ne’er-do-weels; but they differ from animals and vegetables inasmuch as they not only increase in a geometrical ratio, but the period of their gestation decreases in geometrical ratio also. Take this matter of Alpine roads for example. For how many millions of years was there no approach to a road over the St. Gothard, save the untutored watercourses of the Ticino and the Reuss, and the track of the bouquetin or the chamois? For how many more ages after this was there not a mere shepherd’s or huntsman’s path by the river side — without so much as a log thrown over so as to form a rude bridge? No one would probably have ever thought of making a bridge out of his own unaided imagination, more than any monkey that we know of has done so. But an avalanche or a flood once swept a pine into position and left it there; on this a genius, who was doubtless thought to be doing something very infamous, ventured to make use of it. Another time a pine was found nearly across the stream, but not quite, and not quite, again, in the place where it was wanted. A second genius, to the horror of his fellow-tribesmen — who declared that this time the world really would come to an end — shifted the pine a few feet so as to bring it across the stream and into the place where it was wanted. This man was the inventor of bridges — his family repudiated him, and he came to a bad end. From this to cutting down the pine and bringing it from some distance is an easy step. To avoid detail, let us come to the old Roman horse road over the Alps. The time between the shepherd’s path and the Roman road is probably short in comparison with that between the mere chamois track and the first thing that can be called a path of men. From the Roman we go on to the mediaeval road with more frequent stone bridges, and from the mediaeval to the Napoleonic carriage road.

The close of the last century and the first quarter of this present one was the great era for the making of carriage roads. Fifty years have hardly passed and here we are already in the age of tunnelling and railroads. The first period, from the chamois track to the foot road, was one of millions of years; the second, from the first foot road to the Roman military way, was one of many thousands; the third, from the Roman to the mediaeval, was perhaps a thousand; from the mediaeval to the Napoleonic, five hundred; from the Napoleonic to the railroad, fifty. What will come next we know not, but it should come within twenty years, and will probably have something to do with electricity.

It follows by an easy process of reasoning that, after another couple of hundred years or so, great sweeping changes should be made several times in an hour, or indeed in a second, or fraction of a second, till they pass unnoticed as the revolutions we undergo in the embryonic stages, or are felt simply as vibrations. This would undoubtedly be the case but for the existence of a friction which interferes between theory and practice. This friction is caused partly by the disturbance of vested interests which every invention involves, and which will be found intolerable when men become millionaires and paupers alternately once a fortnight — living one week in a palace and the next in a workhouse, and having perpetually to be sold up, and then to buy a new house and refurnish, &c. — so that artificial means for stopping inventions will be adopted; and partly by the fact that though all inventions breed in geometrical ratio, yet some multiply more rapidly than others, and the backwardness of one art will impede the forwardness of another. At any rate, so far as I can see, the present is about the only comfortable time for a man to live in, that either ever has been or ever will be. The past was too slow, and the future will be much too fast.

Another thing which we do not bear in mind when thinking of the Alps is their narrowness, and the small extent of ground they really cover. From Goschenen, for example, to Airolo seems a very long distance. One must go up to the Devil’s Bridge, and then to Andermatt. From here by Hospenthal to the top of the pass seems a long way, and again it is a long way down to Airolo; but all this would easily go on to the ground between Kensington and Stratford. From Goschenen to Andermatt is about as far as from Holland House to Hyde Park Corner. From Andermatt to Hospenthal is much the same distance as from Hyde Park Corner to the Oxford Street end of Tottenham Court Road. From Hospenthal to the hospice on the top of the pass is about equal to the space between Tottenham Court Road and Bow; and from Bow you must go down three thousand feet of zig- zags into Stratford, for Airolo. I have made the deviation from the straight line about the same in one case as in the other; in each, the direct distance is nine and a half miles. The whole distance from Fluelen, on the Lake of Lucerne, to Biasca, which is almost on the same level with the Lago Maggiore, is only forty miles, and could be all got in between London and Lewes, while from Lucerne to Locarno, actually on the Lago Maggiore itself, would go, with a good large margin to spare, between London and Dover. We can hardly fancy, however, people going backwards and forwards to business daily between Fluelen and Biasca, as some doubtless do between London and Lewes.

But how small all Europe is. We seem almost able to take it in at a single coup d’oeil. From Mont Blanc we can see the mountains on the Paris side of Dijon on the one hand, and those above Florence and Bologna on the other. What a hole would not be made in Europe if this great eyeful were scooped out of it.

The fact is (but it is so obvious that I am ashamed to say anything about it), science is rapidly reducing space to the same unsatisfactory state that it has already reduced time. Take lamb: we can get lamb all the year round. This is perpetual spring; but perpetual spring is no spring at all; it is not a season; there are no more seasons, and being no seasons, there is no time. Take rhubarb, again. Rhubarb to the philosopher is the beginning of autumn, if indeed, the philosopher can see anything as the beginning of anything. If any one asks why, I suppose the philosopher would say that rhubarb is the beginning of the fruit season, which is clearly autumnal, according to our present classification. From rhubarb to the green gooseberry the step is so small as to require no bridging — with one’s eyes shut, and plenty of cream and sugar, they are almost indistinguishable — but the gooseberry is quite an autumnal fruit, and only a little earlier than apples and plums, which last are almost winter; clearly, therefore, for scientific purposes rhubarb is autumnal.

As soon as we can find gradations, or a sufficient number of uniting links between two things, they become united or made one thing, and any classification of them must be illusory. Classification is only possible where there is a shock given to the senses by reason of a perceived difference, which, if it is considerable, can be expressed in words. When the world was younger and less experienced, people were shocked at what appeared great differences between living forms; but species, whether of animals or plants, are now seen to be so united, either inferentially or by actual finding of the links, that all classification is felt to be arbitrary. The seasons are like species — they were at one time thought to be clearly marked, and capable of being classified with some approach to satisfaction. It is now seen that they blend either in the present or the past insensibly into one another, and cannot be classified except by cutting Gordian knots in a way which none but plain sensible people can tolerate. Strictly speaking, there is only one place, one time, one action, and one individual or thing; of this thing or individual each one of us is a part. It is perplexing, but it is philosophy; and modem philosophy like modern music is nothing if it is not perplexing.

A simple verification of the autumnal character of rhubarb may, at first sight, appear to be found in Covent Garden Market, where we can actually see the rhubarb towards the end of October. But this way of looking at the matter argues a fatal ineptitude for the pursuit of true philosophy. It would be a most serious error to regard the rhubarb that will appear in Covent Garden Market next October as belonging to the autumn then supposed to be current. Practically, no doubt, it does so, but theoretically it must be considered as the first-fruits of the autumn (if any) of the following year, which begins before the preceding summer (or, perhaps, more strictly, the preceding summer but one — and hence, but any number), has well ended. Whether this, however, is so or no, the rhubarb can be seen in Covent Garden, and I am afraid it must be admitted that to the philosophically minded there lurks within it a theory of evolution, and even Pantheism, as surely as Theism was lurking in Bishop Berkeley’s tar water.

To return, however, to Calonico. The church is built on the extreme edge of a cliff that has been formed by the breaking away of a large fragment of the mountain. This fragment may be seen lying down below shattered into countless pieces. There is a fissure in the cliff which suggests that at no very distant day some more will follow, and I am afraid carry the church too. My favourite view of the church is from the other side of the small valley which separates it from the village, (see preceding page). Another very good view is from closer up to the church.

The curato of Calonico was very kind to me. We had long talks together. I could see it pained him that was not a Catholic. He could never quite get over this, but he was very good and tolerant. He was anxious to be assured that I was not one of those English who went about distributing tracts, and trying to convert people. This of course was the last thing I should have wished to do; and when I told him so, he viewed me with sorrow, but henceforth without alarm.

All the time I was with him I felt how much I wished could be a Catholic in Catholic countries, and a Protestant in Protestant ones. Surely there are some things which, like politics, are too serious to be taken quite seriously. Surtout point de zele is not the saying of a cynic, but the conclusion of a sensible man; and the more deep our feeling is about any matter, the more occasion have we to be on our guard against zele in this particular respect. There is but one step from the “earnest” to the “intense.” When St. Paul told us to be all things to all men he let in the thin end of the wedge, nor did he mark it to say how far it was to be driven.

I have Italian friends whom I greatly value, and who tell me they think I flirt just a trifle too much with il partito nero when I am in Italy, for they know that in the main I think as they do. “These people,” they say, “make themselves very agreeable to you, and show you their smooth side; we, who see more of them, know their rough one. Knuckle under to them, and they will perhaps condescend to patronise you; have any individuality of your own, and they know neither scruple nor remorse in their attempts to get you out of their way. “Il prete,” they say, with a significant look, “e sempre prete. For the future let us have professors and men of science instead of priests.” I smile to myself at this last, and reply, that I am a foreigner come among them for recreation, and anxious to keep clear of their internal discords. I do not wish to cut myself off from one side of their national character — a side which, in some respects, is no less interesting than the one with which I suppose I am on the whole more sympathetic. If I were an Italian, I should feel bound to take a side; as it is, I wish to leave all quarrelling behind me, having as much of that in England as suffices to keep me in good health and temper.

In old times people gave their spiritual and intellectual sop to Nemesis. Even when most positive, they admitted a percentage of doubt. Mr. Tennyson has said well, “There lives more doubt”— I quote from memory —“in honest faith, believe me, than in half the” systems of philosophy, or words to that effect. The victor had a slave at his ear during his triumph; the slaves during the Roman Saturnalia dressed in their masters’ clothes, sat at meat with them, told them of their faults, and blacked their faces for them. They made their masters wait upon them. In the ages of faith, an ass dressed in sacerdotal robes was gravely conducted to the cathedral choir at a certain season, and mass was said before him, and hymns chanted discordantly. The elder D’Israeli, from whom I am quoting, writes: “On other occasions, they put burnt old shoes to fume in the censers; ran about the church leaping, singing, dancing, and playing at dice upon the altar, while a boy bishop or Pope of fools burlesqued the divine service;” and later on he says: “So late as 1645, a pupil of Gassendi, writing to his master what he himself witnessed at Aix on the feast of Innocents, says —‘I have seen in some monasteries in this province extravagances solemnised, which pagans would not have practised. Neither the clergy nor the guardians indeed go to the choir on this day, but all is given up to the lay brethren, the cabbage cutters, errand boys, cooks, scullions, and gardeners; in a word, all the menials fill their places in the church, and insist that they perform the offices proper for the day. They dress themselves with all the sacerdotal ornaments, but torn to rags, or wear them inside out; they hold in their hands the books reversed or sideways, which they pretend to read with large spectacles without glasses, and to which they fix the rinds of scooped oranges. . .; particularly while dangling the censers they keep shaking them in derision, and letting the ashes fly about their heads and faces, one against the other. In this equipage they neither sing hymns nor psalms nor masses, but mumble a certain gibberish as shrill and squeaking as a herd of pigs whipped on to market. The nonsense verses they chant are singularly barbarous:-

Haec est clara dies, clararum clara dierum, Haec est festa dies festarum festa dierum.’” 8

Faith was far more assured in the times when the spiritual saturnalia were allowed than now. The irreverence which was not dangerous then, is now intolerable. It is a bad sign for a man’s peace in his own convictions when he cannot stand turning the canvas of his life occasionally upside down, or reversing it in a mirror, as painters do with their pictures that they may judge the better concerning them. I would persuade all Jews, Mohammedans, Comtists, and freethinkers to turn high Anglicans, or better still, downright Catholics for a week in every year, and I would send people like Mr. Gladstone to attend Mr. Bradlaugh’s lectures in the forenoon, and the Grecian pantomime in the evening, two or three times every winter. I should perhaps tell them that the Grecian pantomime has nothing to do with Greek plays. They little know how much more keenly they would relish their normal opinions during the rest of the year for the little spiritual outing which I would prescribe for them, which, after all, is but another phase of the wise saying — Surtout point de zele. St. Paul attempted an obviously hopeless task (as the Church of Rome very well understands) when he tried to put down seasonarianism. People must and will go to church to be a little better, to the theatre to be a little naughtier, to the Royal Institution to be a little more scientific, than they are in actual life. It is only by pulsations of goodness, naughtiness, and whatever else we affect that we can get on at all. I grant that when in his office, a man should be exact and precise, but our holidays are our garden, and too much precision here is a mistake.

Surely truces, without even an arriere pensee of difference of opinion, between those who are compelled to take widely different sides during the greater part of their lives, must be of infinite service to those who can enter on them. There are few merely spiritual pleasures comparable to that derived from the temporary laying down of a quarrel, even though we may know that it must be renewed shortly. It is a great grief to me that there is no place where I can go among Mr. Darwin, Professors Huxley, Tyndall, and Ray Lankester, Miss Buckley, Mr. Romanes, Mr. Allen, and others whom I cannot call to mind at this moment, as I can go among the Italian priests. I remember in one monastery (but this was not in the Canton Ticino) the novice taught me how to make sacramental wafers, and I played him Handel on the organ as well as I could. I told him that Handel was a Catholic; he said he could tell that by his music at once. There is no chance of getting among our scientists in this way.

Some friends say I was telling a lie when I told the novice Handel was a Catholic, and ought not to have done so. I make it a rule to swallow a few gnats a day, lest I should come to strain at them, and so bolt camels; but the whole question of lying is difficult. What is “lying”? Turning for moral guidance to my cousins the lower animals, whose unsophisticated nature proclaims what God has taught them with a directness we may sometimes study, I find the plover lying when she lures us from her young ones under the fiction of a broken wing. Is God angry, think you, with this pretty deviation from the letter of strict accuracy? or was it not He who whispered to her to tell the falsehood — to tell it with a circumstance, without conscientious scruple, not once only, but to make a practice of it, so as to be a plausible, habitual, and professional liar for some six weeks or so in the year? I imagine so. When I was young I used to read in good books that it was God who taught the bird to make her nest, and if so He probably taught each species the other domestic arrangements best suited to it. Or did the nest-building information come from God, and was there an evil one among the birds also who taught them at any rate to steer clear of priggishness?

Think of the spider again — an ugly creature, but I suppose God likes it. What a mean and odious lie is that web which naturalists extol as such a marvel of ingenuity!

Once on a summer afternoon in a far country I met one of those orchids who make it their business to imitate a fly with their petals. This lie they dispose so cunningly that real flies, thinking the honey is being already plundered, pass them without molesting them. Watching intently and keeping very still, methought I heard this orchid speaking to the offspring which she felt within her, though I saw them not. “My children,” she exclaimed, “I must soon leave you; think upon the fly, my loved ones, for this is truth; cling to this great thought in your passage through life, for it is the one thing needful; once lose sight of it and you are lost!” Over and over again she sang this burden in a small still voice, and so I left her. Then straightway I came upon some butterflies whose profession it was to pretend to believe in all manner of vital truths which in their inner practice they rejected; thus, asserting themselves to be certain other and hateful butterflies which no bird will eat by reason of their abominable smell, these cunning ones conceal their own sweetness, and live long in the land and see good days. No: lying is so deeply rooted in nature that we may expel it with a fork, and yet it will always come back again: it is like the poor, we must have it always with us; we must all eat a peck of moral dirt before we die.

All depends upon who it is that is lying. One man may steal a horse when another may not look over a hedge. The good man who tells no lies wittingly to himself and is never unkindly, may lie and lie and lie whenever he chooses to other people, and he will not be false to any man: his lies become truths as they pass into the hearers’ ear. If a man deceives himself and is unkind, the truth is not in him, it turns to falsehood while yet in his mouth, like the quails in the Wilderness of Sinai. How this is so or why, I know not, but that the Lord hath mercy on whom He will have mercy and whom He willeth He hardeneth.

My Italian friends are doubtless in the main right about the priests, but there are many exceptions, as they themselves gladly admit. For my own part I have found the curato in the small subalpine villages of North Italy to be more often than not a kindly excellent man to whom I am attracted by sympathies deeper than any mere superficial differences of opinion can counteract. With monks, however, as a general rule I am less able to get on: nevertheless, I have received much courtesy at the hands of some.

My young friend the novice was delightful — only it was so sad to think of the future that is before him. He wanted to know all about England, and when I told him it was an island, clasped his hands and said, “Oh che Provvidenza!” He told me how the other young men of his own age plagued him as he trudged his rounds high up among the most distant hamlets begging alms for the poor. “Be a good fellow,” they would say to him, “drop all this nonsense and come back to us, and we will never plague you again.” Then he would turn upon them and put their words from him. Of course my sympathies were with the other young men rather than with him, but it was impossible not to be sorry for the manner in which he had been humbugged from the day of his birth, till he was now incapable of seeing things from any other standpoint than that of authority.

What he said to me about knowing that Handel was a Catholic by his music, put me in mind of what another good Catholic once said to me about a picture. He was a Frenchman and very nice, but a devot, and anxious to convert me. He paid a few days’ visit to London, so I showed him the National Gallery. While there I pointed out to him Sebastian del Piombo’s picture of the raising of Lazarus as one of the supposed masterpieces of our collection. He had the proper orthodox fit of admiration over it, and then we went through the other rooms. After a while we found ourselves before West’s picture of “Christ healing the sick.” My French friend did not, I suppose, examine it very carefully, at any rate he believed he was again before the raising of Lazarus by Sebastian del Piombo; he paused before it and had his fit of admiration over again: then turning to me he said, “Ah! you would understand this picture better if you were a Catholic.” I did not tell him of the mistake he had made, but I thought even a Protestant after a certain amount of experience would learn to see some difference between Benjamin West and Sebastian del Piombo.

From Calonico I went down into the main road and walked to Giornico, taking the right bank of the river from the bridge at the top of the Biaschina. Not a sod of the railway was as yet turned. At Giornico I visited the grand old church of S. Nicolao, which, though a later foundation than the church at Mairengo, retains its original condition, and appears, therefore, to be much the older of the two. The stones are very massive, and the courses are here and there irregular as in Cyclopean walls; the end wall is not bonded into the side walls but simply built between them; the main door is very fine, and there is a side door also very good. There are two altars one above the other, as in the churches of S. Abbondio and S. Cristoforo at Como, but I could not make the lower altar intelligible in my sketch, and indeed could hardly see it, so was obliged to leave it out. The remains of some very early frescoes can be seen, but I did not think them remarkable. Altogether, however, the church is one which no one should miss seeing who takes an interest in early architecture.

While painting the study from which the following sketch is taken, I was struck with the wonderfully vivid green which the whitewashed vault of the chancel and the arch dividing the chancel from the body of the church took by way of reflection from the grass and trees outside. It is not easy at first to see how the green manages to find its way inside the church, but the grass seems to get in everywhere. I had already often seen green reflected from brilliant pasturage on to the shadow under the eaves of whitewashed houses, but I never saw it suffuse a whole interior as it does on a fine summer’s day at Giornico. I do not remember to have seen this effect in England.

Looking up again against the mountain through the open door of the church when the sun was in a certain position, I could see an infinity of insect life swarming throughout the air. No one could have suspected its existence, till the sun’s rays fell on the wings of these small creatures at a proper angle; on this they became revealed against the darkness of the mountain behind them. The swallows that were flying among them cannot have to hunt them, they need only fly with their mouths wide open and they must run against as many as will be good for them. I saw this incredibly multitudinous swarm extending to a great height, and am satisfied that it was no more than what is always present during the summer months, though it is only visible in certain lights. To these minute creatures the space between the mountains on the two sides of the Ticino valley must be as great as that between England and America to a codfish. Many, doubtless, live in the mid-air, and never touch the bottom or sides of the valley, except at birth and death, if then. No doubt some atmospheric effects of haze on a summer’s afternoon are due to nothing but these insects. What, again, do the smaller of them live upon? On germs, which to them are comfortable mouthfuls, though to us invisible even with a microscope?

I find nothing more in my notes about Giornico except that the people are very handsome, and, as I thought, of a Roman type. The place was a Roman military station, but it does not follow that the soldiers were Romans; nevertheless, there is a strain of bullet- headed blood in the place. Also I remember being told in 1869 that two bears had been killed in the mountains above Giornico the preceding year. At Giornico the vine begins to grow lustily, and wine is made. The vines are trellised, and looking down upon them one would think one could walk upon them as upon a solid surface, so closely and luxuriantly do they grow.

From Giornico I began to turn my steps homeward in company with an engineer who was also about to walk back to Faido, but we resolved to take Chironico on our way, and kept therefore to the right bank of the river. After about three or four kilometres from Giornico we reached Chironico, which is well placed upon a filled-up lake and envied as a paese ricco, but is not so captivating as some others. Hence we ascended till at last we reached Gribbio (3960 ft.), a collection of chalets inhabited only for a short time in the year, but a nice place in summer, rich in gentians and sulphur- coloured anemones. From Gribbio there is a path to Dalpe, offering no difficulty whatever and perfect in its way. On this occasion, however, we went straight back to Faido by a rather shorter way than the ordinary path, and this certainly was a little difficult, or as my companion called it, “un tantino difficoltoso,” in one or two places; I at least did not quite like them.

Another day I went to Lavorgo, below Calonico, and thence up to Anzonico. The church and churchyard at Anzonico are very good; from Anzonico there is a path to Cavagnago — which is also full of good bits for sketching — and Sobrio. The highest villages in the immediate neighbourhood of Faido are Campello and Molare; they can be seen from the market-place of the town, and are well worth the trouble of a climb.

8 Curiosities of Literature, Lond. 1866, Routledge & Co., p. 272.

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