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

Chapter X

S. Ambrogio and Neighbourhood

Since the opening of the railway, the old inn where the diligences and private carriages used to stop has been closed; but I was made, in a homely way, extremely comfortable at the Scudo di Francia, kept by Signor Bonaudo and his wife. I stayed here over a fortnight, during which I made several excursions.

One day I went to San Giorio, as it is always written though San Giorgio is evidently intended. Here there is a ruined castle, beautifully placed upon a hill; this castle shows well from the railway shortly after leaving Bussoleno station, on the right hand going towards Turin. Having been struck with it, I went by train to Bussoleno (where there is much that I was unwillingly compelled to neglect), and walked back to San Giorio. On my way, however, I saw a patch of Cima-da-Conegliano-looking meadow-land on a hill some way above me, and on this there rose from among the chestnuts what looked like a castellated mansion. I thought it well to make a digression to this, and when I got there, after a lovely walk, knocked at the door, having been told by peasants that there would be no difficulty about my taking a look round. The place is called the Castel Burrello, and is tenanted by an old priest who has retired hither to end his days. I sent in my card and business by his servant, and by-and-by he came out to me himself.

“Vous etes Anglais, monsieur?” said he in French.

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Vous etes Catholique?”

“Monsieur, je suis de la religion de mes peres.”

“Pardon, monsieur, vos ancetres etaient Catholiques jusqu’au temps de Henri VIII.”

“Mais il y a trois cent ans depuis le temps de Henri VIII.”

“Eh bien! chacun a ses convictions; vous ne parlez pas contre la religion?”

“Jamais, jamais, monsieur; j’ai un respect enorme pour l’Eglise Catholique.”

“Monsieur, faites comme chez vous; allez ou vous voulez; vous trouverez toutes les portes ouvertes. Amusez-vous bien.”

He then explained to me that the castle had never been a properly fortified place, being intended only as a summer residence for the barons of Bussoleno, who used to resort hither during the extreme heat, if times were tolerably quiet. After this he left me. Taking him at his word, I walked all round, but there was only a shell remaining; the rest of the building had evidently been burnt, even the wing in which the present proprietor resides being, if I remember rightly, modernised. The site, however, and the sloping meadows which the castle crowns, are of extreme beauty.

I now walked down to San Giorio, and found a small inn where I could get bread, butter, eggs, and good wine. I was waited upon by a good-natured boy, the son of the landlord, who was accompanied by a hawk that sat always either upon his hand or shoulder. As I looked at the pair I thought they were very much alike, and certainly they were very much in love with one another. After dinner I sketched the castle. While I was doing so, a gentleman told me that a large breach in the wall was made a few years ago, and a part of the wall found to be hollow, the bottom of the hollow part being unwittingly removed, there fell through a skeleton in a full suit of armour. Others, whom I asked, had heard nothing of this.

Talking of hawks, I saw a good many boys with tame young hawks in the villages round about. There was a tame hawk at the station of S. Ambrogio. The station-master said it used to go now and again to the church-steeple to catch sparrows, but would always return in an hour or two. Before my stay was over it got in the way of a passing train and was run over.

Young birds are much eaten in this neighbourhood. The houses and barns, not to say the steeples of the churches, are to be seen stuck about with what look like terra-cotta water-bottles with the necks outwards. Two or three may be seen in the illustration on p. 113 outside the window that comes out of the roof, on the left-hand side of the picture. I have seen some outside an Italian restaurant near Lewisham. They are artificial bird’s-nests for the sparrows to build in: as soon as the young are old enough they are taken and made into a pie. The church-tower near the Hotel de la Poste at Lanzo is more stuck about with them than any other building that I have seen.

Swallows and hawks are about the only birds whose young are not eaten. One afternoon I met a boy with a jay on his finger: having imprudently made advances to this young gentleman in the hopes of getting acquainted with the bird, he said he thought I had better buy it and have it for my dinner; but I did not fancy it. Another day I saw the padrona at the inn-door talking to a lad, who pulled open his shirt-front and showed some twenty or thirty nestlings in the simple pocket formed by his shirt on the one side and his skin upon the other. The padrona wanted me to say I should like to eat them, in which case she would have bought them; but one cannot get all the nonsense one hears at home out of one’s head in a moment, and I am afraid I preached a little. The padrona, who is one of the most fascinating women in the world, and at sixty is still handsome, looked a little vexed and puzzled: she admitted the truth of what I said, but pleaded that the boys found it very hard to gain a few soldi, and if people didn’t kill and eat one thing, they would another. The result of it all was that I determined for the future to leave young birds to their fate; they and the boys must settle that matter between themselves. If the young bird was a boy, and the boy a young bird, it would have been the boy who was taken ruthlessly from his nest and eaten. An old bird has no right to have a homestead, and a young bird has no right to exist at all, unless they can keep both homestead and existence out of the way of boys who are in want of half-pence. It is all perfectly right, and when we go and stay among these charming people, let us do so as learners, not as teachers.

I watched the padrona getting my supper ready. With what art do not these people manage their fire. The New Zealand Maoris say the white man is a fool: “He makes a large fire, and then has to sit away from it; the Maori makes a small fire, and sits over it.” The scheme of an Italian kitchen-fire is that there shall always be one stout log smouldering on the hearth, from which a few live coals may be chipped off if wanted, and put into the small square gratings which are used for stewing or roasting. Any warming up, or shorter boiling, is done on the Maori principle of making a small fire of light dry wood, and feeding it frequently. They economise everything. Thus I saw the padrona wash some hen’s eggs well in cold water; I did not see why she should wash them before boiling them, but presently the soup which I was to have for my supper began to boil. Then she put the eggs into the soup and boiled them in it.

After supper I had a talk with the padrone, who told me I was working too hard. “Totam noctem,” said he in Latin, “lavoravimus et nihil incepimus.” (“We have laboured all night and taken nothing.”) “Oh!” he continued, “I have eyes and ears in my head.” And as he spoke, with his right hand he drew down his lower eyelid, and with his left pinched the pig of his ear. “You will be ill if you go on like this.” Then he laid his hand along his cheek, put his head on one side, and shut his eyes, to imitate a sick man in bed. On this I arranged to go an excursion with him on the day following to a farm he had a few miles off, and to which he went every Friday.

We went to Borgone station, and walked across the valley to a village called Villar Fochiardo. Thence we began gently to ascend, passing under some noble chestnuts. Signor Bonaudo said that this is one of the best chestnut-growing districts in Italy. A good tree, he told me, would give its forty francs a year. This seems as though chestnut-growing must be lucrative, for an acre should carry some five or six trees, and there is no outlay to speak of. Besides the chestnuts, the land gives a still further return by way of the grass that grows beneath them. Walnuts do not yield nearly so much per tree as chestnuts do. In three-quarters of an hour or so we reached Signor Bonaudo’s farm, which was called the Casina di Banda. The buildings had once been a monastery, founded at the beginning of the seventeenth century and secularised by the first Napoleon, but had been purchased from the state a few years ago by Signor Bonaudo, in partnership with three others, after the passing of the Church Property Act. It is beautifully situated some hundreds of feet above the valley, and commands a lovely view of the Comba, as it is called, or Combe of Susa. The accompanying sketch will give an idea of the view looking towards Turin. The large building on the hill is, of course, S. Michele. The very distant dome is the Superga on the other side of Turin.

The first thing Signor Bonaudo did when he got to his farm was to see whether the water had been duly turned on to his own portion of the estate. Each of the four purchasers had his separate portion, and each had a right to the water for thirty-six hours per week. Signor Bonaudo went round with his hind at once, and saw that the dams in the ducts were so opened or closed that his own land was being irrigated.

Nothing can exceed the ingenuity with which the little canals are arranged so that each part of a meadow, however undulating, shall be saturated equally. The people are very jealous of their water rights, and indeed not unnaturally, for the yield of grass depends in very great measure upon the amount of irrigation which the land can get.

The matter of the water having been seen to, we went to the monastery, or, as it now is, the homestead. As we entered the farmyard we found two cows fighting, and a great strapping wench belabouring them in order to separate them. “Let them alone,” said the padrone; “let them fight it out here on the level ground.” Then he explained to me that he wished them to find out which was mistress, and fall each of them into her proper place, for if they fought on the rough hillsides they might easily break each other’s necks.

We walked all over the monastery. The day was steamy with frequent showers, and thunderstorms in the air. The rooms were dark and mouldy, and smelt rather of rancid cheese, but it was not a bad sort of rambling old place, and if thoroughly done up would make a delightful inn. There is a report that there is hidden treasure here. I do not know a single old castle or monastery in North Italy about which no such report is current, but in the present case there seems more than usual ground (so the hind told me) for believing the story to be well founded, for the monks did certainly smelt the quartz in the neighbourhood, and as no gold was ever known to leave the monastery, it is most likely that all the enormous quantity which they must have made in the course of some two centuries is still upon the premises, if one could only lay one’s hands upon it. So reasonable did this seem, that about two years ago it was resolved to call in a somnambulist or clairvoyant from Turin, who, when he arrived at the spot, became seized with convulsions, betokening of course that there was treasure not far off: these convulsions increased till he reached the choir of the chapel, and here he swooned — falling down as if dead, and being resuscitated with apparent difficulty. He afterwards declared that it was in this chapel that the treasure was hidden. In spite of all this, however, the chapel has not been turned upside down and ransacked, perhaps from fear of offending the saint to whom it is dedicated.

In the chapel there are a few votive pictures, but not very striking ones. I hurriedly sketched one, but have failed to do it justice. The hind saw me copying the little girl in bed, and I had an impression as though he did not quite understand my motive. I told him I had a dear little girl of my own at home, who had been alarmingly ill in the spring, and that this picture reminded me of her. This made everything quite comfortable.

We had brought up our dinner from S. Ambrogio, and ate it in what had been the refectory of the monastery. The windows were broken, and the swallows, who had built upon the ceiling inside the room, kept flying close to us all the time we were eating. Great mallows and hollyhocks peered in at the window, and beyond them there was a pretty Devonshire-looking orchard. The noontide sun streamed in at intervals between the showers.

After dinner we went “al cresto della collina”— to the crest of the hill — to use Signor Bonaudo’s words, and looked down upon S. Giorio, and the other villages of the Combe of Susa. Nothing could be more delightful. Then, getting under the chestnuts, I made the sketch which I have already given. While making it I was accosted by an underjawed man (there is an unusually large percentage of underjawed people in the neighbourhood of S. Ambrogio), who asked whether my taking this sketch must not be considered as a sign that war was imminent. The people in this valley have bitter and comparatively recent experience of war, and are alarmed at anything which they fancy may indicate its recurrence. Talking further with him, he said, “Here we have no signori; we need not take off our hats to any one except the priest. We grow all we eat, we spin and weave all we wear; if all the world except our own valley were blotted out, it would make no difference, so long as we remain as we are and unmolested.” He was a wild, weird, St. John the Baptist looking person, with shaggy hair, and an Andrea Mantegnesque feeling about him. I gave him a pipe of English tobacco, which he seemed to relish, and so we parted.

I stayed a week or so at another place not a hundred miles from Susa, but I will not name it, for fear of causing offence. It was situated high, above the valley of the Dora, among the pastures, and just about the upper limit of the chestnuts. It offers a summer retreat, of which the people in Turin avail themselves in considerable numbers. The inn was a more sophisticated one than Signor Bonaudo’s house at S. Ambrogio, and there were several Turin people staying there as well as myself, but there were no English. During the whole time I was in that neighbourhood I saw not a single English, French, or German tourist. The ways of the inn, therefore, were exclusively Italian, and I had a better opportunity of seeing the Italians as they are among themselves than I ever had before.

Nothing struck me more than the easy terms on which every one, including the waiter, appeared to be with every one else. This, which in England would be impossible, is here not only possible but a matter of course, because the general standard of good breeding is distinctly higher than it is among ourselves. I do not mean to say that there are no rude or unmannerly Italians, but that there are fewer in proportion than there are in any other nation with which I have acquaintance. This is not to be wondered at, for the Italians have had a civilisation for now some three or four thousand years, whereas all other nations are, comparatively speaking, new countries, with a something even yet of colonial roughness pervading them. As the colonies to England, so is England to Italy in respect of the average standard of courtesy and good manners. In a new country everything has a tendency to go wild again, man included; and the longer civilisation has existed in any country the more trustworthy and agreeable will its inhabitants be. This preface is necessary, as explaining how it is possible that things can be done in Italy without offence which would be intolerable elsewhere; but I confess to feeling rather hopeless of being able to describe what I actually saw without giving a wrong impression concerning it.

Among the visitors was the head confidential clerk of a well-known Milanese house, with his wife and sister. The sister was an invalid, and so also was the husband, but the wife was a very pretty woman and a very merry one. The waiter was a good-looking young fellow of about five-and-twenty, and between him and Signora Bonvicino — for we will say this was the clerk’s name — there sprang up a violent flirtation, all open and above board. The waiter was evidently very fond of her, but said the most atrociously impudent things to her from time to time. Dining under the veranda at the next table I heard the Signora complain that the cutlets were burnt. So they were — very badly burnt. The waiter looked at them for a moment — threw her a contemptuous glance, clearly intended to provoke war —“Chi non ha appetito 17 . . . “ he exclaimed, and was moving off with a shrug of the shoulders. The Signora recognising a challenge, rose instantly from the table, and catching him by the nape of his neck, kicked him deftly downstairs into the kitchen, both laughing heartily, and the husband and sister joining. I never saw anything more neatly done. Of course, in a few minutes some fresh and quite unexceptionable cutlets made their appearance.

Another morning, when I came down to breakfast, I found an altercation going on between the same pair as to whether the lady’s nose was too large or not. It was not at all too large. It was a very pretty little nose. The waiter was maintaining that it was too large, and the lady that it was not.

One evening Signor Bonvicino told me that his employer had a very large connection in England, and that though he had never been in London, he knew all about it almost as well as if he had. The great centre of business, he said, was in Red Lion Square. It was here his employer’s agent resided, and this was a more important part than even the city proper. I threw a drop or two of cold water on this, but without avail. Presently I asked what the waiter’s name was, not having been able to catch it. I asked this of the Signora, and saw a little look on her face as though she were not quite prepared to reply. Not understanding this, I repeated my question.

“Oh! his name is Cesare,” was the answer.

“Cesare! but that is not the name I hear you call him by.”

“Well, perhaps not; we generally call him Cricco,” 18 and she looked as if she had suddenly remembered having been told that there were such things as prigs, and might, for aught she knew, be in the presence of one of these creatures now.

Her husband came to the rescue. “Yes,” said he, “his real name is Julius Caesar, but we call him Cricco. Cricco e un nome di paese; parlando cosi non si offende la religione.” 19

The Roman Catholic religion, if left to itself and not compelled to be introspective, is more kindly and less given to taking offence than outsiders generally believe. At the Sacro Monte of Varese they sell little round tin boxes that look like medals, and contain pictures of all the chapels. In the lid of the box there is a short printed account of the Sacro Monte, which winds up with the words, “La religione e lo stupendo panorama tirano numerosi ed allegri visitatori.” 20

Our people are much too earnest to allow that a view could have anything to do with taking people up to the top of a hill where there was a cathedral, or that people could be “merry” while on an errand connected with religion.

On leaving this place I wanted to say good-bye to Signora Bonvicino, and could not find her; after a time I heard she was at the fountain, so I went and found her on her knees washing her husband’s and her own clothes, with her pretty round arms bare nearly to the shoulder.

It never so much as occurred to her to mind being caught at this work.

Some months later, shortly before winter, I returned to the same inn for a few days, and found it somewhat demoralised. There had been grand doings of some sort, and, though the doings were over, the moral and material debris were not yet quite removed. The famiglia Bonvicino was gone, and so was Cricco. The cook, the new waiter, and the landlord (who sings a good comic song upon occasion) had all drunk as much wine as they could carry; and later on I found Veneranda, the one-eyed old chambermaid, lying upon my bed fast asleep. I afterwards heard that, in spite of the autumnal weather, the landlord spent his night on the grass under the chestnuts, while the cook was found at four o’clock in the morning lying at full length upon a table under the veranda. Next day, however, all had become normal again.

Among our fellow-guests during this visit was a fiery-faced eructive butcher from Turin. A difference of opinion having arisen between him and his wife, I told the Signora that I would rather be wrong with her than right with her husband. The lady was delighted.

“Do you hear that, my dear?” said she. “He says he had rather be wrong with me than right with you. Isn’t he a naughty man?”

She said that if she died her husband was going to marry a girl of fifteen. I said: “And if your husband dies, ma’am, send me a dispatch to London, and I will come and marry you myself.” They were both delighted at this.

She told us the thunder had upset her and frightened her.

“Has it given you a headache?”

She replied: No; but it had upset her stomach. No doubt the thunder had shaken her stomach’s confidence in the soundness of its opinions, so as to weaken its proselytising power. By and by, seeing that she ate a pretty good dinner, I inquired:

“Is your stomach better now, ma’am?”

And she said it was. Next day my stomach was bad too.

I told her I had been married, but had lost my wife and had determined never to marry again till I could find a widow whom I had admired as a married woman.

Giovanni, the new waiter, explained to me that the butcher was not really bad or cruel at all. I shook my head at him and said I wished I could think so, but that his poor wife looked very ill and unhappy.

The housemaid’s name was La Rosa Mistica.

The landlord was a favourite with all the guests. Every one patted him on the cheeks or the head, or chucked him under the chin, or did something nice and friendly at him. He was a little man with a face like a russet pippin apple, about sixty-five years old, but made of iron. He was going to marry a third wife, and six young women had already come up from S. Ambrogio to be looked at. I saw one of them. She was a Visigoth-looking sort of person and wore a large wobbly-brimmed straw hat; she was about forty, and gave me the impression of being familiar with labour of all kinds. He pressed me to give my opinion of her, but I sneaked out of it by declaring that I must see a good deal more of the lady than I was ever likely to see before I could form an opinion at all.

On coming down from the sanctuary one afternoon I heard the landlord’s comic song, of which I have spoken above. It was about the musical instruments in a band: the trumpet did this, the clarinet did that, the flute went tootle, tootle, tootle, and there was an appropriate motion of the hand for every instrument. I was a little disappointed with it, but the landlord said I was too serious and the only thing that would cure me was to learn the song myself. He said the butcher had learned it already, so it was not hard, which indeed it was not. It was about as hard as:

The battle of the Nile I was there all the while At the battle of the Nile.

I had to learn it and sing it (Heaven help me, for I have no more voice than a mouse!), and the landlord said that the motion of my little finger was very promising.

The chestnuts are never better than after harvest, when they are heavy-laden with their pale green hedgehog-like fruit and alive with people swarming among their branches, pruning them while the leaves are still good winter food for cattle. Why, I wonder, is there such an especial charm about the pruning of trees? Who does not feel it? No matter what the tree is, the poplar of France, or the brookside willow or oak coppice of England, or the chestnuts or mulberries of Italy, all are interesting when being pruned, or when pruned just lately. A friend once consulted me casually about a picture on which he was at work, and complained that a row of trees in it was without sufficient interest. I was fortunate enough to be able to help him by saying: “Prune them freely and put a magpie’s nest in one of them,” and the trees became interesting at once. People in trees always look well, or rather, I should say, trees always look well with people in them, or indeed with any living thing in them, especially when it is of a kind that is not commonly seen in them; and the measured lop of the bill-hook and, by and by, the click as a bough breaks and the lazy crash as it falls over on to the ground, are as pleasing to the ear as is the bough-bestrewn herbage to the eye.

To what height and to what slender boughs do not these hardy climbers trust themselves. It is said that the coming man is to be toeless. I will venture for it that he will not be toeless if these chestnut-pruning men and women have much to do with his development. Let the race prune chestnuts for a couple of hundred generations or so, and it will have little trouble with its toes. Of course, the pruners fall sometimes, but very rarely. I remember in the Val Mastallone seeing a votive picture of a poor lady in a short petticoat and trousers trimmed with red round the bottom who was falling head foremost from the top of a high tree, whose leaves she had been picking, and was being saved by the intervention of two saints who caught her upon two gridirons. Such accidents, however, and, I should think, such interventions, are exceedingly rare, and as a rule the peasants venture freely into places which in England no one but a sailor or a steeple-jack would attempt.

And so we left this part of Italy, wishing that more Hugo de Montboissiers had committed more crimes and had had to expiate them by building more sanctuaries.

17 “If a person has not got an appetite. . . ”

18 The waiter’s nickname no doubt was Cristo, which was softened into Cricco for the reason put forward below. — R. A. S.

19 “Cricco is a rustic appellation, and thus religion is not offended.”

20 “Religion and the magnificent panorama attract numerous and merry visitors.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51