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

Chapter XI


From S. Ambrogio we went to Turin, a city so well known that I need not describe it. The Hotel Europa is the best, and, indeed, one of the best hotels on the continent. Nothing can exceed it for comfort and good cookery. The gallery of old masters contains some great gems. Especially remarkable are two pictures of Tobias and the angel, by Antonio Pollaiuolo and Sandro Botticelli; and a magnificent tempera painting of the Crucifixion, by Gaudenzio Ferrari — one of his very finest works. There are also several other pictures by the same master, but the Crucifixion is the best.

From Turin I went alone to Lanzo, about an hour and a half’s railway journey from Turin, and found a comfortable inn, the Hotel de la Poste. There is a fine fourteenth-century tower here, and the general effect of the town is good.

One morning while I was getting my breakfast, English fashion, with some cutlets to accompany my bread and butter, I saw an elderly Italian gentleman, with his hand up to his chin, eyeing me with thoughtful interest. After a time he broke silence.

“Ed il latte,” he said, “serve per la suppa.” 21

I said that that was the view we took of it. He thought it over a while, and then feelingly exclaimed —

“Oh bel!”

Soon afterwards he left me with the words —

“La! dunque! cerrea! chow! stia bene.”

“La” is a very common close to an Italian conversation. I used to be a little afraid of it at first. It sounds rather like saying, “There, that’s that. Please to bear in mind that I talked to you very nicely, and let you bore me for a long time; I think I have now done the thing handsomely, so you’ll be good enough to score me one and let me go.” But I soon found out that it was quite a friendly and civil way of saying good-bye.

The “dunque” is softer; it seems to say, “I cannot bring myself to say so sad a word as ‘farewell,’ but we must both of us know that the time has come for us to part, and so” —

“Cerrea” is an abbreviation and corruption of “di sua Signoria,”— “by your highness’s leave.” “Chow” I have explained already. “Stia bene” is simply “farewell.”

The principal piazza of Lanzo is nice. In the upper part of the town there is a large school or college. One can see into the school through a grating from the road. I looked down, and saw that the boys had cut their names all over the desks, just as English boys would do. They were very merry and noisy, and though there was a priest standing at one end of the room, he let them do much as they liked, and they seemed quite happy. I heard one boy shout out to another, “Non c’ e pericolo,” in answer to something the other had said. This is exactly the “no fear” of America and the colonies. Near the school there is a field on the slope of the hill which commands a view over the plain. A woman was mowing there, and, by way of making myself agreeable, I remarked that the view was fine. “Yes, it is,” she answered; “you can see all the trains.”

The baskets with which the people carry things in this neighbourhood are of a different construction from any I have seen elsewhere. They are made to fit all round the head like something between a saddle and a helmet, and at the same time to rest upon the shoulders — the head being, as it were, ensaddled by the basket, and the weight being supported by the shoulders as well as by the head. Why is it that such contrivances as this should prevail in one valley and not in another? If, one is tempted to argue, the plan is a convenient one, why does it not spread further? If inconvenient, why has it spread so far? If it is good in the valley of the Stura, why is it not also good in the contiguous valley of the Dora? There must be places where people using helmet-made baskets live next door to people who use baskets that are borne entirely by back and shoulders. Why do not the people in one or other of these houses adopt their neighbour’s basket? Not because people are not amenable to conviction, for within a certain radius from the source of the invention they are convinced to a man. Nor again is it from any insuperable objection to a change of habit. The Stura people have changed their habit — possibly for the worse; but if they have changed it for the worse, how is it they do not find it out and change again?

Take, again, the pane Grissino, from which the neighbourhood of Turin has derived its nickname of il Grissinotto. It is made in long sticks, rather thicker than a tobacco pipe, and eats crisp like toast. It is almost universally preferred to ordinary bread by the inhabitants of what was formerly Piedmont, but beyond these limits it is rarely seen. Why so? Either it is good or not good. If not good, how has it prevailed over so large an area? If good, why does it not extend its empire? The Reformation is another case in point: granted that Protestantism is illogical, how is it that so few within a given area can perceive it to be so? The same question arises in respect of the distribution of many plants and animals; the reason of the limits which some of them cannot pass, being, indeed, perfectly clear, but as regards perhaps the greater number of them, undiscoverable. The upshot of it is that things do not in practice find their perfect level any more than water does so, but are liable to disturbance by way of tides and local currents, or storms. It is in his power to perceive and profit by these irregularities that the strength or weakness of a commercial man will be apparent,

One day I made an excursion from Lanzo to a place, the name of which I cannot remember, but which is not far from the Groscavallo glacier. Here I found several Italians staying to take the air, and among them one young gentleman, who told me he was writing a book upon this neighbourhood, and was going to illustrate it with his own drawings. This naturally interested me, and I encouraged him to tell me more, which he was nothing loth to do. He said he had a passion for drawing, and was making rapid progress; but there was one thing that held him back — the not having any Conte chalk: if he had but this, all his difficulties would vanish. Unfortunately I had no Conte chalk with me, I but I asked to see the drawings, and was shown about twenty, all of which greatly pleased me. I at once proposed an exchange, and have thus become possessed of the two which I reproduce here. Being pencil drawings, and not done with a view to Mr. Dawson’s process, they have suffered somewhat in reproduction, but I decided to let them suffer rather than attempt to copy them. What can be more absolutely in the spirit of the fourteenth century than the drawings given above? They seem as though done by some fourteenth- century painter who had risen from the dead. And to show that they are no rare accident, I will give another (p. 138), also done by an entirely self-taught Italian, and intended to represent the castle of Laurenzana in the neighbourhood of Potenza.

If the reader will pardon a digression, I will refer to a more important example of an old master born out of due time. One day, in the cathedral at Varallo, I saw a picture painted on linen of which I could make nothing. It was not old and it was not modern. The expression of the Virgin’s face was lovely, and there was more individuality than is commonly found in modern Italian work. Modern Italian colour is generally either cold and dirty, or else staring. The colour here was tender, and reminded me of fifteenth- century Florentine work. The folds of the drapery were not modern; there was a sense of effort about them, as though the painter had tried to do them better, but had been unable to get them as free and flowing as he had wished. Yet the picture was not old; to all appearance it might have been painted a matter of ten years; nor again was it an echo — it was a sound: the archaism was not affected; on the contrary, there was something which said, as plainly as though the living painter had spoken it, that his somewhat constrained treatment was due simply to his having been puzzled with the intricacy of what he saw, and giving as much as he could with a hand which was less advanced than his judgment. By some strange law it comes about that the imperfection of men who are at this stage of any art is the only true perfection; for the wisdom of the wise is set at naught, and the foolishness of the simple is chosen, and it is out of the mouths of babes and sucklings that strength is ordained.

Unable to arrive at any conclusion, I asked the sacristan, and was told it was by a certain Dedomenici of Rossa, in the Val Sesia, and that it had been painted some forty or fifty years ago. I expressed my surprise, and the sacristan continued: “Yes, but what is most wonderful about him is that he never left his native valley, and never had any instruction, but picked up his art for himself as best he could.”

I have been twice to Varallo since, to see whether I should change my mind, but have not done so. If Dedomenici had been a Florentine or Venetian in the best times, he would have done as well as the best; as it is, his work is remarkable. He died about 1840, very old, and he kept on improving to the last. His last work — at least I was told upon the spot that it was his last — is in a little roadside chapel perched high upon a rock, and dedicated, if I remember rightly, to S. Michele, on the path from Fobello in the Val Mastallone to Taponaccio. It is a Madonna and child in clouds, with two full-length saints standing beneath — all the figures life- size. I came upon this chapel quite accidentally one evening, and, looking in, recognised the altar-piece as a Dedomenici. I inquired at the next village who had painted it, and was told, “un certo Dedomenici da Rossa.” I was also told that he was nearly eighty years old when he painted this picture. I went a couple of years ago to reconsider it, and found that I remained much of my original opinion. I do not think that any of my readers who care about the history of Italian art will regret having paid it a visit.

Such men are more common in Italy than is believed. There is a fresco of the Crucifixion outside the Campo Santo at Fusio, in the Canton Ticino, done by a local artist, which, though far inferior to the work of Dedomenici, is still remarkable. The painter evidently knows nothing of the rules of his art, but he has made Christ on the cross bowing His head towards the souls in purgatory, instead of in the conventional fine frenzy to which we are accustomed. There is a storm which has caught and is sweeping the drapery round Christ’s body. The angel’s wings are no longer white, but many coloured as in old times, and there is a touch of humour in the fact that of the six souls in purgatory, four are women and only two men. The expression on Christ’s face is very fine, but otherwise the drawing could not well be more imperfect than it is.

21 “And the milk [in your coffee] does for you instead of soup.”

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