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

Chapter XVII

Soazza and the Valley of Mesocco

I regret that I have not space for any of the sketches I took at Bellinzona, than which few towns are more full of admirable subjects. The Hotel de la Ville is an excellent house, and the town is well adapted for an artist’s headquarters. Turner’s two water-colour drawings of Bellinzona in the National Gallery are doubtless very fine as works of art, but they are not like Bellinzona, the spirit of which place (though not the letter) is better represented by the background to Basaiti’s Madonna and child, also in our gallery, supposing the castle on the hill to have gone to ruin.

At Bellinzona a man told me that one of the two towers was built by the Visconti and the other by Julius Caesar, a hundred years earlier. So, poor old Mrs. Barratt at Langar could conceive no longer time than a hundred years. The Trojan war did not last ten years, but ten years was as big a lie as Homer knew.

Almost all days in the subalpine valleys of North Italy have a beauty with them of some kind or another, but none are more lovely than a quiet gray day just at the beginning of autumn, when the clouds are drawing lazily and in the softest fleeces over the pine forests high up on the mountain sides. On such days the mountains are very dark till close up to the level of the clouds; here, if there is dewy or rain-besprinkled pasture, it tells of a luminous silvery colour by reason of the light which the clouds reflect upon it; the bottom edges of the clouds are also light through the reflection upward from the grass, but I do not know which begins this battledore and shuttlecock arrangement. These things are like quarrels between two old and intimate friends; one can never say who begins them. Sometimes on a dull gray day like this, I have seen the shadow parts of clouds take a greenish-ashen-coloured tinge from the grass below them.

On one of these most enjoyable days we left Bellinzona for Mesocco on the S. Bernardino road. The air was warm, there was not so much as a breath of wind, but it was not sultry: there had been rain, and the grass, though no longer decked with the glory of its spring flowers, was of the most brilliant emerald, save where flecked with delicate purple by myriads of autumnal crocuses. The level ground at the bottom of the valley where the Moesa runs is cultivated with great care. Here the people have gathered the stones in heaps round any great rock which is too difficult to move, and the whole mass has in time taken a mulberry hue, varied with gray and russet lichens, or blobs of velvety green moss. These heaps of stone crop up from the smooth shaven grass, and are overhung with barberries, mountain ash, and mountain elder with their brilliant scarlet berries — sometimes, again, with dwarf oaks, or alder, or nut, whose leaves have just so far begun to be tinged as to increase the variety of the colouring. The first sparks of autumn’s yearly conflagration have been kindled, but the fire is not yet raging as in October; soon after which, indeed, it will have burnt itself out, leaving the trees it were charred, with here and there a live coal of a red leaf or two still smouldering upon them.

As yet lingering mulleins throw up their golden spikes amid a profusion of blue chicory, and the gourds run along upon the ground like the fire mingled with the hail in “Israel in Egypt.” Overhead are the umbrageous chestnuts loaded with their prickly harvest. Now and again there is a manure heap upon the grass itself, and lusty wanton gourds grow out from it along the ground like vegetable octopi. If there is a stream it will run with water limpid as air, and as full of dimples as “While Kedron’s brook” in “Joshua”:-


How quiet and full of rest does everything appear to be. There is no dust nor glare, and hardly a sound save that of the unfailing waterfalls, or the falling cry with which the peasants call to one another from afar. 29

So much depends upon the aspect in which one sees a place for the first time. What scenery can stand, for example, a noontide glare? Take the valley from Lanzo to Viu. It is of incredible beauty in the mornings and afternoons of brilliant days, and all day long upon a gray day; but in the middle hours of a bright summer’s day it is hardly beautiful at all, except locally in the shade under chestnuts. Buildings and towns are the only things that show well in a glare. We perhaps, therefore, thought the valley of the Moesa to be of such singular beauty on account of the day on which we saw it, but doubt whether it must not be absolutely among the most beautiful of the subalpine valleys upon the Italian side.

The least interesting part is that between Bellinzona and Roveredo, but soon after leaving Roveredo the valley begins to get narrower and to assume a more mountain character. Ere long the eye catches sight of a white church tower and a massive keep, near to one another and some two thousand feet above the road. This is Santa Maria in Calanca. One can see at once that it must be an important place for such a district, but it is strange why it should be placed so high. I will say more about it later on.

Presently we passed Cama, where there is an inn, and where the road branches off into the Val Calanca. Alighting here for a few minutes we saw a cane lupino — that is to say, a dun mouse-coloured dog about as large as a mastiff, and with a very large infusion of wolf blood in him. It was like finding one’s self alone with a wolf — but he looked even more uncanny and ferocious than a wolf. I once saw a man walking down Fleet Street accompanied by one of these cani lupini, and noted the general attention and alarm which the dog caused. Encouraged by the landlord, we introduced ourselves to the dog at Cama, and found him to be a most sweet person, with no sense whatever of self-respect, and shrinking from no ignominy in his importunity for bits of bread. When we put the bread into his mouth and felt his teeth, he would not take it till he had looked in our eyes and said as plainly as though in words, “Are you quite sure that my teeth are not painful to you? Do you really think I may now close my teeth upon the bread without causing you any inconvenience?” We assured him that we were quite comfortable, so he swallowed it down, and presently began to pat us softly with his foot to remind us that it was our turn now.

Before we left, a wandering organ-grinder began to play outside the inn. Our friend the dog lifted up his voice and howled. I am sure it was with pleasure. If he had disliked the music he would have gone away. He was not at all the kind of person who would stay a concert out if he did not like it. He howled because he was stirred to the innermost depths of his nature. On this he became intense, and as a matter of course made a fool of himself; but he was in no way more ridiculous than an Art Professor whom I once observed as he was holding forth to a number of working men, whilst escorting them round the Italian pictures in the National Gallery. When the organ left off he cast an appealing look at Jones, and we could almost hear the words, “What is it out of?” coming from his eyes. We did not happen to know, so we told him that it was “Ah che la morte” from “Il Trovatore,” and he was quite contented. Jones even thought he looked as much as to say, “Oh yes, of course, how stupid of me; I thought I knew it.” He very well may have done so, but I am bound to say that I did not see this.

Near to Cama is Grono, where Baedeker says there is a chapel containing some ancient frescoes. I searched Grono in vain for any such chapel. A few miles higher up, the church of Soazza makes its appearance perched upon the top of its hill, and soon afterwards the splendid ruin of Mesocco on another rock or hill which rises in the middle of the valley.

The mortuary chapel of Soazza church is the subject my friend Mr. Gogin has selected for the etching at the beginning of this volume. There was a man mowing another part of the churchyard when I was there. He was so old and lean that his flesh seemed little more than parchment stretched over his bones, and he might have been almost taken for Death mowing his own acre. When he was gone some children came to play, but he had left his scythe behind him. These children were beyond my strength to draw, so I turned the subject over to Mr. Gogin’s stronger hands. Children are dynamical; churches and frescoes are statical. I can get on with statical subjects, but can do nothing with dynamical ones. Over the door and windows are two frescoes of skeletons holding mirrors in their hands, with a death’s head in the mirror. This reflected head is supposed to be that of the spectator to whom death is holding up the image of what he will one day become. I do not remember the inscription at Soazza; the one in the Campo Santo at Mesocco is, “Sicut vos estis nos fuimus, et sicut nos sumus vos eritis.” 30

On my return to England I mentioned this inscription to a friend who, as a young man, had been an excellent Latin scholar; he took a panic into his head that “eritis” was not right for the second person plural of the future tense of the verb “esse.” Whatever it was, it was not “eritis.” This panic was speedily communicated to myself, and we both puzzled for some time to think what the future of “esse” really was. At last we turned to a grammar and found that “eritis” was right after all. How skin-deep that classical training penetrates on which we waste so many years, and how completely we drop it as soon as we are left to ourselves.

On the right-hand side of the door of the mortuary chapel there hangs a wooden tablet inscribed with a poem to the memory of Maria Zara. It is a pleasing poem, and begins:-

“Appena al trapassar il terzo lustro

Maria Zara la sua vita fini.

Se a Soazza ebbe la sua colma

A Roveredo la sua tomba. . .

she found,” or words to that effect, but I forget the Italian. This poem is the nearest thing to an Italian rendering of “Affliction sore long time I bore” that I remember to have met with, but it is longer and more grandiose generally.

Soazza is full of beautiful subjects, and indeed is the first place in the valley of the Moesa which I thought good sketching ground, in spite of the general beauty of the valley. There is an inn there quite sufficient for a bachelor artist. The clergyman of the place is a monk, and he will not let one paint on a feast-day. I was told that if I wanted to paint on a certain feast-day I had better consult him; I did so, but was flatly refused permission, and that too as it appeared to me with more peremptoriness than a priest would have shown towards me.

It is at Soazza that the ascent of the San Bernardino becomes perceptible; hitherto the road has seemed to be level all the way, but henceforth the ascent though gradual is steady. Mesocco Castle looks very fine as soon as Soazza is passed, and gets finer and finer until it is actually reached. Here is the upper limit of the chestnuts, which leave off upon the lower side of Mesocco Castle. A few yards off the castle on the upper side is the ancient church of S. Cristoforo, with its huge St. Christopher on the right-hand side of the door. St. Christopher is a very favourite saint in these parts; people call him S. Cristofano, and even S. Carpofano. I think it must be in the church of S. Cristoforo at Mesocco that the frescoes are which Baedeker writes of as being near Grono. Of these I will speak at length in the next chapter. About half or three-quarters of a mile higher up the road than the castle is Mesocco itself.

29 I cannot give this cry in musical notation more nearly than as follows:—


30 “Such as ye are, we once were, and such as we are, ye shall be.”

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