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

Chapter XVIII

Mesocco, S. Bernardino, and S. Maria in Calanca

At the time of my first visit there was an inn kept by one Desteffanis and his wife, where I stayed nearly a month, and was made very comfortable. Last year, however, Jones and I found it closed, but did very well at the Hotel Toscani. At the Hotel Desteffanis there used to be a parrot which lived about loose and had no cage, but did exactly what it liked. Its name was Lorrito. It was a very human bird; I saw it eat some bread and milk from its tin one day and then sidle along a pole to a place where there was a towel hanging. It took a corner of the towel in its claw, wiped its beak with it, and then sidled back again. It would sometimes come and see me at breakfast; it got from a chair-back on to the table by dropping its head and putting its round beak on to the table first, making a third leg as it were of its head; it would then waddle to the butter and begin helping itself. It was a great respecter of persons and knew the landlord and landlady perfectly well. It yawned just like a dog or a human being, and this not from love of imitation but from being sleepy. I do not remember to have seen any other bird yawn. It hated boys because the boys plagued it sometimes. The boys generally go barefoot in summer, and if ever a boy came near the door of the hotel this parrot would go straight for his toes.

The most striking feature of Mesocco is the castle, which, as I have said, occupies a rock in the middle of the valley, and is one of the finest ruins in Switzerland. More interesting than the castle, however, is the church of S. Cristoforo. Before I entered it I was struck with the fresco on the facciata of the church, which, though the facciata bears the date 1720, was painted in a style so much earlier than that of 1720 that I at first imagined I had found here another old master born out of due time; for the fresco was in such a good state of preservation that it did not look more than 150 years old, and it was hardly likely to have been preserved when the facciata was renovated in 1720. When, however, my friend Jones joined me, he blew that little romance away by discovering a series of names with dates scrawled upon it from “1481. viii. Febraio” to the present century. The lowest part of the fresco must be six feet from the ground, and it must rise at least ten or a dozen feet more, so the writings upon it are not immediately obvious, but they will be found on looking at all closely.

It is plain, therefore, that when the facciata was repaired the original fresco was preserved; it cannot be, as I had supposed, the work of a local painter who had taken his ideas of rocks and trees from the frescoes inside the church. That I am right in supposing the curious blanc-mange-mould-looking objects on either side St. Christopher’s legs to be intended for rocks will be clear to any one who has seen the frescoes inside the church, where mountains with trees and towns upon them are treated on exactly the same principle. I cannot think the artist can have been quite easy in his mind about them.

On entering the church the left-hand wall is found to be covered with the most remarkable series of frescoes in the Italian Grisons. They are disposed in three rows, one above the other, occupying the whole wall of the church as far as the chancel. The top row depicts a series of incidents prior to the Crucifixion, and is cut up by the pulpit at the chancel end. These events are treated so as to form a single picture.

The second row is in several compartments. There is a saint in armour on horseback, life-size, killing a dragon, and a queen who seems to have been leading the dragon by a piece of red tape buckled round its neck — unless, indeed, the dragon is supposed to have been leading the queen. The queen still holds the tape and points heavenward. Next to this there is a very nice saint on horse-back, who is giving a cloak to a man who is nearly naked. Then comes St. Michael trampling on the dragon, and holding a pair of scales in his hand, in which are two little souls of a man and of a woman. The dragon has a hook in his hand, and thrusting this up from under St. Michael, he hooks it on to the edge of the scale with the woman in it, and drags her down. The man, it seems, will escape. Next to this there is a compartment in which a monk is offering a round thing to St. Michael, who does not seem to care much about it; there are other saints and martyrs in this compartment, and St. Anthony with his pig, and Sta. Lucia holding a box with two eyes in it, she being patroness of the eyesight as well as of mariners. Lastly, there is the Adoration, ruined by the pulpit.

Below this second compartment are twelve frescoes, each about three and a half feet square, representing the twelve months — from a purely secular point of view. January is a man making and hanging up sausages; February, a man chopping wood; March, a youth proclaiming spring with two horns to his mouth, and his hair flying all abroad; April is a young man on horseback carrying a flower in his hand; May, a knight, not in armour, going out hawking with his hawk on one finger, his bride on a pillion behind him, and a dog beside the horse; June is a mower; July, another man reaping twenty-seven ears of corn; August, an invalid going to see his doctor; October, a man knocking down chestnuts from a tree and a woman catching them; November is hidden and destroyed by the pulpit; December is a butcher felling an ox with a hatchet.

We could find no signature of the artist, nor any date on the frescoes to show when they were painted; but while looking for a signature we found a name scratched with a knife or stone, and rubbed the tracing which I reproduce, greatly reduced, here; Jones thinks the last line was not written by Lazarus Bovollinus, but by another who signs A. T.


[At this point in the book there is a brass rubbing. It looks like: Lazarus Bouollins 1534 30 Augusti explenit 20 Amurs. . . ]

The Boelini were one of the principal families in Mesocco. Gaspare Boelini, the head of the house, had been treacherously thrown over the castle walls and killed by order of Giovanni Giacomo Triulci in the year 1525, because as chancellor of the valley he declined to annul the purchase of the castle of Mesocco, which Triulci had already sold to the people of Mesocco, and for which he had been in great part paid. His death is recorded on a stone placed by the roadside under the castle.

Examining the wall further, we found a little to the right that the same Lazzaro Bovollino (I need hardly say that “Bovollino” is another way of spelling “Boelini”) scratched his name again some sixteen years later, as follows:-


The handwriting is not so good as it was when he wrote his name before; but we observed, with sympathy, that the writer had dropped his Latin. Close by is scratched “Gullielmo Bo.”

The mark between the two letters L and B was the family mark of the Boelini, each family having its mark, a practice of which further examples will be given presently.

We looked still more, and on the border of one of the frescoes we discovered —

“1481 die Jovis viiIj Februarij hoines di Misochi et Soazza
fecerunt fidelitatem in manibus di Johani Jacobi Triulzio,”

— “The men of Mesocco and Soazza did fealty to John Jacob Triulci on Friday the 8th of February 1481.” The day originally written was Thursday the 7th of February, but “Jovis” was scratched out and “Veneris” written above, while another “i” was intercalated among the i’s of the viij of February. We could not determine whether some hitch arose so as to cause a change of day, or whether “Thursday” and “viij” were written by a mistake for “Friday” and “viiij,” but we imagined both inscription and correction to have been contemporaneous with the event itself. It will be remembered that on the St. Christopher outside the church there is scratched it “1481. 8 Febraio” and nothing more. The mistake of the day, therefore, if it was a mistake, was made twice, and was corrected inside the church but not upon the fresco outside — perhaps because a ladder would have had to be fetched to reach it. Possibly the day had been originally fixed for Thursday the 8th, and a heavy snow-storm prevented people from coming till next day.

I could not find that any one in Mesocco, not even my excellent friend Signor à Marca, the curato himself, knew anything about either the inscriptions or the cause of their being written. No one was aware even of their existence; on borrowing, however, the history of the Valle Mesolcina by Signor Giovanni Antonio à Marca,31 I found what I think will throw light upon the matter. The family of De Sax had held the valley of Mesocco for over four hundred years, and sold it in 1480 to John Jacob Triulci, who it seems tried to cheat him out of a large part of the purchase money later on; probably this John Jacob Triulci had the frescoes painted to conciliate the clergy and inaugurate his entry into possession. Early in 1481 he made the inhabitants of the valley do fealty to him. I may say that as soon as he had entered upon possession, he began to oppress the people by demanding tolls on all produce that passed the castle. This the people resisted. They were also harassed by Peter De Sax, who made incursions into the valley and seized property, being unable to get his money out of John Jacob Triulci.

Other reasons that make me think the frescoes were painted in 1480 are as follows. The spurs worn by the young men in the April and May frescoes (pp. 211, 212) are about the date 1460. Their facsimiles can be seen in the Tower of London with this date assigned to them. The frescoes, therefore, can hardly have been painted before this time; but they were probably painted later, for in the St. Christopher there is a distinct hint at anatomy; enough to show that the study of anatomy introduced by Leonardo da Vinci was beginning to be talked about as more or less the correct thing. This would hardly be the case before 1480, as Leonardo was not born till 1452. By February 1481 the frescoes were already painted; this is plain because the inscription — which, I think, may be taken as a record made at the time that fealty was done — is scratched over them. Peter De Sax, if he was selling his property, is not likely to have had the frescoes painted just before he was going away; I think it most likely, therefore, that they were painted in 1480, when the valley of Mesocco passed from the hands of the De Sax family to those of the Triulci.

Underneath the inscription about the doing fealty there is scratched in another hand, and very likely years after the event it commemorates —“1548 fu liberata la Vallata.” This date is contradicted (and, I believe, corrected) by another inscription hard by, also in another hand, which says —

“1549. La valle di Misocho compro la liberti da casa Triulcia per 2400 scuti.”

This inscription is signed thus:-


Carlo à Marca had written his name along with three others in 1606 on another part of the frescoes. Here are the signatures:-


Two of these signatures belong to members of the Triulci family, as appears by the trident, which translates the name. The T in each case is doubtless for “Triulci.” Four years earlier still, Carlo à Marca had written his name, with that of his wife or fiancee, on the fresco of St. Christopher on the facciata of the church, for we found there —

Carlo à Marca.
Margherita dei Paglioni.

There is one other place where his name appears, or rather a part of it, for the inscription is half hidden by a gallery, erected probably in the last century.

The à Marca family still flourish in Mesocco. The curato is an à Marca, so is the postmaster. On the walls of a house near the convent there is an inscription to the effect that it was given by his fellow-townsmen to a member of the à Marca family, and the best work on the history of the valley is the work of Giovanni Antonio Marca from which I have already quoted.

Returning to the frescoes, we found that the men of Soazza and Mesocco did fealty again to John Jacob Triulci on the feast of St. Bartholomew, the 24th day of August 1503; this I believe to have been the son of the original purchaser, but am not certain; if so, he is the Triulci who had Gaspare Boelini thrown down from the castle walls. The people seem by another inscription to have done fealty again upon the same day of the following year.

On the St. Christopher we found one date, 1530, scratched on the right ankle, and several of 1607, apparently done at one time. One date was scratched in the left-hand corner —

1498. . . il Conte di (Misocho?)

There are also other dates — 1627, 1633, 1635, 1626; and right across the fresco there is written in red chalk, in a bold sixteenth or seventeenth century handwriting —

“Il parlar di li homini da bene deve valer piu che quello degli altri.”

— “The word of a man of substance ought to carry more weight than that of other people;” and again —

“Non ha la fede ognun come tu chredi; Non chreder almen [quello?] che non vedi”

— “People are not so worthy of being believed as you think they are; do not believe anything that you do not see yourself.”

Big with our discoveries, we returned towards our inn, Jones leaving me sketching by the roadside. Presently an elderly English gentleman of some importance, judging from his manner, came up to me and entered into conversation. Englishmen do not often visit Mesocco, and I was rather surprised. “Have you seen that horrid fresco of St. Christopher down at that church there?” said he, pointing towards it. I said I had. “It’s very bad,” said he decidedly; “it was painted in the year 1725.” I had been through all that myself, and I was a little cross into the bargain, so I said, “No; the fresco is very good. It is of the fifteenth century, and the facciata was restored in 1720, not in 1725. The old fresco was preserved.” The old gentleman looked a little scared. “Oh,” said he, “I know nothing about art — but I will see you again at the hotel;” and left me at once. I never saw him again. Who he was, where he came from, how he departed, I do not know. He was the only Englishman I saw during my stay of some four weeks at Mesocco.

On the first day of my first visit to Mesocco in 1879, I had gone on to S. Bernardino, and just before getting there, looking down over the great stretches of pasture land above S. Giacomo, could see that there was a storm raging lower down in the valley about where Mesocco should be; I never saw such inky blackness in clouds before, and the conductor of the diligence said that he had seen nothing like it. Next morning we learnt that a water-spout had burst on the mountain above Anzone, a hamlet of Mesocco, and that the water had done a great deal of damage to the convent at Mesocco. Returning a few days later, I saw where the torrent had flowed by the mud upon the grass, but could not have believed such a stream of water (running with the velocity with which it must have run) to have been possible under any circumstances in that place unless I had actually seen its traces. It carried great rocks of several cubic yards as though they had been small stones, and among other mischief it had knocked down the garden wall of the convent of S. Rocco and covered the garden with debris. As I looked at it I remembered what Signor Bullo had told me at Faido about the inundations of 1868, “It was not the great rivers,” he said, “which did the damage: it was the ruscelli” or small streams. So in revolutions it is not the heretofore great people, but small ones swollen under unusual circumstances who are most conspicuous and do most damage. Padre Bernardino, of the convent of S. Rocco, asked me to make him a sketch of the effect of the inundation, which I was delighted to do. It was not, however, exactly what he wanted, and, moreover, it got spoiled in the mounting, so I did another and he returned me the first with an inscription upon it which I reproduce below.

First came the words-


Then came my sketch; and then —


The English of which is as follows:— “View of the church, garden, and hospice of S. Rocco, after the visitation inflicted upon them by the sad torrent of Anzone, on the unhallowed evening of the 4th of August 1879.” I regret that the “no” of Padre Bernardino’s name, through being written in faint ink, was not reproduced in my facsimile. I doubt whether Padre Bernardino would have got the second sketch out of me, if I had not liked the inscription he had written on the first so much that I wanted to be possessed of it. Besides, he wrote me a note addressed “all’ egregio pittore S. Butler.” To be called an egregious painter was too much for me, so I did the sketch. I was once addressed as “L’esimio pittore.” I think this is one degree better even than “egregio.”

The damage which torrents can do must be seen to be believed. There is not a streamlet, however innocent looking, which is not liable occasionally to be turned into a furious destructive agent, carrying ruin over the pastures which at ordinary times it irrigates. Perhaps in old times people deified and worshipped streams because they were afraid of them. Every year each one of the great Alpine roads will be interrupted at some point or another by the tons of stones and gravel that are swept over it perhaps for a hundred yards together. I have seen the St. Gothard road more than once soon after these interruptions and could not have believed such damage possible; in 1869 people would still shudder when they spoke of the inundations of 1868. It is curious to note how they will now say that rocks which have evidently been in their present place for hundreds of years, were brought there in 1868; as for the torrent that damaged S. Rocco when I was in the valley of Mesocco, it shaved off the strong parapet of the bridge on either side clean and sharp, but the arch was left standing, the flood going right over the top. Many scars are visible on the mountain tops which are clearly the work of similar water-spouts, and altogether the amount of solid matter which gets taken down each year into the valleys is much greater than we generally think. Let any one watch the Ticino flowing into the Lago Maggiore after a few days’ heavy rain, and consider how many tons of mud per day it must carry into and leave in the lake, and he will wonder that the gradual filling-up process is not more noticeable from age to age than it is.

Anzone, whence the sad torrent derives its name, is an exquisitely lovely little hamlet close to Mesocco. Another no less beautiful village is Doera, on the other side of the Moesa, and half a mile lower down than Mesocco. Doera overlooks the castle, the original hexagonal form of which can be made out from this point. It must have been much of the same plan as the castle at Eynsford in Kent — of which, by the way, I was once assured that the oldest inhabitant could not say “what it come from.” While I was copying the fresco outside the chapel at Doera, some charming people came round me. I said the fresco was very beautiful. “Son persuaso,” said the spokesman solemnly. Then he said there were some more pictures inside and we had better see them; so the keys were brought. We said that they too were very beautiful. “Siam persuasi,” was the reply in chorus. Then they said that perhaps we should like to buy them and take them away with us. This was a more serious matter, so we explained that they were very beautiful, but that these things had a charm upon the spot which they would lose if removed elsewhere. The nice people at once replied, “Siam persuasi,” and so they left us. It was like a fragment from one of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.

For the rest, Mesocco is beautifully situated and surrounded by waterfalls. There is a man there who takes the cows and goats out in the morning for their several owners in the village, and brings them home in the evening. He announces his departure and his return by blowing a twisted shell, like those that Tritons blow on fountains or in pictures; it yields a softer sound than a horn; when his shell is heard people go to the cow-house and let the cows out; they need not drive them to join the others, they need only open the door; and so in the evening, they only want the sound of the shell to tell them that they must open the stable-door, for the cows or goats when turned from the rest of the mob make straight to their own abode.

There are two great avalanches which descend every spring; one of them when I was there last was not quite gone until September; these avalanches push the air before them and compress it, so that a terrific wind descends to the bottom of the valley and mounts up on to the village of Mesocco. One year this wind snapped a whole grove of full-grown walnuts across the middle of their trunks, and carried stones and bits of wood up against the houses at some distance off; it tore off part of the covering from the cupola of the church, and twisted the weathercock awry in the fashion in which it may still be seen, unless it has been mended since I left.

The judges at Mesocco get four francs a day when they are wanted, but unless actually sitting they get nothing. No wonder the people are so nice to one another and quarrel so seldom.

The walk from Mesocco to S. Bernardino is delightful; it should take about three hours. For grassy slopes and flowers I do not know a better, more especially from S. Giacomo onward. In the woods above S. Giacomo there are some bears, or were last year. Five were known — a father, mother, and three young ones — but two were killed. They do a good deal of damage, and the Canton offers a reward for their destruction. The Grisons is the only Swiss Canton in which there are bears still remaining.

San Bernardino, 5500 feet above the sea, pleased me less than Mesocco, but there are some nice bits in it. The Hotel Brocco is the best to go to. The village is about two hours below the top of the pass; the walk to this is a pleasant one. The old Roman road can still be seen in many places, and is in parts in an excellent state even now. San Bernardino is a fashionable watering-place and has a chalybeate spring. In the summer it often has as many as two or three thousand visitors, chiefly from the neighbourhood of the Lago Maggiore and even from Milan. It is not so good a sketching ground — at least so I thought — as some others of a similar character that I have seen. It is not comparable, for example, to Fusio. It is little visited by the English.

On our way down to Bellinzona again we determined to take S. Maria in Calanca, and accordingly were dropped by the diligence near Gabbiolo, whence there is a path across the meadows and under the chestnuts which leads to Verdabbio. There are some good bits near the church of this village, and some quaint modern frescoes on a public-house a little off the main footpath, but there is no accommodation. From this village the path ascends rapidly for an hour or more, till just as one has made almost sure that one must have gone wrong and have got too high, or be on the track to an alpe only, one finds one’s self on a wide beaten path with walls on either side. We are now on a level with S. Maria itself, and turning sharply to the left come in a few minutes right upon the massive keep and the campanile, which are so striking when seen from down below. They are much more striking when seen from close at hand. The sketch I give does not convey the notion — as what sketch can convey it? — that one is at a great elevation, and it is this which gives its especial charm to S. Maria in Calanca.

The approach to the church is beautiful, and the church itself full of interest. The village was evidently at one time a place of some importance, though it is not easy to understand how it came to be built in such a situation. Even now it is unaccountably large. There is no accommodation for sleeping, but an artist who could rough it would, I think, find a good deal that he would like. On p. 226 is a sketch of the church and tower as seen from the opposite side to that from which the sketch on p. 224 was taken.

The church seems to have been very much altered, if indeed the body of it was not entirely rebuilt, in 1618 — a date which is found on a pillar inside the church. On going up into the gallery at the west end of the church, there is found a Nativity painted in fresco by a local artist, one Agostino Duso of Roveredo, in the year 1727, and better by a good deal than one would anticipate from the epoch and habitat of the painter. On the other side of the same gallery there is a Death of the Virgin, also by the same painter, but not so good. On the left-hand side of the nave going towards the altar there is a remarkable picture of the battle of Lepanto, signed “Georgius Wilhelmus Groesner Constantiensis fecit A.D. 1649,” and with an inscription to the effect that it was painted for the confraternity of the most holy Rosary, and by them set up “in this church of St. Mary commonly called of Calancha.” The picture displays very little respect for academic principles, but is full of spirit and sensible painting.

Above this picture there hang two others — also very interesting, from being examples of, as it were, the last groans of true art while being stifled by academicism — or it may be the attempt at a new birth, which was nevertheless doomed to extinction by academicians while yet in its infancy. Such pictures are to be found all over Italy. Sometimes, as in the case of the work of Dedomenici, they have absolute merit — more commonly they have the relative merit of showing that the painter was trying to look and feel for himself, and a picture does much when it conveys this impression. It is a small still voice, which, however small, can be heard through and above the roar of cant which tries to drown it. We want a book about the unknown Italian painters in out-of- the-way Italian valleys during the times of the decadence of art. There is ample material for one who has the time at his command.

We lunched at the house of the incumbent, a monk, who was very kind to us. We found him drying French marigold blossoms to colour his risotto with during the winter. He gave us some excellent wine, and took us over the tower near the church. Nothing can be more lovely than the monk’s garden. If aesthetic people are ever going to get tired of sun-flowers and lilies, let me suggest to them that they will find a weary utterness in chicory and seed onions which they should not overlook; I never felt chicory and seed onions till I was in the monk’s garden at S. Maria in Calanca. All about the terrace or artificial level ground on which the church is placed, there are admirable bits for painting, and if there was only accommodation so that one could get up as high as the alpi, I can fancy few better places to stay at than S. Maria in Calanca.

31 Lugano, 1838.

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