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

Chapter XIX

The Mendrisiotto

We stayed a day or two at Bellinzona, and then went on over the Monte Cenere to Lugano. My first acquaintance with the Monte Cenere was made some seven-and-thirty years ago when I was a small boy. I remember with what delight I found wild narcissuses growing in a meadow upon the top of it, and was allowed to gather as many as I liked. It was not till some thirty years afterwards that I again passed over the Monte Cenere in summer time, but I well remembered the narcissus place, and wondered whether there would still be any of them growing there. Sure enough when we got to the top, there they were as thick as cowslips in an English meadow. At Lugano, having half-an-hour to spare, we paid our respects to the glorious frescoes by Bernardino Luini, and to the facade of the duomo, and then went on to Mendrisio.

The neighbourhood of Mendrisio, or, as it is called, the “Mendrisiotto,” is a rich one. Mendrisio itself should be the headquarters; there is an excellent hotel there, the Hotel Mendrisio, kept by Signora Pasta, which cannot be surpassed for comfort and all that makes a hotel pleasant to stay at. I never saw a house where the arrangements were more perfect; even in the hottest weather I found the rooms always cool and airy, and the nights never oppressive. Part of the secret of this may be that Mendrisio lies higher than it appears to do, and the hotel, which is situated on the slope of the hill, takes all the breeze there is. The lake of Lugano is about 950 feet above the sea. The river falls rapidly between Mendrisio and the lake, while the hotel is high above the river. I do not see, therefore, how the hotel can be less than 1200 feet above the sea-line; but whatever height it is, I never felt the heat oppressive, though on more than one occasion I have stayed there for weeks together in July and August.

Mendrisio being situated on the railway between Lugano and Como, both these places are within easy reach. Milan is only a couple of hours off, and Varese a three or four hours’ carriage drive. It lies on the very last slopes of the Alps, so that whether the visitor has a fancy for mountains or for the smiling beauty of the colline, he may be equally gratified. There are excellent roads in every direction, and none of them can be taken without its leading to some new feature of interest; I do not think any English family will regret spending a fortnight at this charming place.

Most visitors to Mendrisio, however, make it a place of passage only, en route for the celebrated hotel on the Monte Generoso, kept by Dr. Pasta, Signora Pasta’s brother-in-law. The Monte Generoso is very fine; I know few places of which I am fonder; whether one looks down at evening upon the lake of Lugano thousands of feet below, and then lets the eye wander upward again and rest upon the ghastly pallor of Monte Rosa, or whether one takes the path to the Colma and saunters over green slopes carpeted with wild-flowers, and studded with the gentlest cattle, all is equally delightful. What a sense of vastness and freedom is there on the broad heaving slopes of these subalpine spurs. They are just high enough without being too high. The South Downs are very good, and by making believe very much I have sometimes been half able to fancy when upon them that I might be on the Monte Generoso, but they are only good as a quartet is good if one cannot get a symphony.

I think there are more wild-flowers upon the Monte Generoso than upon any other that I know, and among them numbers of beautiful wild narcissuses, as on the Monte Cenere. At the top of the Monte Generoso, among the rocks that jut out from the herbage, there grows — unless it has been all uprooted — the large yellow auricula, and this I own to being my favourite mountain wild-flower. It is the only flower which, I think, fairly beats cowslips. Here too I heard, or thought I heard, the song of that most beautiful of all bird songsters, the passero solitario, or solitary sparrow-if it is a sparrow, which I should doubt.

Nobody knows what a bird can do in the way of song until he has heard a passero solitario. I think they still have one at the Hotel Mendrisio, but am not sure. I heard one there once, and can only say that I shall ever remember it as the most beautiful warbling that I ever heard come out of the throat of bird. All other bird singing is loud, vulgar, and unsympathetic in comparison. The bird itself is about as big as a starling, and is of a dull blue colour. It is easily tamed, and becomes very much attached to its master and mistress, but it is apt to die in confinement before very long. It fights all others of its own species; it is now a rare bird, and is doomed, I fear, ere long to extinction, to the regret of all who have had the pleasure of its acquaintance. The Italians are very fond of them, and Professor Vela told me they will even act like a house dog and set up a cry if any strangers come. The one I saw flew instantly at my finger when I put it near its cage, but I was not sure whether it did so in anger or play. I thought it liked being listened to, and as long as it chose to sing I was delighted to stay, whereas as a general rule I want singing birds to leave off. 32

People say the nightingale’s song is so beautiful; I am ashamed to own it, but I do not like it. It does not use the diatonic scale. A bird should either make no attempt to sing in tune, or it should succeed in doing so. Larks are Wordsworth, and as for canaries, I would almost sooner hear a pig having its nose ringed, or the grinding of an axe. Cuckoos are all right; they sing in tune. Rooks are lovely; they do not pretend to tune. Seagulls again, and the plaintive creatures that pity themselves on moorlands, as the plover and the curlew, or the birds that lift up their voices and cry at eventide when there is an eager air blowing upon the mountains and the last yellow in the sky is fading — I have no words with which to praise the music of these people. Or listen to the chuckling of a string of soft young ducks, as they glide single- file beside a ditch under a hedgerow, so close together that they look like some long brown serpent, and say what sound can be more seductive.

Many years ago I remember thinking that the birds in New Zealand approached the diatonic scale more nearly than European birds do. There was one bird, I think it was the New Zealand thrush, but am not sure, which used to sing thus:-


I was always wanting it to go on:-


But it never got beyond the first four bars. Then there was another which I noticed the first day I landed, more than twenty years since, and whose song descended by very nearly perfect semitones as follows:-


but the semitones are here and there in this bird’s song a trifle out of tune, whereas in that of the other there was no departure from the diatonic scale. Be this, however, as it may, none of these please me so much as the passero solitario.

The only mammals that I can call to mind at this moment as showing any even apparent approach to an appreciation of the diatonic scale are the elephant and the rhinoceros. The braying (or whatever is the technical term for it) of an elephant comprises a pretty accurate third, and is of a rich mellow tone with a good deal of brass in it. The rhinoceros grunts a good fourth, beginning, we will say, on C, and dropping correctly on to the G below.

The Monte Generoso, then, is a good place to stay a few days at, but one soon comes to an end of it. The top of a mountain is like an island in the air, one is cooped up upon it unless one descends; in the case of the Monte Generoso there is the view of the lake of Lugano, the walk to the Colma, the walk along the crest of the hill by the farm, and the view over Lombardy, and that is all. If one goes far down one is haunted by the recollection that when one is tired in the evening one will have all one’s climbing to do, and, beautiful as the upper parts of the Monte Generoso are, there is little for a painter there except to study cattle, goats, and clouds. I recommend a traveller, therefore, by all means to spend a day or two at the hotel on the Monte Generoso, but to make his longer sojourn down below at Mendrisio, the walks and excursions from which are endless, and all of them beautiful.

Among the best of these is the ascent of the Monte Bisbino, which can be easily made in a day from Mendrisio; I found no difficulty in doing it on foot all the way there and back a few years ago, but I now prefer to take a trap as far as Sagno, and do the rest of the journey on foot, returning to the trap in the evening. Every one who knows North Italy knows the Monte Bisbino. It is a high pyramidal mountain with what seems a little white chapel on the top that glistens like a star when the sun is full upon it. From Como it is seen most plainly, but it is distinguishable over a very large part of Lombardy when the sun is right; it is frequently ascended from Como and Cernobbio, but I believe the easiest way of getting up it is to start from Mendrisio with a trap as far as Sagno.

A mile and a half or so after leaving Mendrisio there is a village called Castello on the left. Here, a little off the road on the right hand, there is the small church of S. Cristoforo, of great antiquity, containing the remains of some early frescoes, I should think of the thirteenth or early part of the fourteenth century.

As usual, people have scratched their names on the frescoes. We found one name “Battista,” with the date “1485” against it. It is a mistake to hold that the English scribble their names about more than other people. The Italians like doing this just as well as we do. Let the reader go to Varallo, for example, and note the names scratched up from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the present day, on the walls of the chapel containing the Crucifixion. Indeed, the Italians seem to have begun the habit long before we did, for we very rarely find names scratched on English buildings so long ago as the fifteenth century, whereas in Italy they are common. The earliest I can call to mind in England at this moment (of course, excepting the names written in the Beauchamp Tower) is on the church porch at Harlington, where there is a name cut and dated in one of the early years of the seventeenth century. I never even in Italy saw a name scratched on a wall with an earlier date than 1480.

Why is it, I wonder, that these little bits of soul-fossil as it were, touch us so much when we come across them? A fossil does not touch us — while a fly in amber does. Why should a fly in amber interest us and give us a slightly solemn feeling for a moment, when the fossil of a megatherium bores us? I give it up; but few of us can see the lightest trifle scratched off casually and idly long ago, without liking it better than almost any great thing of the same, or ever so much earlier date, done with purpose and intention that it should remain. So when we left S. Cristoforo it was not the old church, nor the frescoes, but the name of the idle fellow who had scratched his name “Battista. . . 1485,” that we carried away with us. A little bit of old world life and entire want of earnestness, preserved as though it were a smile in amber.

In the Val Sesia, several years ago, I bought some tobacco that was wrapped up for me in a yellow old ms. which I in due course examined. It was dated 1797, and was a leaf from the book in which a tanner used to enter the skins which his customers brought him to be tanned.

“October 24,” he writes, “I received from Signora Silvestre, called the widow, the skin of a goat branded in the neck. —(I am not to give it up unless they give me proof that she is the rightful owner.) Mem. I delivered it to Mr. Peter Job (Signor Pietro Giobbe).

“October 27. — I receive two small skins of a goat, very thin and branded in the neck, from Giuseppe Gianote of Campertogno.

“October 29. — I receive three skins of a chamois from Signor Antonio Cinere of Alagna, branded in the neck.” Then there is a subsequent entry written small. “I receive also a little gray marmot’s skin weighing thirty ounces.”

I am sorry I did not get a sheet with the tanner’s name. I am sure he was an excellent person, and might have been trusted with any number of skins, branded or unbranded. It is nearly a hundred years ago since that little gray marmot’s skin was tanned in the Val Sesia; but the wretch will not lie quiet in his grave; he walks, and has haunted me once a month or so any time this ten years past. I will see if I cannot lay him by prevailing on him to haunt some one or other of my readers.

32 Butler always regretted that he did not find out about Medea Colleone’s passero solitario in time to introduce it into Alps and Sanctuaries. Medea was the daughter of Bartolomeo Colleone, the famous condottiere, whose statue adorns the Campo ss. Giovanni e Paolo at Venice. Like Catullus’s Lesbia, whose immortal passer Butler felt sure was also a passero solitario, she had the misfortune to lose her pet. Its little body can still be seen in the Capella Colleone, up in the old town at Bergamo, lying on a little cushion on the top of a little column, and behind it there stands a little weeping willow tree whose leaves, cut out in green paper, droop over the corpse. In front of the column is the inscription — “Passer Medeae Colleonis,” and the whole is covered by a glass shade about eight inches high. Mr. Festing Jones has kindly allowed me to borrow this note from his “Diary of a Tour through North Italy to Sicily.”— R. A. S.

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