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

Chapter XX

Sanctuary on Monte Bisbino

But to return to S. Cristoforo. In the Middle Ages there was a certain duke who held this part of the country and was notorious for his exactions. One Christmas eve when he and his whole household had assembled to their devotions, the people rose up against them and murdered them inside the church. After this tragedy, the church was desecrated, though monuments have been put up on the outside walls even in recent years. There is a fine bit of early religious sculpture over the door, and the traces of a fresco of Christ walking upon the water, also very early.

Returning to the road by a path of a couple of hundred yards, we descended to cross the river, and then ascended again to Morbio Superiore. The view from the piazza in front of the church is very fine, extending over the whole Mendrisiotto, and reaching as far as Varese and the Lago Maggiore. Below is Morbio Inferiore, a place of singular beauty. A couple of Italian friends were with us, one of them Signor Spartaco Vela, son of Professor Vela. He called us into the church and showed us a beautiful altar-piece — a Madonna with saints on either side, apparently moved from some earlier church, and, as we all agreed, a very fine work, though we could form no idea who the artist was.

From Morbio Superiore the ascent is steep, and it will take half- an-hour or more to reach the level bit of road close to Sagno. This, again, commands the most exquisite views, especially over Como, through the trunks of the trees. Then comes Sagno itself, the last village of the Canton Ticino and close to the Italian frontier. There is no inn with sleeping accommodation here, but if there was, Sagno would be a very good place to stay at. They say that some of its inhabitants sometimes smuggle a pound or two of tobacco across the Italian frontier, hiding it in the fern close to the boundary, and whisking it over the line on a dark night, but I know not what truth there is in the allegation; the people struck me as being above the average in respect of good looks and good breeding — and the average in those parts is a very high one.

Immediately behind Sagno the old paved pilgrim’s road begins to ascend rapidly. We followed it, and in half-an-hour reached the stone marking the Italian boundary; then comes some level walking, and then on turning a corner the monastery at the top of the Monte Bisbino is caught sight of. It still looks small, but one can now see what an important building it really is, and how different from the mere chapel which it appears to be when seen from a distance. The sketch which I give is taken from about a mile further on than the place where the summit is first seen.

Here some men joined us who lived in a hut a few hundred feet from the top of the mountain and looked after the cattle there during the summer. It is at their alpe that the last water can be obtained, so we resolved to stay there and eat the provisions we had brought with us. For the benefit of travellers, I should say they will find the water by opening the door of a kind of outhouse; this covers the water and prevents the cows from dirtying it. There will be a wooden bowl floating on the top. The water outside is not drinkable, but that in the outhouse is excellent.

The men were very good to us; they knew me, having seen me pass and watched me sketching in other years. It had unfortunately now begun to rain, so we were glad of shelter: they threw faggots on the fire and soon kindled a blaze; when these died down and it was seen that the sparks clung to the kettle and smouldered on it, they said that it would rain much, and they were right. It poured during the hour we spent in dining, after which it only got a little better; we thanked them, and went up five or six hundred feet till the monastery at length loomed out suddenly upon us from the mist, when we were close to it but not before.

There is a restaurant at the top which is open for a few days before and after a festa, but generally closed; it was open now, so we went in to dry ourselves. We found rather a roughish lot assembled, and imagined the smuggling element to preponderate over the religious, but nothing could be better than the way in which they treated us. There was one gentleman, however, who was no smuggler, but who had lived many years in London and had now settled down at Rovenna, just below on the lake of Como. He had taken a room here and furnished it for the sake of the shooting. He spoke perfect English, and would have none but English things about him. He had Cockle’s antibilious pills, and the last numbers of the “Illustrated London News” and “Morning Chronicle;” his bath and bath-towels were English, and there was a box of Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits on his dressing-table. He was delighted to see some Englishmen, and showed us everything that was to be seen — among the rest the birds he kept in cages to lure those that he intended to shoot. He also took us behind the church, and there we found a very beautiful marble statue of the Madonna and child, an admirable work, with painted eyes and the dress gilded and figured. What an extraordinary number of fine or, at the least, interesting things one finds in Italy which no one knows anything about. In one day, poking about at random, we had seen some early frescoes at S. Cristoforo, an excellent work at Morbio, and here was another fine thing sprung upon us. It is not safe ever to pass a church in Italy without exploring it carefully. The church may be new and for the most part full of nothing but what is odious, but there is no knowing what fragment of earlier work one may not find preserved.

Signor Barelli, for this was our friend’s name, now gave us some prints of the sanctuary, one of which I reproduce on p. 240. Behind the church there is a level piece of ground with a table and stone seats round it. The view from here in fine weather is very striking. As it was, however, it was perhaps hardly less fine than in clear weather, for the clouds had now raised themselves a little, though very little, above the sanctuary, but here and there lay all ragged down below us, and cast beautiful reflected lights upon the lake and town of Como.

Above, the heavens were still black and lowering. Over against us was the Monte Generoso, very sombre, and scarred with snow-white torrents; below, the dull, sullen slopes of the Monte Bisbino, and the lake of Como; further on, the Mendrisiotto and the blue-black plains of Lombardy. I have been at the top of the Monte Bisbino several times, but never was more impressed with it. At all times, however, it is a marvellous place.

Coming down we kept the ridge of the hill instead of taking the path by which we ascended. Beautiful views of the monastery are thus obtained. The flowers in spring must be very varied; and we still found two or three large kinds of gentians and any number of cyclamens. Presently Vela dug up a fern root of the common Polypodium vulgare; he scraped it with his knife and gave us some to eat. It is not at all bad, and tastes very much like liquorice. Then we came upon the little chapel of S. Nicolao. I do not know whether there is anything good inside or no. Then we reached Sagno and returned to Mendrisio; as we re-crossed the stream between Morbio Superiore and Castello we found it had become a raging torrent, capable of any villainy.

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