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

Chapter XXIII

Angera and Arona

From the Hotel Riposo we drove to Angera, on the Lago Maggiore. There are many interesting things to see on the way. Close to Velate, for example, there is the magnificent bit of ruin which is so striking a feature as seen from the Sacro Monte. A little further on, at Luinate, there is a fine old Lombard campanile and some conventual buildings which are worth sparing five minutes or so to see. The views hereabouts over the lake of Varese and towards Monte Rosa are exceedingly fine. The driver should be told to go a mile or so out of his direct route in order to pass Oltrona, near Voltrone. Here there was a monastery which must once have been an important one. Little of old work remains, except a very beautiful cloister of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, which should not be missed. It measures about twenty-one paces each way: the north side has round arches made of brick, the arches are supported by small columns about six inches through, each of which has a different capital; the middle is now garden ground. A few miles nearer Angera there is Brebbia, the church of which is an excellent specimen of early Lombard work. We thought we saw the traditions of Cyclopean masonry in the occasional irregularity of the string-courses. The stones near the bottom of the wall are very massive, and the west wall is not, if I remember rightly, bonded into the north and south walls, but these walls are only built up against it as at Giornico. The door on the south side is simple, but remarkably beautiful. It looks almost as if it might belong to some early Norman church in England, and the stones have acquired a most exquisite warm colour with age. At Ispra there is a campanile which Mr. Ruskin would probably disapprove of, but which we thought lovely. A few kilometres further on a corner is turned, and the splendid castle of Angera is caught sight of.

Before going up to the castle we stayed at the inn on the left immediately on entering the town, to dine. They gave us a very good dinner, and the garden was a delightful place to dine in. There is a kind of red champagne made hereabouts which is very good; the figs were ripe, and we could gather them for ourselves and eat ad libitum. There were two tame sparrows hopping continually about us; they pretended to make a little fuss about allowing themselves to be caught, but they evidently did not mind it. I dropped a bit of bread and was stooping to pick it up; one of them on seeing me move made for it and carried it off at once; the action was exactly that of one who was saying, “I don’t particularly want it myself, but I’m not going to let you have it.” Presently some cacciatori came with a poodle-dog. They explained to us that though the poodle was “a truly hunting dog,” he would not touch the sparrows, which to do him justice he did not. There was a tame jay also, like the sparrows going about loose, but, like them, aware when he was well off.

After dinner we went up to the castle, which I have now visited off and on for many years, and like always better and better each time I go there. I know no place comparable to it in its own way. I know no place so pathetic, and yet so impressive, in its decay. It is not a ruin — all ruins are frauds — it is only decayed. It is a kind of Stokesay or Ightham Mote, better preserved than the first, and less furnished than the second, but on a grander scale than either, and set in incomparably finer surroundings. The path towards it passes the church, which has been spoiled. Outside this there are parts of old Roman columns from some temple, stuck in the ground; inside are two statues called St. Peter and St. Paul, but evidently effigies of some magistrates in the Roman times. If the traveller likes to continue the road past the church for three- quarters of a mile or so, he will get a fine view of the castle, and if he goes up to the little chapel of S. Quirico on the top of the hill on his right hand, he will look down upon it and upon Arona. We will suppose, however, that he goes straight for the castle itself; every moment as he approaches it, it will seem finer and finer; presently he will turn into a vineyard on his left, and at once begin to climb.

Passing under the old gateway — with its portcullis still ready to be dropped, if need be, and with the iron plates that sheathe it pierced with bullets — as at S. Michele, the visitor enters at once upon a terrace from which the two foregoing illustrations were taken. I know nothing like this terrace. On a summer’s afternoon and evening it is fully shaded, the sun being behind the castle. The lake and town below are still in sunlight. This, I think, is about the best time to see the castle — say from six to eight on a July evening, or at any hour on a gray day.

Count Borromeo, to whom the castle belongs, allows it to be shown, and visitors are numerous. There is very little furniture inside the rooms, and the little there is is decaying; the walls are covered with pictures, mostly copies, and none of them of any great merit, but the rooms themselves are lovely. Here is a sketch of the one in which San Carlo Borromeo was born, but the one on the floor beneath is better still. The whole of this part was built about the year 1350, and inside, where the weather has not reached, the stones are as sharp as if they had been cut yesterday. It was in the great Sala of this castle that the rising against the Austrians in 1848 was planned; then there is the Sala di Giustizia, a fine room, with the remains of frescoes; the roof and the tower should also certainly be visited. All is solid and real, yet it is like an Italian opera in actual life. Lastly, there is the kitchen, where the wheel still remains in which a turnspit dog used to be put to turn it and roast the meat; but this room is not shown to strangers.

The inner court of the castle is as beautiful as the outer one. Through the open door one catches glimpses of the terrace, and of the lake beyond it. I know Ightham, Hever, and Stokesay, both inside and out, and I know the outside of Leeds; these are all of them exquisitely beautiful, but neither they nor any other such place that I have ever seen please me as much as the castle of Angera.

We stayed talking to my old friend Signor Signorelli, the custode of the castle, and his family, and sketching upon the terrace until Tonio came to tell us that his boat was at the quay waiting for us. Tonio is now about fourteen years old, but was only four when I first had the pleasure of making his acquaintance. He is son to Giovanni, or as he is more commonly called, Giovannino, a boatman of Arona. The boy is deservedly a great favourite, and is now a padrone with a boat of his own, from which he can get a good living.

He pulled us across the warm and sleepy lake, so far the most beautiful of all even the Italian lakes; as we neared Arona, and the wall that runs along the lake became more plain, I could not help thinking of what Giovanni had told me about it some years before, when Tonio was lying curled up, a little mite of an object, in the bottom of the boat. He was extolling a certain family of peasants who live near the castle of Angera, as being models of everything a family ought to be. “There,” he said, “the children do not speak at meal-times, the polenta is put upon the table, and each takes exactly what is given him, even though one of the children thinks another has got a larger helping than he has, he will eat his piece in silence. My children are not like that; if Marietta thinks Irene has a bigger piece than she has, she will leave the room and go to the wall.”

“What,” I asked, “does she go to the wall for?”

“Oh! to cry; all the children go to the wall to cry.”

I thought of Hezekiah. The wall is the crying place, playing, lounging place, and a great deal more, of all the houses in its vicinity. It is the common drawing-room during the summer months; if the weather is too sultry, a boatman will leave his bed and finish the night on his back upon its broad coping; we who live in a colder climate can hardly understand how great a blank in the existence of these people the destruction of the wall would be.

We soon reached Arona, and in a few minutes were in that kind and hospitable house the Hotel d’Italia, than which no better hotel is to be found in Italy.

Arona is cooler than Angera. The proverb says, “He who would know the pains of the infernal regions, could go to Angera in the summer and to Arona in the winter.” The neighbourhood is exquisite. Unless during the extreme heat of summer, it is the best place to stay at on the Lago Maggiore. The Monte Motterone is within the compass of a single day’s excursion; there is Orta, also, and Varallo easily accessible, and any number of drives and nearer excursions whether by boat or carriage.

One day we made Tonio take us to Castelletto near Sesto Calende, to hear the bells. They ring the bells very beautifully at Vogogna, but, unless my recollection of a good many years ago fails me, at Castelletto they ring them better still.

At Vogogna, while we were getting our breakfast, we heard the bells strike up as follows, from a campanile on the side of the hill:-


They did this because a baby had just died, but we were told it was nothing to what they would have done if it had been a grown-up person.

At Castelletto we were disappointed; the bells did not ring that morning; we hinted at the possibility of paying a small fee to the ringer and getting him to ring them, but were told that “la gente” would not at all approve of this, and so I was unable to take down the chimes at Castelletto as I had intended to do. I may say that I had a visit from some Italian friends a few years ago, and found them hardly less delighted with our English mode of ringing than I had been with theirs. It would be very nice if we could ring our bells sometimes in the English and sometimes in the Italian way. When I say the Italian way — I should say that the custom of ringing, as above described, is not a common one — I have only heard it at Vogogna and Castelletto, though doubtless it prevails elsewhere.

We were told that the people take a good deal of pride in their bells, and that one village will be jealous of another, and consider itself more or less insulted if the bells of that other can be heard more plainly than its own can be heard back again. There are two villages in the Brianza called Balzano and Cremella; the dispute between these grew so hot that each of them changed their bells three times, so as to try and be heard the loudest. I believe an honourable compromise was in the end arrived at.

In other respects Castelletto is a quiet, sleepy little place. The Ticino flows through it just after leaving the lake. It is very wide here, and when flooded must carry down an enormous quantity of water. Barges go down it at all times, but the river is difficult of navigation and requires skilful pilots. These pilots are well paid, and Tonio seemed to have a great respect for them. The views of Monte Rosa are superb.

One of the great advantages of Arona, as of Mendrisio, is that it commands such a number of other places. There is rail to Milan, and again to Novara, and each station on the way is a sub-centre; there are also the steamers on the lake, and there is not a village at which they stop which will not repay examination, and which is not in its turn a sub-centre. In England I have found by experience that there is nothing for it but to examine every village and town within easy railway distance; no books are of much use: one never knows that something good is not going to be sprung upon one, and few indeed are the places where there is no old public-house, or overhanging cottage, or farmhouse and barn, or bit of De Hooghe-like entry which, if one had two or three lives, one would not willingly leave unpainted. It is just the same in North Italy; there is not a village which can be passed over with a light heart.

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