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

Chapter III

Primadengo, Calpiognia, Dalpe, Cornone, and Prato

Next morning I thought I would go up to Calpiognia again. It was Sunday. When I got up to Primadengo I saw no one, and heard nothing, save always the sound of distant waterfalls; all was spacious and full of what Mr. Ruskin has called a “great peacefulness of light.” The village was so quiet that it seemed as though it were deserted; after a minute or so, however, I heard a cherry fall, and looking up, saw the trees were full of people. There they were, crawling and lolling about on the boughs like caterpillars, and gorging themselves with cherries. They spoke not a word either to me or to one another. They were too happy and goodly to make a noise; but they lay about on the large branches, and ate and sighed for content and ate till they could eat no longer. Lotus eating was a rough nerve-jarring business in comparison. They were like saints and evangelists by Filippo Lippi. Again the rendering of Handel came into my mind, and I thought of how the goodly fellowship of prophets praised God. 4


4 Dettingen Te Deum.

And how again in some such another quiet ecstasy the muses sing about Jove’s altar in the “Allegro and Penseroso.”

Here is a sketch of Primadengo Church — looking over it on to the other side the Ticino, but I could not get the cherry-trees nor cherry-eaters.


On leaving Primadengo I went on to Calpiognia, and there too I found the children’s faces all purple with cherry juice; thence I ascended till I got to a monte, or collection of chalets, about 5680 feet above the sea. It was deserted at this season. I mounted farther and reached an alpe, where a man and a boy were tending a mob of calves. Going still higher, I at last came upon a small lake close to the top of the range: I find this lake given in the map as about 7400 feet above the sea. Here, being more than 5000 feet above Faido, I stopped and dined.

I have spoken of a monte and of an alpe. An alpe, or alp, is not, as so many people in England think, a snowy mountain. Mont Blanc and the Jungfrau, for example, are not alps. They are mountains with alps upon them.

An alpe is a tract of the highest summer pasturage just below the snow-line, and only capable of being grazed for two or three months in every year. It is held as common land by one or more villages in the immediate neighbourhood, and sometimes by a single individual to whom the village has sold it. A few men and boys attend the whole herd, whether of cattle or goats, and make the cheese, which is apportioned out among the owners of the cattle later on. The pigs go up to be fattened on whey. The cheese is not commonly made at the alpe, but as soon as the curd has been pressed clear of whey, it is sent down on men’s backs to the village to be made into cheese. Sometimes there will be a little hay grown on an alpe, as at Gribbio and in Piora; in this case there will be some chalets built, which will be inhabited for a few weeks and left empty the rest of the year.

The monte is the pasture land immediately above the highest enclosed meadows and below the alpe. The cattle are kept here in spring and autumn before and after their visit to the alpe. The monte has many houses, dairies, and cowhouses — being almost the paese, or village, in miniature. It will always have its chapel, and is inhabited by so considerable a number of the villagers, for so long a time both in spring and autumn, that they find it worth while to make themselves more comfortable than is necessary for the few who make the short summer visit to the alpe.

Every inch of the ascent was good, but the descent was even better on account of the views of the Dalpe glacier on the other side the Ticino, towards which ones back is turned as one ascends. All day long the villages of Dalpe and Cornone had been tempting me, so I resolved to take them next day. This I did, crossing the Ticino and following a broad well-beaten path which ascends the mountains in a southerly direction. I found the rare English fern Woodsia hyperborea growing in great luxuriance on the rocks between the path and the river. I saw some fronds fully six inches in length. I also found one specimen of Asplenium alternifolium, which, however, is abundant on the other side the valley, on the walls that flank the path between Primadengo and Calpiognia, and elsewhere. Woodsia also grows on the roadside walls near Airolo, but not so fine as at Faido. I have often looked for it in other subalpine valleys of North Italy and the canton Ticino, but have never happened to light upon it.

About three or four hundred feet above the river, under some pines, I saw a string of ants crossing and recrossing the road; I have since seen these ants every year in the same place. In one part I almost think the stone is a little worn with the daily passage and repassage of so many thousands of tiny feet, but for the most part it certainly is not. Half-an-hour or so after crossing the string of ants, one passes from under the pine-trees into a grassy meadow, which in spring is decked with all manner of Alpine flowers; after crossing this, the old St. Gothard road is reached, which passed by Prato and Dalpe, so as to avoid the gorge of the Monte Piottino. This road is of very great antiquity, and has been long disused, except for local purposes; for even before the carriage road over the St. Gothard was finished in 1827, there was a horse track through the Monte Piottino. In another twenty minutes or so, on coming out from a wood of willows and alders, Dalpe is seen close at hand after a walk of from an hour-and-a-half to two hours from Faido.

Dalpe is rather more than 1500 feet above Faido, and is therefore nearly 4000 feet above the sea. It is reckoned a bel paese, inasmuch as it has a little tolerably level pasture and tillable land near it, and a fine alpe. This is how the wealth of a village is reckoned. The Italians set great store by a little bit of bella pianura, or level ground; to them it is as precious as a hill or rock is to a Londoner out for a holiday. The peasantry are as blind to the beauties image
of rough unmanageable land as Peter Bell was to those of the primrose with a yellow brim (I quote from memory). The people complain of the climate of Dalpe, the snow not going off before the end of March or beginning of April. No climate, they say, should be colder than that of Faido; barley, however, and potatoes do very well at Dalpe, and nothing can exceed the hay crops. A good deal of the hay is sent down to Faido on men’s backs or rather on their heads, for the road is impracticable even for sledges. It is astonishing what a weight the men will bear upon their heads, and the rate at which they will come down while loaded. An average load is four hundredweight. The man is hardly visible beneath his burden, which looks like a good big part of an ordinary English haystack. With this weight on his head he will go down rough places almost at a run and never miss his footing. The men generally carry the hay down in threes and fours together for company. They look distressed, as well they may: every muscle is strained, and it is easy to see that their powers are being taxed to their utmost limit; it is better not even to say good-day to them when they are thus loaded; they have enough to attend to just then; nevertheless, as soon as they have deposited their load at Faido they will go up to Dalpe again or Calpiognia, or wherever it may be, for another, and bring it down without resting. Two such journeys are reckoned enough for one day. This is how the people get their corpo di legno e gamba di ferro —“their bodies of wood and legs of iron.” But I think they rather overdo it.

Talking of legs, as I went through the main street of Dalpe an old lady of about sixty-five stopped me, and told me that while gathering her winter store of firewood she had had the misfortune to hurt her leg. I was very sorry, but I failed to satisfy her; the more I sympathised in general terms, the more I felt that something further was expected of me. I went on trying to do the civil thing, when the old lady cut me short by saying it would be much better if I were to see the leg at once; so she showed it me in the street, and there, sure enough, close to the groin there was a swelling. Again I said how sorry I was, and added that perhaps she ought to show it to a medical man. “But aren’t you a medical man?” said she in an alarmed manner. “Certainly not,” replied I. “Then why did you let me show you my leg?” said she indignantly, and pulling her clothes down, the poor old woman began to hobble off; presently two others joined her, and I heard hearty peals of laughter as she recounted her story. A stranger visiting these out-of-the-way villages is almost certain to be mistaken for a doctor. What business, they say to themselves, can any one else have there, and who in his senses would dream of visiting them for pleasure? This old lady had rushed to the usual conclusion, and had been trying to get a little advice gratis.

Above Dalpe there is a path through the upper valley of the Piumogna, which leads to the glacier whence the river comes. The highest peak above this upper valley just turns the 10,000 feet, but I was never able to find out that it has a name, nor is there a name marked in the Ordnance map of the Canton Ticino. The valley promises well, but I have not been to its head, where at about 7400 feet there is a small lake. Great quantities of crystals are found in the mountains above Dalpe. Some people make a living by collecting these from the higher parts of the ranges where none but born mountaineers and chamois can venture; many, again, emigrate to Paris, London, America, or elsewhere, and return either for a month or two, or sometimes for a permanency, having become rich. In Cornone there is one large white new house belonging to a man who has made his fortune near Como, and in all these villages there are similar houses. From the Val Leventina and the Val Blenio, but more especially from this last, very large numbers come to London, while hardly fewer go to America. Signor Gatti, the great ice merchant, came from the Val Blenio.

I once found the words, “Tommy, make room for your uncle,” on a chapel outside the walls of one very quiet little upland hamlet. The writing was in a child’s scrawl, and in like fashion with all else that was written on the same wall. I should have been much surprised, if I had not already found out how many families return to these parts with children to whom English is the native language. Many as are the villages in the Canton Ticino in which I have sat sketching for hours together, I have rarely done so without being accosted sooner or later by some one who could speak English, either with an American accent or without it. It is curious at some out-of-the-way place high up among the mountains, to see a lot of children at play, and to hear one of them shout out, “Marietta, if you do that again, I’ll go and tell mother.” One English word has become universally adopted by the Ticinesi themselves. They say “waitee” just as we should say “wait,” to stop some one from going away. It is abhorrent to them to end a word with a consonant, so they have added “ee,” but there can be no doubt about the origin of the word. 5

When we bear in mind the tendency of any language, if it once attains a certain predominance, to supplant all others, and when we look at the map of the world and see the extent now in the hands of the two English-speaking nations, I think it may be prophesied that the language in which this book is written will one day be almost as familiar to the greater number of Ticinesi as their own.

I may mention one other expression which, though not derived from English, has a curious analogy to an English usage. When the beautiful children with names like Handel’s operas come round one while one is sketching, some one of them will assuredly before long be heard to whisper the words “Tira giu,” or as children say when they come round one in England, “He is drawing it down.” The fundamental idea is, of course, that the draughtsman drags the object which he is drawing away from its position, and “transfers” it, as we say by the same metaphor, to his paper, as St. Cecilia “drew an angel down” in “Alexander’s Feast.”

A good walk from Dalpe is to the Alpe di Campolungo and Fusio, but it is better taken from Fusio. A very favourite path with me is the one leading conjointly from Cornone and Dalpe to Prato. The view up the valley of the St. Gothard looking down on Prato is fine; I give a sketch of it taken five years ago before the railway had been begun.

The little objects looking like sentry boxes that go all round the church contain rough modern frescoes, representing, if I remember rightly, the events attendant upon the Crucifixion. These are on a small scale what the chapels on the sacred mountain of Varallo are on a large one. Small single oratories are scattered about all over the Canton Ticino, and indeed everywhere in North Italy by the roadside, at all halting-places, and especially at the crest of any more marked ascent, where the tired wayfarer, probably heavy laden, might be inclined to say a naughty word or two if not checked. The people like them, and miss them when they come to England. They sometimes do what the lower animals do in confinement when precluded from habits they are accustomed to, and put up with strange makeshifts by way of substitute. I once saw a poor Ticinese woman kneeling in prayer before a dentist’s show-case in the Hampstead Road; she doubtless mistook the teeth for the relics of some saint. I am afraid she was a little like a hen sitting upon a chalk egg, but she seemed quite contented.

Which of us, indeed, does not sit contentedly enough upon chalk eggs at times? And what would life be but for the power to do so? We do not sufficiently realise the part which illusion has played in our development. One of the prime requisites for evolution is a certain power for adaptation to varying circumstances, that is to say, of plasticity, bodily and mental. But the power of adaptation is mainly dependent on the power of thinking certain new things sufficiently like certain others to which we have been accustomed for us not to be too much incommoded by the change — upon the power, in fact, of mistaking the new for the old. The power of fusing ideas (and through ideas, structures) depends upon the power of confusing them; the power to confuse ideas that are not very unlike, and that are presented to us in immediate sequence, is mainly due to the fact of the impetus, so to speak, which the mind has upon it. We always, I believe, make an effort to see every new object as a repetition of the object last before us. Objects are so varied, and present themselves so rapidly, that as a general rule we renounce this effort too promptly to notice it, but it is always there, and it is because of it that we are able to mistake, and hence to evolve new mental and bodily developments. Where the effort is successful, there is illusion; where nearly successful but not quite, there is a shock and a sense of being puzzled — more or less, as the case may be; where it is so obviously impossible as not to be pursued, there is no perception of the effort at all.

Mr. Locke has been greatly praised for his essay upon human understanding. An essay on human misunderstanding should be no less interesting and important. Illusion to a small extent is one of the main causes, if indeed it is not the main cause, of progress, but it must be upon a small scale. All abortive speculation, whether commercial or philosophical, is based upon it, and much as we may abuse such speculation, we are, all of us, its debtors.

Leonardo da Vinci says that Sandro Botticelli spoke slightingly of landscape-painting, and called it “but a vain study, since by throwing a sponge impregnated with various colours against a wall, it leaves some spots upon it, which may appear like a landscape.” Leonardo da Vinci continues: “It is true that a variety of compositions may be seen in such spots according to the disposition of mind with which they are considered; such as heads of men, various animals, battles, rocky scenes, seas, clouds, words, and the like. It may be compared to the sound of bells which may seem to say whatever we choose to imagine. In the same manner these spots may furnish hints for composition, though they do not teach us how to finish any particular part.” 6 No one can hate drunkenness more than I do, but I am confident the human intellect owes its superiority over that of the lower animals in great measure to the stimulus which alcohol has given to imagination — imagination being little else than another name for illusion. As for wayside chapels, mine, when I am in London, are the shop windows with pretty things in them.

The flowers on the slopes above Prato are wonderful, and the village is full of nice bits for sketching, but the best thing, to my fancy, is the church, and the way it stands, and the lovely covered porch through which it is entered. This porch is not striking from the outside, but I took two sketches of it from within. There is, also, a fresco, half finished, of St. George and the Dragon, probably of the fifteenth century, and not without feeling. There is not much inside the church, which is modernised and more recent than the tower. The tower is very good, and only second, if second, in the upper Leventina to that of Quinto, which, however, is not nearly so well placed.

The people of Prato are just as fond of cherries as those of Primadengo, but I did not see any men in the trees. The children in these parts are the most beautiful and most fascinating that I know anywhere; they have black mouths all through the month of July from the quantities of cherries that they devour. I can bear witness that they are irresistible, for one kind old gentleman, seeing me painting near his house, used to bring me daily a branch of a cherry-tree with all the cherries on it. “Son piccole,” he would say, “ma son gustose”—“They are small, but tasty,” which indeed they were. Seeing I ate all he gave me — for there was no stopping short as long as a single cherry was left — he, day by day, increased the size of the branch, but no matter how many he brought I was always even with him. I did my best to stop him from bringing them, or myself from eating all of them, but it was no use.

Here is the autograph of one of the little black-mouthed folk. I watch them growing up from year to year in many a village. I was sketching at Primadengo, and a little girl of about three years came up with her brother, a boy of perhaps eight. Before long the smaller child began to set her cap at me, smiling, ogling, and showing all her tricks like an accomplished little flirt. Her brother said, “She always goes on like that to strangers.” I said, “What’s her name?” “Forolinda.” The name being new to me, I made the boy write it, and here it is. He has forgotten to cross his F, but the writing is wonderfully good for a boy of his age. The child’s name, doubtless, is Florinda.


More than once at Prato, and often elsewhere, people have wanted to buy my sketches: if I had not required them for my own use I might have sold a good many. I do not think my patrons intended giving more than four or five francs a sketch, but a quick worker, who could cover his three or four Fortuny panels a day, might pay his expenses. It often happens that people who are doing well in London or Paris are paying a visit to their native village, and like to take back something to remind them of it in the winter.

From Prato, there are two ways to Faido, one past an old castle, built to defend the northern entrance of the Monte Piottino, and so over a small pass which will avoid the gorge; and the other, by Dazio and the Monte Piottino gorge. Both are good.

5 In the index that Butler prepared in view of a possible second edition of Alps and Sanctuaries occurs the following entry under the heading “Waitee”: “All wrong; ‘waitee’ is ‘ohe, ti.’” He was subsequently compelled to abandon this eminently plausible etymology, for his friend the Avvocato Negri of Casale–Monferrato told him that the mysterious “waitee” is actually a word in the Ticinese dialect, and, if it were written, would appear as “vuaitee.” It means “stop” or “look here,” and is used to attract attention. Butler used to couple this little mistake of his with another that he made in The Authoress of the Odyssey, when he said, “Scheria means Jutland — a piece of land jutting out into the sea.” Jutland, on the contrary, means the land of the Jutes, and has no more to do with jutting than “waitee” has to do with waiting. — R. A. S.

6 Treatise on Painting, chap. cccxlix.

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