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

Chapter IV

Rossura, Calonico

Another day I went up to Rossura, a village that can be seen from the windows of the Hotel dell’ Angelo, and which stands about 3500 feet above the sea, or a little more than 1100 feet above Faido. The path to it passes along some meadows, from which the church of Calonico can be seen on the top of its rocks some few miles off. By and by a torrent is reached, and the ascent begins in earnest. When the level of Rossura has been nearly attained, the path turns off into meadows to the right, and continues — occasionally under magnificent chestnuts — till one comes to Rossura.

The church has been a good deal restored during the last few years, and an interesting old chapel — with an altar in it — at which mass was said during a time of plague, while the people stood some way off in a meadow, has just been entirely renovated; but as with some English churches, the more closely a piece of old work is copied the more palpably does the modern spirit show through it, so here the opposite occurs, for the old-worldliness of the place has not been impaired by much renovation, though the intention has been to make everything as modern as possible.

I know few things more touching in their way than the porch of Rossura church. It is dated early in the last century, and is absolutely without ornament; the flight of steps inside it lead up to the level of the floor of the church. One lovely summer Sunday morning, passing the church betimes, I saw the people kneeling upon these steps, the church within being crammed. In the darker light of the porch, they told out against the sky that showed through the open arch beyond them; far away the eye rested on the mountains — deep blue save where the snow still lingered. I never saw anything more beautiful — and these forsooth are the people whom so many of us think to better by distributing tracts about Protestantism among them!

While I was looking, there came a sound of music through the open door — the people lifting up their voices and singing, as near as I can remember, something which on the piano would come thus:-


I liked the porch almost best under an aspect which it no longer presents. One summer an opening was made in the west wall, which was afterwards closed because the wind blew through it too much and made the church too cold. While it was open, one could sit on the church steps and look down through it on to the bottom of the Ticino valley; and through the windows one could see the slopes about Dalpe and Cornone. Between the two windows there is a picture of austere old S. Carlo Borromeo with his hands joined in prayer.

It was at Rossura that I made the acquaintance of a word which I have since found very largely used throughout North Italy. It is pronounced “chow” pure and simple, but is written, if written at all, “ciau,” or “ciao,” the “a” being kept very broad. I believe the word is derived from “schiavo,” a slave, which, became corrupted into “schiao,” and “ciao.” It is used with two meanings, both of which, however, are deducible from the word slave. In its first and more common use it is simply a salute, either on greeting or taking leave, and means, “I am your very obedient servant.” Thus, if one has been talking to a small child, its mother will tell it to say “chow” before it goes away, and will then nod her head and say “chow” herself. The other use is a kind of pious expletive, intending “I must endure it,” “I am the slave of a higher power.” It was in this sense I first heard it at Rossura. A woman was washing at a fountain while I was eating my lunch. She said she had lost her daughter in Paris a few weeks earlier. “She was a beautiful woman,” said the bereaved mother, “but — chow. She had great talents — chow. I had her educated by the nuns of Bellinzona — chow. Her knowledge of geography was consummate — chow, chow,” &c. Here “chow” means “pazienza,” “I have done and said all that I can, and must now bear it as best I may.”

I tried to comfort her, but could do nothing, till at last it occurred to me to say “chow” too. I did so, and was astonished at the soothing effect it had upon her. How subtle are the laws that govern consolation! I suppose they must ultimately be connected with reproduction — the consoling idea being a kind of small cross which re-generates or re-creates the sufferer. It is important, therefore, that the new ideas with which the old are to be crossed should differ from these last sufficiently to divert the attention, and yet not so much as to cause a painful shock.

There should be a little shock, or there will be no variation in the new ideas that are generated, but they will resemble those that preceded them, and grief will be continued; there must not be too great a shock or there will be no illusion — no confusion and fusion between the new set of ideas and the old, and in consequence, there will be no result at all, or, if any, an increase in mental discord. We know very little, however, upon this subject, and are continually shown to be at fault by finding an unexpectedly small cross produce a wide diversion of the mental images, while in other cases a wide one will produce hardly any result. Sometimes again, a cross which we should have said was much too wide will have an excellent effect. I did not anticipate, for example, that my saying “chow” would have done much for the poor woman who had lost her daughter; the cross did not seem wide enough; she was already, as I thought, saturated with “chow.” I can only account for the effect my application of it produced by supposing the word to have derived some element of strangeness and novelty as coming from a foreigner — just as land which will give a poor crop, if planted with sets from potatoes that have been grown for three or four years on this same soil, will yet yield excellently if similar sets be brought from twenty miles off. For the potato, so far as I have studied it, is a good-tempered, frivolous plant, easily amused and easily bored, and one, moreover, which if bored, yawns horribly.

As an example of a cross proving satisfactory which I had expected would be too wide, I would quote the following, which came under my notice when I was in America. A young man called upon me in a flood of tears over the loss of his grandmother, of whose death at the age of ninety-three he had just heard. I could do nothing with him; I tried all the ordinary panaceas without effect, and was giving him up in despair, when I thought of crossing him with the well-known ballad of Wednesbury Cocking. 7 He brightened up instantly, and left me in as cheerful a state as he had been before in a desponding one. “Chow” seems to do for the Italians what Wednesbury Cocking did for my American friend; it is a kind of small spiritual pick-me-up, or cup of tea.

From Rossura I went on to Tengia, about a hundred and fifty feet higher than Rossura. From Tengia the path to Calonico, the next village, is a little hard to find, and a boy had better be taken for ten minutes or so beyond Tengia, Calonico church shows well for some time before it is actually reached. The pastures here are very rich in flowers, the tiger lilies being more abundant before the hay is mown, than perhaps even at Fusio itself. The whole walk is lovely, and the Gribbiasca waterfall, the most graceful in the Val Leventina, is just opposite.

How often have I not sat about here in the shade sketching, and watched the blue upon the mountains which Titian watched from under the chestnuts of Cadore. No sound except the distant water, or the croak of a raven, or the booming of the great guns in that battle which is being fought out between man and nature on the Biaschina and the Monte Piottino. It is always a pleasure to me to feel that I have known the Val Leventina intimately before the great change in it which the railway will effect, and that I may hope to see it after the present turmoil is over. Our descendants a image hundred years hence will not think of the incessant noise as though of cannonading with which we were so familiar. From nowhere was it more striking than from Calonico, the Monte Piottino having no sooner become silent than the Biaschina would open fire, and sometimes both would be firing at once. Posterity may care to know that another and less agreeable feature of the present time was the quantity of stones that would come flying about in places which one would have thought were out of range. All along the road, for example, between Giornico and Lavorgo, there was incessant blasting going on, and it was surprising to see the height to which stones were sometimes carried. The dwellers in houses near the blasting would cover their roofs with boughs and leaves to soften the fall of the stones. A few people were hurt, but much less damage was done than might have been expected. I may mention for the benefit of English readers that the tunnels through Monte Piottino and the Biaschina are marvels of engineering skill, being both of them spiral; the road describes a complete circle, and descends rapidly all the while, so that the point of egress as one goes from Airolo towards Faido is at a much lower level than that of ingress.

If an accident does happen, they call it a disgrazia, thus confirming the soundness of a philosophy which I put forward in an earlier work. Every misfortune they hold (and quite rightly) to be a disgrace to the person who suffers it; “Son disgraziato” is the Italian for “I have been unfortunate.” I was once going to give a penny to a poor woman by image the roadside, when two other women stopped me. “Non merita,” they said; “She is no deserving object for charity”— the fact being that she was an idiot. Nevertheless they were very kind to her.

7 See Appendix A.

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