Wanderings in Lombardy [116]

Written: in the spring of 1841
First published: in the Athenium Nos. 48 and 49, December 4 and 11, 1841
Signed: Friedrich Oswald


Athenäum No. 48, December 4, 1841

Thank God, we have left Basle behind! Such a barren town, full of frock-coats and cocked hats, philistines and patrician and Methodists, where nothing is fresh and vigorous but the trees around the brick-red cathedral and the colours of Holbein’s Passion, which can be seen among other paintings in the library here; such a hole-and-corner town, with all the ugliness of the Middle Ages and none of their beauty, cannot appeal to a young heart whose imagination is fully engaged with the Swiss Alps and Italy. Is the transition from Germany to Switzerland, from the mellow, vine-covered Margravate of Baden to Basle, perhaps so discouraging only in order that the impression made by she Alps later should be the more profound? The country through which we are travelling now is not the most beautiful either. On the right are the last spurs of the Jura, green and fresh, it is true, but without character; on the left the narrow Rhine, which also seems to have a horror of Basle, so slowly does it crawl down dale, and beyond the Rhine another little piece of Germany. Gradually we move away from the green river, the road goes uphill, and we ascend the outermost spur of the Jura, which pushes forward between the Aar and the Rhine. Then suddenly the scenery changes. A sunny, cheerful valley lies before us, no, three or four valleys. The Aar, Reuss 2Lnd Limmat, visible for long stretches, wind through the hills and join their waters; villages and townlets lie along their banks, and in the distance one mountain chain after another rises like the tiers of a giant amphitheatre behind the row of hills in front; here and there snow glistens through the mists which hover round the most distant summits, and Pilatus rises above the mass of peaks as if it were sitting in judgment like the Judaean governor of old who gave it his name — these are the Alps!

We go downhill quickly and only now that the Alps are near become aware that we are in Switzerland. Swiss dress and Swiss architecture make their appearance with Swiss scenery. The language sounds more beautiful, more refined than the Basle dialect, to which the portliness of patrician city life has lent a materialistic, uncouth broadness; the countenances become freer, more open, more vivacious, the cocked hat gives way to the round hat, the long, trailing coat-tails to the short velvet jacket. — The little town of Brugg soon lies behind us, and following the road we cross the swift, green rivers; as our eyes pass rapidly over all the charming and quickly changing views, we leave the Aar and Reuss with the Hapsburg, the ruins of which look down from a wooded summit, and enter the Limmat valley to follow it as far as Zurich.

I had to spend a day in Zurich, and on the way to the promised land of Gerinan youth a day is quite a considerable delay. What could I expect of Zurich? Would the stay be rewarding? I admit, since the September affair and the victory of the Pfäffikon guardians of Zion, [117] I could not picture Zurich as anything but a second Basle and thought with dismay of the day I had already given up as lost. In my innocence I no longer thought of the lake at all, particularly since the showers which, after continuous sunshine, had at last overtaken me between Basle and Zurich promised me a wet day. But when on awakening I saw a blue morning sky over the sunny mountains I quickly sprang up and hurried out. Sauntering off at random I came to a sort of terrace surrounded by gardens and surmounted by old trees. A noticeboard informed me that the gardens were public and so I climbed briskly up. Then I saw the lake lying before me, glistening in the morning sun, steaming with early mist, enclosed by densely wooded mountains, and for the first moment I was quite overcome by a certain naive astonishment at the existence of such a strikingly beautiful landscape. A kindly citizen of Zurich whom I accosted told me that up there on the Ütliberg the view was so beautiful that the people of Zurich called their mountain the little Rigi [Peak in the Swiss Alps famed for its beauty], and not entirely without justification. I took a look at the top; it was the highest in the Albis chain, which runs along the south-western side of the lake, and, in general, higher than the other mountains you could see. I asked the way and set off forthwith. After one and a half hours’ march I was at the top.

Here the lake lay before me in its full length with all its scintillating play of green and blue, with the town and the innumerable houses on its hilly shores, and there, on the other side of the Albis, a valley full of green meadows into which light oak and dark fir woods descended, a green sea with hills for waves in which the houses lay like ships, and to the south, on the horizon, the glistening chain of glaciers, from the jungfrau to the Septimer and Julier; and from the blue sky above the May sun poured the glory of its rays over the world in its Sunday finery, so that lake and field and mountain vied in their radiance and there was no end to the splendour.

Tired from looking I went into the wooden house which stands on the summit and ordered a drink. I received it, together with the visitors’ book. We all know what is to be found in books of this kind: every philistine regards them as institutions for securing immortality, in which he can transmit his obscure name and one of his exceedingly trivial thoughts to posterity. The duller he is, the longer the commentaries with which he accompanies his name. Merchants want to prove that besides coffee, train-oil or cotton, beautiful nature, which has created all this and even gold itself, still holds a tiny corner in their hearts; ladies give expression to their gushing sentiments, students to their high spirits and impertinence, and sage schoolmasters write out nature a bombastic certificate of maturity. “Magnificent Otli, Rigi’s dangerous rival!” a doctor of the illiberal arts began to apostrophise in Ciceronian style. In annoyance, I turned the page and left all the Germans, French, and English unread. Then I found a sonnet by Petrarch in Italian which in translation sounds roughly like this:

I soared in spirit to the abode up there
Of her I seek below but never find.
Gentle the looks that once avoided mine —
So stood she in the third celestial sphere.

Taking my hand, she softly said, “No tear
Can flow where we may never be disjoined.
’tis I that long disturbed your peace of mind,
Returning all too soon to my home here.

“Oh, that man’s mind my joy might understand!
I seek but you, and the form that you loved
And that I left down there so long ago.”

Why did she say no more, let go my hand?
A little more of that sweet sound, I know,
And then from Heaven had I never moved. [118]

The person who had copied this out was called Joachim Triboni from Genoa and by this entry at once became my friend. For the more hollow and nonsensical the other comments, the more sharply this sonnet stood out against such a background, and the more it moved me. Where nature displays all its magnificence, where the idea that is slumbering within it seems, if not to awaken, then to be dreaming a golden dream, the man who can feel and say nothing except “Nature, how beautiful you are!” has no right to think himself superior to the ordinary, shallow, confused mass. In a more profound mind, however, individual sorrows and sufferings rise, only to be merged in the splendour of nature and to dissolve in gentle reconciliation. This reconciliation could hardly be expressed more beautifully than in this sonnet. But there was yet another circumstance which made me a friend of that Genoese. So another before me had brought his lover’s grief to this summit; so I did not stand there alone with a heart that only a month ago had been filled with infinite bliss and now was torn and desolate. And what pain has more right to speak out in face of the beauty of nature than the noblest and most profound of all personal sorrows, the sorrow of love?

I gazed over the green valleys once more and then went down the mountain to take a closer look at the town. It lies round the narrow end of the lake like an amphitheatre and from the lake too presents a charming aspect with its surrounding villages and country-houses. The streets also stand out because of their handsome new buildings. I learned from an evening conversation with an old traveller that this state of affairs had not existed for very long. He could not marvel enough how much more beautiful the old Zurich had become over the last six years and how brilliantly the previous government had enhanced the outward dignity of the Republic by erecting public buildings. Today, when a certain party cannot throw enough mud at that government’s corpse, the fact deserves mention that during its lifetime it not only had the unprecedented courage to appoint a Strauss, but also performed other governmental duties with honour.

The next morning I left for the south. First the road ran along the whole length of the lake to Rapperswil and Schmirikon, a marvellous road through gardens, country-houses and picturesquely grouped, vine-clad villages; on the other side of the lake the long, dark-green Albis ridge with its luxuriant foot-hills, and to the south, where the mountains divide, the dazzling peaks of the Glarner Alps. In the middle of the lake an island appears, Ufnau, the grave of Ulrich von Hutten. To fight like him for the free idea and thus to rest from strife and toil — what more could one ask for? Lulled by the subdued pounding of the green waves breaking against the hero’s grave with a sound like the distant clash of arms and battle-cries, guarded by giants armoured in ice and eternally youthful, the Alps! And then a Georg Herwegh, as representative of the German youth, making a pilgrimage to this grave and laying upon it his songs, the most beautiful expression of the ideas which inspire the young generation — that outweighs statues and monuments.

A fair was being held in Usenet, where the road led after leaving the lake, and the inside of the mail-coach, which I had hitherto occupied by myself, filled up with people returning from the fair, who gradually began to feel the effects of the previous riotous night and fell asleep, leaving me to my reflections. A most beautiful valley received us now; soft-sweeping hills clothed in green meadows and crowned with woods enveloped us; for the first time I saw here at close range the peculiarly shaded green of the Swiss forests which are a mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees, and I cannot describe the profound impression it made on me. This mixture, which brings out light and dark shades equally, lends great charm even to monotonous country, and although the grouping of mountain and valley here was not unusual it was surprising to find an area where almost all the beauty lay in the colouring; this made the colouring all the more beautiful. There was enough sublime and austere nature awaiting me on the way to the heights of the Alpine chain; but this softness and grace I found again only on the Italian side.

In the meantime I was soon again at the foot of higher mountains whose peaks, though below the snow-line, were still white now, in May. Through valleys now narrow now wider, we went along the canal which links the Lake of Zurich with the Lake of Wallenstädt. Soon the latter lay before me. Here the countryside is already of a very different character from that around the Lake of Zurich; the basin lies almost unapproachable between steep rocks which rise directly out of the water and leave only a narrow opening at either end of the lake. A poor steamboat took on the coach travellers, and soon Weesen, the little town where we had embarked, disappeared as the mountains closed in. All traces of human activity were left behind us, the steamboat paddled lonely into the beautiful wilderness, deeper and deeper into this silent realm of nature; the green heads of the waves, the snowy mountain tops and the waterfalls which gushed down from them here and there, glistened in the bright sunshine. Occasionally a green, wooded gorge or a patch of meadowland smiled among the white-grey granite of the rocks, and in the distance the thin veil of mist which rose from the lake blurred into soft, violet shades against the mountain background. it was the kind of country which all but challenges the human spirit to that personification of the spirit of nature which we find in folk legend where the fissured rocks with their snowy crowns take on the lines of old men’s faces with deep furrows and silver locks and the green flowing hair of bewitching mermaids rises from the clear waves. Gradually the pressing walls opened a little, spurs thickly covered with bushes protruded into the lake, and a white streak shimmered through the blue mist — the houses of Wallenstädt which lies at the end of the lake. We disembarked and proceeded cheerfully on to Chur, above our heads the rocky chain whose highest peaks are called Die sieben Kurfürsten. In their petrified ermine coats, their crowns of snow gilded by the evening sun, the severe gentlemen sat there as solemnly as if they were assembled in the Römer in Frankfurt to elect the Emperor, undisturbed by the shouting and jostling of the people at their feet throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the constitution of which had, with the passage of time, become as petrified as its seven representatives here. [119] Such names in the mouth of the people, by the way, are proof of how thoroughly German the Swiss are, however little they themselves may like to admit it. I shall perhaps return to this theme later in more detail and therefore leave it for the present.

Now we went deeper and deeper into the rocks; places where the hand of man had imparted a milder aspect to nature in the raw became ever more infrequent; the castle of Sargans clung to a perpendicular cliff like a swallow’s nest, until at Ragatz the trees finally found enough earth on the stony ground to be able to clothe it in dense forest. Here, too, a castle lies on the slope, but it is in ruins, just as in general the passes from one river valley to the next here rather frequently show. such traces of club-law. At Ragatz the valley widens again, the mountains retreat in awe before the mighty genius of the young river which has vigorously struck a passage for itself through the granite giants at Gotthard and Splügen and now swells towards its great destiny with the pride and courage of youth; it is the Rhine which we now greet again. In a broad bed it rolls on solemnly over gravel and sand, but from the widely scattered rocks one can see how wildly it lashes out when it has had enough of indolent comfort and braces itself in a destructive mood. From here onward its valley forms the road which leads up to Chur and from there to the Splügen pass.

In Chur there already begins the language mixture which reigns throughout the whole of the highest part of the Alps. German, Romanic and Italian in the Lombardic dialect were all to be heard at the coach-station. Romanic, the language of the mountain dwellers of Graubünden, has been much discussed by philologists, yet it is still veiled in a mysterious darkness. Some have tried to group it with the main Romance languages in respect of independence; others have sought French elements in it without considering how these could have penetrated there. If this idiom is to be honoured with some attention, the thing that most naturally suggests itself is to compare it with the neighbouring dialects. But so far this has not been done. The little I was able to gather during my transit from people who know the language indicates that in word formation it is very closely related to the neighbouring Lombardic idiom and differs from the latter only dialectally. Everything that has been taken for French influence is to be found again south of the Alps.

The next morning we went from Chur further up the Rhine along a broad valley surrounded by wild rocks. After a few hours a precipitous mountain face loomed out of the thin morning mist, crowned with the ruins of a castle, and placed itself straight across the road. The valley seemed to be blocked ahead of us and we could only advance through a narrow gorge. A slim white tower rose up before us; it belongs to Thusis, or, as the Lombards say, Tosana, which means Maidentown. It is beautifully situated in a narrow hollow enclosed by sheer towering rocks; the one most difficult of access bears the ruins of the castle of Hohenrhätien. There is no greater seclusion than that to which nature has condemned this village, and yet even here men have been stronger than nature; as if to spite it they have laid the highway through the middle of Thusis and every day carry Englishmen, merchants, and tourists over it. — After Thusis the Alpine chain which we had to cross by evening began to rise steeply. I abandoned the coach and walked along the road, fortified by a glass of Veltliner, which is to be had here at its best. There is no other road like it in the whole world. Hewn into overhanging rock it winds upwards through the gorges which the Rhine has quarried for itself. Giant perpendicular granite walls stand rigid on either side of the path, which in many places even the midday sun does not reach, and far down below the wild mountain torrent rages and thunders through fissured rock, uprooting firs, rolling boulders like a furious titan on whose chest a god has flung two mountains. The last defiant mountains, unwilling to bow to the all-conquering domination of man, seem to have sought refuge here, gathering in rank and file to defend their freedom; terrifying and stern, they gaze upon the traveller, and in imagination one hears their voice: “Come here, man, if you dare; scale our summits and sow your corn in the furrows of our brows; but up there the sense of your smallness will grip you and make you dizzy, the ground will give way beneath you, and you will be dashed to pieces as you plunge from jagged rock to jagged rock. You may drive your roads between us; every year our ally, the Rhine, will descend swollen in wrath and tear your work to pieces!”

Nowhere is this resistance of the power of nature to the human spirit so colossal, one might almost say so conscious of itself, as here. The lonely horror of the road and the former danger of this Alpine crossing have given it the name of Via mala. Today it is different, of course. Here, too, spirit has conquered nature and like a linking ribbon the road goes on from rock to rock, safe, comfortable, almost indestructible, and negotiable at all seasons of the year. Yet an awful feeling of fear creeps over one at the sight of the menacing rocks; they seem to be brooding on vengeance and liberation.

Athenäum No. 49, December 11, 1841

Gradually the gorge widens, however, the rushing cataracts become rarer, the bed of the Rhine, which often had to push its way through defiles measured only in inches, expands, the steep walls become more sloping and recede farther back, a green valley opens and Andeer, a little village known to the people of Graubünden and the Veltlin valley as a spa, lies in the centre of this first terrace of the Splilgen. The vegetation here is much more sparse, which is all the more striking as neither leaves nor grass were to be seen from Thusis until here and only fir-trees were able to cling to the steep cliffs. But even so it was comforting to the eye to see a valley green with meadows, a bushy slope, after all the gloomy, grey-brown granite walls. Directly after Andeer we ascended a steep slope up which the road snaked in a thousand convolutions. I left these to the coach and scrambled up the scree, through bushes and densely tangled creepers, to the point where the road turned towards the other side of the mountain. There the green valley lay deep below me, threaded by the Rhine, whose thunder again came echoing across to me. One more glance down in greeting and then onward. The road led me between sloping rocks, high as the sky, into a hollow, again into the most forsaken loneliness in the world. I leant against the parapet and looked down into the Rhine, which formed a pool under dark-leaved trees. The still, green surface over which the boughs bent hiding secret little corners everywhere with their foliage, the mossy walls of rock, the sunbeams which penetrated here and there — all held a peculiar magic. The murmur of the quietened river sounded almost intelligible, like the talking of those beautiful swan maidens who come flying over the mountains from afar to strip off their swan’s plumage in a secluded secret spot and bathe in the snow-cold wave under the green branches. In between the thunder of the cataracts rang out like the angry voice of the river spirit berating them for their lack of circumspection, for they know they must follow the man who robs them of their swan’s plumage and a whole stage-coach full of maiden-oglers is already arriving, and in an case it is not becoming for females to bathe near the open highway, even if they are romantic swan maidens. But the beautiful nymphs laugh at the anxious old man for they know, of course, that no one sees them except he to whom the dreaming life of nature has been revealed, and that he will do them no harm.

Every moment it was becoming cooler between the mountains; about noon, after some climbing, I found the first snow, and suddenly, heated as I was from rapid climbing and running in the burning sun, I felt a marked chill in the air. This was the temperature of the second terrace in this pass on which the village of Splügen is situated, the last place where German is spoken, between high mountains against whose green walls the dark-brown chalets stand out. The midday meal was taken in a house which was arranged completely in Italian style and had only stone floors and thick stone walls even in the upper storeys; then the journey was continued up an almost vertical rock face. In a wooded gorge among the last trees which I saw on this side of the Alps, lay an avalanche, a broad river of snow which had rolled down from the steeper walls. It was not long before desolate gorges began where the mountain torrents thunder under a firm, vaulted cover of snow and the naked rocks are barely covered with patches of moss. The snow lay thicker and spread further. Right at the top a path had been cut out for the road on either side of which the snow was three or even four times as high as a man. I dug steps into the snow wall with my heels and clambered up. A broad, snow-white valley lay before me in the middle of which rose a grey roof, the Austrian customs-house, the first building on the Italian side of the Alps. The inspection of our luggage at this house, during which I successfully concealed my Varinas [tobacco] from the eyes of the frontier guards, gave me leisure to look around a little. On all sides bare, grey layers of rock, their summits covered with snow, a valley in which not a blade of grass was to be seen for snow, much less a bush or a tree, in short, a dreadful, forsaken desert above which Italian and German winds meet and continually drive grey clouds towards each other, a solitude more terrible than the Sahara and more prosaic than the Lüneburger Heide, a region where it snows for nine months and rains for three months year in, year out — that was my first sight of Italy. But then we descended rapidly, the snow disappeared, and where the white winter cover had barely melted yesterday, yellow and blue crocuses were already coming up today, the grass began to grow green, bushes appeared again, then trees with white waterfalls tumbling down between them, and the foaming Liro flowed far below in a valley full of violet shadows, gleaming snowy white through dark chestnut avenues; the air grew warmer and warmer although the sun was already sinking behind the mountains, and in Campo Dolcino we were already among real Italians, if not in real Italy. The inhabitants of the little village crowded around our coach and chattered in their rough nasal Lombardic dialect about the horses, the vehicle and the travellers; all true Italian faces, their vigorous expression heightened by thick black hair and beard. We went on quickly, down the Liro, between meadows and woods, through innumerable huge granite blocks hurled down from the Alpine peaks who knows when, whose sharp black jags and edges looked strange against the light-green background of the meadows. A row of beautiful villages, leaning against the rocks, with their slender, snow-white church towers in particular S. Maria di Galivaggio, pass before our eyes; at last the valley opens up and in a bend rises the tower of Chiavenna or in German Kliwen, one of the chief towns in the Veltlin valley. Chiavenna is a completely Italian town with tall houses and narrow streets where one hears passionate Lombardic outbursts everywhere: fiocul d'ona putana, porco della Madonna, etc. While an Italian supper and Veltliner wine claimed our attention here, the sun was sinking behind the Alps of Rhäticon; an Austrian coach with an Italian condottiere and an escorting carabiniere picked us up and we set off for Lake Como. The moon stood full and clear in the dark-blue sky where here and there a star began to shine. The sunset flamed high, gilding the mountain peaks, and a magnificent southern night drew on. So I continued through the green vineyard country, the vines climbing over arbours and into the tops of mulberry trees; the warm air of Italy breathed upon me ever more mildly, the magic of a land never known but long dreamed of sent a. sweet thrill through me, and beholding in spirit the glories my eye was to see, I fell blissfully asleep.