Massimo Lollini

For a more than human humanism

Posts from the ‘More than human humanism’ category

What can a great novel from the past teach us in the time of the Covid-19 virus? Part 1, Introduction, clarifies the importance of The Betrothed (1840) and its close link with the History of the column of Infamy. Part 2, Contagion in the Betrothed, describes how Manzoni narrating the plague that struck Milan in 1630 reveals political, social and cultural mechanisms very similar to ours struggling with the Corona virus contagion. Part 3, Ethical consciousness and justice in the History of the column of infamy analyzes the responsibilities of the judges who sent to torture the alleged infectors (untori) and then sentenced them to death. The final section, part 4, –What justice? Whose justice?– suggests the lessons that can still be drawn today from Manzoni’s story, regarding not only the mechanisms of contagion but also the problems of torture and justice.

1. Introduction

Manzoni’s I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) and History of the column of Infamy are intertwined and must be considered together. In fact, the last edition of the Betrothed edited by Manzoni in 1840 also included in the appendix the History of the column of Infamy and illustrations by a famous romantic painter, Francesco Gonin, carefully selected by Manzoni himself. 
I use the sketches of these images curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco in my post.

Unfortunately, the reception of this unitary work followed a different path as in the subsequent centuries until today The Betrothed has been usually published as a standalone work while the History of the column of Infamy has been substantially forgotten as an interesting but ultimately separated scholarly and historiographic work as opposed to the artistic and entertaining fiction of the novel.

Thus, quite often when people hear about Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873) as the great Italian Romantic writer regrettably they only hear in depths about The Betrothed. Of course, this work should be considered one of the most important European novels of the nineteenth century and one of the masterpieces of world literature. Nevertheless, as we will see, to set aside the History of the column of Infamy has upsetting consequences on the understanding and interpretation of the novel itself. 

In Italy, The Betrothed has been studied as an expression of romantic nation-building and as a canonical example of the Italian language with the same importance in this regard as Dante’s Divine comedy. Therefore, in the reading of the novel, the love story with an assumed happy ending with the marriage between the two protagonists was privileged, without adequately considering the history of the seventeenth-century wars, famine, and plague that constitute the tragic background to the love story.

However, in recent years critical attention tends to reverse itself and consider the protagonist of the novel exactly what was once thought to be the background of the novel. In other words, it is recognized that the writer’s attention transcends the love story in significant key moments focusing on the tragedies of European history embracing an ethical perspective. From this point of view, the novel does not have a happy conclusion and remains without an idyll, as the famous critic Ezio Raimondi wrote.  

This is true for two main reasons. First, the two betrothed do not completely solve their existential and economic problems with marriage. Secondly, they realize that their personal story is linked to and depends on social events and the history’s tragedies. Finally, the story told in the novel is connected to the History of the Column of infamy that Manzoni wanted as the Betrothed‘s necessary appendix. In this perspective, the meaning of the novel, including the idea of divine Providence, must be integrated with the tragic dimension of the History of the column of infamy

2. The contagion in the Betrothed 

Manzoni sets his novel in 1628, during the oppressive years of direct Spanish rule in Milan and Lombardy. As happens in every great work of literature here the local dimension becomes the occasion for more general ethical reflections that aspire to have a broader value. Indeed, the most evident occasion for such reflections becomes the extraordinary description based on historical data of the plague that struck Milan around 1630. Towards the end of the novel, in chapter 31 Manzoni tells plague contagion’s intricated origin. Gonin introduces this chapter with this allegory of the plague.  

Francesco Gonin, Allegory of the Plague

Manzoni description is impressive also because it makes us realize how some political, socio-linguistic, medical, and psychological dynamics of Seventeenth-century Milanese society are still present today in a community like ours struggling with the Corona virus contagion. 

The contagion was brought to Lombardy by German troops’ descent; they were allied with the Spanish ones who opposed the French ones in the war of succession of the state of Mantua. The physician Ludovico Settala was the first to report the plague to the Commission of Health. He alarmed the authorities, urging precise and rapid interventions. However, political and medical authorities did not believe him and failed to take the timely decisions that were needed to contain the contagion.

The Spanish governor Ambrogio Spinola was busy with the war and told the authorities to take care of this problem because he had more important things to think about. Therefore, the law that imposed the sanitary norms to protect Milan was not issued until when the plague had already entered Milan provoking thousands of deaths and the lock down of thousands of infected people in a special hospital named the Lazzaretto. 

The contagion’s spread was also favored by another negligent attitude of both the political and religious powers. They were unable to renounce the public display of the symbols of their reciprocal powers even in the nefarious time of the plague epidemic. On the one hand, although informed of the plague, Governor Spinola decreed public festivities for the birth of Prince Carlos, the firstborn son of King Philip IV. He was uncaring of the danger of a great public gathering in those circumstances, “just as if the times had been normal, and no one had mentioned the plague to him at all” (432), Manzoni writes. This behavior may remind us of some political rallies of our day at the time of the Corona virus. 

On the other hand, the continuous increase in deaths pushed the Milanese public authorities to ask Cardinal Borromeo for authorization to carry out a solemn religious procession through the streets. The goal was to expose the venerated body of St. Charles and thus invoking divine help to contain the terrible calamity. The procession was held with an incredible crowd of people and crossed the entire city. You may see in this image and the following how Gonin represents this procession.

Francesco Gonin, The procession

The following day, however, the spread of the infections and the deaths from the disease increased dramatically due to the multiplication of contacts between people gathered in the street.  

Given the ill-informed and dismissing attitude of the authorities, most people took a denier and superstitious attitude. They started believing that particularly dreadful humans, the anointers, or plague-spreaders (untori) caused the plague. Supposedly, they were driven by political reasons or by perverse murderous tendencies. They would go around to scatter and stain things and public places like churches with poisonous unguents and greasy things.  Here is how Gonin imagined one of these scenes in Milan’s cathedral.

Francesco Gonin, Anointers in the Cathedral

The following image represents what happened in another church, the church of St. Anthony, where an old man after having prayed a little on his knees, wanted to sit down. First, he dusted the bench with the hood; for this reason, he was mistaken for an infector, savagely beaten, and taken to the police where he was tortured (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, The old man beaten in the Church of St. Anthony

The belief that plague was artfully scattered among the populations is ancient. Livy records it in his History of Rome, but this belief did not endure in the following centuries. In his famous Decameron, Boccaccio attributes the origin of the plague that hit Florence in 1348 to the just wrath of God to correct human iniquity or to the movement of heavenly bodies. But in seventeenth century, as Manzoni testifies, that ancient belief reappears and spread in even more perverse forms justified by medical, juridical, and political discourses. 

Foreigners, especially French people who were enemies of the Spaniards dominating Milan, were suspected as such to be responsible for the spreading of the plague; they were often arrested in the streets by the people and taken to the police (Betrothed, Chap. XXXII).

Francesco Gonin, Three young French comrades

Similarly, today in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Chinese citizens have been subjected to gratuitous violence in Italy and elsewhere.  

In the end, the opinion that prevailed in Milan set aside political conspiracy by the French and focused on a delinquent conspiracy instead that was assumed to have the only intent of preparing for disorders, robbery, and looting. Citizen obsessed by the fear of the contagion identified some Milanese people as anointers and plague-spreaders. They were subjected to torture and under torture, they admitted being guilty of something that they did not do. Therefore, they were sentenced to death.  

This story which is at the center of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy is anticipated in the novel at the end of chapter 32. Before analyzing this historical work, I would like to underline an ethical reflection on the use of language in relation to the plague that Manzoni develops at the end of chapter 31. Then, just as today, language could become the tool to escape from an unwanted reality or, as some would say today, to build an alternative reality. At first, the authorities prohibited using the word plague, and used the expression “pestilential fever” instead. As Manzoni writes, the idea was admitted only indirectly in the adjective. He adds, 

“Then it was not real plague – that is to say, it was plague, but only in a certain sense; not true plague, but something for which no other name
could be found. Finally, it was plague without any doubt or contradiction.
But already another idea – the idea of poison and sorcery – had become attached to it, which altered and confused the meaning of the word that could no longer be suppressed.” (444)

In recent months, we have witnessed the same process of progressive denial of the contagion with the definition of Covid-19 as a kind of flu. Then, as something more dangerous than the regular flu, finally, for some political authorities the virus became a “Chinese virus”, altering and confusing the meaning of a word that could no longer be suppressed. The general reflection on the pitfalls of the use of language that Manzoni develops is especially important. It is worth pondering it with full attention.  

He writes that in defining “little as much as in great things, this long and winding path (in the use of language) could be avoided by following the method laid down for so long, of observing, listening, comparing, and thinking before speaking” (Ibidem). In other words, he suggests that instead of following the political powers and their supporting crowds in using words in a confused and uncontrolled way, one should always go back to the sources of the discourses, think of their motivations, and confront them with critical attention. Always valid advice, especially in a time like ours overwhelmed by fakes news and alternative facts.  

Manzoni’s advice is not based on moralism, which limits itself to establishing what is good and what is bad, but on ethics that instead makes us understand the conditions and restrictions within which good and evil are practicable. And he concludes by saying, 

“But speaking by itself is so much easier than all the others put together, that we, too – I mean we humans in general – ought to some extent to be forgiven” (Ibidem).

In short, he is saying that speaking immediately and reactively is much easier than comparing and thinking critically. For this reason, all human beings and therefore the writer included should be excused for their mistakes. [*back to Introduction]

3. Ethical consciousness and justice in the History of the column of infamy 

In the History of the Column of infamy Manzoni deepens the ethical reflection which is no longer limited to indicating general, political, medical, and cultural responsibilities for the spread of the plague. In the novel, Manzoni had already underlined, like other writers starting from Livy (Ab Urbe Condita, XXV, 26) to Boccaccio (Decameron I, 8-48) before him, the general barbarization of human consciences and behaviors during the contagion. At this point, in the Column of Infamy he goes further, as no one else had done before him; he wants to understand the individual responsibilities that led to the torture and death sentence of the alleged infectors. In this context he addresses the question of human and divine justice. 

In the Introduction, he clarifies that his intent is different from that of Enlightenment writers such as Pietro Verri (1728-1797). In his work Osservazioni sulla tortura (On torture, 1804), Verri had examined the same facts narrated in Manzoni’s work just to persuade to abolish torture as ineffective in reaching the truth and establishing guilt. For Manzoni, instead “more general observations” can be drawn from the events of the Column of Infamy on an ethical level and on the sense of human justice.  

For Manzoni, Divine Providence cannot be blamed as the cause of the plague or as an agent reluctant or unable to stop the killing of so many people, including the supposed anointers. “The denial or indictment of Providence is equally blasphemous” (556), as he writes. In this sense, the presumed plague-spreaders’ torture and death sentence were not the inevitable results neither of a divine decree nor of an irredeemably biased system. Instead, for Manzoni, they must be attributed to the judges’ unjust and discriminating attitude as emerges from the trial documents that he cites.

Manzoni’s narration is meticulous. First, he describes how in a Milan devastated by the plague 2 women one after the other looking from a window noticed someone walking on the street next to a wall of a house holding a paper and a pen.

Francesco Gonin, Illustration of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy, Chapt. 1.

That man eventually grazed or touched the wall of the house. Given the plague’s circumstances, they immediately developed the “crazy suspicion” (561) that the walker wanted to poison the walls. Also, they drew the attention of the neighbors to this situation that they believed extremely dangerous for the spread of the infection. The neighbors immediately went to the street and burned the material presumably spread by the alleged anointer. The barber Giangiacomo Mora was also convinced that the wall of his shop had been tainted with unguents. The man considered as the infector was immediately identified and arrested; his name was Guglielmo Piazza and he was a health commissioner. 

Manzoni underlines how the same irrational and unfounded persuasion of the culpability of the alleged anointers suggested by the two women penetrates immediately the conscience of the authorities and judges without any form of serious legal validation. The terrible accuses –full of what Manzoni calls “lamentable assurance” (562; “deplorabile certezza”)– passed without checking or correction from the mouth of the street people into that of the judges.  

The contagion and the threat of the plague, silenced any form of ethical conscience and led all the categories of the population to disregard the meaning of justice. Those judges and the crowds they want to please are “plague victims” infected by evil, by a spiritual contagion (Givone, 203). Everyone did not see what was in front of everybody and only saw what they wanted to see, following their prejudices, eliminating any rational inquiry, and surrendering to insane fears and unsupported beliefs. As Manzoni writes,

It is a relief to think that if they did not know what they were doing, it was because they did not want to know it, because of that ignorance that humans assume and lose at will, and it is not an excuse, but a guilt.

The only way to escape the plague is to avoid spiritual contagion by adopting an ethic of truth, judging, and speaking that recognizes the conditions and limitations of the human search for truth. As he already wrote in his Osservazioni sulla morale cattolica (1819), “humans may sometimes have the duty to speak for the truth, but never to make it triumph” (8).

 Manzoni concludes, “fear and fury, when not controlled by reason and charity, are unhappily liable, on the flimsiest pretexts and following the wildest assertions, to presume the guilt of men who are simply unfortunate” (564). In this way, Manzoni’s ethical reflection touches on a serious drawback in the administration of justice of which there is ample confirmation over the centuries up to our days.

After the arrest, Piazza was questioned by the judges without informing him of the specific accusation. He denied knowing anything about the anointing of the walls. The judges then subjected him to torture 3 times.

Francesco Gonin, The torture of Piazza

Manzoni insists that torture was applied in open disregard of the legal rules governing the use of torture as a means of making the accused confess. Torture was permitted at that time but only in profoundly serious cases and with great caution. The Senate’s decree approving the torture was not even misapplication of the law; it proceeded as though there were no law. Manzoni writes.  

“In the teeth of all law and all accepted authorities, not to speak of all reason, it ordered that Piazza be tortured anew ‘because of some lies and implausibilities’; that is to say, the Senate ordered its ministers to do again, and still more cruelly, what it ought to have punished them for doing in the first place. For it was a universally admitted principle of jurisprudence that a subordinate judge who had put a man to torture without due evidence of guilt should be punished by his superiors.” (586)

Piazza was treated as a criminal possessed by the devil and had to undergo humiliating rituals like completely shaving, stripping, and purging, before being cruelly tortured. It is hardly necessary to mention that a few centuries later prisoners of Nazi concentration camps will be subjected to this same sinister ritual. Piazza was then “tied by the rope” and his hands, as well as arms, were dislocated. Nonetheless, he continued to deny any knowledge of the presumed anointing of the walls. Finally, he was promised impunity if he had confessed everything and revealed the leader and accomplices of the anointing.  

The procedure by which this proposal of impunity was authorized was also illegal because the judges could not promise impunity on their own initiative and did not inform the governor who was the only legitimate authority that could grant such a privilege. Regrettably, Piazza decided that it was acceptable or inevitable for him to unjustly accuse someone else of a crime that he himself had not committed despite the false confession extorted by torture. He pointed to the barber Mora as to the person that had given him the ointment. He also accused seven other people to be part of the conspiracy including two artisans, Migliavacca and his son Gaspare.  

The barber Mora who was unaware of the allegations, was arrested along with his son. He was illegally subjected to the rope’s torture until –because of the excruciating suffering– he confessed to a crime that he had not actually committed.

Francesco Gonin, The torture of the barber Mora

Piazza was also illegally tortured two more times to have him confirm the alleged confession. The judges threatened him to waive the immunity he had just been granted if he did not denounce the allegedly prominent leader of the plague conspiracy. Piazza denounced a noble person, the Spanish officer Padilla. 

Political authorities and the people wanted a scapegoat, someone to punish for the spread of the plague. The judges did not listen to their conscience but to the pressures of politics and the people. They concluded the investigations quickly without respecting the formality of law. The promise of impunity was canceled with as much illegality as when it was granted. The death penalty is soon executed for both Piazza and Mora. They were put on a cart and subjected to a ritual of inhuman cruelty.  

While taken to the place of the sentence they were grabbed in various parts of the body with red-hot pincers. Their right hand was cut off, their bones were broken on the wheel, while they were still alive, their bodies twisted into the wheel and lifted from the ground. After six hours of excruciating pain, they were slaughtered. The ashes of the burned corpses were thrown into the river; the house of the barber was demolished and on the space it occupied before, the Spanish government erected a granite column and an imposing memorial stone written in Latin to have the future generations remember the infamy committed by the anointers.

Francesco Gonin, The column of infamy
[*back to Introduction]

4. Some concluding remarks: What justice? Whose justice

A few days after the execution of the two main “anointers,” seven others alleged untori were sentenced to death with the above-mentioned ritual of torture. Only one of them, Migliavacca’s son, always denied his alleged crimes despite the painful tortures. It should be added that with Mora and the lower and poor class the judges proceeded with great speed and lack of serious legal analysis; but with Padilla –the above-mentioned noble Spaniard falsely accused by Piazza of being the head of the conspiracy of the anointers– they acted very differently.

Padilla was offered the possibility of defending himself and was not tortured. During the interrogations, he consistently denied any participation in the conspiracy. In the end, the judges acquitted him without realizing, as Manzoni points out in chapter six, that by declaring innocent the alleged head of the conspiracy Padilla, implicitly they declared unjust and deceptive the ways of their condemnations of his alleged accomplices.  

The judges were defined by the public opinion as zealous defenders of law and homeland security when they in reality were the perpetrators of a terrible judicial crime leading to the murder of innocent people, as Manzoni writes at the end of chapter six. However, for Manzoni Piazza was not only unfortunate for being forced to make false statement about himself; but he was also guilty for defaming the barber Mora that in the end was tortured and sentenced to death along with him.  

Nonetheless, grounding his account on historical data Manzoni records that both Piazza and Mora before death, had the religious people who assisted them prepare a formal retraction of all the accusations that hope for impunity or pain through torture had falsely extorted from them.

Francesco Gonin, Illustration of Manzoni’s History of the Column of Infamy, Chapt. 5.

In the end, Manzoni considers Piazza together with all the others as innocent victims compared to the judges, the political and medical authorities whom he condemns for “having opened the way” to false declarations and self-accusations by abusing their power and violating the laws available to them. 

Ultimately, both Piazza and Mora reclaimed their innocence in front of human injustice while at the same time accepting their death in front a higher idea of justice, the divine justice. Nonetheless, for Manzoni they are victims of human inequality and injustice. On the verge of death, they tried to exonerate others who they declared responsible for the infection under torture. But with these other alleged plague-spreaders the judges obtained new false self-accusations through torture. They all confessed to a crime not committed. All except Migliavacca, whom Manzoni calls a “martyr” of justice and truth. 

Manzoni tells this terrible story both in the Betrothed and in the History of the Column of Infamy interspersing it with deep ethical reflections which remain valid today. 

  1. First, the need to reflect on the use of words, making them a tool for analyzing the actual truth and not a means for the construction of alleged alternative and fictitious realities. The use of words should be controlled and responsible especially when accusing someone of a misdemeanor or a crime against society.
  2. Secondly, the awareness that the contagion induced by the plague is not only physical but also moral; it affects all the people all the levels of society with detrimental consequences for everybody.
  3. The abuse of power and human violence is guilty not only for the pain they cause in others, but also for the perversion of their souls. Exemplary in this case is the violence of torture that forced Piazza to slander Mora and other alleged anointers. Primo Levi will remember these and other Manzonian pages when in I sommersi e i salvati (1986; The Drowned and the Saves) he investigates the reasons that led some prisoners to collaborate in varying degrees with the authority of the Nazi camps. (30)
  4. Torture cannot be considered a means of obtaining the truth from people accused of a crime. None of the depositino obtained through torture in the anointers trial were true. To be precise, Migliavacca said the truth: he was innocent but was not believed because it was not the truth that the judges, politicians and the people wanted to hear. What Manzoni writes about torture remains true in all times and in ours. A recent example that comes to mind is the Senate Secret Service Committee’s 2015 bipartisan report on CIA torture which reached identical conclusions to Manzoni’s on the use of torture as a means of interrogation.
  5. Finally, Manzoni teaches us that human justice is always exposed to irrational fears and passions as well as to blatant social inequity. But this fact must not suggest that injustice is inevitable and that there is no human responsibility to ascertain.

    Nonetheless, the problem of human justice for Manzoni cannot be solved by God’s intervention in human history of by the prospect of divine justice. For Manzoni God cannot be accused of being the cause of human injustice and neither of being absent from history. The idea of a divine level of justice has a consoling value for those affected by the injustices of history. This idea is important because it indicates to human beings an idea of justice that is higher than that which remains too conditioned by fears, social conditions and historical circumstances as demonstrated by the trial against the anointers.

    But for Manzoni the consoling value of the prospect of divine eternal justice is not enough as it lacks a practical value. Therefore, ethical conscience remains the decisive factor for developing and practicing a sense of justice as little conditioned as possible by historical circumstances. In this perspective, for him it comes before the metaphysical concerns of religious conscience and should be considered as the fundamental proof of the existence of a nobler dimension than that which emerges from historical circumstances. In sum, for him it is in the ethical conscience of individuals and in their responsibility and practical choices that it is always necessary to verify the possibility of a higher sense of justice.
*back to Introduction


Boccaccio, Giovanni, and G H. McWilliam. The Decameron. London: Penguin Books, 1995. Internet resource.  

Livius, Patavinus T. Dexter Hoyos, and John Yardley. Hannibal’s War: Books Twenty-One to Thirty. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2009. Print. 

Givone, Sergio. Metafisica Della Peste: Colpa E Destino. Torino: Einaudi, 2012. Print.  

Gonin, Francesco, Manzonian images: sketches of the illustrations 
for the edition of “I Promessi Sposi” of 1840 / n. 316; 328; 329; 330; 412; 426; 442; 405; 454. Curated by Guido Mura and Michele Losacco. Internet resource. 

Levi, Primo. I sommersi e i salvati. Torino: Einaudi, 1986. Print.

Lollini, Massimo. “Poetic Inspiration and Ethics of Writing as Source of Higher Narrative in Cervantes and Manzoni.” Epic and Other Higher Narratives: Essays in Intercultural Studies, eds. Steven Shankman, Amiya Dev. Pearson Education, India: 2010. 242-252. Print.

Manzoni, Alessandro, David Forgacs, and Matthew Reynolds. The Betrothed: And, History of the Column of Infamy. London: J.M. Dent, 1997. Print.  

—. Manzoni, Alessandro, and Franco Mollia. Osservazioni Sulla Morale Cattolica: Storia Della Colonna Infame. Milano: Garzanti, 1985. Print. 

—. Storia Della Colonna Infame. Con una nota di Leonardo Sciascia. Palermo: Sellerio, 1981. Print.  

Raimondi, Ezio. Il Romanzo Senza Idillio: Saggio Sui Promessi Sposi. Torino: Einaudi, 1995. Print.  

Spranzi, Aldo. Anticritica Dei Promessi Sposi: L’efficienza Dell’industria Culturale: Il Caso De I Promessi Sposi. Milano: EGEA, 1995. Print.


This reflection on borders begins with the Monument to Victory in Bolzano, built by the Fascist regime in 1928 to remember Italian soldiers who fell in the First World War and to celebrate the victory over the Austro-Hungarian army. A reading from Hermann Hesse’s Wandering will follow.

The monument was controversial and opposed by the German-speaking majority in the province of South Tyrol that was annexed to Italy after WW1. Today the monument remains controversial despite being somehow accepted by the entire South Tyrolean community.



Since 2014, it hosts along a permanent exhibition (under the title “BZ ’18–’45: one monument, one city, two dictatorships”) focusing on the history of the monument, within the context of Fascism and the Nazi occupation during WW2.

In the museum inside the monument you will find inscriptions that concern above all the historical time and the idea of borders and boundaries like the following expression of Fascist nationalism that can be read in Latin on the facade monument itself: “Here at the border of the fatherland set down the banner. From this point we educate others with language, law and culture.”

The exhibition is particularly critical and self-reflexive about the role of this monument and the monuments in general in keeping traces of the past alive. What is the function of the monuments? Is it still needed? Are there alternative ways to remember the past?

These are some of the questions that the visit to this monument-museum poses.



At the beginning of the  precious little book by the German born writer Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) entitled Wandering (1919-1920) there is a profound ethical reflection on borders. The author was able to remain true to the highest spiritual and cultural values ​​amid the collapse of European civil society during  WWI. While participating in the war as a volunteer in the imperial army –where he was assigned to the care of prisoners of war– he refused the general war enthusiasm of the time and in 1914 wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”) published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to appeal to his fellow European intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic folly and hatred. As he write in his autobiographical notes for the Nobel Prize he received in 1946, “when the First World War broke out each year brought me more and more into conflict with German nationalism; ever since my first shy protests against mass suggestion and violence I have been exposed to continuous attacks and floods of abusive letters from Germany.”

Wandering (Wanderung) is one of Hermann Hesse’s most poetic works. It records thoughts and observations of someone who is traveling to rediscover the meaning of life and death and the importance of invisible spiritual values, such as the mystical sense of belonging and love for life and nature in all its forms.

In his autobiographical notes he lists his philosophical and spiritual influences,

“of the Western philosophers, I have been influenced most by Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche as well as the historian Jacob Burckhardt. But they did not influence me as much as Indian and, later, Chinese philosophy.”


Another significant influence on Hesse, not listed in his autobiographical notes, has been St. Francis. Notably, Hesse wrote a biography of St Francis (1904) and derived from him and some of the sources listed above (Indian and Chinese philosophy) the idea of the divine presence first and foremost in nature, in trees (see post of March 21, 2019), streams, meadows, clouds, or birds.  Hence the mystical and religious sense of life so widespread in Wandering, which is capable of establishing a dialogue, an intimate conversation with the small creatures of the earth and the particular attention to the most apparently insignificant details of animated and inanimate life in the style of conversation with the birds of St. Francis …


Giotto, Assisi, St.Francis talking to the birds

The juxtaposition of St. Francis to the Eastern Buddhist mysticism that we see in a certain way in Hermann Hesse recalls that between Milarepa and St. Francis which is established by Reinhold Messner in his Museum of the Mountain of Bolzano. Messner also insists on the importance of human dialogue with the mountain, nature in general in the formation of mystical human spirituality

Immediately after the end of World War I, Hesse embarked on a journey south. Throughout his life he has been a traveler and this trip to Ticino –where he resettled alone in the town Montagnola near lake Lugano and renting four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi– is one of the most important of his life in incorporating the reflections, experiences and premises of the great masterpieces that will follow.

He crossed the Alps hiking from North to South experiencing the moment in which German architecture, German countryside and language come to an end. He wanted to get away from a world that, although familiar, he did not accept anymore. He needed to rediscover his own world; he was looking for a new meaning in his life after the horror and agony of war. After millions of military and civilian casualties fallen in the war to defend national borders, how could one now think of borders? What was their value? Here is his answer:

How lovely it is to cross such a boundary. The wandering man becomes a primitive man in so many ways, in the same way that the nomad is more primitive than the farmer. But the longing to get on the other side of everything already settled, this makes me, and everybody like me, a road sign to the future. If there were many other people who loathed the borders between countries as I do, then there would be no more wars and blockades. Nothing on earth is more disgusting, more contemptible than borders. They’re like cannons, like generals: as long as peace, loving kindness and peace go on, nobody pays any attention to them — but as soon as war and insanity appear, they become urgent and sacred. While the war went on, how they were pain and prison to us wanderers. Devil take them! (5)

The hike and crossing of the borders of the Alps is counter posed to the farmhouse that he leaves behind to undertake his new journey.

Farmhouse, Hermann Hesse, Wandering

In drawing his farmhouse he reflects,


“Once again I love deeply everything at home, because I have to leave it. Tomorrow I will love other roofs, other cottages. I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always. I am a nomad, not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious (6).”
Hesse’s ethical reading opens a series of important questions about the role of borders in our time. What is their function? Are they to be conceived in an absolute sense or in a relative and contextual sense? Do they remain essential for establishing individual and national identities? Has the time come to rethink the boundaries in a new, dynamic way more responsive to the needs not only of particular communities but also of the whole of humanity?


Giotto Assisi  Fresco 10. Artstor, Web.
Hermann Hesse. Wandering: Notes and Sketches. London: Triad Paladin Grafton, 1988. Print.
—. Hermann Hesse – Biographical. Nobel Media AB 2019. Tue. 16 Jul 2019. Web
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According to historian George Duby, the contemporary situation in the Mediterranean appears to be characterized by two trends that are the result of tendencies already established in previous centuries. On the one hand, there are the consequences of European colonialism that make the difference between the North and the South, between Europe and the rest of the Mediterranean world, more evident than ever. The imbalance persists and worsens in a worrying manner. The countries freed from colonialism live in growing poverty, partly linked to exuberant demography. Europe appears increasingly wary and closed to the Southern part of the Mediterranean world. The dramatic social and economic problems of our time, together with all the fundamentalist identities both cultural and religious, originate from this situation. On the other hand, our time appears to be characterized by the moment in which tourism takes a “pathological form” both from a social and cultural point of view (30). European tourism, argues Duby, is the bearer of a closed and contemptuous sub-culture that produces serious and negative effects on local cultures.

Mountain tourism is not an exception in the race for immoderate consumption of intangible assets such as the enjoyment of the isolated beauty of a landscape. The sedimentation of the anthropocene characteristic waste has violated every hill, every mountain, every cave. The mountain has been commodified, reduced to tourist attraction, with its luxury hotels, its chair lifts and its artificial lights that obscure the night light of the starry sky. Even on the highest peak of earth, on Mount Everest, waste is a serious threat to environmental sustainability. It is estimated that some 50 tonnes of mountaineering rubbish has accumulated beyond the Everest Base Camp ().

The human signs have “civilized” the highest peaks and most remote parts of the earth. Consequently, the mountain no longer offers itself as a unified and sublime image. Contemporary artists tend to emphasize this new dimension of the mountain landscape and the breaking of its magic. Here are two photographs by Andreas Gursky that represent the extreme human possession of the winter mountain landscape. Born in Leipzig in 1955, he is famous for representing the places of vacation and entertainment favored by tourism. The long queues of ski tourists draw the back of the mountains with serpentine waves that use the mountain as a writing medium.

AndreasGursky-Albertville, 1992

The people represented in their swarming look like a row of ants. In these photographs there is no shadow of a human personality, only a movement of nameless multitudes.

Andreas Gursky-Engadina, 1995

But there are artists who are still able to rediscover the wonder and charm of the mountains even and despite the consumerist wave of mass tourism. Georg Tappeiner, the photographer born in Merano in 1964 who lives in the Dolomites exposing himself to their magical beauty, has proved capable of catching the breath of their majestic sometimes disturbing presence on earth. In his photographs the Dolomites emerge with the force of an archaic epic poem as if they were the “heart stone of the world” that pulsates in the sky in the infinite movement of light and clouds.

The Marmolada (in the background, on the left), the Sella Group (in the center) and the Sass Ciampac (in the foreground), from the top | photo by Georg Tappeiner

The Dolominites have recently been included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage for the beauty of the landscape and the importance of their geological history. This fact has led to an increase in mass tourism in these mountains. The problem therefore arises of making this new tourism sustainable to avoid what Geneviève Clastres has recently called “the tourist paradox” that produces overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets. This problem is common to all UNESCO World Heritage sites. For sure, tourism brings money, growth and hope, but at the same time can have negative consequences because visitors tend to “destroy the sites they admire wearing away the soil around the standing stones at Carnac, causing gully erosion in the Puyde-Dôme, damaging the cave paintings at Lascaux, trampling over Machu Picchu” (Clastres).

Clastres article based on the French situation closes with a pessimistic note because France does not have an independent tourism ministry since 1995 letting the commercial aspect of tourism to become very much dominant. The Nepal article on the unsustainable tourist treatment of Mt Everest also ends with a pessimistic note. He underlines that the Nepalese government earns US $3.3 million annually in Everest-related climbing royalty and is “not truly committed to making sure that its mountaineering peaks are not polluted.”

These examples make it clear that it is very difficult to find a balance between ecological and commercial needs in the absence of a precise orientation in this sense from public authorities. From this point of view, it appears remarkable that the Article 9 of Italian Constitution states that the Republic “protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation.” Regarding the Dolomites a first step in this direction has been taken through the process of candidacy and the consequent enrollment in the World Heritage List. The Italian State that was part of the Convention along with the regional, provincial and local administrations involved, committed to ensuring the protection, conservation, the presentation and transmission to the future generations of the Natural Heritage. In other words, they committed to develop sustainable tourism not only in the core and buffer areas of the Dolomites UNESCO, but also in the surrounding areas.

The Management Framework of the Dolomites Heritage UNESCO, document elaborated a series of indications on the sustainable tourism management of the site. Among the main objectives the document  highlights that of the “promotion of a gradual transition
from mass tourism to forms of quality tourism and responsible hiking” (Province of Belluno, Autonomous Province of Bolzano – Alto Adige / Autonomous Province of Bozen – Südtirol, Province of Pordenone, Autonomous Province of Trento, Province of Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia Autonomous Region 2008, cited in Elmi and Wagner, 13).

Interventions and state and local government awareness in favor of responsible tourism are very important, as well as the conscience and action of each individual citizen. Similarly, the work of artists who re-create and re-invent the mountain landscape is significant, as it goes beyond pure preservation to renew its vitality in a creative way. L’Echo (2003), the video installation by Su-Mei Tse, the artist born in Luxembourg city in 1973, gives us a sense of wonder in front of a mountain landscape that also appears distant and impenetrable but at the same time responsive.


The artist and her cello are near the edge of a vast mountain canyon. She is still and silent then  plays, pauses and listens. The echo of the mountain reverberates establishing an intimacy between the artist and the landscape in the common musical breath. But the intimacy is only momentary and interrupted by a sublime silence.



Clastres, Geneviève. (2019, 07). “Overcrowded destinations reduced to stage sets; the tourist paradox.” Le Monde Diplomatique English ed.; Paris [Paris]01 July 2019.

Duby, Georges. Los Ideales Del Mediterráneo: Historia, Filosofía Y Literatura En La Cultura Europea. Barcelona: Icaria, 1997. Print.

Elmi, Marianna and Wagner Matthias. Turismo sostenibile nelle Dolomiti. Una strategia per il bene patrimonio mondiale Unesco. Bolzano: Accademia Europea, 2013.

Sanjay Nepal. “Everest tourism is causing a mountain of problems.” The Conversation, April 9, 2014.

Su-Mei Tse, L’Echo (2003), Video installation. Web. Preview from “”.



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This legend explains in a fantastic way the birth of the characteristic pale color of the Dolomites and the existential importance of their flowers like the edelweiss (Star of the Alps) and the rhododendron (Alpenrose). Reading this legend you will learn how the son of the King of the Alps with the help of hundreds of dwarfs prepared for the daughter of the King of the Moon  a  world of white so that she would never have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had become a  flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the  clouds …

Once upon a time there lived the son of a King. His father’s kingdom lay in the southern territory of the Alps, with its green pastures and shady forests and sleep mountains with black rocks. The inhabitants lived as hunters and shepherds, loved their country, and considered themselves happy. One, alone, was not content with his life and the world about him – the King’s son. He felt tormented by a desire which no one could grant him – he wanted to visit the Moon. He had already consulted all the wise men of the kingdom as to what he should do in order to reach the Moon, but nobody knew how to advise him. The Prince, therefore, was discontented and sad. In vain his companions endeavored to distract him and to turn his thoughts to other things – he talked and dreamed only about the Moon. At the time of Full Moon he always became very sad.   From evening until morning he wandered restlessly around on the rocks and meadows, gazing all the time at the Moon. The most expert physicians came to the Court but no one was able to cure the strange malady of the Prince. And it continued to become worse.

One day, while hunting, the Prince left his companions and lost his way in the forests. When evening came and the sun had set he found himself in a lonely, high valley, all covered with Alproses, and surrounded on three sides by steep ridges and mighty towers of rock. No longer hoping to meet with his hunting companions again that day, the King’s son decided to spend the night there. So he lay down on a green lawn in the midst of Alprose bushes and looked thoughtfully, in the distance, at the red clouds and mountain-tops which were just fading away. As he felt very tired, however, he soon fell asleep and had a curious dream …… he stood on a meadow all covered with strange flowers, and spoke to a wonderful girl whom he had never seen before. All around, as far as the Prince could see, it was white, but he himself held some red Alproses in his hand, and gave them to the beautiful stranger.  She, smiling, accepted the flowers, asking him what this country was like, and after a while she told him that she was the daughter of the Moon King. On hearing these words the King’s son felt an indescribable joy, and awoke.

It was already past midnight; the Moon stood high, and its silver light shone into the deserted clefts and on the pointed rocks of the lonely high valley: the Prince looked up and his joy changed, becoming deep sorrow. The usual ardent longing took possession of him, and for a long time he gave free play to his sad thoughts. Finally, a gentle breeze passed through the Alproses, and the King’s son thought of what should happen if he really should meet the Moon Princess. So he began to gather the beautiful Alproses and to make a bouquet, and he was occupied with it for a long time. All at once he thought he heard someone speaking high up in the rocks. He listened, but a great silence ruled, except that in the distance a waterfall murmured.

The Prince gathered some more flowers, but for the second time he heard words, and now very clearly.The sound came down from the highest rock tower, and the top of this tower was wrapped up in a thick white cloud. Up there mountain-demons have to dwell, so the King’s son thought, and he grasped the hilt of his sword. Without putting away the Alprose bouquet he slowly strode to the tower, went around the foot of the mountain walls and began to climb up on the back wall which was not so steep. The speaking became more clear, but it was not yet possible to distinguish words. Soon the King’s son came into a cloud, the moonlight could no longer get through, and he only groped his way forward. Finally, he struck something hard, a door was opened, and the Prince stood before a brightly Illuminated little space where two very, very old men were sitting.

Rhododendron ferrugineum (also called alpenrose)

They rose, frightened; but he calmed them, excusing himself by saying that he was a hunter who had lost his way in the mountain wildness. On hearing these words both went to meet him, asking him to come in, and they became very friendly.They talked of one thing and another, and the Prince asked them if they were old men of the mountains. But the two old men replied that they were inhabitants of the Moon who had made a long journey all around the world and that they were on the point of returning to their own country. Hearing this, the King’s son became quite pale with excitement and he told them that for years and years he felt an ardent desire to make a journey to the Moon. The two old men laughed, saying that if he wished to join them they were quite content, and that they were starting immediately.

The Prince was very happy, thanking the good old men with endless words. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted from the rock summit and began to sail towards the Moon with increasing speed. During the long journey the Prince told the two old men many things concerning his father’s kingdom, and they told him how things were on the Moon, and how one had to live there. Thus, they informed him that an inhabitant of the earth could not stay for a long time on the Moon because everything there was white-plains and mountains, plants and cities – all shining in silver sheen, and an inhabitant of the earth became blind, after a time, from this dazzling brightness. So also, said they, a Moon dweller could not remain for a long time on the earth because of the dark colors of the forests and rocks, which are saddening, and if such a one could not return soon, very soon, to the Moon he would surely die from too much pining for the white fields of his country.

With such conversation and considerations did the three Moon-travellers beguile their time. At last the cloud on which they were, came down upon one of the mountains of the Moon and rested there.The first part of their journey was over, now they had to proceed on foot. The two old men explained to the Prince that they had to turn westwards, and they advised him to travel towards the east in order to reach the Capital as soon as possible. The Prince said good-bye and went down the mountain in an easterly direction. All the country around about was white, especially because of little white flowers which covered the surface of the Moon in endless numbers. But, in addition, the ground, which in some places was bare, appeared white, and even the flaming walls of rock had faint bright colors.

After a while the King’s son saw the houses and tower tops of the Capital. All these buildings, however, were made, from their foundations to their battlements, of white marble. With quick steps the Prince hastened to meet this white splendor until he was stopped by a hedge which barred the way. This hedge was made, with great skill, of sparkling metal, and its slicks bore strange decorations. Beyond the hedge a gardener was working. As soon as he noticed the stranger he advanced slowly, saluted, and inquired, in an astonished manner, as to the origin of the red flowers which the Prince was holding in his hands. These were the Alproses which he had gathered during the night. The Prince explained that he had come from the earth, and that the flowers grew there. Now, the gardener told him that in the castle, which stood in the background, lived the Moon King and his daughter. The Princess was very fond of rare and beautiful flowers, and she would surely reward the stranger in a royal manner if he would leave the red bouquet for her.

The Prince laughed and said that he would give his Alproses to the Princess with great pleasure, but that he would seek no reward for them as he himself was the son of a King. At this the astonished gardener opened the gate, and invited the stranger to enter the garden. Then he ran up to the castle. After a while here returned, breathless, begging the Prince to go with him to the castle. The King’s son followed his guide through many, many halls and corridors, looking amazedly at the walls of alabaster white, and at the bright arms which adorned them.

The Prince was received by the Moon King and his daughter in a large illuminated hall, and was welcomed in a very friendly way. The Moon King was a very old man with a long silvery white beard; but, on seeing the Princess, the Prince recognized that wonderful girl whom he had met in his night-dream. She accepted the Alproses gratefully, praising their glorious color, and asked the Prince if there were many such flowers in his country, what kind of people lived there, and how large was his father’s kingdom. It was only after a lengthy conversation that they parted, the Moon King telling the Prince that he was to consider himself as his guest.

The Prince remained then for a time at the royal castle, taking long walks through its surroundings, and became well acquainted with the Moon to which he had so often looked up with longing. After some weeks the Moon King asked his foreign guest, at lunch, how he liked the Moon. The Prince replied that the white, shining landscape of the Moon was the most beautiful he ever had seen, but its unaccustomed brightness was so affecting his eyes that he feared he would go blind if he did not return soon to his own country. The Princess interjected that she did not share the apprehension of the earth Prince, and that with time he could accustom himself to the splendor of the landscape. A wise old courtier, however, ventured to contradict the Princess, saying that it really was not advisable for an inhabitant of the earth to remain too long on the Moon. After that the Princess said no more.

At the time that the King’s son lost his way while hunting, his companions searched for him everywhere in the gloomy forests and among the pathless rocks, but though their quest lasted for many days they were unable to find him. They were obliged, then, to return to the royal castle and to inform the old King of what had happened, but he sent them away, warning them that they should not dare to appear before him again without his son. At the same time the whole kingdom was informed that anyone who could bring any tidings of the Prince might expect a great reward.

But it was all to no purpose. No one knew anything, and the Prince was not heard of again. Everyone believed that he had perished at night on the mountains, when suddenly, it was reported through the country that the Prince had come back, bringing with him the Moon King’s daughter as his wife. The simple people of the Alps were very glad, and they all went to the palace to try to see the Princess as they could not imagine what an inhabitant of the Moon should look like, but she differed only from the women of the earth in that a bright light seemed to emanate from her, and that in the meadows each tree shadow vanished as soon as she appeared. The people were astonished at the white flower which grows everywhere on the Moon, and which the Princess had brought with her. This flower spread with time over the whole Alps, and even today the bright stars salute one from the rockwalls, they are called Edelweiss.


The flower’s common name ” Edelweiss”  derives from the German word “Edelweiß”, which is a compound of edel “noble” and weiß “white”. In the Italian speaking Alps the flower is referred as “Stella Alpina”, while in the French Alps as “Étoile des Alpes”, both names meaning “Star of the Alps”.

The Princess for her part was enchanted by the colored meadows and pastures of the Alps, never getting tired of admiring the variegated flowers and the green lawns. She also loved the blue mountain lakes, and, ever and always, she praised the variety of the earth surface, comparing it with the monotony of the Moon landscape, where everything was white. A proud satisfaction came over the Prince when he saw that the Moon daughter was so well and happy, and he delighted to show her everything, the valleys of the kingdom and their different curiosities, and all the beauties of the country. Both of them fell very glad and cheerful, and had no other thought but to remain like that.

Once, however, when the King’s son returned late one evening from hunting he saw his wife standing on the balcony and looking up at the Moon. He thought it was strange. He went up softly, surprising the dreamer, and asked her why she was looking up so thoughtfully at the Moon. She smiled and was silent, but on being asked again she confessed that she had been pining for the white Moon-fields. The meadows and valleys of the Alps are beautiful, she said, but the confusion of dark mountain tops which extend themselves threateningly towards the sky, like the black fists of gigantic demons, give the landscape a gloomy closeness, and this in time presses like deep sorrow upon the soul.

On hearing this complaint the Prince grew afraid, for it recalled to his mind what the two old men said to him when he went up to the Moon: they said that a Moon dweller would soon miss the white beauty of his country and die, languishing for light …..
At present, of course, there was no cause for a serious fear, and the Prince hoped to be able to release his wife from her dangerous homesickness by amusement and all kinds of diversion. He was mistaken, however, for her condition became worse little by little. Just like the Prince before his journey to the Moon, she now gazed at the Moon for hours and hours, becoming finally so pale and weak that there were grave fears for her life, and always she lamented about the black rocks which threatened down in such a ghostly way, just as if they would darken the valleys. And just as once no one was able to help the Prince, so now, also, nobody could bring deliverance. In the meantime the suffering of the Princess was becoming worse, and the words of the two old Moon dwellers seemed to be terribly true.The Prince felt desolate, and those about him were helpless.

As soon as the Moon King heard that his daughter was in danger of death, he left the Moon and came down to the earth to visit his son-in-law who told him about her terrible home-sickness, which grew worse and worse and was now about to kill her. The Moon King said he could not let his daughter die, and, therefore, that he wished to bring her back to the Moon. At the same time he invited the Prince in a very friendly way to accompany them if he wished to do so, but said that in case the Prince should be obliged to stay on the earth he would be very sorry, without, however, being able to change his resolution to take the Princess back to her country.

Now people from all parts besieged the Prince, begging him to think of the kingdom he was appointed to rule, to remain among his native mountains and to renounce his wife. They praised the great future he had before him, advising him to undertake a campaign in the beautiful south, but the Prince would listen to no such speeches, and went with his father-in-law and his sick wife to the Moon. Here she recovered her health very soon, but long before she was perfectly healthy the Prince perceived with horror that he was seeing less from day to day and that he would be blind after a short time. The old Moon King now advised him to leave the Moon before it was too late. The Prince struggled against it, but seeing the danger growing more and more apparent he finally gave it up and returned, wretched, to the earth.

Now the Moon-home-sickness took hold of him more strongly than ever. At full Moon time he was never to be seen in the castle but was wandering restlessly around on the mountains. During the day she slept in caverns and under trees, and at night he climbed high peaks, looking steadfastly up at the Moon. With the new Moon, then, the Prince would return but so changed that scarcely anyone could recognize him. Eventually it wearied him to see people at all, and he no longer went down to the valleys, so completely wild did he become. Ceaselessly he traversed the large forests and rock deserts of his kingdom, climbing every mountain-top.

Nowhere could he find consolation and peace. Many weeks had passed since the King’s son had last seen or spoken to anyone. One evening, in a rubbled valley-end, he was surprised by a thunderstorm and obliged to flee into a cavern. There he met a strange little man, hardly three shoes tall but with a long beard and a serious face and a golden crown upon his head. The Prince spoke to the little man and soon realized that he had found a fellow-sufferer, for what the little man with the golden crown had to tell about his fate was very pitiful and sad.

The little man was the king of the”Salwans” (Salwan in Ladin language, signifies cavern-inhabitant, wild man). From olden times they had inhabited a beautiful kingdom in the far east. This kingdom, having reached the height of its glory, and possessing as many inhabitants as a large forest has leaves, was subjected to an invasion of hostile foreign forces who devastated the country by fire and sword and killed so many Salwans in protracted battles that the survivors had to flee from their own country. Then the king, with the remainder of his people, marched from one neighboring kingdom to another begging for a mountain, or a marsh, or some other piece of ground so that his people could settle there. No sovereign would listen to him, however, and everywhere the Salwans were ejected with scorn. At last they found shelter in a distant country, but they were obliged to work so hard that many of them died and others escaped in order that they might not witness any longer the misery of their brothers. Thus, it was with the king.

Having related this, the little man sighed and said that no creature could be more unhappy than a sovereign whose people had entirely perished and he unable to prevent it. The Prince then sympathized with the dwarf king on the hard fate which had befallen him but he said that his own destiny was no less cruel and he, too, related his distressful history. At first the dwarf king listened with a gloomy look but, little by little, his face began to brighten, and at last he smiled, quite pleased, and when the Prince, who did not notice this, had finished, the little man jumped up, clapped his hands and cried out joyously: Prince, be happy, we are now both saved. On hearing such an unexpected exclamation the Prince was almost afraid to look at the dwarf, for he thought that the little man had surely lost his reason and gone crazy.

But the dwarf king had not spoken without reason and he now began to explain his meaning quite clearly. He pointed out that the Princess was only obliged to return to her own country because a Moon child, accustomed to light could not bear the look of the black rocks for long. If the mountains of the Alp-kingdom were of the same clear color as those on the Moon, the Princess would never have been attacked by such a home-sickness. The little Salwans, he said, are a clever and skilled people and they would be willing to cover the innumerable dark mountain tops, from head to foot, with the whiteness of the Moon landscape if only the King of the Alp-kingdom would give them permission to live there forever without being molested. This would give help to both, to the Prince as well as to the dwarf-people.

The Prince listened to this promising speech half astonished, half unbelieving, and then he said he did not think it would be difficult to obtain permission for the Salwans to remain in his kingdom but that he did not understand how they could make a dark rock wall white. The dwarf-king smiled in a superior way and then he said the Prince could rest assured about that because the dwarfs had already done things which were more difficult. The Prince then hesitated no longer, inviting the little man to come with him to the court. The Salwans agreed and in addition, as the storm had ceased, they immediately left the cavern, walking on together. They had to wander for two days through desert solitudes before they reached the principal valley and the castle.

The old King was very pleased al the return of his son but he considered the request of himself and his companion a strange one. He did not bother about to look of the mountain-tops but he thought he could not agree to the immigration of a strange people. It was only when the king of the Salwans had explained that they would never lay claim to the rich valleys, meadows and fields, but be satisfied to remain in the forests and wild rocks, that the Alp King and his advisers gave their consent. The agreement was confirmed by documents and both parties swore to observe it faithfully.

The dwarf king departed immediately to look for his poor people and to bring them the good news. Some days later the exhausted little people were seen to cross the frontiers of the kingdom in long columns and turn towards the high mountains. After having selected their dwelling places under clefts and rock sand behind waterfalls, the dwarf king sent word to the Prince that the Salwans would begin next evening the work they had undertaken by contract. The Prince who could scarcely restrain his impatience was in addition, tormented by doubts, for it seemed incredible to him that the dwarfs would be able to accomplish the difficult work. He ascended one of the highest mountain-top to await the evening.

As soon as the moon had risen, seven Salwans appeared, forming a circle and beginning to make all sorts of contorsions. Their little hands worked convulsively, like the waves of a torrent. Astonished, the Prince watched this performance; finally he asked the little men what they intended to do. They answered that they were about to weave the moon-light, and, surely enough, after a while, in the middle of a circle, one saw a clew which radiated a soft but continuing brightness. The dwarfs worked busily, the clew was growing and became a large bundle. The Prince gazed steadily at the seven little men, while hour after hour passed. Then he looked in the distance and behold, on every mountain top a point of light was glowing: everywhere stood little dwarfs who had spun the lights.

In deep astonishment the Prince looked on this wonderful picture; the stars seemed to have fallen down on the dark sea of mountains tops. Already the valley had become all black, and the Moon shone only on the highest peaks, then it sank down beyond long wavy borders. The Salwans did not rest but immediately began another task; they pulled apart their bundle of light, drawing glittering threads down from the tops over the declivities, and they went around the mountains wrapping them, little by little, into a net of light. As soon as every edge and top had been spun over, the meshes were drawn closer together until finally, every dark plain vanished and the whole ground radiated a pale glimmer.

The next day no one, down in the valley, could believe their eyes, for the high mountains all around, once towering aloft so gloomily, were now all white, and their bright color formed a strange contrast with the maze of mountains which remained black beyond the frontier. In a single night the dwarfs had covered all the mountain tops in the kingdom with the white color of the Moon-landscape. When the Prince arrived at the castle highly pleased, a messenger was brought before him with a sad message: the Moon King informed the Prince that the Princess had contracted an illness which endangered her life, and had expressed a desire to see her husband once again. The Prince made no answer, not even a single word, but when the messenger departed he was his companion.

As soon as he arrived to the Moon, he hastened towards the glittering palace. On reaching the hall the Prince was informed that the Princess was on the point of death. But he ran to her, crying that she must not die now, for all their sorrow was ended: the mountain tops of his kingdom were glittering like Moon-mountains; she must return with him once more lo the earth,  as he had prepared for her a  world of white where she would never again have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had now become a  flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the  clouds.


These cheerful, happy words revived the spirits of the Princess, and soon it  was obvious that she had recovered again. After a  short lime the Prince was able to bring his wife back to the earth, and how joyful was the astonishment of the young Princess who had lain so near to death,  when she beheld the shining landscape: the smiling Alp-garden united in its white rocks, green meadows and variegated flowers, the Moon’s regions of light with the rich color-beauty of the earth. Never again did the Moon-daughter sigh for her own country, as it was now more beautiful on the white mountains than in the Moon.

The pale mountains are standing there today, and they are called the Dolomites. The kingdom as such has ceased to exist for a long time, but the Salwans still dwell in the wildness of the rocks and forests. But not only does an enchanting brightness still cling to those pale mountains -they are haunted by the deep home-sickness of that Moon-Princess, for anyone who has ever been there, is always called back to the marvel of the light-girded Dolomites by an infinite longing.

Continue reading…


How were the mountains born? In particular, how were the Dolomites born? Is the geological narrative the only way to explain the origins of these mountains? An Ecocritical approach to these questions does not only contemplate the most current scientific answers but also a reconsideration of the legends and myths that over time have accompanied the narrative habitation of the mountainous territory and the invention of the places within it.

The following legend, The Mirror of Misurina, explains in a fabulous and fantastic way the imaginary creation of Mount Sorapìs, the mountain that still stands before Mount Cristallo, and of the beautiful Lake Misurina. This is an anthropomorphic explanation but at the base of the legend remains the myth of the perennial metamorphosis of matter. This aspect introduces in the legend a more than human dimension.

As Richard Buxton –who studied the human etiology of landscape– writes, “it is too simple to say that a geological narrative in terms of plate tectonics and vulcanology is just ‘true’, and that the tale of a doting giant and his capricious daughter is just ‘false’” (194). In other words, we have to admit that in our time there are different ways of perceiving our relationship with the landscape’s past and its present. The best way to get out of the sterile critique of mythological and legendary representations on the one hand and the idea of ​​a trivial scientific determinism of the geographical space on the other is to begin to think that space is not an objective reality but a metaphor. In this sense, humans not only geographers may be explorers, not because they discover new lands but because they uncover changes, territorial innovations, and new meaning in the metaphorical landscape of the earth (De Matteis, 139, 149).


Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635

The Mirror of Misurina

Once upon a time there was a father and a child. The child was called Misurina and Sorapìs the father. Dad was a giant, and Misurina a tiny little wagtail, that could very well be in his waistcoat pocket, yet what do you ever want? that tiny little wagtail could at ease make fun of that dad as big as a mountain.

It is the fate that comes to the dads too good with little girls who do not deserve any goodness.
– But it’s so pretty – said Sorapìs when his wife reproached him for excessive indulgence that he had for his little daughter.
– But it’s so small.

But it is this, but that is, for one reason and another, father Sorapìs always allowed to be fooled without even noticing it. And Misurina grew fizzy like pepper, to the desperation of others.

At the castle of Father Sorapìs all fled her like the tertian fever, court men and chamber valets, company ladies and kitchen women, but the tertian fever jump on everybody even if you run away, don’t you? and Misurina did the same.

When less thought was given to her, she produced the worst tricks, and those poor guys, gesummaria, they always had some to tell the king.
– Sire, Misurina stole my wig.
– She hid my sword sheath.
– She blinded the horse with the salt.
– She cut off my steed’s tail.
– Oh, oh! – snorted Sorapìs trying in vain to look serious.
– This is serious, let’s see, we need to find a remedy, honorable isn’t it? But the little girl is so tiny! you had to excuse her.
– Sire, Misurina poured the ink into my coffee.
– She stole the buttered croutons.
– She has …
– My children, be patient – said Sorapìs – I know, I know, it’s not pleasant drink coffee with ink, or remain without croutons, but the poor creature is so lively!
– Sire – said the ladies – Misurina tramples on the train.
– She overturns our face powder.
– She steals our perfume.
– She …

My ladies – Sorapìs moaned – I know, I know, Misurina is a little brat, but she is so much a dear child! We will find a remedy, won’t we? We’ll fix this.

But the poor man did not fix anything. On the contrary, the little girl growing up became more and more unbearable. What desires she had! What demands she had! If someone had brought her the moon, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said, “Is this all? Beautiful stuff! For me we need something else! ” But these were roses. His biggest flaw was curiosity.

It was impossible to meet a girl so curious all over the world.
Se wanted to know everything, she wanted to see everything, she wanted to have her court and her kingdom on her fingertips.
She wanted, if possible, to read in the soul of the people.

– Peanuts! – the nurse told her one day.- For a young lady like you, adored by her father so much as one loves the sun, one needs to have  so much as the mirror I know everything (tuttosò).

– Eh! – exclaimed the child, reddened by emotion – And what is this mirror?
– A mirror where it suffices to mirror yourself or let someone mirror himself or herself to know everything about him and her.
– Oh! murmured Misurina. – Curious! And how can I have it?
– Ask your dad who knows everything. And Misurina went to her father hopping like a sparrow.

-Daddy, – she began to shout before reaching him. -You have to give me a present. –
– If I can, my little jewel.
– Yes you can. – Then let’s hear.
– First swear that you will give me this present.
– I can’t swear if I don’t know what the gift is.
Then,  Misurina began to cry and to despair and cooing to bring that poor father out of his mind, and he was consoling her and promising while sighing.

– All right, I swear to you, whatever the gift you want, I’ll do it for you.
And then Misurina clapping her hands expressed her desire.
– I want the mirror I know everything.
Sorapìs paled.
– You don’t know what you ask me, child.
– Yes, I know.
– But don’t you know that the mirror belongs to the fairy of Monte Cristallo?
– And what does it matter! You will buy it.
Sorapìs sighed.
– You’ll steal it.
– Listen, Misurina …
– You promised, dad, you swore it.
– And that demon of a child began to cry and to sigh and to roll on the ground. – And if you don’t bring me that mirror, I’ll die.

To die Misurina! Let’s imagine! The poor father put the crown on his head, dressed the ermine cloak, he took the scepter as a stick and set off. He walked and walked, he walked a little because the fairy lived two steps away from him, right in front of him, and as soon as he came to the castle, he knocked on the door.

-Come on, – said the fairy who sat in the throne room with her bridesmaids. – Who are you and what do you want?
– I’m Sorapìs and I want the mirror I know everything.
– Strawberry trees! – laughed the fairy. – Only? As if it were strawberries.
– Oh, fairy, fairy don’t laugh; if you don’t give it to me, my little girl dies.
– Your little girl? And what does she know about the mirror? What does she need it for? What’s the name of this girl?
-Misurina, – replied the king.
– Ah! ah! said the fairy. – I know her by reputation. Her cries reach me when she is acting up, and this is a whim well worthy of her. All right, I’ll give you the mirror, but with a pact.
-Let’s hear, – the king agreed.

– See how much sun beats from morning to night over my garden?”
I see,” replied Sorapis.
– It burns all my flowers and bores me. It would take me a mountain to throw me some shade; behold, as big as you are, you should be content with turning yourself into a beautiful mountain. At this agreement I would give you the I know everything mirror.- Eh, eh, eh! – said Sorapis scratching his ear and sweating coldly.
– Take it or leave it – said the fairy. – Well, what do you want to do with it? If there is no other way … give me the mirror – the poor king sighed.

The fairy drew from a casket that was close to her a large green mirror and handed it to him, but since she noticed that poor Sorapìs had become lifeless, she had pity on him, and said to him:
– Let’s do something; I understand that you don’t have too much desire to transform yourself into a mountain, and it is natural, but on the other hand you are afraid that your little girl will die if you do not keep the promise you made to her.
-Word of king must be maintained,- Sorapìs moaned.
– Yes, yes, but I would have given to her some spanks in your place; this is the way to cure whims. But as I said, let’s do something. You return to your castle and tell her the condition for which she can come into possession of the mirror; if she loves you she will renounce to possess it in order not to lose his father, and you will send me back the mirror, and if not … don’t blame me.
-All right,- answered the king, – thank you very much and goodbye. – He was sure to send her back the mirror.
And he left again.

Misurina was waiting for him sitting on the highest battlement of the castle and as soon as she saw him:
– Well – she shouted – did you bring it to me?
-Yes, I brought it to you,- the poor man gasped, dripping with sweat; and after taking the girl by the hand to talk to her better, he told her about the embassy of the Mount Cristallo fairy.
Misurina clapped her hands.- Is it just that? Daddy give me the mirror, and don’t think about it. To become one mountain must be a beautiful thing. First of all you will no longer die, then you will cover yourself with meadows and woods and I will enjoy it.

The poor man paled, but there was anything he could do, his sentence had been decreed. As soon as Misurina had grabbed the mirror, Sorapìs broadened, expanded, swelled, he seemed rising in the sun; he became petrified, and in an instant was transformed in the mountain that still stands in front to the Mount Cristallo.

Misurina suddenly found herself raised to that prodigious height, on the crest of a white and bare mountain, where gradually his father’s eyes died. She cried terribly and, taken by dizziness, with her green mirror fell down. Then, tears began to fall from Sorapìs’ almost lifeless eyes and tears and tears kept falling, until the eyes died out and the tears no longer rained. Those tears formed the lake under which Misurina and the mirror lie and in that lake the Mount Sorapìs is reflected and looks with his dead eyes for his dead child.

Misurina Lake, in the background the Sorapìs


Pina Ballario. “Lo specchio di Misurina” in Fiabe e leggende delle Dolomiti. Firenze: Giunti, 1973, pp. 17-30. Print. The English translation is mine.

Richard Buxton. Forms of Astonishment : Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

De Matteis, Giuseppe. Le metafore della terra. La geografia unama tra mito e scienza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. Print

“Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 19 Jun 2018, 16:18 UTC. 29 Jun 2019.


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