The mirror of Misurina

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

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.

Butterflies

This post is my translation of an excerpt from the short article by Primo Levi entitled “Butterflies” in which he describes an exhibition on the butterflies he visited in a museum.

Why are butterflies beautiful? Certainly not for the pleasure of human beings, as Darwin’s opponents claimed: there were butterflies at least a hundred million years before the first human being. I think that our very concept of beauty, necessarily relative and cultural, took its configuration over the centuries from them, as from the stars, the mountains and the sea. We have proof of this when we consider what happens when we examine the head of a butterfly under the microscope: for most observers, admiration is replaced by horror or disgust. In the absence of cultural habit, this new object baffles us; the enormous eyes without pupils, the horn-like antennae, the monstrous mouth apparatus appear to us like a diabolical mask, a distorted parody of the human face.

In our civilization (but not in all) bright colors and symmetry are “beautiful” and so are butterflies. Now, the butterfly is a true factory of colors: it transforms the foods it absorbs and even its own excretion products into dazzling pigments. Not only this: it knows how to obtain its splendid metallic and iridescent effects with pure physical means, only by exploiting the interference effects that we observe in soap bubbles and in the oil slicks floating on the water.

But the fascination of butterflies does not only come from colors and symmetry: deeper motives contribute to it. We wouldn’t call them so beautiful if they didn’t fly, or if they flew straight and fast-moving like bees, or if they stung, or especially if they didn’t cross the perturbing mystery of the metamorphosis: the latter takes on the value of a partially deciphered message in our eyes, a symbol, and a mysterious sign. It is not strange that a poet like Gozzano (“the friend of the chrysalises”) studied and loved butterflies with passion: it is strange, nonetheless, that so few poets have loved them, since the passage from the caterpillar to the chrysalis, and from this to the butterfly, projects beside itself a long admonitory shadow.

As butterflies are beautiful by definition, they are our yardstick of beauty, so the caterpillars (“insects in default”, said Dante) are ugly by definition: clumsy, slow, stinging, voracious, hairy, obtuse, they are in turn symbolic, the symbol of what is coarse, incomplete, and represents a perfection not reached.

The two documentaries that accompany the exhibition with the portentous eye of the camera show us what very few human eyes could see: the caterpillar that suspends itself in the aerial temporary tomb of the cocoon, turns into an inert chrysalis, and then comes out to light in the perfect shape of the butterfly; the wings are still inept, weak, like crumpled tissue paper, but in a few moments they become stronger, stretched, and the newborn flies off. It is a second birth, but at the same time it is a death: the one who has flown away is a psyche, a soul, and the torn cocoon that remains on the ground is the mortal body. In the deep layers of our consciousness the butterfly with a restless flight is a soul, fairy, sometimes even a witch.

The strange name it bears in English (butterfly, the “the fly of butter”) evokes an ancient Nordic belief that the butterfly is the goblin who steals butter and milk, or makes them sour; and the Acherontia Atropos, the great domestic nocturnal moth with the sign of the skull on the corselet that Guido Gozzano meets in the villa of Signorina Felicita, is a damned soul, “which brings pain”. The wings that the popular iconography attributes to the fairies are not feathery wings of a bird, but transparent and ribbed wings of a butterfly.

The furtive visit of a butterfly, which Hermann Hesse describes on the last page of his diary, is an ambivalent announcement, and has the taste of a serene premonition of death. The old writer and thinker, in his Ticinese hermitage, sees “something dark, silent and phantom” rise in the air: it is a rare butterfly, an Antiopa with dark-violet wings, and lands on his hand. «Slowly, with the rhythm of quiet breathing, the beauty shut and opened the velvet wings, holding on to the back of my hand with six very thin legs; and after a brief moment it disappeared, without my detecting its withdrawal, in the great warm light».

Bibliography

Jan Vincentsz van der Vinne, A Caterpillar. [Drawings]. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/SS7731421_7731421_11373304

Primo Levi, “Farfalle” in L’altrui mestiere. Torino: Einaudi, 1985. pp. 133-135. My translation, the original Italian follows.

 

Perché sono belle le farfalle? Non certo per il piacere dell’uomo, come pretendevano gli avversari di Darwin: esistevano farfalle almeno cento milioni di anni prima del primo uomo. Io penso che il nostro stesso concetto della bellezza, necessariamente relativo e culturale, si sia modellato nei secoli su di loro, come sulle stelle, sulle montagne e sul mare. Ne abbiamo una riprova se consideriamo quanta avviene quando esaminiamo al microscopio il capo di una farfalla: per la maggior parte degli osservatori, all’ammirazione subentra l’orrore o il ribrezzo . In assenza dell’abitudine culturale, quest’oggetto nuovo ci sconcerta; gli occhi enormi e senza pupille, le· antenne simili a corna, l’apparato boccale mostruoso ci appaiono come una maschera diabolica, una parodia distorta del viso umano.

Nella nostra civiltà (ma non in tutte) sono « belli» i colori vivaci e la simmetria e così sono belle le farfalle. Ora, la farfalla è una vera fabbrica di colori: trasforma in pigmenti smaglianti i cibi che assorbe ed anche i suoi stessi prodotti di escrezione. Non solo: sa ottenere i suoi splendidi effetti metallici ed iridescenti con puri mezzi fisici, sfruttando soltanto gli effetti di interferenza che osserviamo nelle bolle di sapone e nei veli oleosi che galleggiano sull’acqua.

Ma la suggestione delle farfalle non nasce solo dai colori e dalla simmetria: vi concorrono motivi più profondi. Non le definiremmo altrettanto belle se non volassero, o se volassero diritte e alacri come le api, o se pungessero, o soprattutto se non attraversassero il mistero conturbante della metamorfosi: quest’ultima assume ai nostri occhi il valore di un messaggio mal decifrato, di un simbolo e di un segno. Non è strano che un poeta come Gozzano ( «l’amico delle crisalidi») studiasse e amasse con passione le farfalle: è strano, anzi, che così pochi poeti le abbiano amate, dal momento che il trapasso dal bruco alla crisalide, e da questa alla farfalla, proietta accanto a sé una lunga ombra ammonitoria.

Come le farfalle sono belle per definizione, sono il nostro metro della bellezza, così i bruchi («entomata in difetto», li diceva Dante) sono brutti per definizione: goffi, lenti, urticanti, voraci, pelosi, ottusi, sono a loro volta simbolici, il simbolo del rozzo, dell’incompiuto, della perfezione non raggiunta.

I due documentari che accompagnano la mostra ci fanno vedere, col portentoso occhio della cinepresa, quanto pochissimi occhi umani hanno potuto vedere: il bruco che si sospende nella tomba aerea e temporanea del bozzolo, si muta in crisalide inerte, ed esce poi alla luce nella forma perfetta della farfalla; le ali sono ancora inette, deboli, come carta velina stropicciata, ma in pochi istanti si rafforzano, si tendono , e la neonata prende il volo. È una seconda nascita , ma insieme è una morte: chi si è involato è una psiche, un’anima, e il bozzolo squarciato che resta a terra è la spoglia mortale. Negli strati profondi della nostra coscienza la farfalla dal volo inquieto è animula, fata, talvolta anche strega.

Lo strano nome che essa porta in inglese (butterfly, la «mosca del burro») rievoca un’antica credenza nordica secondo cui la farfalla è lo spiritello che ruba il burro e il latte, o li fa inacidire; e l’Acherontia Atropos, la grande notturna nostrana con il segno del teschio sul corsaletto che Guido Gozzano incontra nella villa della signorina Felicita, è un’anima dannata, «che porta pena ». Le ali che l’iconografia popolare attribuisce alle fate non sono ali pennute di uccello, ma ali trasparenti e nervate di farfalla.

La visita furtiva di una farfalla, che Hermann Hesse descrive nell’ultima pagina del suo diario, è un’annunciazione ambivalente , ed ha il sapore di un sereno presagio di morte. Il vecchio scrittore e pensatore, nel suo romitaggio ticinese, vede levarsi in volo «qualcosa di scuro, silenzioso e fantomatico»: è una farfalla rara, unAntiopa dalle ali bruno-violette, e gli si posa su una mano. «Lenta, al ritmo di un respiro tranquillo, la bella chiudeva e apriva le ali di velluto, tenendosi aggrappata al dorso della mia mano con sei zampette sottilissime; e dopo un breve istante sparì, senza che io ne avvertissi il distacco, nella gran luce calda».