Dragons of the Alps

Article by guestblogger Giovanni Savelli

In a mountain landscape which is getting increasingly civilized, anthropized and crowded by tourists, it is difficult to find the bizarre. Monsters have left for some faraway, inaccessible places. A teratological migration that concerned the Alps, even before other liminal areas such as the Carpathians or the mountain of northern Norway, where maybe some small group of trolls still barely survives escaping the expansion of human settlements.

Yet for centuries, until the mid-1700s, the most impressive and grandiose mountain range in Europe was a natural object better observed from a distance. People looked at the peaks only through binoculars or by means of some other natural observations which did not imply any dangerous approach to the observed object. The modern passion for heights, and the even more recent determination to set foot on the highest peaks in the world, did not interest travelers or naturalists back then at all. In the midst of civilized Europe, the Alps and its highest mountains were regarded with a slight indifference by explorers and with total distrust on the part of those who were forced to live with the reality of those landscapes.

A troublesome and uncomfortable reality for those who dwelled in the Chamonix valleys or the nearby village of Courmayeur during the Little Ice Age, when ice tongues became more intrusive and insidious.
The very toponymy of those places confirms this perception of danger and fear, as it makes use of names that are anything but reassuring, Maudit or Dolant, to indicate places which instilled a sense of suspicion, if not sheer terror.

Etching by H. G. Willink – Wilderwurm Gletscher (1892)

As Elisabetta Dall’Ò points out (in I draghi delle Alpi. Cambiamenti climatici, Antropocene e immaginari di ghiaccio), the reason is to be found in the progressive growth of ice tongues near Alpine villages, which began the 15th century with often fatal consequences for the inhabitants. The detachment of gigantic blocks of ice caused frequent obstructions of watercourses with in turn resulted in terrible floodings. The  glaciers’ progressive extension subtracted fertile soil to agriculture and pastures to cattle farms. It is in this ecological and socio-economic context that the legends about dragons and monsters first began to emerge. A folklore that has its roots in the etymology of the word “dragon”, which is associated with water: both in its liquid and solid form. The dragons of the Alps haunted the local imagination, fierce beasts capable of destroying entire villages in one night. The glaciers descending into the valley turned into threatening and unpredictable dragon tongues. And unpredictable they were, both for the superstitious inhabitants of the villages and for scientists or naturalists who, until the end of the 17th century, had been careful not to set foot on the cold alpine moors. Exploring exotic, remote islands was thought to be more interesting — and meteorologically more welcoming.

We mentioned the relationship between dragons and water, and across the Alps we find the term dragonàre with the meaning (in the Napoleonic era) of flooding, or the word dracare as a synonym for a heavy snowfall. The history of dragons in the Alps, however, goes back even further in time, since the foothills regions often mention the presence of dragons in their founding myths. It was a dragon that threatened the town of Augusta Taurinorum (the ancient Turin), until a red bull defeated it. Another dragon infested the Loo area (in the Aosta Valley region) and was once again put to flight by a young bull.

But let’s go back to the properly alpine dragons, which is the topic we are interested in. Just like it interested many 18th-century naturalists and scholars who collected several accounts of dragon sightings. Edward Topsell, an English cleric who lived between the 17th and 18th centuries, provided a brief classification in his work The History of Serpents. In the section dedicated to dragons we find that:

There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks.

Topsell’s scientific “consultant” was one Conrad Gessner, a native of the Alpine region; born in Zurich in 1516, he was the author of some of the drawings that appeared in the book. It seems unlikely that Topsell actually believed in the existence of these creatures, but what matters is his bizarre and detailed description of (real) animals alongside monsters and naturalistic oddities.

The fact that Edward Topsell himself had never set foot in the Alps makes his account not particularly unreliable; other naturalists and explorers, such as Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, could boast a much greater familiarity with the Alpine landscape. Scheuchzer was born and raised in Switzerland, he was a member of the Royal Society and undertook his first scientific journeys in the Alps starting from 1693. Not immune from huge mistakes, such as interpreting fossils as remains of the Universal Flood, he was nonetheless a careful and curious explorer who during his research collected some terrible and picturesque tales about the dragons inhabiting the Alps at the time.
In his 1723 expedition account (Itinera for Helvetiae alpinas regiones) we find a series of curious and intriguing representations of mountain dragons, bearing striking similarities with the dracological classification present in Topsell’s work. Scheuchzer wrote about the two most common dragons of the Alpine arc, according to the collected evidence: the Tatzelwurm and the Lindworm.

Unless you are an expert in dragons, it might be useful to summarise the morphology of the different dragon species we encountered so far:

  • Tatzelwurm: body of a snake, long tail, two or four legs;
  • Lindworm: dragon-serpent with two legs and no wings;
  • Iaculo: body of a snake and two wings;
  • Viverna: body of a snake with two wings and two legs;
  • Anfittero: winged dragon, no legs;

According to collected oral evidence, the first two species seem to be the most common in the Alps; the other three can be found in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, in the books of George R. R. Martin, and the dragon which infested the hills around Bologna is mentioned in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Serpentum et Draconum historiae libri duo, published in 1604. If you have never heard of Aldrovandi, it is worth taking a look at Dario Carere’s article about him, here on Bizzarro Bazar. If you want to see the famous Bologna dragon as Aldrovandi described it, follow this link (the creature in question is on page 404).

And since Ulisse Aldrovandi was certainly fond of monstrous and bizarre figures, in his Serpentum and Draconum historiae he provided a series of four drawings of winged dragons, both bipedal and legless.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a typical 17th-century scholar, combining scientific curiosity with a wider interest in all things bizarre, monstrous and amazing. A disposition which was not shared by Swiss naturalist and scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure who, in fact, in his numerous explorations of the Alpine mountains, found no evidence of drangons. In the second half of the 18th century the alpine folklore regarding dragons underwent a slow and inexorable impoverishment. Where monstruous and fearsome dragon tongues were once ready to swallow entire villages, de Saussure’s scientific curiosity only meets natural objects and phenomena that must be understood, studied and explained.
This was the same scientific curiosity which led to the first tourist incursions in one of the largest and most fearsome “dragons” in the Alps: the Chamonix glacier. We can trace the discovery of the Mer de Glace to the summer of 1741, as a party of reckless British mountaineers undertook an adventurous climb and came in view of a glacier which until a few years before was populated by dragons and demons.

This marked the beginning of glaciological tourism which, in the decades to come, would make the French resort of Chamonix famous among mountain enthusiasts. Chased away by crowds of tourists and mountaineers, the dragons of the Alps were forced into retreat, as they witnessed from a distance the rising of hotels, cable cars and accommodation facilities. Of course, their territory was still scary, arousing awe and wonder in those who came to see those mountains. Mary Shelley set a scene of Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace, which she visited in the company of her husband in 1816. But it was a fascination akin to the one which can still be felt by riding the Mont Blanc cable car, looking down on the breath-taking view of the glacier from a suspended cabin. Quite different, that is, from the fear of the unpredictable, the terror of what cannot be explained or controlled.
Within a century, the Alpine territory changed so radically that today it is difficult to believe those places were once populated by dragons and demons. It is natural to associate the withdrawal of dragons with the current conditions alpine glaciers are facing. Natural, of course, but also necessary: because envisaging a snowless Mont Blanc can help understand where the fearsome dragons of the Alps have gone. This is how folklore, legends and traditions are linked to ecology; when a landscape is transformed, the representation that its inhabitants make of it changes accordingly.
The dragons have disappeared from the Alps; and not just them.

Sailing On Top of The Mountains

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling Titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.

(Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless, 2009)

This was the genesis of Fitzcarraldo, and chasing this dream Herzog actually lifted a steamboat to the top of a mountain, in order to take it from the  Rio Camisea to the Urubamba; a gigantic effort that entailed death and madness, during what is probably the most legendary and extreme film production in history.

The epic of contrast (here: the boat on the mountain, the sophistication of opera against the barbaric jungle) is what always seduced men into attempting the impossible.
And yet, eighty years before Fitzcarraldo, there was a man to whom this very endeavour seemed not at all visionary. A man who, in this idea of a boat climbing up a mountain slope, saw the future.

Pietro Caminada (1862-1923), was born from the marriage betweeen Gion Antoni Caminada, a Swiss who had emigrated from the Grisons canton to Italy, and Maria Turconi, from Milan. Fascinated since an early age by the figure of Leonardo Da Vinci, he studied engineering and was forced, like many others at the time, to sail towards Argentina together with his brother Angelo, looking for a job. After stopping for a brief tour of Rio de Janeiro, however, he was stunned by the city. He came back on the ship only to get hold of his luggage, and said to his brother: “I’m staying here“.

During the fifteen years he spent in Rio, Caminada worked on several projects regarding the town plan, the harbor refurbishing, and transportation: he transformed the Arcos da Lapa Aqueduct, built in 1750, into a viaduct for the transit of the Bonde, the folkloristic yellow tram which caracterized the Brazilian city until 2011. He was even chosen to design from scratch the new capital, Brasilia, sixty years before the town was actually built.
After this brilliant start, Caminada relocated back to Italy, in Rome. In addition to a wife and three daughters, he also brought with him his most ambitious project: making the Alps navigable.

Certainly this idea had a foremost practical purpose. Connecting Genoa to Konstanz via the Splügen Pass would have allowed for an otherwise unthinkable commercial development, as waterways were affordable and inexpensive.
But in Caminada’s proposal there also was an element of challenge, as if he was defying Nature itself; a fact the papers at the time never ceased to stress. An article, which appeared on the magazine Ars et Labor (1906-1912), began like this:

Man always seems to turn his creativity against the firmest and most solid laws of Nature. He is like a rebellious kid who fancies especially what is forbidden.
— Ah, you did not give me wings, he says to Nature, well I will build me some and fly anyway, in spite of your plans! You made my legs weak and slow, well I will build me an iron horse and run faster than your fastest creatures […]. As wonderful as a moving train might be, it does not upset any of the fundamental principles of Nature’s system; but to sail through the mountains, to sail upwards, to sail across steep slopes expecting this miracle to come only from the energy of channeled water, that is something that turns our most certain knowledge of navigation upside down, something contrary to water’s immutable ways of being […].

The beauty of Caminada’s method to bring boats across the Alps resided in its simplicity. It mainly consisted of a variation of the widely used ship-lock system.
If building a lock “stairway” on different levels remained unthinkable, according to the engineer everything would be easier with an inclined plane:

Imagine holding a cylindrical tube filled with water in a vertical position, the water plane will be round: if the pipe is tilted, the water plane, while always horizontal, will acquire a shape which will be the more elliptical and elongated the more the tube gets close to the horizontal position. If water is let out of the pipe, any floating body on the water plane will come down with it, along a diagonal […]. Thus, if the tube is held vertical the floating body will go up or down following a vertical line: if inclined, the floating body in addition to moving up or down will also travel horizontally. On this simple idea of tubular locks I have built my system of inclined canals, with two lanes in opposite directions.

chiuse   chiuse3

Caminada’s double tubular ship-locks ran in parallel, sharing common usptream and downstream water basins.

One lock is full, the other empty. In the full lock is placed the descending ship; in the empty one, the other boat that has to climb up. The two locks communicate at the bottom through channels or syphons. Upon opening the syphon, the water moves from the full lock to the empty one, lowering and carrying downards the boat in the full lock while lifting up the one in the empty lock, until they reach the same level […]. The operation is completed by closing the communication duct and completely emptying the lock with the descending ship, while from the upstream basin comes the necessary water to fill the lock where the upgoing boat is.

This system, patented by Caminada around the world since 1907, had a huge resonance in those years. It was discussed in articles published by international papers, in conventions and meetings, so much so that many thought the project would become real over a very short time.
Cesare Bolla, who lived in Ticino and disapproved deeply of Caminada’s ideas, even wrote a tongue-in-cheek little poem in 1908, making fun of the inevitable, epochal trasformation that was about to hit Lugano:

Outside my tavern, I’ve put on display
A sign on the window, saying: “Seaside Hotel”.
Folks round here, by a sacred fire consumed,
Only by ships and sails are amused.
[…] it won’t be long, for our own sake,
we’ll gaze at the sea instead of this lake.
Ships will pass in great abundance
All headed for the lake of Constance.

The engineer never stopped working on his dream.

«Caminada — as Till Hein notes — struggled for his vision. He went over and over the details of his project, he built miniatures of his lock system, in many variations. And eventually he built a gigantic model, for the great Architecture Exposition in Milan. With unflinching zeal he tried to convince politicians and officials». He was, like the Bündner Tagblatt once wrote, «an erupting volcano» and had «a restless head, with hair down to his shoulders» […].

(T. Gatani, Da Genova a Costanza in barca attraverso le Alpi, La Rivista, n. 12, dicembre 2012)

But the Genoa-Kostanz route imagined by Caminada was bound to collide, on one hand, with the interests of a Swiss “railroad lobby” who endorsed the building of a train line through the Splügen Pass; on the other, there was Austria, which dominated northeastern Italy and was determined to see that the Kingdom of Savoy couldn’t set a direct connection with Germany, be it by train or ship.

In 1923, at the age of sixty, Caminada died in Rome, and his waterways never became a reality.
His project, which only fifteen years before was seen as the upcoming future, ended up like its inventor in the “mass grave” of memories — except for some sporadic exhibition, and a little country road still bearing his name, situated in the vicinity of the airport entitled to his beloved Leonardo Da Vinci.

Looking back today, the most unfortunate and even sarcastic detail of the story might be a prophecy uttered by King Victor Emmanuel III: when Caminada showed him his plans during a private hearing on January 3, 1908, the King replied: “One day I will be long forgotten, but people will still be talking about you“.

Caminada’s motto, which he repeated throughout his life, is however still true. In two simple Latin words, it encompasses every yearning, every tension towards human limits, every courageous desire of exploring the boundaries: Navigare necesse. It is essential to navigate.

For human beings, setting sail towards new horizons still is, and always will be, a necessity and an imperative.

(Thanks, Emiliano!)

Il giocattolo del Gigante

C’era una volta una famiglia di Giganti che stava attraversando le Alpi: scavalcando le montagne, falcata dopo falcata, verso chissà quale destinazione.
Il figlioletto, un bambino alto circa 100 metri, piangeva a dirotto, e i suoi singhiozzi riecheggiavano per le valli. Era disperato perché aveva perso il suo coniglio di peluche; ma purtroppo non c’era tempo per tornare indietro a cercarlo. Mamma Gigantessa lo prese in braccio per consolarlo, e la marcia continuò.

Questo è quanto potremmo immaginare imbattendoci nella strana fotografia satellitare qui sotto. Cosa ci fa un enorme coniglio rosa a 1600 metri di altitudine sulle montagne piemontesi?

Posto sul Colletto Fava vicino al Bar La Baita, proprio sopra al paesino di Artesina in provincia di Cuneo, il coniglio è lungo 50 metri, ricoperto di lana, imbottito con mille metri cubi di paglia, ed ha richiesto cinque anni di lavoro a maglia. È stato creato nel 2005 dal collettivo viennese Gelitin, composto da quattro artisti dalle idee bizzarre e spesso geniali.

Ma non lasciatevi ingannare: se l’idea di un coniglio rosa gigante vi sembra fin troppo kawaii, l’installazione ha in realtà un effetto davvero perturbante. Le dimensioni innaturali del peluche contrastano con il paesaggio, il colore rosa shocking lo stacca dal resto del panorama: l’idea di posizionarlo lontano dalle gallerie d’arte o dai centri urbani, elemento artificiale “abbandonato” in un contesto naturale, contribuisce alla sensazione di disagio. La posa del peluche, inoltre, dà l’inquietante impressione di qualcosa di morto e in effetti le interiora del coniglio (cuore, fegato, budella, tutte di lana) fuoriescono dal suo fianco.

E non è tutto. Il coniglio resterà esposto agli elementi fino al 2025. Questo significa che i visitatori potranno, nel tempo, assistere a una vera e propria dissoluzione dell’opera d’arte; già adesso, a distanza di quasi dieci anni dall’inizio del progetto, la decomposizione del coniglio è in fase avanzata. Se fino a qualche tempo fa ci si poteva ancora arrampicare sul corpo del peluche, e sdraiarsi sul suo petto a prendere il sole, oggi l’installazione comincia a mostrare il suo lato più crudele e beffardo. Le intemperie hanno squarciato in più punti la superficie del pupazzo, esponendo la paglia sottostante e donando al povero coniglio l’aspetto di una vera e propria carcassa.

Il collettivo artistico austriaco, ben conscio dell’effetto destabilizzante che nel tempo avrebbe assunto l’opera, ha usato queste splendide righe per descrivere il proprio lavoro:

Le cose che si possono trovare vagando nel paesaggio: cose familiari, e completamente sconosciute, come un fiore che non si è mai visto prima oppure, come Colombo scoprì, un continente inesplicabile; e poi, dietro una collina, come lavorato a maglia da nonne giganti, giace questo vasto coniglio, per farti sentire piccolo come una margherita.
La creatura, rosa come carta igienica, è sdraiata sulla schiena: una montagna-coniglio come Gulliver a Lilliput.
Che felicità scalarlo lungo le orecchie, quasi cadendo nella sua bocca cavernosa, fino alla cima della pancia, e guardare verso il rosa panorama lanoso del corpo del coniglio, un paese caduto dal cielo; orecchie e arti che si dipanano verso l’orizzonte; dal suo fianco veder fluire il cuore, il fegato e gli intestini.
Felicemente innamorato scendi dal cadavere putrescente, verso la ferita, ora piccolo come una larva, sopra i reni e le budella di lana.
Felice te ne vai come la larva che acquista le sue ali da una carcassa innocente sul bordo della strada.
Tale è la felicità che diede forma a questo coniglio.
Io amo il coniglio e il coniglio mi ama.

Fra dieci anni, quando l’opera si potrà dire definitivamente conclusa, del coniglio gigante non rimarrà più traccia. Sarà stato “digerito” e assorbito dalla natura, come accade a tutto e a tutti.

Ecco il sito del collettivo Gelitin.