Rousing Nietzsche in Orta, Italy

by D. Curoopen Colpman

Of all the Northern Italian lakes, Lake Orta and the town of Orta is a true prize. Divided by the Mattarone Mountain, Orta is cut off from the popular tourism of Lake Maggiore, and its shore town of Stresa–famously featured in Ernest Hemingway’s war novel, A Farewell to Arms. Yet Lake Orta and the town are not short of literary connections. Its wooded alpine mountains, Monte Sacre, the holy mount (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Monte Rosa, have a history of inspiring those who arrive at this Piedmont idle, which is often overlooked. Yet the least unspoiled.

Steep, cobbled streets wind down through the twelfth century medieval town of Orta to the shores of its blue lake. Sit at any lakeside cafe and the mysterious island of San Giulio at the lake’s centre will draw your eye. And as you relax over a cool drink it’s common to lose all track of time. Perhaps because the sounds of traffic do not interrupt the ambience, as the town is car free, making it more pleasant to dine outside in the warm evening. In addition, there are many delightful trattorias and restaurants to choose from. A popular place with locals is Edera by the renaissance Palazotto, the Old Town Hall. Among the many tasty dishes you might sample is the local delicacy of donkey. It may appear on the menu as an ingredient in lasagne, but is quite delicious having been finely minced and marinated in red wine. There are, however, many superb dishes to choose from.

Orta weaves an unsuspecting magic, which is but one of its treasures. Such charms have energised many a literary traveler when visiting Orta and the mountains. Victorian poet, Robert Browning was influenced to pen By the Fire-Side, which speaks directly of his love for his wife, fellow poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Elizabeth, who had always been in fragile health improved greatly in Italy. This afforded them a happiness they would not have otherwise experienced. And the great French writer, Honore de Balzac likened Orta’s bewitching nature to the music of creativity unconstrained:

The world that the traveller has lately viewed is here in miniature, modest and pure; his soul, refreshed, bids him remain where a charm of melody and poesy surrounds him with harmony and awakens ideas within his mind. 

Perhaps one of the most luminary meetings of mind occurred on the western edge of the lake, on Monte Sacre, the holy mount. The name derives from its twenty chapels dedicated to the life and miracles of St Francis of Assisi. These were built, using local materials, in three phases from 1590 to 1788, initially to counteract a growing Lutheran presence in the area. Dionysius Compass, the sixteenth century sculptor, created the large number of life size terracotta statues that reside in and around the chapels. It is artwork that can be seen today, as they were in early May 1882 when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his friend Lou von Salome, a free-spirited Russian intellectual hiked in these alpine woods.

Nietzsche was a man prone to imbalances of the mind, and Lou was an uncommon woman of her time. She knew her own mind and sought intellectual stimulation, plus parity with men.

Something happened on that walk. The pair, feeling inspired let more time go by than what was, for the age, considered proper. Perhaps they heard the notes and chords of de Balzac’s music. Perhaps ideas flowed with passion. What happened exactly has remained a mystery, but Nietzsche was to express in a letter to Lou: “I owe to you the most beautiful dream of my life.” And he asked her to marry him.

Lou, however, did not share his sentiments and turned down his proposal. Eventually, Nietzsche’s feelings for her caused a break in their friendship. And he was to condemn her, when salvaging himself from the hurt of his experience: “The Lou of Orta was a different being.”

The troubled man went on to write his best known philosophical work of fiction, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in which Zarathustra (based on Zoroaster, 9th Century BC, Iranian prophet and religious poet) declares: “all gods are dead.” Nietzsche dated the book: “von Orta an,” from Orta onwards…

Cryptically, Lou wrote of her experience, “whether I kissed Nietzsche on Monte Sacre, I do not know now.”

Orta has always been a place of stirring mystery, especially on its lake isle of San Giulio. The influence of the Benedictine seminary, which dominates the island, is immediately felt. A sign requests visitors respect the island’s peace.

It has to be said that San Giulio is unusually tranquil and silence is maintained with pragmatism. The seminary, built in 1844 on the castle ruins now forms part of the Mater Ecclesiae convent, a monastery for nuns. It is open to visitors all year, except November. Work takes place on the study and translation of archaic literary texts, plus the research and restoration of ancient fabrics. The distant past is never far away on San Giulio.

Frescoed houses and baroque architecture embrace the visitor with their antiquity. You might notice some of these houses have large and peculiar door-knockers. Many form the shape of a wyvern, which is a legendary creature whose upper body is a dragon, and its lower body a serpent with forked tale.

Several door-knockers show the tail grasped in the dragon’s mouth, like the ouroboros symbol–a mythical showing of the devouring of self, followed by re-birth. Or part of the cycle of birth and death, like the seasons. The ouroboros was also a symbol of the pagan roman religion of Mithras, which would have reached San Giulio’s shores. One version says the ouroboros of Mithras represented the rebirth of man from rock, and the rock is the cosmos. Psychoanalyst Karl Jung would later suggest the cosmos was the unconscious… A more familiar version suggests when Mithras died he was resurrected from a cave, or rock tomb. Curiously, some nineteenth century scholars considered Mithrasism to have taken its influence from early encounters with Zoroastrianism. If Nietzsche was aware of such ideas when he visited Orta, it’s not known.

But in the literal sense, serpents have the symbolic advantage of renewal because they shed their skin. Consequently, they are often linked to tales of things that were brought to a new existence–like the serpent found in the garden assisting Eve gain her freedom, or new life, from Eden. Such visual imagery has a habit of reappearing over time, for example, eight years after Nietzsche and Salome’s Orta meeting, chemist August Kekule claimed in 1890 in Germany, the ouroboros symbol inspired him in his discovery of the structure of benzene.

The island of San Giulio, which is sometimes known poetically as Cusio, was once a Roman stronghold. Then, at the end of the fourth century, Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the pagan rites of Mithras, and established Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire. Theodosius invited Julius, (later Saint Giulio of Novara) a Greek missionary and church builder, to Italy to help destroy the pagan temples, and build Christian ones in their space. Giulio had built ninety-nine churches before arriving at Orta.

Legend is that he sailed across its beast-filled lake on his cloak, and upon touching the island’s shore he drove out all snakes. The imagery of snakes signalled an end to pagan practices and their conquest by the primitive church.

In celebration of his defeat of paganism, Giulio then built his last, one hundredth church on the site of a previous temple. It was dedicated to the Apostles and is where the Basilica stands today. Archaeological investigations in the Basilica agree that there was an earlier church dating from about the fourth century. It is thought this might have been destroyed, or significantly damaged around AD 962 during the two month siege by Otto I, King of Saxony–only to be rebuilt later in the twelfth century on the design of the romanesque Cathedral at Novara.

The heavily frescoed Basilica has three isles, and a huge romanesque ambo for delivering readings, sculpted from green-black marble with gigantic pillars. Carved into the pulpit is a wyvern, and on display in the sacristy is a medieval relic, a bone believed to have been a dragon’s, or wyvern’s. Inside the Basilica’s crypt is an ornate silver and crystal sarcophagus. Within, lying in state, are the presumed remains of San Giulio himself. He gave his name to the island, and for his endeavours in building, became the patron saint of masons. His icons often depict him with the trade’s tools in his hands.

That is to say, Orta’s myths and mysteries continue inspiring writers today. A fine example is the lively Poetry on the Lake celebration (, which entwines Orta’s poetic past with the contemporary poetry of luminous things. Orta also holds an annual international poetry competition, for the prize of a silver wyvern. Past adjudicators have included the poets, Al Alvarez and Carol Ann Duffy.

There is much Orta offers the visitor to see and experience. Several traditions go back hundreds of years, like the market held every Wednesday in the main square, the Piazza Motta, since 1220. Yet a constant of this town is the drawing of inspiration, as many writers and poets have expressed. That is Orta’s treasure and it will leave you feeling unexpectedly restored and refreshed.

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