introduced by richard bagot

Il lago d'Orta from "The italian lakes" by Richard Bagot

"Unlike Maggiore and Como, the Lago d'Orta has
few rivers flowing into its basin^ and these are of
insignificant volume compared with such mighty
streams as the Ticino and the Adda. On the other
hand the lake is supplied by numerous subaqueous
spriiigs of purest quality which burst out of its rocky
bed. It was not until the year 1883 during a
drought in which the lake fell to a very low
level, consequent on the streams being dry
for many weeks, that the number and volume
of these springs were realised. The only stream
of .any size flowing out of the Lago d'Orta is
the Nigoglia, which, leaving the lake at the
northern end, at Omegna, joins the Toce and
ultimately the Po.

In all other instances the rivers flow from the
southern extremity of the Italian lakes, the Lago
d'Orta being the only one to discharge a stream from
its northern end. Hence the Omegnesi have a
saying concerning their own peculiar river the
Nigoglia, which we quote in its dialectic form —

** La Niguja la va in su
E la legg'a la femon nu ; "

which in Italian would run thus —

" La Nigoglia va all' insu, e la legge la facciamo noi ; "

" The Nigoglia runs upward, and we make the law "
(which causes it to perform this unantural feat).

The Lake of Orta abounds with fish, the trout
especially being of excellent flavour, pink fleshed
as salmon, and reaching a large size, the larger
specimens ranging from twelve to twenty and even
twenty-five pounds in weight.

Pike tench and large perch are also plentiful^ as
well as the agoni — those delicately flavoured little fish
which are to be found in most of the neighbouring
lakes^ though those of the Lake of Como are by
far the best so far as the eating of them is con-
cerned. The official list of the various fish to be
found in the Lake of Orta enumerates fourteen
different kinds — a list which is, of course, headed
by the magnificent trout yielded by these waters.

Unfortunately, from the fly-fisherman's point of
view, these trout can seldom be prevailed upon
to rise at a fly. But any fisherman who chooses
to devote a few weeks at the proper seasons to
negotiating matters with the Salmo lacustris of
Orta would most probably meet with occasional
compensation for those blank days which, however,
would not be few or far between, unless he should
condescend to baser arguments than those supplied
by the artificial fly. 

Above the town of Orta stands the Sacro Monte,
a thickly wooded hill on the summit of which are
pleasantly shaded walks and grassy glades, and from
which charming views are to be obtained both of
the lake and the open country. The Sacro Monte is,
of course, a resort for pilgrimages, and up the sides
of the hill, aloi^ the path leading to the church
at its summit, are the usual shrines containing
sculptural groups and representations of sacred
scenes common to all Sacri Monti in this district. 

The Sacro Monte of Orta however presents a
pleasant contrast with those of other similar shrines^
inasmuch as the little chapels contain representa-
tions of scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi
instead of the usual painful and sometimes revolting
representations of the different episodes of the
Crucifixion^ or other subjects of a similar disagree-
able and unedifying nature. There are at Orta
twenty-two of these chapels on the Sacro Monte,
each of which contains a group of life-sized figures
in terra-cotta of human beings and animals, and
the more legendary side of the life of St. Francis
of Assisi is depicted in its varying phases with
considerable realism, though not with equal artistic
taste. It is something, however, to be spared the
hoiTors which seem to appeal so pleasurably to the
pious imagination, and following in th^ terra-cotta
groups at Orta the vicissitudes of St. Francis, we
feel that we are at . least permitted a glimpse at
the gentler and more humane side of Christianity
of which the Saint of Assisi was so ardent and so
glorious an upholder.

But the chief attraction of the Lago d'Orta,
apart from the peculiar charm of its tranquil beauty,
is undoubtedly the Isola di^ Sa n Giulio, the solitary
island lying in the ^middle of the lake opposite the
town. This picturesque island may be said to be
unique amcmg the lake islands, in North Italy for
the beauty of its form, the colouring of its rocks
and its vegetation, and the grouping of its ancient
buildings* The aggressive vulgarity of the Isola
Bella on Maggiore becomes more than ever
apparent when we look at the graceful Isola di
San Giulio. 


The island is practically covered with buildings
from the water's edge to its summit^ which is
crowned by a large seminary forming part of the
ancient fortress. Nevertheless^ gardens blazing
with red and white oleanders^ and fragrant with
roses and magnolia^ seem to fill every available spot
between the houses, while drooping willows and
purple-blossomed catalpas^ wild vines and flowering
creepers, cactus and geranium, growing to the very
edge of the lake, are reflected In its clear, blue
depths. A single narrow street winds round the
base of the island — a street every few yards of
which presents some new picture, some fres^ com-
bination of detail and colour.

As long ago as the year 390 a.d. the Isola di
San Giulio, according to history, first became
inhaMted. During the reign of the Emperor
Theodosius, one Julius, a missionary priest sent
from Rome to Novara, passed through Orta. He
was so struck by the solitary beauty of the little
island reposing on the bosom of the lake that he
resolved to found a sanctuary upon it. ~At this
point we pass, for the moment,, from history into
myth. Ecclesiastical legend declares that, owing
to the fearsome nature of the monsters, dragons,
seipents of huge size and poisonous breath, and
suchlike denizens^, no man had as yet been bold
enou to set foot on. the island in the Cusian
lake nor could Jnlius prevail upon any in-
habitant of the mainland to convey him thither
in a boat.

The ardour of the future saint, however, was not
to be damped by so trifling an inconvenience as
the lack of a proper conveyance to carry him over
the lake. Using his cloak as a sail and his staff
as a rudder, he walked on to the surface of the
waters and, the wind filling his cloak, was promptly
blown across to the island. On his landing, the
impenetrable brushwood which covered the ground
miraculously receded and opened out a path for
him, while the monsters fled before his face and,
abandoning the island, retreated into the mountains
on the mainland.

This and similar myths are so clearly suggestive
of the. truths they conceal, and of the facts to which
they owe their origin, that it can only be a matter
of regret when these truths are brought into
doubt and evil repute by those who insist on
liupplying the demand of the superstitious and the
ignorant for the miraculous, and encourage belief
in the letter rather than in the spirit of such
legends. A very ordinaiy fossil bone, probably
that of a whale, is still solemnly shown to the
faithful at San Giulio as the remains of one of
the monsters who fled before the patron saint of
the island.

Julius, to revert to history, founded a church
upon the island, and in the space of two years
died, and was buried there* In the
year 1637 his body was removed and reinterred in
the present church.

This building is said to date back to the seventh
century^ and is in form a complete basilica on a
miniature scale.

It contains several monuments of interest^ and
among them a curious pulpit of the eighth or ninth
century, on which divers weird beasts, possibly
representing those driven from the island by San
Giulio, are sculptured. A marble sarcophagus, now
used as an alms box, is supposed to have originally
contained the remains of one Memulphus, governor
of the island in 575, who was beheaded for
treachery by the Lombard King Agilulf. The
letters, Memul, still remain, and the headless
skeleton of a man was found within the
sarcophagus when it was discovered in 1697.

A curious record of past events is, or was, pre-
served on the walls of this church. It consists of
notes written at random, much in the same way as
modem tourists cut or write their names and the
dates of their inroads upon show places. Plagues,
earthquakes, floods, miracles, and similar occurrences
are thus chronicled. Mr. T. Lund observes that
these records left by unknown hands ga back to
the year 1421, and are to be found scrawled upon
the pillars and arches of the building.

A few pictures of indifferent merit, and of more
than doubtful authenticity, are contained in the
church; and among other treasures in the sacristy
is a charter of the • Emperor Otho, dated 962
granting certain land to the clergy of the Church
of San Giulio as a thankoffering for a victory
gained by him over Berengarius, King of Italy^
who had seized Orta from the Bishops of Novara,
The Bishops of Novara^ it may be mentioned^
were feudal lords of Orta and of what was termed
the Riviera di Orta up to late in the eighteenth
century. It is curious to read of dire pains and
penalties threatened by the Episcopal Court of
(Movant in 1787 on any individual who either publicly
or privately should venture to call the lake by
any other name than that of Lago di San Giulio
— the term Lago d'Orta being held to convey want
of proper respect to religious tradition and^ no doubt^
to clerical authority.

The whole neighbourhood of Orta is admirably
adapted for excursions both on foot and on wheels.
By far the most beautiful excursion^ however^ is
that across the Col di Colma to Varallo^ in the
Val Sesia.

Almost opposite the town of Orta^ nestling in
chestnut woods on the other shore of the lake^ is
the pretty little village of Pella, whence a road-
way leads up through woods^ anS" by a stream — the
Pellino — which turns picturesque old mills^ to La
Colma^ a village situated nearly a thousand metres
above sea -level. The views from this place are
enchanting^ Monte Rosa as usual towering in the
distance above the intervening mountain ranges^
while immediately below are the lakes of Orta and
Varese^ and beyond the latter the plain of Lombardy.