Friday, 13 June 2014

A Letter from Lake Como

Romano Guardini's Letters from Lake Como were written as a series of articles, the first appearing at Pentecost 1923 and the last in 1925. In late 1926, they were first published in a book with the aforementioned title; Guardini's preface has the dateline "Varenna on Lake Como, September 1926". The theme of the Letters is the relationship of technology to human culture; Guardini suggests that we face the danger of our adoption of technology creating such distance between us and the natural world around us that it constitutes a domination of that nature rather than the collaboration with it that makes for a genuinely human culture.

A particular passage from Guardini's book has always struck me, a passage in which he compares the (former) sail boats that would have plied the lake to the diesel engine boats of more recent provenance:
.... in the finished sailing vessel, a certain distance from nature has already occurred. We have both withdrawn from nature and mastered it. Our relation to it is now cooler and more alien. Only in this way can any work of culture, of mind and spirit, be done. Yet do you not see how natural the work remains? The lines and proportions of the ship are still in profound harmony with the pressure of the wind and waves and the vital human measure. Those who control this ship are still very closely related to the wind and waves. They are breast to breast with their force. Eye and hand and whole body brace against them. We have here real culture - elevation above nature, yet decisive nearness to it.
Perhaps more than a sailing vessel, this is true of the traditional fishing boats of Lake Como, rowed from a standing position. Zero and I did see one of these boats on the lake during our recent visit.

Guardini goes on to contrast the sailing vessel with diesel engine boats:
... It grieves me when I see built into one of these vessels, these noble creations, a gasoline engine, so that with upright mast but no sails the vessel clatters through the waves like a ghost of itself.... In the sailing ship we had a natural existence, for all the presence of mind and spirit in the situation. We had our being in a natural culture. In the modern steamer, however, we are in an artificial situation; measured by the vital elastic human limits, nature has been decisively eliminated .
In the twenty-first century, Lake Como is criss-crossed by ferries such as that shown in the picture above. We might not now see them as being alien to a human culture in the way that Guardini did. One might instead apply his analysis to the numerous speed boats that move noisily around the lake during weekends, or to the servizio rapido. Whilst the ferries do at least respect the zig-zag geography of the lake and its landing stages, the hydrofoil appears (at least seen from above the lake on the road that runs down its western side) to challenge that geography, trying its best to simply forge a straight line from one end to the other.

On one day of our stay, Zero and I took the conventional ferry from Caddenabia down the western arm of the lake to Como. It is a wonderful way to appreciate the lake. If you do a Google search for "Lake Como" and select images, you will see something of the beauty of the lake and its shores. Como itself has a lovely mediaeval centre and a Cathedral. It is the home city of Alessandro Volta, and there is a museum near the harbour dedicated to him (I missed this - I should have read the tourist guide ...but have since been advised by a fellow physics teacher that it is actually worth missing).

On another day, we went on an excursion on the Bernina express railway. Views were spectacular. Movies here (short) and here (long, but with more views). St Moritz ... we can say we have been there now but, out of the ski-ing season, there is not a lot happening there. At the Italian side, the railway begins at a town called Tirano, which has a Marian shrine in the centre of its main square. The Church itself is baroque-to-be-missed; the guide for our excursion diplomatically advised us of the primitive nature of the public "facilities" in the square.

During a visit to Milan, the Cathedral was a joy - Gothic not baroque. The arrangements for the celebration of the mid-day Mass (a rather temporary arrangement of chapel, altar and Tabernacle hidden behind the main sanctuary) lacked inspiration. The opportunity to recognise the subtleties of the Ambrosian Rite was spoilt by a priest who appeared, so far as I could tell at least, to ad-lib all round everything that was specific to that Rite.

Around the central part of the lake itself, it was easy enough to take a short ferry ride to visit other places along the lake for a walk or a sit and read of a book. It is a beautiful place to spend some time ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know what Guardini would make of the sea planes that land on the Lake.Lake Como is truly beautiful,taking the boat to Como town ,criss crossing the Lake is a relaxing way to travel.pity George Clooney wasn't sunbathing as we passed his villa on the Lake!