There was blue above, and blue below,
And the gleam of the eternal snow.
And all along the shore, where'er
The storm-winds wont to chafe the wave,
The crucifix is shrinèd there;
That Christ may hear the passioned prayer
— May hear, may pity, and may save!

          [from "Lago di Como," by John Ruskin, aged 14 (1833)]

Lake Como

Lake Como from Cadenabbia, looking across at the little town of Bellagio. As Ruskin recalls in Praeterita, he was introduced to the wonders of continental Europe at an early age. He had travelled with his parents from childhood, and in 1825, when he was still only six, they took him with them to Paris and Brussels. When he was fourteen, however, they undertook a much more ambitious tour of Europe:

They waited to keep papa's birthday on May 10, and early next morning drove off — father and mother, John and [his cousin] Mary, Nurse Anne, and the courier Salvador. They crossed to Calais, and posted, as people did in the old times, slowly from point to point; starting betimes, halting at the roadside inns, where John tried to snatch a sketch, reaching their destination easily enough to investigate the cathedral or the citadel, monuments of antiquity or achievements of modern civilization, with impartial eagerness; and before bedtime John would write up his journal and work up his sketches just as if he were at home. [Collingwood 38-39].

One of the places they went to was Lake Como, where the family spent at least two Sundays at Cadenabbia.

Left: The landing stage at Cadenabbia. Ruskin would not have seen this little church, the Church of the Ascension, by the ferry terminal. The first Anglican one in Italy, it was built in in a "modern version of the Lombardy style" by the young Italian architect Giorgio Brentano, and consecrated in 1891, after the Victorians had made Cadenabbia a popular holiday resort. It is richly decorated inside, a "monument to the the warnth which which English-speakingpeoples (starting even before the Victorians) have regarded Italy" (church pamphlet). Right: St Bartholomew's, a twelfth-century Catholic church on the lakeside nearby. Ruskin would have seen this. A traditional fishing-boat rests outside now, as a decorative feature.

Ruskin recalls:

the first ravine of the main Alps I saw was the Via Mala, and the first lake of Italy, Como. We took boat on the little recessed lake of Chiavenna, and rowed down the whole way of waters, passing another Sunday at Cadenabbia, and then, from villa to villa, across the lake, and across, to Como, and so to Milan by Monza.

It was then full, though early, summer time; and the first impression of Italy always ought to be in her summer. It was also well that, though my heart was with the Swiss cottager, the artificial taste in me had been mainly formed by Turner's rendering of those very scenes, in Rogers' Italy. The Lake of Como, the two moonlight villas, and the Farewell, had prepared me for all that was beautiful and right in the terraced gardens, proportioned arcades, and white spaces of sunny wall, which have in general no honest charm for the English mind. But to me, they were almost native through Turner, — familiar at once, and revered. I had no idea then of the Renaissance evil in them; they were associated only with what I had been told of the "divine art" of Raphael and Lionardo, and, by my ignorance of dates, associated with the stories of Shakespeare. Portia's villa, — Juliet's palace, — I thought to have been like these. [Praeterita I, 166-67; emphasis added]

The references here are to Samuel Rogers's poem Italy (1830), which Ruskin had been given on his previous birthday, and which had illustrations by Samuel Prout, who became his drawing teacher, and Turner, his idol. Fourteen-year-old Ruskin was now trying to make a Rogers of his own (see Collingwood 39).

Left: Hotel Belle Vue, Cadenabbia, before the addition of an extra storey. In 1820, the lakeside merchants' inn at Cadenabbia had become the Albergo della Cadenabbia, the first hotel for tourists in this area, where it is more than likely that the Ruskins stayed. As the popularity of the area grew, it was rechristened the Hotel Belle Vue. Royal visits to the hotel during the Victorian period included one by the the Prince and Princess of Wales, reported in the Pall Mall Gazette of 7 May 1872. Right: The Grand Hotel Cadenabbia today. Taller now, but essentially the same, the hotel is still popular with British tourists.

Lake Como in the late afternoon

As for the young Ruskin in 1833, it was on this family trip that he first saw the Italian lakes and the Alps, both of which he fell in love with, and would revisit again and again. Already interested in mineralogy and collecting geological speciments, he loved the "stones" here before he loved those of Venice, which he would not visit until two years later: this chapter of Collingwood's biography of him is entitled "Mountain-Worship."

Photographs by the present author, except for the black-and-white one, courtesy of the Hotel Cadenabbia. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on all the images for larger pictures.]

Related Material


Cadenabbia di Griante. Grand Hotel Cadenabbia. Web. 20 December 2011.

"The Church of the Ascension." Pamphlet available at the church.

Collingwood, William Gershom. The Life of John Ruskin. London: Methuen, 1905. Internet Archive. Web. 20 December 2011.

Pall Mall Gazette. 7 May 1872. Nineteenth Century Newspapers. Web. 20 December 2011.

Ruskin, John. Praeterita, Vol.I. London: George Allen, 1907. Internet Archive. Web. 20 December 2011.

Created 22 December 2011

Last modified 6 May 2019