Leonardo In The Valtellina

Who thinks of the Valtellina as the site of the world’s first electrified railway, and supplied with current by an elaborate system of hydroelectric dams, if they think about it at all?

Leonardo in the Valtellina
Ghisolabella / CC BY-SA

Who thinks of the Valtellina as the site of the world’s first electrified railway, and supplied with current by an elaborate system of hydroelectric dams, if they think about it at all?

The Valtellina, as it is called, a valley encircled by tall and terrible mountains, makes strong wine in great quantities; and raises so much livestock that local inhabitants conclude that more milk is produced here than wine. This is the valley through which the Adda passes, which first runs for more than forty miles through Germany. This river has graylings, which live on silver, of which much is to be found in its sand. In this region everyone sells bread and wine; and the wine costs more than one soldo per pitcher and a pound of veal one soldo, and salt ten dinari, and similarly butter; and their pound is 30 ounces; and eggs one soldo for a cluster.

— Leonardo Da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus, 1496

Leonardo Da Vinci made these notes while making an exploratory journey through the Valtellina for the Duchy of Milan, where he was the chief artist and engineer under the Sforzas from 1482-1499. I find them remarkable for their casual and random inclusiveness, touching as they do on livestock, milk, eggs, fish, butter and salt as well as on wine, for which the Valtellina is perhaps best known today, apart from skiing. Admittedly, Leonardo made these observations before the arrival of the Grisons, who greatly expanded wine production in the valley, but they still attest to the heterogeneity of places that are often thought of in simplifying terms. Even in a relatively modern frame of reference, who thinks of the Valtellina as the site of the world’s first electrified railway, designed by a Hungarian engineer in 1902, and supplied with current by an elaborate system of hydroelectric dams, if they think about it at all? The Valtellina, like all places, is more complex than common understandings of it, and a little digging in the collections of local libraries yields high rewards.

Archival research of any given place is a nice example of what some scholars refer to as a Baroque approach to understanding complexity. The philosopher, Chunglin Kwa, for example, contrasts the Baroque method of engaging the world with the Romantic one: the first involves looking down, peering ever deeper into a thing, while the second involves looking up to discover ever greater encompassing contexts. Baroque explorers use a microscope; Romantic explorers use a telescope. Baroque practitioners look for gardens within gardens, the leaf holding a water droplet, the water droplet containing bacteria, the bacteria hosting parasitic viruses, and so on, always searching for the ever elusive scale of irreducibility, the smallest and most homogenous thing in existence, before particle physics gives way to quantum physics, and the old paradigm no longer fits. Romantics, however, behold the planet, and then the solar system, and then the galaxy, and then the universe, and then the unknown, about which astronomers then begin to quibble with philosophers and theologians.

The fact that even seemingly ordinary places are so mind bogglingly complex is one reason why the English philosopher and biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, has suggested that pilgrimages are superior forms of tourism. They allow for a slow and sustained immersion in a place, but do so in a way that involves constant movement and passage, constituting as they do a transect through a landscape, a method that allows a tourist to experience the complexity of a place without being overwhelmed by it, all the while measuring detail against a broader picture. It is like combining the best of the Baroque with the best of the Romantic.

Take for example the excellent two part discussion of the Via Francigena by this publication’s Andrea Angelini. A traveler on any part of this course will travel through time as well as through space, encountering the markers of multiple periods as well as those of various regions. Multiple modes of thought will be required to engage and appreciate how this lake, this field, this church and this cultural practice came into being. All of the senses — sight, scent, hearing, touch and taste — will be engaged by a body that is invigorated by the effort of moving up and down hills, across plains, and in sun and shade. Engagement and experience will be more random than predictable, and it will be open to multiple permutations and modalities, on foot or on bicycle, by scooter or car, as conditions and traditions allow, and singly or in a group, as the traveler chooses.

As scholars of tourism have long argued, modern day consumers, tourists included, seek experiences over things, although one can argue that it is the having of things that facilitates the having of experiences. Still, it is a valid point, but it raises the question of what kind of experiences contemporary tourists seek. Sheldrake suggests, somewhat in jest, that visitors to Italy and other countries often visit a cathedral with the vague hope of having some kind of spiritual experience, when what they find too often is a collection of historical facts that do little to satisfy their original impetus for the journey.

The growth in popularity of pilgrimage is both a sign of and a solution to this frustrated ambition, which is an appetite for feeling and meaning that is in scant supply in modern industrial society. Instead of plaques with words that offer detailed descriptions of a particular place and building — think of the UNESCO World Heritage Program and its well meaning but perhaps overly bureaucratic approach to valorizing historic buildings and sites — pilgrimages keep signage and statement to a minimum, privileging the cultivation and facilitation of experience over explanation, of sensibility over sense.

Personally, I love art and architecture, and often read histories, accounts and descriptions of their provenance with great interest and satisfaction. To learn about Pavia, Piacenza and Fidenza, and all of the other places on the Via Francigena, is to experience them with both the mind and senses, and background knowledge of this kind will only enhance your experience of them in person, so I have more than a slight quibble with Sheldrake on his disparagement of art history. Still, I take his point that there is more to a place than its streets and buildings and how they got to be that way. Pilgrimages, it seems to me, the way they allow you to traverse a place along a limited but representative path, and the way they allow a form of engagement that is at once material and imaginative as well as sensory and informed, constitute an ideal approach to engaging complex places.

Leonardo Da Vinci cannot have been wrong.

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