Magazine article The Spectator

Enjoying the Delectable Mountains from the Shores of Lake Como

Magazine article The Spectator

Enjoying the Delectable Mountains from the Shores of Lake Como

Article excerpt

The phrase `delectable mountains' makes me think of those around Lake Como. I have been painting them for some years now, and they have become dear to me. I was at them again last week. If Almighty God had deliberately set out to design an earthly paradise, he could not have bettered this long, meandering vale. The lake is deep and wide enough to be majestic, yet sufficiently narrow for the little towns on the other side to seem neighbourly: sometimes you can hear their bells stealing mournfully across the water. To north and to south an endless procession of headlands recedes to the horizon, each a paler shade of blue, until the last becomes almost indistinguishable from lake and sky. Their cliffs, forests and terraces descend into the waters precipitously, from heights of up to seven or eight thousand feet, so that though the waterline is low in one's frame of vision, the true horizon - the summit ridge - is high, and the clouds mere celestial ceilings on a picture which is essentially of soaring mountain walls.

The density, texture and colour of the elements in this vision change every second of the day. In the early morning, the sun struggles over the skyline still wreathed in dense mist, and is often just an angry, redorange orb, a fire-opal without radiance. Below it is an infinity of milky blue, the mountains rising imperceptibly from the waters as if both were the same element, the colour ranging from azure and aquamarine - almost sapphire - to a deep indigo. Nothing whatever is to be seen of the habitations across the lake, whose shore is invisible. Gradually, as the day progresses, little towns with names like Varenna make a vaporous appearance, then as the sun warms them they assume distinctive characters, each with its tall campanile, clock and onion dome, its Hotel du Lac or Excelsior and umbrageous public garden.

Meanwhile the lower slopes of the mountains change from blue to green, cease to be opaline and become pellucid, and their vertical contours emerge. In mid-afternoon comes what I term the Great Change. Enormous yellow and gold limestone cliffs, hitherto invisible in the pearly uniformity of the dense ultramarine, slowly make their appearance and stride diagonally across the slopes on the far side of the lake, totally transforming the colour composition of the picture. The slanting sun, as it sinks slowly from the meridian, brings out every precipice, buttress and fissure in these huge battlements, so that with each second that passes they become more clarified. They even shine out, radiantly, long after the lower slopes have merged with the lake in the gathering gloom, and hover mysteriously in the evening haze, gradually losing their detail as the sun sinks and the light thickens, until they vanish completely in the all-conquering indigo.

I have painted this ever changing panorama of light, colour and shape at every phase of its daily cycle, and in different climatic moods too. For sometimes Como ceases to be opal and milky and becomes stormily clarified. Drum-rolls of thunder descend from the tops and bound towards you across the white-whipped waters, while the lightning flickers among the cliffs and illuminates the summit clouds. As I watch these awesome displays, I think of the 18year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her lover Shelley, and Byron, sitting on the terrace of the Villa Diodati during the stormy summer of 1816, and gazing across the angry waters of Lake Geneva to the lightning-lit tops of the Alps, while the dread and still tenacious story of Frankenstein's Monster took shape in the imagination of the teenage girl. …

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