As yesterday I was looking up information on the Internet on a place I have been wanting to go for quite some time (it was only a close miss two years ago during Ascona’s Chestnut Festival, more on this here), i.e. on the botanical gardens of Brissago, two small islands (San Pancrazio and Sant’Appollinare) not far from Ascona in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, I came across some pictures in the photo section of the islands’ official website that caught my attention: some naked bodies!
Apparently, the islands which had belonged from 1885 to 1927 to the well-to-do couple Richard and Antoinette Fleming de Saint Léger were turned into a tropical garden by baroness Antoinette de Saint Léger, but were then transformed into a kind of epicurean retreat by its new owner, the German businessman Max Emden – hence the picture of what looks very much like a 1930 remake of the Three Graces that caught my sight.
A few key words typed in my favourite search engine and I stumbled across a documentary that was broadcast on the French-German cultural channel Arte, entitled ‘Le Sud sauvage de la Suisse’ by Eva Gerberding, André Schäfer, 2007 and available here [in French, on DailyMotion]: http://dai.ly/x2vj1p
To my surprise, about 11 minutes 30 seconds into the documentary, I learned that one of the hills above the small lake resort of Ascona, called Monte Verità (the hill of truth), had been a retreat from 1900 until 1920 for a community of European expatriate thinkers, writers, artists, dancers, etc who had aspired to create an alternative society. This was a total surprise as I thought that places like Findhorn in Scotland or Larzac in France were the oldest such ‘eco-communities’ (even though I vaguely remember that the English writer D.H. Lawrence had tried to create an alternative community in Mexico, at Taos, which he called ‘Rananim’).
To quote Harald Szeemann, a museum curator who devoted much of his free time to collecting documents on this community and even organised an exhibition on Monte Verità called ‘Le mammelle della verità’ (the breasts of truth [because of the shape of the hills from a certain perspective – see picture above for a rough idea]):
From 1900 onwards Mount Monescia above Ascona became a pole of attraction for those seeking an ‘alternative’ life. These reformers who sought a third way between the capitalist and communist blocks, eventually found a home in the region of the north Italian lakes. […] United by a common ideal they settled on the ‘Mount of Truth’ as they renamed Monte Monescia. Draped in loose flowing garments and with long hair they worked in the gardens and fields, built Spartan timber cabins and found relaxation in dancing and naked bathing, exposing their bodies to light, air, sun and water. Their diet excluded all animal foods and was based entirely on plants, vegetables and fruit. They worshipped nature, preaching its purity and interpreting it symbolically as the ultimate work of art [… full text plus photos of the community available here]
No wonder that such a fascinating group of individuals attracted the attention of a documentary film-maker, Carl Javér; the documentary (Der Traum vom alternativen Leben), which draws parallels with our own contemporary society [1900 vs 2014 (…is there really any difference!?)], was recently broadcast on Arte again (no surprise, really, as the Germans have this fascination for the south); here is the trailer:
In addition, the Hermann Hesse Foundation in Montagnola (Ticino), in collaboration with the University of Lugano (TEC-Lab) and the Politecnico of Milan (HOC Laboratory), developed a series of very short clips on the community, entitled ‘Seekers of Truth: Hermann Hesse and Monte Verità’, which probably offers the best introduction to the community of Monte Verità.
As to the question of whether Monte Verità was Europe’s first ever ‘eco-community’ (post industrial revolution, that is), this is something I cannot answer right now as I do not know enough on the subject (I would have to read some of the titles mentioned in the Wikipedia article I link to below) and especially given that thinkers like Michail Bakunin were living nearby (Locarno) or that the Swiss member of parliament Alfredo Pioda had even considered setting up a theosophical cloister called ‘Fraternitas’ on the very same hill in 1889 (source: Timeline, Fondazione Monte Verità).
Anyhow, given that the place is claimed to radiate with energy I cannot wait to go back to Ascona, this time for a jog on this ‘hill of truth’, and put the claim to the test 😉 [The claim is made by a descendant of one of the original members of the community in this short clip by Swissinfo.ch, available on DailyMotion at http://dai.ly/x5k4db ]
- Timeline, Fondazione Monte Verità [the foundation which was set up to save the Bauhaus-style Monte Verità Hotel, built in 1927]
- ‘Monte Verità: “The place where our minds can reach up to the heavens…”’, Harald Szeemann, 1985, reproduced on the website of Fondazione Monte Verità
- Wolfgang Wackernagel, ‘Mystique, avant-garde et marginalité dans le sillage du Monte Verità’, in Mystique: la passion de l’Un, de l’Antiquité à nos jours [text available here or here]
- ‘Seekers of Truth: Hermann Hesse and Monte Verità’ [Inspired by the story of the ‘vegetabilist’ community Monte Verità in Ascona, where Hermann Hesse spent 2 weeks, in the spring of 1907], seven main sections, divided into subsections : 1) The Community ‘Monte Verità’; 2) Early Years: 1900 – 1920; 3) Dwellers of Monte Verità; 4) Expressing the Inner Self; 5) The Philosophy; 6) Hermann Hesse and Monte Verità; 7) The Exhibition ‘Rifugio Monte Verità’ [past exhibition: October 2006 – March 2007]
- Kaj Noschis, Monte Verità : Ascona et le génie du lieu, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes (PPUR), 2011, 3-minute long presentation of the study (so in French) by Kaj Noschis on YouTube, click here.
- Full bibliography in the entry on Monte Verità, Wikipedia Deutschland
- Torri Superiore, a contemporary eco-village in northern Italy