The Bergell and the Bergellers

Gottardo Segantini, Heimatschutz, Issue No 4, June 1927

(...) Have you not observed that the landscape rubs off on its inhabitants mentally and spiritually? The people grow together with their land, over the centuries something like a kinship develops between the inhabitants of a region and the region itself, which is all the more striking the more secluded the region. It is not an acquired love, but an adaptation of man to his environment, the shaping and determination of the local character in harmony with the area itself. Anyone who knows the people of Bergell must consider the accuracy of this observation to be completely applicable here. The valley, like few in the Alps, is massive, angular, sunken between two mountain ranges that stretch from southwest to northeast. Dark forests climb steeply up to the bare rock faces; only on the northern slopes does it have pastures and meadows. On the valley floor, which is mostly very narrow, the small villages are scattered. Near Castasegna, right on the Italian border, a chestnut forest stretches up to Soglio on the northern slope and to Bondo in the valley. You might think you are in the south, but just beyond the muraia ( wall ) of Promontogno we are in the high mountains, beyond Stampa, Borgonovo, Vicosoprano and then through high pine forest to Casaccia we reach the Maloja Pass. The valley of the Maira, as the Bergell is also called, reaches through the Orlegna river to Orden near Maloja and politically to Isola and Plaun da Lei on lake Sils.

(...) the valley of the Maira (is) like an extension to the southwest of the Engadine. Geographically, the Bergell has two 'areas of origin': below Casaccia, the Orlegna joins the Maira, the former coming from the Forno area and the Cavaloccio valley, the latter winding around the Piz Duana and having had its sources at the rear mountains and lakes of the Maroz valley. Between these mighty roots that the Bergell has thrown up in the southern and northern mountain massifs, the political affiliation of the area extends from Maloja to the municipality of Stampa to the Sils area across the blue surface of lake Sils.
Where can you find a valley community that would be so varied in beauty? Soglio, which Giovanni Segantini called the "threshold of paradise", rises opposite the primeval group of the Bondasca; those rocks and cliffs are, like people from Bergell in the storm of life, mighty hermits who defy the future through hard work. It is not without reason that the painter painted "Life" here. Down in the valley, in the shadow of the large forests and the romantic rocky peaks that rise ghost-like into the sky, the people of Bergell live in a struggle with the hostile nature, earnestly and trusting God. When they go to the alpine pastures at the foot of the Piz Duan or to Maloja in the summer months, when they hunt for game high in the rocks in autumn, their souls rejoice and they feel their freedom grow and rise up to the face of God.

Giovanni Segantini painted the picture "Death" above Maloja. The landscape breathes loneliness and grandeur, it is only made for giants, and the little people and their sufferings grow here into the enormous. People know too little about the Bergell, they overlook it because the Engadin is so close, because people are afraid of the really big, the earnest, and it is too convenient not to have to think and see for themselves. Because the Bergell is not only large, it can also be lovely and picturesque. It is the cradle of two great Swiss painters, Giovanni and Augusto Giacometti, and we will soon hear of a third Giacometti, Alberto.

(...) The Bergeller is proud, and rightly so. The Bergeller is austere like his mountains, which rarely know the soft lines of the great glaciers. The Bergeller likes what is fair and right.While the other three italian speaking valleys in Graubünden have remained mainly Catholic, the whole of Bergell is Protestant. What does that demonstrate? That these people think a lot in their lonliness and have the courage to defend their opinion. Hard on the border of Italy, where everyone was Catholic, the people of Bergell realised during the Reformation that the new doctrine was better suited to their sense of independence, that they could thus better reach their God from the heights and from the solitude of their mountains without intermediaries. The Bergeller is a democrat because he wants to be independent, and so in his democratism he is a hermit, a king. If kings want to get along with each other, they have to respect each other, or at least not interfere with each other's rights. And so they became democrats. Italian by language and culture, the Bergell is well Graubündenlike in its peasant, proud democratism, which has the angular force of the Bondasca mountains.