TURBIA, LAGHETTO, AND ESA.
ONE of our latest excursions has been to Turbia, about eight miles in the
direction of Nice. It rained furiously, but we are beginning to learn that the
country is quite as striking and beautiful in wet weather as in fine, and Turbia
looked magnificent, amidst the driving storm-clouds, which, opened to reveal the
view of the bays of Mentone on one side, and of Villafranca on the other. Above
a nest of little brown houses rises the huge ruin of the Trophoea Augusti, and
though the church and village are both built out of its materials, the remaining
half of the solid round tower, is still a gigantic mass, defying storm and time.
This building, from which the name of Turbia (Trophaea) had its origin, was
raised by the emperor Augustus, after his conquest of the various Alpine tribes,
and was placed by him on the most conspicuous point of the Maritime Alps, on the
spot which is indicated in the itinerary of Antoninus as "Alpis
Summa." After the barbarian invasion the monument was partly destroyed, and
served to form a tower, of which only a portion still stands; the present
remains being those of the debris of a great Roman work of an early period,
forming the base of another tower erected during the middle ages. Huge stones
are strewn around, hewn from a neighbouring height, where one may still perceive
the traces of Roman work; and pieces of marble, which must once have belonged to
the ancient monument, are scattered over the walls of the village and church.
The mediaeval tower remained entire till the year 1706, when, being considered
as a fortification, it was destroyed by the mines of the French army, at the
same time with the castle of Nice. The ruins still shew the traces of fire.
The primitive monument was also destroyed by fire, of which the marks were
visible in the 15th century, when it was described by Pierre Antoine Boyer, a
Franciscan monk. The original base is described as square; 230 feet in breadth,
upon which stood another square of finer workmanship, and ten feet smaller,
while the top of the monument was round, 800 feet in circuit, and ornamented by
columns. The whole was crowned by a colossal statue of Augustus. Gioffredi
mentions, that beneath a picture of St. Honorius, in his island near Cannes,
there existed an ancient inscription, which stated that the fall of the statue
was owing to the prayers of that saint, on account of its having become an
object of idolatry, and he adds that a picture representing this miracle was to
he seen in the church of St. Dominic at Nice. The Pere Boyer also speaks of two
sarcophagi, formed from parts of the statue after its fall, which existed in his
time in the church of La Turbia; one of these is stated by the old inhabitants
to have been used in building the new church, just before the revolution, the
other still exists outside the church, and though much injured, shews part of a
human body in the carving of one of its sides, which may have formed a portion
of the famous statue.
Among the marbles found here was a fine head of Drusus, which was bought by
the Prince of Denmark, and is now in the museum at Copenhagen. The Roman road
"Julia Augusta," (also called the Emilian Way, from Emilius Scaurus,
under whose auspices this part of the road was formed,) passed in front of the
monument. Hence the Roman way descended to the valley by the ravine of Laghetto,
on the western side of which are some inscribed Roman mile-stones, regarded with
great reverence by the peasants, who imagine that the "Written Rocks"
(Pietre Scritte) must have been the work of magical hands.
The precipices prevent the drive to Turbia being a pleasant one in the
Mentonese carriages, which are constantly having accidents, but we took courage
to face them a second time, in order to make a pilgrimage to the Madonna di
Laghetto, which indeed it was only our duty to do, according to the national
custom for all those who have escaped from a carriage accident in the Riviera.
Only people were rather shocked, that we had no ex-voto, to take with us as an
A little beyond Turbia, we turned off to the right, at a place which has the
title of Santa Caterina, a name which the natives assert was derived from its
chapel, an edifice which at first we believed to be mythical, but at length we
discovered its remains in a low ruined wall, still retaining some faded frescoes
of St. Catherine and other virgin saints. Near it stands the "Colonna del
Ré," commemorating the pilgrimage of King Charles Felix, for which the
present road to the convent was constructed in 1826. Hence the road plunges into
an arid and stony valley, devoid alike of vegetation and feature, till at length
it suddenly opens, to display a range of wild mountains, ending in the grand
snow-peaks which close the valley of the Var.
Here, at the foot of Mount Sembola, perched on a rugged rock, stands the
convent, isolated in wet weather by the mountain torrents which surround it on
every side, and then unite again, to fall into the Paillon far below in the
The building is most picturesque. The tall painted tower of the church,
capped by its quaint dome, rises above the other monastic buildings, which are
grouped together with much variety of colour in their yellow walls, red roofs,
and bright green jalousies, casting long shadows in the sunshine. A few grey
aloes with their immense prickly leaves, and some very old olive trees, vary the
uniformity of the rock, while two or three large umbrella pines, on the edge of
the rift above the little village of Laghetto, form a good foreground to the
rugged mountain range which closes in the valley on its three sides. A fine
modern bridge, with an older one in ruins below, allows the road to pass to the
sanctuary across the ravine of Perdiguierre, which runs below it.
Near this, Monsieur Ciotti, a late Intendant-General of Nice, who made the
road, and built the bridge, has also erected a stable for the accommodation of
visitors. The paved piazza in the front of the convent, as well as the road and
the bridge, are generally filled with brown cowled monks, strolling about or
playing at bowls in the sun. The entrance to the convent is by a broad open
cloister, where pilgrims go through their novenas before entering the church,
and where the walls are covered with ex-votos.
Among these, the pictures of horrible scenes placed there to commemorate the
various accidents that had taken place, made our fright at Ventimiglia dwindle
into nothing in comparison. Here were horses backing their carriages over awful
precipices; there, the horses themselves plunging over the edge of the abyss,
and perfect showers of unfortunate travellers raining out of the carriages into
the gulf below. Some of the pictures evidently represented adventures which had
occurred to visitors going to Laghetto itself, the convent and the monks being
displayed in the background. The shipwreck scenes were also most terrific.
In the centre of the cloister, which was entirely built by the offerings of
the faithful, is the church (restored in 1838), which is small, but well
proportioned, lofty and handsome, with two side chapels, dedicated to St. Joseph
and St. Theresa. The whole is painted in imitation of marble, and is covered
with ex-votos of a superior kind. These include silver hearts, bridal wreaths,
and the crutches offered by the lame. The altar was formerly laden with precious
chandeliers and lamps, which were always kept burning in honour of the Virgin,
but at the time of the French invasion, the exigencies of the State
required that these should be carried to Turin. Above the altar, however, still
remains the famous statue of the Virgin and Child, which is shown by the
sacristan if called for.
It is a ruddy looking image, dressed in a cloak, embroidered with gold and
silver, and holding in its hand a scapular; the device which the Virgin is said
to have brought herself from heaven, and presented to the order of the
Carmelites, as a special mark of her favour. The golden crowns on her head and
that of her child, are enriched with precious stones, which were presented by
the Contessa Riccardi of Oneglia. On high festivals, but especially those of
Pentecost, St. Peter, St. Paul, Notre Dame de Carmel, Sta. Theresa, and the Holy
Trinity, almost the whole native population of Nice, and the surrounding
villages, flows up to this remote mountain to visit and adore the image. On the
Holy Trinity the immense number of pilgrims make the cloisters and their
surrounding valleys echo incessantly to their hymns to the glory of Mary. Tents
are pitched on the platform of the convent, where hundreds who come from the
more distant places, bivouack through the night, or even spend many days,
sleeping in tents, living in the open air, and feeding on the provisions they
have brought with them. A number of sick or crippled persons are carried in the
processions, bearing rich gifts as propitiatory offerings. These usually arrive
at the convent in the evening, and spend the night in preparation in the church
itself, "some make the air resound with the praises of the Virgin, others
weep and confess their sins at the feet of the monks. In the morning the
sacrament is administered, followed by a sermon on the virtues of Mary, and on
the cordial confidence which ought to be placed in her prompt and powerful
succour in every time of need." After this the sick prostrate themselves at
the feet of the image. When this moment arrives, a wild fervour seizes every
one, and unanimous cries of "Grace, Grace, Marie" are uttered by every
lip, tears stream from all eyes, and the emotion becomes universal. Then —
"Les dons, les ex-votos, les offrandes s'accrurent,
Aveugles, sourds, blessés, malades accoururent,
Et l'on vit s'accomplir nombre de guérisons.
Les rois mêmes, courbant leurs fronts et leurs couronnes
Vinrent soliciter au profit de leurs trônes.
Pour leurs peuples, pour leurs maisons."
The statue of the Virgin, although fresh with paint and gilding, dates from
the 16th century, and occupies the place of a far older image, which is said
still to exist in the neighbourhood, though it is not shown.
The original image, according to local tradition and the papers of the
Fenogli family of Ventimiglia, was discovered by a young man of that town, who
went to visit his sister at Turbia. While staying with her, he went out shooting
in the neighbourhood. When he reached the hill of Laghetto, not far from an old
wall, upon which, in a kind of niche, was a painted figure of the Virgin, he saw
a bird nestling among the leaves of the brambles, and shot it dead. But on
coming nearer, he was seized with a religious terror, on observing that the ball
had struck the Virgin on the breast, whence blood was issuing. Believing that he
had unintentionally committed a sacrilege, he hurried back to his family, and
related his strange adventure, upon which they decided to build an expiatory
chapel on that very spot.
In 1652, when nothing remained of this chapel except the wooden statue, worm
eaten and nearly split in two by age, Hyacinthe Casanova, a native of Monaco,
who believed that his recovery from a dangerous illness was due to the
intercession of the Virgin, first urged the erection of the present chapel, to
which the image which is now shown, was presented by Antonio Fighiera, a lawyer
of Nice, in whose family it had long been venerated. From this time the reputed
miracles of Laghetto increased to such a degree, that in 1633, even the Bishop
of Nice refused to believe in them, and caused the church to be shut up; but
after a public examination he was induced to reopen it, when the image underwent
a solemn coronation, the town of Nice at the same time choosing the Madonna of
Laghetto as its special patroness and protectress. A road was then made to
render the image more accessible to pilgrims, and a convent was built for
Carmelite monks to guard the shrine, and to sing night and day the praises of
"the mother of God." The princes and princesses of Savoy have always
been indefatigable in their pilgrimages to Laghetto, especially King Charles
Emmanuel II, who reigned in 1652, and who, having placed his sick child under
the protection of this particular image, presented it, when the child recovered,
with a golden baby of the size and weight of his own. This, with all the other
treasures of the shrine, was carried off in 1792 by the French, who plundered
and destroyed everything except the image itself, which had been smuggled away
to La Turbia before their arrival. It remained there till 1802, when it was
brought back in a grand procession with immense pomp. In front of the convent
are two interesting inscriptions; one is upon the pedestal of the fountain, and
may be thus translated: —
"Pilgrim, you find here two streams, one descends from heaven, the
other from the top of the mountains. The first is a treasure which the Virgin
distributes to the piety of the faithful, the second has been brought here by
the people of Nice; drink of both, if you thirst for both." A.D. 1654.
The other inscription commemorates an extraordinary and grand scene in
Italian history, to which Laghetto has been witness, and which ought to render
it far more celebrated than either the image or its reputed miracles. It was in
this lonely valley, among these desolate mountains, that King Charles Albert,
the beloved of his people, determining to preserve his honour and keep his
faith, even by the sacrifice of his kingdom, took leave of
his court, his crown, and the world.
LA MATTINA DEL 26 MARZO 1849,
LASCIATI I CAMPI FATALI DI NOVARA
SOSTAVA IGNOTO ESULANTE.
PIAMENTE CONFESSO, E ALIA MENSA DI GESU
RICONFORTATO LO SPIRITO AFFRANTO
RINOVO IL SACRIFIZIO DI AFFETTI E DI DOLORI.
PIANSE LE COMMUNE SCIAGURE
E ABBANDONANDO COLLA PRESENZA L'ITALIA
NE RACCOMANDAVA I DESTINI
AL PATROCINIO DELLA VERGINE MADRE.
ON THE MORNING OF THE 26TH OF MARCH 1849,
AFTER LEAVING THE FATAL FIELD OF NOVARA
STOPT, AN UNKNOWN EXILE.
HAVING DEVOUTLY CONFESSED, AND AT THE TABLE OF JESUS
REFRESHED HIS WEARY SPIRIT,
HE RENEWED THE SACRIFICE OF HIS AFFECTIONS AND SORROWS.
HE FORGAVE HIS INJURIES
HE GRIEVED FOR THE COMMON DISASTERS;
AND ABANDONING ITALY IN PERSON,
HE RECOMMENDED ITS DESTINIES
TO THE PATRONAGE OF THE VIRGIN MOTHER.
No one should leave Laghetto without descending the valley for a short
distance, for by far the finest view of the convent is from below, whence it
appears rising abruptly from a bold grey rock half buried in dark ilex woods,
and backed by purple mountains. Another fine point of view, may be obtained from
the winding path above the convent, with the two bridges in its foreground. The
monks sell medals, with pictures of the shrine, a short history of the place,
and an "Ode historique à Notre Dame de Laghet."
The name Laghetto is derived from the fact that once when the torrent was
unusually swollen by the melting of the mountain snows, the fall of a large rock
so effectually checked its progress to the sea, that the whole valley became a
Two miles beyond Turbia, the Saracenic town of Esa is seen against the sea,
perched on a rugged crag; its situation is one of the most striking on the
Riviera, and is wild and picturesque in the extreme.
This fortress was used by the pirates, who formerly infested this coast, as
one of their chief strongholds, for which its isolated position and tremendous
precipices gave it a natural fitness. It is approached by a path which descends
the ravine from the road to Nice, and then winds up through the olive terraces
beyond, or on the side towards Nice, by the "Anse d'Esa," and a
staircase cut in the face of the cliff.
There is a path hence by the sea-shore to Monaco, through very grand scenery,
and beneath gigantic cliffs.