Val Gardena - Groeden as described by Amalia Edwards

Un incredible resource: the book is on-line


book on line




And now, the summit reached and passed, the Lang-Kofel rises on the left above woods and hill tops?a vast, solitary tower with many pinnacles. A sheltered

gorge thinly wooded with fir-trees opens before us; the long impending rain begins again, hard and fast; and the path becoming soon too steep for riding, we

have to dismount and walk in a pelting storm down a steep mountain-side to Santa Maria Gardena, which is the first hamlet at the head of the Grödner Thal. Here

we put up at a tiny osteria till the sky clears again, and then push on for St. Ulrich.


Our way now lies along the Grödner Thal, green and wooded and sparkling with villages. The Sella is gradually left behind. The Lang-Kofel becomes more lofty

and imposing. The Platt-Kogel, like a half-dome, rises into view. The wooded slopes of the Seisser Alp close in the valley on the left; and the Schlern, seen for

the first time through a vista of ravine, shows like a steep, black wall of rock, flecked here and there with snow.


Every last trace of Italy has now vanished. The landscape, the houses, the people, the names and signs above the doors, are all German. The peasants we meet on

the road are square-set, fair, blue-eyed, and boorish. The men carry wooden Krazen on their backs, as in Switzerland. Unmistakeable signs and tokens now begin

to tell of the approach to St. Ulrich. The wayside crucifixions are larger, better carved, better painted, and some are picked out with gold. By and by we pass a

cottage outside the door of which stands a crate piled high with little wooden horses. In the doorway of another house, a workman is polishing an elaborately

carved chair. And presently we pass a cart full of nothing but?dolls' legs; every leg painted with a smart white stocking and an emerald-green slipper!


And now the capital of Toyland comes in sight?an extensive, substantial-looking hamlet scattered far and wide along the slopes on the right bank of the torrent.

The houses are real German Tyrolean homesteads, spacious, many-windowed, with broad eaves, and bright green shutters, and front gardens full of flowers.

There are two churches?a little old lower church, and a large, smart upper church, with a bulbous belfry tower painted red. And there are at least half a dozen

inns, all of which look clean and promising. The whole place, in short, has a bright, prosperous, commercial air about it, like a Swiss manufacturing town. Here,

at the Gasthaus of the White Horse, we are cordially received by a group of smiling girls, all sisters, who show us into excellent rooms, give us roast-beef and

prunes for supper, and entertain us with part-songs and zitter-playing in the evening.


That night there came another thunderstorm followed by three days of bad weather, during which we had more time than enough for enquiring into the curious

trade of the place, and seeing the people at their work.


For here, as I have said, is the capital of Toyland. We had never even heard of St. Ulrich till a few weeks ago, and then but vaguely, as a village where wooden

toys and wayside Christs were made; and now we find that we have, so to say, been on intimate terms with the place from earliest infancy. That remarkable

animal on a little wheeled platform which we fondly took to represent a horse?black, with an eruption of scarlet discs upon his body, and a mane and tail derived

from snippings of ancient fur-tippet?he is of the purest Grödner Thal breed. Those wooden-jointed dolls of all sizes, from babies half an inch in length to

mothers of families two feet high, whose complexions always came off when we washed their faces?they are the Aborigines of the soil. Those delightful little

organs with red pipes and spiky barrels, turned by the hardest-working doll we ever knew; those boxes of landscape scenery whose frizzly cone-shaped trees and

red-roofed houses stood for faithful representations of "Tempe and the vales of Arcady"; that Noah's ark (a Tyrolean homestead in a boat) in which the animals

were truer to nature than their live originals in the Zoological Gardens; that monkey, so evidently in the transition stage between man and ape, that spends his life

toppling over the end of a stick; those rocking-horses with an arm-chair fore and aft; that dray with immovable barrels; those wooden soldiers with

supernaturally small waists and triangular noses?all these?all the cheap, familiar, absurd treasures of your earliest childhood and of mine?they all came, Reader,

from St. Ulrich! And they are coming from St. Ulrich to this day?they will keep coming, when you and I are forgotten. For we are mere mortals; but those

wooden warriors and those jointed dolls bear charmed lives, and renew for ever their indestructible youth.


The two largest wholesale warehouses in the village are those of Herr Purger, and of Messrs. Insam and Prinoth. They show their establishments with readiness

and civility; and I do not know when I have seen any sight so odd and so entertaining. At Insam and Prinoth's alone, we were taken through more than thirty

large store-rooms, and twelve of these were full of dolls?millions of them, large and small, painted and unpainted, in bins, in cases, on shelves, in parcels ready

packed for exportation. In one room especially devoted to Lilliputians an inch and a half in length, they were piled up in a disorderly heap literally from floor to

ceiling, and looked as if they had been shot out upon the floor by cartloads. Another room contained only horses; two others were devoted to carts; one long

corridor was stocked with nothing but wooden platforms to be fitted with horses by and by. Another room contained dolls' heads. The great, dusk attic at the top

of the house was entirely fitted up with enormous bins, like a wine-cellar, each bin heaped high with a separate kind of toy, all in plain wood, waiting for the

painter. The cellars were stocked with the same goods, painted and ready for sale.


Now, the whole population of the place, men and women alike, being with few exceptions brought up to some branch of the trade, and beginning from the age of

six or seven years, the work is always going on, and the dealers are always buying. It is calculated that out of a population which, at the time of the last Census,

numbered only 3493 souls, there are two thousand carvers?to say nothing of painters and gilders. Some of these carvers and painters are artists, in the genuine

sense of the word; others are mere human machines who make toys, as other human machines make match-boxes and matches. A "smart" doll-maker will turn

out twenty dozen small jointed dolls one inch and a half in length, per diem; and of this sized doll alone Messrs. Insam and Prinoth buy 30,000 a week, the whole

year round. The regular system is for the wholesale dealers to buy the goods direct from the carvers; to store them till they are wanted; and only to give them

out for painting as the orders come in from London or elsewhere. Thus the carver's work is regular and unfailing; but the painter's, being dependent on demands

from without, is more precarious.


The warehouses of Herr Purger, though amply supplied with dolls and other toys, contain for the most part goods of a more artistic and valuable kind than those

dealt in by Messrs. Insam and Prinoth. All the studios in Europe are furnished with lay-figures large and small from Herr Purger's stores, and even with model

horses of elaborate construction. Here also, ranged solemnly all the length of dimly lighted passages, stand rows of beautiful Saints, large as life, exquisitely

coloured, in robes richly patterned and relieved with gold:?Saint Cecilias with little model organs; knightly Saint Theodores in glittering armour; grave, lovely

St. Christophers with infant Christs upon their shoulders; Saint Florians with their buckets; Madonnas crowned with stars; nun-like Mater Dolorosas; the

Evangelists with their emblems; Saint Peter with his keys; and a host of other Saints, Angels, and Martyrs. In other corridors we find the same goodly company

reproduced in all degrees of smallness. In other rooms we have Christs of all sizes and for all purposes, coloured and uncoloured; in ivory; in ebony; in wood;

for the bénitier; for the oratory; for the church-altar; for the wayside shrine. Some of these are perfect as works of art, faultlessly modelled, and in many

instances only too well painted. One life-size recumbent Figure for a Pieta was rendered with an elaborate truth, not to life, but to death, that was positively

startling. I should be afraid to say how many rooms full of smaller Christs we passed through, in going over the upper storeys of Herr Purger's enormous house.

They were there, at all events, by hundreds of thousands, of all sizes, of all prices, of all degrees of finish. In the attics we saw bins after bins of crowns of thorns



One day was devoted to going from house to house, and seeing the people at their work. As hundreds do precisely the same things, and have been doing them all

their lives, with no ideas beyond their own immediate branch, there was an inevitable sameness about this part of the pilgrimage which it would be tedious to

reproduce. I will, however, give one or two instances.


In one house we found an old, old woman at work, Magdalena Paldauf by name. She carved cats, dogs, wolves, sheep, goats, and elephants. She has made these

six animals her whole life long, and has no idea of how to cut anything else. She makes them in two sizes; and she turns out, as nearly as possible, a thousand of

them every year. She has no model or drawing of any kind to work by; but goes on steadily, unerringly, using gouges of different sizes, and shaping out her cats,

dogs, wolves, sheep, goats and elephants with an ease and an amount of truth to nature that would be clever if it were not so utterly mechanical. Magdalena

Paldauf learned from her mother how to carve these six animals, and her mother had learned, in like manner, from the grandmother. Magdalena has now taught

the art to her own grand-daughter; and so it will go on being transmitted for generations.


In the adjoining house, Alois Senoner, a fine, stalwart, brown man in a blue blouse, carves large Christs for churches. We found him at work upon one of

three-quarters life-size. The whole figure, except the arms, was in one solid block, fixed upon a kind of spit between two upright posts, so that he could turn it at

his pleasure. It was yet all in the rough, half tree-trunk, half Deity, with a strange, pathetic beauty already dawning out of the undeveloped features. It is a sight

to see Herr Senoner at work. He also has no model. His block is not even pointed, as it would be if he cut in marble. He has nothing to guide him, save his

consummate knowledge but he dashes at his work in a wonderful way, scooping out the wood in long flakes at every rapid stroke, and sending the fragments

flying in every direction. But then Alois Senoner is an artist. It takes him ten days to cut a figure of three-quarters life-size, and fifteen to execute one as large as

life. For this last, the wood costs fifteen florins, and his price for the complete figure is forty-five florins; about four pounds ten shillings English.


In another house we found a whole family carving skulls and cross-bones, for fixing at the bases of crucifixes?not a cheerful branch of the profession; in other

houses, families that carved rocking-horses, dolls, and all the toys previously named; in others, families of painters. The ordinary toys are chiefly painted by

women. In one house, we found about a dozen girls painting grey horses with black points. In another house, they painted only red horses with white points. It is

a separate branch of the trade to paint the saddles and head-gear. A good hand will paint twelve dozen horses a day, each horse being about one foot in length;

and for these she is paid fifty-five soldi, or about two shillings and threepence English.


I have dwelt at some length on the details of this curious trade, for the reason that, although it is practised in so remote a place and in so traditional a way, it yet

supplies a large slice of the world with the products of its industry. The art is said to have been introduced into the valley at the beginning of the last century; no

doubt, on account of the inexhaustible supply of arollas, or Pinus Cembra, yielded by the forests of the Grödner Thal, the wood of which is peculiarly adapted

for cheap carving, being very white, fine-grained, and firm, yet soft and easy to work.


The people of St. Ulrich have lately restored and decorated their principal church, which is now the handsomest in South Tyrol. The stone carvings and external

decorations have been restored by Herr Plase Oventura of Brixen, and the painted windows are by Naicaisser of Innspruck. The polychrome decorations are by

Herr Part of St. Ulrich; the large wooden statues are by Herr Mochneght, also of St. Ulrich; and the smaller figures on the altars and pulpit, as well as the

wood-sculpture generally, are all by local artists. Colour and gilding have of course been lavishly bestowed on every part of the interior; but the general effect is

rich and harmonious, and not in the least overcharged. Above the high altar hangs an excellent copy of the famous Florentine Madonna of Cimabue.


The dialect of the Grödner Thal, called the Ladin tongue, is supposed to be directly derived from the original Latin at some date contemporary with the period

of Roman rule. It differs widely from all existing dialects of the modern Italian, and though in some points closely resembling the Rhæto Romansch of the

Grisons, and the Lower Romanese of the Engadine, it is yet, we are told, so distinctly separated from both by "well-marked differences both grammatical and

lexicographical," as to indicate "kinship rather than identity of stock." Those, however, who admit with Steub the unity of the Rhætian and Etruscan languages,

and who agree with Niebuhr in believing the Rhætians of these Alps to have been the original Etruscan stock, will assign a still remoter origin to this singular

fragment of an ancient tongue. It certainly seems more reasonable to suppose that the tide of emigration flowed down originally from the mountains to the plains,

rather than that the aboriginal dwellers in the fertile flats of Lombardy should have colonised these comparatively barren Alpine fastnesses. This view, the writer

ventures to think, receives strong confirmation from the fact that a large number of sepulchral bronzes, distinctly Etruscan in character, have been discovered at

various times within the last twenty-five years in the immediate neighbourhood of St. Ulrich. These objects, collected and intelligently arranged by Herr Purger,

may be seen in his show-room. They fill two cabinets, and comprise the usual articles discovered in graves of a very early date, such as bracelets, rings, fibulæ,

torques, ear-rings, weapons, &c., &c. Philologists may be interested in knowing that there exists a curious book on the Grödner Thal and its language, with a

grammar and vocabulary of the same, by Don Josef Wian, a native of the Fassa ThaI, and present Parocco of St. Ulrich.


From St. Ulrich to the Seisser Alp, the way leads up through a wooded ravine known as the Pufler gorge. Weary of waiting longer for the weather, we start at

last on a somewhat doubtful morning, and find the paths wet and slippery, and the mountain streams all turbid from the rain of the last three days. Neat

homesteads decorated with frescoed Saints and Madonnas, and surrounded like English cottages with gardens full of bee-hives and flowers, are thickly scattered

over the lower slopes towards St. Ulrich. These gradually diminish in number as we ascend the gorge, and after the little lonely church and hamlet of San Pietro,

cease altogether.


More on the toy industry, click on the horse below

Rita Stäbleins book on Toys in Gröden

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