In the Footsteps of Anarchy
Story and Photos by Gary Singh
Chiara's Rainbow at Monte Verità
ust as I reach the end of a squiggling, multicolored path, an acorn
plummets from an oak tree above me. It lands at my feet, just as the
path culminates at a mandala of Venetian glass, eight feet in diameter.
On the worn-out front lawn of Monte Verità, the Mountain of Truth,
this path, Chiara's Rainbow, evolves through the colors of the spectrum--red,
orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet--before arriving
at the mosaic mandala where psychic energies supposedly prevail. The
falling acorn brings me to the present moment. The path, designed to
radiate energy and facilitate mental well-being, is an artwork dedicated
to Chiara, a woman who is no longer with us.
Through a smattering of oak trees, wild olive plants
and earthy foliage in every shade of green, I see Lake Maggiore, far
down below, as it fades into the labyrinthine neighborhood of Ascona,
Switzerland. Across the sapphire-colored lake, the hills lurch above
the horizon like mammoth foreheads. Sailboats lilt on the water, although
from my vantage point up here on the hill, they are but white specks.
View of Lake Maggiore from Monte Verità
Nearly a century ago, this hill, Monte Verità,
welcomed anarchists, vegans, occultists, nudists and a detoxing Herman
Hesse, but today, except for the Italian academics finishing up their
biochemistry conference at the Bauhaus hotel and congress facility directly
behind me, I am the only one staying here. The birds and the moths don't
count since they occupy the place year round.
The Bauhaus Hotel designed by Emil Fahrenkamp in
Hetty standing near the locale at Monte Verità
where she was born over 80 years ago
My guide, the white-haired Hetty Rogantini de Beauclair,
was born here in 1928. As she leads me around the rest of the property,
I become aware that she is the last living connection to the original
era of Monte Verità.
That era, beginning around 1900, attracted Ida Hoffman
and Henry Oedonkoven, who founded the colony. Women took off their corsets.
Men wore long hair and beards. Everyone pranced around naked. The colony
vowed to return to a simple life, away from what they saw as the horrors
of the industrialized world. As anarchists, they strove to simply provide
a third alternative, after capitalism and communism. Initially they
ate just raw vegetables. Hetty says the only animal allowed was the
donkey that carried the water.
Naturally, the colony attracted intellectuals, radicals,
experimenters and artists of every discipline. Hermann Hesse first arrived
around 1907, after which he wrote Demian, his experiment in Jungian
self-analysis. The Dadaists Hugo Ball, Hans Arp and Hans Richter soon
followed. Lenin came around 1910. A few years later, modern dance pioneer
Rudolf von Laban established a "School for Art," attracting
a roster of disciples including the dancer Isadora Duncan. Other notables
who showed up included the painter Paul Klee, the mystic Rudolf Steiner
and the occultist and Grand Master of the Ordo Templi Orientis, Theodor
Reuss, who even organized a multidisciplinary conference of his own.
Just about every flavor of counterculture throughout the twentieth century
can be traced back to Monte Verità.
Residents of Monte Verità, decades ago
As Hetty and I traverse the landscape, she keeps complaining
that other visitors have left too many pebbles on the trail, making
it dangerous to walk on. She keeps kicking the rocks away, out of our
path. The de facto caretaker of the property, she does this every twenty
minutes or so. As dry leaves and twigs crackle underneath our feet,
I get the feeling she knows every square centimeter of the entire topography.
At a portion of the property disguised by overhanging
trees, she points out relics from 100 years ago: an outdoor shower,
bathtub and remains of a tennis court, all of which were originally
used by the nudists of Monte Verità. It's 25 degrees Celsius,
but I feel like I'm wearing too many layers.
Outdoor shower and bathtub from 100 years ago
She continues to school me on the history: In 1926,
Baron Eduard von der Heydt, a cosmopolitan art collector from Holland
with a penchant for Buddhism and other eastern religions, took over
the reigns of Monte Verità. Some of the exotic trees he planted
still exist on the property. With von der Heydt at the helm, a new era
began and he commissioned the German architect Emil Fahrenkamp to construct
the Bauhaus-style hotel in 1925.
"At that time it was the best hotel in Ascona,"
Hetty tells me, as we step sideways down an embankment into a large
clearing. To the sound of distant seagulls, we stand on a giant lawn
Hetty says is common for banquets and events. What used to be a concrete
swimming pool 90 years ago has now been converted into an open-air space
for meetings, conferences and performances, complete with a stage and
Former swimming pool from 100 years ago,converted
an outdoor performance space
Normally, one also finds a museum here, housed in the
old Casa Anatta building, dating back to 1904, but the structure is
currently undergoing renovation. Until the retrofit is complete, the
hundreds of artifacts, photos and ephemera are stored down the highway
in Bellinzona. Someday they will return.
Casa Anatta, originally
built in 1904,
now being restored
The space-time continuum easily shatters on Monte Verità.
Today, the Bauhaus Hotel still sits atop the hill, presenting elements
of the rational and mathematical, juxtaposed against the fluid, imaginative
surroundings. ETH Zurich operates the conference facility, which continues
to function as a place of research and experimentation. The restaurant
offers gastronomical delights with spices from the gardens outside.
Eranos meetings, originally launched by Carl Gustav Jung, still continue.
There are concerts, plays and even weddings.
The hill also claims one of two Peace Poles in Switzerland,
steles symbolizing unity and brotherhood that are planted in highly
symbolic places throughout the world. The project promotes arts education,
friendship and communication, all to cultivate an attitude of inner
peace and harmony.
Newer components of the complex include a Japanese teahouse
and Zen garden, further blurring the boundaries between nature, philosophy,
behavior and science--precisely the intentions of the forward-thinking
characters that populated this hill 100 years ago. Inside the teahouse,
several homemade blends peer at me from underneath a glass case.
Several homemade teas are available at Monte Verità
At Monte Verità, the spirit of the twentieth
century's first counterculture still lingers here. The experience presents
a different flavor of historical travel, an unorthodox foray into currents
long ignored by conventional twentieth century narratives. Here, I occupy
an interstice, simultaneously inside and outside of history.
Much of the history at Monte Verità remains
intact, but much remains to be seen
Rosengart Collection, Lucerne; Switzerland:
Europe's Jewel Box; Zurich
Schwyzerorgelfabrik and Musikhaus; Switzerland's
Graubunden Region; Christmas