Cavour’s cultural roots

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Castello di Thorens (France)
Château d'Allaman (Switzerland))
Jean-Jacques de Sellon (1782-1839)

Between Italy, Switzerland and France

Excerpt from: Sergio Romano, Due ragioni per salvare Santena (Two reasons to save Santena) in “Fondazione Camillo Cavour – Il Castello di Santena”, Pluriverso Editore, Torino, 1992:

“Santena was not just a country house close to Torino where the family would go for a rest or to welcome friends. It is a relais in a circuit of villas and chateaux that together form Cavour’s family and intellectual home.

Connected to each other by an ideal route these houses compose a “nation” that does not correspond to any of the States that existed at the time, a sort of enclave between Switzerland, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia.

This border-less state is a republic ruled by an oligarchy of families bound by blood-ties, friendship and intellectual affinity. Cavour’s uncle Jean-Jacques de Sellon lived in a villa on the hills of Geneva, La Fenetre. It is a neoclassical house surrounded by a Park where Sellon commissioned a few “symbolic monuments dedicated to the inviolability of human life».

The Sellon family also owned Allaman Castle, on the lake’s right hand banks: the building is plain, French-style, with great towers on the sides of the facade and sloping roofs.

When they were not staying at the Castle, the Sellon holidayed and invited friends at La Perrière, where there is an old thermal spring. To visit them Cavour had to cross the St. Bernard, descend to Bourg-Saint-Maurice, and travel towards Moûtiers. The de la Rive were distant cousins of Cavour, and spent the holiday months in Presinge, a village north-east of Geneva, close to the border with Savoy. Cavour’s other aunts and uncles in Geneva, the Clermont-Tonnerre, lived in Le Bocage, not far from Geneva, an elegant country house composed of wings built in different eras.

This was Cavour’s homeland: a European province straddling the Alps, a lot closer than Paris, London and Milan, and not in Florence, Rome or Naples. There is an episode of his life that illustrates where foreign land started for him.

Borders had placed their homes in different nations and the political-religious history of that part of Europe had separated their Churches. But intellectually they belonged to the same nation.

They read the same books and the same magazines, followed French and British politics with the same degree of interest, discussed the problems of contemporary society, of economic development and the railway network with the same level of competence.

Paradoxically Cavour contributed to dividing that nation. In the second half of the century the families he had spent his adolescence and youth with, traveling from one to the other, became a lot more “nationalistic” – French, Swiss or Italian – than they had been at the time of his travels around Geneva in the 1830s.

Napoleon III’s plebiscitary nationalism, the new Swiss constitution in 1848 and the Savoy policies implemented in the decade during which Cavour led the government of Torino, created bonds of national loyalty where before there had been a weave of family, dynastic, regional and municipal ties. So the “alpine nation” Cavour was a citizen of disappeared a century and a half ago. But the relais of his homes still outlines its territory”.