Ursli's widening world: On March 1, schoolchildren sporting giant cowbells will parade through towns and villages throughout the Lower Engadine to 'ring out winter', re-enacting a custom dating back to Roman times.

Author:Krienka, Mary
Position:Art & culture
 
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This annual celebration of Chalandamarz ("first day of March" in the local Vallader Rhaeto Romansch dialect) forms the backdrop for the popular Swiss children's picture book Schellen-Ursli (A Bell for Ursli). The story of Ursli--and his perilous climb through the snow to his family's abandoned summer hut, high in the mountains, to retrieve an enormous cowbell so he can head his village's Chalandamarz procession--has been translated into more than ten languages, including Braille, and has sold more than a million copies.

Schellen-Ursli was first written in Romansch under the title Uorsin by the Engadine poet, Selina Chonz (1910-2000). A mutual friend brought it to the attention of well-known Swiss artist, Alois Carigiet (1902-1985), who spent several weeks in Guarda--Chonz's home village in the Lower Engadine-producing the illustrations.

Remembrance of things past

Schellen-Ursli, ein Engadiner Bilderbuch, published in German in 1945, marked the birth of a classic and the beginning of a fruitful collaboration. Chonz's poetic tale awakened vivid memories of Carigiet's own childhood in Graubunden-influencing his illustrations of the Alpine landscapes and village culture, and helping him bring the story to life.

A succession of children's books followed, including two about Flurina, Ursli's little sister: Flurina and the Wild Bird and The Snowstorm. Carigiet's drawings, for the three books by Chonz--as well as those from other authors--have received wide international acclaim. In recognition for his lasting contribution to children's literature, he was presented with the coveted Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1966. "I painted my children's books, if I can put it into words, with a longing for the lost paradise of childhood," he once said.

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Ursliland

That "lost paradise" still exists--in Guarda, the almost-too-pretty-to-be-real 17th-century village. Located on a sunny shelf high about the Engadine valley, it serves as both the imaginary home of Ursli and the subject of Alois Carigiet's most memorable illustrations.

Actually quite large, Ursli's house is identified by a discreet plaque. "But that's not the house in the book," was my reaction, during a recent visit to Guarda. Theresa Gray, who leads tours of Guarda and its neighbouring village of Ardez, explained that the artist "borrowed" the more attractive door of another house in the village for his iconic cover drawing. She also pointed out that...

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