No plaque whatsoever is found to record the event, yet among the illustrious visitors Orta can boast the towering figure of a great philosopher as Friedrich Nietzsche stands out. Not much is known about Nietzsche’s short sojourn at Orta, even less about the crucial role it played in his overall anguished existence, being the cause of a turning point in the development of his thought. In the month of May 1882, a very young Lou Salomé, a Russian woman with a great charm and intelligence (most outstanding among the extraordinary figures of the “belle époque”) spent a few days at Orta; she was accompanied by her mother, Nietzsche and Paul Rée, a mutual friend. Leafing through their correspondence during the months before the travel, a trace is clearly found of the former’s impatience to make the acquaintance of the young Russian, who, in her turn, was no less eager to meet him. Therefore for a while there was “a party of four” on their journey back to the north from the Grand Tour. It was on that occasion, upon Nietzsche’s proposal, that the party made its way towards Orta.
In the memoirs she wrote many years later, Salomé cleared up that during their sojourn on the lake she and Nietzsche spent a few afternoon hours alone on the sacro Monte, subdued by its spell and unaware of time flowing away. On descending back to the village they confronted her mother’s disappointment and Rée’s as well, both annoyed by their prolonged leave. Nietzsche was a prey to a strange euphoria. Among the baroque chapels on the Sacro Monte a misunderstanding occured that was to lead the hypersensitive German philosopher through one of the most painful crisis of his entire life.
Long after that event, Lou herself was unable to recall whether he had actually kissed Nietzsche, but most certainly she had shared with him no more than a moment of rapture in a spirit of fraternal communion. Yet Nietzsche thought of it in a different way, because he lived for several months in a state of grace like an adolescent yearning for love, until the illusin revealed itself before his eyes.
While the letters he wrote in Autumn and in the following Winter are soaked in desperation, in January we already find him attending to the draft of Thus Spake Zarathustra, a cornerstone work in which Nietzsche turns his back to the immanentism of his previous writings and opens the way to a heroic and transcendent, if not religious, ascetism. Such an unexpected turning point in Nietzschean thought was clearly influenced by his deep-felt love experience, transcended and sublimated, but probably also by the murmurs, scents and pictures of an afternoon spent in the ambience of Franciscan mysticism surrounding the Sacro Monte of Orta.