An extract, translated into English by Susan Rhoads and Bill Thayer, from Le Magasin Pittoresque, published under the direction of M. Édouard Charton, Volume IX, Issue 49, Paris: Aux Bureaux d’Abonnement et de Vente, 1841; p. 385.

Black and white engraving, signed by F. Weisener, of large tree shaped into a tree house or arbre-belveder, with two stories.  Two people are on the first story at one window.  There is a stairway, wooden, from the ground to the start of the leaves.  Several people, male and female are on the ground in the fashions of the period, 1843.

(A maple tree in Matibo, near Savigliano, in Piedmont, Sardinian Savoy.1 )

Matibo is a delightful estate in the neighbourhood of Savigliano, close to Coni,2 in Piedmont. The beautiful maple tree, shown in our engraving, is one of the most elegant of ornaments. This tree is more than sixty years old. Someone had the idea, twenty-five or thirty years ago, to give it the shape of a little temple, and with ingenuity and patience the metamorphosis is complete.

You see that the elegant little structure has two stories. Each of the rooms is lit by eight windows, and it can easily hold twenty people. The floor, very sturdy, is made of boughs artfully interwoven; the leaves forming a natural carpet; roundabout, the greenery has formed dense high walls, where a great number of birds have come to fix their abode. The owner of Matibo took care not to disturb the joyful little singers: he has encouraged their trust, and all day long you can hear them chirp and hop about, heedless of the visitors, who are leaning on the windows and rustling the leaves.

Landscape architects give to trees pruned in the style of the maple tree of Matibo the general name of arbres belvéders,3 or tree houses.

“If on an estate,” says the author of Traité de la composition et de l’ornement des jardins, “there is a tree, stoutly-proportioned and well-branched, an oak, a beech, a chestnut or any other, one might enjoy providing it with a stairway and turning it into a belvedere.”

A tree in the forest of Villers-Coterets4 has been named The Tree of the Seven Brothers, for its seven thick branches which have been used to support a floor and a balcony, with no harm to the lush vegetation.

Sometimes, a study, a hermitage, or even a small cottage, can be constructed in part of an old tree, worn hollow by time, which can be reached by a rough stairway outside. We have given an example of it elsewhere (see “le Chêne d’Allouville,” 1833, p. 272).

1  Modern name: Italy.

2  Modern name: Cuneo.

3  Modern French: arbres belvédères.

4  Modern name: Villers-Cotterêts.

It may not have been okay to talk about sex or body parts below the neck, or get a divorce, in the nineteenth century, but prudishness did not extend to other moral qualities. Lying and stealing were flourishing apace, however clothed and bound. The fine arts, including literature, were no exception.

Plagiarism and copyright violations thrived on both sides of the Atlantic, with American writers and publishers having the edge in this sort of thievery. They had good role-models in England, although I don’t think it was quite as common due to the smaller size of the country and better communication across Europe. Americans felt safer stealing popular British works, especially in “frontier cities” like Chicago.a It was not easy to catch the thief, since reading material was scarcer and access to much of what was written in Europe, or even in other parts of the U. S., was limited or nonexistent.

When I tried to find out more about this wonderful tree-house, I discovered that it made for the perfect case history of this rampant practice, illustrating those ‘scam-artist artists’ quite well.

Remember, the article above was published in Paris, in 1841. Édouard Charton, the innovative founder, and editor-in-chief of Le Magasin Pittoresque, selected material with broad appeal for his great journal. He added excellent engravings as well. That appeal extended beyond Gallic borders.

After the appearance of the “L’Érable de Matibo” in this issue, here’s what happened next:

The first uncredited partial translation of the first two paragraphs of the article, with the same exact engraving, appeared in England, in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, in 1842. Although, this series does state that it publishes “Select Extracts from New and Expensive Works; . . . The Spirit of the Public Journals; Discoveries in the Arts and Sciences,” the translation appears as “The Maple-Tree at Matibo” under the title of “Original Correspondence”! Here is what was written:

“The beautiful maple-tree, which our engraving represents, is one of the most curious ornaments of a charming estate, called Matibo, situated in the neighbourhood of Savigliano, in Piedmont. It was planted upwards of sixty years ago, but it is not more than twenty-five or thirty years since the idea was started of giving to it the form of a temple, which, after much time and perseverance, was completely realized.
     This elegant little edifice consists of two stories, each of which has eight windows, and is capable of containing twenty persons. The floors are formed of branches twined together with great skill; and by nature are furnished with leafy carpets. All round, the verdure has formed thick walls, where innumerable birds have taken up their sojourn. The proprietor of Matibo has never disturbed those joyous little songsters, but has rather encouraged them; and at all hours of the day they may be heard fearlessly sporting and warbling, by the delighted visitors, who, looking from the windows, admire the prospect that opens before them.”b

Probably, because the Americans had easier access to British periodicals more than French ones and knew that what was successful in England would likely be successful on this side of the pond, the more popular British journals were mined for material. (There is also the possibility of recurring francophobia to consider here.) Thus, the same two paragraphs of this British translation appeared with the same picture, uncredited, two years later, in 1844, as the article “Maple Tree at Matibo, Italy,” in the American series of books called Robert Merry’s Museum, edited by S. G. Goodrich. In this the text is divided into three paragraphs with only one minor change, four words, from the previous translation, (plagiarism would not be too strong a word here). You can see for yourself from the first paragraph, the one with the only difference, which I show in italics:

“The proprietor of the island of Matibo has never disturbed those joyous little songsters, but has rather encouraged them; and at all hours of the day they may be heard fearlessly sporting and warbling, by the delighted visitors, who, looking from the windows, admire the prospect that opens before them.”c

S. G. Goodrich, who was known under the sobriquet of “Peter Parley,” made this sort of practice a habit. In some of the literary miscellanies which I have, he stole unrepentantly from various and sundry authors, implying they were original pieces.d He was hugely popular nevertheless, proving crime paid then, as it does now. (Tit for tat, multiple other publishers printed books by “Peter Parley,” and they borrowed that famous name illicitly to publish all manner of material.)

Our pal Goodrich, added of the island in the above paragraph, because although he stole much of his content unaltered, he would sometimes add very minor personal touches, which in this case was based on shoddy research (no big surprise). The picture caption in French says that the maple in question was in the États Sardes, which he assumed was the island of Sardinia. In that period the Kingdom of Sardinia consisted not only of the island of Sardinia, but it included areas that are now part of present-day mainland Italy as well. The Piedmont region, part of Savoy, was one of its dependencies.e

Such literary liberties, in no way compatible with fair use, extended to other languages with a truly international ethical flexibility. The first two paragraphs used in the English translation of the article were also translated into a Spanish magazine, published in London. The same picture was used, both again uncredited, under the title of “El Plátano de Matibo,” in La Colmena, 1842.f

The French picture and story, being so unique and eminently romantic, its popularity persisted sporadically for the rest of the century and beyond. Twenty years later, a different English translation of the article, but the same picture, (I don’t know if the source was credited,) appeared in The Ladies’ Treasury, 1860. I don’t know how much was translated from the French or if it was re-written from the English translation, because the entire text is not online. But the description is alarmingly similar. Women writers in the Victorian period are likely no exception to the above vacillations of the moral compass, after all ‘a crook’s best friend is his mother.’

Now being relatively famous, the maple is briefly cited as an interesting example in a Portuguese article called “As Maiores Arvores do Mundo,” [“The World’s Greatest Trees”], in only one sentence:

“Que nos resta agora? O castanheiro de Prévarange . . .? A faia do Mont-Blanc? . . . O bordo de Matibo, que o que tem de notavel é a forma artistica que lhe deu um homem de mau gosto, chegando a fazer d’elle uma casa de dois andares, cercados de ninhos de passaros, e em cada um dos quaes ha um quarto com oito janellas para vinte pessoas? . . .”g

[What do we have left now? The chestnut tree of Prévarange . . .? The beech of the Mont-Blanc . . .? The maple of Matibo, which is remarkable for the artful shape given to it by a man with bad taste, who managed to turn it into a two-story house surrounded by bird nests: each story has a room for twenty persons, with eight windows? . . . — B.T.]

Our maple, described in variations of the original text with no citations, also appeared again in France without the picture, in Wonders of Vegetation, translated and edited from the French of Marion, by Schele De Veke, in 1872. The pertinent section appears again under the anglicized subtitle of “The Maple of Matibo”:

“This plant, the type of the “Lower trees” with which the skilled horticulturist ornaments our gardens, is especially remarkable for its architectural form. This variety of the sycamore is not, in fact, a marvel of vegetation; and, strictly speaking, it is not on its own merits to be classed among the extraordinary plants which have already been described plants which owe to nature alone this distinguishing feature. It is to be seen in its perfection at Matibo, in the vicinity of Savigliano, near Coni, in Piedmont. The skill and perseverance of the horticultural architect has made an astonishing metamorphosis of it. In its cultivated state it appears like a structure of two stories. Each of these has eight windows naturally formed and can contain twenty people. The flooring is managed by a skilful arrangement of the branches, which are carefully interwoven, and the leaves form a natural carpet. The birds of the air sing amid the green leaves, and are not disturbed by the people that sit at the artificially formed windows. More elegant than the oak of Allouville which we have already described, this sycamore does not appear to belong to the same category. It is only mentioned here as a type of the trees manipulated by art, with which gardeners decorate country houses.”h

Unpatriotically, Marion does not mention his earlier countrymen, or anybody else, as the source of the original information. He adds nothing new either, making this merely a re-writing of the original article. Neither Marion nor the English translator add any comments or credits in the notes on the tree itself.

Frustrated by the lack of any new discussion or picture of the tree, I enlisted the help of polyglot Bill Thayer. Since he likes tree-houses, and mysteries, he was happy to help, searching for any mention in Italian and French works.

Bill found the original work by Marion, and said, “ ‘Fulgence Marion’ was the pseudonym of the famous French astronomer Camille Flammarion, and he did indeed write Les merveilles de la végétation in 1867.”i This book, he adds, was also translated into Italian: “Le meraviglie della vegetazione,” in 1877.j There was no commentary by the Italian translator on the tree in his own backyard.

In my own quest, I discovered another person in our time, who became interested in this quaint tree-house. Henry, at the blog Arboarchitecture, found equal joy in the belvedere when he came across the picture two years ago. He also did some research on the subject. I was pole-axed when I saw the title under which he first came across it: “The Maple of Ratibor” !!!

Henry had found that The New York Public Library had the same engraved print, by F. Wiesener, under two titles. The earliest one is the one on this page, from Le Magasin Pittoresque, 1841, with the original French subtitle, Un érable à Matibo, prés de Savigliano, dans le Piémont, Etats Sardes.” The typo is reproduced from the original, (prés should be près — which I corrected on the French page). The other print copy is from The Picture Magazine, printed in London, in 1893. It is entitled The Maple of Ratibor.” The text under this copy of the print states:

“This tree, which is more than a century old, has been turned into a kind of temple of two stories, each of its compartments being lighted by eight windows, and capable of containing twenty people with ease. The floors are constructed of boughs skilfully woven together, of which the leaves make a sort of natural carpet. The walls are formed of thick leafage, in which innumerable birds build their nests.

Now, with more journals available on Google Books than Henry found back then, I found a copy of The Picture Magazine. This is the only text that accompanies the picture. It is part of an article called “Pictures of Places,” and includes pictures from all over the world.k

Along with this re-write of the original description of our newly germanized tree, a Note appeared in Garden and Forest Magazine in 1894:

“One of the most curious trees in Germany stands on the left bank of the River Oder, in Ratibor, Silesia. It is a Maple, at least one hundred years old, which has been twisted and cut into a sort of circular two-storied house. A flight of steps leads up to the first level, where the branches have been gradually woven together so that they make a firm leafy floor; above this is a second floor of smaller diameter, formed in the same way; and the ends of the branches have been woven into solid walls, and cut so that eight windows light each of the apartments. Below the first floor, at the level of the second, and at the top of the tree the boughs have been allowed to grow out naturally, while the intermediate walls and the edges of the window-like openings are kept closely clipped.”l

This Note was reprinted in arnoldia, The Magazine of the Arnold Arboretum, at Harvard, in 2000,m but it gives credit to the above journal as the source. In this later publication, Ethan Carr adds that Garden and Forest Magazine was written by “all the leading practitioners of the day” in the “profession of landscape architecture.”n Sounds like they must have been a trustworthy bunch of people, right?

Au contraire, mon cher! There are Notes in several journals in 1894, about the Maple of Ratibor. All the text of which is identical. The only novelty is in the heading.

What is worse, the only one that mentions the source of their information is in an issue of The American Architect and Building News, in 1894.o The pertinent portion of the magazine’s Notes section is called, “A German House Tree,” and states the source as the Philadelphia Press (no date of the issue is mentioned):

As I said, exact duplicates of this Note also appeared in several magazines that very year, 1894. Nobody is honest enough, to cite their source, other than the one to the Philadelphia Press. At best, we find that in The Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening, where the Note is called “A Curious Tree”, credit is given to a “A reliable contemporary,” but the rest of the paragraph is identical.p

So who wrote the original Ratibor article? I don’t know. The monthly dates of the individual issues do not mean anything anyway, since the journals were planned so long in advance.

So where is that durn maple tree? Matibo or Ratibor? Italy or Germany? Henry could not find either city two years ago.

So now I looked for Matibo, Italy. Bill Thayer, with his strong penchant for most places and things Italian, and speaking the lingo, also searched diligently. There is no Matibo, Italy, either as a city, estate or family name, that we can find.

Our French article on the Maple Tree of Matibo, then, is the first written description of the tree-house of all of the ones he or I found. Nobody afterwards adds any new information to the original piece of 1841, other than the change in locale. I wondered, at first, if Ratibor was a typo and Matibo was completely misread in these later articles describing the original tree-house. But once I found out that there is no Matibo, then Bill and I assume that the later writers were also stymied. They might have thought it was a typo, too, when they could not find that town on the map and then went hunting until they found some town with a similar name, thus finding Ratibor, which they could at least localize to “the banks of the Oder.”

There is actually an area called the Maple Mountains in Czechoslovakia, and Upper Silesia is also known as the Ratibor region, according to Oskar Krejčí in online snippets from his monograph Czechoslovak national interests, etc., written in 1996.q Both of these facts, and no Italian Matibo, must have helped these later authors decide that Matibo must have really been a mistake for Ratibor. There are 5 common letters, and there were a lot of drunken typesetters back then, as well as proofreaders with my sort of skill-set (sub-par!), so this was not an unreasonable guess. The implication of the honesty and credibility of the “experts,” by transferring the tree, without comment, to another land leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth, not to mention the uncredited new re-write (or re-translation) of the much older original article and picture with the implication of a “new discovery.”

Where did the author and the engraver of the original article get their information, if it was not created by them on the spot? That seems like a clue to the location of the storied tree.

Although the words of the French writer were thought worth adopting for their own by so many, he or she is anonymous.

The engraver, F. Wiesener, was acknowledged in the references devoted to the art of engraving (including the New York Public Library above), but only because he had the good sense to sign the plate, and his signature is there for all the world to see. Since illustrators and engravers were only sporadically acknowledged in the 19th century, it is not surprising that in the earlier thefts, he was not mentioned, nor was he mentioned in the original French journal. Later in the 19th century, better journals, like Pall Mall Magazine, credited these artists. However, in none of the articles with the picture of the tree-house is Wiesener acknowledged.

But was Wiesener the original illustrator, or did he just do the engraving from some other artist’s work? This was standard practice before photography and xerocopying was known.

As noticed above, multiple copies of his print appeared in various magazines. The same print engraved by F. Wiesener, is shown on a webpage, where it appears on a page from another compilation, Album de gravures et de dessins, called: “un érable à Matibo, près de Savigliano, Piémont.”r The online picture (or book), is stated as being at the Gustave Moreau Museum in Paris, but searching the museum’s website was not a success and yielded no information about Wiesener, or this book, at all.

There is no stand-alone print by Wiesener to be found, nor is there an original picture from which the engraving was taken.s

Henry also looked for other mention of the engraving. He found a webpage, “Fab Tree Hab” that states the “Maple of Ratibor,” by J. F. Wiesener, circa 1815, as a source in the bibliography. Then he did some more searching and only found a watercolor called, Nocturnal Landscape with Thunderstorm,” by J. F. Wiesener, painted circa 1815. It is part of the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. While this is a great picture of a lightning bolt over a tree-shaded river, there is certainly no tree-house in it. This Wiesener, they report, was a German and painted the picture in Germany.

I don’t think that this artist, J. F. Wiesener, is the F. Wiesener who did the engraving of the tree-house. Our F. Wiesener seems to be Pierre-Félix Wiesener, an engraver in France. Pierre-Félix was from Metz (Lorraine), and graduated from the l’École de Châlons, in 1827.t J. F. and P.-F. could be related, of course.

It seems that Pierre-Félix is often listed only as F. Wiesener. He invented a new engraving method, which is in Mémoires sur un nouveau procédé de gravure, par Wiesener, graveur et imprimeur, in 1855.u

I base this assumption on the entry in Les Graveurs de 19e siècle : un guide de l’amateur d’estampes moderne, by Henri Béraldi, it lists:

WIESENER, (Pierre-Félix), graveur, a exposé de 1841 à 1850 des gravures en relief sur cuivre, à l’eau-forte.

[WIESENER, (Pierre-Félix), engraver, who, from 1841 to 1850, has exposed engravings in relief over copper, to aqua fortis (nitric acid). (This is the first state of the etched plate, according to Harrap’s Standard French-English Dictionary, London, 1980).]v

This is as far as Bill and I can go, in five languages, with the current material available online. This was a bit odd to both of us, since the rest of the world was so fascinated by it. Why didn't more people brag about, or disparage, this unique bit of garden art? Surely it would be a tourist attraction or locally famous, especially after all this ongoing publicity. But there is no more to discover. Vast as the online resources now are, there is more to discover in libraries and museums not yet made available. But it seems pretty clear that the article and engraving from Paris are the originals. What also seems highly likely is that a Frenchman or two has had the last laugh.

With no other mention of this tree-house in any other form, and not a single solitary illustration of it by anybody but Wiesener: somebody made it up!

Bill was pretty sure of this before I was, although I was getting that idea, my natural hope in the existence of anybody who could make such a thing died a bit harder. But I believe this is the case, as well.

For crying out loud, I am going to start a webpage called “This Old Hoax”!!!

Bill thinks Wiesener was might be the culprit, although his engravings were used several times in the long course of Le Magasin Pittoresque, and one would think he would not have been able to get repeat business if this sort of practice was his norm.

The fault might lie in the writer of a made-up text, instead, who asked P.-F. to illustrate it. Bill adds that “Ma ti’ bo” in pidgin French means “Mais tu es beaux“ (But you are beautiful!), making the whole thing a play on words. The writer is anonymous, and whether on the regular staff of the paper or only an occasional contributor to it, is impossible to say at this point.

There is another possibility that occurs to me: the piece was miscategorized as factual, and was really fiction: a pretty little tale, with a pretty little picture. Le Magasin Pittoresque included all sorts of subjects, including fiction and fashion. So who’s to say that this was not a piece that the writer and illustrator did with that intent, but it was treated by some hopeful editor in the gardening department as true.

I like this one best, and it would be nice if the only people in this Victorian myth who are not crooks or poor scholars, in varying degrees, were the original authors!

If, though, it was Wiesener’s sleight of hand, instead of a castle in Spain, or a romantic folly, he created a jewel of a tree-house out of thin air that enraptured us all.

And once he had such a charming picture to sell, there was no trouble finding a writer to come up with a story for it. Making word pictures is what authors do, after all.

N. B. I am not placing a lot of links, to spare your internet privacy, or because the sites were nightmares to navigate, or they appeared iffy. If you are curious and properly sceptical, you can find these pages for yourself, with the information provided. The ones not on Google Books are on Henry”s blog, Arboarchitecture. If you insist, write me, and I”ll send you the links. Or if you find out anything new about the fabled tree, do tell me, please!

a  When I first started looking for old books to put online, I was tickled pink to find (for free, in a giveaway cauldron at an old book store!), an old copy of Joe Miller’s Jest Book, no author stated, apparently an anonymous work. It was the perfect antidote to the gloom that typing up Froissart engenders in me, at our inability to read and/or learn how very bad war is from history. I put it online over time. It took forever because after I had done the first part of it, I happened to find the same book under its real name! Every bit of it but the title page was the same. This was published as an Arlington Edition: a series of books put out by Hurst & Co., Publishers, in New York, in the 1800’s. The original book was done by Mark Lemon about 40 years earlier. That I didn’t buy, because it cost 30 dollars. I have a couple of more American examples on my bookshelf, including The Teachings of Epictetus, translated by Rolleson, (which only americanized some British spelling). Tales of Humour, online onsite, also contains great stories, all but one translated from the French without acknowledging the original authors. It also is merely a re-packaging of two previous books by the same publishing house fifty years before, which they never mentioned to innocent book buyers.

b  The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, New Series, Volume I, London: Hugh Cunningham, 1842; p. 66.

c  Robert Merry’s Museum, edited by S. G. Goodrich, Volume V., Boston: Bradbury, Soden and Co., 1844; pp. 5-6.

d  Being the proud owner of Peter Parley’s Merry Stories, or Fact, Fancy and Fiction, by Peter Parley, Broadway: James Miller; 1869, I can tell you that he has included what was felt by many to be Fredric S. Cozzens funniest story, Chapter IX, from The Sparrowgrass Papers, by Frederic S. Cozzens, Derby & Jackson, New York; 1860. Naturally, merry Peter did not bother to tell anybody who really wrote it. It was written well within the 14 years copyright law granted to creators of original material, but alas, my dear Frederic was dead. (In case you want to know, I think Chapter III, by the delightful man, is howlingly funny, although the horse story is good too.)

e   See the Wikipedia entry on Piedmont-Sardinia.

f  La Colmena, periódico redactado por A. de Villalobos, Tomo I, London: Ackerman & Co., 1842; p. 217.

g  Archivo Pittoresco, semanario illustrado, Volume III, Lisbon: Typographia de Castro & Irmão, 1860; p. 78.

h  Wonders of Vegetation, translated from the French of Marion, edited, with Numerous Additions, by Schele De Veke, D.D., LL.D., of the University of Virginia, New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1872; pp. 181-182.

i  Les merveilles de la végétation, par F. Marion, illustrées par E. Lancelot, Paris: Librairie de Hachette et Cie, 1867.

j  Le meraviglie della vegetazione, di F. Marion, opera illustrata da 44 incisioni di E. Lancelot, Seconda Edizione, Milano: Fratelli Treves, Editori, 1877.

k  The Picture Magazine, George Newnes Ltd., Volume II, July-December, London: George Newnes, Limited, 1893; p. 162,

l  Garden and Forest Magazine Issue 332, Volume 7; New York: Tribune Publishing Company: 1894; p. 270.

m  arnoldia, The Magazine of the Arnold Arboretum, 2000; p. 28.

n  Ibid., p. 5.

o  The American Architect and Building News, Volume 45, July-September, Boston: The American Architect and Building News Co., 1894; p. 48.

p  The Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener, and Home Farmer, conducted by Robert Hogg, Volume XIX., Third Series, July-December, London: Journal of the Horticultural Office; 1894; p. 199.

q  Oskar Krejčí in online snippets from his monograph Czechoslovak national interests: a historical survey of Czechoslovak national interests and reflections on the demise of Czechoslovak communism, Volume 446, Boulder, Colorado: East European Monographs, 1996.

r  Album de gravures et de dessins (plantes et animaux), p. 15.

s  All the copies of the engraving are so exact, that I wonder if the original plate was copied and sold, or just print copies were, by Wiesener himself or by Charton’s magazine. I don’t understand enough about the printing process, or about the engraving business, to be able to do anything more than ponder idly.

t  Liste générale alphabétique & par promotions des ancien élèves des écoles nationales d’arts & métiers depuis leurs fondations, by the Société des anciens élèves des écoles nationales d’arts et métiers, Paris, 1900; p. 734.

u  Mémoires sur un nouveau procédé de gravure, par Wiesener, graveur et imprimeur typographe, 12, rue Delaborde à Paris, déposés au secrétariat de l’Académie des sciences, les 20 août 1849 et 12 mars 1852, impr. at Wiesener, 1855.

v  Les Graveurs de 19e siècle : un guide de l’amateur d’estampes moderne, by Henri Béraldi, Tome XII, SAINT-MARCEL - ZWINGER, Paris: Librarie L. Conquet, 1892; pp. 290-291.

Like the evolution and transformation of history, crime and slang, the stages of the Matibo affair continued to evolve:

After taking a rest for a week or two from the mystery, Bill Thayer, with his Italian fluency, found another engraving of a tree-house in Italy. It was published 3 years earlier than Wiesener’ engraving in Le Magasin Pittoresque and, clearly, it is the same tree-house. It is slightly modified in the later picture, showing that the Wiesener, had been a bad, bad boy. You can see the resemblance here;

Black and white engraving, unsigned, of large tree shaped into a tree house or arbre-belveder, with two stories.  Two people are on the first story at one window.  There is a stairway, wooden, from the ground to the start of the leaves.  Several people, male and female are on the ground in the fashions of the period, 1837.

(Acero esistente in Matibò vicino Savigliano.)
[A maple tree existing in Matibo, in the vicinity of Savigliano.]

At that time, the site had this listing description:

        “Acero esistente in Matibò vicino Savigliano.”
        Litogr. da: “Poliorama Pittoresco.”
        Napoli, 1837.” @ 12,00 cm. 10x16.
        Testo del marchese Lascaris di Ventimiglia.

Bill found the earlier engraving, with an article relating to it, in Tome VI of the Repertorio d’agricoltura, edited by Rocco Ragazzoni, published in 1837 in Vigevano.

Vigevano, he adds, is “a town which although in Lombardy not Piemonte, is only 121 km NE of Savigliano  — a fast hour’s drive.”

The article is also published, on page 132, with the folded picture on page 160, in the Repertorio di agricoltura pratica e di economia domestica, edited by Rocco Ragazzoni, St. Alliance, 1835.

Bill also points out:

Notice also that the Italian-language caption puts an accent on Matibò. That doesn’t affect Google searches, but it does indicate that in some Italian’s mind it was pronounced matiBO.

The relevant text actually starts on p. 132: it’s a letter to some learned society. It is titled “Pregio poco conosciuto dell’ acero campestre” (Poorly-appreciated worth of the common maple).

Page 132, paragraph 1, is about how nice that people import exotic trees to beautify their gardens. Paragraph 2 goes on to say that there’s no need to range so far, however, when we have beautiful trees of our own right here in Italy, which we might do well to appreciate a bit more, among which the common maple, which is pretty, doesn’t impoverish the soil, and its boughs are flexible  — which allows us to train them into whatever shape we please.

Then he goes on to p. 133:

“Un proprietario apprezzatore dell’ acero ne possiede due bellissimi individui in un podere chiamato Matibò, a mezzo miglio da Savigliano, uno de’ quali (ved. la fig.) dell’ altezza di diciassette piedi piemontesi, conta settant’ anni di età, e venticinque dacchè venne tagliato a capitozza, e dacchè ha ricevuto esternamente la forma di un elegante tempietto rotondo a porticato, il cui diametro è di undici piedi. L’ accurato proprietario ha divisa la parte interna di questo edifizio in due distinti piani, uno inferiore all’ altro: si arriva al primo per una scala esterna, ed al secondo col mezzo di altra scala con somma maestria praticata internamente. I due piani possono agevolmente contenere una ventina di persone caduno, ed il loro pavimento è formato coi rami dell’ albero stesso fortemente tessuti e collegati che hanno spinto radici nella terra sovrappostavi, la quale viene ogni anno concimata ed anche innaffiata.

“Le pareti dell’ albero sono assai fitte, attesa la costante accurata potatura che ricevono nella state e l’ ingegnoso incrocicchiamento delle nuove messe, per cui le due sale ricevono la luce dalle sole otto finestre intagliate in caduna di esse. L’ albero così frastagliato produce nulladimeno da lunga pezza sorprendente quantità di foglie, di fiori e di semi; gli augelletti vi si compiacciono, e siccome il padrone lungi dal recar disturbo ai loro lavori ed alle loro famigliuole, vi appresta cose grate per nudrirsi ed utili per formare i loro nidi, essi moltiplicano in pace, siccome in tetto ospitale, in cui al giungere della primavera riprendono stanza, rallegrando col dolce garrir loro, in presenza di chi viene visitargli, la naturale amenità del luogo, e quel delizioso quartierino campestre. Ma lasciando in disparte queste imagini, mi farò ad insistere, perchè gli agricoltori non abbandonino ai soli boschi, ai soli vigenti un albero indigeno cotanto utile, il quale oltre al pregio di essere riconosciuto il migliore per la formazione de’ torni pei carri, de’ gioghi per le bovine, pel sostegno dei vigneti, e per l’ eccellenza del suo legno da ardere, ha pur quello di poter vittoriosamente concorrere all’ abbellimento dei giardini, e di esser atto assai a somministrare ovunque siepi capaci di qualsivoglia sàgoma veramente fitte ed impenetrabili.” (Calendario Georgico.)

Bill translated this, thankfully:

A landowner who appreciates the maple has two very handsome specimens in a property called Matibò, half a mile from Savigliano, one of which (see the fig.), 17 Piemontese feet tall, is seventy years old, and has been pollarded for twenty-five years now, having received the outer form of an elegant round porticoed tempietto, eleven feet in diameter. The careful owner divided the inside of this edifice into two separate stories, one below the other: you get to the first by an outer staircase, and to the second by means of another staircase built with great art on the inside. Each of the two stories can easily hold about twenty people, and their floors are formed of the branches of the tree itself, tightly interwoven and tied, that have rooted in the earth put on top of them, which is manured and even watered every year.

The walls of the tree are quite dense, in view of the constant careful watering they get in the summer and the ingenious interweaving of the new shoots; light is provided to the two rooms solely by the eight windows cut into each. The tree thus ornamentally cut nevertheless has been for a long time producing a surprising amount of leaves, flowers, and seeds; the little birds are happy there, and since the owner, far from disturbing their work and their little families, lays out for them nice things to eat and make their nests with, they multiply in peace, as under a hospitable roof, under which they take their place again when spring comes round, cheering by their sweet chirping, in the presence of whoever comes to visit them, the natural amenity of the place, and this delightful little rural area. But setting aside these images, I will insist that farmers should not just abandon to the woods an indigenous tree that is so useful, and which, in addition to the merit of being recognized as the best for making coach axles, yokes for cattle, vine props, and for the excellence of its fuel wood, furthermore has that of contributing with success to the beautification of gardens, and of being quite suited to making hedges anywhere, of any shape, truly dense and impenetrable.

Bill adds, “The Piemontese foot, by the way, according to Web sources, was 51.3 cm: so that (our own foot being 30.5 cm) that tree is reported as being 28 feet 7 inches tall, and 18 feet 6 inches in diameter.“

As you can see: The article in Le Magasin Pittoresque is later than the original one in the Calendario Georgico, and it only translates what Anonimo says and did not mention the source. So, I am sad to say, my beloved Magasin Pitt. has to join the ranks as one of the scoundrels!

Ragazzoni’s text, being an anthology of agricultural writings, cited the source where this letter first appeared. It was an article taken from the Calendario Georgico, 1837, but it did not mention a specific author, the signature at the end of the article being Anonimo. The engraving was scanned improperly and only a portion of the engraving appears, as I said. It is clearly a corner of our tree-house, though, so Bill looked for another, hopefully complete, image.

Bill then found that the article was reproduced once more with a copy of the engraving shown above in another magazine, Poliorama Pittoresco, Naples, 1837, the same year as the one in Ragozzi’s anthology. He found the engraving by itself, and complete, as a listing by a bookseller, noted above. They cited it incorrectly and stated that the text accompanying it was by “Marquis Lascaris,”, in the Poliorama, instead of just being an article from the magazine he directed. The online picture of the engraving vanished after it was sold.

The Società Agraria Subalpina published the Calendario Georgico and it was under the umbrella of la Reale Società Agraria di Torino, founded in 1785 in Turin, (per Wikipedia and Calendario reale georgico ossia almanacco d’ agricoltura,, Torino: Stamperia degli Eredi Botta, 1791). It was created by an edict of Victor Amadeus III, King of Sardinia. Agostino Lascaris, Marquis of Ventimiglia (1766-1838), was its first director (general editor) and contributed several articles to it as well. It was a magazine designed specifically for the agrarian nobility in their area to facilitate, transmit and encourage modern agricultural practices. The magazine lasted until 1839, the year after the death of Lascaris.

The issues of the Calendario Georgico are not online currently. In order to show that the Calendario article and picture are likely the honest but victimized originals, being a creditable bunch, Bill adds:

Lascaris, by the way, is a most eminent noble name: the Lascaris family is descended from the Byzantine emperors by the same name. See this Wikipedia article for the account of how they happened to be counts of Ventimiglia.

“And Italian Wikipedia (in no other language) has a brief but valuable article on Lascaris; interestingly, he was mayor of Turin in 1818, a founder and president of the Chamber of Commence of Piemonte  — and his residence there is now the seat of the Piemonte Region.

“And a much fuller biography of Lascaris is provided by his obituary.

“By the way, Cibrario  — the guy who wrote Lascaris’ obituary  — was a pal of Lascaris’, and co-published with him the first history of Sardinia ever to make it into print: a 4 volume work written in the 16c (in Latin) that they went and dug up.

[2/28/2012] Oh, and the Piemontese mile is 2466 meters, a tiny bit more than 1½ miles of our own.

Conversely, it now seems quite clear that Ratibor is, as we both guessed, an attempt to correct Matibo. The person who first came up with Ratibor did what we did, and finding no placename Matibo, “corrected“ it. The reason he found no placename Matibo is the same as our reason: [if it existed] it was the name of a private estate, and these things aren’t on maps no matter how detailed.”

And the trail stopped here, for February, 2012. But at least the Le Magasin Pittoresque, and Wiesener did not invent anything. They just stole it. Being a bigger magazine, they had a broader circulation and, tit for tat, all the later journals we found in our tree-tracking in Part I stole from them!

But it is still strange that nothing more can be found about “Matibo,“ or its owner, or any other new information or discussion about the tree, in Italy or anywhere else.

In March, 2012, after no further luck, by either of us, I began to write Part 2, of the mystery. In the meantime, another person e-mailed me and had pointed out to me the copy of the engraving for sale on MareMagnum that I had seen. I wanted to thank him online for helping and send him news that Part 2 was finished. But His e-mail has since vanished from my e-mail inbox, before I could thank him!!!

When I went to check for a copy of either picture, it had vanished from the internet. This lead to another search for the copy and by sheer luck, after Bill and I both searched eleventy-seven thousand ways for word about this tree, I came across a press release from Italy in 2004. It is a picture of a large group of people, including children, apparently at a party, and it mentions Matibo and its maple tree! (An acero). It can be found on this webpage: Luigi Botta per Savigliano.

The text is in Italian, and the lines that seemed to me to be about our tree are “Con una immediata sorpresa: quella di essere nella storica residenza della Vernea (a due passi dal Matibo che ospitò il celebre acero saviglianese trasformato in un edificio a più piani), una delle più interessanti e curiose esistenti alla periferia di Savigliano, fatta realizzare nel Settecento per il piacere della residenza estiva e per incontrare.“

Needless to say, I had no clue what this meant in English, but at least it appeared that I had found something concrete putting Matibo in Savigliano. Matibo had lost its accent, it seems. Naturally, I sent my hot scoop to Bill!

Bill states that this is page by Luigi Botta who was running for mayor when it was written. He says, the text is “of no interest at all for our purposes: Emilio Bosio had a party for the people shown, who were supporters of Luigi Botta for Mayor; Bosio himself was on the ticket too. By way of parenthesis, the writer of the page says it was at the historic residence of “la Vernea“, a stone’s throw from ‘the Matibo’ [notice, no accent] that once had the famous maple of Savigliano transformed into a two-story building.’ End of story.“

“In addition to running for mayor in 2004, Luigi Botta is (probably, the name’s not so uncommon) the co-author of a book on the art history of Savigliano, with Rosalba Belmondo. That in turn led me to a website where he gets a full page: he’s a journalist and writer, and has written about Savigliano’s past  — as well as about the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

Look at the page by Botta or his election team, it’s a short page. It was a brief paragraph only under a picture of the dinner guests. And since the sentence about the tree forms 20% of the paragraph, the only paragraph, I would say it is a fairly significant mention. The word for maple tree is acero, as I said before, and even if you are unilingual you can get the idea, like I did, in the second sentence with these words so similar to English: the “celebre acero saviglianese trasformato in un edificio, etc.” This certainly proves the tree-house was a great name to drop!

I think that if Lascaris had published a made up piece in his journal, being a politician and a writer, he would have been gleefully attacked and bashed by anybody with an ax to grind. Since Botta too, a modern politician and writer, takes the time to mention the tree-house as a famous local landmark of old in his town, I am reassured that the tree is no myth.

The lack of any later objection anywhere to the article and the picture (as far as we can tell), leads me to believe that the tree was where we found it at last.

So the Tree-house of Matibo is no more, but it did exist in Savigliano.

N. B. Copies of the original engraving are sold at irregular intervals, after being ripped out of those old Italian journals, usually from the Poliorama Pittoresque. They sell all the time, which is why people do it and why links to it are not current for long. Good thing I had the sense to snag a copy when I came across another copy of it again.

(This reminds me of how much I hate it when anybody tears up an old book just to sell the pictures. Don’t ever buy one!)

As of January, 2013, it seems that there is only one source for the text, and one for the picture. The picture in Le Magasin Pittoresque, was the earliest we found for weeks. About the same time Bill discovered the Lascaris reference, he found a copy of another engraving of the tree-house for sale by an Italian antiquarian bookseller. It is almost identical to the one that got us started on our quest, BUT predates the engraving done by Wiesener for the French article by about four years being listed as being from 1837-38. However, two current sellers of copies of the Italian engraving do not state what book they got it from, or who the engraver was. It is definitely “our” tree-house. This means, that in all likelihood that Wiesener’s engraving was merely a copy, with minor cosmetic modifications, of that one. Although he signed his engraving, he didn’t bother to mention that it was in imitation of the earlier one.

Also, Bill’s translation of the Lascaris’ article, shows that the text of French magazine article is almost an exact translation of the Italian one, without crediting the original source. So although nobody caught them, the French article and engraving were plagiarized and so join my list of literary scoundrels and rascals who knew a good story, with a great picture, when they saw it.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me totally happy to think it was there and someone did it. Thus of course confirming the fond wishes of everybody else who told the story. But the local report and the Lascaris bit make me far more confident that I am not totally gullible.

So I have a couple of theories about the lack of any more evidence of this tree, anywhere. Bill, in March, 2012, initially said “you can’t pull the wool over locals.” However, he still thinks the proof isn’t 100% even now.

Bill still thinks (January, 2013), we do not have enough evidence to swear with absolute certainty that tree existed, but he is reassured by the evidence of Lascaris and Botta, too. He is far less comfortable about how close to reality the engraving of the tree-house is. He thinks it could be imaginary and not taken “from life.”

There is a chance of that, sure. I don’t think we can definitely say that the first artist (the Italian version) never saw the tree. Not that it couldn’t happen. But again, for the same reasons, a reputable journal had that picture to represent an article that talks about it as an example of what you can do with local trees. You can imagine the outcry if this was a completely unrealistic illustration of this local leafy landmark. Sure it is not a photograph, but that would have been impossible back then. Engravings were the only way to represent anything pictorially in those days.

But it is a troubling point. How much can we trust any illustration or statements of facts by any medium, printed or painted? As our later tree-tracking adventure shows: Merely the fact that an article is written by an “expert,” or a scholar, or that a lay-magazine has a high reputation, does not guarantee that the words are true or accurate or even original. This applies equally well to any graphics that accompany those words. It is true to-day, too. Photo-shop, painter’s brush, sculptor’s chisel, or engraver’s burin can all be wielded truthfully or deceitfully just like statistics.

There are hundreds of ‘true-to-life’ busts of Julius Caesar, all different!

Art can imitate life, though. Realism in art was crucial before photography. Artists and engravers reputations depended on their accuracy, because this was the only graphic evidence back then. When a subject being discussed is contemporary, then accuracy is much more important, because it can be verified after publication.

in addition, the tree-house that charmed us all had to have real appeal. That made it worth writing about, in highly descriptive and equally delightful terms, in the Calendario Georgico. So why should it not have been just as wonderful as the engraving depicts? If it wasn’t a pleasing and inspiring structure, it would not have merited a drop of ink in the first place.

Such a great tree, famous enough to make the press, and sell papers, makes everybody who doesn’t have one envious and would result in silence about their own less decorative shrubs. Nobody had anything close that could top the Tree-house of Matibo. Competition for glory and local fame would have ensured minimizing another’s tree, in favor of their own if they had one better.

In any case, the deafening silence in Savigliano and Italy about this marvellous tree in its own country after the 1840’s is odd.

On mulling this over, I am reminded that in terms of the lack of publication of the person owning the estate, the press has long adopted protecting the privacy of the rich, noble, and powerful. It still goes on to a great extent. To be sure, the juiciest details are common fodder to titillate the star-struck masses but a great deal is never published.

This privacy is not just confined to the nobility, merchant princes and the captains of industry. In America, for example, you can rarely find anything bad to say about judges anywhere, whether drunken, cheating, and lying types or not. Unless a judges commits a crime (that somebody is brave enough to charge them with), all our judges appear to have haloes. Because of this virtual blackout by local presses and law enforcement, we, in the U. S. have no idea how inhumanly, immorally, and generally unjudicially some on the bench behave.

The same is true everywhere, and I mean everywhere, for other classes and professions. Famous well-behaved people that are a credit to their communities will have their privacy respected. So if there was a talented noble, or near noble person, or persons of any local power who happened to have a fantastic garden with a great tree-house — and everybody liked him or her — the community will do a lot to preserve their privacy as long as that seems to be in the best interests of the both the press and the community as a whole.

Communities also do their best to protect themselves from the nosiness of strangers on general principles. In Eastern Kentucky where I live, for an example, xenophobia is so great it is an art form!

Hoax? No. Hex? Maybe.

The other possibility that occurs to me is that the tree and its owner and/or creator of the tree were being hounded after that great picture appeared. It wouldn’t surprise me if people made pilgrimages to it! Once the word and the picture got out, everybody for miles around probably wanted to see it for themselves. Everybody probably wanted a relic of it too, and would take away a branch, a leaf or a splinter. As we know, it inspired artists, and authors and sold paper and magazines for years so why would it not have created a stir?

But the truth is: This great tree-house sunk into oblivion for a reason, and I have decided its because it makes people lose their minds. I can only imagine what happened locally. Did the owners have to hire bodyguards to protect the tree and its birds? Did their homeowner’s insurance go up because of all the people who fell out of the tree-house having decided to use it for a sleepover?

When the proper sources clammed up, that stopped nobody else farther away from writing about it, however they could, to capitalize on its fame. Because it was only worth a short paragraph or too, after all the tree couldn’t be sold or stolen, then the ongoing plagiarism of the description, and/or the illicit copies of Wiesener’s touched up engraving, was easy enough to do and hard to verify. So though it is art theft, if only literary and lithographic, it’s not as likely to be detected, as, say, stealing a painting by Titian would be. Nobody cares enough to detect or stop petty crime, in the art world or anywhere else.

This, then, is The Curse of Matibo — Journalists, paralyzed by delight at the story and picture, recognized its appeal to us masses, and their moral compasses veer off-kilter, they shuck any veneer of journalistic integrity and just keep adding and twisting the story to be able to make use of it, however they can. The Tree-house of Matibo and its story is too cute not to be worth a dime or two even long after the tree is no more. And it certainly would not rouse anybody’s ire — people are so tickled when they see it, they are not suspicious, because they want the story to be true with all their hearts.

That is why, I think, people keep stealing the work, and maybe they tried to steal pieces of the tree as long as it lived. This tree-house, story and picture, is jinxed: The Maple Tree of Matibo is really The Tree of Doom. One look at it and, if there is a nickel, franc or tuppence to be made, a lot of people lose all good sense.

Basically, our conclusion is that the obscure Italian journal was seen by the French folks and that all the information about the tree afterwards was likely based on the French article, as we know the image likely was. It crushes me that French journalists and engravers were like the other scoundrels on my website, and failed to acknowledge the source of their data.

(I am happy to say, in their defense, that in most of the other articles I find in this magazine, which was hugely popular and a model for journalistic efforts (not to mention freely stolen from), they do say when they translate or summarize findings from other authors.)

What we do have here is a 200 year case study in plagiarism and bad scholarship. It is crystal clear that nobody has checked sources but us after 175 years. Nobody, not even the “scholars” and “experts” in their fields.

This whole investigation into the existence and location of the tree has proved to demonstrate the absolute amorality, shoddiness in research, and out and out plagiarism and copyright violations in journalism, both academic and popular, on a widespread and persistent scale, up to the present century.

It demonstrates why one should always check sources, as well as checking footnotes, to see if footnotes are in fact faithful.

Our efforts, which were quite relentlessly done in several languages, also show the difficulties in doing internet research, with the changing results possible using the exact same keywords, during different hours of the day!

It is a reminder that despite all the scanning going on of the collections of major universities, there is a whole lot more that remains unscanned. The notable Italian journal series that Lascaris directed is not available on line in any form. Thorough research cannot depend solely on online resources whether free or by paid-access.

Although a better job of catching shifty scholarship is more possible now than ever before.

And, finally, I would like to say as well, vain as it may be, that it took two people who are not scholars or journalists to detect and trace this history of international plagiarism and flawed research and then to ultimately discover the probable source of the inspirational tree-house itself.

Although this is a picayunish point in this little case: who cares if the dang tree existed, really? It is the principle of the thing that does matter.

Hopefully this example will encourage people to not only do their own research, but make independent investigations of matters supposedly done by “authorities in their field.” Who knows what other contributions by us peasants may then arise, should we get curious enough to double-check the “facts” — even small ones?

Hexes and lies aside, no matter what, The Maple of Matibo was one cute tree house! The picture is still entrancing. My house is not that pretty! The engraving takes all my half-formed fantasies of what my ideal tree house would be like and outdoes my imagination. Who could have thought of one so perfect and then made it?

There is more I want to know about the tree, its history, its owner, its designer, the little anecdotes it generated: all of that.

People have been, still are, and will be intrigued by this tree-house the minute they see it. I am hoping that Fortuna, that fickle Latin goddess, will waft her wand over some Piemontese antiquarian or the gardener’s great, great, great grand-daughter and inspire them to write and tell us all we pant to know: Who owned the tree, who was brilliant enough to imagine such a tree, how did they make it and care for it, who played in or under it? Most important to me, is what or who inspired this gifted gardener to create something so lovely?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if somebody recognizes the earlier engraving, or somebody from Savigliano sees it, knows all the missing bits and tells me! If they do, and it looks like it won’t drive anybody bonkers, you’ll be the next to know.

I feel so bad about not thanking the nice person who sent me the picture, having lost both his name and address! That’s one Proof of the Curse.

As a note, Bill also ran across the picture of another Italian tree-house! It’s an earlier engraving of an entirely different tree-house, this one dated 1742 in Florence, or as one caption has it, “B. S. Sgrilli. Description of the Pratolini garden for the Medici, Firenze [Florence], 1742.” It looks more like Robert Louis Stevenson’s sort of tree-house. It is one of the pictures from a lecture on Aspects of Garden Design, given in 1994, according to the website, and there are some great pictures there!

Black and white engraving, signed by Sgrilli, of large and unshaped tree with a wooden ramp from the ground up to the middle.  There is a person on the ramp.  Around it are benches with people sitting on them. This is the Pratolini Garden of the Medici in Florence, 1742.

B. S. Sgrilli.
Description of the Pratolini Garden for the Medici.
Firenze, 1742.

I know nothing more about it or how it relates to its Matibo cousin.

The Matibo tree house was surely not the only one of its kind. And its designer had probably heard of such things before. The fact that there was one in Italy in the previous century perhaps inspired our Matibo gardener. Gardens, gardening, and landscape design have long been of interest, all the way back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

So here are the two tree-houses you now know something about. The main article in the Magasin Pitteresque, and the others quoted in the articles cited refer to some other curious trees as well. But they may be hexed too, so I am not looking into them right now.