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from issue no. 04 - 2004


The realism of popular faith

The Sacri monti of the Alps were a great choral event in the art of Northern Italy from the beginning of the 16th century. They are places of worship where great artists, who seem to have sprung from nowhere, recounted the story of Jesus. Particularly in Cerveno the sculptor, Beniamino Simoni, created a Via Crucis in wood worthy of Caravaggio

by Giuseppe Frangi

Jesus helped by Simon of Cyrene, chapel V, detail

Jesus helped by Simon of Cyrene, chapel V, detail

For a Sacred Mountain it is indeed truly hidden and secluded, looking out on that area of lower Val Camonica which does not offer great attractions. On the main road the cars speed by without pause and were it not for the odd road sign, there would be no reason to make a detour or even to raise one’s eyes to the little hamlet perched half way up the mountain. We are in Cerveno, 500 meters up, 659 inhabitants: more than a village, an intricate tangle of houses clustered almost in protection of the unsuspected treasure. Indeed to get to the church of San Martino, bishop of Tours, you must pass through a maze of little alleys and small stairways. When the beautiful sixteenth century building appears before us, the search for the Sacred Mountain is still not complete. One has to go in and then come out by another door which finally leads on to the stairway. It is the Holy Stair, built at the beginning of the eighteenth century: the pilgrims, climbing it, traverse from left to right the fourteen scenes of the Via Crucis, portrayed in as many chapels, complemented by statues, frescos and imitation buildings. In short, a true Sacred Mountain, but intimate, reserved, in no way emphatic. And its history does not belie the impression.
The Val Camonica was border country. As Saint Charles Borromeo realized during his celebrated and detailed pastoral visit in 1580. Here superstition and tradition often blended into each other. The bishop had laid down rules and given precise indications, so that not even the most remote hamlet would be open to the risks of heresy. He increased the number of Franciscans, the Order responsible for the history of all the Sacred Mountains of the Alps. Later, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was a Franciscan, Leonardo da Porto Maurizio, who would spread the devotion to the Via Crucis and stipulated its rules. It was he, for example, who fixed the number of stations at fourteen, as emerges from the dispositions (Monita ad recta ordinandum devotum exercitium Viae Crucis) which Pope Clement XII approved on 3 April 1731. And on this basis a few years later the building of the Sacred Mountain of Cerveno was undertaken.
In the beginning it was simply the determination of a parish priest. Or better, of a dynasty of parish priests: first, Don Pietro Belotti, who for forty years, between 1692 and 1732, was pastor of this handful of souls. His was the idea, supported by friendship with the family of the greatest Bergamo wood sculptors, the family of Andrea Fantoni (there is not a church in these valleys which does not have a confessional, or an altar or simple devotional statue by him or his brothers). Bellotti started on the work, collecting funds throughout the valley and getting substantial response for his project. To supplement his funds he also obtained from Rome the privilege of gaining indulgences through the practice of the Via Crucis. But the Fantonis were involved in too many enterprises to give the attention required by a project that went well beyond the ordinary. Thus Belotti’s successor, Don Andrea Boldini, dramatically decided to do without the famous Fantonis and replace them with his fellow countryman, a native of Val Saviore, a remote valley that slopes down from the Adamello to the Val Camonica. What was in theory only a making-do turned up trumps. And Beniamino Simoni, from Fresine, became the extraordinary creator of this Via Crucis.
Jesus tied to the Cross, chapel XI, detail

Jesus tied to the Cross, chapel XI, detail

In 1752 he found a house with his family in Cerveno and worked feverishly for eight years. All his expenses, from food to materials, are accurately detailed in the parish register, with a pedantic and innocent transparency. Simoni showed masterly energy in working poplar wood, the main material from which the statues are made. But for a reason no one has yet explained, he abandoned work in 1763 just a step away from its conclusion. Certainly relations between him and the commissioners, in particular with the new parish priest, Don Bartolo Bresanelli, who took over in 1761, were poisoned. In the letter which the parish priest wrote to the heirs of Andrea Fantoni begging them to come to finish the Via Crucis, he speaks of a “sculptor from Bressano”, without even naming him, who had come there “by accident”. And then he states that “he is not capable finishing this Project of ours”.
What had happened? Recent documents show that Simoni had received an important commission from Brescia: the building of the tableau to celebrate the nomination of bishop Giovanni Molino as cardinal on 10 January 1762. But the episode has its obscure points, because the letters and documents all have the aura of a damnatio memoriae of the artist. A damnatio which produced its effects: Simoni was canceled from history and for almost two centuries nobody paid him any attention, whereas the popularity of the Via Crucis of Cerveno remained however, as witnessed by the tradition of the current, impressive Via Crucis, called the “Santa Crus”, which every ten years since 1800 takes place in the streets of the village, in the presence of an immense crowd.
To rediscover Simoni it took the keen eye of Giovanni Testori who came up here in the ’sixties, was completely overwhelmed, got hold of all the available photographs, and took them to his great master, Roberto Longhi. The response was immediate and unanimous: the chapels with the sculptures by Simoni represented one of the most outstanding episodes in the continuity of the tradition of Caravaggio in Italian art. Testori obviously fell in love with the related history, the erasing of the poor impetuous sculptor from Val Saviore by a rigid and bigoted culture. But now his greatness emerged forcefully from the shadows into which officialdom had banished it. The photos, accurately chosen, gave back substance to a sculptor of violent realism, who attacked his material with passion and strength, and who did not stand back from the harshness of the doings portrayed or from their reality. Simoni, an artist of the people, as so many masters in the Brescia tradition – Romanino especially – did not feel himself a lightweight. Testori underlines both his “ tough and inexorable compactness”, his “grinding and rebellious realism”; but he also speaks of “the clarity of scenic composition which he shows himself to possess in conceiving the chapels”. A clarity – the Lombardian scholar suggests – he can only have got from knowledge and detailed research into the structure of the other great Sacred Mountains, Varallo in particular.
The statues which compose the Via Crucis (chapels VIII, X, I) by Beniamino Simoni; below, Jesus meets the holy women, chapel VIII, detail

The statues which compose the Via Crucis (chapels VIII, X, I) by Beniamino Simoni; below, Jesus meets the holy women, chapel VIII, detail

Simoni also put his own talent into it, especially in the figures of the people, where he set aside all embarrassment and pudeur; timid and restrained when dealing with the figure of Christ or with those of the women, he is quite unrestrained in his handling of the ruffians, the jailers, or the simple bystanders. Figures sometimes of brutal truth, sometimes even sweet, but in any event unforgettable figures: the stupendous young boy, for example, sitting near the cross in chapel XI; or the bad thief with his tongue hanging out, in the chapel following the Crucifixion.
Simoni, as said, left the undertaking very close to its conclusion and for reasons still in part unclear. Two eligones of the Fantoni dynasty arrived to replace him. The comparison between the fierce and rough realism of Simoni and the thoroughly polite and clerical detachment of those who took over from him is exemplary and even embarrassing. A demonstration of how the Sacred Mountains always necessited the expressive inventiveness of some great artist, come from nowhere perhaps. Had it been left to the able and flamboyant Fantoni we would have had a sort of Disneyland of the faith ante litteram. Thanks to Simoni we have instead a moving, extremely realistic, if imperfect, account of the Passion.

Every ten years the procession of the “Santa Crus” lives again.

Cerveno stands in the lower Val Camonica, 75 kilometers from Brescia. The street leads off left from the main road, about ten kilometers after Breno. The Sacred Mountain is open every day, from 7am to 12am and from 3pm to 7pm; it is closed only during liturgical celebrations in the adjoining church. The telephone number is 0364-434014. The great procession of the “Santa Crus”, famous in the diocese, takes place every ten years. The last one was in 2002. Near Cerveno, in Breno, Bienno and Pisogne, the masterpieces of Girolamo da Romano, known as Romanino, the greatest Brescian painter of the sixteenth century and one of the most potent precursors of Caravaggio, can be seen.

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