Walking the Sacred Mountain
As opposed to Varallo and the other Sacred Mount already built, the Varese one needed a further decisive element: the road. And Giuseppe Bernasconi, expert in the construction of roads, made a handsome wide one, “carved into the rock like a book” which could accommodate the numerous processions climbing the mount
by Giuseppe Frangi
The interior of the sanctuary which, at the end of the route, is chapel XV, that of the Coronation of Mary. Here one sees an altar dedicated to the Adoration of the Magi
The presence of the small community had in fact revived an ancient memory linked to the story of the mountain: here, according to an undocumented tradition, Ambrose withdrew in prayer on the eve of the decisive confrontation with the Arians and was told by Our Lady that victory was sure. In fact the first trace of a Marian connection is in a document dated 922, also kept in the State Archive of Milan, in which donations made to the “Basilica de Monte de Vellate” are mentioned. Velate is still today the name of a hamlet of Varese on the slopes of the Sacred Mount. And near Velate there is another locality which has another trace of these origins in its name: Sant’Ambrogio Olona.
In short, there was plenty to warrant an ever denser flow of pilgrims coming to climb those very steep slopes. Often there were Capuchin friars among them, who had opened a convent in Casbeno in 1560 and who some time later had been given the duty by the ecclesiastical authority (that is by the archbishop, Carlo Borromeo, because the diocese was and is that of Milan) of administering the Sacraments to the Romites on the mountain.
Here below, chapel III, that of the Nativity; the statues are by Cristoforo Prestinari
At this point in the story one has to open a parenthesis: for some decades beforehand the Franciscans had been dotting the foothills of the Alps in Lombardy/Piedmont with a previously unseen type of religious monuments. These were the Sacred Mounts, sites where the Christian story could be displayed with great realism and have strong impact on the faithful. Father Bernardino Caimi had started in 1400, creating the most beautiful and famous of the Sacred Mounts, that of Varallo. He had been guardian of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and, once back in Italy, had decided to create these constructions for the benefit of pilgrims who could no longer undertake the journey to the Holy City. After Caimi came another two Franciscans with similar ideas, at the end of the following century: Father Cleto, who created the one in Orta in 1589, and Father Costantino Massimo, in 1590, that in Crea.
In short, Father Aguggiari had examples before him. But the task was very onerous and there were no funds available at the time. However he didn’t keep the idea to himself. He spoke about it to the deputy who looked after the material interests of the Romites, don Giuseppe Dralli, and with Giuseppe Bernasconi, an architect and land surveyor very active in the area.
Chapel X, that of the Crucifixion; the statues are by Dionigi Bussola
Thus in truly record time, on 25 March 1605, the first stone of the first chapel was laid, dedicated not by chance to the Annunciation. In the heads of Father Aguggiari and the architect Bernasconi, in fact, the project had become much more ambitious than originally asked for by the abbess of the Romites. The idea was to build 14 chapels along the slope up to the Mount devoted to the mysteries of the Rosary. The fifteenth was the Sanctuary itself, the point of arrival at the top of the Mount. The devotion to the Rosary was strongly encouraged in a pastoral letter written in 1584 by Saint Charles, shortly before dying. And though it was particular to the Dominicans (in those very years Caravaggio had painted the masterpiece, now in Vienna, with Our Lady handing the Rosary to Saint Dominic), this time it was in fact done by a Franciscan, Father Aguggiari.
The chapels, like those of Varallo, were to have statues and paintings to represent theatrically and effectively each of the mysteries in turn. An undertaking that in the end cost an enormous expenditure of financial resources.
As opposed to Varallo and the other Sacred Mount already built, the Varese one needed a further decisive element: the road. And Giuseppe Bernasconi, called the “left-hander”, expert at building roads, made a very handsome wide one, “carved like a book into the rock” (as a fascinated English traveler wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century), which could accommodate the many processions climbing the mount and which widened out at every chapel to facilitate the halts. So there were those who wanted to change the name of Varese to the Sacred Way rather than the Sacred Mountain.
Despite the expanded project the works went quickly ahead. In 1608 the approval of Cardinal Federico who, with a pragmatism typical of his family, was concerned that things be done with order and proper accountancy and instituted the congregation of the Fabbriceri “to superintend the building” and especially to “manage the alms”. Tensions had already arisen, in fact, between Aguggiari and the deputies of the Monastery because they wanted to invest part of the large sums gathered with bankers in Varese, while he demanded that all should be spent, there and then, on the rapid advancement of the enterprise. And since Federico insisted that construction should go forward “in galliard fashion”, he must have taken his part.
In 1610 Papal approval arrived, with a Brief dated 30 September. And on 17 October 1619, when the cardinal took the road up the mount, some ten chapels were already almost completed, at least as architectural structures. Federico once again exhorted the builders (“monemus denique, et hortamur dictos fabriceros…”) that they love the work and make it proceed with all their strength, without careless tarrying. When Father Aguggiari and Cardinal Federico died within a few months of each other in 1631, the Sacred Mount was all but finished.
One of the arches which divide, along the route, the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteri es
One can easily get to the bottom or top of the Sacred Mount of Varese. There is also a cable-car from Vellone. Going up on foot from chapel to chapel one covers 2 kilometers and climbs 300 metres. The landscape is impressive as are the works of art along the way. In fact a good many of the chapels were worked on by some of the most important names in seventeenth-century Lombard art, both painters and sculptors. In particular Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, a Varese painter, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, Dionigi Bussola, Francesco Silva. Outside the third chapel, Renato Guttuso (who had his studio in Velate, at the foot of the mountain), left a beautiful Flight into Egypt, produced in 1983. The itinerary concludes in the Sanctuary, where the statue of the Crowned Madonna is kept. And where lie the bodies of the Blesseds Caterina Moriggia and Giuliana Puricelli, the foundresses of the order of the Romites, whose convent flanks the Sanctuary.