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from issue no. 10 - 2004

Varallo Sesia - Vercelli

Created to touch the hearts of the simple faithful

by Giuseppe Frangi

Varallo in a print of 1830, taken from the<i>Storia del Sacro monte di Varallo</i> by G. Bordiga

Varallo in a print of 1830, taken from theStoria del Sacro monte di Varallo by G. Bordiga

Seen today, Bernardino Caimi’s crusade seems an ingenious crusade in reverse. Instead of leading Christians to massacre and be massacred, he provided them with similar benefits in replacement, in the wait for the Lord to send men better times. The idea was an immediate and overwhelming success, so much so that that little tableau of a few chapels on the top of the cliff soon became inadequate. But before the end of the century Caimi died and it seemed that no one was prepared to undertake the initiative again in such an out of the way site. A local person was needed. And the local person arrived: he was called Gaudenzio Ferrari («Gaudentius noster», contemporary documents call him), was born a few kilometers from Varallo and had all the requisites that such an undertaking required. He was in fact a painter, sculptor, architect. His idea was to move from chapels with the simple memorials of Jerusalem to chapels with representations, as similar as possible to the events of the life of Jesus.
It was an overwhelming intuition. Gaudenzio, a cultivated man, but light years distant from Renaissance affectedness , sculpted figures in wood and terracotta of natural size which he dressed with real clothes and completed with well groomed hair, taken from the manes of horses; he painted faces of witnesses on the walls who might well have been the people of the Varallo of his time; above all he conceived of places in which those who arrived there did not just assist, were not limited to looking, but were called on to be part of the scene. In the chapel of the Nativity, low and narrow as the stable of Bethlehem must have been, the pilgrim found himself (and finds himself even now) in the middle between the manger and the procession of the Magi arriving from behind him. In that of the Crucifixion (today unfortunately shut off by glass for reasons of conservation) one entered and found oneself, along with all the statues of the historical protagonists, at the foot of the Cross. Witnesses and participants of a real event.
Gaudenzio had, in short, invented the device of the Sacred Mounts, sometime in the early decades of the sixteenth century. It took a little bit of time before the idea spread to dozens of other places in the foothills of the Lombard and Piedmont Alps, thanks especially to the impetus given by Saint Charles Borromeo and then by his cousin Frederick. Almost always the gigantic sites got under way through the initiative of some Franciscan friar. The contents of the projects varied: in Orta the chapels recount the story of Saint Francis; in Oropa, in support of the much venerated black Madonna brought there by Bishop Eusebius, the story of Mary is told.
Today the Sacred Mounts go on with their life, a little more forgotten, almost withdrawn in respect of the dictates of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. They live fighting laborious battles for conservation, so highly complex are their structures. They are given grudging recognition by intellectuals, Catholics and not (even if UNESCO has put Varallo on the list of great world monuments to be protected). And yet this endemic poverty of theirs is the first reason of their richness. Because their poverty is what moves the pilgrims or the curious visitors who continue incessantly to climb up in ones and two.
The Sacred Mounts (and that of Varallo in particular deserves one visit in any lifetime. The emotion it communicates is difficult to set down, it has no correspondence in words) are like “naked” monuments. They have no rhetoric to envelop and protect them. They have no physical barrier to guard them. They are exposed to the inclement weather, just as real life is. They suffer cold when the cold comes down; damp when the rain offers no truce. They are poor as is in relaity the life of every man is poor. Because of this the Sacred Mounts touch the heart of the simple faithful. Because they are made for them.

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