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from issue no. 10 - 2004

Varallo Sesia - Vercelli

The Jerusalem of the Alps

The Sacred Mount, or the “new Jerusalem”, of Varallo is the oldest of the Sacred Mounts. Its promoter was Father Bernardino Caimi who, having been custodian in the Holy Land, knew that journeys to Palestine at that time represented an adventure beyond the means of almost everybody. In the forty- three chapels that constitute the complex of the Sacred Mount hundreds of lifesize statues vivify for the pilgrim the places and scenes of the life of Jesus. After Varallo the Sacred Mounts became an artistic and devotional phenomenon in the Italian Alpine areas for almost two centuries

text by Giuseppe Frangi; photographs of Pepi Merisio

Sacred Mount of Varallo,<i>The Crucifixion</i>, chapel XXXVIII, statues and frescos by Gaudenzio Ferrari

Sacred Mount of Varallo,The Crucifixion, chapel XXXVIII, statues and frescos by Gaudenzio Ferrari

On 26 September 1594 the Bishop of Novara published a decree against the despoilers of the chapels of the Sacred Mount of Varallo.
After little more than a hundred years since its foundation and while the works of embellishment, which would last for another hundred years, went ahead feverishly in a great burst of industriousness, the tough battle with time for the safeguarding of this immense artistic and devotional patrimony had already begun.
The beginnings of this extraordinary enterprise, even though adorned with legends, have a well-documented history and references, even literary, that are well defined. Matteo Bandello, the Lombard short story writer tells in the mid sixteenth century, in novella XXV dedicated to Count Ludovico Tizzone di Deciana, of a journey to the Sacred Mount. The prologue of the novella begins like this: «Setting out these past days your son Friar Gerolamo and I to go and visit the Sepulcher of Varallo and those most beautiful devotional places, made and organized in likeness to the places of the Holy Land …».
Certainly the project of the Franciscan friar Bernardino Caimi originally from a noble Milanese family, stirred considerable interest not only in Valsesia, but in the whole arc of the western Alps.
This friar back from Palestine, where he was custodian and reverent pilgrim of the Holy Places, overtaken on returning to Italy by an understandable nostalgia, conceived the notion of creating a “New Jerusalem” which would move the soul of the people to devotion.
At a time when travelling was a dangerous adventure and the cost an insurmountable obstacle for almost everybody, the good friar did not believe that he could do better than create this place of memory, of devotion and three-dimensional demonstration.
After having searched at length for a suitable place in the foothills of the Alps, he finally found it in Varallo, on top of a cliff of 150 meters overhanging the village. The overall height is just about 600 meters above sea level.
Even with the enthusiasm stirred by the fervent preaching of Caimi, the negotiation with the people of Varallo required a certain amount of time and the purchase was possible through the involvement of the local nobility.
It’s worth pointing out that such a project had no equivalent elsewhere at the time, though grandiose centers of devotion and of pilgrimage existed.
So one can’t dismiss the hypothesis that there will have been strong skeptical opposition, which did not prevail however. Pietro Galloni, for example, one of the more serious historians of the Sacred Mount writes – on 14 April 1493 «the men of Varallo consigned to Reverend Father friar Bernardino da Caimi, vicar of the Order of Friars Minor of the province of Milan…, the monastery with the church [Santa Maria della Grazia], bell and bell tower, buildings, workshops and other properties belonging, situated in the territory near Varallo where it used to be called Under the Little Saddle or In the Little Saddle with its usual connections» which became the workshop for the construction of the chapels. The complex which presents itself today to the visitor has a grandeur and efficacy that, we can well think, certainly surpasses Caimi’s original design, simple and modest.
Architecture, painting and sculpture harmonize in a scenario of free and creative fantasy with results that are stupefying, to say the least.
The work of centuries proceeded with mixed fortunes, often blocked by lack of funds, by a shortage of artists and by other natural and social mishaps. The architectural complex, with the characteristic roofing in local “béole”, took shape as forty-three chapels, in the sanctuary and in other buildings for the reception of pilgrims and the few stable inhabitants employed at the Sacred Mount.
Without wishing to go overboard, I report here some judgments that followed, and were to continue to follow, the existence of this religious and artistic phenomenon which gave life to other similar projects which developed in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in the Piemont-Lombard, Swiss and Austrian arc of the Alps.
The Englishman Samuel Butler (whom I judge to be one of the discoverers of the Sacred Mount) points out with bitterness in his Artistic study of the works of art of the Sacred Mount of Varallo and of Crea: «I cannot understand how a countryside containing such interesting treasures, and in many respects without rivals, could have remained almost completely unnoticed – I can say neglected – by the numerous English lovers of the fine arts who continually travel through Italy. I must not complain too much about this fact, however, because many imperfections and some mistakes of judgment will be excused in this book because I am the first to exalt Varallo giving it the importance it merits for English readers». Who – English readers – could enjoy this hasty judgment in the most famous art yearbook of the time: «Although the chapels on the ascent to the Sacred Mount are the object of wonder and admiration for the innumerable pilgrims who frequent this holy place, nevertheless the bad taste of the clothing and of the coloring make them repugnant in the highest degree to an eye educated to art» (Handbook of Painting, by Sir Henry Lavard).
The chapel of the Annunciation

The chapel of the Annunciation

Rudolf Wittkower of Columbia University also wrote in 1959, after having judged the works of the Sacred Mount «one of the most extraordinary undertakings in the history of the Catholic faith and thereby of religious art» goes on to say that it suffers «the almost total indifference of tourists, lovers and connoiseurs of art».
Nor can one say that in Italy there was greater consideration for the artistic works of the Sacred Mount of Varallo and of the similar ones in Varese, Orta, Crea and of all those which we can now admire.
When one considers the vast bibliography assembled on Varallo, more than 500 titles from the foundation until today, one finds that very few works are of true art criticism and only marginally deal with the great masterpieces conserved in the chapels of the Sacred Mount.
Neglect, certainly, laziness also, prejudice most often, mainly as a consequence of that incongruous dichotomy which, from the 15th up to the 18th century, saw figurative art divided in two: noble art or art without adjectives and popular art less worthy of entry into the great circuits of beauty.
But lets return to the history, or chronicle, of Varallo. Father Caimi, the conceiver of the “new Jerusalem”, died in 1499 leaving very little completed and yet leaving much more, that is the religious conviction of this grandiose work which had by now penetrated the minds of all classes of people.
Then from the manifold crucible of Valsesia the artistic star of Gaudenzio Ferrari arose.
Born in Valduggia between 1475 and 1480, he worked as a painter in Varallo from 1507: and in fact this is the date set on the frescos of the chapel of Santa Margherita in Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The construction of the Sacred Mount was certainly the most colossal work of those times in Piedmont and Lombardy and the goal of various artists more or less known.
At the death of Father Caimi Guido Ferrari was vaguely known and the constructions of the Sacred Mount were still very scant.
In 1517 Gaudenzio was already a master and in that year the Varallo enterprise reached a turning point and took on almost definitive features.
Giovanni Tesori wrote in an essay in 1956: «But as a result of what inspiration (meaning artistic inspiration?) And following what design?»
This is the moment at which the figure of Gaudenzi, who had in the meantime become a master, must be introduced into the history of the Sacred Mount; and not only to claim his hand in the painting and sculpture but the entire conception of the work, its sense, its meaning, its practical and concrete design; and, that is, the creation of a figure theatre, the development of a dramatic action driven by the continuous exchange between its internal dynamic (painting-sculpture) and its outward possibility of making the single acts of which it is composed always occur, precisely because stable and fixed».
On those walls and in those statues which unfold the mysteries of the life of Christ «Gaudenzi truly gathered together, whole and entire, the people of his valley; there you see the nobles, the lords, the soldiers, the peasants, the shepherds, the curious and frightened youth, but especially the long chain of mothers; those he had seen from when he was young first as girls, perhaps in the image of his own, then brides, afterwards working and working, to keep up the house and raise the children; those with whom he must have conversed at length (and testimony of this is the touching attention with which he represents them); some young, others already advanced in age; all of them blonde, as they are today; round faces; sweet flesh brightened by the winds of Alagna, sharp-eyed; practical and subdued intelligence; simple hearts, truthful and faithful; almost all of them are caught in the act of clasping to themselves, as parts of their own bodies, their children; sweet, dear, unforgettable images of innocence in front of the theatre of torment and of blood».
Just a few suggestions for understanding how the Sacred Mount is not only the fruit of a beneficent, attractive religious inspiration, but also a precise and painful free artistic outpouring.
Gaudenzio Ferrari, as well as being the executor of images, was the conceiver and the guide, the director one could say, of that immense, terrible and at the same time delicate sacred representation.
If Blessed Bernardino Caimi was the inspirer and Gaudenzio the artistic conceiver of the Sacred Mount of Varallo, Saint Charles Borromeo, the great archbishop of Milan from 1560 to 1584, was the main backer and attentive patron. When he visited in 1578 he remained very impressed and undertook to make it better known to his contemporaries.
On his last visit in 1584 immediately preceding his death, as the Breviarum Romanum records in the commemoration of the saint, he made provision and gave the means for the construction of other chapels which would better complete the life of Jesus and would be of edification for people threatened by the Protestant heresy.
While Saint Charles was head of the archdiocese of Milan many controversies afflicted the Sacred Mount; he intervened firmly to regulate the use of alms, as a letter of 19 February 1568 makes clear.
The disagreements arose between the building funders and the reverend fathers. Cardinal Charles intervened in his role as protector of the Order of Saint Francis ordering, in agreement with the minister general of the Order, Father Luigi da Borgonuovo, that the money chest for alms for masses should be put in the sacristy, that the building funders should be free to keep and set up collection chests for the Works, that the wax and everything donated should belong to the Works, on the condition however that the building funders should provide whatever was necessary for the celebration of masses.
On 28 October 1581, a special delegate of Pope Gregory XIII gave Cardinal Charles Borromeo the task of smoothing the continual divergences between the civil and religious authorities of the Sacred Mount, but it seems that the mediation did not produce the desired effect for, three years after the death of the cardinal, Pope Sixtus V had to intervene again on 30 May 1587 with an important document to regulate the administration of the Sacred Mount and remove all pretexts for quarrels.
The Madonna with child, a detail of <i>the Wise Men in Bethlehem</i>, chapel V, statue by Gaudenzio Ferrari

The Madonna with child, a detail of the Wise Men in Bethlehem, chapel V, statue by Gaudenzio Ferrari

But the story of misunderstandings continued and on 15 may of 1603 a letter from Pope Clement VIII to Cardinal Federico Borromeo tells us of an unhappy situation. In the letter it is said that «His Holiness having learned how the devotion toward the holy place had greatly diminished because of the bad governance of the Reverend Friars of the Observance who had care of the said place, and wishing not only to restore but to reinforce the ancient veneration to that Sanctuary, names Cardinal Federico apostolic delegate with the authority of visiting, correcting, reforming and seeing to all he think seemly, and even replace the fathers of the Observant Minors of Saint Francis with the Reformed of the same Order».
In a papal brief of 15 November 1603 the Reformed Friars of Saint Francis are charged with taking care of the Sacred Mount in repacement of the Friars of the Observance who were, through their brother friar Father Caimi, its founders.
A hundred and sixty two years afterwards, on 4 July 1765, King Carlo Alberto of Sardinia, at the request of the Reformed Fathers to abandon the charge of the Sacred Mount because of continual friction with the building funders and because of absolute incompatibility of tendencies and methods, granted his royal consent.
With the royal Dispositions of 17 July of the same year the secular ecclesiastical priests took possession of the Sacred Mount which thus became the property of the community of Varallo once again.
A very controversial chapter of this religious center closed.
An admirer of the beauties of Italy – Federico Zuccaro – thus outlined in 1606 a visit to the Sacred Mount of Varallo: one climbs «… up a very long Stone Staircase of three hundred and more steps quite straight, which at first sight seems to lead to Paradise, at the summit of which there is the Chapel of Repose, and nearby some others until one comes to the summit of the mountain, which is surrounded by a wall almost another mile in circuit, inside which precinct there is principally a church … around about then, all over the summit of the Mountain, there are about forty chapels all packed together about a stone’s throw one from another, and more or less in each one of these chapels, in imitation of the Holy Land, a mystery of the life, passion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ is represented, of singular devotion because of seeing in them all the figures, and mysteries represented live, in relief, in colored terra cotta, which appear to be living and real …»
At that time a good thirty-eight chapels were already constructed, and the whole complex had acquired almost completely its present features, surpassing or modifying the intentions of father Caimi and developing, as has already been said, that didactic aid that successive religious and political events had made necessary for the safeguarding of dogma.
On to the original intent of representing the mysteries of the life, passion, death and resurrection of Christ there were superimposed the subjects of original sin, of universal judgment, of hell, subjects that the Counter-Reformation defended from the erosion by the Protestant heresy.
From the artistic point of view, after a moment of confusion with the death of Ferrari and his closest collaborators, there was an attempt at a general rearrangement by the Perugian Galeazzo Alessi, the most famous architect in the Milan of the time, who in 1565 tried, on the commisison of the constructor Giacomo d’Adda, to draw up architectural and area plans which would satisfy the needs of a devout pilgrimage and of a decorous presentation of the mysteries.
Of this project, very little, fortunately, could be realized, both because of the notable cost that it would have involved, and because of the opposition by many who saw in the rearrangement a radical betrayal of the inspiring intentions of the Sacred Mount. There remains of it today the main doorway, the first chapel of the original sin of Adam and Eve and part of the regular layout.
If in the original phase of the building of the Sacred Mount there had been an innovative and inspiring lift with Gaudenzio Ferrari, who left his masterpiece in the Calvary, and with his school – Fermo Stella, Antonio Zanetti, Giulio Cesare Luini, his son Girolamo and other minor ones - in the following century, under the impetus given by the bishop of Novara Giovanni Bascapè, the Perugian architect and painter Domenico Alfano, the Flemish sculptor Giovanni de Wespin known as ‘Tabacchetti’, Michele Prestiari, Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli known as ‘Morazzone’, the Valesians Antonio d’Enrico known as ‘Tanzio’, his brother Giovanni and a dozen other artists worked there.
In the following centuries the building was all or almost all finished, the artists who worked there were decorators or restorers of walls which neglect and damp were destroying.
The representational efficacy of this holy tragedy still remains intact. We must certainly be grateful to the religious and lay people responsible during the libelled sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that, even in the most desperate events and distressing situations, they were able to gratify us with such great decorum in the “popular” presentation of these mysteries.
Let me repeat: this great representation had its first inspiration in the desire to edify simple people, the common people, and we have to say that that was done by using the most representative artistic minds of the time in homage to that «zeal for the house of the Lord» that has given us the most beautiful creations.

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