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ITALIAN SANCTUARIES
from issue no. 12 - 2004

How beautiful are your dwellings


The introduction written by the Prefect of the Ambrosian Library for the special on the Lombardy sanctuaries published in Italy by 30Days, from which comes the article on Ossuccio


by Gianfranco Ravasi


Jesus disputing in the Temple of Jerusalem, chapel V. The chapel contains twenty statues sculpted 
by Agostino Silva

Jesus disputing in the Temple of Jerusalem, chapel V. The chapel contains twenty statues sculpted by Agostino Silva

Montevecchia: it doesn’t get its name from an ancient fortress but more intriguingly from the decay of the late Latin mons vigiliae, the mount of the sentinel, of the watch. At least twice a year I climb the hill that dominates the whole plain and gives a distant glimpse of the gleaming lights of Milan. I go precisely for the great Easter vigil and the Christmas one of midnight mass. This is my “Sacred mount” in Lombardy, bound up with memories of my childhood in Brianza, with my first prayers raised in the Marian sanctuary that stands on the crest, at the top of a steep stairway broken in the middle by the circuit of a sandstone Stations of the Cross of great figurative incisiveness.
I decided to reclimb in thought that hill, unknown to most of my readers, because I’m convinced that everyone has their own “Sacred mount”, even if minor, to which memories and perhaps even hopes are anchored. And then I’m convinced that many Lombardy readers will find in the very fine portraits that follow (they are true and proper paintings, on the model of those that the painters of the Grand and Petit Tour of past centuries put into their albums) “their” sanctuary or, as happened to me, the best loved holy places in Lombardy. Of course, for it’s a rare Milanese who has not at least once climbed up the splendid road, “cut like a book into the rock”, that leads to the Sacred Mount of Varese.
All will remember the halts at those fourteen chapels devoted to the mysteries of the Rosary (even Guttuso did work on one) that made up the path of prayer to the sanctuary, the final Marian mystery, haloed with spirituality by the presence of the Ambrosian Romite nuns, they too, in their way, sentinels with their hours parsed by the absolute chastity of the plainchant of the Ambrosian liturgy. It would be even rarer for a Lombard not to know the sanctuary of Tirano. Certainly, perhaps they have only often flanked the imposing religious building with its lofty Bramantesque façade and marvellous austere bell tower: no doubt there were skis on the roof of the car that indicated another destination, the ski slopes of Bormio or Stelvio.
Yet maybe they once peeped inside that majestic sanctuary and will have heard or read the history of the very rural apparition that happened at first light on a September Sunday in 1504, a story handed on by that delightful Libro dei miracoli written in an Italian thick with the dialect of Valtellina. Maybe they will also have heard of that terrible “sacred shambles”, the outcome of a duel in which faith and politics were interwoven. But in our days they will also have heard that the diabolist ceremonies, celebrated in the past in that area by witches and wise-women and condemned by Saint Charles Borromeo, are no simple hangover from a spiritual stone-age: not many kilometers from Tirano, in Chiavenna, the martyrdom of Sister Maria Laura Mainetti, known to all, still bears the stigma of that blasphemous, absurd and bloodthirsty cult.
The crucifixion, chapel X, detail

The crucifixion, chapel X, detail

As in my case, many Lombardy people choose the charming banks of Lake Como for their summer holidays or weekends. Certainly, the tourist guides list the big hotels or the aristocratic villas now uninhabited, while media hype brings people to gather outside George Clooney’s villa to catch a glimpse of his profile behind the smoked windows of an accelerating Mercedes, as if he were a new “secular” apparition. Giuseppe Frangi, instead, has chosen to get us to climb up to that unforgettable natural plateau where the sanctuary of Ossuccio stands, with its sweet Madonna of white marble and with the Child playing with a little bird, but also with that itinerary studded with chapels, crowded with at least two hundred and thirty statues, with five figures suffering from goitre, an indication of a realism born out of an endemic syndrome of the past, with six horses, with nine different animals and with many vivid tableaux.
But there is a revelation in this selection of sacred mounts. I think that many will be surprised, as I was, by a somewhat “hidden and secluded” destination proposed in the book. The holy mount of Cerveno in the Val Camonica is, in fact, unknown to most people, yet Frangi’s description offers the chance for an extraordinary encounter. It is the one with the Stations of the Cross in wood carved by Beniamino Simoni, an artist of lowly origins gifted with a figurative imagination that did not escape the “feverish eye” of Giovanni Testori. The hope is now to see pilgrims and visitors going also to this neglected village near Brescia to find there that tremor that all the Sacred Mounts stir in the soul.
I began with a mention of Montevecchia, a sanctuary in the Lecco area. I would now like to conclude this brief visit to some of the sacred mounts with words that everyone knows: «Farewell mountains rising from the waters, and elevated to the sky, irregular peaks, known to those who grew up among you and imprinted on their minds no less than the features of their kin…». Who doesn’t remember that heartbreaking farewell to the mountains of the Lecco area that Manzoni set in The Betrothed? Of course, those mountains are the Resegone, the Grigne and the heights of the lake of Lecco. Yet one feels that wistfulness more when one descends from the peace and silence of a sanctuary set on a Sacred Mount into the noise and frenzy of the valleys and urban plain. It is the same homesickness the ancient Hebrews felt when they left the Sacred Mount of Sion, «stupendous height, joy of all the earth», and with the Psalmist proclaimed a beatitude and a promise: «Blessed are those who dwell in your house and ever sing your praises there! Blessed are those who find their strength in you and decide again in their hearts the sacred journey!» (Psalm 84, 5-6).


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