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Ch. 7: S. Michele and the Monte Pirchiriano

Some time after the traveller from Paris to Turin has passed through the Mont Cenis tunnel, and shortly before he arrives at Bussoleno station, the line turns eastward, and a view is obtained of the valley of the Dora, with the hills beyond Turin, and the Superga, in the distance. On the right-hand side of the valley and about half-way between Susa and Turin the eye is struck by an abruptly-descending mountain with a large building like a castle upon the top of it, and the nearer it is approached the more imposing does it prove to be. Presently the mountain is seen more edgeways, and the shape changes. In half-an-hour or so from this point, S. Ambrogio is reached, once a thriving town, where carriages used to break the journey between Turin and Susa, but left stranded since the opening of the railway. Here we are at the very foot of the Monte Pirchiriano, for so the mountain is called, and can see the front of the building--which is none other than the famous sanctuary of S. Michele, commonly called "della Chiusa," from the wall built here by Desiderius, king of the Lombards, to protect his kingdom from Charlemagne.

The history of the sanctuary is briefly as follows:-

At the close of the tenth century, when Otho III was Emperor of Germany, a certain Hugh de Montboissier, a noble of Auvergne, commonly called "Hugh the Unsewn" (lo sdruscito), was commanded by the Pope to found a monastery in expiation of some grave offence. He chose for his site the summit of the Monte Pirchiriano in the valley of Susa, being attracted partly by the fame of a church already built there by a recluse of Ravenna, Giovanni Vincenzo by name, and partly by the striking nature of the situation. Hugh de Montboissier when returning from Rome to France with Isengarde his wife, would, as a matter of course, pass through the valley of Susa. The two--perhaps when stopping to dine at S. Ambrogio--would look up and observe the church founded by Giovanni Vincenzo: they had got to build a monastery somewhere; it would very likely, therefore, occur to them that they could not perpetuate their names better than by choosing this site, which was on a much travelled road, and on which a fine building would show to advantage. If my view is correct, we have here an illustration of a fact which is continually observable--namely, that all things which come to much, whether they be books, buildings, pictures, music, or living beings, are suggested by others of their own kind. It is; always the most successful, like Handel and Shakespeare, who owe most to their forerunners, in spite of the modifications with which their works descend.

Giovanni Vincenzo had built his church about the year 987. It is maintained by some that he had been Bishop of Ravenna, but Claretta gives sufficient reason for thinking otherwise. In the "Cronaca Clusina" it is said that he had for some years previously lived as a recluse on the Monte Caprasio, to the north of the present Monte Pirchiriano; but that one night he had a vision, in which he saw the summit of Monte Pirchiriano enveloped in heaven-descended flames, and on this founded a church there, and dedicated it to St. Michael. This is the origin of the name Pirchiriano, which means [Greek text], or the Lord's fire.

The fame of the heavenly flames and the piety of pilgrims brought in enough money to complete the building--which, to judge from the remains of it embodied in the later work, must have been small, but still a church, and more than a mere chapel or oratory. It was, as I have already suggested, probably imposing enough to fire the imagination of Hugh de Montboissier, and make him feel the capabilities of the situation, which a mere ordinary wayside chapel might perhaps have failed to do. Having built his church, Giovanni Vincenzo returned to his solitude on the top of Monte Caprasio, and thenceforth went backwards and forwards from one place of abode to the other.

Avogadro is among those who make Giovanni Bishop, or rather Archbishop, of Ravenna, and gives the following account of the circumstances which led to his resigning his diocese and going to live at the top of the inhospitable Monte Caprasio. It seems there had been a confirmation at Ravenna, during which he had accidentally forgotten to confirm the child of a certain widow. The child, being in weakly health, died before Giovanni could repair his oversight, and this preyed upon his mind. In answer, however, to his earnest prayers, it pleased the Almighty to give him power to raise the dead child to life again: this he did, and having immediately performed the rite of confirmation, restored the boy to his overjoyed mother. He now became so much revered that he began to be alarmed lest pride should obtain dominion over him; he felt, therefore, that his only course was to resign his diocese, and go and live the life of a recluse on the top of some high mountain. It is said that he suffered agonies of doubt as to whether it was not selfish of him to take such care of his own eternal welfare, at the expense of that of his flock, whom no successor could so well guide and guard from evil; but in the end he took a reasonable view of the matter, and concluded that his first duty was to secure his own spiritual position. Nothing short of the top of a very uncomfortable mountain could do this, so he at once resigned his bishopric and chose Monte Caprasio as on the whole the most comfortable uncomfortable mountain he could find.

The latter part of the story will seem strange to Englishmen. We can hardly fancy the Archbishop of Canterbury or York resigning his diocese and settling down quietly on the top of Scafell or Cader Idris to secure his eternal welfare. They would hardly do so even on the top of Primrose Hill. But nine hundred years ago human nature was not the same as nowadays.

The valley of Susa, then little else than marsh and forest, was held by a marquis of the name of Arduin, a descendant of a French or Norman adventurer Roger, who, with a brother, also named Arduin, had come to seek his fortune in Italy at the beginning of the tenth century. Roger had a son, Arduin Glabrio, who recovered the valley of Susa from the Saracens, and established himself at Susa, at the junction of the roads that come down from Mont Cenis and the Mont Genevre. He built a castle here which commanded the valley, and was his base of operations as Lord of the Marches and Warden of the Alps.

Hugh de Montboissier applied to Arduin for leave to build upon the Monte Pirchiriano. Arduin was then holding his court at Avigliana, a small town near S. Ambrogio, even now singularly little altered, and full of mediaeval remains; he not only gave his consent, but volunteered to sell a site to the monastery, so as to ensure it against future disturbance.

The first church of Giovanni Vincenzo had been built upon whatever little space could be found upon the top of the mountain, without, so far as I can gather, enlarging the ground artificially. The present church--the one, that is to say, built by Hugh de Montboissier about A.D. 1000--rests almost entirely upon stone piers and masonry. The rock has been masked by a lofty granite wall of several feet in thickness, which presents something of a keep-like appearance. The spectator naturally imagines that there are rooms, &c., behind this wall, whereas in point of fact there is nothing but the staircase leading up to the floor of the church. Arches spring from this masking wall, and are continued thence until the rock is reached; it is on the level surface thus obtained that the church rests. The true floor, therefore, does not begin till near what appears from the outside to be the top of the building.

There is some uncertainty as to the exact date of the foundation of the monastery, but Claretta {11} inclines decidedly to the date 999, as against 966, the one assigned by Mabillon and Torraneo. Claretta relies on the discovery, by Provana, of a document in the royal archives which seems to place the matter beyond dispute. The first abbot was undoubtedly Avverto or Arveo, who established the rules of the Benedictine Order in his monastery. "In the seven hours of daily work prescribed by the Benedictine rule," writes Cesare Balbo, "innumerable were the fields they ploughed, and the houses they built in deserts, while in more frequented places men were laying cultivated ground waste, and destroying buildings: innumerable, again, were the works of the holy fathers and of ancient authors which were copied and preserved." {12}

From this time forward the monastery received gifts in land and privileges, and became in a few years the most important religious establishment in that part of Italy.

There have been several fires--one, among others, in the year 1340, which destroyed a great part of the monastery, and some of the deeds under which it held valuable grants; but though the part inhabited by the monks may have been rebuilt or added to, the church is certainly untouched.

S. Michele (continued)

I had often seen this wonderful pile of buildings, and had marvelled at it, as all must do who pass from Susa to Turin, but I never went actually up to it till last summer, in company with my friend and collaborateur, Mr. H. F. Jones. We reached S. Ambrogio station one sultry evening in July, and, before many minutes were over, were on the path that leads to San Pietro, a little more than an hour's walk above S. Ambrogio.

In spite of what I have said about Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, we found ourselves thinking how thin and wanting, as it were, in adipose cushion is every other country in comparison with Italy; but the charm is enhanced in these days by the feeling that it can be reached so easily. Wednesday morning, Fleet Street; Thursday evening, a path upon the quiet mountain side, under the overspreading chestnuts, with Lombardy at one's feet.

Some twenty minutes after we had begun to climb, the sanctuary became lost to sight, large drops of thunder-rain began to fall, and by the time we reached San Pietro it was pouring heavily, and had become quite dark. An hour or so later the sky had cleared, and there was a splendid moon: opening the windows, we found ourselves looking over the tops of trees on to some lovely upland pastures, on a winding path through which we could almost fancy we saw a youth led by an angel, and there was a dog with him, and he held a fish in his hand. Far below were lights from villages in the valley of the Dora. Above us rose the mountains, bathed in shadow, or glittering in the moonbeams, and there came from them the pleasant murmuring of streamlets that had been swollen by the storm.

Next morning the sky was cloudless and the air invigorating. S. Ambrogio, at the foot of the mountain, must be some 800 feet above the sea, and San Pietro about 1500 feet above S. Ambrogio. The sanctuary at the top of the mountain is 2800 feet above the sea- level, or about 500 feet above San Pietro. A situation more delightful than that of San Pietro it is impossible to conceive. It contains some 200 inhabitants, and lies on a ledge of level land, which is, of course, covered with the most beautifully green grass, and in spring carpeted with wild-flowers; great broad-leaved chestnuts rise from out the meadows, and beneath their shade are strewn masses of sober mulberry-coloured rock; but above all these rises the great feature of the place, from which, when it is in sight, the eyes can hardly be diverted,--I mean the sanctuary of S. Michele itself.

A sketch gives but little idea of the place. In nature it appears as one of those fascinating things like the smoke from Vesuvius, or the town on the Sacro Monte at Varese, which take possession of one to the exclusion of all else, as long as they are in sight. From each point of view it becomes more and more striking. Climbing up to it from San Pietro and getting at last nearly on a level with the lower parts of the building, or again keeping to a pathway along the side of the mountain towards Avigliana, it will come as on the following page.

There is a very beautiful view from near the spot where the first of these sketches is taken. We are then on the very ridge or crest of the mountain, and look down on the one hand upon the valley of the Dora going up to Susa, with the glaciers of the Mont Cenis in the background, and on the other upon the plains near Turin, with the colline bounding the horizon. Immediately beneath is seen the glaring white straight line of the old Mont Cenis road, looking much more important than the dingy narrow little strip of railroad that has superseded it. The trains that pass along the line look no bigger than caterpillars, but even at this distance they make a great roar. If the path from which the second view is taken is followed for a quarter of an hour or so, another no less beautiful point is reached from which one can look down upon the two small lakes of Avigliana. These lakes supply Turin with water, and, I may add, with the best water that I know of as supplied to any town.

We will now return to the place from which the first of the sketches on p. 95 was taken, and proceed to the sanctuary itself. Passing the small but very massive circular ruin shown on the right hand of the sketch, about which nothing whatever is known either as regards its date or object, we ascend by a gentle incline to the outer gate of the sanctuary. The battered plates of iron that cover the wooden doors are marked with many a bullet. Then we keep under cover for a short space, after which we find ourselves at the foot of a long flight of steps. Close by there is a little terrace with a wall round it, where one can stand and enjoy a view over the valley of the Dora to Turin.

Having ascended the steps, we are at the main entrance to the building--a massive Lombard doorway, evidently the original one. In the space above the door there have been two frescoes, an earlier and a later one, one painted over the other, but nothing now remains save the signature of the second painter, signed in Gothic characters. On entering, more steps must be at once climbed, and then the staircase turns at right angles and tends towards the rock.

At the head of the flight shown p. 98, the natural rock appears. The arch above it forms a recess filled with desiccated corpses. The great pier to the left, and, indeed, all the masonry that can be seen, has no other object than to obtain space for, and to support, the floor of the church itself. My drawing was taken from about the level of the top of the archway through which the building is entered. There comes in at this point a third small staircase from behind; ascending this, one finds one's self in the window above the door, from the balcony of which there is a marvellous panorama. I took advantage of the window to measure the thickness of the walls, and found them a little over seven feet thick and built of massive granite blocks. The stones on the inside are so sharp and clean cut that they look as if they were not more than fifty years old. On the outside, the granite, hard as it is, is much weathered, which, indeed, considering the exposed situation, is hardly to be wondered at.

Here again how the wind must howl and whistle, and how the snow must beat in winter! No one who has not seen snow falling during a time when the thermometer is about at zero can know how searching a thing it is. How softly would it not lie upon the skulls and shoulders of the skeletons. Fancy a dull dark January afternoon's twilight upon this staircase, after a heavy snow, when the soft fleece clings to the walls, having drifted in through many an opening. Or fancy a brilliant winter's moonlight, with the moon falling upon the skeletons after snow. And then let there be a burst of music from an organ in the church above (I am sorry to say they have only a harmonium; I wish some one would give them a fine organ). I should like the following for example:- {13}

How this would sound upon these stairs, if they would leave the church-door open. It is said in Murray's handbook that formerly the corpses which are now under the arch, used to be placed in a sitting position upon the stairs, and the peasants would crown them with flowers. Fancy twilight or moonlight on these stairs, with the corpses sitting among the withered flowers and snow, and the pealing of a great organ.

After ascending the steps that lead towards the skeletons, we turn again sharp round to the left, and come upon another noble flight-- broad and lofty, and cut in great measure from the living rock.

At the top of this flight there are two sets of Lombard portals, both of them very fine, but in such darkness and so placed that it was impossible to get a drawing of them in detail. After passing through them, the staircase turns again, and, as far as I can remember, some twenty or thirty steps bring one up to the level of the top of the arch which forms the recess where the corpses are. Here there is another beautiful Lombard doorway, with a small arcade on either side which I thought English, rather than Italian, in character. An impression was produced upon both of us that this doorway and the arcade on either side were by a different architect from the two lower archways, and from the inside of the church; or at any rate, that the details of the enrichment were cut by a different mason, or gang of masons. I think, however, the whole doorway is in a later style, and must have been put in after some fire had destroyed the earlier one.

Opening the door, which by day is always unlocked, we found ourselves in the church itself. As I have said, it is of pure Lombard architecture, and very good of its kind; I do not think it has been touched since the beginning of the eleventh century, except that it has been re-roofed and the pitch of the roof altered. At the base of the most westerly of the three piers that divide the nave from the aisles, there crops out a small piece of the living rock; this is at the end farthest from the choir. It is not likely that Giovanni Vincenzo's church reached east of this point, for from this point onwards towards the choir the floor is artificially supported, and the supporting structure is due entirely to Hugo de Montboissier. The part of the original church which still remains is perhaps the wall, which forms the western limit of the present church. This wall is not external. It forms the eastern wall of a large chamber with frescoes. I am not sure that this chamber does not occupy the whole space of the original church.

There are a few nice votive pictures in the church, and one or two very early frescoes, which are not without interest; but the main charm of the place is in the architecture, and the sense at once of age and strength which it produces. The stock things to see are the vaults in which many of the members of the royal house of Savoy, legitimate and illegitimate, lie buried; they need not, however, be seen.

I have said that the whole building is of much about the same date, and, unless perhaps in the residential parts, about which I can say little, has not been altered. This is not the view taken by the author of Murray's Handbook for North Italy, who says that "injudicious repairs have marred the effect of the building;" but this writer has fallen into several errors. He talks, for example, of the "open Lombard gallery of small circular arches" as being "one of the oldest and most curious features of the building," whereas it is obviously no older than the rest of the church, nor than the keep-like construction upon which it rests. Again, he is clearly in error when he says that the "extremely beautiful circular arch by which we pass from the staircase to the corridor leading to the church, is a vestige of the original building." The double round arched portals through which we pass from the main staircase to the corridor are of exactly the same date as the staircase itself, and as the rest of the church. They certainly formed no part of Giovanni Vincenzo's edifice; for, besides being far too rich, they are not on a level with what remains of that building, but several feet below it. It is hard to know what the writer means by "the original building;" he appears to think it extended to the present choir, which, he says, "retains traces of an earlier age." The choir retains no such traces. The only remains of the original church are at the back of the west end, invisible from the inside of the church, and at the opposite end to the choir. As for the church being "in a plain Gothic style," it is an extremely beautiful example of pure Lombard, of the first few years of the eleventh century. True, the middle arch of the three which divide the nave from the aisles is pointed, whereas the two others are round, but this is evidently done to economise space, which was here unusually costly. There was room for more than two round arches, but not room enough for three, so it was decided to dock the middle arch a little. It is a she-arch--that is to say, it has no keystone, but is formed simply by propping two segments of a circle one against the other. It certainly is not a Gothic arch; it is a Lombard arch, modified in an unusual manner, owing to its having been built under unusual conditions.

The visitor should on no account omit to ring the bell and ask to be shown the open Lombard gallery already referred to as running round the outside of the choir. It is well worth walking round this, if only for the view.

The official who showed us round was very kind, and as a personal favour we were allowed to visit the fathers' private garden. The large arm-chairs are made out of clipped box-trees. While on our way to the garden we passed a spot where there was an alarming buzzing, and found ourselves surrounded by what appeared to be an angry swarm of bees; closer inspection showed that the host was a medley one, composed of wasps, huge hornets, hive-bees, humble- bees, flies, dragon-flies, butterflies, and all kinds of insects, flying about a single patch of ivy in full blossom, which attracted them so strongly that they neglected everything else. I think some of them were intoxicated. If this was so, then perhaps Bacchus is called "ivy-crowned" because ivy-blossoms intoxicate insects, but I never remember to have before observed that ivy-blossoms had any special attraction for insects.

I have forgotten to say anything about a beam of wood which may be seen standing out at right angles from the tower to the right of the main building. This I believe to have been the gallows. Another like it may be seen at S. Giorio, but I have not got it in my sketch of that place. The attendant who took us round S. Michele denied that it was the gallows, but I think it must have been. Also, the attendant showed us one place which is called Il Salto della belle Alda. Alda was being pursued by a soldier; to preserve her honour, she leaped from a window and fell over a precipice some hundreds of feet below; by the intercession of the Virgin she was saved, but became so much elated that she determined to repeat the feat. She jumped a second time from the window, but was dashed to pieces. We were told this as being unworthy of actual credence, but as a legend of the place. We said we found no great difficulty in believing the first half of the story, but could hardly believe that any one would jump from that window twice. {14}

Samuel Butler