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Chapter 1


In the preface to "Alps and Sanctuaries" I apologised for passing over Varallo-Sesia, the most important of North Italian sanctuaries, on the ground that it required a book to itself. This book I will now endeavour to supply, though well aware that I can only imperfectly and unworthily do so. To treat the subject in the detail it merits would be a task beyond my opportunities; for, in spite of every endeavour, I have not been able to see several works and documents, without which it is useless to try and unravel the earlier history of the sanctuary. The book by Caccia, for example, published by Sessali at Novara in 1565, and reprinted at Brescia in 1576, is sure to turn up some day, but I have failed to find it at Varallo, Novara (where it appears in the catalogue, but not on the shelves), Milan, the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Bodleian Library. Through the kindness of Sac. Ant. Ceriani, I was able to learn that the Biblioteca Ambrosiana possessed what there can be little doubt is a later edition of this book, dated 1587, but really published at the end of 1586, and another dated 1591, to which Signor Galloni in his "Uomini e fatti celebri di Valle-Sesia" (p. 110) has called attention as the first work ever printed at Varallo. But the last eight of the twenty-one years between 1565 and 1586 were eventful, and much could be at once seen by a comparison of the 1565, 1576, and 1586 [1587] editions, about which speculation is a waste of time while the earlier works are wanting. I have been able to gather two or three interesting facts by a comparison of the 1586 and 1591 editions, and do not doubt that the date, for example, of Tabachetti's advent to Varallo and of his great Calvary Chapel would be settled within a very few years if the missing books were available.

Another document which I have in vain tried to see is the plan of the Sacro Monte as it stood towards the close of the sixteenth century, made by Pellegrino Tibaldi with a view to his own proposed alterations. He who is fortunate enough to gain access to this plan- -which I saw for a few minutes in 1884, but which is now no longer at Varallo--will find a great deal made clear to him which he will otherwise be hardly able to find out. Over and above the foregoing, there is the inventory drawn up by order of Giambattista Albertino in 1614, and a number of other documents, to which reference will be found in the pages of Bordiga, Galloni, Tonetti, and of the many others who have written upon the Val Sesia and its history. A twelve months' stay in the Val Sesia would not suffice to do justice to all the interesting and important questions which arise wholesale as soon as the chapels on the Sacro Monte are examined with any care. I shall confine myself, therefore, to a consideration of the most remarkable features of the Sacro Monte as it exists at present, and to doing what I can to stimulate further study on the part of others.

I cannot understand how a field so interesting, and containing treasures in so many respects unrivalled, can have remained almost wholly untilled by the numerous English lovers of art who yearly flock to Italy; but the fact is one on which I may perhaps be congratulated, inasmuch as more shortcomings and errors of judgment may be forgiven in my own book, in virtue of its being the first to bring Varallo with any prominence before English readers. That little is known about the Sacro Monte, even by the latest and best reputed authorities on art, may be seen by turning to Sir Henry Layard's recent edition of Kugler's "Handbook of Painting,"--a work which our leading journals of culture have received with acclamation. Sir Henry Layard has evidently either never been at Varallo, or has so completely forgotten what he saw there that his visit no longer counts. He thinks, for example, that the chapels, or, as he also calls them, "stations" (which in itself should show that he has not seen them), are on the way up to the Sacro Monte, whereas all that need be considered are on the top. He thinks that the statues generally in these supposed chapels "on the ascent of the Sacro Monte" are attributed to Gaudenzio Ferrari, whereas it is only in two or three out of some five-and-forty that any statues are believed to be by Gaudenzio. He thinks the famous sculptor Tabachetti--for famous he is in North Italy, where he is known--was a painter, and speaks of him as "a local imitator" of Gaudenzio, who "decorated" other chapels, and "whose works only show how rapidly Gaudenzio's influence declined and his school deteriorated." As a matter of fact, Tabachetti was a Fleming and his name was Tabaquet; but this is a detail. Sir Henry Layard thinks that "Miel" was also "a local imitator" of Gaudenzio. It is not likely that this painter ever worked on the Sacro Monte at all; but if he did, Sir Henry Layard should surely know that he came from Antwerp. Sir Henry Layard does not appear to know that there are any figures in the Crucifixion Chapel of Gaudenzio, or indeed in any of the chapels for which Gaudenzio painted frescoes, and falls into a trap which seems almost laid on purpose for those who would write about Varallo without having been there, in supposing that Gaudenzio painted a Pieta on the Sacro Monte. Having thus displayed the ripeness of his knowledge as regards facts, he says that though the chapels "on the ascent of the Sacro Monte" are "objects of wonder and admiration to the innumerable pilgrims who frequent this sacred spot," yet "the bad taste of the colour and clothing make them highly repugnant to a cultivated eye."

I begin to understand now how we came to buy the Blenheim Raffaelle.

Finally, Sir Henry Layard says it is "very doubtful" whether any of the statues were modelled or executed by Gaudenzio Ferrari at all. It is a pity he has not thought it necessary give a single reason or authority in support of a statement so surprising.

Some of these blunders appear in the edition of 1874 edited by Lady Eastlake. In that edition the writer evidently knows nothing of any figures in the Crucifixion Chapel, and Sir Henry Layard was unable to supply the omission. The writer in the 1874 edition says that "Gaudenzio is seen as a modeller of painted terra-cotta in the stations ascending to the chapel (sic) on the Sacro Monte." It is from this source that Sir Henry Layard got his idea that the chapels are on the way up to the Sacro Monte, and that they are distinct from those for which Gaudenzio painted frescoes on the top of the mountain. Having perhaps seen photographs of the Sacro Monte at Varese, where the chapels climb the hill along with the road, or having perhaps actually seen the Madonna del Sasso at Locarno, where small oratories with frescoes of the Stations of the Cross are placed on the ascent, he thought those at Varallo might as well remain on the ascent also, and that it would be safe to call them "stations." It is the writer in the 1874 edition who first gave him or her self airs about a cultivated eye; but he or she had the grace to put in a saving clause to the effect that the designs in some instances were "full of grace." True, Sir Henry Layard has never seen the designs; nevertheless his eye is too highly cultivated to put up with this clause; so it has disappeared, to make room, I suppose, for the sentence in which so much accurate knowledge is displayed in respect to Tabachetti and Miel d'Anvers. Sir Henry Layard should keep to the good old plan of saying that the picture would have been better if the artist had taken more pains, and praising the works of Pietro Perugino. Personally, I confess I am sorry he has never seen the Sacro Monte. If he has trod on so many ploughshares without having seen Varallo, what might he not have achieved in the plenitude of a taste which has been cultivated in every respect save that of not pretending to know more than one does know, if he had actually been there, and seen some one or two of the statues themselves?

I have only sampled Sir Henry Layard's work in respect of two other painters, but have found no less reason to differ from him there than here. I refer to his remarks about Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. I must reserve the counter-statement of my own opinion for another work, in which I shall hope to deal with the real and supposed portraits of those two great men. I will, however, take the present opportunity of protesting against a sentence which caught my eye in passing, and which I believe to be as fundamentally unsound as any I ever saw written, even by a professional art critic or by a director of a national collection. Sir Henry Layard, in his chapter on Leonardo da Vinci, says -

"One thing prominently taught us by the works of Leonardo and Raffaelle, of Michael Angelo and Titian, is distinctly this--that purity of morals, freedom of institutions, and sincerity of faith have nothing to do with excellence in art."

I should prefer to say, that if the works of the four artists above mentioned show one thing more clearly than another, it is that neither power over line, nor knowledge of form, nor fine sense of colour, nor facility of invention, nor any of the marvellous gifts which three out of the four undoubtedly possessed, will make any man's work live permanently in our affections unless it is rooted in sincerity of faith and in love towards God and man. More briefly, it is [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], or the spirit, and not [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], or the letter, which is the soul of all true art. This, it should go without saying, applies to music, literature, and to whatever can be done at all. If it has been done "to the Lord"--that is to say, with sincerity and freedom from affectation--whether with conscious effusion, as by Gaudenzio, or with perhaps robuster unconsciousness, as by Tabachetti, a halo will gather round it that will illumine it though it pass through the valley of the shadow of death itself. If it has been done in self- seeking, as, exceptis excipiendis, by Leonardo, Titian, Michael Angelo, and Raffaelle, it will in due course lose hold and power in proportion to the insincerity with which it was tainted.

Samuel Butler

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