Chapter 15




THE PIETA AND REMAINING CHAPELS.


The remaining chapels are few in number, and, whatever they may once have been, unimportant in character. The first is


CHAPEL No. 40. THE PIETA.


The three preceding chapels are supposed to be on Mount Calvary, and from them we descend by a flight of stone steps to the level of the piazza. Immediately on reaching this we come upon the Pieta. We have seen that this chapel originally contained Gaudenzio's Journey to Calvary, and that the fresco background still, in so far as it is not destroyed, treats this subject, while the modelled figures represent the Pieta. Of Gaudenzio's original work Caccia says:-


"Come fu Christo de' panni spogliato,
Montando il Monte poi Calvario detto,
Nel mezzo a manigoldi mal trattato,
Contemplar possi con pietoso affetto,

Seguito da Maria e da l'amato Discepolo di lui, et e l'effetto Sculto si bene e doitamente fatto Che sembra vero e non del ver ritratto."

"Per una scala asceso al Sacro Monte Si entra nel piu d'ogn' altro sacro tempio," &c.


The words "montando il monte poi," &c., must refer to a supposed ascent on the part of Christ Himself, for Gaudenzio's work was on a level with Tabachetti's present Journey to Calvary which Caccia has just described, and Caccia goes on to say that from Gaudenzio's chapel (the present Pieta) one "ascends by a staircase to" the most sacred chapel of all--the Crucifixion--as one does at present. That the present Pieta and the adjacent Entombment chapels were once one chapel, may be seen by any one who examines the vaulting inside the first-named chapel. Signor Arienta pointed this out to me, and at the same time called my attention to the fact that Gaudenzio's fresco on the wall facing the spectator does not turn the corner and join on with the subject that fills the left-hand wall. A flag and a horse are cut off, and the rest of them is not seen. I sometimes question whether the original wooden-figured entombment was in the chapel in which the present modern figures are seen, but it probably was so.

There was also a fainting Madonna mentioned in the prose part of Caccia as a work by itself and described as follows:-

"Come la Madonna e tramortita vedendo N.S. condotto a morte."

This is not referred to in the poetical part, and must have been a mere cell occupied by a single figure. No doubt it was seen through the window that is still approached by two steps on the south side of the present Pieta, and the space it occupied has been thrown into the present work.

I do not know when Gaudenzio's Journey to Calvary was dispersed, but it was some time, doubtless, between 1600 and 1644. It is puzzling to note that the Pieta appears in the plan of 1671 as situated rather in the part of the building now occupied by the Entombment than by the Pieta, while the 39 that should mark the site of the Entombment does not appear; but this is perhaps only an error in the plan itself. I find, however, the attempt to understand the changes that have taken place here so difficult that I shall abandon it and will return to the present aspect of the work.

Torrotti says that some of the statues in the present chapel are by Gaudenzio, which they are not. Fassola gives them all to Giovanni D'Enrico; Bordiga speaks of the work in the highest terms, but for my own part I do not admire it, nor, I am afraid, can I accept the more fresh-looking parts of the fresco background as by Gaudenzio. I do not doubt that his work has been in these parts repainted, and that the outlines alone are really his. It is not likely we have lost much by the repainting, for where the work has not been touched it has so perished as to be hardly worth preserving, and we may think that what has been repainted was in much the same state. This is the only chapel in which Gaudenzio's frescoes at Varallo have been much repainted. If those in the Crucifixion and Magi chapels have been retouched they have taken little harm; the frescoes in the church of Sta. Maria delle Grazie have certainly not been touched, and are in such good preservation that it may be questioned whether they ever looked much better than they do now. The fine oil picture in the church of S. Gaudenzio has gone a little yellow through the darkening of the oil, but is in a good state, and generally, though no painter of the highest rank has been so much neglected, or suffered more from the actual destruction of his works, yet for the most part Gaudenzio has been spared the reckless restoration which is the most cruel ill that can befall an artist.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

CHAPEL No. 41. THE ENTOMBMENT.


We have already seen that this was the first chapel with figures in it on the Sacro Monte. Of the old eight wooden figures that it contained, two are still on the mountain in a sort of vault adjacent to, or under, the main church, and near the furnace in which those that superseded them were baked. Six are in the Museum at Varallo. I saw them a few weeks ago, not yet arranged, leaning up against the wall with very battered and dilapidated glories; the recumbent Christ was standing more or less on end, and the whole group was in a pathetic state of dismemberment that will doubtless soon make way for a return to their earlier arrangement. The figures are interesting, but it cannot be pretended that they are of great value. They look very much as if they had been out somewhere the night before.

Of the figures in the present chapel the less said the better.

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

REMAINING CHAPELS AND CHIESA MAGGIORE.


The chapel of St. Francis is open to the air, and contains nothing but an altar, and a modern fresco of the death of the saint.

Near it is the Holy Sepulchre, which is entered from a small cell in which there is a figure of the Magdalene, and from which the visitor must creep on hands and knees into the Sepulchre itself. The figure of Christ is not actually in the Sepulchre, but can be seen through a window opening into the contiguous chapel, where it is over the altar. The early writers say that there were also two angels by Gaudenzio (statue di Gaudenzio divoissime), but Bordiga says nothing of this. The upper part of this building was the abode of Bernardino Caimi and his successors until the year 1577.

As for the Holy Sepulchre itself it is low and dark, which I have no doubt is the reason why I have neglected it on the occasions of each of my two latest visits to Varallo, and thus failed to reach the adjacent Oratory, which Bordiga says was erected about the year 1702. Fassola and Torrotti wrote before this date, so that the angels mentioned by them as by Gaudenzio may have been removed when the present fabric was erected. At any rate Bordiga speaks as though they were paintings by one Tarquinio Grassi and not sculptured figures at all. Torrotti says that visitors to the Holy Sepulchre used to burn candles, tapers, and torches, each one according to his purse or piety, and that they did this not so much to see with as to pray. "Here," he continues, "the great S. Carlo spent his evenings agreeably" (spendeva gradevolmente le notti). "Few," he concludes drily, and perhaps with a shade of the same quiet irony that led the Psalmist to say what he did about "one" day in certain courts, "can leave it without feeling devoutly thankful." About the candles Fassola says that there was a kind of automatic arrangement for getting them like that whereby we can now buy butter-scotch or matches at the railway stations, by dropping a penny into a slot. He says:-

"And as the figure of Christ can only be seen by the help of candles (for which reason all pilgrims whose means permit are accustomed to burn them, being naturally prompted thereto each one according to his faith)--by throwing money into a hole wherein the same candles lie, each pilgrim can be made quite comfortable, and contented."

["Gettando il denaro per un buco dove stanno le medesime candelette, commodamente puo restar ogni divoto contento."]

"The mercies vouchsafed here," continues the same writer; "are innumerable--in all parts may be seen votive pictures both old and recent."

       *      *      *      *      *      *      *

In the open cloister hard by is shown the wooden bed on which S. Carlo lay when he came to visit the Sacro Monte, and the stone which is said to be a facsimile of the one rolled in front of the Holy Sepulchre itself. Many years ago I spent several weeks at Varallo sketching and painting on the Sacro Monte. A most excellent and lovable old priest, now doubtless long since dead, took rather a fancy to me, and used to implore me to become a Catholic. One day he took me up to this stone and spoke long and earnestly about it. What a marvellous miracle it was. There was the stone; I could see it for myself. What a dumb but eloquent testimony was it not offering; how could I account for such things? and more to the same effect, all said obviously in good faith, and with no idea save that of guiding me to the truth. I was powerless. I could not go into facts or arguments--I could not be obstinate without getting something like his consent--and he was instant in season and out of season in endeavouring to get mine. At last I could stand it no longer, and said, "My dearest sir, I am the son of an English clergyman who is himself the son of another English clergyman; my father and mother are living. If you will tell me that I am to hold my father born in more than common sin, to have committed a crime in marrying my mother, and that I am to hold myself as one who ought never to have been born, then I will accept what you have said about that stone. Till then let me go my way, and you yours." He said not a word more, and never again approached the subject; the nearest he ever went to it was to say that he liked to see me sketching about the Sacro Monte, for it could do me nothing but good. I trust that I have done it no harm.

The chapel representing the Magdalene at the feet of the risen Christ has disappeared. It contained two statues only, and two prophets by Gaudenzio were painted outside on the wall. It stood "Sotto un auanzo dei Portici antichi seguentemente al Sepolcro." It was probably a very early work.

Through an arch under the raised portico or arcaded gallery are three small ruined cells called now "Il Paradiso," and numbered 43, 44, and 45; of one of these Fassola tells us that it contained "many modern statues" by Gaudenzio Sceti, and frescoes by Gianoli; they are all now mere wrecks. There is no important work by Gaudenzio Sceti remaining on the Sacro Monte, but there is a terra-cotta crucifix with a Virgin and a St. John by him, of no great value, in the church of S. Gaudenzio. What remains of his work on the Sacro Monte itself consists of statues of Sta. Anna and the Virgin as a child upon her lap in the chapel or cell numbered 43.

Chapel 44 need not detain us. What few remains of figures it contains are uninteresting and ruined.

I have already spoken of chapel No. 45, which once represented an entombment of the Madonna, as in all probability the oldest building, and as certainly containing the oldest, and by no means least interesting frescoes on the Sacro Monte. There is nothing inside the chapel except these frescoes, but outside it there are many scrawls, of which the earliest I have noticed is 1520--the supposed 1437 being certainly 1537. The writer of one of these scrawls has added the words "fuit hic" to his signature as John Van Eyck has done to the signature of his portrait of John Arnolfini and his wife. I have found this addition of "fuit hic" in a signature of a certain "Cardinalis de al . . . " who scratched his name "1389 die 19 Mag" on a fresco to the left of the statue of S. Zenone in the church S. Zenone at Verona. On a fresco in the very interesting castle of Fenis in the valley of Aosta, to which I hope to return in another work, there is scratched "Hic sponsus cum sponsa fuit 1790 25 May," the "May" being an English May; Jones and I thought the writer had begun to add "London" but had stopped. The "fuit hic," therefore, of John Van Eyck's signature should not be translated as we might be tempted to wish to translate it, "This was John Van Eyck."

Returning to the Sacro Monte, there remains only the Chiesa Vecchia, removed at the end of the last century to make room for the building that was till lately the "casa degli esercizi," or house in which the priests on the mountain performed their spiritual exercises. This is now let out in apartments during the summer, and is called the Casino. The old sacristy, now used as the archivio of the Sacro Monte, still remains, and contains a fresco by Lanini, that bears strong traces of the influence of his master Gaudenzio. Besides the impress of Christ's foot and the Assumption of the Virgin, the church contained an Annunciation by Gaudenzio and frescoes of St. Catherine and St. Cecilia; the Cupola was also decorated by him. This work was undertaken in 1530, the greater angels being by Gaudenzio and the smaller by Lanini and Fermo Stella. These frescoes all perished when the church was pulled down.

The present Chiesa Maggiore was begun on the 9th of June 1614-- D'Enrico's design having, so Bordiga says, been approved on the 1st of April in that year. Fassola says that in 1671 the only parts completed were the Choir and Cupola, the whole body of the church being left unfinished. Bordiga speaks of the church as having been finished in 1649, in which year, on the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, her image was taken from the old church and placed in the new, so when Fassola says "unfinished" he must refer to decoration only. The steps leading up to the church and the unfinished columns were erected in 1825 from designs by Marchese Don Luigi Cagnola, the architect of the Arco della Pace at Milan. It was ere long found that the stone selected was unreliable, so that all must be done over again; the work has, therefore, been suspended.

The Cupola is covered with about 140 modelled figures of angels, by Dionigi Bussola and Giambattista Volpino, Milanese sculptors, who worked from designs made by Antonio Tempesta, a Florentine. They did this work about the year 1660. The brothers Montalti painted the frescoes, some more highly coloured groups being added by Antonio Cucchi of Milan in 1750.

In the crypt there is a sumptuous shrine containing the statue of the Madonna, said to have been made by St. Luke. This was erected in 1854, but on the night between the 4th and 5th of October in the same year the crown was stolen from the Virgin's head, and in the following year there was a solemn expiatory function, with festivities extending over three days, in order to celebrate the replacing of the stolen crown by a new one.

It cannot be said that any of the works of art now in the church are of considerable interest, but an important work of art was nevertheless produced in it at the celebration of the fourth centenary of the birth of Gaudenzio Ferrari, which was held in 1885. I refer to the Mass by Cagnoni, which was here performed for the first time, and which showed that the best traditions of old Italian ecclesiastical music are still occasionally adhered to. I was present at the production of the work, and have heard no modern Italian music that has pleased me nearly as much. I ventured to ask the Maestro for the baton he had used in conducting it, and am proud to keep it as a memorial of a fine performance of a very fine work. The baton is several old newspapers neatly folded up and covered with silk.




Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: