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Chapter 17


Returning to Varallo, in the town itself the most important work is the fresco by Gaudenzio Ferrari in the church of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, already several times referred to. The reader will find it fully described in the pages of Colombo; moreover, in January last Signor Pizetta took excellent negatives of all the compartments into which the work is divided, and I learn that he has sent impressions-- put together so as to give a very good idea of the work--to the Italian Exhibition that will open as these pages leave my hands. I have myself also sent to the same Exhibition a few unreduced impressions from the negatives used in the illustrations that face earlier pages: these will give the reader a more correct impression of the works from which they are taken than he can get from the reduction. I do not yet know whether they will be hung.

The fresco of Sta. Petronilla painted by Gaudenzio by moonlight on a chapel just outside the town, is now little more than a wreck.

There are a few works by Gaudenzio of no great importance in the Pinacoteca of the Museum; a few frescoes by Lanini, one or two drawings by Tanzio D'Enrico, which show that he was a well-trained draughtsman; two pictures by him, barocco in character, but not without power, and other works of more or less interest, are also in the Pinacoteca.

In the parish church of S. Gaudenzio, behind the altar, there is an exceedingly fine Ancona by Gaudenzio, to which I have already referred. Over an altar in the north transept, but for the most part hidden behind a painted tela, is Tabachetti's very beautiful Madonna del Rosario, which the visitor should ask the Sacristan to show him; and last, but hardly least, there is a Madonna by Dedomenici of Rossa--a village higher up the Valsesia--painted on linen, in the chapel dedicated to St. Joseph.

I referred to this last-named work in my book "Alps and Sanctuaries" (pp. 177, &c.), and have seen no reason to modify the opinion I then expressed. I may repeat that about twenty years ago I was much struck with the painting and could not make out its strong and evidently unaffected medieval feeling, yet modernness at the same time. On consulting the Sacristan I learned that Dedomenici had died about 1840. He added that the extraordinary thing was that Dedomenici had never studied painting, and had never travelled out of the Valsesia; that he had, in fact, acquired his art by doing rather than by learning how to do.

This, as it appeared to me, explained his excellence. As a general rule the more people study how to do things the more hopelessly academic they become. Learning how to say ends soon in having nothing to say. Learning how to paint, in having nothing that one so longs to paint as to be unable to keep one's hands off it. It gratifies the lust of doing sufficiently to appease it, and then kills it. Learning how to write music, ends in the dreary symphonies, operas, cantatas, and oratorios which it seems are all that modern composers can give us. The only way to study an art is to begin at once with doing something that one wants very badly to do, and doing it--even though it be only very badly. Study, of course, but synchronously--letting the work be its own exercises.

If a man defers doing till he knows how to do, when is the hunting the ignis fatuus of a perfect manner to end, and the actual work that he is to leave behind him to begin? I know nothing so deadening, as a long course of preliminary study in any art, and nothing so living as work plunged into at once by one who is studying hard--over it, rather than in preparation for it. Jones talking with me once on this subject, and about agape as against gnosis in art, said, "Oh that men should put an enemy into their brains to steal away their hearts." At any rate he and I have written "Narcissus" on these principles, and are not without hope that what it has lost in erudition it may have gained in freshness. I have, however, dealt with the question of how to study painting more at length in the chapter on the Decline of Italian art in "Alps and Sanctuaries."

I said I would return to the chapel of Loreto a little way out of Varallo on the road to Novara. This work has a lunette which is generally, and I suppose correctly, ascribed to Gaudenzio. It is covered with frescoes not of extraordinary merit, but still interesting, and the chapel itself is extremely beautiful. I had intended dwelling upon it at greater length, but find that my space will not allow me to do so, though I shall hope to describe it more fully in another work on Italy, for which I have many notes that I have been unable to use here.

And now to conclude. A friend once said to me on the Sacro Monte, "How is it that they have no chapel of the Descent of the Holy Spirit?" I answered that the work of Gaudenzio Ferrari, Tabachetti, D'Enrico, and Paracca was a more potent witness to, and fitter temple for, the Holy Spirit, than any that the hands even of these men could have made for it expressly. For that there is a Holy Spirit, and that it does descend on those that diligently seek it, who can for a moment question? A man may speak lightly of the Father and it shall be forgiven him; he may speak lightly of the Son and it shall be forgiven him; but woe to him if he speak lightly of that Divine Spirit, inspiration of which alone it is that makes a work of art either true or permanently desirable.

Of the letter in which the Sacro Monte is written, I have at times in the preceding pages spoken lightly enough. Who in these days but the advocates whose paid profession it is to maintain the existing order, and those whom custom and vested interests hold enthralled, accepts the letter of Christianity more than he accepts the letter of Oriental exaggerated phraseology? If three days and three nights means in reality only thirty-six hours, so should full fifty per cent. be deducted wherever else seems necessary, and "dead" be read as "very nearly dead," and "the Son of God" as "rarely perfect man." Who, on the other hand, that need be reckoned with, denies the eternal underlying verity that there is an omnipresent unknown something for which Mind, Spirit, or God, is, as Professor Mivart has well said, "the least misleading" expression? Who doubts that this Mind or God is immanent throughout the whole universe, sustaining it, guiding it, living in it, he in it and it in him? I heard of one not long since who said he had been an atheist this ten years--and added, "thank God." Who, again, doubts that the spirit of self-sacrifice for a noble end is lovelier and brings more peace at the last than one of self-seeking and self-indulgence? And who doubts that of the two great enemies both to religion and science referred to in the passage I have taken for my motto, "the too much" is even more dangerous than "the too little"?

I, and those who think as I do, would see the letter whether of science or of Christianity made less of, and the spirit more. Slowly, but very slowly--far, as it seems to our impatience, too slowly--things move in this direction. See how even the Church of Rome, and indeed all churches, are dropping miracles that they once held proper objects of faith and adoration. The Sacro Monte is now singularly free from all that we Protestants are apt to call superstition.

The miracles and graces so freely dealt in by Fassola and Torrotti find no place in the more recent handbooks. The Ex Votos and images in wax and silver with which each chapel formerly abounded have long disappeared, and the sacred drama is told with almost as close an adherence to the facts recorded in the Gospels, as though the whole had been done by Protestant workmen. Where is the impress of Christ's footprint now? carted away or thrown into a lumber room as a child's toy that has been outgrown--so surely as has been often said do the famous words "E pur si muove" apply to the Church herself, as well as to that world whose movement she so strenuously denied.

The same thing is happening here among ourselves. As the good churchmen at Varallo have thrown away their Flemish dancer, their footprint of the Saviour, and their Virgins that box thieves' ears and persist in turning round and smiling even after they have been asked not to do so, so we, by the mouths of our Bishops, are flinging away our Genesis, our Exodus, and I know not how much more. In the Nineteenth Century for last December the Bishop of Carlisle says that the account of Creation given in the Book of Genesis "does not pretend to be historical in any ordinary sense"--or, in other words, that it does not pretend to be historical, or true, at all. Surely this is rather a startling jettison. The Bishop goes on to say that "the account of the flood is a very precious tradition full of valuable teaching," and is, he doubts not, a record of some great event that actually occurred; "but," he continues, "I confess that until Bishop Colenso brought his arithmetic to bear upon it and some other portions of Old Testament history, I was quite [why "quite?"] under the impression that the common sense of Christians abstained from criticising this ancient record by the canons applicable to ordinary history." This was not my own impression, but the Bishop's is doubtless more accurate. If things, however, go on at this rate, a hundred years hence we shall have a Bishop writing to the Twentieth Century that till X, Y or Z brought their canons of historical criticism to bear on the Resurrection itself, he was "quite" under the impression that the common sense of Christians abstained from criticising this ancient record by the canons applicable to ordinary history. The Bishop appeals, and rightly, to common sense. This is of all courts the safest and rightest to abide by, but it must not be forgotten that the common sense of one generation is not that of the next, and that the modification with which common sense descends cannot be effected, however gently we may try to do so, without some disturbance of the pre-existing common sense, and some reversal of its decrees.

That the letter of the coming faith will be greatly truer than that of the many that have preceded it I for one do not believe. Let us have no more "Lo heres" and "Lo theres" in this respect. I would as soon have a winking Madonna or a forged decretal, as the doubtful experiments or garbled articles which the high priests of modern science are applauded with one voice for trying to palm off upon their devotees; and I should look as hopefully for good result from a new monastery, as from a new school of art, college of music, or scientific institution. Whatever faith or science the world at large bows down to will in its letter be tainted with the world that worships it. Whoever clings to the spirit that underlies all the science obtaining among civilised peoples will assuredly find that he cannot serve God and Mammon. The true Christ ever brings a sword on earth as well as peace, and if he maketh men to be of one mind in an house, he divideth a house no less surely. The way will be straight in the future as in the past. All that can be hoped for is that it may perhaps become a trifle more easy through the work of the just men made perfect through suffering that have gone before, and that he who in bygone ages would have been burnt will now be only scouted.

I have in the last few foregoing pages been trenching on somewhat dangerous ground, but who can leave such a work as the Sacro Monte without being led to trench on this ground, and who that trenches upon it can fail to better understand the lesson of the Sacro Monte itself? I am aware, however, that I have said enough if not too much, and will return to the note struck at the beginning of my work- -namely, that I have endeavoured to stimulate study of the great works on the Sacro Monte rather than to write the full account of them which their importance merits. At the same time I must admit that I have had great advantages. Not one single previous writer had ever seen an earlier work than that of Fassola, published in 1670 [1], whereas I have had before me one that appeared in 1586 [7]. I had written the greater part of my book before last Christmas, and going out to Varallo at the end of December to verify and reconsider it on the spot, found myself forced over and over again to alter what I had written, in consequence of the new light given me by the 1586 [7] and 1590 [1] editions of Caccia. It is with profound regret that though I have continued to search for the 1565 and 1576 editions up to the very last moment that these sheets leave my hands, my search has been fruitless.

Over and above the advantage of having had even the later Caccia before me, I have seen Cav. Aless. Godio's "Cronaca di Crea," which no previous writer had done, inasmuch as this work has been only very lately published. Moreover, when I was at Varallo, it being known that I was writing on the Sacro Monte, every one helped me, and so many gave me such important and interesting information that I found my labour a very light and pleasant one. Especially must I acknowledge my profound obligations to Signor Dionigi Negri, town clerk of Varallo, to Signor Galloni the present director of the Sacro Monte, to Cav. Prof. Antonini and his son, Signori Arienta and Tonetti, and to many other kind friends whom if I were to begin to name I must name half the town of Varallo. With such advantages I am well aware that the work should be greatly better than it is; if, however, it shall prove that I have succeeded in calling the attention of abler writers to Varallo, and if these find the present work of any, however small, assistance to them, I shall hold that I have been justified in publishing it. In the full hope that this may turn out to be the case, I now leave the book to the generous consideration and forbearance of the reader.


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Samuel Butler

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