VARALLO, PAST AND PRESENT.
Now that Varallo can be easily reached by the new railway from Novara, it is not likely to remain so little known much longer. The town is agreeable to stay in; it contains three excellent inns. I name them in geographical order. They are the Italia, the Croce Bianca, and the Posta, while there is another not less excellent on the Sacro Monte itself. I have stayed at all these inns, and have received so much kindness in each of them, that I must decline the invidious task of recommending any one of them especially. My book is intended for Varallo, and not for this or that hotel. The neighbourhood affords numberless excursions, all of them full of interest and beauty; the town itself, though no exception to the rule that the eastern cities of North Italy are more beautiful than the western, is still full of admirable subjects for those who are fond of sketching. The people are hospitable to a fault; personally, I owe them the greatest honour that has ever been conferred upon me--an honour far greater than any I have ever received among those who know me better, and are probably better judges of my deserts. The climate is healthy, the nights being cool even in the height of summer, and the days almost invariably sunny and free from fog in winter. With all these advantages, therefore, it is not easy to understand the neglect that has befallen it, except on the ground that until lately it has been singularly difficult of access.
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Two hundred years ago it must have been much as it is at present. Turning to the work of the excellent Canon Torrotti, published in 1686, I find he writes as follows:-
"Oh, what fannings is there not here," he exclaims, "of the assiduous Zephyrs; what warmth in winter, what gelidness of the air in summer; and what freaks are there not of Nature by way of caves, grottoes, and delicious chambers hewn by her own hand. Here can be enjoyed wines of the very finest flavour, trout as dainty as can be caught in any waters, game of the most singular excellence; in short, there is here a great commodity of everything most sensual and pleasing to the palate. And of those who come here, above all I must praise the Piedmontese, who arrive in frequent cavalcades of from twenty to five-and-twenty people, to an edification which is beyond all praise; and they are munificent in the gifts they leave behind them to the Holy Place--not resembling those who are mean towards God though they will spend freely enough upon their hotel-bill. Carriages of all sorts can be had here easily; it is the Milanese who for the most part make use of these carriages and equipages, for they are pompous and splendid in their carryings on. From elsewhither processions arrive daily, even from Switzerland, and there are sometimes as many as ten thousand visitors extraordinary come here in a single day, yet is there no hindrance but they find comfortable lodging, and at very reasonable prices.
"As for the distance, it is about sixty miles, or two easy days' journey from Milan; it is much the same from Turin; it is one day from Novara, and one from Vercelli; but the most delightful thing about this journey is that you can combine so many other devotions along with it. In the Milanese district, for example, there is the mountain of Varese, and that of S. Carlo of Arona on the Lago Maggiore; and there are S. Francesco and S. Giulio on the Lago d'Orta; then there is the Madonna of Oropa in the mountains of Biella, which sanctuary is in the diocese of Vercelli, as is also S. Giovanni di Campiglio, the Madonna di Crevacore, and Gattinara; there is also the Mount Calvary of Domo d'Ossola, on the road towards Switzerland, and Montrigone below Borgosesia. These, indeed, are but chapels in imitation of our own Holy Sepulchre, and cannot compare with it neither in opulence nor in importance; still those of Varese and Oropa are of some note and wealth. Moreover, the neighbourhood of this our own Jerusalem is the exact counterpart of that which is in the Holy Land, having the Mastallone on the one side for the brook Kedron, and the Sesia for the Jordan, and the lake of Orta for that of Caesaraea; while for the Levites there are the fathers of St. Bernard of Mentone in the Graian and Pennine Alps of Aosta, where there are so many Roman antiquities that they may be contemplated not only as monuments of empire, but as also of the vanity of all human greatness" (pp. 19-21).
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A little later the Canon tells us of the antiquity of the councils that have been held in the neighbourhood, and of one especially:-
"Which was held secretly by five bishops on the summit of one of the mountains of Sorba in the Val Rassa, which is still hence called the bishops' seat; for they came thither as to the place where the five dioceses adjoined, and each one sat on a stone within the boundary of his own diocese; and they are those of Novara, Vercelli, Ivrea, Orta, and Sion. Nor must we forget the signal service rendered to the universal church in these same mountains of Rassa by the discomfiture of the heretic monks Gazzari to which end Pope Clement V. in 1307 issued several bulls, and among them one bearing date on the third day of the ides of August, given at Pottieri, in which he confirmed the liberty of our people, and acknowledged the Capi as Counts of the Church . . . For the Valsesian people have been ever free, and by God's grace have shaken off the yoke of usurpers while continuing faithful and profitable subjects of those who have equitably protected them."
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Torrotti goes on to tell us about the Blessed shepherdess Panesia, a virgin of the most exquisite beauty, and only fifteen years old, who was martyred on the 1st of May 1383 on the mountain of S. Giovanni of Quarona, with three wounds on her head and two on her throat, inflicted by a wicked stepmother who had a devil, and whose behests she had obeyed with such consummate sweetness that she had attained perfection; on which, so invariably do extremes meet, she had to be put to death and made a martyr; and if we want to know more about her, we can find it in the work that has been so elegantly written about her by the most illustrious Father Castiglione Sommasco. Again, there was the famous miracle in 1333 of S. Maiolo in Val Rassa, which is celebrated every year, and in virtue of which Pietro, only child of Viscount Emiliano, one of the three brothers who fought against the heretics, was saved after having been carried off by a ravenous wolf into the woods of Val Sorba as far as the fountain named after the rout which this same Count, when he afterwards grew up, inflicted upon the enemies of the valley in 1377; wherefore he is seen in an old picture of those times as a child in swaddling-clothes in the mouth of a wolf, and he gave the name of Fassola di S. Maiolo to his descendants. Nor, as in private duty bound, can the worthy Canon forget -
"My own beloved chapel of St. Mary of the Snow, for whose honour and glory I have done my utmost, at the entrance of the Val Mastallone; for here on a fragment of ruined wall there grow at all times sundry flowers, even in the ice and snows of winter; wherefore I had the distich set up where it may be now seen."
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I have never seen it, but must search for it next time I go to Varallo. Torrotti presently says that the country being sterile, the people are hard pressed for food during two-thirds of the year; hence they have betaken themselves to commerce and to sundry arts, with which they overrun the world, returning home but once or twice a year, with their hands well filled with that which they have garnered, to sustain and comfort themselves with their families; and their toil and the gains that they have made redound no little to the advantage of the states of Milan and Piedmont. He again declares that they maintain their liberty, neither will they brook the least infringement thereon. And their neighbours, he continues, as well as the dwellers in the valley itself, are interested in this; for here, as in some desert or peaceful wilderness, the noble families of Italy and neighbouring provinces have been ever prone to harbour in times of war and trouble.
Then, later, there comes an account of a battle, which I cannot very well understand, but it seems to have been fought on the 26th of July 1655. The Savoyards were on their way to assist at a siege of Pavia, and were determined to punish the Valsesians en route; they had come up from Romagnano to Borgosesia, when the Valsesians attacked them as they were at dinner, and shot off the finger of a general officer who was eating an egg; on this the battle became general, and the Savoyards were caught every way; for the waters of the Sesia had come down in flood during the night. The Germans of Alagna, Rima, and Rimella were in it, somehow, and those of Pregemella in the Val Dobbia. I cannot make out whether the Pregemella people were Germans or merely people; either way, the German-speaking villages in the Val Sesia appear to have been the same two hundred years ago as now. I mean, it does not seem that the German-speaking race extended lower down the valley then than now. But at any rate, the queen, or whoever "Madama Reale" may be, was very angry about the battle.
"It is the custom," concludes our author, "in token of holy cheerfulness (allegria spirituale) to wear a sprig of pine in the hat on leaving the holy place, to show that the visitor has been there; for it has some fine pine trees. This custom was introduced in royal merriment by Carlo Emmanuele I. He put a sprig in his hat, and was imitated by all his court, and the ladies wore the same in their bosom or in their hair. Assuredly it is one of the wonders of the world to see here, amid the amenities and allurements of the country, especially during the summer season, what a continuous festa or holy fair is maintained. For there come and go torrents of men and women of every nation under heaven. Here you shall see pilgrims and persons in religion of every description, processions, prelates, and often princes and princesses, carriages, litters, caleches, equipages, cavalcades accompanied by trumpeters, gay troops of cavaliers, and ladies with plumes in their hats and rich apparel wherewithal to make themselves attractive; and at intervals you shall hear all manner of songs, concerts, and musical instruments, both civil and military, all done with a modest and devout cheerfulness of demeanour, by which I am reminded of nothing so strongly as of the words of the Psalmist in the which he saith 'Come and see the works of the Lord, for He hath done wonders upon earth.'"
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It must have been something like our own Tunbridge Wells or Bath in the last century. Indeed, one is tempted to think that if the sea had come up to Varallo, it must have been almost more like Margate than Jerusalem. Nor can we forget the gentle rebuke administered on an earlier page to those who came neither on business nor for devotion's sake, but out of mere idle curiosity, and bringing with them company which the good Canon designates as scandalous. Mais nous avons change tout cela.
I have allowed myself to quote so freely from Torrotti, as thinking that the reader will glean more incidentally from these fragments about the genius of Varallo and its antecedents than he would get from pages of disquisition on my own part. Returning to the Varallo of modern times, I would say that even now that the railway has been opened, the pleasantest way of getting there is still over the Colma from Pella opposite Orta. I always call this road "the root," for I once saw it thus described, obviously in good faith, in the visitors' book at one of the inns in Varallo. The gentleman said he had found "the root" without any difficulty at Pella, had taken it all the way to Varallo, and it was delicious. He said it was one of the finest "roots" he had ever seen, and it was only nine or ten miles long.
There were one or two other things in that book, of which, while I am about it, I should like to deliver my mind. A certain man who wrote a bold round hand signed his name "Tom Taylor"--doubtless not the late well-known art critic and dramatic writer, but some other person of the same name--in the visitors' book of the Hotel Leone d'Oro at Orta, and added the word "disgusted." I saw this entry, then comparatively recent, in 1871, and on going on to the Hotel d'Italia at Varallo, found it repeated--"Tom Taylor disgusted." The entries in each case were probably aimed at the Sacro Monte, and not at the inn; but they grated on me, as they must have done on many other English visitors; and I saw with pleasure that some one had written against the second of them the following epigram, which is too neat not to be preserved. It ran:-
"Oh wretched Tom Taylor, disgusted at Orta, At Varallo we find him disgusted again; The feeling's contagious, I really have caught a Disgust for Tom Taylor--he travels in vain."
Who, I wonder, was it who could fling off such an apt impromptu, and how many more mute inglorious writers have we not who might do anything they chose if they would only choose to do anything at all? Some one else had written on an earlier page; -
"While you've that which makes the mare go You should stay at this albergo,
Bona in esse and in posse Are dispensed by Joseph Rossi.
"Ask him and he'll set before ye Vino birra e liquori,
Asti, Grignolino, Sherry Prezzi moderati--very."
There was more, but I have forgotten it. Joseph Rossi was a famous old waiter long since retired, something like Pietro at the Hotel Rosa Rossa at Casale, whom all that country side knew perfectly well. This last entry reminds me of a somewhat similar one which I saw some five and thirty years ago at the inn at Harlech; -
[Greek text which cannot be reproduced] By this 'ere I mean to testify how very well they feed you.
"Quam superba sit ruina, Ipsa sua semper laus, And the castle--nothing finer, With its ivy and jackdaws."
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It is a pity the art of writing such pleasing little poems should be now so generally neglected in favour of more ambitious compositions. Whatever brevity may be as regards wit it is certainly the soul of all agreeable poetry.
But again to return to Varallo, or rather to the way of reaching it by the Colma. There is nothing in North Italy more beautiful than this walk, with its park-like chestnut-covered slopes of undulating pasture land dotted about with the finest thatched barns to be found outside Titian. We might almost fancy that Handel had it in his mind when he wrote his divine air "Verdi Prati." Certainly no country can be better fitted either to the words or music. It continues in full beauty all the way to Civiasco, where the carriage road begins that now goes down into the main road between Varallo and Novara, joining it a mile and a half or so below Varallo.
Close to the point of juncture there is a chapel of singularly graceful elegant design, called the Madonna di Loreto. To this chapel I will again return: it is covered with frescoes. Near it there is an open triangular piece of grass land on which a murderer was beheaded within the memory of persons still living. A wild old man, who looked like an executioner broken loose from the flagellation chapel on the Sacro Monte, but who was quite tame and kind to us when we came to know him, told Jones and myself this last summer that he remembered seeing the murderer brought here and beheaded, this being as close as might be to the place where the murder had been committed. We were at first rather sceptical, but on inquiry at Varallo found that there had been an execution here, the last in the open country, somewhere about the year 1835.
From this spot two roads lead to Varallo; one somewhat circuitous by Mantegna, a village notable for a remarkable fresco outside the church, in which the Virgin is appearing to a lady and gentleman as they are lying both of them fast asleep in a large bed, with their two dear little round heads on a couple of comfortable pillows. The three Magi in the very interesting frescoes behind the choir in the church of S. Abbondio at Como are, if I remember, all in one bed when the angel comes to tell them about the star, and I fancy they have a striped counterpane, but it is some time since I saw the frescoes; at any rate the angel was not a lady. We had often before seen the Virgin appear to a lady in bed, and even to a gentleman in bed, but never before to a lady and a gentleman both in the same bed. She is not, however, so much appearing to them as sitting upon them, and I should say she was pretty heavy. The fresco is dated 1641.
The other road is the direct one, and passes the old church of St. Mark, outside which there are some charming fifteenth-century frescoes by nobody in particular, and among them a cow who, at the instance of St. Mark, is pinning a bear or wolf to a tree in a most resolute determined manner.
There are other frescoes on this church by the Varallese painter Luini (not to be confounded with Bernardino), but I do not remember them as remarkable.
Up to this point the two highest peaks of Monte Rosa are still visible when clouds permit; here they disappear behind nearer mountains, and in a few more hundred yards Varallo is entered.