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Chapter 4


In geographical position Varallo is the most western city of North Italy in which painting and sculpture were endemic. Turin, Novara, Vercelli, Casale, Ivrea, Biella, Alessandria, and Aosta have no endemic art comparable to that of the cities east of Milan. Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, not to mention Venice and the cities of the Friuli, not only produced artists who have made themselves permanently famous, but are themselves, in their architecture and external features generally, works of art as impressive as any they contain; they are stamped with the widely-spread instinctive feeling for beauty with which the age and people that reared them must assuredly have been inspired. The eastern cities have perhaps suffered more from war, nevertheless it is hard to think that the beauty so characteristic of the eastern Lombardic cities should fail so conspicuously, at least by comparison, in the western, if the genius of the places had been the same. All cities are symptomatic of the men who built them, towns no less than bodily organisation being that unknown something which we call mind or spirit made manifest in material form. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians--to name them in alphabetical order, are not more distinct in their several faults and virtues than are London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, in the impression they leave on those who see them. How closely in each case does the appearance of the city correspond with the genius of the nation of which it is the capital. The same holds good more or less with the provincial cities of any country. They have each in a minor degree their distinctive evidences of character, and it will hardly be denied that while the North Italian genius is indebted to the cities of Piedmont for perhaps its more robust and vigorous elements, it owes its command of beauty whether of form or colour to Lombardy rather than to Piedmont. It seems to have been ordained that an endemic interest in art should not cross the Po northward to the west of the Ticino, and to this rule Varallo is only partially an exception; the reasons which led to its being an exception at all will be considered presently. I know, of course, that Novara, and still more Vercelli, contain masterpieces by Gaudenzio Ferrari, but in each case the art was exotic, and with the not very noteworthy exceptions of Lanini, Difendente Ferrari di Chivasso, and Macrino d'Alba, I do not at the moment call to mind the name of a single even high second-class painter or sculptor who has hailed from west of the Valsesia.

The exceptional position of Varallo as regards North Italian art must be referred mainly to its selection by Bernardino Caimi as the site for the New Jerusalem which he founded there at the end of the fifteenth century; a few words, therefore, concerning him will not be out of place here; I learn from Torrotti that he was a "Frate Minore Osservante di S. Francesco," and came of the noble and illustrious Milanese family of the Counts Caimi. He had been Patriarch of the Holy Land, and, as I find stated in Signor Galloni's excellent work already referred to, {1} had been employed on important missions in the island of Cyprus, chiefly in connection with the reformation of abuses. Full of zeal and devotion he returned to his native country, and ere long conceived the design of reproducing in Italy a copy of the most important sites in the Holy Land, for the comfort and greater commodity of so many Christians who, being unable to commit themselves to long and weary voyages by land and sea, and among infidels, might gather thence some portion of that spiritual fruit which were otherwise beyond their reach.

Old and mendicant as he was, he was nothing daunted by the magnitude of the task before him, and searched Lombardy from one end to the other in his desire to provide Providence with a suitable abode. For a long while he sought in vain, and could find no place that was really like Jerusalem, but at last, towards the end of 1491, he came to Varallo alone, and had hardly got there before he felt himself rapt into an ecstasy, in the which he was drawn towards the Sacro Monte; when he got up to the plain on the top of the mountain which was then called "La Parete," perceiving at once its marvellous resemblance to Jerusalem, even to the existence of another mountain hard by which was like Calvary, he threw himself on the ground and thanked God in a transport of delight. It is said that for some time previously the shepherds who watched their flocks on this solitary height had been talking of nothing but of heavenly harmonies that had been heard coming from the sky; that Caimi himself while yet in the Holy Land had been shown this place in a vision; and that on reaching an eminence called Sceletta he had been conducted to the site itself by the song of a bird which sang with such extraordinary sweetness that he had been constrained to follow it.

I should have set this bird down as a blue rock thrush or passero solitario, for I know these birds breed yearly on the Sacro Monte, and no bird sings so sweetly as they do, but we are expressly told that Caimi did not reach Varallo till the end of the year, and the passeri solitarii have all migrated by the end of August. We have seen, however, that Milano Scarrognini actually founded a chapel in October 1491, so Torrotti is wrong in his date, and Caimi may have come in 1490, and perhaps in August, before the passeri were gone. There can be little doubt in fact that he came, or at any rate chose his site, before 1486.

Whatever the bird may have been, Caimi now communicated his design to the Consiglio della Vicinanza at Varallo, through Milano de' Scarrognini, who was a member of the body, and who also gave support in money; negotiations were not finally concluded until the 14th of April 1493, on which day, as we have already seen, the site of the monastery of S. Maria della Grazie was conveyed to the Padri dell' Osservanza with the concession of a right to build their New Jerusalem on the adjoining mountain--which they had already begun to do for some time past.

Divine assistance was manifest in the ease with which everything had been arranged, but Torrotti goes on to assure us that it was presently made still clearer. The design had been to begin with a reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre, and hardly had the workmen begun to dig for the foundation of this first work, when a stone was found, not only resembling the one which covered the actual Holy Sepulchre itself, but an absolute facsimile of it in all respects--as like it, in fact, or even more so, than Varallo was to Jerusalem. The testimony to this was so notorious, and the fact was so soon and widely known, that pilgrims flocked in crowds and brought gifts enough to bring the first abode of the Fathers with the chapel beside it to a speedy and successful completion. Everything having been now started auspiciously, and the Blessed Bernardino having been allowed to look, as it were, into the promised land, God took him to Himself on the 5th day of the Ides of February 1496, or--as I have above said that the inscription on Caimi's tomb declares--in 1499.

The churches, both the one below the mountain in which Gaudenzio's great series of frescoes may be still seen, and the one on the top, which stood on the site now occupied by the large house that stands to the right of the present church, and is called the Casino, were consecrated between the 5th and 7th days of September 1501, and by this time several of the chapels with figures in them had been taken in hand, and were well advanced if not completed.

Fassola's version of Bernardino Caimi's visit is more guarded than Torrotti's is. Before going on to it I will say here the little that need be said about Fassola himself. I find from Signor Galloni's "Uomini e fatti" (p. 208) that he was born at Rassa above Bucioleto in the Val Grande, on the 19th of September 1648. His family had one house at Rassa, and another at Varallo, which last is believed to have been what is now the hotel Croce Bianca, at which I always myself stay. Torrotti, in his preface, claims to have been one of his masters; he also says that Fassola was only eighteen when he wrote his work on the Sacro Monte, and that he had published a work when he was only fourteen. The note given by Signor Galloni [p. 233] settles it that Fassola was born "anno D. 1648 die 19 septembris hora 22 min. 30," so that either the book lay some years unpublished, or he was over twenty when he wrote it. Like the edition of Caccia already referred to, it is dated a year later than the one in which it actually appeared, so that the present custom of post-dating late autumn books is not a new one. In the preface the writer speaks of his pen as being "tenera non tanto per talento quanto per l'eta." In the same preface he speaks of himself as having a double capacity, one as a Delegate to the governing body of the valley, and the other as a canon; but he must mean some kind of lay canon, for I cannot find that he was ever ordained. In 1672 he published his work "La Valsesia descritta," which according to Signor Galloni is more hastily written than his earlier work. On the 14th of December, the same year, he left the Valsesia and travelled to France, keeping a journal for some time, which Signor Galloni tells us still existed in 1873 in the possession of Abate Cav. Carestia of Riva Valdobbia. He went to Paris, and appears to have stayed there till 1683, when he returned to Varallo, and the Valsesia.

He found his country torn by faction, and was immediately hailed by all parties as the one man whom all could agree to elect as Regent General of the Valley. He was elected, and on the 5th of October convened his first general council of the Valsesia. He seems to have been indefatigable as an administrator during the short time he held office, but in the year 1684 was deposed by the Milanese, who on the 3rd of December sent a body of armed men to seize him and take him to Milan. He was warned in time to fly, and escaped to France, where according to some he died, while others say that he settled in Poland and there attained high distinction. Nothing, however, is known for certain about him later than the year 1684 or the beginning of 1685.

In 1686 Torrotti published his book. He says that Fassola during his regency repeatedly desired him "ripigliare questa relatione per commodita dei Pelegrini, Divoti, visitanti," and that so much new matter had come to light since Fassola's time that a new work was called for. Fassola, he says, even in the midst of his terrible misfortunes, continued to take the warmest interest in his native city, and in the Sacro Monte, where it appears he had been saluted by a very memorable and well-known miracle, which was so well known in Torrotti's time that it was not necessary to tell us what it was. Fassola may or may not have urged Torrotti to write a second work upon the Sacro Monte, but he can hardly have intended him to make it little more than a transcript of his own book. If new facts had come to light they do not appear in Torrotti's pages. He very rarely adds to Fassola, and never corrects him; when Fassola is wrong Torrotti is wrong also; even when something is added I have a strong suspicion that it comes from Fassola's second book. On the whole I am afraid I regard Torrotti as somewhat of a plagiarist--at least as regards his matter, for his manner is his own and is very quaint, garrulous, and pleasing.

Fassola's work is full of inaccuracies, and of such inaccuracies as can only be explained on the supposition that the writer resided mainly at Rassa, wrote his book there, and relied too much upon notes which he did not verify after his work was written. Nevertheless, as Signor Galloni justly says, "he must be allowed the merit of having preserved an immense mass of matter from otherwise almost certain destruction, and his pages when subjected to rigid examination and criticism furnish abundant material to the writer of genuine history."

He leans generally much less towards the miraculous than Torrotti does. After saying, for example, that Bernardino Caimi had returned from Jerusalem in 1481 full of devotion and with the fixed intention of reproducing the Holy City on Italian soil, he continues:-

"With this holy intent the good ecclesiastic journeyed to the mountains of Biella, and thence to the Val d'Ossola, and thence to several places in the Valsesia, which of all others was the valley in which he was most inclined to unburden his mind of the treasure of his heroic design. Finally, arriving at Varallo, as the place of most resort, where most of those would come whose means and goodwill would incline them to works of piety, he resolved to choose the most suitable site that he could here find. According to some, while taking counsel with himself and with all who could help him, the site which we now adore was shown him in a vision; others say that on walking without the town he was seduced by the angelic warbling of a bird, and thus ravished to a spot where he found all things in such order for his design that he settled upon it then and there. Many hold as true the story of certain shepherds who about a fortnight earlier than the coming of the father, heard songs of more than earthly sweetness as they were keeping watch over their flocks by night."

"But," concludes Fassola, with some naivete considering the reserve he has shown in accepting any of the foregoing stories, "take it in whatever way you will, the inception of the place was obviously miraculous."

Samuel Butler

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