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Chapter 5

EARLY HISTORY OF THE SACRO MONTE.


Whether miraculous or not, the early history of the Sacro Monte is undoubtedly obscure, and the reader will probably have ere this perceived that the accounts given by Fassola and Torrotti stand in some need of reconstruction. The resemblance between Varallo and Jerusalem is too far fetched to have had any bona fide effect upon a man of travel and of affairs, such as Caimi certainly was; it is hardly greater than the famous one between Monmouth and Macedon; there is, indeed, a river--not to say two--at Varallo, and there is a river also only twenty-five miles off Jerusalem; doubtless at one time or another there have been crucifixions in both, but some other reason must be sought for the establishment of a great spiritual stronghold at the foot of the Alps, than a mere desire to find the place which should most remind its founder of the Holy City. Why this great effort in a remote and then almost inaccessible province of the Church, far from any of the religious centres towards which one would have expected it to gravitate? The answer suggests itself as readily as the question; namely, that it was an attempt to stem the torrent of reformed doctrines already surging over many an Alpine pass, and threatening a moral invasion as fatal to the spiritual power of Rome as earlier physical invasions of Northmen had been to her material power.

Those who see the Italian sub-alpine valleys of to-day as devoted to the Church of Rome are apt to forget how nearly they fell away from her in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and what efforts, both by way of punishment and allurement, she was compelled to make before she could retain them in her grasp. In most of them the ferment caused by the introduction of the reformed doctrines was in the end stamped out; but in some, as in the Valle di Poschiavo, and the Val Bregaglia, Protestantism is still either the predominant creed or not uncommon. I do not mention the Vaudois valleys of Piedmont, for I am told these were Protestant before either Huss or Luther preached.

The Valsesians had ere now given proof of a tendency towards heresy, but they were a people whom it was worth while making every effort to retain. They have ever been, as we have seen it said already, a vigorous, sturdy, independent race, imbued, in virtue perhaps of their mixed descent, with a large share of the good points both of Southern and Northern nations. They are Italians; but Italians of the most robust and Roman type, combining in a remarkable degree Southern grace and versatility with Northern enterprise and power of endurance. It is no great stretch of imagination to suppose that Bernardino Caimi was alive to dangers that were sufficiently obvious, and that he began with the Val Sesia, partly as of all the sub-alpine valleys the one most imbued with German blood--the one in which to this day the German language has lingered longest, and in which, therefore, ideas derived from Germany would most easily be established--and partly because of the quasi-independence of the Val Sesia, and of its lying out of the path of those wars from which the plains of Lombardy have been rarely long exempt. It may be noted that the movement set on foot by Caimi extended afterwards to other places, always, with the exception of Crea, on the last slopes of the Alps before the plains of Lombardy and Piedmont begin. Varese, Locarno, Orta, Varallo, Oropa, Graglia, St. Ignazio, not to mention St. Giovanni di Andorno, have all of them something of the spiritual frontier fortress about them, and, I imagine, are all more or less directly indebted to the reformation for their inception.

Confining our attention to Varallo, the history of the Sacro Monte divides itself into two main periods; the first, from the foundation to the visit of S. Carlo Borromeo in 1678; the second, from the visit of S. Carlo to the present day. The first of these periods begins with 1486, in which year the present Sacro Monte was no doubt formally contemplated, if not actually commenced. That it was contemplated is shown by the inscription on Caimi's grave already given, and also by the first of the two deeds given in Signor Galloni's notes, from which it appears {2} that under the brief of December 21, 1486, Caimi had powers to take over the land now covered by the chapels, EVEN THOUGH HE SHOULD BE ABSENT--it being evidently intended that the land should be conveyed at once, and before he could return from Jerusalem, for which place he started in 1487. Moreover, there remains one small chapel with frescoes that can hardly be later than 1485-1490. This is now numbered 45, and is supposed by many to be older even than Caimi's first visit. It may be so, but there is nothing to show that it actually was. I have seen a date scratched on it which it is said is 1437, but the four is really a five, which in old writing is often taken for a four, and the frescoes, which in their own way are of considerable merit, would be most naturally assigned to about the date 1485-1490. I do not think there can be a doubt that we have in this chapel the earliest existing building on the Sacro Monte, but find it impossible to form any opinion as to whether it was in existence before Bernardino Caimi's time, or no.

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In the second of the two deeds given by Signor Galloni (p. 85), the following passage occurs:-

"Et similiter fecerunt ipsi Sindici, et Procuratores, ut supra introducendo ipsum Patrem Vicarium ut supra in Eremitorium sancti Sepulchri existent. in loco ubi dicebatur super pariete, aperiendo eidem ostia dicti Eremitorij, et dando eidem claues Ostiorum dicti eremitorij, et eum deambulari faciendo in eo, et similiter in Hortis dicti Eremitorij, dando eidem in gremium ut supra de terris, herbis, et frondibus, et lapidibus existen. in locis praedictis, et similiter in Capella existente subtus crucem, et in Capellam Ascensionis AEdificatam super Monte praedicto. Qui locus est de membris dicti Monasterii suprascripti."

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Neither Signor Galloni, who pointed out this passage to me, nor I, though we have more than once discussed the matter on the ground itself, can arrive at any conclusion as to what was intended by "the chapel now in existence under the cross," nor yet what chapel is intended by "the chapel of the Ascension on the said mountain." It is probable that there was an early chapel of the Ascension, and the wooden figure of Christ on the fountain in the piazza before the church was very likely taken from it, but there is no evidence to show where it stood.

Signor Arienta tells me that the chapel now occupied by the Temptation in the Wilderness was formerly a chapel of the Ascension. He told me to go round to the back of this chapel, and I should find it was earlier than appeared from the front. I did so, and saw it had formerly fronted the other way to what it does now, but among the many dates scrawled on it could find none earlier than 1506, and it is not likely to have been built thirteen years before it got scrawled on.

Some hold the chapels referred to in the deed above quoted from to have included the present Annunciation, Salutation, and sleeping St. Joseph block--or part of it. Others hold them to have referred to the chapels now filled by the Pieta and the Entombment (Nos. 40 and 41); but it should not be forgotten that by 1493 the chapels of S. Francis and the Holy Sepulchre were already in existence, though no mention is made of them; and there may have been other chapels also already built of which no mention is made. Thus immediately outside the St. Francis chapel and towards the door leading to the Holy Sepulchre, there is a small recess in which is placed an urn of iron that contains the head of Bernardino Caimi with a Latin inscription; and hard by there is another inscription which runs as follows:-

"Magnificus D. Milanus Scarrogninus hoc Sepulcrum cum fabrica sibi contigua Christo posuit die septimo Octobris MCCCCLXXXXI. R. P. Frater Bernardinus de Mediolano Ordinis Minorum de Observ. sacra hujus montis excogitavit loca, ut hic Hierusalem videat qui peragrare nequit."

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We may say with some confidence that the present chapel No. 45, those numbered 40 and 41, the block containing the St. Francis and Holy Sepulchre chapels, and probably the Presepio, Adoration of the Shepherds, and Circumcision chapels--though it may be doubted whether these last contained the figures that they now do--were in existence before the year 1500. Part if not all of the block containing the Sta. Casa di Loreto, in which the Annunciation is now found, is also probably earlier than 1500, as also an early Agony in the Garden now long destroyed, but of which we are told that the figures were originally made of wood. Over and above these there was a Cena, Capture, Flagellation, and an Ascension chapel, all of which contained wooden figures, and cannot be dated later than the three or four earliest years of the sixteenth century. No wooden figure is to be dated later than this, for when once an oven for baking clay had been made (and this must have been done soon after Gaudenzio took the works on the Sacro Monte in hand) the use of wood was discarded never to be resumed.

According to both Fassola and Torrotti, the first chapel erected on the Sacro Monte was that of S. Francesco, with its adjacent reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Bordiga the first was the entombment, containing nine figures of wood, or, as the earlier writers say, eight. Bordiga probably means that the Entombment was the earliest chapel with figures in it, and the other writers that the St. Francis chapel was the first in which mass was said. These last speak very highly of the wooden figures in the Entombment chapel, and so more guardedly does Bordiga. I will return to them when I come to the present group of nine by Luigi Marchesi, a sculptor of Saltrio, which were substituted for the old ones in 1826. The early writers say that there was no fresco background to this chapel, and this suggests that the attempt to combine sculpture and painting was not part of the initial scheme, though soon engrafted on to it, inasmuch as this is the only chapel about which I find it expressly stated by early writers that it was without a fresco background ("senza pittura alcuna"). {3} Though there was no fresco background, Bordiga says there was a fresco painted, doubtless done very early in his career, by Gaudenzio Ferrari, outside the chapel just above the iron grating through which the visitor must look. Probably the original scheme was to have sculptured figures inside the chapels, and frescoes outside; by an easy modification these last were transferred from the outside to the inside, and so designed as to form an integral part of the composition: the daring scheme of combining the utmost resources of both painting and sculpture in a single work was thus gradually evolved rather than arrived at per saltum. Assuming, however, the currently received date of 1503 or 1504 as correct for Gaudenzio's frescoes in the present Pieta chapel, the conception as carried out in the greater number of the existing chapels had then attained the shape from which no subsequent departure was made.

Returning to Gaudenzio's fresco outside the S. Francesco chapel, Bordiga says that Caccia gave the following lines on this work:-


"Sotto un vicino portico di fuore
Portato a sepelir e di pittura
Un Cristo; che non mai Zeuxi pittore
Di questo finse piu bella figura,
Che un San Francesco possa pareggiare,
Pinto piu inanzi sopra d'un altare."


The reader will note that the fresco is here expressly stated to be "di fuore" or outside and not inside the chapel.

Both Fassola and Torrotti place this fresco on the outside wall of the chapel of St. Francis, but Bordiga is probably right in saying it was on the Entombment chapel. No trace of it remains, nor yet of the other works by Gaudenzio, which all three writers agree were in the S. Francesco chapel, though they must all have been some few years later than the chapel itself. These consisted of portraits of Milano Scarrognini with Father Beato Candido Ranzo Bernardino Caimi upon the gospel, or right, side of the altar, and of Scarrognini's wife and son with Bernardino Caimi, on the epistle side. According to Bordiga, Gaudenzio also painted a St. Anthony of Padua, and a St. Helena, one on either side the grating. Inside the chapel over the altar was a painting of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, also by Gaudenzio. This is the only one of his works in or about the S. Francesco chapel which still exists; it is now in the pinacoteca of the Museum at Varallo, but is not, so far as I could judge of it, one of his best pictures. The other works were in a decayed condition in 1703, when they were removed, and the chapel was redecorated by Francesco Leva, a painter of Milan.

The Crucifixion chapel of Gaudenzio Ferrari was begun and finished between 1520 and 1530. 1 have found three excellently written dates of 1529 scrawled upon the fresco background. One of them, "1529 Die 26 Octobre Johannes Antoninus," is especially clear, and the other two leave no doubt what year was intended. I have found no earlier date, but should not be surprised if further search were more successful. I may say in passing that it seemed to me as though some parts of the scar made by the inscription had been filled with paint, while others had certainly not--as though the work had been in parts retouched, not so very long ago. I think this is so, but two or three to whom I showed what I took to be the new colour were not convinced, so I must leave others to decide the point.

The Magi chapel must be assigned to some date between the years 1530 and 1539--I should say probably to about 1538, but I will return to this later on. Torrotti says that some of the figures on the Christ taken for the last time before Pilate (chapel No. 32) are by Gaudenzio, as also some paintings that were preserved when the Palazzo di Pilato was built, but I can see no sign of either one or the other now; nevertheless it is likely enough that several figures- -transformed as we shall presently see that d'Enrico or his assistants knew very well how to transform them--are doing duty in the Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, and Ecce Homo chapels. So cunningly did the workmen of that time disguise a figure when they wanted to alter its character and action that it would be no easy matter to find out exactly what was done; if they could turn an Eve, as they did, into a very passable Roman soldier assisting at the capture of Christ, they could make anything out of anything. A figure was a figure, and was not to be thrown away lightly.

Soon after the completion of the Magi chapel the work flagged in consequence of the wars then devastating the provinces of North Italy; nevertheless by the middle of the sixteenth century we learn from Torrotti that some nineteen chapels had been completed.

It is idle to spend much time in guessing which these chapels were, when Caccia's work, published in 1565, is sure to be found some day and will settle the matter authoritatively, but the reader will not be far wrong if he sees the Sacro Monte by the year 1550 as consisting of the following chapels: Adam and Eve, Annunciation, Salutation (?), Magi, Adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Shepherds, Adoration by Joseph and Mary, Circumcision, (but not the present figures nor fresco background), Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Capture, Flagellation, Crowning with thorns (?), Christ taken for the last time before Pilate, the Original journey to Calvary, Fainting Madonna, Crucifixion, Entombment, Ascension, and the old church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary now removed. There were probably one or two others, but there cannot have been many.

In the 1586 edition of Caccia, a MS. copy of which I have before me, the chapels are given as follows: Adam and Eve, Annunciation, and Santa Casa di Loreto, Visit of Mary to Elizabeth, Magi, Joseph and Mary worshipping the Infant Christ, and the Adoration of Shepherds, {4} Circumcision, Joseph warned to fly, the chapel (but not the figures) of the Massacre of the Innocents, Flight into Egypt Baptism, Temptation in the Wilderness, Woman of Samaria, the chapel (but not the figures) of the Healing of the Paralytic, and the Raising of the Widow's son at Nain, the Raising of Lazarus, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Capture, Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns, Christ carrying His cross to Calvary (doubtless Tabachetti's chapel), the Fainting of the Virgin, the earlier Journey to Calvary by Gaudenzio (now dispersed or destroyed), Crucifixion, Pieta, Holy Sepulchre, Appearance to Mary Magdalene (now no longer existing).

I should say, however, that I find it impossible to reconcile the two accounts of the journeys to Calvary, given in the prose introduction to this work, and in the poetical description that follows it, or rather to understand the topography of the poetical version at all, for the prose account is plain enough. I shall place a MS. copy of the 1586 edition of Caccia's book in the British Museum, before this present volume is published, and will leave other students of Valsesian history to be more fortunate if they can. Poetical descriptions are so far better than prose, inasmuch as there is generally less of them in a page, but on the whole prose has the advantage.

It would be interesting to see the 1565 and 1576 editions of Caccia, and note the changes and additions that can be found in them. The differences between the 1586 and 1590 editions (dated 1587 and 1591- the preface to the second being dated September 25, 1589), are enough to throw considerable additional light upon the history of the place, and if, as I believe likely, we find no mention of Tabachetti's Calvary chapel in the edition of 1576, nor of his other chapels, we should be able to date his arrival at Varallo within a very few years, and settle a question which, until these two editions of Caccia are found, appears insoluble. I must be myself content with pointing out these libri desiderati to the future historian.

Some say that the work on the Sacro Monte was almost discontinued between the years 1540 and 1580. I cannot, however, find that this was so, though it appears to have somewhat flagged. I cannot tell whether Tabachetti came to Varallo before S. Carlo or after him. If before, then a good deal of the second impetus may be due to the sculptor rather than to the saint; if after, and as a consequence of S. Carlo's visit, then indeed S. Carlo must be considered as the second founder of the place; but whatever view is taken about this, S. Carlo's visit in 1578 is convenient as marking a new departure in the history of the Sacro Monte, and he may be fairly called its second founder.

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Giussano gives the following account of his first visit, which makes us better understand the austere expression that reigns on S. Carlo's face, as we see it represented in his portraits:-

"It was two o'clock in the day before St. Charles arrived at this place, and he had not broken his fast, but before taking anything he visited the different chapels for meditation, of which Father Adorno gave him the points. As evening drew on, he withdrew to take his refection of bread and water, and then returned again to the chapels till after midnight though the weather was very cold" [end of October or beginning of November]. "He then took two hours' rest on a chair, and at five o'clock in the morning resumed his devotions; then, after having said his Mass, he again allowed himself a small portion of bread and water, and continued his journey to Milan, renewed in fervour of spirit, and with a firm determination to begin again to serve God with greater energy than ever." {5}

Surely one may add "according to his lights" after the words "to serve God." The second visit of St. Charles to Varallo, a few days before his death, is even more painful reading, and the reader may be referred for an account of it to chapter xi. of the second volume of the work last quoted from. He had a cell in the cloister, where he slept on a wooden bed, which is still shown and venerated, and used to spend hours in contemplating the various sacred mysteries, but most especially the Agony in the Garden, near which a little shelter was made for him, and in which he was praying when his impending death was announced to him by an angel. But this chapel, which was near the present Transfiguration Chapel, was destroyed and rebuilt on its present site after his death, as also the Cena Chapel, which originally contained frescoes by Bernardino Lanini. It was on the Sacro Monte that S. Carlo discharged his last public functions, after which, feeling that he had taken a chill, he left Varallo on the 29th of October 1584, and died at Milan six days afterwards.

At S. Carlo's instance Pellegrino Pellegrini, called Tibaldi, made a new design for the Sacro Monte, which was happily never carried out, but which I am told involved the destruction of many of the earlier chapels. He made the plan of the Sacro Monte as it stood in his time, which I have already referred to, and designed the many chapels mentioned in the 1586 edition of Caccia as about to be built. Prominent among these was the Temple of Solomon, which was to involve "una spesa grandissima," and was to be as like the real temple as it could be made. Inside it were to be groups of figures representing Christ driving out those that bought and sold, and it was to have a magnificent marble portico.

The Palazzo di Pilato, which, as the name denotes, is devoted to the sufferings of Christ under Pontius Pilate, was actually carried out, though not till some years after S. Carlo's death, and not according to Pellegrini's design. It is most probable that the designer of the Palazzo di Pilato, and of the Caiaphas and Herod chapels as we now see them, was Giovanni d'Enrico. "It was in 1608," says Bordiga, {6} writing of the Santa Scala, which leads from the Crowning with Thorns to the Ecce Homo chapels, and which, one would say, must have been one of the first things done when the Palazzo di Pilato was made, "that this work with its steps, exactly twenty-eight in number, was begun, according to the design obtained from Rome by Francesco Testa, who was then Fabbriciere. This is for the information of those who think it is the work of Pellegrini."

Between this year and 1645 the four Pilate chapels, the Ecce Homo, Caiaphas, Herod, present Pieta, Sleeping Apostles, Agony in the Garden, and Christ Nailed to the Cross chapels were either created or reconstructed. These works bear d'Enrico's name in the guide-books, and he no doubt presided over the work that was done in them; but I should say that by far the greater number of the figures in them are by Giacomo Ferro, his assistant, to whom I will return presently, or by other pupils and assistants. Only one chapel, the Transfiguration, belongs to the second half of the seventeenth century, and one, the Christ before Annas, to the eighteenth (1765); one--the present Entombment--belongs to the nineteenth, and one or two have been destroyed, as has been unfortunately the case with the Chiesa Vecchia; but the plan of the Sacro Monte in 1671, which I here give, will show that it was not much different then from what it is at present. The numbers on the chapels are explained as follows:-


1.  Gate.
2.  Creation of the world and Adam and Eve.
3.  Annunciation.
4.  Salutation.
5.  First vision of St. Joseph.
6.  Magi.
7.  Nativity.
8.  Circumcision.
9.  Second vision of St. Joseph.
10.  Flight into Egypt.
11.  Massacre of the Innocents.
12.  Baptism.
13.  Temptation.
14.  Woman of Samaria.
15.  Healing the Paralytic.
16.  Widow's son at Nain.
17.  Transfiguration.
18.  Raising of Lazarus.
19.  Entry into Jerusalem.
20.  Last Supper.
21.  Agony in the Garden.
22.  Sleeping Apostles.
23.  Capture.
24.  Caiaphas, and Penitence of St. Peter.
25.  Christ before Pilate.
26.  Christ before Herod.
27.  Christ sent again to Pilate.
28.  Flagellation.
29.  Crowning with thorns.
30.  Christ about to ascend the Santa Scala (not shown on plan).
31.  Ecce Homo.
32.  Pilate washes his hands.
33.  Christ condemned to death.
34.  Christ carrying the Cross.
35.  Nailing to the Cross.
36.  Passion.
37.  Deposition from the Cross.
38.  Pieta.
39.  Entombment (not shown on plan).
40.  Chapel of St. Francis.
41.  Holy Sepulchre.
42.  Appearance to Mary Magdalene.
43.  Infancy of the Virgin.
44.  Sepulchre of the Virgin.
45.  Sepulchre of St. Anne.
46.  Ascended Christ over the fountain.
47.  Chiesa Vecchia.
48.  Chiesa Maggiore.


The view is a bird's-eye one, and there is hardly any hill in reality.


Samuel Butler

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