The foregoing outline of the history of the work must suffice for the present. I will reserve further remarks for the space which I will devote to each individual chapel. As regards the particular form the work took, I own that I have been at times inclined to wonder whether Leonardo da Vinci may not have had something to do with it.
Between 1481 and the end of 1499 he was in Milan, and during the later years of this period was the chief authority on all art matters. It is not easy to think that Caimi, who was a Milanese, would not consult him before embarking upon an art enterprise of the first magnitude; and certainly there is a something in the idea of turning the full strength of both painting and sculpture at once on to a single subject, which harmonises well with the magnificent rashness of which we know Leonardo to have been capable, and with the fact that he was both a painter and a sculptor himself. There is, however, not one scrap of evidence in support of this view, which is based solely on the fact that both the scheme and Leonardo were audacious, and that the first is little likely to have been undertaken without counsel from the second. The actual evidence points rather, as already indicated, in the direction of thinking that the frescoes began outside the chapels, got inside them for shelter, and ere long claimed the premises as belonging no less to themselves than to the statues. The idea of treating full-relief sculptured figures with a view to a pictorial rather than sculpturesque effect was in itself, as undertaken when Gaudenzio was too young to have had a voice in the matter, a daring innovation, even without the adjunct of a fresco background; and the idea of taking a mountain as though it were a book, and illustrating it with a number of such groups, was more daring still. To this extent we may perhaps suppose Caimi to have been indebted to Leonardo da Vinci: the rest is probably due to Gaudenzio, who evolved it in the course of those unforeseen developments of which design and judgment are never slow to take advantage.
To whomsoever the conception may be due, if it had only been carried out by such artists as Tabachetti and Gaudenzio Ferrari, or even Giovanni d'Enrico, to say nothing of Bargnola or Rossetti, (to whichever of the two the Massacre of the Innocents must be assigned,) works like those at Varallo might have been repeated, as indeed they sometimes were, thenceforward to the present day. Unfortunately the same thing was attempted at Orta, and later on at Varese, by greatly inferior men. It is true that some of the groups at Varese, especially the one in the Disputa Chapel, are exceedingly fine, and that there are few chapels even there in which no good or even admirable figures may be found. Still the prevailing spirit at Varese is stagey; the work belongs to an age when art of all kinds was held to consist mainly in exaggeration, and when freedom from affectation had fallen into a disrepute from which it has taken centuries to emerge. Nevertheless the work at Varese is for the most part able; if at times somewhat boisterous and ranting, it is incomparably above the feeble, silly cant of Orta; but unfortunately it is by Orta that English people for the most part judge the attempt to combine sculpture and painting. It is indeed some years since I was at this last-named place, and remembering how long I knew the Sacro Monte at Varallo without observing the Vecchietto in the Descent from the Cross Chapel, I cannot be sure that there is not some more interesting work at Orta than I now know. I do not think, however, I am far wrong in saying that the chapels at Orta are for the most part exceedingly bad.
So are some even at Varallo itself, but assuredly not most of them. One--I mean, of course, Tabachetti's Journey to Calvary, which contains about forty figures rather larger than life, and nine horses,--is of such superlative excellence as regards composition and dramatic power, to say nothing of the many admirable individual figures comprised in it, that it is not too much to call it the most astounding work that has ever been achieved in sculpture. I know that this is strong language, but have considered my words as much as I care to do. As Michael Angelo's Medicean Chapel errs on the side of over-subtlety, refinement, and the exaggerated idealism from which indeed there is but one step to the barocco, so does Tabachetti's on that of over-downrightness, or, as a critic with a cultivated eye might say, with perhaps a show of reason at a first glance, even of vulgarity. Nevertheless, if I could have my choice whether to have created Michael Angelo's chapel or Tabachetti's, I should not for a moment hesitate about choosing Tabachetti's, though it drove its unhappy creator mad, which the Medicean chapel never did by Michael Angelo. Three other chapels by Tabachetti are also admirable works. Two chapels contain very extensive frescoes by Gaudenzio Ferrari, than which it is safe to say that no finer works of their kind have been preserved to us. The statues by Gaudenzio in the same chapels are all interesting, and some remarkably good. Their arrangement in the Crucifixion Chapel, if not marked by the superlative dramatic power of Tabachetti, is still solemn, dignified, and impressive. The frescoes by Morazzone in Tabachetti's great chapel belong to the decline of art, but there is still much in them that is excellent. So there is in some of those by Tanzio and Melchiorre, Giovanni d'Enrico's brothers. Giovanni d'Enrico's Nailing of Christ to the Cross, with its sixty figures all rather larger than life, challenges a comparison with Tabachetti's, which it will not bear; still it is a great work. So are several of his other chapels. I am not so thoroughly in sympathy with the work of any of the three brothers d'Enrico as I should like to be, but they cannot be ignored or spoken of without respect. There are excellent figures in some of the chapels by less well-known men; and lastly, there is the Vecchietto, perhaps the finest figure of all, who looks as if he had dropped straight from the heavens towards which he is steadfastly regarding, and of whom nothing is known except that, if not by Tabachetti, he must be by a genius in some respects even more commanding, who has left us nothing save this Melchizedek of a figure, without father, mother, or descent.
I have glanced at some of the wealth in store for those who will explore it, but at the same time I cannot pretend that even the greater number of the chapels on the Sacro Monte are above criticism; and unfortunately some of the best do not come till the visitor, if he takes them in the prescribed order, has already seen a good many, and is beginning to be tired. There is not a little to be said in favour of taking them in the reverse order. As when one has sampled several figures in a chapel and found them commonplace, one is apt to overlook a good one which may have got in by accident of shifting in some one of the several rearrangements made in the course of more than three centuries, so when sampling the chapels themselves, after finding half a dozen running which are of inferior merit, we approach the others with a bias against them. Moreover, all of them have suffered more or less severely from decay. Rain and snow, indeed, can hardly get right inside the chapels, or, at any rate, not inside most of them, but they are all open to the air, and, at a height of over two thousand feet, ages of winter damp have dimmed the glory even of the best-preserved. In many cases the hair and beards, with excess of realism, were made of horse hair glued on, and the glue now shows unpleasantly; while the paint on many of the faces and dresses has blistered or peeled, leaving the figures with a diseased and mangy look. In other cases, they have been scraped and repainted, and this process has probably been repeated many times over, with inevitable loss of character; for the paint, unless very carefully removed, must soon clog up and conceal delicate modelling in many parts of the face and hands. The new paint has often been of a shiny, oleaginous character, and this will go far to vulgarise even a finely modelled figure, giving it something of the look of a Highlander outside a tobacconist's shop. I am glad to see that Professor Burlazzi, in repainting the Adam and Eve in the first chapel, has used dead colour, as was done by Tabachetti in his Journey to Calvary. As the figures have often become mangy, so the frescoes are with few exceptions injured by damp and mould. The expense of keeping up so many chapels must be very heavy; it is surprising, therefore, that the general state of repair should be as good as it is. Nevertheless, there is not a chapel which does not require some effort of the imagination before the mind's eye can see it as it was when left by those who made it.
Unless the reader feels equal to this effort,--and enough remains to make it a very possible one--he had better stick to the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Exhibitions. It should go without saying that a work of art, if considered at all, must be held to be as it was when first completed. If we could see Gaudenzio Ferrari's Crucifixion Chapel with its marvellous frescoes as strong and fresh in colour as they were three centuries and a half ago, and with its nearly thirty life- sized human figures and horses in good condition--not forgetting that, whatever Sir Henry Layard may say to the contrary, they are all by one hand; if, again, Tabachetti's great work was seen by us as it was seen by Tabachetti, and Morazzone's really fine background were not disfigured by damp and mildew, it can hardly be doubted that even "a cultivated eye" would find little difficulty in seeing these two chapels as among the very finest triumphs that have been vouchsafed to human genius; and surely, if this be so, it follows that we should rate them no lower even now. Gaudenzio Ferrari's Crucifixion Chapel, regarded as a single work, conceived and executed by a single artist, who aimed with one intention at the highest points ever attained both by painting and sculpture, and who wielded on a very large scale, in connection with what was then held to be the sublimest and most solemn of conceivable subjects, the fullest range of all the resources available by either, must stand as perhaps the most daringly ambitious attempt that has been made in the history of art. As regards the frescoes, the success was as signal as the daring; and even as regards the sculpture, the work cannot be said to have failed. Gaudenzio the sculptor will not indeed compare with Gaudenzio the painter; still less will he compare with Tabachetti either as a modeller or composer of full-relief figures; but Tabachetti did not paint his own background as well as make his figures, and something must always be allowed to those who are carrying double. Moreover, Tabachetti followed, whereas Gaudenzio led as pioneer in a realm of art never hitherto attempted. Nevertheless, I may be allowed to say that, notwithstanding all Gaudenzio's greatness, I find Tabachetti the strongest and most robust of all the great men who have left their mark on the Sacro Monte at Varallo.
We cannot dismiss such works with cheap commonplaces about Madame Tussaud's--and for aught I know there may be some very good stuff at Madame Tussaud's--or sneer at them as though they must be all much of a muchness, and because the Orta chapels are bad, therefore those at Varallo must be so also. Those who confine themselves to retailing what they take to be art-tips gathered from our leading journals of culture, will probably continue to trade on this not very hardly earned capital, whatever may be urged upon the other side; but those who will take the trouble involved in forming an independent judgment may be encouraged to make investment of their effort here by remembering that Gaudenzio Ferrari ranks as among the few purest and most accomplished artists of the very culminating period of Italian art, and that what he thought good enough to do may be well worth our while to consider with the best attention we can give to it.
Another point should not be forgotten by those who would form their opinion intelligently. I mean, that they are approaching a class of work with which they are unfamiliar, and must not, therefore, expect to be able to make up their minds about it as they might if the question were one either of painting or sculpture only. Sculpture and painting are here integral parts of a single design, and it is some little time before we grasp this conception so fully to be able to balance duly the merits and demerits of different compositions, even though we eventually get to see that there is an immeasurable distance between the best and worst. I now know, for example, that Tabachetti's Journey to Calvary is greatly finer than Giovanni d'Enrico's Nailing to the Cross. I see this so clearly that I find it difficult to conceive how I can have doubted about it. At the same time, I can remember thinking that one was nearly as good as the other, and this long after I should have found little difficulty in making up my mind about less complex works.