THE ASCENT, AND THE FIRST FOUR CHAPELS.
The ascent to the Sacro Monte begins immediately after the church of Sta. Maria delle Grazie has been passed, and is made by a large broad road paved with rounded stones, and beautifully shaded by the chestnuts that grow on the steep side of the mountain. The old road up the mountain was below the present, and remains of it may yet be seen. Ere long a steeper narrower road branches off to the right hand, which makes rather a shorter cut, and is commonly called the "Strada della Madonna." From this name it has become generally believed that the Madonna once actually came to Varallo to see the Sacro Monte, and took this shorter road. There is no genuine tradition, however, to this effect, and the belief may be traced to misapprehension of a passage in Fassola and Torrotti, who say that the main road represents the path taken by Christ himself on his journey to Calvary, while the other symbolises the short cut taken by the Virgin when she went to rejoin him after his resurrection. When he was Assistente, which I gather to have been much what the Director of the Sacro Monte is now, Torrotti had some poetry put up to say this.
At the point where the two roads again meet there is a large wooden cross, from which the faithful may help themselves to a chip. That they do get chips is evident by the state of the cross, but the wood is hard, and none but the very faithful will get so much but that plenty will be left for those who may come after them. I saw a stout elderly lady trying to get a chip last summer; she was baffled, puzzled, frowned a good deal, and was perspiring freely. She tried here, and she tried there, but could get no chip; and presently began to cry. Jones and I had been watching her perplexity, as we came up the Strada della Madonna, and having a stouter knife than hers offered to help her. She was most grateful, when, not without difficulty, Jones succeeded in whittling for her a piece about an inch long, and as thick as the wood of a match box. "Per Bacco," she exclaimed, still agitated, and not without asperity, "I never saw such a cross in my life." The old cross, considered to be now past further whittling, was lying by the roadside ready to be taken away. I had wanted to get the lady a chip from this, thinking it looked as if it would lend itself more easily to the design, but she said it would not do. They have a new cross every year, and they always select a hard knotty uncompromising piece of wood for the purpose. The old is then taken away and burnt for firewood.
Of this cross Fassola says it was here ("e qui fu dove") the Virgin met her son, and that for this reason a small chapel was placed rather higher up, which represents the place where she took a little rest, and was hence called the Capella del Riposo. It was decorated with frescoes by Gaudenzio, which have long since disappeared; these were early works, and among the first undertaken by him on the Sacro Monte; the chapel remains, but may, and probably will, be passed without notice. A little higher still, there is another very small and unimportant chapel containing a decayed St. Jerome by Giovanni D'Enrico, and above this, facing the visitor at the last turn of the road, is the chapel erected in memory of Cesare Maio, or Maggi, a Neapolitan, Marquis of Moncrivelli, and one of Charles the Fifth's generals. He died in 1568. Many years before his death he had commanded an armed force against the Valsesians, but when his horse, on approaching Varallo, caught sight of the Sacro Monte, it genuflected three times and pawed a great cross on the road with its feet. This had such an effect upon the rider that he had thenceforward to become a munificent benefactor of the Sacro Monte, and expressly desired to be buried there. I do not know where the horse was buried. His chapel contains nothing of importance, nor yet does the small oratory with a crucifix in memory of a benefactor, one Giovanni Pschel Alemanno; this is at the top of the ascent and close to the smaller entrance to the Sacro Monte.
At this smaller entrance the visitor will be inclined to enter, but he should not do so if he wishes to take the chapels in the order in which they are numbered. He should continue the broad road until he reaches the excellent inn kept by Signor Topini, and the shops where "corone" and pilgrims' beads are sold. The inn and shops are mentioned by Fassola and by Torrotti. Fassola in 1671 says of the inn that it will afford accommodation for people of all ranks, and that though any one with other curiosity may stay in the town, those who would enjoy their devotion quietly and diffusively can do so more at their ease here. Of the shops he says that they sell "corone, Storie della Fabrica," "and other like instruments of devotion" ("ed altri instromenti simili di divozione" p. 80). Torrotti says they sell his book there, with images, and various devout curiosities (e varie cose curiose di divozione, p. 66). The shutters are strong and probably the original ones.
At Varese there is a very beautiful lady, one among many others hardly if at all less beautiful on the same mountain, of whom I once asked what people did with these Corone. She said, "Le adoperano per pregare," "They make use of them to pray with." She then asked whether the English ever prayed. I said of course they did; that all nations, even the Turks, prayed. "E Turco lei?" she said, with a singularly sweet, kind, and beneficent expression. I said I was not, but I do not think she believed me.
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Passing now under the handsome arch which forms the main entrance to the sacred precincts we come to
CHAPEL No. 1. ADAM AND EVE.
This chapel is perhaps the only one in the case of which Pellegrino Tibaldi's design was carried out; and even here it has been in many respects modified. The figures are by Tabachetti; and the original internal frescoes were by Domenico Alfani Perugino, but they have perished and have lately been replaced by some pieces from the life of Adam and Eve by Professor Burlazzi of Varallo. The outer frescoes are said by Bordiga to be by Giovanni Miel of Antwerp, but they are probably in reality by one of the brothers Battista and Gio. Mauro Rovere. I will, however, reserve remarks on this subject until I come to the Massacre of the Innocents chapel. The original frescoes do not appear to have been executed till 1594-1600, but the terra- cotta work is described as complete in the 1586 edition of Caccia in terms that leave no doubt but that the present group is intended; it is probably among the first works executed by Tabachetti on the Sacro Monte, but how much earlier it is than 1586 cannot be known till the missing editions of Caccia are found. That he did the Adam and Eve is not doubted. If he also did the animals, he had made great progress by the time he came to the Temptation chapel, for the animals in this last chapel are far finer than those in the Adam and Eve chapel.
The present chapel superseded an earlier one with the same subject, which was probably on the site now occupied by the Crowning with Thorns, inasmuch as in this chapel the fresco on one wall still represents Adam and Eve being dismissed from Paradise. Signor Arienta pointed this out to me, and I think it sufficiently determines the position of the original Adam and Eve chapel. The evidence for the existence of the earlier chapel throws so much light upon the way in which figures have been shifted about and whole chapels have disappeared, leaving only an incidental trace or two behind them in some other of those now existing, that I shall not hesitate to reproduce it here.
We were told in the town that there had been an old Adam and an old Eve, and that these two figures were now doing duty as Roman soldiers in chapel No. 23, which represents the Capture of Christ. On investigation, we found, against the wall, two figures dressed as Roman soldiers that evidently had something wrong with them. The draperies of all the other figures are painted, either terra-cotta or wood, but with these two they are real, being painted linen or calico, dipped in thin mortar or plaster of Paris, and real drapery always means that the figure has had something done to it. The armour, where armour shows, is not quite of the same pattern as that painted on the other figures, nor is it of the same make; in the case of the remoter figure it does not go down far enough, and leaves a lucid interval of what was evidently once bare stomach, but has now been painted the brightest blue that could be found, so that it does not catch the eye as flesh; a little further examination was enough to make us strongly suspect that the figures had both been originally nude, and in this case the story current in Varallo was probably true.
Then the question arose, which was Adam, and which Eve? The farther figure was the larger and therefore ought to have been Adam, but it had long hair, and looked a good deal more like a woman than the other did. The nearer figure had a beard and moustaches, and was quite unlike a woman; true, we could see no sign of bosom with the farther figure, but neither could we with the nearer. On the whole, therefore, we settled it that the nearer and moustached soldier was Adam, and the more distant long-haired beardless one, Eve. In the evening, however, Cav. Prof. Antonini and several of the other best Varallo authorities were on the Sacro Monte, and had the grating removed so that we could get inside the chapel, which we were not slow to do. The state of the drapery showed that curiosity had been already rife upon the subject, and, observing this, Jones and I gently lifted as much of it as was necessary, and put the matter for ever beyond future power of question that the farther, long-haired, beardless figure was Adam, and the nearer, moustached one, Eve. They are now looking in the same direction, as joining in the hue and cry against Christ, but were originally turned towards one another; the one offering, and the other taking, the apple.
Tabachetti's Eve, in the Creation or Adam and Eve chapel, is a figure of remarkable beauty, and a very great improvement on her predecessor. The left arm is a restoration by Cav. Prof. Antonini, but no one who was not told of the fact would suspect it. The heads both of the Adam and the Eve have been less successfully repainted than the rest of the figures, and have suffered somewhat in consequence, but the reader will note the freedom from any approach to barocco maintained throughout the work. The serpent is exceedingly fine, and the animals are by no means unpleasing. Speaking for myself, I have found the work continually grow upon me during the many years I have known it.
The walls of this, and, indeed, of all the chapels, were once covered with votive pictures recording the Grazie with which each several chapel should be credited, but these generally pleasing, though perhaps sometimes superstitious, minor satellites of the larger artistic luminaries have long since disappeared. It is plain that either the chapels are losing their powers of bringing the Grazie about, or that we moderns care less about saying "thank you" when we have been helped out of a scrape than our forefathers did. Fassola says:-
"Molti oltre questa non mancano di lasciar qualche insigne memoria, cioe o li dinari per incominciar, o finire qualche Capella, o per qualche pittura o Statua, o altro non essendouene pur' vno di questi Benefattori, che non habbino ottenute le grazie desiderate di Dio, e dalla Beata Vergine, del che piene ne sono le carte, le mura delle Capelle, e Chiese con voti d'argento, ed altre infinite Tauolette, antichissime, e moderne, voti di cera ed altro, oltre tanto da esprimersi grazie, che o per pouerta, o per mancanza, o per altri pensieri de' graziati restano celate."
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For my own part I am sorry that these humble chronicles of three centuries or so of hairbreadth escapes are gone. Votive pictures have always fascinated me. Everything does go so dreadfully wrong in them, and yet we know it will all be set so perfectly right again directly, and that nobody will be really hurt. Besides, they are so naive, and free from "high-falutin;" they give themselves no airs, are not review-puffed, and the people who paint them do not call one another geniuses. They are business-like, direct, and sensible; not unfrequently they acquire considerable historical interest, and every now and then there is one by an old master born out of due time--who probably wist not so much as even that there were old masters. Here, if anywhere, may be found smouldering, but still living, embers of the old art-fire of Italy, and from these, more readily than from the hot-bed atmosphere of the academies, may the flame be yet rekindled. Lastly, if allowed to come as they like, and put themselves where they will, they grow into a pretty, quilt-like, artlessly-arranged decoration, that will beat any mere pattern contrived of set purpose. Some half-dozen or so of the old votive pictures are still preserved in the Museum at Varallo, and are worthy of notice, one or two of them dating from the fifteenth century, and a few late autumn leaves, as it were, of images in wax still hang outside the Crowning with Thorns chapel, but the chapels are, for the most part, now without them. Each chapel was supposed to be beneficial in the case of some particular bodily or mental affliction, and Fassola often winds up his notice with a list of the Graces which are most especially to be hoped for from devotion at the chapel he is describing; he does not, however, ascribe any especial and particular Grace to the first few chapels. A few centesimi and perhaps a soldo or two still lie on the floor, thrown through the grating by pilgrims, and the number of these which any chapel can attract may be supposed to be a fair test of its popularity. These centesimi are a source of temptation to the small boys of Varallo, who are continually getting into trouble for extracting them by the help of willow wands and birdlime. I understand that when the centesimi are picked up by the authorities, some few are always left, on the same principle as that on which we leave a nest egg in a hen's nest for the hen to lay a new one to; a very little will do, but even the boys know that there must be a germ of increment left, and when they stole the coppers from the Ecce Homo chapel not long since, they still left one centesimo and a waistcoat button on the floor.
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CHAPEL No. 2. THE ANNUNCIATION.
This was one of the earliest chapels, and is dated by Fassola as from 1490 to 1500. There is no record of any contemporary fresco background. Bordiga says that these figures were originally in the chapel now occupied by the Salutation of Mary by Elizabeth, but that having been long objects of popular veneration they were preserved at the time when Tabachetti took this block of buildings in hand. It does not appear from any source what figures were in this chapel before the Annunciation figures were brought here; possibly, as it is supposed to be a reproduction of the Santa Casa di Loreto, this was considered enough and it was untenanted. Bordiga says, "The faces and extremities have a divine expression and are ancient," but both Fassola and Torrotti say that Tabachetti gave the figures new heads. These last are probably right; the Virgin has real drapery, which, as I have said, always means that the figure has been cut about.
Whatever the change was, it had been effected before the publication of the 1586 edition of Caccia, where the chapel is described, in immediate sequence to the Adam and Eve chapel, and in the following terms:-
"Si vede poi un poco discosto, un altro Tempio, fatto ad imitatione della Cappella di Loreto, ben adornato, dove e l'Angelo che annontia l' incarnatione . . . . di relievo."
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In the poetical part of the same book the figures are very warmly praised, as, indeed, they deserve to be. Fassola and Torrotti both say that the Virgin was a very favourite figure--so much so that pilgrims had loaded her with jewels. One night, a thief tried to draw a valuable ring from her finger, when she dealt him a stunning box on the ear that stretched him senseless until he was apprehended and punished. Fassola says of the affair:-
"Fra gl' altri e degna di racconto la mortificazione hauuta da vn peruerso, che fatto ardito, non so da quale spirito diabolico, volendo rubbare alcune di dette gioie, e forsi tutte, dalle mani della Beata Vergine fu reso immobile da vna guanciata della Vergine fin' a tanto, che la giustizia l' hebbe nella sua braccia; contempli ogn' vno questa Statua, che ne riportera mosso il cuore."
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Under the circumstances I should say he had better contemplate her at a respectful distance. I can believe that the thief was very much mortified, but the Virgin seems to have been a good deal mortified too, for I suspect her new head was after this occurrence and not before it.
Such miracles are still of occasional if not frequent occurrence in connection with the Sacro Monte. I have a broadside printed at Milan in 1882 in which a full account is given of a recent miracle worked by the Blessed Virgin of the Sacro Monte of Varallo. It is about a young man who had been miraculously cured of a lingering illness that had baffled the skill of all the most eminent professors; so his father sent him with a lamp of gold and a large sum of money which he was to offer to the Madonna. As he was on his way he felt tired [it must be remembered that the railway was not opened till 1886], so he sat down under a tree and began to amuse himself by counting the treasure. Hardly had he begun to count when he was attacked by four desperate assassins, who with pistols and poignards did their very utmost to despoil him, but it was not the smallest use. One of the assassins was killed, and the others were so cowed that they promised, if he would only fetch them some "devotions" from the Sacro Monte, to abandon their evil courses and thenceforth lead virtuous lives.
We do not pitch our tracts quite so strongly, but need give ourselves no airs in this matter.
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CHAPEL No. 3. THE SALUTATION OF MARY BY ELIZABETH.
The walls of this chapel according to Fassola are old, but the figures all new. Both Fassola and Torrotti say that Tabachetti had just begun to work on this chapel when he lost his reason, but as the work is described as complete in the 1586 edition of Caccia, it is evident, as I have already shown, that his insanity was only temporary, inasmuch as he did another chapel after 1590. Both writers are very brief in their statement of the fact, Fassola only saying "quando era diuenuto pazzo," and Torrotti "impazzitosi." The fresco background is meagre and forms no integral part of the design; this does not go for much, but suggests that in the original state of the chapel, which we know was an early one, there may have been but little background, the fresco background not having yet attained its full development. The figures would doubtless look better than they do if they had not been loaded with many coats of shiny paint, which has clogged some of the modelling; they are not very remarkable, but improve upon examination, and it must be remembered that the subject is one of exceeding difficulty.
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CHAPEL No. 4. FIRST VISION OF ST. JOSEPH.
Fassola and Torrotti say that this chapel was originally a servant's lodge ("ospizio delli serui della Fabrica"), and part of the building is still used as a store-room. The servants were subsequently shifted to what was then the chapel of the Capture of Christ, the figures in that chapel being moved to the one in which they are now. The original Capture chapel was on the ground floor of the large house that stands on the right hand as one enters the small entrance to the Sacro Monte which a visitor will be tempted to take, opposite Giovanni Pschel's chapel, and a little below the Temptation chapel.
The First Vision of St. Joseph is not mentioned in either the 1586 or 1590 editions of Caccia; we may therefore be certain that it did not exist, and may also be sure that it was Tabachetti's last work upon the Sacro Monte--for that it is by him has never been disputed. It should probably be dated early in 1591, by which time Tabachetti must have recovered his reason and was on the point of leaving Varallo for ever. I give a photograph of the very beautiful figure of St. Joseph, which must rank among the finest on the Sacro Monte. I grant that a sleeping figure is the easiest of all subjects, except a dead one, inasmuch as Nature does not here play against the artist with loaded dice, by being able to give the immediate change of position which the artist cannot. With sleep and death there is no change required, so that the hardest sleeping figure is easier than the easiest waking one; moreover, sleep is so touching and beautiful that it is one of the most taking of all subjects; nevertheless there are sleeping figures and sleeping figures, and the St. Joseph in the chapel we are considering is greatly better than the second sleeping St. Joseph in chapel No. 9, by whomsoever this figure may be--or than the sleeping Apostles by D'Enrico in chapel No. 22.
Cusa says that the Madonna is taken from a small figure modelled by Gaudenzio still existing at Valduggia in the possession of the Rivaroli family. She is a very pretty and graceful figure, and is sewing on a pillow in the middle of the composition--of course unmoved by the presence of the angel, who is only visible to her husband. The angel is also a remarkably fine figure.