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Il Sacro Monte di Varallo

by Franco Caresio

Piedmont was the birthplace of one of the main expressions of popular devotion between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries: Sacri Monti (Holy Mounts).
Of a different and more articulate conception than traditional shrines, these complexes consisted of a series of chapels built on hill or mountain slopes where pilgrims could pray and atone for their sins. The Sacri Monti offered safer and more affordable alternatives to the traditional Palestine pilgrimages, enabled the Church to control and herd the faithful, and served as bulwarks against Protestantism. Piedmont houses thirteen of these monuments.
The best-known can be found at Varallo Sesia, Oropa, Crea, Orta, and Arona (the main feature of the latter is San Carlone, a colossal copper statue of St. Carlo Borromeo); most of them are situated in the northernmost part of the region.
The relevance of Sacri Monti is not just religious, it is cultural and artistic as well, because the foremost artists of the time worked to their building and decoration: names include Gaudenzio Ferrari, Bernardino Lanino, Defendente Ferrari, and even Royal architect Benedetto Alfieri.
The Sacro Monte of Varallo Sesia is the oldest of its kind: its construction began in the late fifteenth century by initiative of Br. Bernardino Caìmi, a Franciscan from Milan who, having spent a few years in Jerusalem, decided to build a "miniature Holy Land" and found the ideal spot in the rock outcrop overlooking the town of Varallo Sesia. Work began in 1486 with the laying of the first stone of church and convent of St. Maria delle Grazie (completed in 1493), continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and ended in 1896 with the completion of the faà§ade of the main church.
On the whole, the complex numbers 44 chapels and a big church, the Basilica dell'Assunta. The chapels make a tour-pilgrimage titled Stories from the Mystery of Salvation and illustrated with frescoes and polychromatic life-size sculptures: in all, about four thousand painted figures and six hundred statues. Subjects include the main episodes of the Scriptures and the holiest places of Christendom -like The Last Supper, the Virgin's tomb and Christ's Sepulchre (which was also the first chapel to be built, in 1491).
In the early sixteenth century construction proceeded speedily. The main figure of this period was architect, painter and sculptor Gaudenzio Ferrari. Rumours of miracles drew increasing numbers of pilgrims to the shrine: the most affluent or illustrious of them commissioned the building and decoration of chapels, and hired artists like Bernardino Lanino, Giulio Cesare Luini, and architect Galeazzo Alessi from Genoa. In the seventeenth century, the shrine was endowed with more chapels, a new church, and "Pilate's Palace" that contained the Scala Santa ("Holy Stairway": a replica of the staircase of Jerusalem's Praetorium, said to have been carried to St. John Lateran in Rome by the early Christians).
The 1700's witnessed the completion of the chapels and of several frescoes; work also continued on the main church. The complex includes a stone fountain built in 1510, and culminates with a Basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its bronze gate is decorated with panels illustrating episodes of the Bible, and the nave is flanked by six side altars. The completion of the staggeringly rich stucco and fresco decoration of the apse took two hundred years and includes as many as 142 statues of angels, patriarchs and prophets, and about 500 painted putti.


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Abbeys and Monasteries

Il Sacro Monte di Varallo

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