Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter XIV

Sanctuary of Oropa

From Lanzo I went back to Turin, where Jones again joined me, and we resolved to go and see the famous sanctuary of Oropa near Biella. Biella is about three hours’ railway journey from Turin. It is reached by a branch line of some twenty miles, that leaves the main line between Turin and Milan at Santhia. Except the view of the Alps, which in clear weather cannot be surpassed, there is nothing of very particular interest between Turin and Santhia, nor need Santhia detain the traveller longer than he can help. Biella we found to consist of an upper and a lower town — the upper, as may be supposed, being the older. It is at the very junction of the plain and the mountains, and is a thriving place, with more of the busy air of an English commercial town than perhaps any other of its size in North Italy. Even in the old town large rambling old palazzi have been converted into factories, and the click of the shuttle is heard in unexpected places.

We were unable to find that Biella contains any remarkable pictures or other works of art, though they are doubtless to be found by those who have the time to look for them. There is a very fine campanile near the post-office, and an old brick baptistery, also hard by; but the church to which both campanile and baptistery belonged, has, as the author of “Round about London” so well says, been “utterly restored;” it cannot be uglier than what we sometimes do, but it is quite as ugly. We found an Italian opera company in Biella; peeping through a grating, as many others were doing, we watched the company rehearsing “La forza del destino,” which was to be given later in the week.

The morning after our arrival, we took the daily diligence for Oropa, leaving Biella at eight o’clock. Before we were clear of the town we could see the long line of the hospice, and the chapels dotted about near it, high up in a valley at some distance off; presently we were shown another fine building some eight or nine miles away, which we were told was the sanctuary of Graglia. About this time the pictures and statuettes of the Madonna began to change their hue and to become black — for the sacred image of Oropa being black, all the Madonnas in her immediate neighbourhood are of the same complexion. Underneath some of them is written, “Nigra sum sed sum formosa,” which, as a rule, was more true as regards the first epithet than the second.

It was not market-day, but streams of people were coming to the town. Many of them were pilgrims returning from the sanctuary, but more were bringing the produce of their farms, or the work of their hands for sale. We had to face a steady stream of chairs, which were coming to town in baskets upon women’s heads. Each basket contained twelve chairs, though whether it is correct to say that the basket contained the chairs — when the chairs were all, so to say, froth running over the top of the basket — is a point I cannot settle. Certainly we had never seen anything like so many chairs before, and felt almost as though we had surprised nature in the laboratory wherefrom she turns out the chair supply of the world. The road continued through a succession of villages almost running into one another for a long way after Biella was passed, but everywhere we noticed the same air of busy thriving industry which we had seen in Biella itself. We noted also that a preponderance of the people had light hair, while that of the children was frequently nearly white, as though the infusion of German blood was here stronger even than usual. Though so thickly peopled, the country was of great beauty. Near at hand were the most exquisite pastures close shaven after their second mowing, gay with autumnal crocuses, and shaded with stately chestnuts; beyond were rugged mountains, in a combe on one of which we saw Oropa itself now gradually nearing; behind and below, many villages with vineyards and terraces cultivated to the highest perfection; further on, Biella already distant, and beyond this a “big stare,” as an American might say, over the plains of Lombardy from Turin to Milan, with the Apennines from Genoa to Bologna hemming the horizon. On the road immediate before us, we still faced the same steady stream of chairs flowing ever Biella-ward.

After a couple of hours the houses became more rare; we got above the sources of the chair-stream; bits of rough rock began to jut out from the pasture; here and there the rhododendron began to show itself by the roadside; the chestnuts left off along a line as level as though cut with a knife; stone-roofed cascine began to abound, with goats and cattle feeding near them; the booths of the religious trinket-mongers increased; the blind, halt, and maimed became more importunate, and the foot-passengers were more entirely composed of those whose object was, or had been, a visit to the sanctuary itself. The numbers of these pilgrims — generally in their Sunday’s best, and often comprising the greater part of a family — were so great, though there was no special festa, as to testify to the popularity of the institution. They generally walked barefoot, and carried their shoes and stockings; their baggage consisted of a few spare clothes, a little food, and a pot or pan or two to cook with. Many of them looked very tired, and had evidently tramped from long distances — indeed, we saw costumes belonging to valleys which could not be less than two or three days distant. They were almost invariably quiet, respectable, and decently clad, sometimes a little merry, but never noisy, and none of them tipsy. As we travelled along the road, we must have fallen in with several hundreds of these pilgrims coming and going; nor is this likely to be an extravagant estimate, seeing that the hospice can make up more than five thousand beds. By eleven we were at the sanctuary itself.

Fancy a quiet upland valley, the floor of which is about the same height as the top of Snowdon, shut in by lofty mountains upon three sides, while on the fourth the eye wanders at will over the plains below. Fancy finding a level space in such a valley watered by a beautiful mountain stream, and nearly filled by a pile of collegiate buildings, not less important than those, we will say, of Trinity College, Cambridge. True, Oropa is not in the least like Trinity, except that one of its courts is large, grassy, has a chapel and a fountain in it, and rooms all round it; but I do not know how better to give a rough description of Oropa than by comparing it with one of our largest English colleges.

The buildings consist of two main courts. The first comprises a couple of modern wings, connected by the magnificent facade of what is now the second or inner court. This facade dates from about the middle of the seventeenth century; its lowest storey is formed by an open colonnade, and the whole stands upon a raised terrace from which a noble flight of steps descends into the outer court.

Ascending the steps and passing under the colonnade, we found ourselves in the second or inner court, which is a complete quadrangle, and is, we were told, of rather older date than the facade. This is the quadrangle which gives its collegiate character to Oropa. It is surrounded by cloisters on three sides, on to which the rooms in which the pilgrims are lodged open — those at least that are on the ground-floor, for there are three storeys. The chapel, which was dedicated in the year 1600, juts out into the court upon the north-east side. On the north-west and south-west sides are entrances through which one may pass to the open country. The grass, at the time of our visit, was for the most part covered with sheets spread out to dry. They looked very nice, and, dried on such grass and in such an air, they must be delicious to sleep on. There is, indeed, rather an appearance as though it were a perpetual washing-day at Oropa, but this is not to be wondered at considering the numbers of comers and goers; besides, people in Italy do not make so much fuss about trifles as we do. If they want to wash their sheets and dry them, they do not send them to Ealing, but lay them out in the first place that comes handy, and nobody’s bones are broken.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:42