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

Chapter XV

Oropa (continued)

On the east side of the main block of buildings there is a grassy slope adorned with chapels that contain illustrating scenes in the history of the Virgin. These figures are of terra-cotta, for the most part life-size, and painted up to nature. In some cases, if I remember rightly, they have hemp or flax for hair, as at Varallo, and throughout realism is aimed at as far as possible, not only in the figures, but in the accessories. We have very little of the same kind in England. In the Tower of London there is an effigy of Queen Elizabeth going to the city to give thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This looks as if it might have been the work of some one of the Valsesian sculptors. There are also the figures that strike the quarters of Sir John Bennett’s city clock in Cheapside. The automatic movements of these last-named figures would have struck the originators of the Varallo chapels with envy. They aimed at realism so closely that they would assuredly have had recourse to clockwork in some one or two of their chapels; I cannot doubt, for example, that they would have eagerly welcomed the idea of making the cock crow to Peter by a cuckoo-clock arrangement, if it had been presented to them. This opens up the whole question of realism versus conventionalism in art — a subject much too large to be treated here.

As I have said, the founders of these Italian chapels aimed at realism. Each chapel was intended as an illustration, and the desire was to bring the whole scene more vividly before the faithful by combining the picture, the statue, and the effect of a scene upon the stage in a single work of art. The attempt would be an ambitious one, though made once only in a neighbourhood, but in most of the places in North Italy where anything of the kind has been done, the people have not been content with a single illustration; it has been their scheme to take a mountain as though it had been a book or wall and cover it with illustrations. In some cases — as at Orta, whose Sacro Monte is perhaps the most beautiful of all as regards the site itself — the failure is complete, but in some of the chapels at Varese and in many of those at Varallo, great works have been produced which have not yet attracted as much attention as they deserve. It may be doubted, indeed, whether there is a more remarkable work of art in North Italy than the Crucifixion chapel at Varallo, where the twenty-five statues, as well as the frescoes behind them, are (with the exception of the figure of Christ, which has been removed) by Gaudenzio Ferrari. It is to be wished that some one of these chapels — both chapel and sculptures — were reproduced at South Kensington.

Varallo, which is undoubtedly the most interesting sanctuary in North Italy, has forty-four of these illustrative chapels; Varese, fifteen; Orta, eighteen; and Oropa, seventeen. No one is allowed to enter them, except when repairs are needed; but when these are going on, as is constantly the case, it is curious to look through the grating into the somewhat darkened interior, and to see a living figure or two among the statues; a little motion on the part of a single figure seems to communicate itself to the rest and make them all more animated. If the living figure does not move much, it is easy at first to mistake it for a terra-cotta one. At Orta, some years since, looking one evening into a chapel when the light was fading, I was surprised to see a saint whom I had not seen before; he had no glory except what shone from a very red nose; he was smoking a short pipe, and was painting the Virgin Mary’s face. The touch was a finishing one, put on with deliberation, slowly, so that it was two or three seconds before I discovered that the interloper was no saint.

The figures in the chapels at Oropa are not as good as the best of those at Varallo, but some of them are very nice notwithstanding. We liked the seventh chapel the best — the one which illustrates the sojourn of the Virgin Mary in the temple. It contains forty-four figures, and represents the Virgin on the point of completing her education as head girl at a high-toned academy for young gentlewomen. All the young ladies are at work making mitres for the bishop, or working slippers in Berlin wool for the new curate, but the Virgin sits on a dais above the others on the same platform with the venerable lady-principal, who is having passages read out to her from some standard Hebrew writer. The statues are the work of a local sculptor, named Aureggio, who lived at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century.

The highest chapel must be a couple of hundred feet above the main buildings, and from near it there is an excellent bird’s-eye view of the sanctuary and the small plain behind; descending on to this last, we entered the quadrangle from the north-west side and visited the chapel in which the sacred image of the Madonna is contained. We did not see the image itself, which is only exposed to public view on great occasions. It is believed to have been carved by St. Luke the Evangelist. I must ask the reader to content himself with the following account of it which I take from Marocco’s work upon Oropa.:-

“That this statue of the Virgin is indeed by St. Luke is attested by St. Eusebius, a man of eminent piety and no less enlightened than truthful. St. Eusebius discovered its origin by revelation; and the store which he set by it is proved by his shrinking from no discomforts in his carriage of it from a distant country, and by his anxiety to put it in a place of great security. His desire, indeed, was to keep it in the spot which was most near and dear to him, so that he might extract from it the higher incitement to devotion, and more sensible comfort in the midst of his austerities and apostolic labours.

“This truth is further confirmed by the quality of the wood from which the statue is carved, which is commonly believed to be cedar; by the Eastern character of the work; by the resemblance both of the lineaments and the colour to those of other statues by St. Luke; by the tradition of the neighbourhood, which extends in an unbroken and well-assured line to the time of St. Eusebius himself; by the miracles that have been worked here by its presence, and elsewhere by its invocation, or even by indirect contact with it; by the miracles, lastly, which are inherent in the image itself,23 and which endure to this day, such as is its immunity from all worm and from the decay which would naturally have occurred in it through time and damp — more especially in the feet, through the rubbing of religious objects against them.


“The authenticity of this image is so certainly and clearly established, that all supposition to the contrary becomes inexplicable and absurd. Such, for example, is a hypothesis that it should not be attributed to the Evangelist, but to another Luke, also called ‘Saint,’ and a Florentine by birth. This painter lived in the eleventh century — that is to say, about seven centuries after the image of Oropa had been known and venerated! This is indeed an anachronism.

“Other difficulties drawn either from the ancient discipline of the Church, or from St. Luke the Evangelist’s profession, which was that of a physician, vanish at once when it is borne in mind — firstly, that the cult of holy images, and especially of that of the most blessed Virgin, is of extreme antiquity in the Church, and of apostolic origin as is proved by ecclesiastical writers and monuments found in the catacombs which date as far back as the first century (see among other authorities, Nicolas, “La Vergine vivente nella Chiesa,” lib. iii. cap. iii. ss 2); secondly, that as the medical profession does not exclude that of artist, St. Luke may have been both artist and physician; that he did actually handle both the brush and the scalpel is established by respectable and very old traditions, to say nothing of other arguments which can be found in impartial and learned writers upon such matters.”

I will only give one more extract. It runs:-

“In 1855 a celebrated Roman portrait-painter, after having carefully inspected the image of the Virgin Mary at Oropa, declared it to be certainly a work of the first century of our era.” 24

I once saw a common cheap china copy of this Madonna announced as to be given away with two pounds of tea, in a shop near Hatton Garden.

The church in which the sacred image is kept is interesting from the pilgrims who at all times frequent it, and from the collection of votive pictures which adorn its walls. Except the votive pictures and the pilgrims the church contains little of interest, and I will pass on to the constitution and objects of the establishment.-

The objects are — 1. Gratuitous lodging to all comers for a space of from three to nine days as the rector may think fit. 2. A school. 3. Help to the sick and poor. It is governed by a president and six members, who form a committee. Four members are chosen by the communal council, and two by the cathedral chapter of Biella. At the hospice itself there reside a director, with his assistant, a surveyor to keep the fabric in repair, a rector or dean with six priests, called cappellani, and a medical man. “The government of the laundry,” so runs the statute on this head, “and analogous domestic services are entrusted to a competent number of ladies of sound constitution and good conduct, who live together in the hospice under the direction of an inspectress, and are called daughters of Oropa.”

The bye-laws of the establishment are conceived in a kindly genial spirit, which in great measure accounts for its unmistakeable popularity. We understood that the poorer visitors, as a general rule, avail themselves of the gratuitous lodging, without making any present when they leave, but in spite of this it is quite clear that they are wanted to come, and come they accordingly do. It is sometimes difficult to lay one’s hands upon the exact passages which convey an impression, but as we read the bye-laws which are posted up in the cloisters, we found ourselves continually smiling at the manner in which almost anything that looked like a prohibition could be removed with the consent of the director. There is no rule whatever about visitors attending the church; all that is required of them is that they do not interfere with those who do. They must not play games of chance, or noisy games; they must not make much noise of any sort after ten o’clock at night (which corresponds about with midnight in England). They should not draw upon the walls of their rooms, nor cut the furniture. They should also keep their rooms clean, and not cook in those that are more expensively furnished. This is about all that they must not do, except fee the servants, which is most especially and particularly forbidden. If any one infringes these rules, he is to be admonished, and in case of grave infraction or continued misdemeanour he may be expelled and not readmitted.

Visitors who are lodged in the better-furnished apartments can be waited upon if they apply at the office; the charge is twopence for cleaning a room, making the bed, bringing water, &c. If there is more than one bed in a room, a penny must be paid for every bed over the first. Boots can be cleaned for a penny, shoes for a half-penny. For carrying wood, &c., either a halfpenny or a penny will be exacted according to the time taken. Payment for these services must not be made to the servant, but at the office.

The gates close at ten o’clock at night, and open at sunrise, “but if any visitor wishes to make Alpine excursions, or has any other sufficient reason, he should let the director know.” Families occupying many rooms must — when the hospice is very crowded, and when they have had due notice — manage to pack themselves into a smaller compass. No one can have rooms kept for him. It is to be strictly “first come, first served.” No one must sublet his room. Visitors must not go away without giving up the key of their room. Candles and wood may be bought at a fixed price.

Any one wishing to give anything to the support of the hospice must do so only to the director, the official who appoints the apartments, the dean or the cappellani, or to the inspectress of the daughters of Oropa, but they must have a receipt for even the smallest sum; alms-boxes, however, are placed here and there, into which the smaller offerings may be dropped (we imagine this means anything under a franc).

The poor will be fed as well as housed for three days gratuitously- -provided their health does not require a longer stay; but they must not beg on the premises of the hospice; professional beggars will be at once handed over to the mendicity society in Biella, or even perhaps to prison. The poor for whom a hydropathic course is recommended, can have it under the regulations made by the committee — that is to say, if there is a vacant place.

There are trattorie and cafes at the hospice, where refreshments may be obtained both good and cheap. Meat is to be sold there at the prices current in Biella; bread at two centimes the chilogramma more, to pay for the cost of carriage.

Such are the bye-laws of this remarkable institution. Few except the very rich are so under-worked that two or three days of change and rest are not at times a boon to them, while the mere knowledge that there is a place where repose can be had cheaply and pleasantly is itself a source of strength. Here, so long as the visitor wishes to be merely housed, no questions are asked; no one is refused admittance, except for some obviously sufficient reason; it is like getting a reading ticket for the British Museum, there is practically but one test — that is to say, desire on the part of the visitor — the coming proves the desire, and this suffices. A family, we will say, has just gathered its first harvest; the heat on the plains is intense, and the malaria from the rice grounds little less than pestilential; what, then, can be nicer than to lock up the house and go for three days to the bracing mountain air of Oropa? So at daybreak off they all start, trudging, it may be, their thirty or forty miles, and reaching Oropa by nightfall. If there is a weakly one among them, some arrangement is sure to be practicable, whereby he or she can be helped to follow more leisurely, and can remain longer at the hospice. Once arrived, they generally, it is true, go the round of the chapels, and make some slight show of pilgrimage, but the main part of their time is spent in doing absolutely nothing. It is sufficient amusement to them to sit on the steps, or lie about under the shadow of the trees, and neither say anything nor do anything, but simply breathe, and look at the sky and at each other. We saw scores of such people just resting instinctively in a kind of blissful waking dream. Others saunter along the walks which have been cut in the woods that surround the hospice, or if they have been pent up in a town and have a fancy for climbing, there are mountain excursions, for the making of which the hospice affords excellent headquarters, and which are looked upon with every favour by the authorities.

It must be remembered also that the accommodation provided at Oropa is much better than what the people are, for the most part, accustomed to in their own homes, and the beds are softer, more often beaten up, and cleaner than those they have left behind them. Besides, they have sheets — and beautifully clean sheets. Those who know the sort of place in which an Italian peasant is commonly content to sleep, will understand how much he must enjoy a really clean and comfortable bed, especially when he has not got to pay for it. Sleep, in the circumstances of comfort which most readers will be accustomed to, is a more expensive thing than is commonly supposed. If we sleep eight hours in a London hotel we shall have to pay from 4d. to 6d. an hour, or from 1d. to 1.5d. for every fifteen minutes we lie in bed; nor is it reasonable to believe that the charge is excessive, when we consider the vast amount of competition which exists. There is many a man the expenses of whose daily meat, drink, and clothing are less than what an accountant would show us we, many of us, lay out nightly upon our sleep. The cost of really comfortable sleep-necessaries cannot, of course, be nearly so great at Oropa as in a London hotel, but they are enough to put them beyond the reach of the peasant under ordinary circumstances, and he relishes them all the more when he can get them.

But why, it may be asked, should the peasant have these things if he cannot afford to pay for them; and why should he not pay for them if he can afford to do so? If such places as Oropa were common, would not lazy vagabonds spend their lives in going the rounds of them, &c., &c.? Doubtless if there were many Oropas, they would do more harm than good, but there are some things which answer perfectly well as rarities or on a small scale, out of which all the virtue would depart if they were common or on a larger one; and certainly the impression left upon our minds by Oropa was that its effects were excellent.

Granted the sound rule to be that a man should pay for what he has, or go without it; in practice, however, it is found impossible to carry this rule out strictly. Why does the nation give A. B., for instance, and all comers a large, comfortable, well-ventilated, warm room to sit in, with chair, table, reading-desk, &c., all more commodious than what he may have at home, without making him pay a sixpence for it directly from year’s end to year’s end? The three or nine days’ visit to Oropa is a trifle in comparison with what we can all of us obtain in London if we care about it enough to take a very small amount of trouble. True, one cannot sleep in the reading-room of the British Museum — not all night, at least — but by day one can make a home of it for years together except during cleaning times, and then it is hard if one cannot get into the National Gallery or South Kensington, and be warm, quiet, and entertained without paying for it.

It will be said that it is for the national interest that people should have access to treasuries of art or knowledge, and therefore it is worth the nation’s while to pay for placing the means of doing so at their disposal; granted, but is not a good bed one of the great ends of knowledge, whereto it must work, if it is to be accounted knowledge at all? and is it not worth a nation’s while that her children should now and again have practical experience of a higher state of things than the one they are accustomed to, and a few days’ rest and change of scene and air, even though she may from time to time have to pay something in order to enable them to do so? There can be few books which do an averagely-educated Englishman so much good, as the glimpse of comfort which he gets by sleeping in a good bed in a well-appointed room does to an Italian peasant; such a glimpse gives him an idea of higher potentialities in connection with himself, and nerves him to exertions which he would not otherwise make. On the whole, therefore, we concluded that if the British Museum reading-room was in good economy, Oropa was so also; at any rate, it seemed to be making a large number of very nice people quietly happy — and it is hard to say more than this in favour of any place or institution.

The idea of any sudden change is as repulsive to us as it will be to the greater number of my readers; but if asked whether we thought our English universities would do most good in their present condition as places of so-called education, or if they were turned into Oropas, and all the educational part of the story totally suppressed, we inclined to think they would be more popular and more useful in this latter capacity. We thought also that Oxford and Cambridge were just the places, and contained all the appliances and endowments almost ready made for constituting two splendid and truly imperial cities of recreation — universities in deed as well as in name. Nevertheless, we should not venture to propose any further actual reform during the present generation than to carry the principle which is already admitted as regards the M.A. degree a trifle further, and to make the B.A. degree a mere matter of lapse of time and fees — leaving the Little Go, and whatever corresponds to it at Oxford, as the final examination. This would be enough for the present.

There is another sanctuary about three hours’ walk over the mountain behind Oropa, at Andorno, and dedicated to St. John. We were prevented by the weather from visiting it, but understand that its objects are much the same as those of the institution I have just described. I will now proceed to the third sanctuary for which the neighbourhood of Biella is renowned.

23 “Dalle meraviglie finalmente che sono inerenti al simulacro stesso.”— Cenni storico-artistici intorno al santuario di Oropa. (Prof. Maurizio Marocco. Turin, Milan, 1866, p. 329.)

24 Marocco, p. 331.

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