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

Chapter XXII

Sacro Monte, Varese

From Mendrisio we took a trap across the country to Varese, passing through Stabbio, where there are some baths that are much frequented by Italians in the summer. The road is a pleasant one, but does not go through any specially remarkable places. Travellers taking this road had better leave every cigarette behind them on which they do not want to pay duty, as the custom-house official at the frontier takes a strict view of what is due to his employers. I had, perhaps, a couple of ounces of tobacco in my pouch, but was made to pay duty on it, and the searching of our small amount of luggage was little less than inquisitorial.

From Varese we went without stopping to the Sacro Monte, four or five miles beyond, and several hundred feet higher than the town itself. Close to the first chapel, and just below the arch through which the more sacred part of the mountain is entered upon, there is an excellent hotel called the Hotel Riposo, kept by Signor Piotti; it is very comfortable, and not at all too hot even in the dog-days; it commands magnificent views, and makes very good headquarters.

Here we rested and watched the pilgrims going up and down. They seemed very good-humoured and merry. Then we looked through the grating of the first chapel inside the arch, and found it to contain a representation of the Annunciation. The Virgin had a real washing-stand, with a basin and jug, and a piece of real soap. Her slippers were disposed neatly under the bed, so also were her shoes, and, if I remember rightly, there was everything else that Messrs. Heal & Co. would send for the furnishing of a lady’s bedroom.

I have already said perhaps too much about the realism of these groups of painted statuary, but will venture a word or two more which may help the reader to understand the matter better as it appears to Catholics themselves. The object is to bring the scene as vividly as possible before people who have not had the opportunity of being able to realise it to themselves through travel or general cultivation of the imaginative faculties. How can an Italian peasant realise to himself the notion of the Annunciation so well as by seeing such a chapel as that at Varese? Common sense says, either tell the peasant nothing about the Annunciation, or put every facility in his way by the help of which he will be able to conceive the idea with some definiteness.

We stuff the dead bodies of birds and animals which we think it worth while to put into our museums. We put them in the most life- like attitudes we can, with bits of grass and bush, and painted landscape behind them: by doing this we give people who have never seen the actual animals, a more vivid idea concerning them than we know how to give by any other means. We have not room in the British Museum to give a loose rein to realism in the matter of accessories, but each bird or animal in the collection is so stuffed as to make it look as much alive as the stuffer can make it — even to the insertion of glass eyes. We think it well that our people should have an opportunity of realising these birds and beasts to themselves, but we are shocked at the notion of giving them a similar aid to the realisation of events which, as we say, concern them more nearly than any others, in the history of the world. A stuffed rabbit or blackbird is a good thing. A stuffed Charge of Balaclava again is quite legitimate; but a stuffed Nativity is, according to Protestant notions, offensive.

Over and above the desire to help the masses to realise the events in Christ’s life more vividly, something is doubtless due to the wish to attract people by giving them what they like. This is both natural and legitimate. Our own rectors find the prettiest psalm and hymn tunes they can for the use of their congregations, and take much pains generally to beautify their churches. Why should not the Church of Rome make herself attractive also? If she knows better how to do this than Protestant churches do, small blame to her for that. For the people delight in these graven images. Listen to the hushed “oh bel!” which falls from them as they peep through grating after grating; and the more tawdry a chapel is, the better, as a general rule, they are contented. They like them as our own people like Madame Tussaud’s. Granted that they come to worship the images; they do; they hardly attempt to conceal it. The writer of the authorised handbook to the Sacro Monte at Locarno, for example, speaks of “the solemn coronation of the image that is there revered”—“la solenne coronazione del simulacro ivi venerato” (p. 7). But how, pray, can we avoid worshipping images? or loving images? The actual living form of Christ on earth was still not Christ, it was but the image under which His disciples saw Him; nor can we see more of any of those we love than a certain more versatile and warmer presentment of them than an artist can counterfeit. The ultimate “them” we see not.

How far these chapels have done all that their founders expected of them is another matter. They have undoubtedly strengthened the hands of the Church in their immediate neighbourhood, and they have given an incalculable amount of pleasure, but I think that in the Middle Ages people expected of art more than art can do. They hoped a fine work of art would exercise a deep and permanent effect upon the lives of those who lived near it. Doubtless it does have some effect — enough to make it worth while to encourage such works, but nevertheless the effect is, I imagine, very transient. The only thing that can produce a deep and permanently good influence upon a man’s character is to have been begotten of good ancestors for many generations — or at any rate to have reverted to a good ancestor — and to live among nice people.

The chapels themselves at Varese, apart from their contents, are very beautiful. They come as fresh one after the other as a set of variations by Handel. Each one of them is a little architectural gem, while the figures they contain are sometimes very good, though on the whole not equal to those at Varallo. The subjects are the mysteries of joy, namely, the Annunciation (immediately after the first great arch is passed), the Salutation of Mary by Elizabeth, the Nativity, the Presentation, and the Disputing with the Doctors. Then there is a second arch, after which come the mysteries of grief — the Agony in the Garden, the Flagellation, the Crowning with Thorns, the Ascent to Calvary, and the Crucifixion. Passing through a third arch, we come to the mysteries of glory — the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Dispute in the Temple is the chapel which left the deepest impression upon us. Here the various attitudes and expressions of the doctors are admirably rendered. There is one man, I think he must have been a broad churchman and have taken in the “Spectator”; his arms are folded, and he is smiling a little, with his head on one side. He is not prepared, he seems to say, to deny that there is a certain element of truth in what this young person has been saying, but it is very shallow, and in all essential points has been refuted over and over again; he has seen these things come and go so often, &c. But all the doctors are good. The Christ is weak, and so are the Joseph and Mary in the background; in fact, throughout the whole series of chapels the wicked or worldly and indifferent people are well done, while the saints are a feeble folk: the sculptor evidently neither understood them nor liked them, and could never get beyond silliness; but the artist who has lately done them up has made them still weaker and sillier by giving them all pink noses.

Shortly after the sixth chapel has been passed the road turns a corner, and the town on the hill (see preceding page) comes into full view. This is a singularly beautiful spot. The chapels are worth coming a long way to see, but this view of the town is better still: we generally like any building that is on the top of a hill; it is an instinct in our nature to do so; it is a remnant of the same instinct which makes sheep like to camp at the top of a hill; it gives a remote sense of security and vantage-ground against an enemy. The Italians seem hardly able to look at a high place without longing to put something on the top of it, and they have seldom done so with better effect than in the case of the Sacro Monte at Varese. From the moment of its bursting upon one on turning the corner near the seventh, or Flagellation chapel, one cannot keep one’s eyes off it, and one fancies, as with S. Michele, that it comes better and better with every step one takes; near the top it composes, as on p. 254, but without colour nothing can give an adequate notion of its extreme beauty. Once at the top the interest centres in the higgledy-pigglediness of the houses, the gay colours of the booths where strings of beads and other religious knick-knacks are sold, the glorious panorama, and in the inn where one can dine very well, and I should imagine find good sleeping accommodation. The view from the balcony outside the dining-room is wonderful, and above is a sketch from the terrace just in front of the church.

There is here no single building comparable to the sanctuary of Sammichele, nor is there any trace of that beautiful Lombard work which makes so much impression upon one in the church on the Monte Pirchiriano; the architecture is late, and barocco, not to say rococo, reigns everywhere; nevertheless the effect of the church is good. The visitor should get the sacristan to show him a very fine pagliotto or altar cloth of raised embroidery, worked in the thirteenth century. He will also do well to walk some little distance behind the town on the way to S. Maria dei fiori (St. Mary of the flowers) and look down upon the town and Lombardy. I do not think he need go much higher than this, unless he has a fancy for climbing.

The Sacro Monte is a kind of ecclesiastical Rosherville Gardens, eminently the place to spend a happy day. We happened by good luck to be there during one of the great feste of the year, and saw I am afraid to say how many thousands of pilgrims go up and down. They were admirably behaved, and not one of them tipsy. There was an old English gentleman at the Hotel Riposo who told us that there had been another such festa not many weeks previously, and that he had seen one drunken man there — an Englishman — who kept abusing all he saw and crying out, “Manchester’s the place for me.”

The processions were best at the last part of the ascent; there were pilgrims, all decked out with coloured feathers, and priests and banners and music and crimson and gold and white and glittering brass against the cloudless blue sky. The old priest sat at his open window to receive the offerings of the devout as they passed; but he did not seem to get more than a few bambini modelled in wax. Perhaps he was used to it. And the band played the barocco music on the barocco little piazza and we were all barocco together. It was as though the clergyman at Ladywell had given out that, instead of having service usual, the congregation would go in procession to the Crystal Palace with all their traps, and that the band had been practising “Wait till the clouds roll by” for some time, and on Sunday as a great treat they should have it.

The Pope has issued an order saying he will not have masses written like operas. It is no use. The Pope can do much, but he will not be able to get contrapuntal music into Varese. He will not be able to get anything more solemn than “La Fille de Madame Angot” into Varese. As for fugues —! I would as soon take an English bishop to the Surrey pantomime as to the Sacro Monte on a festa.

Then the pilgrims went into the shadow of a great rock behind the sanctuary, spread themselves out over the grass and dined.

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