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

Chapter XVI


The sanctuary of Graglia is reached in about two hours from Biella. There are daily diligences. It is not so celebrated as that of Oropa, nor does it stand so high above the level of the sea, but it is a remarkable place and well deserves a visit. The restaurant is perfect — the best, indeed, that I ever saw in North Italy, or, I think, anywhere else. I had occasion to go into the kitchen, and could not see how anything could beat it for the most absolute cleanliness and order. Certainly I never dined better than at the sanctuary of Graglia; and one dines all the more pleasantly for doing so on a lovely terrace shaded by trellised creepers, and overlooking Lombardy.

I find from a small handbook by Signor Giuseppe Muratori, that the present institution, like that of S. Michele, and almost all things else that achieve success, was founded upon the work of a predecessor, and became great not in one, but in several generations. The site was already venerated on account of a chapel in honour of the Vergine addolorata which had existed here from very early times. A certain Nicolao Velotti, about the year 1616, formed the design of reproducing Mount Calvary on this spot, and of erecting perhaps a hundred chapels with terra-cotta figures in them. The famous Valsesian sculptor, Tabachetti, and his pupils, the brothers Giovanni and Antonio (commonly called “Tanzio”), D’Enrico of Riva in the Val Sesia, all of whom had recently been working at the sanctuary of Varallo, were invited to Graglia, and later on, another eminent native of the Val Sesia, Pietro Giuseppe Martello. These artists appear to have done a good deal of work here, of which nothing now remains visible to the public, though it is possible that in the chapel of S. Carlo and the closed chapels on the way to it, there may be some statues lying neglected which I know nothing about. I was told of no such work, but when I was at Graglia I did not know that the above-named great men had ever worked there, and made no inquiries. It is quite possible that all the work they did here has not perished.

The means at the disposal of the people of Graglia were insufficient for the end they had in view, but subscriptions came in freely from other quarters. Among the valuable rights, liberties, privileges, and immunities that were conferred upon the institution, was one which in itself was a source of unfailing and considerable revenue, namely, the right of setting a robber free once in every year; also, the authorities there were allowed to sell all kinds of wine and eatables (robe mangiative) without paying duty upon them. As far as I can understand, the main work of Velotti’s is the chapel of S. Carlo, on the top of a hill some few hundred feet above the present establishment. I give a sketch of this chapel here, but was not able to include the smaller chapels which lead up to it.

A few years later, one Nicolao Garono built a small oratory at Campra, which is nearer to Biella than Graglia is. He dedicated it to S. Maria della Neve — to St. Mary of the Snow. This became more frequented than Graglia itself, and the feast of the Virgin on the 5th August was exceedingly popular. Signor Muratori says of it:-

“This is the popular feast of Graglia, and I can remember how but a few years since it retained on a small scale all the features of the sacre campestri of the Middle Ages. For some time past, however, the stricter customs which have been introduced here no less than in other Piedmontese villages have robbed this feast (as how many more popular feasts has it not also robbed?) of that original and spontaneous character in which a jovial heartiness and a diffusive interchange of the affections came welling forth from all abundantly. In spite of all, however, and notwithstanding its decline, the feast of the Madonna is even now one of those rare gatherings — the only one, perhaps, in the neighbourhood of Biella — to which the pious Christian and the curious idler are alike attracted, and where they will alike find appropriate amusement.”25

How Miltonic, not to say Handelian, is this attitude towards the Pagan tendencies which, it is clear, predominated at the festa of St. Mary of the Snow. In old days a feast was meant to be a time of actual merriment — a praising “with mirth, high cheer, and wine.”26 Milton felt this a little, and Handel much. To them an opportunity for a little paganism is like the scratching of a mouse to the princess who had been born a cat. Off they go after it — more especially Handel — under some decent pretext no doubt, but as fast, nevertheless, as their art can carry them. As for Handel, he had not only a sympathy for paganism, but for the shades and gradations of paganism. What, for example, can be a completer contrast than between the polished and refined Roman paganism in Theodora, 27 the rustic paganism of “Bid the maids the youths provoke” in Hercules, the magician’s or sorcerer’s paganism of the blue furnace in “Chemosh no more,” 28 or the Dagon choruses in Samson — to say nothing of a score of other examples that might be easily adduced? Yet who can doubt the sincerity and even fervour of either Milton’s or Handel’s religious convictions? The attitude assumed by these men, and by the better class of Romanists, seems to have become impossible to Protestants since the time of Dr. Arnold.

I once saw a church dedicated to St. Francis. Outside it, over the main door, there was a fresco of the saint receiving the stigmata; his eyes were upturned in a fine ecstasy to the illuminated spot in the heavens whence the causes of the stigmata were coming. The church was insured, and the man who had affixed the plate of the insurance office had put it at the precise spot in the sky to which St. Francis’s eyes were turned, so that the plate appeared to be the main cause of his ecstasy. Who cared? No one; until a carping Englishman came to the place, and thought it incumbent upon him to be scandalised, or to pretend to be so; on this the authorities were made very uncomfortable, and changed the position of the plate. Granted that the Englishman was right; granted, in fact, that we are more logical; this amounts to saying that we are more rickety, and must walk more supported by cramp-irons. All the “earnestness,” and “intenseness,” and “aestheticism,” and “culture” (for they are in the end one) of the present day, are just so many attempts to conceal weakness.

But to return. The church of St. Mary of the Snow at Campra was incorporated into the Graglia institution in 1628. There was originally no connection between the two, and it was not long before the later church became more popular than the earlier, insomuch that the work at Graglia was allowed to fall out of repair. On the death of Velotti the scheme languished, and by and by, instead of building more chapels, it was decided that it would be enough to keep in repair those that were already built. These, as I have said, are the chapels of S. Carlo, and the small ones which are now seen upon the way up to it, but they are all in a semi-ruinous state.

Besides the church of St. Mary of the Snow at Campra, there was another which was an exact copy of the Santa Casa di Loreto, and where there was a remarkable echo which would repeat a word of ten syllables when the wind was quiet. This was exactly on the site of the present sanctuary. It seemed a better place for the continuation of Velotti’s work than the one he had himself chosen for it, inasmuch as it was where Signor Muratori so well implies a centre of devotion ought to be, namely, in “a milder climate, and in a spot which offers more resistance to the inclemency of the weather, and is better adapted to attract and retain the concourse of the faithful.”

The design of the present church was made by an architect of the name of Arduzzi, in the year 1654, and the first stone was laid in 1659. In 1687 the right of liberating a bandit every year had been found to be productive of so much mischief that it was discontinued, and a yearly contribution of two hundred lire was substituted. The church was not completed until the second half of the last century, when the cupola was finished mainly through the energy of a priest, Carlo Giuseppe Gastaldi of Netro. This poor man came to his end in a rather singular way. He was dozing for a few minutes upon a scaffolding, and being awakened by a sudden noise, he started up, lost his balance, and fell over on to the pavement below. He died a few days later, on the 17th of October, either 1787 or 1778, I cannot determine which, through a misprint in Muratori’s account.

The work was now virtually finished, and the buildings were much as they are seen now, except that a third storey was added to the hospice about the year 1840. It is in the hospice that the apartments are in which visitors are lodged. I was shown all over them, and found them not only comfortable but luxurious — decidedly more so than those of Oropa; there was the same cleanliness everywhere which I had noticed in the restaurant. As one stands at the windows or on the balconies and looks down on to the tops of the chestnuts, and over these to the plains, one feels almost as if one could fly out of the window like a bird; for the slope of the hills is so rapid that one has a sense of being already suspended in mid-air.

I thought I observed a desire to attract English visitors in the pictures which I saw in the bedrooms. Thus there was “A view of the black lead mine in Cumberland,” a coloured English print of the end of the last century or the beginning of this, after, I think, Loutherbourg, and in several rooms there were English engravings after Martin. The English will not, I think, regret if they yield to these attractions. They will find the air cool, shady walks, good food, and reasonable prices. Their rooms will not be charged for, but they will do well to give the same as they would have paid at an hotel. I saw in one room one of those flippant, frivolous, Lorenzo de’ Medici match-boxes on which there was a gaudily- coloured nymph in high-heeled boots and tights, smoking a cigarette. Feeling that I was in a sanctuary, I was a little surprised that such a matchbox should have been tolerated. I suppose it had been left behind by some guest. I should myself select a matchbox with the Nativity, or the Flight into Egypt upon it, if I were going to stay a week or so at Graglia. I do not think I can have looked surprised or scandalised, but the worthy official who was with me could just see that there was something on my mind. “Do you want a match?” said he, immediately reaching me the box. I helped myself, and the matter dropped.

There were many fewer people at Graglia than at Oropa, and they were richer. I did not see any poor about, but I may have been there during a slack time. An impression was left upon me, though I cannot say whether it was well or ill founded, as though there were a tacit understanding between the establishments at Oropa and Graglia that the one was to adapt itself to the poorer, and the other to the richer classes of society; and this not from any sordid motive, but from a recognition of the fact that any great amount of intermixture between the poor and the rich is not found satisfactory to either one or the other. Any wide difference in fortune does practically amount to a specific difference, which renders the members of either species more or less suspicious of those of the other, and seldom fertile inter se. The well-to-do working-man can help his poorer friends better than we can. If an educated man has money to spare, he will apply it better in helping poor educated people than those who are more strictly called the poor. As long as the world is progressing, wide class distinctions are inevitable; their discontinuance will be a sign that equilibrium has been reached. Then human civilisation will become as stationary as that of ants and bees. Some may say it will be very sad when this is so; others, that it will be a good thing; in truth, it is good either way, for progress and equilibrium have each of them advantages and disadvantages which make it impossible to assign superiority to either; but in both cases the good greatly overbalances the evil; for in both the great majority will be fairly well contented, and would hate to live under any other system.

Equilibrium, if it is ever reached, will be attained very slowly, and the importance of any change in a system depends entirely upon the rate at which it is made. No amount of change shocks — or, in other words, is important — if it is made sufficiently slowly, while hardly any change is too small to shock if it is made suddenly. We may go down a ladder of ten thousand feet in height if we do so step by step, while a sudden fall of six or seven feet may kill us. The importance, therefore, does not lie in the change, but in the abruptness of its introduction. Nothing is absolutely important or absolutely unimportant, absolutely good or absolutely bad.

This is not what we like to contemplate. The instinct of those whose religion and culture are on the surface only is to conceive that they have found, or can find, an absolute and eternal standard, about which they can be as earnest as they choose. They would have even the pains of hell eternal if they could. If there had been any means discoverable by which they could torment themselves beyond endurance, we may be sure they would long since have found it out; but fortunately there is a stronger power which bars them inexorably from their desire, and which has ensured that intolerable pain shall last only for a very little while. For either the circumstances or the sufferer will change after no long time. If the circumstances are intolerable, the sufferer dies: if they are not intolerable, he becomes accustomed to them, and will cease to feel them grievously. No matter what the burden, there always has been, and always must be, a way for us also to escape.

25 “Questa e la festa popolare di Gragha, e pochi anni addietro ancora ricordava in miniature le feste popolari delle sacre campestri del medio evo. Da qualche anno in qua, il costume piu severo che s’ introdusse in questi paesi non meno che in tutti gli altri del Piemonte, tolse non poco del carattere originale di questa come di tante altre festivita popolesche, nelle quali erompeva spontanea da tutti i cuori la diffusive vicendevolezza degli affetti, e la sincera giovalita dei sentimenti. Cio non pertanto, malgrado si fatta decadenza la festa della Madonna di Campra e ancor al presente una di quelle rare adunanze sentimentali, unica forse nel Biellese, alle quali accorre volentieri e ritrova pascolo appropriato il cristiano divoto non meno che il curioso viaggiatore.” (Del Santuario di Graglia notizie istoriche di Giuseppe Muratori. Torino, Stamperia reale, 1848, p. 18.)

26 Samson Agonistes.

27 “Venus laughing from the skies.”

28 Jephthah.

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