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

Chapter XXIV


We were attracted to Locarno by the approaching fetes in honour of the fourth centenary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to Fra Bartolomeo da Ivrea, who founded the sanctuary in consequence.

The programme announced that the festivities would begin on, Saturday, at 3.30 P.M., with the carrying of the sacred image (sacro simulacro) of the Virgin from the Madonna del Sasso to the collegiate church of S. Antonio. There would then be a benediction and celebration of the holy communion. At eight o’clock there were to be illuminations, fireworks, balloons, &c., at the sanctuary and the adjacent premises.

On Sunday at half-past nine there was to be mass at the church of S. Antonio, with a homily by Monsignor Paolo Angelo Ballerini, Patriarch of Alexandria in partibus, and blessing of the crown sent by Pope Leo XIII for the occasion. S. Antonio is the church the roof of which fell in during service one Sunday in 1865, through the weight of the snow, killing sixty people. At half-past three a grand procession would convey the Holy Image to a pretty temple which had been erected in the market-place. The image was then to be crowned by the Patriarch, carried round the town in procession, and returned to the church of S. Antonio. At eight o’clock there were to be fireworks near the port; a grand illumination of a triumphal arch, an illumination of the sanctuary and chapels with Bengal lights, and an artificial apparition of the Madonna (Apparizione artificiale della Beata Vergine col Bambino) above the church upon the Sacro Monte. Next day the Holy Image was to be carried back from the church of S. Antonio to its normal resting- place at the sanctuary. We wanted to see all this, but it was the artificial apparition of the Madonna that most attracted us.

Locarno is, as every one knows, a beautiful town. Both the Hotel Locarno and the Hotel della Corona are good, but the latter is, I believe, the cheaper. At the castello there is a fresco of the Madonna, ascribed, I should think rightly, to Bernardino Luini, and at the cemetery outside the town there are some old frescoes of the second half of the fifteenth century, in a ruinous state, but interesting. If I remember rightly there are several dates on them, averaging 1475–80. They might easily have been done by the same man who did the frescoes at Mesocco, but I prefer these last. The great feature, however, of Locarno is the Sacro Monte which rises above it. From the wooden bridge which crosses the stream just before entering upon the sacred precincts, the church and chapels and road arrange themselves as on p. 269.

On the way up, keeping to the steeper and abrupter route, one catches sight of the monks’ garden — a little paradise with vines, beehives, onions, lettuces, cabbages, marigolds to colour the risotto with, and a little plot of great luxuriant tobacco plants. Amongst the foliage may be now and again seen the burly figure of a monk with a straw hat on. The best view of the sanctuary from above is the one which I give on p. 270.

The church itself is not remarkable, but it contains the best collection of votive pictures that I know in any church, unless the one at Oropa be excepted; there is also a modern Italian “Return from the Cross” by Ciseri, which is very much admired, but with which I have myself no sympathy whatever. It is an Academy picture.

The cloister looking over the lake is very beautiful. In the little court down below — which also is of great beauty — there is a chapel containing a representation of the Last Supper in life-sized coloured statues as at Varallo, which has a good deal of feeling, and a fresco (?) behind it which ought to be examined, but the chapel is so dark that this is easier said than done. There is also a fresco down below in the chapel where the founder of the sanctuary is buried which should not be passed over. It is dated 1522, and is Luinesque in character. When I was last there, however, it was hardly possible to see anything, for everything was being turned topsy-turvy by the arrangements which were being made for the approaching fetes. These were very gay and pretty; they must have cost a great deal of money, and I was told that the municipality in its collective capacity was thought mean, because it had refused to contribute more than 100 francs, or 4 pounds sterling. It does seem rather a small sum certainly.

On the afternoon of Friday the 13th of August the Patriarch Monsignor Ballerini was to arrive by the three o’clock boat, and there was a crowd to welcome him. The music of Locarno was on the quay playing a selection, not from “Madame Angot” itself, but from something very like it — light, gay, sparkling opera bouffe — to welcome him. I felt as I had done when I found the matchbox in the sanctuary bedroom at Graglia: not that I minded it myself, but as being a little unhappy lest the Bishop might not quite like it.

I do not see how we could welcome a bishop — we will say to a confirmation — with a band of music at all. Fancy a brass band of some twenty or thirty ranged round the landing stage at Gravesend to welcome the Bishop of London, and fancy their playing we will say “The two Obadiahs,” or that horrid song about the swing going a little bit higher! The Bishop would be very much offended. He would not go a musical inch beyond the march in “Le Prophete,” nor, willingly, beyond the march in “Athalie.” Monsignor Ballerini, however, never turned a hair; he bowed repeatedly to all round him, and drove off in a carriage and pair, apparently much pleased with his reception. We Protestants do not understand, nor take any very great pains to understand, the Church of Rome. If we did, we should find it to be in many respects as much in advance of us as it is behind us in others.

One thing made an impression upon me which haunted me all the time. On every important space there were advertisements of the programme, the substance of which I have already given. But hardly, if at all less noticeable, were two others which rose up irrepressible upon every prominent space, searching all places with a subtle penetrative power against which precautions were powerless. These advertisements were not in Italian but in English, nevertheless they were neither of them English — but both, I believe, American. The one was that of the Richmond Gem cigarette, with the large illustration representing a man in a hat smoking, so familiar to us here in London. The other was that of Wheeler & Wilson’s sewing machines.

As the Patriarch drove off in the carriage the man in the hat smoking the Richmond Gem cigarette leered at him, and the woman working Wheeler & Wilson’s sewing machine sewed at him. During the illuminations the unwonted light threw its glare upon the effigies of saints and angels, but it illumined also the man in the black felt hat and the woman with the sewing machine; even during the artificial apparition of the Virgin Mary herself upon the hill behind the town, the more they let off fireworks the more clearly the man in the hat came out upon the walls round the market-place, and the bland imperturbable woman working at her sewing machine. I thought to myself that when the man with the hat appeared in the piazza the Madonna would ere long cease to appear on the hill.

Later on, passing through the town alone, when the people had gone to rest, I saw many of them lying on the pavement under the arches fast asleep. A brilliant moon illuminated the market-place; there was a pleasant sound of falling water from the fountain; the lake was bathed in splendour, save where it took the reflection of the mountains — so peaceful and quiet was the night that there was hardly a rustle in the leaves of the aspens. But whether in moonlight or in shadow, the busy persistent vibrations that rise in Anglo–Saxon brains were radiating from every wall, and the man in the black felt hat and the bland lady with the sewing machine were there — lying in wait, as a cat over a mouse’s hole, to insinuate themselves into the hearts of the people so soon as they should wake.

Great numbers came to the festivities. There were special trains from Biasca and all intermediate stations, and special boats. And the ugly flat-nosed people came from the Val Verzasca, and the beautiful people came from the Val Onsernone and the Val Maggia, and I saw Anna, the curate’s housekeeper, from Mesocco, and the old fresco painter who told me he should like to pay me a visit, and suggested five o’clock in the morning as the most appropriate and convenient time. The great procession contained seven or eight hundred people. From the balcony of the Hotel della Corona I counted as well as I could and obtained the following result:-

Women 120
Men with white shirts and red capes 85
Men with white shirts and no capes (?)
The music from Intra 30
Men with white shirts and blue capes 25
Men with white shirts and no capes 25
Men with white shirts and green capes 12
Men with white shirts and no capes 36
The music of Locarno 30
Girls in blue, pink, white and yellow, red, white 50
Choristers 3
Monks 6
Priests 66
Canons 12
His Excellency Paolo Angelo Ballerini, Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt, escorted by the firemen, and his private cortege of about 20 25
Government ushers (?)
The Grand Council, escorted by 22 soldiers and 6 policemen 28
The clergy without orders 30

In the evening, there, sure enough, the apparition of the Blessed Virgin was. The church of the Madonna was unilluminated and all in darkness, when on a sudden it sprang out into a blaze, and a great transparency of the Virgin and child was lit up from behind. Then the people said, “Oh bel!”

I was myself a little disappointed. It was not a good apparition, and I think the effect would have been better if it had been carried up by a small balloon into the sky. It might easily have been arranged so that the light behind the transparency should die out before the apparition must fall again, and also that the light inside the transparency should not be reflected upon the balloon that lifted it; the whole, therefore, would appear to rise from its own inherent buoyancy. I am confident it would have been arranged in this way if the thing had been in the hands of the Crystal Palace people.

There is a fine old basilicate church dedicated to S. Vittore at the north end of Locarno. It is the mother church of these parts and dates from the eighth or ninth century. The frescoes inside the apse were once fine, but have been repainted and spoiled. The tower is much later, but is impressive. It was begun in 1524 and left incomplete in 1527, probably owing to the high price of provisions which is commemorated in the following words written on a stone at the top of the tower inside

Furm. [fromento — corn] cost lib. 6.
Segale [barley] lib. 5.
Milio [millet] lib. 4.

I suppose these were something like famine prices; at any rate, a workman wrote this upon the tower and the tower stopped.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51