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

Chapter VII

S. Michele and the Monte Pirchiriano

Some time after the traveller from Paris to Turin has passed through the Mont Cenis tunnel, and shortly before he arrives at Bussoleno station, the line turns eastward, and a view is obtained of the valley of the Dora, with the hills beyond Turin, and the Superga, in the distance. On the right-hand side of the valley and about half-way between Susa and Turin the eye is struck by an abruptly-descending mountain with a large building like a castle upon the top of it, and the nearer it is approached the more imposing does it prove to be. Presently the mountain is seen more edgeways, and the shape changes. In half-an-hour or so from this point, S. Ambrogio is reached, once a thriving town, where carriages used to break the journey between Turin and Susa, but left stranded since the opening of the railway. Here we are at the very foot of the Monte Pirchiriano, for so the mountain is called, and can see the front of the building — which is none other than the famous sanctuary of S. Michele, commonly called “della Chiusa,” from the wall built here by Desiderius, king of the Lombards, to protect his kingdom from Charlemagne.

The history of the sanctuary is briefly as follows:-

At the close of the tenth century, when Otho III was Emperor of Germany, a certain Hugh de Montboissier, a noble of Auvergne, commonly called “Hugh the Unsewn” (lo sdruscito), was commanded by the Pope to found a monastery in expiation of some grave offence. He chose for his site the summit of the Monte Pirchiriano in the valley of Susa, being attracted partly by the fame of a church already built there by a recluse of Ravenna, Giovanni Vincenzo by name, and partly by the striking nature of the situation. Hugh de Montboissier when returning from Rome to France with Isengarde his wife, would, as a matter of course, pass through the valley of Susa. The two — perhaps when stopping to dine at S. Ambrogio — would look up and observe the church founded by Giovanni Vincenzo: they had got to build a monastery somewhere; it would very likely, therefore, occur to them that they could not perpetuate their names better than by choosing this site, which was on a much travelled road, and on which a fine building would show to advantage. If my view is correct, we have here an illustration of a fact which is continually observable — namely, that all things which come to much, whether they be books, buildings, pictures, music, or living beings, are suggested by others of their own kind. It is; always the most successful, like Handel and Shakespeare, who owe most to their forerunners, in spite of the modifications with which their works descend.

Giovanni Vincenzo had built his church about the year 987. It is maintained by some that he had been Bishop of Ravenna, but Claretta gives sufficient reason for thinking otherwise. In the “Cronaca Clusina” it is said that he had for some years previously lived as a recluse on the Monte Caprasio, to the north of the present Monte Pirchiriano; but that one night he had a vision, in which he saw the summit of Monte Pirchiriano enveloped in heaven-descended flames, and on this founded a church there, and dedicated it to St. Michael. This is the origin of the name Pirchiriano, which means πύρ κυρίανος, or the Lord’s fire.

The fame of the heavenly flames and the piety of pilgrims brought in enough money to complete the building — which, to judge from the remains of it embodied in the later work, must have been small, but still a church, and more than a mere chapel or oratory. It was, as I have already suggested, probably imposing enough to fire the imagination of Hugh de Montboissier, and make him feel the capabilities of the situation, which a mere ordinary wayside chapel might perhaps have failed to do. Having built his church, Giovanni Vincenzo returned to his solitude on the top of Monte Caprasio, and thenceforth went backwards and forwards from one place of abode to the other.

Avogadro is among those who make Giovanni Bishop, or rather Archbishop, of Ravenna, and gives the following account of the circumstances which led to his resigning his diocese and going to live at the top of the inhospitable Monte Caprasio. It seems there had been a confirmation at Ravenna, during which he had accidentally forgotten to confirm the child of a certain widow. The child, being in weakly health, died before Giovanni could repair his oversight, and this preyed upon his mind. In answer, however, to his earnest prayers, it pleased the Almighty to give him power to raise the dead child to life again: this he did, and having immediately performed the rite of confirmation, restored the boy to his overjoyed mother. He now became so much revered that he began to be alarmed lest pride should obtain dominion over him; he felt, therefore, that his only course was to resign his diocese, and go and live the life of a recluse on the top of some high mountain. It is said that he suffered agonies of doubt as to whether it was not selfish of him to take such care of his own eternal welfare, at the expense of that of his flock, whom no successor could so well guide and guard from evil; but in the end he took a reasonable view of the matter, and concluded that his first duty was to secure his own spiritual position. Nothing short of the top of a very uncomfortable mountain could do this, so he at once resigned his bishopric and chose Monte Caprasio as on the whole the most comfortable uncomfortable mountain he could find.

The latter part of the story will seem strange to Englishmen. We can hardly fancy the Archbishop of Canterbury or York resigning his diocese and settling down quietly on the top of Scafell or Cader Idris to secure his eternal welfare. They would hardly do so even on the top of Primrose Hill. But nine hundred years ago human nature was not the same as nowadays.

The valley of Susa, then little else than marsh and forest, was held by a marquis of the name of Arduin, a descendant of a French or Norman adventurer Roger, who, with a brother, also named Arduin, had come to seek his fortune in Italy at the beginning of the tenth century. Roger had a son, Arduin Glabrio, who recovered the valley of Susa from the Saracens, and established himself at Susa, at the junction of the roads that come down from Mont Cenis and the Mont Genevre. He built a castle here which commanded the valley, and was his base of operations as Lord of the Marches and Warden of the Alps.

Hugh de Montboissier applied to Arduin for leave to build upon the Monte Pirchiriano. Arduin was then holding his court at Avigliana, a small town near S. Ambrogio, even now singularly little altered, and full of mediaeval remains; he not only gave his consent, but volunteered to sell a site to the monastery, so as to ensure it against future disturbance.

The first church of Giovanni Vincenzo had been built upon whatever little space could be found upon the top of the mountain, without, so far as I can gather, enlarging the ground artificially. The present church — the one, that is to say, built by Hugh de Montboissier about A.D. 1000 — rests almost entirely upon stone piers and masonry. The rock has been masked by a lofty granite wall of several feet in thickness, which presents something of a keep-like appearance. The spectator naturally imagines that there are rooms, &c., behind this wall, whereas in point of fact there is nothing but the staircase leading up to the floor of the church. Arches spring from this masking wall, and are continued thence until the rock is reached; it is on the level surface thus obtained that the church rests. The true floor, therefore, does not begin till near what appears from the outside to be the top of the building.

There is some uncertainty as to the exact date of the foundation of the monastery, but Claretta 11 inclines decidedly to the date 999, as against 966, the one assigned by Mabillon and Torraneo. Claretta relies on the discovery, by Provana, of a document in the royal archives which seems to place the matter beyond dispute. The first abbot was undoubtedly Avverto or Arveo, who established the rules of the Benedictine Order in his monastery. “In the seven hours of daily work prescribed by the Benedictine rule,” writes Cesare Balbo, “innumerable were the fields they ploughed, and the houses they built in deserts, while in more frequented places men were laying cultivated ground waste, and destroying buildings: innumerable, again, were the works of the holy fathers and of ancient authors which were copied and preserved.” 12

From this time forward the monastery received gifts in land and privileges, and became in a few years the most important religious establishment in that part of Italy.

There have been several fires — one, among others, in the year 1340, which destroyed a great part of the monastery, and some of the deeds under which it held valuable grants; but though the part inhabited by the monks may have been rebuilt or added to, the church is certainly untouched.

11 “Storia diplomatica dell’ antica abbazia di S. Michele della Chiusa,” by Gaudenzio Claretta. Turin, 1870. Pp. 8, 9.

12 “Storia diplomatica dell’ antica abbazia di S. Michele della Chiusa,” by Gaudenzio Claretta. Turin, 1870. P. 14.

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