by Giuseppe Frangi
It all started with a good dose of realism, a typical trait of the Franciscans: once the Turks conquered Constantinople, pilgrimages to Jerusalem had become increasingly risk-laden. A Franciscan monk from Milan, who had been for many years with the Custodian of the Holy Land, pulled this idea out of a hat: if we can no longer go to Jerusalem, then let’s bring Jerusalem here, within any faithful’s reach. The monk’s name was Bernardino Caimi, and at the end of the 15th century, having found great support for his idea, he began to hunt for the perfect place to start building a “new Jerusalem”.
He found that perfect place in Varallo, at the mouth of the Sesia Valley, which was then part of the diocese of Milan. He also found a local family of notables who were willing to fund the initiative. Construction began in utmost simplicity, with the sole aim of creating the best possible replicas of a range of holy places.
Thus the Sepulchre became a replica of the one in Jerusalem (and it still is: you have to bend down to enter); an exact reproduction of Christ’s footprint was placed on the small relief that is meant to recall the Mount of the Ascension. Scattered in the forest, there are small chapels that in some cases had statues representing episodes in the life of Christ: the first was the Chapel of the Stone of Unction, which featured a set of life-size wooden sculptures now kept in Varallo’s Museum.
The project really took off around 1514, when Gaudenzio Ferrari – a great artist born just a few miles from Varallo, whose talent had shaped up in the Room of the Signatura, shoulder to shoulder with Raphael – entered the scene.
Ferrari was an architect, painter, and sculptor, and was able to fully develop Father Bernardino Caimi’s germinal idea. He designed with extraordinary synthesis the group of the Chapels of the Nativity, and a few years later those of the Crucifixion, on the highest point of the Sacred Mountain. His most brilliant intuition was embracing a form of “participated” art: in his chapels, the faithful entered and immediately felt included, like witnesses and not mere spectators.
Today, for conservation reasons, the impact of his engaging designs is mitigated; however, the loss is compensated by Ferrari’s art, positively loaded with emotion and realism. There are frequent examples of paintings that, as if expressing the urgent need to look more real, turn into sculptures; and sculptures, mostly modeled in terracotta due to that same urgency, are covered in real clothes, and have hair made with horse hair or corn beards. Ferrari’s subjects never were idealized figures: they were inspired by common people, completely normal men and women who could witness biblical events – not like facts in some distant history, but something destined to happen again and again, “here and now”.
Ferrari’s masterpiece, in this sense, is the chapel of the Crucifixion. When people could still freely go inside, they found themselves at the foot of the crosses raised in front of them, and surrounded by a swirl of people that behind and beside them was – and still is – there to see a true fact. Today the chapel is off limits, but two glass windows still allow visitors to enter that space somehow, and to experience at least part of that participatory engulfment.
The Sacred Mountain had its start with Ferrari, but certainly did not end with him. At the end of the 16th century, Saint Charles spent here many hours in prayer, and revived construction after nearly half a century of suspension.
At that point, another ‘genius loci’ left his mark on the complex: painter Tanzio da Varallo, a native of Alagna, in the high Sesia Valley. Having studied in Rome and Naples in direct contact with Caravaggio, he gave boost and new shine to the Sacred Mountain’s development – in tandem with his sculptor brother, Giovanni. His chapels have an extraordinary theatricality, and were designed with a great director’s eye. Ferrari’s imprint remained visible, but the concept had changed: gratings keep the faithful on the outside, so they could observe and consider what was being represented. Chapels transformed into stages, and engagement shifted from Ferrari’s “immersive” concept towards a form of deep visual involvement.
Today, its construction having stretched over two centuries, the Sacred Mountain of Varallo is striking both in size (it includes over fifty chapels) and impact, with its spellbinding path set in the forest ending on the cliff right above the center of Varallo.
There is one more peculiarity that makes this incredible place unique: it has no doors, no ticket office, and no opening or closing hours. You can visit at any time of the day or night. Indeed, a visit in the darkness of a summer night, with flashlights to help you peer inside the chapels, is truly an unforgettable experience.