Ex Voto by Samuel Butler

EX VOTO: AN ACCOUNT OF THE SACRO MONTE OR NEW JERUSALEM AT VARALLO- SESIA WITH SOME NOTICE OF TABACHETTI’S REMAINING WORK AT THE SANCTUARY OF CREA PREFACE. The illustrations to this book are mainly collotype photographs by Messrs. Maclure, Macdonald & Co., of Glasgow. Notwithstanding all their care, it cannot be pretended that the result
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  • 1888
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The illustrations to this book are mainly collotype photographs by Messrs. Maclure, Macdonald & Co., of Glasgow. Notwithstanding all their care, it cannot be pretended that the result is equal to what would have been obtained from photogravure; I found, however, that to give anything like an adequate number of photogravures would have made the book so expensive that I was reluctantly compelled to abandon the idea.

As these sheets leave my hands, my attention is called to a pleasant article by Miss Alice Greene about Varallo, that appeared in The Queen for Saturday, April 21, 1888. The article is very nicely illustrated, and gives a good idea of the place. Of the Sacro Monte Miss Greene says: –“On the Sacro Monte the tableaux are produced in perpetuity, only the figures are not living, they are terra-cotta statues painted and moulded in so life-like a way that you feel that, were a man of flesh and blood to get mixed up with the crowd behind the grating, you would have hard work to distinguish him from the figures that have never had life.”

I should wish to modify in some respects the conclusion arrived at on pp. 148, 149, about Michael Angelo Rossetti’s having been the principal sculptor of the Massacre of the Innocents chapel. There can be no doubt that Rossetti did the figure which he has signed, and several others in the chapel. One of those which are probably by him (the soldier with outstretched arm to the left of the composition) appears in the view of the chapel that I have given to face page 144, but on consideration I incline against the supposition of my text, i.e., that the signature should be taken as governing the whole work, or at any rate the greater part of it, and lean towards accepting the external authority, which, quantum valeat, is all in favour of Paracca. I have changed my mind through an increasing inability to resist the opinion of those who hold that the figures fall into two main groups, one by the man who did the signed figure, i.e., Michael Angelo Rossetti; and another, comprising all the most vigorous, interesting, and best placed figures, that certainly appears to be by a much more powerful hand. Probably, then, Rossetti finished Paracca’s work and signed one figure as he did, without any idea of claiming the whole, and believing that Paracca’s predominant share was too well known to make mistake about the authorship of the work possible. I have therefore in the title to the illustration given the work to Paracca, but it must be admitted that the question is one of great difficulty, and I can only hope that some other work of Paracca’s may be found which will tend to settle it. I will thankfully receive information about any other such work.

May 1, 1888.


Unable to go to Dinant before I published “Ex Voto,” I have since been there, and have found out a good deal about Tabachetti’s family. His real name was de Wespin, and he tame of a family who had been Copper-beaters, and hence sculptors–for the Flemish copper-beaters made their own models–for many generations. The family seems to have been the most numerous and important in Dinant.

The sculptor’s grandfather, Perpete de Wespin, was the first to take the sobriquet of Tabaguet, and though in the deeds which I have seen at Namur the name is always given as “de Wespin,” yet the addition of “dit Tabaguet” shows that this last was the name in current use. His father and mother, and a sister Jacquelinne, under age, appear to have all died in 1587. Jean de Wespin, the sculptor, is mentioned in a deed of that date as “expatrie,” and he has a “gardien” or “tuteur,” who is to take charge of his inheritance, appointed by the Court, as though he were for some reason unable to appoint one for himself. This lends colour to Fassola’s and Torrotti’s statement that he lost his reason about 1586 or 1587. I think it more likely, however, considering that he was alive and doing admirable work some fifty years after 1590, that he was the victim of some intrigue than that he was ever really mad. At any rate, about 1587 he appears to have been unable to act for himself.

If his sister Jacquelinne died under age in 1587, Jean is not likely to have been then much more than thirty, so we may conclude that he was born about 1560. There is some six or eight years’ work by him remaining at Varallo, and described as finished in the 1586 edition of Caccia. Tabachetti, therefore, must have left home very young, and probably went straight to Varallo. In 1586 or 1587 we lose sight of him till 1590 or 1591, when he went to Crea, where he did about forty chapels–almost all of which have perished.

On again visiting Milan I found in the Biblioteca Nazionale a guide- book to the Sacro Monte, which was not in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, and of whose existence I had never heard. This guide-book was published in 1606 and reissued in 1610; it mentions all changes since 1590, and even describes chapels not yet in existence, but it says nothing about Tabachetti’s First Vision of St. Joseph chapel–the only one of his chapels not given as completed in the 1590 edition of Caccia. I had assumed too hastily that this chapel was done just after the 1590 edition of Caccia had been published, and just before Tabachetti left for Crea in 1590 or 1591, whereas it now appears that it was done about 1610, during a short visit paid by the sculptor to Varallo some twenty years after he had left it.

Finding that Tabachetti returned to Varallo about 1610, I was able to understand two or three figures in the Ecce Homo chapel which I had long thought must be by Tabachetti, but had not ventured to ascribe to him, inasmuch as I believed him to have finally left Varallo some twenty years before the Ecce Homo chapel was made. I have now no doubt that he lent a hand to Giovanni D’Enrico with this chapel, in which he has happily left us his portrait signed with a V (doubtless standing for W, a letter which the Italians have not got), cut on the hat before baking, and invisible from outside the chapel.

Signor Arienta had told me there was a seal on the back of a figure in the Journey to Calvary chapel; on examining this I found it to show a W, with some kind of armorial bearings underneath. I have not been able to find anything like these arms, of which I give a sketch herewith: they have no affinity with those of the de Wespin family, unless the cups with crosses under them are taken as modifications of the three-footed caldrons which were never absent from the arms of Dinant copper-beaters. Tabachetti (for I shall assume that the seal was placed by him) perhaps sealed this figure as an afterthought in 1610, being unable to cut easily into the hard-baked clay, and if he could have Italianised the W he would probably have done so. I should say that I arrived at the Ecce Homo figure as a portrait of Tabachetti before I found the V cut upon the hat; I found the V on examining the portrait to see if I could find any signature. It stands next to a second portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by Gaudenzio Ferrari, taken into the Ecce Homo chapel, doubtless, on the demolition of some earlier work by Gaudenzio on or near the same site. I knew of this second portrait of Leonardo da Vinci when I published my first edition, but did not venture to say anything about it, as thinking that one life-sized portrait of a Leonardo da Vinci by a Gaudenzio Ferrari was as much of a find at one time as my readers would put up with. I had also known of the V on Tabachetti’s hat, but, having no idea that his name was de Wespin, had not seen why this should help it to be a portrait of Tabachetti, and had allowed the fact to escape me.

The figure next to Scotto in the Ecce Homo chapel is, I do not doubt, a portrait of Giovanni D’Enrico. This may explain the tradition at Varallo that Scotto is Antonio D’Enrico, which cannot be. Next to Giovanni D’Enrico stands the second Leonardo da Vinci, and next to Leonardo, as I have said, Tabachetti. In the chapel by Gaudenzio, from which they were taken, the figures of Leonardo and Scotto probably stood side by side as they still do in the Crucifixion chapel. I supposed that Tabachetti and D’Enrico, who must have perfectly well known who they were, separated them in order to get Giovanni D’Enrico nearer the grating. It was the presumption that we had D’Enrico’s portrait between Scotto and Leonardo, and the conviction that Tabachetti also had worked in the chapel, that led me to examine the very beautiful figure on the father side of Leonardo to see if I could find anything to confirm my suspicion that it was a portrait of Tabachetti himself.

I do not think there can be much doubt that the Vecchietto is also a portrait of Tabachetti done some thirty years later than 1610, nor yet do I doubt, now I know that he returned to Varallo in 1610, that the figures of Herod and of Caiaphas are by him. I believe he also at this time paid a short visit to Orta, and did three or four figures in the left hand part of the foreground of the Canonisation of St. Francis chapel. At Montrigone, a mile or so below Borgo-Sesia station, I believe him to have done at least two or three figures, which are very much in his manner, and not at all like either Giacomo Ferro or Giovanni D’Enrico, to whom they are usually assigned. These figures are some twenty-five years later than 1610, and tend to show that Tabachetti, as an old man of over seventy, paid a third visit to the Val-Sesia.

The substance of the foregoing paragraphs is published at greater length, and with illustrations, in the number of the Universal Review for November 1888, and to which I must refer my readers. I have, however, here given the pith of all that I have yet been able to find out about Tabachetti since “Ex Voto” was published. I should like to add the following in regard to other chapels.

Signor Arienta has found a 1523 scrawled on the frescoes of the Crucifixion chapel. I do not think this shows necessarily that the work was more than begun at that date. He has also found a monogram, which we believe to be Gaudenzio Ferrari’s, on the central shield with a lion on it, given in the illustration facing p. 210. On further consideration, I feel more and more inclined to think that the frescoes in this chapel have been a good deal retouched.

I hardly question that the Second Vision of St. Joseph chapel is by Tabachetti, as also the Woman of Samaria. The Christ in this last chapel is a restoration. In a woodcut of 1640 the position of the figures is reversed, but nothing more than the positions.

Lastly, the Virgin’s mother does not have eggs east of Milan. It is a Valsesian custom to give eggs beaten up with wine and sugar to women immediately on their confinement, and I am told that the eggs do no harm though not according to the rules. I am told that Valsesian influence must always be suspected when the Virgin’s mother is having eggs.

November 30, 1888.

Note.–A copy of this postscript can be easily inserted into a bound copy, and will be forwarded by Messrs. TRUBNER & Co. on receipt of stamped and addressed envelope.


In the preface to “Alps and Sanctuaries” I apologised for passing over Varallo-Sesia, the most important of North Italian sanctuaries, on the ground that it required a book to itself. This book I will now endeavour to supply, though well aware that I can only imperfectly and unworthily do so. To treat the subject in the detail it merits would be a task beyond my opportunities; for, in spite of every endeavour, I have not been able to see several works and documents, without which it is useless to try and unravel the earlier history of the sanctuary. The book by Caccia, for example, published by Sessali at Novara in 1565, and reprinted at Brescia in 1576, is sure to turn up some day, but I have failed to find it at Varallo, Novara (where it appears in the catalogue, but not on the shelves), Milan, the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Bodleian Library. Through the kindness of Sac. Ant. Ceriani, I was able to learn that the Biblioteca Ambrosiana possessed what there can be little doubt is a later edition of this book, dated 1587, but really published at the end of 1586, and another dated 1591, to which Signor Galloni in his “Uomini e fatti celebri di Valle-Sesia” (p. 110) has called attention as the first work ever printed at Varallo. But the last eight of the twenty-one years between 1565 and 1586 were eventful, and much could be at once seen by a comparison of the 1565, 1576, and 1586 [1587] editions, about which speculation is a waste of time while the earlier works are wanting. I have been able to gather two or three interesting facts by a comparison of the 1586 and 1591 editions, and do not doubt that the date, for example, of Tabachetti’s advent to Varallo and of his great Calvary Chapel would be settled within a very few years if the missing books were available.

Another document which I have in vain tried to see is the plan of the Sacro Monte as it stood towards the close of the sixteenth century, made by Pellegrino Tibaldi with a view to his own proposed alterations. He who is fortunate enough to gain access to this plan- -which I saw for a few minutes in 1884, but which is now no longer at Varallo–will find a great deal made clear to him which he will otherwise be hardly able to find out. Over and above the foregoing, there is the inventory drawn up by order of Giambattista Albertino in 1614, and a number of other documents, to which reference will be found in the pages of Bordiga, Galloni, Tonetti, and of the many others who have written upon the Val Sesia and its history. A twelve months’ stay in the Val Sesia would not suffice to do justice to all the interesting and important questions which arise wholesale as soon as the chapels on the Sacro Monte are examined with any care. I shall confine myself, therefore, to a consideration of the most remarkable features of the Sacro Monte as it exists at present, and to doing what I can to stimulate further study on the part of others.

I cannot understand how a field so interesting, and containing treasures in so many respects unrivalled, can have remained almost wholly untilled by the numerous English lovers of art who yearly flock to Italy; but the fact is one on which I may perhaps be congratulated, inasmuch as more shortcomings and errors of judgment may be forgiven in my own book, in virtue of its being the first to bring Varallo with any prominence before English readers. That little is known about the Sacro Monte, even by the latest and best reputed authorities on art, may be seen by turning to Sir Henry Layard’s recent edition of Kugler’s “Handbook of Painting,”–a work which our leading journals of culture have received with acclamation. Sir Henry Layard has evidently either never been at Varallo, or has so completely forgotten what he saw there that his visit no longer counts. He thinks, for example, that the chapels, or, as he also calls them, “stations” (which in itself should show that he has not seen them), are on the way up to the Sacro Monte, whereas all that need be considered are on the top. He thinks that the statues generally in these supposed chapels “on the ascent of the Sacro Monte” are attributed to Gaudenzio Ferrari, whereas it is only in two or three out of some five-and-forty that any statues are believed to be by Gaudenzio. He thinks the famous sculptor Tabachetti–for famous he is in North Italy, where he is known–was a painter, and speaks of him as “a local imitator” of Gaudenzio, who “decorated” other chapels, and “whose works only show how rapidly Gaudenzio’s influence declined and his school deteriorated.” As a matter of fact, Tabachetti was a Fleming and his name was Tabaquet; but this is a detail. Sir Henry Layard thinks that “Miel” was also “a local imitator” of Gaudenzio. It is not likely that this painter ever worked on the Sacro Monte at all; but if he did, Sir Henry Layard should surely know that he came from Antwerp. Sir Henry Layard does not appear to know that there are any figures in the Crucifixion Chapel of Gaudenzio, or indeed in any of the chapels for which Gaudenzio painted frescoes, and falls into a trap which seems almost laid on purpose for those who would write about Varallo without having been there, in supposing that Gaudenzio painted a Pieta on the Sacro Monte. Having thus displayed the ripeness of his knowledge as regards facts, he says that though the chapels “on the ascent of the Sacro Monte” are “objects of wonder and admiration to the innumerable pilgrims who frequent this sacred spot,” yet “the bad taste of the colour and clothing make them highly repugnant to a cultivated eye.”

I begin to understand now how we came to buy the Blenheim Raffaelle.

Finally, Sir Henry Layard says it is “very doubtful” whether any of the statues were modelled or executed by Gaudenzio Ferrari at all. It is a pity he has not thought it necessary give a single reason or authority in support of a statement so surprising.

Some of these blunders appear in the edition of 1874 edited by Lady Eastlake. In that edition the writer evidently knows nothing of any figures in the Crucifixion Chapel, and Sir Henry Layard was unable to supply the omission. The writer in the 1874 edition says that “Gaudenzio is seen as a modeller of painted terra-cotta in the stations ascending to the chapel (sic) on the Sacro Monte.” It is from this source that Sir Henry Layard got his idea that the chapels are on the way up to the Sacro Monte, and that they are distinct from those for which Gaudenzio painted frescoes on the top of the mountain. Having perhaps seen photographs of the Sacro Monte at Varese, where the chapels climb the hill along with the road, or having perhaps actually seen the Madonna del Sasso at Locarno, where small oratories with frescoes of the Stations of the Cross are placed on the ascent, he thought those at Varallo might as well remain on the ascent also, and that it would be safe to call them “stations.” It is the writer in the 1874 edition who first gave him or her self airs about a cultivated eye; but he or she had the grace to put in a saving clause to the effect that the designs in some instances were “full of grace.” True, Sir Henry Layard has never seen the designs; nevertheless his eye is too highly cultivated to put up with this clause; so it has disappeared, to make room, I suppose, for the sentence in which so much accurate knowledge is displayed in respect to Tabachetti and Miel d’Anvers. Sir Henry Layard should keep to the good old plan of saying that the picture would have been better if the artist had taken more pains, and praising the works of Pietro Perugino. Personally, I confess I am sorry he has never seen the Sacro Monte. If he has trod on so many ploughshares without having seen Varallo, what might he not have achieved in the plenitude of a taste which has been cultivated in every respect save that of not pretending to know more than one does know, if he had actually been there, and seen some one or two of the statues themselves?

I have only sampled Sir Henry Layard’s work in respect of two other painters, but have found no less reason to differ from him there than here. I refer to his remarks about Giovanni and Gentile Bellini. I must reserve the counter-statement of my own opinion for another work, in which I shall hope to deal with the real and supposed portraits of those two great men. I will, however, take the present opportunity of protesting against a sentence which caught my eye in passing, and which I believe to be as fundamentally unsound as any I ever saw written, even by a professional art critic or by a director of a national collection. Sir Henry Layard, in his chapter on Leonardo da Vinci, says –

“One thing prominently taught us by the works of Leonardo and Raffaelle, of Michael Angelo and Titian, is distinctly this–that purity of morals, freedom of institutions, and sincerity of faith have nothing to do with excellence in art.”

I should prefer to say, that if the works of the four artists above mentioned show one thing more clearly than another, it is that neither power over line, nor knowledge of form, nor fine sense of colour, nor facility of invention, nor any of the marvellous gifts which three out of the four undoubtedly possessed, will make any man’s work live permanently in our affections unless it is rooted in sincerity of faith and in love towards God and man. More briefly, it is [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], or the spirit, and not [Greek text which cannot be reproduced], or the letter, which is the soul of all true art. This, it should go without saying, applies to music, literature, and to whatever can be done at all. If it has been done “to the Lord”–that is to say, with sincerity and freedom from affectation–whether with conscious effusion, as by Gaudenzio, or with perhaps robuster unconsciousness, as by Tabachetti, a halo will gather round it that will illumine it though it pass through the valley of the shadow of death itself. If it has been done in self- seeking, as, exceptis excipiendis, by Leonardo, Titian, Michael Angelo, and Raffaelle, it will in due course lose hold and power in proportion to the insincerity with which it was tainted.


Leaving Sir Henry Layard, let us turn to one of the few English writers who have given some attention to Varallo–I mean to the Rev. S. W. King’s delightful work “The Italian Valleys of the Pennine Alps.” This author says –

“When we first visited Varallo, it was comparatively little known to travellers, but we now found that of late years many more had frequented it, and its beautiful scenery and great attractions were becoming more generally and deservedly appreciated. Independently of its own picturesque situation, and its advantages as head-quarters for exploring the neighbouring Vals and their romantic scenery, the works which it possesses of the ancient and famous Val Sesian school of painters and modellers are most interesting. At the head of them stands first and foremost Gaudenzio Ferrari, whose original and masterly productions ought to be far more widely known and studied than they as yet are; and some of the finest of them are to be found in the churches and Sacro Monte of Varallo” (p. 498).

Of the Sacro Monte the same writer says –

“No situation could have been more happily chosen for the purpose intended than the little mountain rising on the north of Varallo to a height of about 270 feet”–[this is an error; the floor of the church on the Sacro Monte is just 500 feet above the bridge over the Mastallone]–“on which the chapels, oratories, and convents of that extraordinary creation the New Jerusalem are grouped together. Besides the beauty of the site and its convenient proximity to a town like Varallo of some 3000 inhabitants, the character of the mountain is exactly adapted for the effective disposition of the various ‘stations’ of which it consists”–[it does not consist of “stations”]–“and on this account chiefly it was selected by the founder, the ‘Blessed Bernardino Caimo.’ A Milanese of noble family, and Vicar of the Convent of the Minorites in Milan, and also in connection with that of Varallo, he was specially commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. to visit the Sepulchre and other holy places in Palestine, and while there took the opportunity of making copies and drawings, with the intention of erecting a facsimile of them in his native country. On his return to Italy in 1491, after examining all the likely sites within reasonable distance of Milan, he found the conical hills of the Val Sesia the best adapted for his design, and fixed upon Varallo as the spot; being probably specially attracted to it from the fact of the convent and church of Sta. Maria delle Grazie, already described, having been conveyed through him to the ‘Minori Osservanti,’ as appears from a brief of Innocent VIII., dated December 21, 1486.”

Mr. King does not give the source from which he derived his knowledge of the existence of this act, and I have not come across a notice of it elsewhere, except a brief one in Signor Galloni’s work (p. 71), and a reference to it in the conveyance of April 14, 1493. But Signor Arienta of Varallo, whose industry in collecting materials for a history of the Sacro Monte cannot be surpassed, showed me a transcript from an old plan of the church of S. Maria delle Grazie, in which the inscription on Bernardino Caimi’s grave was given–an inscription which (so at least I understood Signor Arienta to say) is now covered by an altar which had been erected on the site of the grave. The inscription ran:-

“Hic quiescunt ossa B. Bernardini Caimis Mediolan. S. Montis Varalli Fundatoris An. 1486. Pontif. Dipl sub die 21 Xbris. Mortuus est autem in hoc coenobio An. Vulg. AErae 1499.”

It would thus appear that the Sacro Monte was founded four years earlier than the received date. The formal deed of conveyance of the site on the mountain from the town to Bernardino Caimi was not signed till the 14th of April 1493; but the work had been already commenced, as is shown by the inscription still remaining over the reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre, which is dated the 17th of October 1491. Probably the work was contemplated in 1486, and interrupted by B. Caimi’s return to Jerusalem in 1487, not to be actively resumed till 1490.

“The first stone,” says Mr. King, “was laid by Scarognini, a Milanese ‘magnifico,’ who cordially entered into the scheme; and at his expense the Holy Sepulchre was completed, and a hospice attached, where the founder and a number of Franciscan brothers came to reside in 1493. Caimo had planned a vast extension of this commencement, but died within three years, leaving his designs to be carried out by his successors.”

. . .

“Each oratory contains a group–in some very numerous–of figures modelled in terra-cotta the size of life or larger; many of them of great merit as works of art, others very inferior and mere rubbish. The figures are coloured and occasionally draped with appropriate clothing, the resemblance to life being heightened by the addition of human hair”–[which, by the way, is always horse-hair]–“and the effect is often very startling. Each chapel represents a different ‘mystery,’ and, beside the modelled figures, the walls are decorated with frescoes. The front of each is open to the air, all but a wire grating, through apertures in which the subject may be perfectly seen in the position intended by the designer” (pp. 510-512).

Mr. King says, correctly, that Gaudenzio’s earliest remaining work on the Sacro Monte is the Chapel of the Pieta, that originally contained the figures of Christ bearing the cross, but from which the modelled figures were removed, others being substituted that had no connection with the background. I do not know, however, that Christ was actually carrying the cross in the chapel as it originally stood. The words of the 1587 edition of Caccia (?) stand, “Come il N.S. fu spogliato de suoi panni, e condotto sopra il Monte Calvario, ch’ e fatto di bellissimo e ben inteso relievo.”

“The frescoes on the wall,” he continues, “are particularly interesting, as having been painted by him at the early age of nineteen”–[Mr. King supposes Gaudenzio Ferrari to have been born in 1484]–“when his ambition to share in the glory and renown of the great work was gratified by this chapel being intrusted to him; a proof of his early talent and the just appreciation of it. The frescoes are much injured, but of the chief one there is enough to show its excellence. On one side is St. John, with clasped hands gazing upwards in grief, and the two Marys sorrowing, as a soldier in the centre seems to forbid their following further; his helmet is embossed and gilt as in the instances in the Franciscan church, while the two thieves are led bound by a figure on horseback.”

These frescoes appear to me to have been not so much restored as repainted–that is to say, where they are not almost entirely gone. The green colour that now prevails in the shadows and half-tones is alien to Gaudenzio, and cannot be accepted as his. I should say, however, that my friend Signor Arienta of Varallo differs from me on this point. At any rate, the work is now little more than a ruin, and the terra-cotta Pieta is among the least satisfactory groups on the Sacro Monte. Mr. King continues:-

“In the Chapel of the Adoration of the Magi we have a work of higher merit, giving evidence of his studies under Raphael.”

Here Mr. King is in some measure mistaken. The frescoes in the Magi Chapel are indeed greatly finer than those in the present Pieta, but they were painted from thirty to forty years later, when Gaudenzio was in his prime, and it is to years of intervening incessant effort and practice, not to any study under Raphael, that the enlargement of style and greater freedom of design is due. Gaudenzio never studied under Raphael; he may have painted for him, and perhaps did so–no one knows whether he did or did not–but in every branch of his art he was incomparably Raphael’s superior, and must have known it perfectly well.

Returning to Mr. King, with whom, in the main, I am in cordial sympathy, we read:-

“The group of ten figures in terra-cotta represents the three kings just arrived with their immediate attendants, and alighting at the door of an inner recess, where a light burns over the manger of Bethlehem, and in which is a simple but exquisite group of St. Joseph, the Virgin, and Child. On the walls of the chapel are painted in fresco a crowd of followers, the varieties of whose costumes, attitudes, and figures are most cleverly portrayed. In modelling the horses which form part of the central group, Ferrari was assisted by his pupil Fermo Stella.”–[Fermo Stella is not known to have been a pupil of Gaudenzio’s, and was probably established as a painter before Gaudenzio began to work at all.]–“But the greatest of all Gaudenzio’s achievements is the large chapel of the Crucifixion, a work of the most extraordinary character and masterly execution. His first design for the subject, on the screen of the Minorite Church, he has here carried out in life-like figures in terra-cotta; twenty-six of which form the centre group, embodying the events of the Passion; while round the walls are depicted with wonderful power a crowd of spectators, numbering some 150, most of whom are gazing at the central figure of the Saviour on the cross. The variety of expression, costume, and character is almost infinite. Round the roof are twenty angels in the most varied and graceful attitudes, deserving of special attention; and also a hideous figure of Lucifer.”

Gaudenzio’s devils are never quite satisfactory. His angels are divine, and no one can make them cry as he does. When my friend Mr. H. Festing Jones met a lovely child crying in the streets of Varallo last summer, he said it was crying like one of Gaudenzio’s angels; and so it was. Gaudenzio was at home with everything human, and even superhuman, if beautiful; if it was only a case of dealing with ugly, wicked, and disagreeable people, he knew all about this, and could paint them if the occasion required it; but when it came to a downright unmitigated devil, he was powerless. He could never have done Tabachetti’s serpent in the Adam and Eve Chapel, nor yet the plausible fair-spoken devil, as in the Temptation Chapel, also by Tabachetti.

To conclude my extracts from Mr. King. Speaking of the Crucifixion Chapel, he says:-

“Though this combination of terra-cotta and fresco may not be as highly esteemed in the present day as in the times when this extraordinary sanctuary sprang into existence, yet this composition must always be admired as one of the greatest of Ferrari’s works, and undoubtedly that on which he lavished the full force of his genius and the collected studies and experience of his previous artist life.”

It is noteworthy, but not perhaps surprising, that this observant, intelligent, and sympathetic writer, probably through inability to at once understand and enter into the conventions rendered necessary by the conditions under which works so unfamiliar to him must be both executed and looked at, has failed to notice the existence of Tabachetti, never mentioning his name nor referring to one of his works–not even to the Madonna and Child in the church of S. Gaudenzio, which one would have thought could hardly fail to strike him.

* * *

Mr. King has elsewhere in his work referred both to Lanzi and to Lomazzo in support of his very high opinion of Gaudenzio Ferrari; it may, therefore, be as well to give extracts from each of these writers. Lanzi says:-

“If we examine into further particulars of his style, we shall find Ferrari’s warm and lively colouring so superior to that of the Milanese artists of his day, that we shall have no difficulty in recognising it in the churches where he painted; the eye of the spectator is directly attracted towards it; his carnations are natural and varied according to his subjects; his draperies display much fancy and originality, with middle tints blended so skilfully as to equal the most beautiful produced by any other artist. And, if we may say so,–he succeeded in representing the minds even better than the forms of his subjects. He particularly studied this branch of the art, and we seldom observe more marked attitudes or more expressive . . . As Lomazzo, however, has dwelt so much at length on his admirable skill both in painting and modelling, it would be idle to insist on it further. But I ought to add that it is a great reflection upon Vasari that he did not better know or better estimate such an artist; so that foreigners who form their opinions only from history are left unacquainted with his merit, and have uniformly neglected to do him justice in their writings.”

Lomazzo says:-

“Now amongst the worthy painters who excelled herein, Raph. Urbine was not the least who performed his workes with a divine kind of maiesty; neither was Polidore”–[Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio]– “much behind him in his kinde, whose pictures seemed as it were passing furious; nor yet Andreas Mantegna, whose vaine showed a very laborious curiositie; nor yet Leonard Vincent”–[Leonardo da Vinci]– “in whose doings there was never any error found in this point. Wherof amongst all other of his works, that admirable last supper of Christ in Refect. S. Maria de Gratia in Milane maketh most evident proofe, in which he hath so lively expressed the passions of the Apostles mindes in their countenances and the rest of their bodies, that a man may boldly say the truth was nothing superior to his representation, and neede not be afraide to reckon it among the best works of oyle-painting (of which kind of painting John de Bruges was the first inventor). For in those Apostles you might distinctly perceive admiration, feare, griefe, suspition, love, &c.; all which were sometimes to be seen together in one of them, and finally in Judas a treason-plotting countenance, as it were the very true counterfiet of a traitor. So that therein he has left a sufficient argument of his rare perfection, in the true understanding of the passions of the mind exemplified outwardly in the bodie. Which because it is the most necessary part of painting, I purpose (as I say) to handle in this present booke. I may not omit Mi. Angelo in any case, whose skill and painfulnesse in this point was so greate, that his pictures carry with them more hard motions expressed after an unusual manner, but all of them tending to a certaine bould stoutnesse. And as for Titian, he hath worthely purchased the name of a great painter in this matter, as his pictures do sufficiently witness; in each whereof there shineth a certain mooving vertue, seeming to incite the beholder unto the imitation thereof. Of whom this saying may well be verified, that he was beloved of the world and envied of nature.

“Finally, mine old Master Gaudentius (though he be not much knowne) was inferior unto fewe, in giving the apt motions to the Saintes and Angels; who was not onely a very witty painter (as I have elsewhere showed), but also a most profound philosopher and mathematician. Amongst all whose all-praiseworthy workes (which are almost infinite, especially in this point of motion) there are divers mysteries of Christe’s passion, of his doing, but chiefly a crucifix called Mount Calvary at the Sepulchre of Varallo; where he hath made admirable horses and strange angels, not only in painting, but also in plasticke, of a kinde of earth wrought most curiously with his own hand cleane rounde”–[di tutto rilievo]–“through all the figures.

“Besides in the vault of the Chappell of S. Mary de Gratia in Milane he hath wrought most naturall angels, I meane especially for their actions; there is also that mighty cube of St. Mary de Serono, the Cupola of S. Maria at Saronno, full of thrones of angells set out with actions and habites of all sortes, carrying diversity of most strange instruments in their hands. I may not conceal that goodly chapel which he made in his latter time, in the Church of Peace in Milan, where you shall find small histories of our Lady and Joachime showing such superexcellent motions that they seem much to revive and animate the spectators.

“Moreover, the story of S. Roccho done by him in Vercelli, with divers workes in that city; although indeede almost all Lombardy be adorned with his most rare workes, I will not conceal one saying, which was that all painters delight to steale other men’s inventions, but that he himself was in no great danger of being detected of theft hereafter. Now this great painter, although in reason he might for his discretion, wisedome, and worth be compared with the above named in the first booke, cap. 29, yet notwithstanding is he omitted by George Vasary in his lives of the famous painters, carvers, and architects. An argument, to say no worse of him, that he intended to eternise only his own Tuscanes. But I proceede to the unfoulding of the originall causes of these motions. And first for our better understanding I will beginne with those passions of the mind whereby the body is mooved to the performance of his particular effects” (Id., Book ii. pp. 7, 8).

What Gaudenzio said was that all painters were fond of stealing, but that they were pretty sure to be found out sooner or later.

For my own part, I should like to say that I prefer Giovanni Bellini to Gaudenzio; but unless Giotto and Giorgione, I really do not know who the Italian painters should stand before him. Bernardino Luini runs him close, but great as Bernardino Luini was, Gaudenzio, in spite of not a little mannerism, was greater.

The passage above referred to by Lomazzo as from his twenty-ninth chapter runs:-

“Now if any man be desirous to learne the most exact and smallest parts of these proportions, together with the way how to transfer them from one body to another, I refer him to the works of Le. Vincent, Bramante, Vincentius Foppa, Barnard Zenale; and for prints to Albert Durer, Hispill Peum, &c. And out of mine owne workes he may gather that I have endeavoured if not performed these proportions, done according to these rules; which all the best and famous painters of our time have likewise observed; who have also attained to the exquisite proportions of the seven planets. Amongst whom Mi. Angelo hath merited the chiefest commendation; next him Raph. Urbine was famous for making of delicate and Venereall bodies; Leon. Vincent for expressing of solary bodies; Polidore Caldara of Caravaggio for Martiall bodies; Titianus Vecellino for Lunaryes; and Gaudentius Ferrato da Valdugia a Milaner for Jovialistes” (55 Bk. i. p. 117).

Having been compelled to look through the greater part of Lomazzo’s work, inasmuch as not one of the several writers who have referred to his high opinion of Gaudenzio has given chapter and page, I would fain allow myself to linger somewhat in the fascinating paths into which my subject has led me. I should like to call further attention to this forgotten work as “Englished” by one Richard Haydocke, “Student in Physik,” and dedicated to no less a person than “to the Right Worshipful Thomas Bodley, Esq.,” whose foundation of the library that bears his name is referred to in the preface. Gladly would I tell him about Alexander the Great, who, being overmatched by his enemies in India, “was seen to reake forth from his bodie fier and light;” and of the father of Theodoricus, who, “by the like vehement effect, breathed out of his heart, as from a burning furnace, fierce sparkels; which flying forth, shone, and made a sound in the aire.” I should like to explain to him about the motions of the seven planets which are the seven governours of the world, and how Saturn “causeth a complexion of colour between blacke and yeallowe, meager, distorted, of an harde skinne, eminent vaines, an hairie bodie, small eies, eie brows joyned together &c.,” and how “he maketh a man subtle, wittie, a way-layer, and murtherer;” how, again, Jupiter is “magnipotent, good natured, fortunate, sweete, pleasant, the best wel-willer, honest, neate, of a good gate, honorable, the author of mirth and judgement, wise, true, the revealer of truth, the chiefe judge, exceeding all the planets in goodnesse, the bestower of riches and wisedome;” how Mars “broaches bould spirites, bloud, brawles and all disordered, inconsiderate, and headdy actions;” how “his gestures are terrible, cruell, fierce, angry, proude, hasty and violent,” and how also “he is reputed hoat and drie in the highest degree, bearing sway over redde choler.” I should like to tell him about the passions, actions, and the gestures they occasion, described as they are with a sweet and silly unreasonableness that is very charming to read, and makes no demand whatever upon the understanding. But charming as are the pages of Lomazzo, those of Torrotti are more charming still, and they have a connection with our subject which Lomazzo’s have not. Enough, therefore, that Mr. Haydocke did not get through more than half Lomazzo’s treatise, and that, glancing over the untranslated pages, I see frequent allusions to Gaudenzio in the warmest terms, but no passage so important as the longer of the two quoted above.


Now that Varallo can be easily reached by the new railway from Novara, it is not likely to remain so little known much longer. The town is agreeable to stay in; it contains three excellent inns. I name them in geographical order. They are the Italia, the Croce Bianca, and the Posta, while there is another not less excellent on the Sacro Monte itself. I have stayed at all these inns, and have received so much kindness in each of them, that I must decline the invidious task of recommending any one of them especially. My book is intended for Varallo, and not for this or that hotel. The neighbourhood affords numberless excursions, all of them full of interest and beauty; the town itself, though no exception to the rule that the eastern cities of North Italy are more beautiful than the western, is still full of admirable subjects for those who are fond of sketching. The people are hospitable to a fault; personally, I owe them the greatest honour that has ever been conferred upon me–an honour far greater than any I have ever received among those who know me better, and are probably better judges of my deserts. The climate is healthy, the nights being cool even in the height of summer, and the days almost invariably sunny and free from fog in winter. With all these advantages, therefore, it is not easy to understand the neglect that has befallen it, except on the ground that until lately it has been singularly difficult of access.

Two hundred years ago it must have been much as it is at present. Turning to the work of the excellent Canon Torrotti, published in 1686, I find he writes as follows:-

“Oh, what fannings is there not here,” he exclaims, “of the assiduous Zephyrs; what warmth in winter, what gelidness of the air in summer; and what freaks are there not of Nature by way of caves, grottoes, and delicious chambers hewn by her own hand. Here can be enjoyed wines of the very finest flavour, trout as dainty as can be caught in any waters, game of the most singular excellence; in short, there is here a great commodity of everything most sensual and pleasing to the palate. And of those who come here, above all I must praise the Piedmontese, who arrive in frequent cavalcades of from twenty to five-and-twenty people, to an edification which is beyond all praise; and they are munificent in the gifts they leave behind them to the Holy Place–not resembling those who are mean towards God though they will spend freely enough upon their hotel-bill. Carriages of all sorts can be had here easily; it is the Milanese who for the most part make use of these carriages and equipages, for they are pompous and splendid in their carryings on. From elsewhither processions arrive daily, even from Switzerland, and there are sometimes as many as ten thousand visitors extraordinary come here in a single day, yet is there no hindrance but they find comfortable lodging, and at very reasonable prices.

“As for the distance, it is about sixty miles, or two easy days’ journey from Milan; it is much the same from Turin; it is one day from Novara, and one from Vercelli; but the most delightful thing about this journey is that you can combine so many other devotions along with it. In the Milanese district, for example, there is the mountain of Varese, and that of S. Carlo of Arona on the Lago Maggiore; and there are S. Francesco and S. Giulio on the Lago d’Orta; then there is the Madonna of Oropa in the mountains of Biella, which sanctuary is in the diocese of Vercelli, as is also S. Giovanni di Campiglio, the Madonna di Crevacore, and Gattinara; there is also the Mount Calvary of Domo d’Ossola, on the road towards Switzerland, and Montrigone below Borgosesia. These, indeed, are but chapels in imitation of our own Holy Sepulchre, and cannot compare with it neither in opulence nor in importance; still those of Varese and Oropa are of some note and wealth. Moreover, the neighbourhood of this our own Jerusalem is the exact counterpart of that which is in the Holy Land, having the Mastallone on the one side for the brook Kedron, and the Sesia for the Jordan, and the lake of Orta for that of Caesaraea; while for the Levites there are the fathers of St. Bernard of Mentone in the Graian and Pennine Alps of Aosta, where there are so many Roman antiquities that they may be contemplated not only as monuments of empire, but as also of the vanity of all human greatness” (pp. 19-21).

A little later the Canon tells us of the antiquity of the councils that have been held in the neighbourhood, and of one especially:-

“Which was held secretly by five bishops on the summit of one of the mountains of Sorba in the Val Rassa, which is still hence called the bishops’ seat; for they came thither as to the place where the five dioceses adjoined, and each one sat on a stone within the boundary of his own diocese; and they are those of Novara, Vercelli, Ivrea, Orta, and Sion. Nor must we forget the signal service rendered to the universal church in these same mountains of Rassa by the discomfiture of the heretic monks Gazzari to which end Pope Clement V. in 1307 issued several bulls, and among them one bearing date on the third day of the ides of August, given at Pottieri, in which he confirmed the liberty of our people, and acknowledged the Capi as Counts of the Church . . . For the Valsesian people have been ever free, and by God’s grace have shaken off the yoke of usurpers while continuing faithful and profitable subjects of those who have equitably protected them.”

Torrotti goes on to tell us about the Blessed shepherdess Panesia, a virgin of the most exquisite beauty, and only fifteen years old, who was martyred on the 1st of May 1383 on the mountain of S. Giovanni of Quarona, with three wounds on her head and two on her throat, inflicted by a wicked stepmother who had a devil, and whose behests she had obeyed with such consummate sweetness that she had attained perfection; on which, so invariably do extremes meet, she had to be put to death and made a martyr; and if we want to know more about her, we can find it in the work that has been so elegantly written about her by the most illustrious Father Castiglione Sommasco. Again, there was the famous miracle in 1333 of S. Maiolo in Val Rassa, which is celebrated every year, and in virtue of which Pietro, only child of Viscount Emiliano, one of the three brothers who fought against the heretics, was saved after having been carried off by a ravenous wolf into the woods of Val Sorba as far as the fountain named after the rout which this same Count, when he afterwards grew up, inflicted upon the enemies of the valley in 1377; wherefore he is seen in an old picture of those times as a child in swaddling-clothes in the mouth of a wolf, and he gave the name of Fassola di S. Maiolo to his descendants. Nor, as in private duty bound, can the worthy Canon forget –

“My own beloved chapel of St. Mary of the Snow, for whose honour and glory I have done my utmost, at the entrance of the Val Mastallone; for here on a fragment of ruined wall there grow at all times sundry flowers, even in the ice and snows of winter; wherefore I had the distich set up where it may be now seen.”

I have never seen it, but must search for it next time I go to Varallo. Torrotti presently says that the country being sterile, the people are hard pressed for food during two-thirds of the year; hence they have betaken themselves to commerce and to sundry arts, with which they overrun the world, returning home but once or twice a year, with their hands well filled with that which they have garnered, to sustain and comfort themselves with their families; and their toil and the gains that they have made redound no little to the advantage of the states of Milan and Piedmont. He again declares that they maintain their liberty, neither will they brook the least infringement thereon. And their neighbours, he continues, as well as the dwellers in the valley itself, are interested in this; for here, as in some desert or peaceful wilderness, the noble families of Italy and neighbouring provinces have been ever prone to harbour in times of war and trouble.

Then, later, there comes an account of a battle, which I cannot very well understand, but it seems to have been fought on the 26th of July 1655. The Savoyards were on their way to assist at a siege of Pavia, and were determined to punish the Valsesians en route; they had come up from Romagnano to Borgosesia, when the Valsesians attacked them as they were at dinner, and shot off the finger of a general officer who was eating an egg; on this the battle became general, and the Savoyards were caught every way; for the waters of the Sesia had come down in flood during the night. The Germans of Alagna, Rima, and Rimella were in it, somehow, and those of Pregemella in the Val Dobbia. I cannot make out whether the Pregemella people were Germans or merely people; either way, the German-speaking villages in the Val Sesia appear to have been the same two hundred years ago as now. I mean, it does not seem that the German-speaking race extended lower down the valley then than now. But at any rate, the queen, or whoever “Madama Reale” may be, was very angry about the battle.

“It is the custom,” concludes our author, “in token of holy cheerfulness (allegria spirituale) to wear a sprig of pine in the hat on leaving the holy place, to show that the visitor has been there; for it has some fine pine trees. This custom was introduced in royal merriment by Carlo Emmanuele I. He put a sprig in his hat, and was imitated by all his court, and the ladies wore the same in their bosom or in their hair. Assuredly it is one of the wonders of the world to see here, amid the amenities and allurements of the country, especially during the summer season, what a continuous festa or holy fair is maintained. For there come and go torrents of men and women of every nation under heaven. Here you shall see pilgrims and persons in religion of every description, processions, prelates, and often princes and princesses, carriages, litters, caleches, equipages, cavalcades accompanied by trumpeters, gay troops of cavaliers, and ladies with plumes in their hats and rich apparel wherewithal to make themselves attractive; and at intervals you shall hear all manner of songs, concerts, and musical instruments, both civil and military, all done with a modest and devout cheerfulness of demeanour, by which I am reminded of nothing so strongly as of the words of the Psalmist in the which he saith ‘Come and see the works of the Lord, for He hath done wonders upon earth.'”

It must have been something like our own Tunbridge Wells or Bath in the last century. Indeed, one is tempted to think that if the sea had come up to Varallo, it must have been almost more like Margate than Jerusalem. Nor can we forget the gentle rebuke administered on an earlier page to those who came neither on business nor for devotion’s sake, but out of mere idle curiosity, and bringing with them company which the good Canon designates as scandalous. Mais nous avons change tout cela.

I have allowed myself to quote so freely from Torrotti, as thinking that the reader will glean more incidentally from these fragments about the genius of Varallo and its antecedents than he would get from pages of disquisition on my own part. Returning to the Varallo of modern times, I would say that even now that the railway has been opened, the pleasantest way of getting there is still over the Colma from Pella opposite Orta. I always call this road “the root,” for I once saw it thus described, obviously in good faith, in the visitors’ book at one of the inns in Varallo. The gentleman said he had found “the root” without any difficulty at Pella, had taken it all the way to Varallo, and it was delicious. He said it was one of the finest “roots” he had ever seen, and it was only nine or ten miles long.

There were one or two other things in that book, of which, while I am about it, I should like to deliver my mind. A certain man who wrote a bold round hand signed his name “Tom Taylor”–doubtless not the late well-known art critic and dramatic writer, but some other person of the same name–in the visitors’ book of the Hotel Leone d’Oro at Orta, and added the word “disgusted.” I saw this entry, then comparatively recent, in 1871, and on going on to the Hotel d’Italia at Varallo, found it repeated–“Tom Taylor disgusted.” The entries in each case were probably aimed at the Sacro Monte, and not at the inn; but they grated on me, as they must have done on many other English visitors; and I saw with pleasure that some one had written against the second of them the following epigram, which is too neat not to be preserved. It ran:-

“Oh wretched Tom Taylor, disgusted at Orta, At Varallo we find him disgusted again; The feeling’s contagious, I really have caught a Disgust for Tom Taylor–he travels in vain.”

Who, I wonder, was it who could fling off such an apt impromptu, and how many more mute inglorious writers have we not who might do anything they chose if they would only choose to do anything at all? Some one else had written on an earlier page; –


“While you’ve that which makes the mare go You should stay at this albergo,

Bona in esse and in posse
Are dispensed by Joseph Rossi.


“Ask him and he’ll set before ye
Vino birra e liquori,

Asti, Grignolino, Sherry
Prezzi moderati–very.”

There was more, but I have forgotten it. Joseph Rossi was a famous old waiter long since retired, something like Pietro at the Hotel Rosa Rossa at Casale, whom all that country side knew perfectly well. This last entry reminds me of a somewhat similar one which I saw some five and thirty years ago at the inn at Harlech; –


[Greek text which cannot be reproduced] By this ‘ere I mean to testify how very well they feed you.


“Quam superba sit ruina,
Ipsa sua semper laus,
And the castle–nothing finer,
With its ivy and jackdaws.”

It is a pity the art of writing such pleasing little poems should be now so generally neglected in favour of more ambitious compositions. Whatever brevity may be as regards wit it is certainly the soul of all agreeable poetry.

But again to return to Varallo, or rather to the way of reaching it by the Colma. There is nothing in North Italy more beautiful than this walk, with its park-like chestnut-covered slopes of undulating pasture land dotted about with the finest thatched barns to be found outside Titian. We might almost fancy that Handel had it in his mind when he wrote his divine air “Verdi Prati.” Certainly no country can be better fitted either to the words or music. It continues in full beauty all the way to Civiasco, where the carriage road begins that now goes down into the main road between Varallo and Novara, joining it a mile and a half or so below Varallo.

Close to the point of juncture there is a chapel of singularly graceful elegant design, called the Madonna di Loreto. To this chapel I will again return: it is covered with frescoes. Near it there is an open triangular piece of grass land on which a murderer was beheaded within the memory of persons still living. A wild old man, who looked like an executioner broken loose from the flagellation chapel on the Sacro Monte, but who was quite tame and kind to us when we came to know him, told Jones and myself this last summer that he remembered seeing the murderer brought here and beheaded, this being as close as might be to the place where the murder had been committed. We were at first rather sceptical, but on inquiry at Varallo found that there had been an execution here, the last in the open country, somewhere about the year 1835.

From this spot two roads lead to Varallo; one somewhat circuitous by Mantegna, a village notable for a remarkable fresco outside the church, in which the Virgin is appearing to a lady and gentleman as they are lying both of them fast asleep in a large bed, with their two dear little round heads on a couple of comfortable pillows. The three Magi in the very interesting frescoes behind the choir in the church of S. Abbondio at Como are, if I remember, all in one bed when the angel comes to tell them about the star, and I fancy they have a striped counterpane, but it is some time since I saw the frescoes; at any rate the angel was not a lady. We had often before seen the Virgin appear to a lady in bed, and even to a gentleman in bed, but never before to a lady and a gentleman both in the same bed. She is not, however, so much appearing to them as sitting upon them, and I should say she was pretty heavy. The fresco is dated 1641.

The other road is the direct one, and passes the old church of St. Mark, outside which there are some charming fifteenth-century frescoes by nobody in particular, and among them a cow who, at the instance of St. Mark, is pinning a bear or wolf to a tree in a most resolute determined manner.

There are other frescoes on this church by the Varallese painter Luini (not to be confounded with Bernardino), but I do not remember them as remarkable.

Up to this point the two highest peaks of Monte Rosa are still visible when clouds permit; here they disappear behind nearer mountains, and in a few more hundred yards Varallo is entered.


In geographical position Varallo is the most western city of North Italy in which painting and sculpture were endemic. Turin, Novara, Vercelli, Casale, Ivrea, Biella, Alessandria, and Aosta have no endemic art comparable to that of the cities east of Milan. Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, not to mention Venice and the cities of the Friuli, not only produced artists who have made themselves permanently famous, but are themselves, in their architecture and external features generally, works of art as impressive as any they contain; they are stamped with the widely-spread instinctive feeling for beauty with which the age and people that reared them must assuredly have been inspired. The eastern cities have perhaps suffered more from war, nevertheless it is hard to think that the beauty so characteristic of the eastern Lombardic cities should fail so conspicuously, at least by comparison, in the western, if the genius of the places had been the same. All cities are symptomatic of the men who built them, towns no less than bodily organisation being that unknown something which we call mind or spirit made manifest in material form. Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians–to name them in alphabetical order, are not more distinct in their several faults and virtues than are London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome, in the impression they leave on those who see them. How closely in each case does the appearance of the city correspond with the genius of the nation of which it is the capital. The same holds good more or less with the provincial cities of any country. They have each in a minor degree their distinctive evidences of character, and it will hardly be denied that while the North Italian genius is indebted to the cities of Piedmont for perhaps its more robust and vigorous elements, it owes its command of beauty whether of form or colour to Lombardy rather than to Piedmont. It seems to have been ordained that an endemic interest in art should not cross the Po northward to the west of the Ticino, and to this rule Varallo is only partially an exception; the reasons which led to its being an exception at all will be considered presently. I know, of course, that Novara, and still more Vercelli, contain masterpieces by Gaudenzio Ferrari, but in each case the art was exotic, and with the not very noteworthy exceptions of Lanini, Difendente Ferrari di Chivasso, and Macrino d’Alba, I do not at the moment call to mind the name of a single even high second-class painter or sculptor who has hailed from west of the Valsesia.

The exceptional position of Varallo as regards North Italian art must be referred mainly to its selection by Bernardino Caimi as the site for the New Jerusalem which he founded there at the end of the fifteenth century; a few words, therefore, concerning him will not be out of place here; I learn from Torrotti that he was a “Frate Minore Osservante di S. Francesco,” and came of the noble and illustrious Milanese family of the Counts Caimi. He had been Patriarch of the Holy Land, and, as I find stated in Signor Galloni’s excellent work already referred to, {1} had been employed on important missions in the island of Cyprus, chiefly in connection with the reformation of abuses. Full of zeal and devotion he returned to his native country, and ere long conceived the design of reproducing in Italy a copy of the most important sites in the Holy Land, for the comfort and greater commodity of so many Christians who, being unable to commit themselves to long and weary voyages by land and sea, and among infidels, might gather thence some portion of that spiritual fruit which were otherwise beyond their reach.

Old and mendicant as he was, he was nothing daunted by the magnitude of the task before him, and searched Lombardy from one end to the other in his desire to provide Providence with a suitable abode. For a long while he sought in vain, and could find no place that was really like Jerusalem, but at last, towards the end of 1491, he came to Varallo alone, and had hardly got there before he felt himself rapt into an ecstasy, in the which he was drawn towards the Sacro Monte; when he got up to the plain on the top of the mountain which was then called “La Parete,” perceiving at once its marvellous resemblance to Jerusalem, even to the existence of another mountain hard by which was like Calvary, he threw himself on the ground and thanked God in a transport of delight. It is said that for some time previously the shepherds who watched their flocks on this solitary height had been talking of nothing but of heavenly harmonies that had been heard coming from the sky; that Caimi himself while yet in the Holy Land had been shown this place in a vision; and that on reaching an eminence called Sceletta he had been conducted to the site itself by the song of a bird which sang with such extraordinary sweetness that he had been constrained to follow it.

I should have set this bird down as a blue rock thrush or passero solitario, for I know these birds breed yearly on the Sacro Monte, and no bird sings so sweetly as they do, but we are expressly told that Caimi did not reach Varallo till the end of the year, and the passeri solitarii have all migrated by the end of August. We have seen, however, that Milano Scarrognini actually founded a chapel in October 1491, so Torrotti is wrong in his date, and Caimi may have come in 1490, and perhaps in August, before the passeri were gone. There can be little doubt in fact that he came, or at any rate chose his site, before 1486.

Whatever the bird may have been, Caimi now communicated his design to the Consiglio della Vicinanza at Varallo, through Milano de’ Scarrognini, who was a member of the body, and who also gave support in money; negotiations were not finally concluded until the 14th of April 1493, on which day, as we have already seen, the site of the monastery of S. Maria della Grazie was conveyed to the Padri dell’ Osservanza with the concession of a right to build their New Jerusalem on the adjoining mountain–which they had already begun to do for some time past.

Divine assistance was manifest in the ease with which everything had been arranged, but Torrotti goes on to assure us that it was presently made still clearer. The design had been to begin with a reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre, and hardly had the workmen begun to dig for the foundation of this first work, when a stone was found, not only resembling the one which covered the actual Holy Sepulchre itself, but an absolute facsimile of it in all respects–as like it, in fact, or even more so, than Varallo was to Jerusalem. The testimony to this was so notorious, and the fact was so soon and widely known, that pilgrims flocked in crowds and brought gifts enough to bring the first abode of the Fathers with the chapel beside it to a speedy and successful completion. Everything having been now started auspiciously, and the Blessed Bernardino having been allowed to look, as it were, into the promised land, God took him to Himself on the 5th day of the Ides of February 1496, or–as I have above said that the inscription on Caimi’s tomb declares–in 1499.

The churches, both the one below the mountain in which Gaudenzio’s great series of frescoes may be still seen, and the one on the top, which stood on the site now occupied by the large house that stands to the right of the present church, and is called the Casino, were consecrated between the 5th and 7th days of September 1501, and by this time several of the chapels with figures in them had been taken in hand, and were well advanced if not completed.

Fassola’s version of Bernardino Caimi’s visit is more guarded than Torrotti’s is. Before going on to it I will say here the little that need be said about Fassola himself. I find from Signor Galloni’s “Uomini e fatti” (p. 208) that he was born at Rassa above Bucioleto in the Val Grande, on the 19th of September 1648. His family had one house at Rassa, and another at Varallo, which last is believed to have been what is now the hotel Croce Bianca, at which I always myself stay. Torrotti, in his preface, claims to have been one of his masters; he also says that Fassola was only eighteen when he wrote his work on the Sacro Monte, and that he had published a work when he was only fourteen. The note given by Signor Galloni [p. 233] settles it that Fassola was born “anno D. 1648 die 19 septembris hora 22 min. 30,” so that either the book lay some years unpublished, or he was over twenty when he wrote it. Like the edition of Caccia already referred to, it is dated a year later than the one in which it actually appeared, so that the present custom of post-dating late autumn books is not a new one. In the preface the writer speaks of his pen as being “tenera non tanto per talento quanto per l’eta.” In the same preface he speaks of himself as having a double capacity, one as a Delegate to the governing body of the valley, and the other as a canon; but he must mean some kind of lay canon, for I cannot find that he was ever ordained. In 1672 he published his work “La Valsesia descritta,” which according to Signor Galloni is more hastily written than his earlier work. On the 14th of December, the same year, he left the Valsesia and travelled to France, keeping a journal for some time, which Signor Galloni tells us still existed in 1873 in the possession of Abate Cav. Carestia of Riva Valdobbia. He went to Paris, and appears to have stayed there till 1683, when he returned to Varallo, and the Valsesia.

He found his country torn by faction, and was immediately hailed by all parties as the one man whom all could agree to elect as Regent General of the Valley. He was elected, and on the 5th of October convened his first general council of the Valsesia. He seems to have been indefatigable as an administrator during the short time he held office, but in the year 1684 was deposed by the Milanese, who on the 3rd of December sent a body of armed men to seize him and take him to Milan. He was warned in time to fly, and escaped to France, where according to some he died, while others say that he settled in Poland and there attained high distinction. Nothing, however, is known for certain about him later than the year 1684 or the beginning of 1685.

In 1686 Torrotti published his book. He says that Fassola during his regency repeatedly desired him “ripigliare questa relatione per commodita dei Pelegrini, Divoti, visitanti,” and that so much new matter had come to light since Fassola’s time that a new work was called for. Fassola, he says, even in the midst of his terrible misfortunes, continued to take the warmest interest in his native city, and in the Sacro Monte, where it appears he had been saluted by a very memorable and well-known miracle, which was so well known in Torrotti’s time that it was not necessary to tell us what it was. Fassola may or may not have urged Torrotti to write a second work upon the Sacro Monte, but he can hardly have intended him to make it little more than a transcript of his own book. If new facts had come to light they do not appear in Torrotti’s pages. He very rarely adds to Fassola, and never corrects him; when Fassola is wrong Torrotti is wrong also; even when something is added I have a strong suspicion that it comes from Fassola’s second book. On the whole I am afraid I regard Torrotti as somewhat of a plagiarist–at least as regards his matter, for his manner is his own and is very quaint, garrulous, and pleasing.

Fassola’s work is full of inaccuracies, and of such inaccuracies as can only be explained on the supposition that the writer resided mainly at Rassa, wrote his book there, and relied too much upon notes which he did not verify after his work was written. Nevertheless, as Signor Galloni justly says, “he must be allowed the merit of having preserved an immense mass of matter from otherwise almost certain destruction, and his pages when subjected to rigid examination and criticism furnish abundant material to the writer of genuine history.”

He leans generally much less towards the miraculous than Torrotti does. After saying, for example, that Bernardino Caimi had returned from Jerusalem in 1481 full of devotion and with the fixed intention of reproducing the Holy City on Italian soil, he continues:-

“With this holy intent the good ecclesiastic journeyed to the mountains of Biella, and thence to the Val d’Ossola, and thence to several places in the Valsesia, which of all others was the valley in which he was most inclined to unburden his mind of the treasure of his heroic design. Finally, arriving at Varallo, as the place of most resort, where most of those would come whose means and goodwill would incline them to works of piety, he resolved to choose the most suitable site that he could here find. According to some, while taking counsel with himself and with all who could help him, the site which we now adore was shown him in a vision; others say that on walking without the town he was seduced by the angelic warbling of a bird, and thus ravished to a spot where he found all things in such order for his design that he settled upon it then and there. Many hold as true the story of certain shepherds who about a fortnight earlier than the coming of the father, heard songs of more than earthly sweetness as they were keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

“But,” concludes Fassola, with some naivete considering the reserve he has shown in accepting any of the foregoing stories, “take it in whatever way you will, the inception of the place was obviously miraculous.”


Whether miraculous or not, the early history of the Sacro Monte is undoubtedly obscure, and the reader will probably have ere this perceived that the accounts given by Fassola and Torrotti stand in some need of reconstruction. The resemblance between Varallo and Jerusalem is too far fetched to have had any bona fide effect upon a man of travel and of affairs, such as Caimi certainly was; it is hardly greater than the famous one between Monmouth and Macedon; there is, indeed, a river–not to say two–at Varallo, and there is a river also only twenty-five miles off Jerusalem; doubtless at one time or another there have been crucifixions in both, but some other reason must be sought for the establishment of a great spiritual stronghold at the foot of the Alps, than a mere desire to find the place which should most remind its founder of the Holy City. Why this great effort in a remote and then almost inaccessible province of the Church, far from any of the religious centres towards which one would have expected it to gravitate? The answer suggests itself as readily as the question; namely, that it was an attempt to stem the torrent of reformed doctrines already surging over many an Alpine pass, and threatening a moral invasion as fatal to the spiritual power of Rome as earlier physical invasions of Northmen had been to her material power.

Those who see the Italian sub-alpine valleys of to-day as devoted to the Church of Rome are apt to forget how nearly they fell away from her in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and what efforts, both by way of punishment and allurement, she was compelled to make before she could retain them in her grasp. In most of them the ferment caused by the introduction of the reformed doctrines was in the end stamped out; but in some, as in the Valle di Poschiavo, and the Val Bregaglia, Protestantism is still either the predominant creed or not uncommon. I do not mention the Vaudois valleys of Piedmont, for I am told these were Protestant before either Huss or Luther preached.

The Valsesians had ere now given proof of a tendency towards heresy, but they were a people whom it was worth while making every effort to retain. They have ever been, as we have seen it said already, a vigorous, sturdy, independent race, imbued, in virtue perhaps of their mixed descent, with a large share of the good points both of Southern and Northern nations. They are Italians; but Italians of the most robust and Roman type, combining in a remarkable degree Southern grace and versatility with Northern enterprise and power of endurance. It is no great stretch of imagination to suppose that Bernardino Caimi was alive to dangers that were sufficiently obvious, and that he began with the Val Sesia, partly as of all the sub-alpine valleys the one most imbued with German blood–the one in which to this day the German language has lingered longest, and in which, therefore, ideas derived from Germany would most easily be established–and partly because of the quasi-independence of the Val Sesia, and of its lying out of the path of those wars from which the plains of Lombardy have been rarely long exempt. It may be noted that the movement set on foot by Caimi extended afterwards to other places, always, with the exception of Crea, on the last slopes of the Alps before the plains of Lombardy and Piedmont begin. Varese, Locarno, Orta, Varallo, Oropa, Graglia, St. Ignazio, not to mention St. Giovanni di Andorno, have all of them something of the spiritual frontier fortress about them, and, I imagine, are all more or less directly indebted to the reformation for their inception.

Confining our attention to Varallo, the history of the Sacro Monte divides itself into two main periods; the first, from the foundation to the visit of S. Carlo Borromeo in 1678; the second, from the visit of S. Carlo to the present day. The first of these periods begins with 1486, in which year the present Sacro Monte was no doubt formally contemplated, if not actually commenced. That it was contemplated is shown by the inscription on Caimi’s grave already given, and also by the first of the two deeds given in Signor Galloni’s notes, from which it appears {2} that under the brief of December 21, 1486, Caimi had powers to take over the land now covered by the chapels, EVEN THOUGH HE SHOULD BE ABSENT–it being evidently intended that the land should be conveyed at once, and before he could return from Jerusalem, for which place he started in 1487. Moreover, there remains one small chapel with frescoes that can hardly be later than 1485-1490. This is now numbered 45, and is supposed by many to be older even than Caimi’s first visit. It may be so, but there is nothing to show that it actually was. I have seen a date scratched on it which it is said is 1437, but the four is really a five, which in old writing is often taken for a four, and the frescoes, which in their own way are of considerable merit, would be most naturally assigned to about the date 1485-1490. I do not think there can be a doubt that we have in this chapel the earliest existing building on the Sacro Monte, but find it impossible to form any opinion as to whether it was in existence before Bernardino Caimi’s time, or no.

In the second of the two deeds given by Signor Galloni (p. 85), the following passage occurs:-

“Et similiter fecerunt ipsi Sindici, et Procuratores, ut supra introducendo ipsum Patrem Vicarium ut supra in Eremitorium sancti Sepulchri existent. in loco ubi dicebatur super pariete, aperiendo eidem ostia dicti Eremitorij, et dando eidem claues Ostiorum dicti eremitorij, et eum deambulari faciendo in eo, et similiter in Hortis dicti Eremitorij, dando eidem in gremium ut supra de terris, herbis, et frondibus, et lapidibus existen. in locis praedictis, et similiter in Capella existente subtus crucem, et in Capellam Ascensionis AEdificatam super Monte praedicto. Qui locus est de membris dicti Monasterii suprascripti.”

Neither Signor Galloni, who pointed out this passage to me, nor I, though we have more than once discussed the matter on the ground itself, can arrive at any conclusion as to what was intended by “the chapel now in existence under the cross,” nor yet what chapel is intended by “the chapel of the Ascension on the said mountain.” It is probable that there was an early chapel of the Ascension, and the wooden figure of Christ on the fountain in the piazza before the church was very likely taken from it, but there is no evidence to show where it stood.

Signor Arienta tells me that the chapel now occupied by the Temptation in the Wilderness was formerly a chapel of the Ascension. He told me to go round to the back of this chapel, and I should find it was earlier than appeared from the front. I did so, and saw it had formerly fronted the other way to what it does now, but among the many dates scrawled on it could find none earlier than 1506, and it is not likely to have been built thirteen years before it got scrawled on.

Some hold the chapels referred to in the deed above quoted from to have included the present Annunciation, Salutation, and sleeping St. Joseph block–or part of it. Others hold them to have referred to the chapels now filled by the Pieta and the Entombment (Nos. 40 and 41); but it should not be forgotten that by 1493 the chapels of S. Francis and the Holy Sepulchre were already in existence, though no mention is made of them; and there may have been other chapels also already built of which no mention is made. Thus immediately outside the St. Francis chapel and towards the door leading to the Holy Sepulchre, there is a small recess in which is placed an urn of iron that contains the head of Bernardino Caimi with a Latin inscription; and hard by there is another inscription which runs as follows:-

“Magnificus D. Milanus Scarrogninus hoc Sepulcrum cum fabrica sibi contigua Christo posuit die septimo Octobris MCCCCLXXXXI. R. P. Frater Bernardinus de Mediolano Ordinis Minorum de Observ. sacra hujus montis excogitavit loca, ut hic Hierusalem videat qui peragrare nequit.”

We may say with some confidence that the present chapel No. 45, those numbered 40 and 41, the block containing the St. Francis and Holy Sepulchre chapels, and probably the Presepio, Adoration of the Shepherds, and Circumcision chapels–though it may be doubted whether these last contained the figures that they now do–were in existence before the year 1500. Part if not all of the block containing the Sta. Casa di Loreto, in which the Annunciation is now found, is also probably earlier than 1500, as also an early Agony in the Garden now long destroyed, but of which we are told that the figures were originally made of wood. Over and above these there was a Cena, Capture, Flagellation, and an Ascension chapel, all of which contained wooden figures, and cannot be dated later than the three or four earliest years of the sixteenth century. No wooden figure is to be dated later than this, for when once an oven for baking clay had been made (and this must have been done soon after Gaudenzio took the works on the Sacro Monte in hand) the use of wood was discarded never to be resumed.

According to both Fassola and Torrotti, the first chapel erected on the Sacro Monte was that of S. Francesco, with its adjacent reproduction of the Holy Sepulchre. According to Bordiga the first was the entombment, containing nine figures of wood, or, as the earlier writers say, eight. Bordiga probably means that the Entombment was the earliest chapel with figures in it, and the other writers that the St. Francis chapel was the first in which mass was said. These last speak very highly of the wooden figures in the Entombment chapel, and so more guardedly does Bordiga. I will return to them when I come to the present group of nine by Luigi Marchesi, a sculptor of Saltrio, which were substituted for the old ones in 1826. The early writers say that there was no fresco background to this chapel, and this suggests that the attempt to combine sculpture and painting was not part of the initial scheme, though soon engrafted on to it, inasmuch as this is the only chapel about which I find it expressly stated by early writers that it was without a fresco background (“senza pittura alcuna”). {3} Though there was no fresco background, Bordiga says there was a fresco painted, doubtless done very early in his career, by Gaudenzio Ferrari, outside the chapel just above the iron grating through which the visitor must look. Probably the original scheme was to have sculptured figures inside the chapels, and frescoes outside; by an easy modification these last were transferred from the outside to the inside, and so designed as to form an integral part of the composition: the daring scheme of combining the utmost resources of both painting and sculpture in a single work was thus gradually evolved rather than arrived at per saltum. Assuming, however, the currently received date of 1503 or 1504 as correct for Gaudenzio’s frescoes in the present Pieta chapel, the conception as carried out in the greater number of the existing chapels had then attained the shape from which no subsequent departure was made.

Returning to Gaudenzio’s fresco outside the S. Francesco chapel, Bordiga says that Caccia gave the following lines on this work:-

“Sotto un vicino portico di fuore
Portato a sepelir e di pittura
Un Cristo; che non mai Zeuxi pittore Di questo finse piu bella figura,
Che un San Francesco possa pareggiare, Pinto piu inanzi sopra d’un altare.”

The reader will note that the fresco is here expressly stated to be “di fuore” or outside and not inside the chapel.

Both Fassola and Torrotti place this fresco on the outside wall of the chapel of St. Francis, but Bordiga is probably right in saying it was on the Entombment chapel. No trace of it remains, nor yet of the other works by Gaudenzio, which all three writers agree were in the S. Francesco chapel, though they must all have been some few years later than the chapel itself. These consisted of portraits of Milano Scarrognini with Father Beato Candido Ranzo Bernardino Caimi upon the gospel, or right, side of the altar, and of Scarrognini’s wife and son with Bernardino Caimi, on the epistle side. According to Bordiga, Gaudenzio also painted a St. Anthony of Padua, and a St. Helena, one on either side the grating. Inside the chapel over the altar was a painting of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, also by Gaudenzio. This is the only one of his works in or about the S. Francesco chapel which still exists; it is now in the pinacoteca of the Museum at Varallo, but is not, so far as I could judge of it, one of his best pictures. The other works were in a decayed condition in 1703, when they were removed, and the chapel was redecorated by Francesco Leva, a painter of Milan.

The Crucifixion chapel of Gaudenzio Ferrari was begun and finished between 1520 and 1530. 1 have found three excellently written dates of 1529 scrawled upon the fresco background. One of them, “1529 Die 26 Octobre Johannes Antoninus,” is especially clear, and the other two leave no doubt what year was intended. I have found no earlier date, but should not be surprised if further search were more successful. I may say in passing that it seemed to me as though some parts of the scar made by the inscription had been filled with paint, while others had certainly not–as though the work had been in parts retouched, not so very long ago. I think this is so, but two or three to whom I showed what I took to be the new colour were not convinced, so I must leave others to decide the point.

The Magi chapel must be assigned to some date between the years 1530 and 1539–I should say probably to about 1538, but I will return to this later on. Torrotti says that some of the figures on the Christ taken for the last time before Pilate (chapel No. 32) are by Gaudenzio, as also some paintings that were preserved when the Palazzo di Pilato was built, but I can see no sign of either one or the other now; nevertheless it is likely enough that several figures- -transformed as we shall presently see that d’Enrico or his assistants knew very well how to transform them–are doing duty in the Caiaphas, Herod, Pilate, and Ecce Homo chapels. So cunningly did the workmen of that time disguise a figure when they wanted to alter its character and action that it would be no easy matter to find out exactly what was done; if they could turn an Eve, as they did, into a very passable Roman soldier assisting at the capture of Christ, they could make anything out of anything. A figure was a figure, and was not to be thrown away lightly.

Soon after the completion of the Magi chapel the work flagged in consequence of the wars then devastating the provinces of North Italy; nevertheless by the middle of the sixteenth century we learn from Torrotti that some nineteen chapels had been completed.

It is idle to spend much time in guessing which these chapels were, when Caccia’s work, published in 1565, is sure to be found some day and will settle the matter authoritatively, but the reader will not be far wrong if he sees the Sacro Monte by the year 1550 as consisting of the following chapels: Adam and Eve, Annunciation, Salutation (?), Magi, Adoration of the Infant Jesus by the Shepherds, Adoration by Joseph and Mary, Circumcision, (but not the present figures nor fresco background), Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Capture, Flagellation, Crowning with thorns (?), Christ taken for the last time before Pilate, the Original journey to Calvary, Fainting Madonna, Crucifixion, Entombment, Ascension, and the old church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary now removed. There were probably one or two others, but there cannot have been many.

In the 1586 edition of Caccia, a MS. copy of which I have before me, the chapels are given as follows: Adam and Eve, Annunciation, and Santa Casa di Loreto, Visit of Mary to Elizabeth, Magi, Joseph and Mary worshipping the Infant Christ, and the Adoration of Shepherds, {4} Circumcision, Joseph warned to fly, the chapel (but not the figures) of the Massacre of the Innocents, Flight into Egypt Baptism, Temptation in the Wilderness, Woman of Samaria, the chapel (but not the figures) of the Healing of the Paralytic, and the Raising of the Widow’s son at Nain, the Raising of Lazarus, Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Agony in the Garden, Capture, Flagellation, Crowning with Thorns, Christ carrying His cross to Calvary (doubtless Tabachetti’s chapel), the Fainting of the Virgin, the earlier Journey to Calvary by Gaudenzio (now dispersed or destroyed), Crucifixion, Pieta, Holy Sepulchre, Appearance to Mary Magdalene (now no longer existing).

I should say, however, that I find it impossible to reconcile the two accounts of the journeys to Calvary, given in the prose introduction to this work, and in the poetical description that follows it, or rather to understand the topography of the poetical version at all, for the prose account is plain enough. I shall place a MS. copy of the 1586 edition of Caccia’s book in the British Museum, before this present volume is published, and will leave other students of Valsesian history to be more fortunate if they can. Poetical descriptions are so far better than prose, inasmuch as there is generally less of them in a page, but on the whole prose has the advantage.

It would be interesting to see the 1565 and 1576 editions of Caccia, and note the changes and additions that can be found in them. The differences between the 1586 and 1590 editions (dated 1587 and 1591- the preface to the second being dated September 25, 1589), are enough to throw considerable additional light upon the history of the place, and if, as I believe likely, we find no mention of Tabachetti’s Calvary chapel in the edition of 1576, nor of his other chapels, we should be able to date his arrival at Varallo within a very few years, and settle a question which, until these two editions of Caccia are found, appears insoluble. I must be myself content with pointing out these libri desiderati to the future historian.

Some say that the work on the Sacro Monte was almost discontinued between the years 1540 and 1580. I cannot, however, find that this was so, though it appears to have somewhat flagged. I cannot tell whether Tabachetti came to Varallo before S. Carlo or after him. If before, then a good deal of the second impetus may be due to the sculptor rather than to the saint; if after, and as a consequence of S. Carlo’s visit, then indeed S. Carlo must be considered as the second founder of the place; but whatever view is taken about this, S. Carlo’s visit in 1578 is convenient as marking a new departure in the history of the Sacro Monte, and he may be fairly called its second founder.

Giussano gives the following account of his first visit, which makes us better understand the austere expression that reigns on S. Carlo’s face, as we see it represented in his portraits:-

“It was two o’clock in the day before St. Charles arrived at this place, and he had not broken his fast, but before taking anything he visited the different chapels for meditation, of which Father Adorno gave him the points. As evening drew on, he withdrew to take his refection of bread and water, and then returned again to the chapels till after midnight though the weather was very cold” [end of October or beginning of November]. “He then took two hours’ rest on a chair, and at five o’clock in the morning resumed his devotions; then, after having said his Mass, he again allowed himself a small portion of bread and water, and continued his journey to Milan, renewed in fervour of spirit, and with a firm determination to begin again to serve God with greater energy than ever.” {5}

Surely one may add “according to his lights” after the words “to serve God.” The second visit of St. Charles to Varallo, a few days before his death, is even more painful reading, and the reader may be referred for an account of it to chapter xi. of the second volume of the work last quoted from. He had a cell in the cloister, where he slept on a wooden bed, which is still shown and venerated, and used to spend hours in contemplating the various sacred mysteries, but most especially the Agony in the Garden, near which a little shelter was made for him, and in which he was praying when his impending death was announced to him by an angel. But this chapel, which was near the present Transfiguration Chapel, was destroyed and rebuilt on its present site after his death, as also the Cena Chapel, which originally contained frescoes by Bernardino Lanini. It was on the Sacro Monte that S. Carlo discharged his last public functions, after which, feeling that he had taken a chill, he left Varallo on the 29th of October 1584, and died at Milan six days afterwards.

At S. Carlo’s instance Pellegrino Pellegrini, called Tibaldi, made a new design for the Sacro Monte, which was happily never carried out, but which I am told involved the destruction of many of the earlier chapels. He made the plan of the Sacro Monte as it stood in his time, which I have already referred to, and designed the many chapels mentioned in the 1586 edition of Caccia as about to be built. Prominent among these was the Temple of Solomon, which was to involve “una spesa grandissima,” and was to be as like the real temple as it could be made. Inside it were to be groups of figures representing Christ driving out those that bought and sold, and it was to have a magnificent marble portico.

The Palazzo di Pilato, which, as the name denotes, is devoted to the sufferings of Christ under Pontius Pilate, was actually carried out, though not till some years after S. Carlo’s death, and not according to Pellegrini’s design. It is most probable that the designer of the Palazzo di Pilato, and of the Caiaphas and Herod chapels as we now see them, was Giovanni d’Enrico. “It was in 1608,” says Bordiga, {6} writing of the Santa Scala, which leads from the Crowning with Thorns to the Ecce Homo chapels, and which, one would say, must have been one of the first things done when the Palazzo di Pilato was made, “that this work with its steps, exactly twenty-eight in number, was begun, according to the design obtained from Rome by Francesco Testa, who was then Fabbriciere. This is for the information of those who think it is the work of Pellegrini.”

Between this year and 1645 the four Pilate chapels, the Ecce Homo, Caiaphas, Herod, present Pieta, Sleeping Apostles, Agony in the Garden, and Christ Nailed to the Cross chapels were either created or reconstructed. These works bear d’Enrico’s name in the guide-books, and he no doubt presided over the work that was done in them; but I should say that by far the greater number of the figures in them are by Giacomo Ferro, his assistant, to whom I will return presently, or by other pupils and assistants. Only one chapel, the Transfiguration, belongs to the second half of the seventeenth century, and one, the Christ before Annas, to the eighteenth (1765); one–the present Entombment–belongs to the nineteenth, and one or two have been destroyed, as has been unfortunately the case with the Chiesa Vecchia; but the plan of the Sacro Monte in 1671, which I here give, will show that it was not much different then from what it is at present. The numbers on the chapels are explained as follows:-

1. Gate.
2. Creation of the world and Adam and Eve. 3. Annunciation.
4. Salutation.
5. First vision of St. Joseph.
6. Magi.
7. Nativity.
8. Circumcision.
9. Second vision of St. Joseph.
10. Flight into Egypt.
11. Massacre of the Innocents.
12. Baptism.
13. Temptation.
14. Woman of Samaria.
15. Healing the Paralytic.
16. Widow’s son at Nain.
17. Transfiguration.
18. Raising of Lazarus.
19. Entry into Jerusalem.
20. Last Supper.
21. Agony in the Garden.
22. Sleeping Apostles.
23. Capture.
24. Caiaphas, and Penitence of St. Peter. 25. Christ before Pilate.
26. Christ before Herod.
27. Christ sent again to Pilate.
28. Flagellation.
29. Crowning with thorns.
30. Christ about to ascend the Santa Scala (not shown on plan). 31. Ecce Homo.
32. Pilate washes his hands.
33. Christ condemned to death.
34. Christ carrying the Cross.
35. Nailing to the Cross.
36. Passion.
37. Deposition from the Cross.
38. Pieta.
39. Entombment (not shown on plan). 40. Chapel of St. Francis.
41. Holy Sepulchre.
42. Appearance to Mary Magdalene.
43. Infancy of the Virgin.
44. Sepulchre of the Virgin.
45. Sepulchre of St. Anne.
46. Ascended Christ over the fountain. 47. Chiesa Vecchia.
48. Chiesa Maggiore.

The view is a bird’s-eye one, and there is hardly any hill in reality.


The foregoing outline of the history of the work must suffice for the present. I will reserve further remarks for the space which I will devote to each individual chapel. As regards the particular form the work took, I own that I have been at times inclined to wonder whether Leonardo da Vinci may not have had something to do with it.

Between 1481 and the end of 1499 he was in Milan, and during the later years of this period was the chief authority on all art matters. It is not easy to think that Caimi, who was a Milanese, would not consult him before embarking upon an art enterprise of the first magnitude; and certainly there is a something in the idea of turning the full strength of both painting and sculpture at once on to a single subject, which harmonises well with the magnificent rashness of which we know Leonardo to have been capable, and with the fact that he was both a painter and a sculptor himself. There is, however, not one scrap of evidence in support of this view, which is based solely on the fact that both the scheme and Leonardo were audacious, and that the first is little likely to have been undertaken without counsel from the second. The actual evidence points rather, as already indicated, in the direction of thinking that the frescoes began outside the chapels, got inside them for shelter, and ere long claimed the premises as belonging no less to themselves than to the statues. The idea of treating full-relief sculptured figures with a view to a pictorial rather than sculpturesque effect was in itself, as undertaken when Gaudenzio was too young to have had a voice in the matter, a daring innovation, even without the adjunct of a fresco background; and the idea of taking a mountain as though it were a book, and illustrating it with a number of such groups, was more daring still. To this extent we may perhaps suppose Caimi to have been indebted to Leonardo da Vinci: the rest is probably due to Gaudenzio, who evolved it in the course of those unforeseen developments of which design and judgment are never slow to take advantage.

To whomsoever the conception may be due, if it had only been carried out by such artists as Tabachetti and Gaudenzio Ferrari, or even Giovanni d’Enrico, to say nothing of Bargnola or Rossetti, (to whichever of the two the Massacre of the Innocents must be assigned,) works like those at Varallo might have been repeated, as indeed they sometimes were, thenceforward to the present day. Unfortunately the same thing was attempted at Orta, and later on at Varese, by greatly inferior men. It is true that some of the groups at Varese, especially the one in the Disputa Chapel, are exceedingly fine, and that there are few chapels even there in which no good or even admirable figures may be found. Still the prevailing spirit at Varese is stagey; the work belongs to an age when art of all kinds was held to consist mainly in exaggeration, and when freedom from affectation had fallen into a disrepute from which it has taken centuries to emerge. Nevertheless the work at Varese is for the most part able; if at times somewhat boisterous and ranting, it is incomparably above the feeble, silly cant of Orta; but unfortunately it is by Orta that English people for the most part judge the attempt to combine sculpture and painting. It is indeed some years since I was at this last-named place, and remembering how long I knew the Sacro Monte at Varallo without observing the Vecchietto in the Descent from the Cross Chapel, I cannot be sure that there is not some more interesting work at Orta than I now know. I do not think, however, I am far wrong in saying that the chapels at Orta are for the most part exceedingly bad.

So are some even at Varallo itself, but assuredly not most of them. One–I mean, of course, Tabachetti’s Journey to Calvary, which contains about forty figures rather larger than life, and nine horses,–is of such superlative excellence as regards composition and dramatic power, to say nothing of the many admirable individual figures comprised in it, that it is not too much to call it the most astounding work that has ever been achieved in sculpture. I know that this is strong language, but have considered my words as much as I care to do. As Michael Angelo’s Medicean Chapel errs on the side of over-subtlety, refinement, and the exaggerated idealism from which indeed there is but one step to the barocco, so does Tabachetti’s on that of over-downrightness, or, as a critic with a cultivated eye might say, with perhaps a show of reason at a first glance, even of vulgarity. Nevertheless, if I could have my choice whether to have created Michael Angelo’s chapel or Tabachetti’s, I should not for a moment hesitate about choosing Tabachetti’s, though it drove its unhappy creator mad, which the Medicean chapel never did by Michael Angelo. Three other chapels by Tabachetti are also admirable works. Two chapels contain very extensive frescoes by Gaudenzio Ferrari, than which it is safe to say that no finer works of their kind have been preserved to us. The statues by Gaudenzio in the same chapels are all interesting, and some remarkably good. Their arrangement in the Crucifixion Chapel, if not marked by the superlative dramatic power of Tabachetti, is still solemn, dignified, and impressive. The frescoes by Morazzone in Tabachetti’s great chapel belong to the decline of art, but there is still much in them that is excellent. So there is in some of those by Tanzio and Melchiorre, Giovanni d’Enrico’s brothers. Giovanni d’Enrico’s Nailing of Christ to the Cross, with its sixty figures all rather larger than life, challenges a comparison with Tabachetti’s, which it will not bear; still it is a great work. So are several of his other chapels. I am not so thoroughly in sympathy with the work of any of the three brothers d’Enrico as I should like to be, but they cannot be ignored or spoken of without respect. There are excellent figures in some of the chapels by less well-known men; and lastly, there is the Vecchietto, perhaps the finest figure of all, who looks as if he had dropped straight from the heavens towards which he is steadfastly regarding, and of whom nothing is known except that, if not by Tabachetti, he must be by a genius in some respects even more commanding, who has left us nothing save this Melchizedek of a figure, without father, mother, or descent.

I have glanced at some of the wealth in store for those who will explore it, but at the same time I cannot pretend that even the greater number of the chapels on the Sacro Monte are above criticism; and unfortunately some of the best do not come till the visitor, if he takes them in the prescribed order, has already seen a good many, and is beginning to be tired. There is not a little to be said in favour of taking them in the reverse order. As when one has sampled several figures in a chapel and found them commonplace, one is apt to overlook a good one which may have got in by accident of shifting in some one of the several rearrangements made in the course of more than three centuries, so when sampling the chapels themselves, after finding half a dozen running which are of inferior merit, we approach the others with a bias against them. Moreover, all of them have suffered more or less severely from decay. Rain and snow, indeed, can hardly get right inside the chapels, or, at any rate, not inside most of them, but they are all open to the air, and, at a height of over two thousand feet, ages of winter damp have dimmed the glory even of the best-preserved. In many cases the hair and beards, with excess of realism, were made of horse hair glued on, and the glue now shows unpleasantly; while the paint on many of the faces and dresses has blistered or peeled, leaving the figures with a diseased and mangy look. In other cases, they have been scraped and repainted, and this process has probably been repeated many times over, with inevitable loss of character; for the paint, unless very carefully removed, must soon clog up and conceal delicate modelling in many parts of the face and hands. The new paint has often been of a shiny, oleaginous character, and this will go far to vulgarise even a finely modelled figure, giving it something of the look of a Highlander outside a tobacconist’s shop. I am glad to see that Professor Burlazzi, in repainting the Adam and Eve in the first chapel, has used dead colour, as was done by Tabachetti in his Journey to Calvary. As the figures have often become mangy, so the frescoes are with few exceptions injured by damp and mould. The expense of keeping up so many chapels must be very heavy; it is surprising, therefore, that the general state of repair should be as good as it is. Nevertheless, there is not a chapel which does not require some effort of the imagination before the mind’s eye can see it as it was when left by those who made it.

Unless the reader feels equal to this effort,–and enough remains to make it a very possible one–he had better stick to the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Exhibitions. It should go without saying that a work of art, if considered at all, must be held to be as it was when first completed. If we could see Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Crucifixion Chapel with its marvellous frescoes as strong and fresh in colour as they were three centuries and a half ago, and with its nearly thirty life- sized human figures and horses in good condition–not forgetting that, whatever Sir Henry Layard may say to the contrary, they are all by one hand; if, again, Tabachetti’s great work was seen by us as it was seen by Tabachetti, and Morazzone’s really fine background were not disfigured by damp and mildew, it can hardly be doubted that even “a cultivated eye” would find little difficulty in seeing these two chapels as among the very finest triumphs that have been vouchsafed to human genius; and surely, if this be so, it follows that we should rate them no lower even now. Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Crucifixion Chapel, regarded as a single work, conceived and executed by a single artist, who aimed with one intention at the highest points ever attained both by painting and sculpture, and who wielded on a very large scale, in connection with what was then held to be the sublimest and most solemn of conceivable subjects, the fullest range of all the resources available by either, must stand as perhaps the most daringly ambitious attempt that has been made in the history of art. As regards the frescoes, the success was as signal as the daring; and even as regards the sculpture, the work cannot be said to have failed. Gaudenzio the sculptor will not indeed compare with Gaudenzio the painter; still less will he compare with Tabachetti either as a modeller or composer of full-relief figures; but Tabachetti did not paint his own background as well as make his figures, and something must always be allowed to those who are carrying double. Moreover, Tabachetti followed, whereas Gaudenzio led as pioneer in a realm of art never hitherto attempted. Nevertheless, I may be allowed to say that, notwithstanding all Gaudenzio’s greatness, I find Tabachetti the strongest and most robust of all the great men who have left their mark on the Sacro Monte at Varallo.

We cannot dismiss such works with cheap commonplaces about Madame Tussaud’s–and for aught I know there may be some very good stuff at Madame Tussaud’s–or sneer at them as though they must be all much of a muchness, and because the Orta chapels are bad, therefore those at Varallo must be so also. Those who confine themselves to retailing what they take to be art-tips gathered from our leading journals of culture, will probably continue to trade on this not very hardly earned capital, whatever may be urged upon the other side; but those who will take the trouble involved in forming an independent judgment