FOLD on fold the chestnut forests mount from Lake Orta to the Colle di Colma. Fold on fold they descend on the other side, in rich rounded waves of foliage, and stretch for miles in a sea of exquisite colour down into the Val Sesia. A great part of the way over the pass is brightened for the traveller in the month of June by the glisten of their satin leaves, the yellow tassels of their blossoms, or the vivid green of their count-less burrs. This is decidedly the chestnut belt in which the visitor to the southern foot of the Alps finds himself. Farther south are the vineyards in the foot-hills, then come the irrigated fields of rice in the plains, but here the chestnut reigns supreme, a staple product, a crop constituting a veritable agricultural and commercial department of its own in fruitful Italy.
In the silent dawn one of the fraternity of boatmen rows you across Lake Orta to the white houses of Pella, where the path starts for the pass. The lake lies calm and unruffled in its titanic cup, the storied island of San Giulio rests upon the water like a floating swan asleep. Pella itself, though tiny of dimension, is full of importance by reason of a paper-mill, and, as you start to climb through the trees, a bell presently tinkles in the solitude, giving the impression that some alpine cow with her bell has wandered down to the lowlands. But on nearer approach it is discovered, that there is a busy brook amid the opulent verdure, which turns a rude wheel, which again rings a bell, which is to announce the presence of a little inn with a thatched roof. Indeed the thatched cottage is characteristic of the slopes of the Colle di Colma, especially on the side of the Val Sesia, where many neat barns, built partly of stone and mortar and partly of wood, are heavily weighted with picturesque straw hoods.
The path wanders very much at haphazard through the forest. Here charcoal-burners are detected at work; there, in a clearing, a little flock of tall, long-legged Bergamesque sheep nibble peacefully; white, bell-like flowers punctuate the shaded stretches of velvet turf; the brook murmurs an accompanient to our footsteps; and all day long the cuckoo calls from branch to branch, far and near, over the great chestnut belt. It is worth a long trip to reach these unique woodland experiences among the chestnuts and walnuts of Italy.
But sylvan solitude is not for long on these thickly settled slopes; the prospect opens; through the branches glimpses are caught of villages clinging to the mountains; the path is bordered by cultivated patches, and presently it widens into a road, and the road becomes a cobbled street. We are passing through a village built on a small scale. A sudden corner brings us into the diminutive square; a gaudily dressed woman is seen leaning out of the window of a house opposite the church, at another window a man appears in the act of playing the flute to a song-bird in a cage. There is something startling about the appearance of these people, and we stop to watch them, but they do not move. The woman silently watches the street, the man holds the flute to his lips immovably. Moreover, there is no sound. What, is it possible? We step nearer. Yes, the figures are painted. The instinct which induces the Italian to paint artificial windows upon his house walls, or superb vases at the corners of his best balcony, has found expression also in this secluded mountain village.
And then we swing downward, with long strides, over a fine, new road into a region that is not strictly of the Italian lakes, but is so near of kin that it shall find mention in this book, the Val Sesia, with Varallo as its capital.
At the confluence of the rapid rushing tor-rents of the Sesia and the Mastallone, and at the end of the railroad from Novara, lies one of the most picturesquely placed towns of Italy.
The first sight of Varallo, as the traveller reaches it from the trip over the Colma, is in its way as memorable as the view of some of Italy’s great hill towns, Siena, Orvieto, or Perugia. It is sights such as these which explain the landscape backgrounds of some of the old masters and the classical subjects of more modern painters, backgrounds and subjects which often look so strangely artificial and imaginary to northern eyes. But at Varallo, in this subalpine world, with the lower mountain slopes clothed in a practically continuous forest of chestnut-trees, –just as north of the Alps the slopes are pine clad, all the ingredients are at hand for pictures fit to tax the most willing credulity and power of perception. This cuckoo-haunted region of sylvan affluence and abundance forms a fitting link between the ancient cities of the plain and the immemorial Alps.
A little old town clusters and climbs about the foot of a great rock which looks like a lofty citadel with crown and diadem. The cliff towers above this Italian town and dominates it as truly as ever an acropolis overhung a town of ancient Greece. But in-stead of fortress masonry and classic temples, the Sacro Monte of Varallo presents the picture of peaceful walls, loggias, and domes belonging to church and chapel.
We enter the city by a long suburban avenue, new, bare, and glaring. Then comes the railroad station and a piazza with statue of Victor Emmanuel II. These modern evidences once left behind, we plunge into streets characteristic of the past. Here are the arcades once more, the stairways, balconies, and interior courts; here we are impressed again with the curious waywardness, the diminutiveness, and the unexpectedness of things Italian. There is a powerful bridge over the Mastallone, and near it a statue of General Giacomo Antonini. But Varallo is also bestirring itself to keep pace with the demands of the present. Hence there is an Alpine club with reading-room, to which visitors are admitted, a huge hydropathic establishment, a big cotton-mill, and the blare of trumpets resounds through the streets to the quick march of battalions of gay Alpini, or alpine troops. Varallo also possesses a natural history collection, in conjunction with a small picture-gallery, and this turns thought to the painter who has given the town one of its claims upon world-wide attention, Gaudenzio Ferrari.
Gaudenzio Ferrari (1484 – 1549, or 1471-1546)
There is a quiet little square in Varallo, grass-grown and almost pathetic in its aloofness, which goes by the name of Piazza Ferrari. Here, surrounded by a ring of little houses crowded one against the other, with peaked mountain forms for a background, stands the marble statue of Gaudenzio Ferrari by Vedova. The painter is represented somewhat conventionally with an open scroll in one hand, and the other extended as though in the act of explaining or illustrating some thesis. He wears the cap, tunic, and hose and the flowing robe of his day and fashion. Some symbolical medallions and an inscription decorate the pedestal, and an iron railing throws a protecting octagon around the whole. Thus the painter stands amid the silence of the mountains.
Gaudenzio Ferrari belonged to the Milanese or Piedmontese school, but he went further afield and studied in Florence and Rome. He was a contemporary of Raphael, a prolific painter of sacred subjects, an artist of distinct power, who probably reached the climax of his achievements in the work which he did in the pilgrimage church of Saronno. Some of his best painting is also to be found in the cathedral of Como, in Turin, and in the Brera Gallery of Milan, but next to Saronno, Varallo is decidedly the place to study Gaudenzio Ferrari at his best.
There he has left specimens of his work in the old collegiate church of San Gaudenzio, in Santa Maria di Loreto, and in the chapels of the Sacro Monte. In the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a small edifice of insignificant appearance, Ferrari painted a Passion in twenty-one scenes on the rood screen, with the Crucifixion as the central and largest fresco. These frescoes look exceedingly well preserved. A striking feature of his work is that in some cases details have been worked out in actual relief from the wall, in order to heighten the effect of the perspective; thus in the fresco of the Crucifixion, a leg of the centurion on horseback is modelled as well as painted. This species of art prepares the traveller for the remark-able combination of the plastic arts with the art of painting, which is characteristic of the terra-cotta groups in the chapels of the Sacro Monte higher up.
From Santa Maria delle Grazie a broad pathway shaded by chestnut-trees leads upward to the summit of the great cliff. It is a steep inclined plane; the cobbles have been carefully laid, and many feet through many years have worn a smooth and hard road-bed. Up there is the ” New Jerusalem,” consisting of a large church with a marble façade, mosaics, and bronze doors, and of no less than forty-six chapels or oratories set apparently at every angle and representing a great variety in architecture and site. Interspersed among the chapels are shade-trees, shrubberies, and beds of flowers. The chapels, which are not made to be entered, contain portrayals of Scriptural scenes by means of life-size figures in terra-cotta, dating mostly from the sixteenth century. The Sacro Monte of Varallo was founded by a monk, Bernardino Caimo, on his return from a visit to the Holy Land toward the end of the fifteenth century, at about the time that Columbus discovered America. Most of the chapels, however, date from a later period, after Carlo Borromeo had paid two visits to the place in the sixteenth century, and given the whole the name of the ” New Jerusalem.”
It is not easy to judge fairly of the type of art to be found in the chapels, while clinging closely to the standards set by modern taste. The attempt has been made in them to combine sculpture and painting, and this has been done in a manner generally both crude and vivid. Terra-cotta, wood, frescoed backgrounds, and bas-reliefs have all been used in the desire to produce realistic effects. Thus the heads are covered with real hair, and the figures with actual clothes of linen and cloth. As the visitor passes along the series of numbered chapels from one oratory to another, and looks through the gratings or peep-holes, it is easier for him to appreciate the intention of the artists than to commend their methods or results. The evident intent is to enact picture plays in pantomime, to produce passion or miracle plays, or a species of tableaux in perpetuity, with the action of a great number of persons suddenly arrested. In addition to whatever interest these scenes may arouse from an artistic standpoint, it is clear that they throw some light upon the habits and customs of the sixteenth century, for the artists reproduced the fashions of their own day, and were not above perpetrating anachronisms.
The best groups are by Tabacchetti and Stella. Tabacchetti’s real name was De Wespin, being of Flemish origin. The Crucifixion attributed to Gaudenzio Ferrari him-self, or to an artist working from his designs, is perhaps the principal work of all. The materials used are combined with great skill, occasionally there is much beauty of model-ling, as in ” The Nativity,” showing Mary and Joseph stooping over the child Jesus. Here face and hands are full of unusual beauty and refinement. The ” Flight into Egypt ” serves as an excellent illustration of the combination of different materials used, for the donkey supporting the figures of Mary and Jesus is of wood, a real rope passes from its mouth to the hand of an angel, which, however, is painted upon the frescoed background. In ” The Last Supper ” the table is heaped with viands and fruits of many kinds, the walls of the apartment are handsomely decorated, and an open door shows servitors in waiting. In ” The Entry into Jerusalem” a figure, probably that of Zacchaeus, is seen in the sycamore-tree. The scene representing the ” Ecce Homo ” is depicted in a palace court of profuse richness of decoration. The figure of Jesus appears on a marble balcony, surrounded by his persecutors. Below a great variety of persons are watching his torments with gesture and mien expressive of their particular sentiments toward him. ” The Crucifixion” is a work of power and tragic gloom intensified by the portrayal of the crowd’s pitiless curiosity and the greed of the soldiers in casting lots for Jesus’ garments.
Yet, when all is said and done, the true significance of these historic scenes cannot be materialized, but must be spiritually apprehended. Hence when every artistic merit which it is possible to see in these chapel scenes has been acknowledged, there is no doubt that the visitor turns from them with relief to the glad sunshine of all outdoors.
The view from the chief point of vantage on the Sacro Monte stretches southward over the Val Sesia, bathed in genial light, and northward up the narrowing valleys to the great mountains beyond. From the town below sounds of homely activity rise to warm our hearts again, and even the whistling and clanging of trains at the railroad station come as a welcome change. As we pass out of the ” New Jerusalem,” there is a cheery, voluble game of bowls going on under the spreading trees over by the restaurant and café. It may not be amiss for us to sit on the grass and watch the merry group for awhile, before descending to the workaday world once more. In the meantime peasant women, in the distinctive costumes with which the region to the north is so rich, come and go up and down the great inclined plane of the cobbled pathway.
Fobello and Beyond
Northward from Varallo lies a region of surpassing interest and beauty, which has not yet attracted the attention of many regular tourists, but is known principally to Italian visitors and to alpine climbers intent upon Swiss passes and the high peaks of the Zermatt and Saas valley districts. It is a region of spreading valleys that seem to have but one dominant thought, one inspiration and aspiration, namely, Monte Rosa, undisputed in her rule and benefactions. Viewed from this southern aspect, the snow peaks appear to start up out of the very forests of chestnut at their bases into a sky of Italian limpidity and softness.
The omnibus will take you from Varallo, up the Val Sesia, to Alagna, a large village admirably placed for excursions in the Monte Rosa group. It is a centre for experts among the climbing fraternity and also for Italian summer guests. Visitors there sometimes catch a glimpse of the picturesque ceremonial of the blessing of the sheep. In another direction, up the Val Mastallone, it is possible to drive to Fobello, and thence to walk over the Colle di Baranca into the Val Anzasca, and thus by carriage road up to Macugnaga, at the foot of Monte Rosa. Or, diverging from the Val Mastallone before reaching Fobello, a road will be found ascending the Landwasser from the Ponte delle Due Acque and leading to Rimella, a hamlet of German-speaking peasants.
This community and other similar German-speaking ones on the southern side of Monte Rosa were planted by immigrants from the Upper Valais in Switzerland. This fact was first pointed out by De Saussure, as long ago as 1789, and has since been con-firmed by a careful examination and comparison of dialects and customs. In other quarters the opinion has been advanced that these peasants were perhaps Teutonic refugees from the plain of Lombardy, but this theory has not been sustained. The similarity of the dialects in the Upper Valais with those in the German communities on the southern side of the Alps refutes such a supposition. Especially is there a striking resemblance among words dealing with domestic utensils and with pastoral life in the heights. Besides Rimella, there are traces of German at Alagna, Gressoney, Rima, and Macugnaga.
But, whichever way one turns in these valleys north of Varallo, the discovery is quickly made that this district is one of the very last refuges of the peasant costume, as a regular daily institution. Nowhere else in the western Alps, to my knowledge, have distinctive peasant costumes survived in more profusion, at least among the women. Every valley seems to display a difference in cut, texture, or colour.
Especially do the women of Fobello distinguish themselves from the rest on this account. They wear curious cloth leggings and short petticoats, and at first sight, except for their white skins, they look not unlike American Indians, veritable squaws of the mountains. These leggings, calzone, or more properly trouser legs, are richly worked; the linen bodice, too, has insertions of embroidery, and there is always an apron, which is generally folded up in front so as to serve as a handy pocket. As for the men of this same region at the southern foot of Monte Rosa, they have entirely discarded peasant costumes, if they ever had any. The reason is not far to seek. They emigrate annually to France, Switzerland, or Germany to find work, leaving the women at home to perform the field and woodland labour and keep up the local traditions. This constant contact with the great world out-side has long since made peasant costumes inconvenient and undesirable for the men of this region. It is reported that Fobello sends many men cooks into foreign parts.
The drive from Varallo to Fobello is full of novelty, partly by reason of the women’s costumes, varying with every valley that opens to right or left, and partly on account of the extraordinary scenery. The Val Mastallone itself is a narrow defile of savage and sombre mien; the water flows glass-green in the river-bed, where an occasional fisher-man may be seen at a pool on trout intent. The picturesque Ponte della Gula and the Ponte delle Due Acque, already mentioned, are landmarks.
As the posta, or post-chaise, progresses, we pass women carrying enormous loads of brushwood on their backs or heads. Their costume is dark blue, kerchiefs of the same colour are tied over their heads. Other women are met wearing footless stockings, which leave the feet bare. Some wear white sleeves and chemisettes, others show bright green or red trimmings. Farther on, the dark blue dress receives a wide scarlet border, and the women, working on their tiny terraced patches or watching the goats on the slopes, look like vivid red blotches against the green. Thick-soled slippers of felt make their appearance, big gold ear-rings shine under the dark hair, and the dresses are fastened by ornate yokes over the shoulders. It would take an expert to do justice to all the shifting changes of costume in a day’s journey through this land under the shadow of Monte Rosa.
From Fobello a good path leads over the Colle di Baranca to Pontegrande, or over the Colle d’Egua to Carcoforo.
The Italian passes are not yet as carefully marked as those of Switzerland or Tyrol, and in case of bad weather, or out of season, there may be need of some way-showing, even for an expert. Sometimes the clouds descend suddenly; in thick weather the path is easily lost as it reaches the pastures or rocky stretches. Yet, if the sense of fear is not indulged, there is a mighty joy in the interplay of contending forces. Perhaps, as the mists part, there is a momentary glimpse of a pole standing in the snow upon some mountain saddle; that is enough for the time being as an indication of the way, and presently the greatly desired other side is viewed at last. Far below lie the huts of a welcome alp, spelling refuge and safety.
Since, throughout this region, the able-bodied men spend only about two months of the year at home, a few innkeepers, a shoe-maker or two, some masons making repairs, some men working on the roads, and a few little boys tending the goats are about the only representative males in evidence. It would then seem just to the good women of these valleys to feel some special gratitude to them for the well-tended pastures on the slopes, the neat hamlets on terraces, and the general picturesqueness they impart. Necessity has peopled these alpine valleys.; no mere enthusiasm for mountain scenery has drawn this population to its laborious, unremitting, and largely cheerless tasks. No one can pass through these valleys and view the conditions of earthly existence there with-out wishing mankind every just and honourable relief from such burdens, and a greater participation in the comforts and pleasures of life.
At this point, our excursion, away from the lakes into the forest recesses and under the vaulting branches of the chestnut belt, must cease and the return must be made, in accordance with a strict pursuance of the subject indicated by the title of this book.