I thought it was time to take you to Italy for a little while, specifically my home town of Varese. I have not been there myself in a couple of years, and plan a visit sometime before next fall, but with photography and a blog post I can take you there now. I won’t be able to show you everything, of course, but one of the most famous sites I most certainly can.
You will be following me on a walk up the Path of the Chapels (Via delle Cappelle) to the medieval village of Santa Maria del Monte. All together known as Sacro Monte di Varese, this is one of nine sacri monti (holy mounts) spread around the Piemonte and Lombardia regions and inscribed in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 2003.
It all started in the late 1500s with a small chapel built where the main Basilica is now, and a few little houses around it to house the priests and the visiting pilgrims. The path was the road visitors and pilgrims had to walk to reach the chapel from the town of Varese. A Spanish nun, such Tecla Maria Cid, who was traveling from Milano to Santa Maria del Monte to take solemn vows, suggested the construction of a chapel halfway up the path where pilgrims could rest. In early 1600, a capuchin friar from Monza called Gian Battista Aguggiari, expanded her idea into a much more ambitious project: to build fifteen chapels along the road, each one representing a stage in the life of Jesus, and dedicated to Mother Mary.
The local population as well as some of the noble families of Lombardia contributed financially to the project. Construction began in 1604, but was not completed until 1680. Artists, sculptors and architects of the time participated in the project, people like architect Giuseppe Bernascone, who also built the bell tower of the cathedral in Varese, visited by pilgrims from all over the world.
The Path of the Chapels is an uphill climb of about 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles), though it feels much longer when you are walking it, as it zig-zags you up by 245 meters (about 804 ft.) and can be a little steep in places. Each chapel is frescoed inside, and sometimes outside, and filled with sculptures illustrating scenes from Jesus’ life.
It all starts with an arch called “Del Rosario” (of the Rosary), after which the first Chapel shows the Annunciation, the second the Visitation, and the third the birth of Jesus. In 1983, the third Chapel was frescoed with a scene of the Holy Family traveling through the desert by famous Italian painter Renato Guttuso. Unfortunately, on the day I took these photos, the fresco was undergoing restoration, a process which happens regularly, given that the fresco is on an outside wall, and usually takes months, so I could not go back the following week in hope of a pic. You can view a photo of the 3rd Chapel and fresco at this link.
Above is the 4th Chapel, which illustrates the “Presentazione al Tempio” (Presentation of Jesus at the Temple).
Then comes an elbow turn and the first steep uphill to reach the 5th Chapel (image below and at the top of the post), which represents the “Disputa coi Dottori” (literally, the Dispute with the Doctors of the Temple). This Chapel closes the first series representing the “Misteri Gaudiosi” (literally, Joyous Mysteries). Honestly, I hope I am translating all of this correctly, as I am familiar with these religious terms and descriptions in Italian, but not in English. Architecturally speaking, the 5th Chapel is considered Bernascone’s masterpiece.
The Arch of San Carlo, marks the beginning of the “Misteri Dolorosi” (literally, Painful Mysteries), and brings to the 6th Chapel, which shows Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. The seventh (two images below) represents the “Flagellazione” (Flagellation), and features beautiful frescoes by Morazzone, who worked on it in the spring of 1608, and statues by Martino Rezio.
By the way, you cannot go inside the Chapels and, to see all of these scenes, you have to peek through the windows. It does not make for good photos from the outside. In any case, the statuary scenes inside remind me a lot of the dramatic scenes painted by Caravaggio. As a child I have always thought them rather scary, and they are still not my favorite form of art.
The 8th Chapel shows the “Coronation” (Jesus being crowned with thorns), and the 9th represents the “Salita al Calvario” (literally, Climb to Calvary). Both chapels are shown in the two images below.
The 10th Chapel concludes the painful part by representing the “Crocefissione” (Crucifixion). This chapel is the busiest with its forty statues, and the most spectacular. Like the 5th, it is preceded by a steeper climb, and you will always find people resting here before the next steep climb.
Before we continue with the historical, artistic and religious description of the story, let me tell you that, although indeed still a site of pilgrimage for the deeply religious, this path is mostly a way for locals to put in a healthy nature walk with a bit of cardio provided by the uphill. My family and I walked this countless times since my brothers and I were children. I have lots of memories tied to this walk, exhaustingly pleasant ones. This was and is a regular hang out for my Mum’s sisters: aunt Adriana used to walk this every afternoon, and my Aunt Luciana walked this every morning until recently, when she underwent surgeries first to clear a cyst in her lower spine, and then to fix a knee. Now she prefers to walk on flatter roads.
In the image above is a ginger cat hanging on a window sill of one of the houses along the path. This one is near the 8th and 9th Chapels, and there have always been cats hanging around this house.
In the image below you can see one of the locals supplementing his fitness regime with some impromptu exercise. I have seen all sorts of people walk up and down this path: from slow, but relentless elderly walkers, who would take a couple of hours to get up top, to marathon runners in training who would do it in twenty minutes, to cyclists who would be up and down in the same time. And let’s not forget the groups of chatty friends, and the young lovers for whom the chapels provide enough of a hideaway for a little romance. I have seen it all, and everyone goes at their own pace. Summer weekends are, of course, the busiest times.
As you begin the steep incline after the 10th Chapel and pass the Arch of Sant’Ambrogio, if you turn around you get the first good glimpse of the village of Santa Maria del Monte.
Then you reach the 11th Chapel, which is the first in the series of the “Misteri Gloriosi” (Glorious Mysteries), and shows the happy scene of the “Resurrezione” (Resurrection).
The 12th Chapel (image above) focuses on the “Ascensione” (Ascension), and the 13th (image below) features the “Discesa dello Spirito Santo” (the Descent of the Holy Spirit).
Between the 12th and 13th chapel is this lovely house you see below. All the years I have walked past it, this home has always held enchantment for me, as it has always looked uniquely beautiful, interesting, well maintained, and with a lovely garden. But the most charming aspect of it was a talking crow, clearly a family pet, that used to hang out either on one of the balconies, or in the garden by the gate, and shouted out at passers by. He was hilarious. I don’t know how long crows live, but I doubt he is still around now. He might be, though.
Let us continue up the hill and climb the steps to the 14th Chapel, which shows the “Assunzione” (the dictionary translates this as Assumption, with a capital A, as in Assumption to the Throne – of heaven I suppose), after which you tackle the final steep stretch to reach the village, where the 15th Chapel is really the main church, or Santuario di Santa Maria del Monte, dedicated to Mother Mary and showing the “Incoronazione di Maria Santissima” (Coronation of Holy Mary). The statue of Mary was solemnly crowned on July 5th 1739.
The church and its tower mark the highest point in the village: everything is downhill after here, in whichever direction you go. You can’t quite see them, but as you walk up these steps (image above) and turn right before the wall with the lovely geraniums, there is a little garden with a couple of benches for people to rest in the shade. One of them was sponsored by my aunt Luciana and dedicated to her husband, my uncle Mario, who passed away in 2002 at almost ninety. I miss him a lot. Good thing I dream about him once in a while, including last night.
From there you can also enjoy a beautiful view spanning the lower valleys. If you keep going straight in the direction shown in the image below you get to Como, Varese is below and to the right, Switzerland is to the left, and Milan is far towards the right. Lakes are all around.
A series of arches that feel like tunnels, and some narrow pathways take you through the village and out the other end. Above right is a favorite spot of mine. I like the light there, and after I took this image, I decided I needed to go back and do a portrait there. I asked my Dad and he was game. You can see the result in this other photo story.
The Sacro Monte di Varese, which comprises the Path of the Chapels and the village of Santa Maria del Monte, is part of the city of Varese, and located a few kilometers up the hill within the “Campo dei Fiori” (literally, Field of Flowers) regional park. Campo dei Fiori is the name of the bigger mountain that includes Sacro Monte. It has a unique shape, but is also recognizable by the large building covered in antennas that peeks in between the two chimneys in the image below. That is the Grand Hotel Campo dei Fiori, or it used to be, as it has remained unused for decades. But this is a story for another time.
This concludes our little exploration. Given the hike, it is time for some refreshments, maybe a pizza. Since taking these photographs, a couple of the old restaurants have been renovated and reopened. I have been hearing good things, so I look forward to visiting them on my next trip and then telling you all about them.
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