The Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of Piedmont and Lombardy are often a destination for the religiously devout: here, groups of chapels and other architectonic structures (churches, calvaries, and niches containing statues) dot the landscape, and often preserve sculptures, frescoes and paintings that recall episodes from the Sacred Scriptures.
Inserted onto the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Sacri Monti, lying between the subalpine valleys, were originally conceived as a place to offer a safer pilgrimage experience in respect to that made to the Holy Land. Still today, the Sacri Monti not only represent an important exemplar for the faithful, but also characterize significantly the gorgeous sceneries of the regions through which they wind.
Peculiar as they are, these places of worship hold great religious and symbolic value, and stupify for their harmonious incorporation of architectural elements, within their magnificent surroundings formed by hills, forests and lakes. The devotional phenomenon in the Sacri Monti – which, by the way, has influenced all of Europe – is among the most characteristically-reflective of Northern Italian culture and spirituality. Their construction began during the late Middle Ages, the era in which the ideals of pilgrimage had been on the decline (at least in the Holy Land, where the Seljuk Turkish rulers had come to power).
It was Carlo (Charles) Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, who promoted the plan for a network of chapels and devotional sites in the mountains of Lombardy and Piedmont, while the Council of Trent (1545-1563) officially recognized the importance of such a premise as the Sacred Mountains, thus proposing them as a devotional model that should be imitated.
Thus, some of the sites, already having been created for worship and devotion in varying, spontaneous styles, were newly-transformed into complexes that narrate, by way of statues and paintings, important episodes from the Old and New Testaments, or stories from the lives of the Saints. In time the Sacred Mountains became the most important meeting point for worship and for those passionate about religious art.
Among those that stand out is the Sacro Monte of Varallo Sesia in Piedmont: the complex, comprised of 45 different chapels, a basilica dedicated to Mary assumed, and a few other buildings, was realized above a cliff that overlooks the borgo of Varallo. It was built with the intent of copying the landscape of the Holy Land. On the Piedmontese terrain it is also possible to take one of the evocative itineraries in the Sacri Monti of Serralunga di Crea (Province of Alessandria), with its 23 chapels edified atop one of the highest hills in the region, Monferrato.
Then there is Orta San Giulio, the only structure dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi; one of the oldest sanctuaries dedicated to the Madonna in Oropa; the sites at Ghiffa; and the Calvary. The first of these rises around the Sanctuary of the Holy Trinity, on a hill dense with woods, while the second was constructed on the Mattarella Hill that stands over the city of Domodossola. We can also find the Sacro Monte of Belmonte in Valperga, erected amidst the splendor of a hill of red granite.
In Lombardy, rather, is the Sacro Monte of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. This complex, in a spectacular panoramic position, is situated in Ossuccio, on the eastern coast of Lake Como; it faces the Island of Comacina and is completely isolated, surrounded as it is only by fields and plantations of olive groves and woods.
Lastly, the Sacro Monte del Rosario (or Holy Mount of the Rosary), founded in Varese in 1474, was already a pilgrimage site from the Medieval Age, having been the location of the Church of Mount St. Mary and the Monastery of the Secluded Ambrosian Monks. The complex is composed of 14 chapels, inside of which are preserved statues and frescoes that testify to the major currents in sacred art in Milan during the 17th Century.