A walk through history and nature, to know the town where the Sacro Monte was build
From Alagna to Varallo by car (36 km). Enter the town at the secon exit. You will reach the centre where are many parking places.
The visit of the Historic centre begins from piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, dominated by the clear mass of the collegiate church of San Gaudenzio. A first sacellum was most probably built during the upper Middle Ages when the cult of San Gaudenzio, first bishop of Novara, was widely diffused in a place that according to some was already consecrated by pagan gods. Between the end of the 16th century and the 18th century the church was enlarged and the result is a great complex in Baroque-Rococo style that, preserves only a part of the Romanesque bell-tower, the expansive arcade and majestic stairway built during the first phases. A luxurious doorway leads to the inside, an articulated nave with a deep apse and an eight side chapel, where together with other valuable works of art, a polyptych by Gaudenzio Ferrari is preserved.
Taking corso Roma on the right you reach the ex convent of the Ursuline nuns, dating back to the XVII century, but remodeled extensively during the course of the years. It used to be a silk mill, a location for laboratories and workshops, a beer factory and today it is used as a private home, hotel and business. Of the age-old monastery only the characteristic cloister, located inside, remains.
Numerous 19th century houses face the tree-lined street and the adjacent streets, each distinguished by a different architectural style. One of these is Villa Durio, prestigious location for Varallo’s Town Hall.
Returning to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, from where, at the end of the XIX century, the town theatre was built, you take via Umberto I, entering the heart of the city centre. One can admire arcades, courtyards, balconies, portals and frescoes that bear witness to the different ages of the village’s history: narrow medieval street but also elegant homes of the rich and frequent results of modifications carried out on age-old buildings. Interesting examples of this civil architecture are palazzo Racchetti (town library) built in the 18th century and the ex prison Mandamentali, built in the 19th century. This part of the village was occupied by artisans with their shops. The imposing façade of palazzo Baldissari Pitti with balconies and elegant Baroque decorations rises on via Alberganti.
Crossing the bridge on the Mastallone river, you reach palazzo sacrignini D’Adda. It was built during the the mid 16th century and now it’s a prestigious congress centre. Right in front of the building is the church of san Giacomo. As of the 16th century the church is the head-office of the fraternity of the Holy Trinity whose members work in the town hospital established by don Giuseppe Maio. Going up the Mastallone river you reach the church of San’Antonio built at the end of the 19th century. A short distance away, in a place once completely isolated from the town centre is the little church of San Pietro Martire that preserves a few 15th century frescoes, which are unfortunately greatly damaged.
Returning to the oldest part of the village and going up via Ravelli, you reach piazza Ferrari. In the middel of the square stands a monument dedicated to an artist, the most famous of the Varallo citizens, the painter and sculptor Gaudenzio Ferrari and on the right, the house where Gaudenzio lived until 1528. The portico of the Franciscan complex of Santa Maria delle Grazie faces the square. Whilst during the course of centuries the convent underwent reductions and important modifications, the church, built by the will of friar Bernardino Caimi between 1486 and 1493, still preserves its original aspect and is a national monument. Inside the space of only one nave is divided into two parts, one only for the friars, and the other to the faithful. And it is right on this wall that Gaudenzio Ferrari left one of the most important artistic evidence of all his artwork: the fresco entitled Stories of the life of Jesus that takes up the entire surface. On the lower part of the dividing wall, three arches give access to the presbytery, dominated by the massive dimensions of the wooden altar with two chapels.
The one on the right entitled to Santa Margherita, preserves a few valuable frescoes of Gaudenzio. Along the road to Varallo from Borgosesia where once was open countryside is another interesting little rural church which is incorporated in a town neighborhood today. It is the church of San Marco built during the end of the 14th century and destined for the rogation procession. The current building is the result of enlargements, carried out in an unknown period, maybe to welcome pilgrims that would arrive in Varallo to visit the Sacro Monte. In the south access to the village is the church of Madonna di Loreto. The current chapel was built during the 15th century and enriched with lodges built in the following century. All the surfaces are decorated with colorful frescoes. Of particular interest is the lunette with the Nativity scene of Gaudenzio Ferrari on the outside and The Stories of Saint Gioacchino, attributed to Giulio Cesare Luini on the inside.
The 19th century building is also the location of the picture gallery and Museum. It is the first nucleus of the picture gallery that was created in 1887 and was enriched over the years with thanks to purchases and donations creating an important collection of paintings, frescoes, sculptures and drawings today. The gallery fully describes the artistic talent in Valsesia between the XV and XIX century, with particular attention to the building of the Sacro Monte and to all the artistic and artisan phenomena related to it.
On the second floor is the Calderini Museum of Natural History that also boasts incunabola and parchments of notable interest. Near it the Scaglia Museum faces piazza San Carlo. It’s a rare example of a house museum dedicated to the paintings and human aspects of Cesare Scaglia (1866-1944).
The Sacro Monte
On a verdant rock behind the town, whose magnificent view induces meditation and prayer, Bernardino Caimi established the Sacro Monte (HolyMountain) at the end of the fifteenth century. It continued to grow over the centuries until reaching its great current dimension: 45 chapels and over 800 sculptures in terracotta and polychrome wood. The rocky outcrop was terraced in order to create a better architectural combination, strictly created with local material such as “beola” the Loreto stone and the green marble of Cilimo. Exotic species of plants were planted together with native ones thus creating a very particular landscape and the result of the wise introduction of humans in a valuable natural environment, which today is safe-guarded by a Special Natural Reservation, established in 1980.
It was during the end of the 15th century when the Franciscan friar Bernardino Caimi gave life to the construction of the complex, the oldest in Northern Italy, with the collaboration of numerous architects, artists and artisans over the course of the centuries. The personality that artistically dominates the initial phase of the construction is that of Gaudenzio Ferrari, born in the nearby town of Valduggia but quite tied to Varallo where he kept some of his most important works of art. He is given credit for, apart from the projects of numerous chapels, the sculptures of Bethlehem, of the Crucifixion and those of the Ascent to the praetorium. The expansive Renaissance style of some of the rooms betrays the intervention of the Perugian architect Galeazzo Alessi during the 16th century. During the 17th century the new Counter-Reformation period the construction was given a more theatrical emphasis like the exaltation of Christ’s suffering during the Passion. The decoration works of the Sacro Monte continued up until the middle of the XIX century when the façade of the church was built. The Sacro Monte may be comfortably reached by cableway that departs from via Ferrari but it is recommended to go on foot, in order to fully experience the religious significance, and walk through the luxuriant beech woods, along the route lined with 5 chapels.