Ex Voto Part 13

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We have already seen that this was the first chapel with figures in it on the Sacro Monte. Of the old eight wooden figures that it contained, two are still on the mountain in a sort of vault adjacent to, or under, the main church, and near the furnace in which those that superseded them were baked. Six are in the Museum at Varallo.

I saw them a few weeks ago, not yet arranged, leaning up against the wall with very battered and dilapidated glories; the rec.u.mbent Christ was standing more or less on end, and the whole group was in a pathetic state of dismemberment that will doubtless soon make way for a return to their earlier arrangement. The figures are interesting, but it cannot be pretended that they are of great value. They look very much as if they had been out somewhere the night before.

Of the figures in the present chapel the less said the better.


The chapel of St. Francis is open to the air, and contains nothing but an altar, and a modern fresco of the death of the saint.

Near it is the Holy Sepulchre, which is entered from a small cell in which there is a figure of the Magdalene, and from which the visitor must creep on hands and knees into the Sepulchre itself. The figure of Christ is not actually in the Sepulchre, but can be seen through a window opening into the contiguous chapel, where it is over the altar. The early writers say that there were also two angels by Gaudenzio (statue di Gaudenzio divoissime), but Bordiga says nothing of this. The upper part of this building was the abode of Bernardino Caimi and his successors until the year 1577.

As for the Holy Sepulchre itself it is low and dark, which I have no doubt is the reason why I have neglected it on the occasions of each of my two latest visits to Varallo, and thus failed to reach the adjacent Oratory, which Bordiga says was erected about the year 1702.

Fa.s.sola and Torrotti wrote before this date, so that the angels mentioned by them as by Gaudenzio may have been removed when the present fabric was erected. At any rate Bordiga speaks as though they were paintings by one Tarquinio Gra.s.si and not sculptured figures at all. Torrotti says that visitors to the Holy Sepulchre used to burn candles, tapers, and torches, each one according to his purse or piety, and that they did this not so much to see with as to pray. "Here," he continues, "the great S. Carlo spent his evenings agreeably" (spendeva gradevolmente le notti). "Few," he concludes drily, and perhaps with a shade of the same quiet irony that led the Psalmist to say what he did about "one" day in certain courts, "can leave it without feeling devoutly thankful." About the candles Fa.s.sola says that there was a kind of automatic arrangement for getting them like that whereby we can now buy b.u.t.ter-scotch or matches at the railway stations, by dropping a penny into a slot. He says:-

"And as the figure of Christ can only be seen by the help of candles (for which reason all pilgrims whose means permit are accustomed to burn them, being naturally prompted thereto each one according to his faith)--by throwing money into a hole wherein the same candles lie, each pilgrim can be made quite comfortable, and contented."

["Gettando il denaro per un buco dove stanno le medesime candelette, commodamente puo restar ogni divoto contento."]

"The mercies vouchsafed here," continues the same writer; "are innumerable--in all parts may be seen votive pictures both old and recent."

In the open cloister hard by is shown the wooden bed on which S.

Carlo lay when he came to visit the Sacro Monte, and the stone which is said to be a facsimile of the one rolled in front of the Holy Sepulchre itself. Many years ago I spent several weeks at Varallo sketching and painting on the Sacro Monte. A most excellent and lovable old priest, now doubtless long since dead, took rather a fancy to me, and used to implore me to become a Catholic. One day he took me up to this stone and spoke long and earnestly about it. What a marvellous miracle it was. There was the stone; I could see it for myself. What a dumb but eloquent testimony was it not offering; how could I account for such things? and more to the same effect, all said obviously in good faith, and with no idea save that of guiding me to the truth. I was powerless. I could not go into facts or arguments--I could not be obstinate without getting something like his consent--and he was instant in season and out of season in endeavouring to get mine. At last I could stand it no longer, and said, "My dearest sir, I am the son of an English clergyman who is himself the son of another English clergyman; my father and mother are living. If you will tell me that I am to hold my father born in more than common sin, to have committed a crime in marrying my mother, and that I am to hold myself as one who ought never to have been born, then I will accept what you have said about that stone.

Till then let me go my way, and you yours." He said not a word more, and never again approached the subject; the nearest he ever went to it was to say that he liked to see me sketching about the Sacro Monte, for it could do me nothing but good. I trust that I have done it no harm.

The chapel representing the Magdalene at the feet of the risen Christ has disappeared. It contained two statues only, and two prophets by Gaudenzio were painted outside on the wall. It stood "Sotto un auanzo dei Portici antichi seguentemente al Sepolcro." It was probably a very early work.

Through an arch under the raised portico or arcaded gallery are three small ruined cells called now "Il Paradiso," and numbered 43, 44, and 45; of one of these Fa.s.sola tells us that it contained "many modern statues" by Gaudenzio Sceti, and frescoes by Gianoli; they are all now mere wrecks. There is no important work by Gaudenzio Sceti remaining on the Sacro Monte, but there is a terra-cotta crucifix with a Virgin and a St. John by him, of no great value, in the church of S. Gaudenzio. What remains of his work on the Sacro Monte itself consists of statues of Sta. Anna and the Virgin as a child upon her lap in the chapel or cell numbered 43.

Chapel 44 need not detain us. What few remains of figures it contains are uninteresting and ruined.

I have already spoken of chapel No. 45, which once represented an entombment of the Madonna, as in all probability the oldest building, and as certainly containing the oldest, and by no means least interesting frescoes on the Sacro Monte. There is nothing inside the chapel except these frescoes, but outside it there are many scrawls, of which the earliest I have noticed is 1520--the supposed 1437 being certainly 1537. The writer of one of these scrawls has added the words "fuit hic" to his signature as John Van Eyck has done to the signature of his portrait of John Arnolfini and his wife. I have found this addition of "fuit hic" in a signature of a certain "Cardinalis de al . . . " who scratched his name "1389 die 19 Mag" on a fresco to the left of the statue of S. Zenone in the church S.

Zenone at Verona. On a fresco in the very interesting castle of Fenis in the valley of Aosta, to which I hope to return in another work, there is scratched "Hic sponsus c.u.m sponsa fuit 1790 25 May,"

the "May" being an English May; Jones and I thought the writer had begun to add "London" but had stopped. The "fuit hic," therefore, of John Van Eyck's signature should not be translated as we might be tempted to wish to translate it, "This was John Van Eyck."

Returning to the Sacro Monte, there remains only the Chiesa Vecchia, removed at the end of the last century to make room for the building that was till lately the "casa degli esercizi," or house in which the priests on the mountain performed their spiritual exercises. This is now let out in apartments during the summer, and is called the Casino. The old sacristy, now used as the archivio of the Sacro Monte, still remains, and contains a fres...o...b.. Lanini, that bears strong traces of the influence of his master Gaudenzio. Besides the impress of Christ's foot and the a.s.sumption of the Virgin, the church contained an Annunciation by Gaudenzio and frescoes of St. Catherine and St. Cecilia; the Cupola was also decorated by him. This work was undertaken in 1530, the greater angels being by Gaudenzio and the smaller by Lanini and Fermo Stella. These frescoes all perished when the church was pulled down.

The present Chiesa Maggiore was begun on the 9th of June 1614-- D'Enrico's design having, so Bordiga says, been approved on the 1st of April in that year. Fa.s.sola says that in 1671 the only parts completed were the Choir and Cupola, the whole body of the church being left unfinished. Bordiga speaks of the church as having been finished in 1649, in which year, on the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, her image was taken from the old church and placed in the new, so when Fa.s.sola says "unfinished" he must refer to decoration only. The steps leading up to the church and the unfinished columns were erected in 1825 from designs by Marchese Don Luigi Cagnola, the architect of the Arco della Pace at Milan. It was ere long found that the stone selected was unreliable, so that all must be done over again; the work has, therefore, been suspended.

The Cupola is covered with about 140 modelled figures of angels, by Dionigi Bussola and Giambattista Volpino, Milanese sculptors, who worked from designs made by Antonio Tempesta, a Florentine. They did this work about the year 1660. The brothers Montalti painted the frescoes, some more highly coloured groups being added by Antonio Cucchi of Milan in 1750.

In the crypt there is a sumptuous shrine containing the statue of the Madonna, said to have been made by St. Luke. This was erected in 1854, but on the night between the 4th and 5th of October in the same year the crown was stolen from the Virgin's head, and in the following year there was a solemn expiatory function, with festivities extending over three days, in order to celebrate the replacing of the stolen crown by a new one.

It cannot be said that any of the works of art now in the church are of considerable interest, but an important work of art was nevertheless produced in it at the celebration of the fourth centenary of the birth of Gaudenzio Ferrari, which was held in 1885.

I refer to the Ma.s.s by Cagnoni, which was here performed for the first time, and which showed that the best traditions of old Italian ecclesiastical music are still occasionally adhered to. I was present at the production of the work, and have heard no modern Italian music that has pleased me nearly as much. I ventured to ask the Maestro for the baton he had used in conducting it, and am proud to keep it as a memorial of a fine performance of a very fine work.

The baton is several old newspapers neatly folded up and covered with silk.


I have now to add a short account of what remains of Tabachetti's work at Crea, to the very inadequate description of his work at Varallo that has been given in some earlier chapters.

Crea is most easily approached from Casale, a large opulent commercial town upon the Po, that has already received the waters of the Dora Baltea, and though not yet swelled by the influx of the Ticino and Adda, has become a n.o.ble river. The town is built entirely on the plain, but the rich colline of the Monferrato district begin to rise immediately outside it, and continue in an endless series of vineclad slopes and village-capped hill-tops as far as the eye can reach. These colline are of exquisite beauty in themselves, and from their sides the most magnificent views of Piedmont and the Alps extend themselves in every direction. The people are a well-grown comely race, kind and easy to get on with.

Nothing could exceed the civility and comfort of the Hotel Rosa Rossa, the princ.i.p.al inn of the city. The town contains many picturesque bits, but in our short stay we did not see any very remarkable architectural features, and it does not form an exception to the rule that the eastern cities of Northern Italy are far more beautiful than the western. The churches, never one would imagine very striking, have been modernised and restored; nor were we told that there is any collection of pictures in the town which is likely to prove of interest.

The visitor should leave Casale by the 7.58 A.M. train on the line for Asti, and get out at Serralunga, the third station on the road.

Here the sanctuary of Crea can be seen crowning a neighbouring collina with a chapel that has an arcaded gallery running round it, like some of those at Varese. Many other chapels testify to the former importance of the place; on the whole, however, the effect of the buildings cannot compare with that of the sanctuaries of Varallo and Varese. Taking a small carriage, which can always be had at the station (fare, to the sanctuary and back, eight francs), my friend, Mr. H. F. Jones, and myself ascended to Serralunga, finding the views continually become more and more bewitching as we did so; soon after pa.s.sing through Serralunga we reached the first chapel, and after another zigzag or two of road found ourselves in the large open court in front of the church. Here there is an inn, where any one who is inclined to do so could very well sleep. The piazza of the sanctuary is some two thousand feet above the sea, and the views are in some respects finer even than those from the Sacro Monte of Varese itself, inasmuch as we are looking towards the chain of the Alps, instead of away from them.

We have already seen that the sanctuary at Crea was begun about 1590, a hundred years or so later than the Sacro Monte of Varallo, and a dozen years earlier than that of Varese. The church attached to the convent, in which a few monks still remain, contains a chapel with good frescoes by Macrino D'Alba; they are somewhat damaged, and the light is so bad that if the guardiano of the sanctuary had not kindly lent us a candle we could not have seen them. It is not easy to understand how they can have been painted in such darkness; they are, however, the most important work of this painter that I have yet seen, and give a more favourable impression of him than is likely to be formed elsewhere. Behind the high altar there is an oil picture also by Macrino d'Alba, signed as by the following couplet, which they may scan who can:

"Hoc tibi, diva parens, posuit faciente Macrino Bladratensis opus Johes ille Jacobus.1503."

The "Macrino," and "1503," are in red paint, the rest in black. The picture is so dark, and the view of it so much obstructed by the high altar, that it is impossible to see it well, but it seemed good.

There is nothing else in the church, nor need the frescoes in the chapels containing the terra-cotta figures be considered; we were told they were painted by Caccia, better known as Moncalvo, but we could see nothing in them to admire. The sole interest of the sanctuary--except, of course, the surpa.s.sing beauty of its position-- is vested in what few remains of Tabachetti's work may be found there, and in the light that these may throw upon what he has left at Varallo.

All the work by Tabachetti now remaining at Crea consists of the Martyrdom of St. Eusebius chapel, almost all of which is by him, perhaps a figure or two in the Sposalizio chapel, but certainly not the figures of St. Joseph and the Virgin, which are not even ascribed to him, the Virgin in the Annunciation chapel, some parts of the Judith and Holofernes, with which this subject is strangely backed; some few of the figures in the Marriage Feast at Cana chapel, and lastly, the wreck, which is all that remains, of the a.s.sumption of the Virgin--commonly called "Il Paradiso." All the other chapels are either in a ruined state or have been renewed with modern figures during the last thirty years, and more especially during the last ten, at the instance, and, as we understood, at the expense, of the present Archbishop of Milan, who does his campagna here every summer.

The most important chapel is the Martyrdom of St. Eusebius, below the sanctuary itself. The saint is supposed to have been martyred in front of the church of St. Andrea at Vercelli. Some four or so of the figures to the spectator's right are modern restorations; among them, however, there is a child of extreme sweetness and beauty, which must certainly be by Tabachetti, looking up and clinging to the dress of its mother, who has been restored, and is as commonplace as the child is the reverse. There are two restored or rather entirely new priests close by the mother and child, and near these is another new figure--a girl immediately to the child's right; this is so absurdly bad and out of proportion that it is not easy to understand how even the restorer can have allowed himself to make it. All the rest of the figures are by Tabachetti. A little behind the mother and child, but more to the spectator's right, and near to the wall of the chapel, there stands a boy one of whose lower eyelids is paralysed, and whose expression is one of fear and pain. This figure is so free alike from exaggeration or shortcoming, that it is hard to praise it too highly. Another figure in the background to the spectator's left--that of a goitred cretin who is handing stones to one of the stoners, has some of the same remarkably living look as is observable in the two already referred to; so also has another man in a green skull-cap, who is holding a small battle-axe and looking over the stoner's shoulders. Two of the stoners are very powerful figures. The man on horseback, in the background, appears to be a portrait probably of a benefactor. In spite of restoration, the work is still exceedingly impressive. The figures behind the saint act well together, the crowd is a crowd--a one in many, and a many in one--not, as with every one except Tabachetti who has tried to do a crowd in sculpture, a mere collection of units, that, whatever else they may be, are certainly not crowding one another. The main drawback of the work is that the chapel is too small for the subject- -a matter over which Tabachetti probably had no control.

It is with very great regret that I have been unable to photograph the work, but I was flatly refused permission to do so, though I applied through influential people to the Archbishop himself. No one need be at the trouble of going to see it who is not already impressed with a sense of Tabachetti's in some respects unrivalled genius, and who does not know how to take into consideration the evil influences of all sorts with which he was surrounded; those, however, who realise the magnitude of the task attempted, who will be at the pains of putting themselves, as far as may be, in the artist's place and judging of the work from the stand-point intended by him, and who will also in their imagination restore the damage which three centuries of exposure and restoration must a.s.suredly have involved, will find themselves rewarded by a fuller comprehension of the work of a sculptor of the foremost rank than they can attain elsewhere except at Varallo itself.

I have said that some of the figures in the Sposalizio chapel, except Joseph and Mary, are ascribed to Tabachetti. I do not know on what grounds the ascription rests; they have been restored,--clogged with shiny paint, and suffered every ill that could well befall them short of being broken up and carted away. Any one who sampled Tabachetti by these figures might well be disappointed; two or three may be by him, but hardly more. In spite, however, of all that may be justly urged against them, they are marked by the same attempt at concert and unity of purpose which goes so far to redeem individual comparative want of interest. In the background is a coloured bas- relief of Rachel and Jacob at the well and five camels.

In the Annunciation chapel the Virgin may well be, as she is said to be, by Tabachetti; she is a very beautiful figure, though not so fine as his Madonna and Child in the church of St. Gaudenzio at Varallo; she has been badly painted, and it is hard to say how much she has not suffered in consequence. Some parts of the story of Judith and Holofernes in the background are also good, but I do not think I should have seen Tabachetti in them unless I had been told that he was there.

The wreck of the chapel commonly called "Il Paradiso" crowns the hill, conspicuous for many a mile in every direction, but on reaching the grating we found no trace of the figures that doubtless once covered the floor of the chapel. All that remained was a huge pendant of angels, cherubs, and saints, swarming as it were to the ceiling in an inextricable knot of arms, legs, wings, faces, and flowing drapery; two circles of saints, bishops, and others, who might be fitly placed in Paradise, rising one above the other high up the walls of the chapel--the lower circle full-length figures, and the other half-length; and above this a higher and richly coloured crown of musical saints and angels in good preservation. In pa.s.sing I may say that this is the place where the Vecchietto ought to have come from, though it is not likely that he did so.

The pendant retains much of its original colour, and must once have been a gorgeous and fitting climax. Still, no one can do much with such a subject. To attempt it is to fly in the face of every canon by the observance of which art can alone give lasting pleasure. It is to crib, cabin, and confine, within the limits of well-defined sensation and perception, ideas that are only tolerable when left in the utmost indefiniteness consistent with thought at all. It is depressing to think that he who could have left us portrait after portrait of all that was n.o.blest and loveliest in the men and women of his age--who could give a life such as no one but himself, at any rate at that time, could give--should have had to spend months if not years upon a work that even when new can have been nothing better than a magnificent piece of stage decoration.

But of such miscarriages the kingdom of art is full. In the kingdom of art not only are many called and few chosen, but the few that do get chosen are for the most part chosen amiss, or are lavished in the infinite prodigality of nature. We flatter ourselves that among the kings and queens of art, music, and literature, or at any rate in the kingdom of the great dead, all wrongs shall be redressed, and patient merit shall take no more quips and scorns from the unworthy: there, if an able artist, as, we will say, F. H. Potter just dead, dies poor, neglected, and unable to fight his way through the ranks of men with not a tenth part of his genius, there, at any rate, shall right be done; there the mighty shall be put down from his seat, and the lowly and meek, if clever as well as good, shall meet his just reward. It is not so. There is no circle so exalted but the devil has got the run of it. As for the reputations of the great dead, they are governed in the main by the chicane that obtains among the living; it is only after generations of flourishing imposture, that even approximate right gets done. Look at Raphael, see how he still reigns supreme over those who have the people's ears and purses at command. True, Guido, Guercino, and Domenichino have at last tumbled into the abyss, and we know very well that Raphael will ere long fall too, but Guido, Guercino, and Domenichino had a triumph of some two hundred years, during which none dared lift hand against them. Look again at that grossest of impostors--Bacon. Look at by far the greater number of the standard cla.s.sical authors, painters, and musicians. All that can be said is that there is a nisus in the right direction which is not wholly in vain, and that though tens of thousands of men and women of genius are as dandelion seeds borne upon the air and perishing without visible result, yet there is here and there a seed that really does take root and spring upwards to be a plant on the whole more vigorous than that from which it sprung.

Right and truth and justice, in their relation to human affairs, are as asymptotes which, though continually drawing nearer and nearer to the curve, can never reach it but by a violation of all on which their own existence is founded.

As for the a.s.sumption chapel, those who would see it even as a wreck should lose no time; it is in full process of restoration; it is swept and garnished for immediate possession by a gentleman whom we met on the road down, and whose facility of execution in making crucified Christs out of plaster of Paris is something almost incredible. His type of face was Jewish, and it struck both Jones and me that his proficiency must be in some degree due to hereditary practice. He showed us one crucifix which he had only begun at eight o'clock that morning, and by eleven was as good as finished. He told us he had done the brand new Disputa chapel and the Agony in the Garden with the beautiful blue light thrown all over Christ through deep French ultramarine gla.s.s, and he was now going on with the other chapels as fast as he could. He said they had no oven for baking terra-cotta figures; besides, terra-cotta was such a much slower material to work in; he could make a gross of apostles in plaster more quickly than a single set of twelve in terra-cotta, and the effect was just as good when painted; so plaster of Paris and unrivalled facility of execution are to have everything their own way. Already what I can only call a shoddy bishop or pope or two, I forget which, have got in among the circle of Tabachetti's saints and angels that still remains. These are many of them portraits full of serious dignity and unspotted by the world of barocco with which Tabachetti was surrounded. At the present moment they have been partly sc.r.a.ped and show as terra-cotta; no doubt they have suffered not a little in the sc.r.a.ping and will do so still further when they are repainted, but there is no help for it. Great works of art have got to die like everything else.

And, after all, it is as well they should, lest they come to weigh us down too heavily. Why should a man live too long after he is dead?

For a while, yes, if he has done good service in his generation, give him a new lease of life in the hearts and memories of his successors, but do not let even the most eminent be too exacting; do not let them linger on as nonagenarians when their strength is now become but labour and sorrow. We have statutes of mortmain to restrain the dead hand from entering in among the living--why not a statute of limitations or "a fixed period" as against reputations and works of art--say a thousand years or so--behind which time we will resolutely refuse to go, except in rare cases by acclamation of the civilised world? How is it to end if we go on at our present rate, with huge geological formations of art and book middens accreting in every city of Europe? Who is to see them, who even to catalogue them? Remember the Malthusian doctrine, and that the mind breeds in even more rapid geometrical ratio than the body. With such a surfeit of art and science the mind pails and longs to be relieved from both. As the true life which a man lives is not in that consciousness in the midst of which the thing he calls "himself" sits and the din and roar of which confuse and deafen him, but in the life he lives in others, so the true life a man's work should live after his death is not in the mouths but in the lives of those that follow him; in these it may live while the world lasts, as his lives who invented the wheel or arch, but let it live in the use which pa.s.seth all praise or thanks or even understanding, and let the story die after a certain time as all things else must do.

Perhaps; but at any rate let us give them decent burial. Crush the wounded beetle if you will, but do not try to mend it. I am glad to have seen the remains of the a.s.sumption chapel while they are in their present state, but am not sure whether I would not rather see them destroyed at once, than meet the fate of restoration that is in store for them. At the same time I am confident that no more competent restorer than the able and eminent sculptor who has the work in hand is at all likely to be found. My complaint is not against him, but against the utter hopelessness of the task. I would again urge those who may be induced to take an interest in Tabachetti's work to lose no time in going to see what still remains of it at Crea.

Last January I paid a second visit to Crea; and finding a scaffolding up, was able to get on a level with the circle of full-length figures. They were still unpainted, the terra-cotta figures showing as terra-cotta and the plaster of Paris white. When they are all repainted the visitor will find it less easy to say which are new figures and which old. I will therefore say that of the lower circle of twenty full-length figures the only two entirely new figures are the sixth to the left of the door on entering, which represents a man holding an open book by his left hand and resting it on his thigh, and the sixth figure to the right of the door on entering. There are several unimportant restorations of details of dress, feet, and clouds; the rest of the work in this circle is all by Tabachetti.

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Ex Voto Part 13 summary

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