Sacri Monti, the Jerusalem of Italy

One of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy are the Sacri Monti, or Sacred Mountains, located in Piedmont and Lombardy. This varied UNESCO site includes nine Italian sacred mountains on which the visitor can admire chapels and religious buildings of high architectural value.


The oldest of the Sacri Monti, is the Sacro Monte di Varallo Sanctuary (100 km from Milan and 130 Km from Turin). In the thirteenth century, many pilgrims travelled to Jerusalem by boats departing from Venice. The journey was perilous. Pilgrims risked sickness or drowning, and the Turkish influence in the Orient limited the possibilities for travel. The churchmen from Milan decided to create a New Jerusalem for pilgrims to visit. The project allowed pilgrims to insert themselves into an imagined past narrative to directly interact with the numinous. In this sense, the chapels provided an “augmented reality” which wouldn’t have been possible in the real Holy Land.


The work on Mount Varallo began in the 15th century and continued during the 16 and 17 centuries as a collaborative work of many different artists. The complex consists of a Baroque basilica and 45 frescoed chapels in all that hold more than 800 life-size statues. The statues very realistically and expressive looking, made of painted terracotta wood and some other natural materials. They represent scenes from the Bible and look like frozen in time, with realistic clothing and even real hair.


Another important site is Sacro Monte di San Francesco on Lake Orta’s eastern shore (1h30 from Milan and Turin). At the Sacro Monte in Orta, the twenty chapels along the procession are entirely dedicated to Saint Francis. The 376 terracotta statues within the chapels illustrate various episodes and miracles in the life of the saint from Assisi.


Moreover there is a fantastic landscape: the “sagrato” is a remarkable balcony that faces the lake, a panorama without comparison. The view extends above the old terracotta roofs of the old village Orta San Giulio.  The blue of the lake enhances the San Giulio Island rising in the distance with its famous Basilica.

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