The city of Jerusalem is just a two-hour train ride from Milan.
The Sacro Monte of Varallo – the Piedmonte’s New Jerusalem since 1486 and the oldest of the nine sancti monti, or holy mountains, of Northern Italy, all now Unesco World Heritage sites – was built for the edification of pilgrims unable to travel to the city of Jerusalem.
Pilgrimage is a two-way street. Places like to travel as much as people, and the creation and replication of holy sites have always been part and parcel of the religious experience. Christian pilgrims, for instance, not only prayed at the holy sites of Jerusalem but also took measurements, drew sketches and carefully remembered physical details, particularly of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Tomb of Jesus. Back home – and here in Italy – these holy sites were recreated in various degrees of size, complexity and similitude (see, for instance, Bologna’s Basilica di Santo Stefano).
Varallo’s protagonist was the Milanese Franciscan friar, Father Bernardino Caimi (1425 – 1500), who served in Jerusalem as the custodian of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Upon his return to Italy, Father Caimi secured the mountain location at Varallo in cooperation with Pope Innocent VIII (1432-1492) and the area’s nobility, and commenced his dream of recreating a Holy Land in Italy’s own backyard.
His initial effort, the completion of the Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre, underscores the prominent role that the tomb of Jesus holds in the pilgrimage imagination. Soon Varallo’s Holy Land topography would also include the ‘cities’ of Nazareth and Bethlehem, while over forty chapels – ornately decorated with frescoes and more than 800 life-sized sculptures – would be built, each devoted to a different event in the life of Jesus.
While Father Caimi is the inspirational founder of the Sacro Monte, the five hundred year history of Varallo is equally remarkable. Generation after generation, artists, pilgrims and religious leaders, including St Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584) and Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), have been captured by Father Caimi’s vision, while, at the same time, recreating, reorganizing and reinvesting in the physical, spiritual and imaginative space of the sacred mountain top. But that, after all, is precisely the power of replicated holy places – they become nothing less than sacred sites themselves.