Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy
Since 2003 • Cultural
The nine Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of northern Italy are groups of chapels and other architectural features created in the late 16th and 17th centuries and dedicated to different aspects of the Christian faith. In addition to their symbolic spiritual meaning, they are of great beauty by virtue of the skill with which they have been integrated into the surrounding natural landscape of hills, forests and lakes. They also house much important artistic material in the form of wall paintings and statuary.
The phenomenon of sacri monti ('sacred mountains') began at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries with the aim of creating in Europe places of prayer as alternative to the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Palestine, access to which was becoming more difficult for pilgrims owing to the rapid expansion of Muslim culture. The Minorite guardians of the Holy Sepulchre selected three sites - Varallo in Valsesia, belonging to the Duchy of Milan, Montaione in Tuscany, and Braga in northern Portugal - at which to build 'New Jerusalems' designed to be similar in topography to the original.
Within a few years, especially after the Council of Trent in 1535, this model, and in particular that of Varallo, built around 1480, were used for another purpose, and especially in those dioceses coming under the jurisdiction of the Milan Curia. This was to combat the influence of Protestant 'Reform' by promoting the creation of more Sacri Monti as concrete expressions of their preaching. These were dedicated not only to Christ but also to cults devoted to the Virgin Mary, saints, the Trinity, and the Rosary.
This ideal project, which went into specific standards for the typology and architectural styles to use, received a strong impetus from Carlo Borromeo, Bishop of Milan. In accordance with the ideas that stemmed from the Council of Trent, he went straight ahead with the completion of the Varallo sacro monte before starting work on the others. This phase went on throughout the 17th century until around the middle of the 18th century. Varallo was succeeded by the sacri monti at Crea, Orta, Varese, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossola, and Valperga. Although at the outset these followed certain basic rules, as they were being constructed they developed individual artistic and architectural aspects.
Other sacri monti were designed and built throughout the 18th century, but many of these were no more than examples of different styles, lacking the religious motivation, the authenticity of composition according to strict rules, and the fine architectural and artistic elements which had marked the earlier phase in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Justification for being a World Heritage Site
Criterion (ii): The implantation of architecture and sacred art into a natural landscape for didactic and spiritual purposes achieved its most exceptional expression in the Sacri Monti (‘Sacred Mountains’) of northern Italy and had a profound influence on subsequent developments elsewhere in Europe.
Criterion (iv): The Sacri Monti (‘Sacred Mountains’) of northern Italy represent the successful integration of architecture and fine art into a landscape of great beauty for spiritual reasons at a critical period in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.