Walking along the Orta's Sacro Monte paths, past the ancient frescoed chapels and the wonderful plants in the park, makes you feel as if you were in a corner of Paradise.
There are places where one's heart feels at peace, where time grinds to a halt and only emotions matter. Orta's Sacro Monte is one of those places, where the harmony of nature filters like sunlight through tree branches and the hushed silence of the Franciscans transmits pure peace and serenity.
The decision that it should be built on the summit at the centre of the Orta promontory was made at a gloomy time in history: Luther's reformation had created a profound schism in the Christian world and the Roman Church endeavoured to attract the faithful with certain religious initiatives. The figure of Saint Francis was chosen at the Sacro Monte in Orta and the twenty chapels along the procession are entirely dedicated to him. The 376 terracotta statues within the chapels illustrate various episodes and miracles in the life of the saint from Assisi; ranging from his choice to live in poverty, the temptations posed by the devil, from his conception announced by an angel to his birth in a manger and the many miracles attributed to him.
Building began in 1590 in the “selva di San Nicolao” (Saint Nocholas's selva ), where a Romanesque church once stood, and was resumed in three distinct periods terminating in 1788, which resulted in a variety of decorative styles like the somber and elegant features typical of the Renaissance, or the lavish and elaborate workmanship of the Baroque period, followed by rococo and finally the neoclassical. The Capuchin friar Cleto from Castelletto Ticino was in charge of the original plans while the work carried out was rigorously controlled by Bishop Bescapè, a fervid supporter of the Counter-Reformation.
The artistic value of the chapels is further enhanced by the striking setting: the religious itinerary was planned from the very beginning in harmony with the nature of the locality, now a thirteen-hectare reserve which slopes downwards towards the lake. The walk uphill from the historic centre of Orta follows a wide road lined with hornbeams as far as the arch, through which visitors gain entry to the wooded grounds and the chapels, situated within a large park of ornamental plants such as beech, oak and lime. Hedges and shrubs of boxwood and holly provide shade which encourages pilgrims to gather, while every now and then a gap or opening reveals glimpses of the lake and stunning scenery...
The setting of Sacro Monte has bestowed many deeply romantic moments on generations of loving couples. One of the most renowned episodes involves the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who sojourned in Orta on his Grand Tour of Italy in order to meet the young, fascinating Russian intellectual, Lou Andreas Salomè, whom he had asked to marry him. While on a tour of Sacro Monte, Nietzsche and Lou stepped aside to enjoy a little privacy and it is said that he may even have stolen a kiss from her… one thing for sure is that the writer of Zarathustra kept a few tokens of that episode until his dying day: a leaf, a sketch on a piece of paper and a note with a written promise.
Our Sacri Monti are an almost hidden part of our patrimony, largely underrated, though they are, indeed, little treasures which call for discretion and award visitors with moments of joy and reflection, peace and serenity.