The Italian Alps are renowned for their stunning scenery, fine wine and good food. But many travelers are unaware that the region also hosts exquisite Renaissance and Baroque art. Nestled in the mountains and hills of northwestern Italy, just an hour’s drive from Milan, a cluster of Catholic sanctuaries brim with sculptures and frescoes by artists like Gaudenzio Ferrari, Tanzio da Varallo and Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli.
Known as Sacri Monti, or Sacred Mounts, the group of nine pilgrimage stations in the Piedmont and Lombardy regions are recognized by UNESCO as a single World Heritage site. The sanctuaries were built over a period of over 200 years — from 1486 to 1712. Each has a different story: Five were built by Catholic religious orders, two were commissioned by bishops, and two were built by local communities.
“In Italy, nature, art and religion combine to enrich the humblest lives,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1905 travel memoir, “Italian Backgrounds,” after visiting three of the sanctuaries. She was utterly captivated by the “sense of harmony and completeness.”
After years of neglect, the Sacri Monti are now experiencing a quiet resurgence, thanks to restoration projects and the popularity of nearby walking trails.
Each of the nine sites — Varallo, Crea, Orta, Varese, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossola and Belmonte — can be easily reached by car or, in the cases of Varallo and Varese, by cable car as well. Many visitors opt for a short trek from the closest town. The sites are so scattered — not to mention that each of them is best appreciated at a slow pace — that it’s advisable to see just one in a single day. Those with time and energy to spare can embark on the Devoto Cammino, a 435-mile hiking trail that links the nine sanctuaries.
The primary purpose of the Sacri Monti was providing an alternative to long-distance, and often dangerous, pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But as the Protestant Reformation began to spread across the Alps in the 16th century, the sanctuaries were used by church authorities as a way to reinforce Catholic beliefs, and steer people away from Protestant ideas.
Each sanctuary is built on a crest featuring a dazzling view, and consists of a series of chapels. The largest complex, Varallo, near the town of the same name, has 45 chapels; the smallest, Ghiffa, near Lake Maggiore, just three. Each chapel uses life-size sculptures and frescoed walls to represent a scene from the Scriptures or Catholic…