In 1604, at the height of the Borromeo family power, work began on the construction of the Sacred Mount of Varese (Sacro Monte di Varese) in Santa Maria del Monte, an ancient hamlet on Mount Orona, which is now part of the municipality of Varese.
In charge of the design of the chapels and the route was Giuseppe Bernascone, known as Il Mancino, the left-handed one (Varese, c. 1560 – c. 1625). The work was carried out under his direction and under the careful supervision of the Milan Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who in the meantime had been involved in the construction of the analogous Sacred Mounts of Orta and Arona. Thanks to generous donations received, in less than twenty years the Sacred Mount was completed: fourteen chapels along a route of about two kilometres ending in the pre-existing sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte. This was followed by decades of decoration projects undertaken by Il Morazzone, Carlo Fra
In the Sacred Mount of Varese, the intention of creating a scenic fusion between monument and landscape is masterfully accomplished – indeed, this is to be found in all the Sacred Mounts in the foothills of the Alps. Bernascone, in fact, attached great importance to the contemplation of the landscape. Around the chapels, arcades and open spaces welcome pilgrims and visitors, giving them a splendid view of the plain and lake lying below.
In the beautiful clearing in front of the thirteenth chapel, in particular, I spent a lot of my teenage years: friends and I would meet there (instead of at school) and spend whole days steeped in art and nature.
In 2003, the nine Sacred Mounts of Piedmont and Lombardy, including that of Varese, were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The group of religious complexes built between the 16th and 17th centuries in the foothills of the Alps was deemed particularly worthy because of the way sacred art was integrated with the natural landscape.