Created on the site where Vivaldo de San Gimignano died*, the San Valdo Sacro Monte outside Florence recreates various places associated with the life and final Passion of Christ. The twenty or so extant chapels (in the 16th century there were a total of 34) are adorned with sculpted reliefs and frescos that depict such scenes as the Flight into Egypt, and “Noli Me Tangere” (“Do Not Touch Me”, the words used by the risen Christ to Mary Magdalene). There is also a House of Herod, a House of Caiaphas the High Priest and a House of St. Anne (the Virgin’s mother). The entire place has a very special atmosphere – particularly during periods of good weather, when masses and religious services are held there.
The idea for such “holy mounts” dates back to the 15th/16th century. They were created so that the faithful could, without exposing themselves to all of the hazards of a journey to the Holy Land, still make a pilgrimage that evoked the scenes of Christ’s passion. The Franciscan Friars Minor chose three locations for these “New Jerusalems”: Varello in Lombardy, Mantaione in Tuscany and Braga in Portugal.
After the Council of Trent, they also became an increasingly effective way of combating the influence of the Protestant Reform. The model most frequently followed was that of the Varallo Sacro Monte, which had been created in about 1480. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, and even up to the middle of the 18th, more sacri monti were created throughout Italy – for example at Crea, Orta, Varese, Oropa, Ossuccio, Ghiffa, Domodossdola and Valperga – dedicated not only to the life of Christ but also to the Virgin, the Holy Trinity, the Rosary, and the lives of the saints. Although at the beginning they followed similar basic rules, as the years went on, each would develop its own artistic and architectural characteristics.
*[Vivaldo de San Gimignano (c.1250-1320), now beatified, was a hermit who lived in the hollowed trunk of a chestnut tree, on the site of which it is said that the monastery dedicated to his name was later built. The truth is that there was already a church here, dedicated to an earlier Vivaldo.]
(Adapted from Secret Tuscany by Carlo Caselli)