[Photo: View of Lake Orta from the hills above the lake where the Sacro Monte di Orta is located.]
Of the six Sacred Mountains of Piedmont, the Sacro Monte di Orta is one of the most beautiful for at least three reasons: the artistic virtuosity of the chapels; the mountain garden featuring azaleas, rhododendrons, oaks and alders; and the view over Lake Orta and surrounding mountains.
If you are not familiar with the Sacred Mountains of Piedmont - and Lombardy, there are three there as well - they are devotional complexes, built on the slopes of a mountain, featuring a series of chapels containing scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Saints, in the form of paintings or sculptures. There are nine groups of these chapels scattered throughout the two regions which were created in the late 16th and 17th centuries. They are impressive in the way they were built to merge beautifully with the surrounding natural landscapes of hills, forests and lakes; in fact, for this reason, they are inscribed onto UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
This is surely the case for Sacro Monte di Orta, which is in harmony with the surrounding territory, placed on top of a hill overlooking little-known Lake Orta, in a location that inspires serenity and meditation.
Built in the late 1500s, it was dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. The twenty chapels, decorated with paintings, frescoes and terracotta statues, recall episodes from the life of the saint; the fact that the Sacro Monte di Orta was built to honor St. Francis rather than Jesus or the Madonna makes it different from all other Sacred Mounts of Piedmont and Lombardy.
Because the construction of the chapels continued for two centuries, different architectural styles are on display, from Renaissance to Baroque to Rococò. The site’s culmination is the Church of Saint Nicolao, a proto-Romanic building remodeled in the 17th century to resemble the Lower Basilica of Assisi.
Lake Orta is approximately 45km from Milan Malpensa airport; Lake Maggiore is a thirty-minute drive east.