Performing the renaissance body and mind: somaesthetic style and devotional practice at the Sacro Monte di Varallo

Allie Terry-Fritsch (Bowling Green State University)


This essay examines the somaesthetic experience of renaissance pilgrims to the Sacro Monte di Varallo, a late fifteenthcentury simulation of the Holy Land located in northern Italy. It reconstructs how pilgrims once cultivated their bodies and minds to enhance aesthetic and devotional experience to offer a re-evaluation of artistic style at the site. Built by a team of architects, painters and sculptors at the behest of Franciscan friars, the Sacro Monte di Varallo transformed the mountainous terrain of the Val Sesia into a ‘true representation’ of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The Holy Land was presented to the pilgrim in a series of interactive spaces housed in independent architectural units, each containing life-sized wooden or terracotta sculptures of Biblical figures adorned with real hair, clothes and shoes, and situated in frescoed narratival environments. Pilgrims were led to each architectural site along a fixed path and encountered the Biblical scenes in a strict sequence that was narrated by a Franciscan friar. If the pilgrim engaged in proper performances of body-mindfulness, the site served as a pilgrimage destination that was equally enriching as ‘the real thing’. The essay questions how the somaesthetics of experience at Varallo served to enfold pilgrims into multi-sensory, immersive scenarios and thereby allowed pilgrims to activate the art and architecture of the Franciscan campus in personalised ways. Through their physical and mental participation in the works, pilgrims actively constructed the means for the art and architecture of the holy mountain to fulfil and even surpass the power of the real Holy Land.

Keywords: : Gaudenzio Ferrari, pilgrimage, somaesthetics, sacri monti, Holy Land, Fra Bernardino Caimi, Franciscan, prosthetic memory, meraviglia, renaissance viewers

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Terry_Fritsch (PDF, 2 MB)


Biographical note

Allie Terry-Fritsch is associate professor of Italian renaissance art history at Bowling Green State University. Her research examines the performative experience of viewing art and architecture in early modern Italy, with a particular focus on fifteenth-century Florence. Published articles and book chapters include examinations of the viewers of Fra Angelico’s paintings at San Marco, Donatello’s sculptures in Palazzo Medici, Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas, as well as the relationship between the beholder and the representation of violence in the renaissance. She is co-editor of Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Ashgate, 2012). Terry-Fritsch is currently completing her book manuscript on Somaesthetic Experience and the Renaissance Viewer in Florence, an investigation of the ways in which fifteenth-century Florentines actively cultivated their bodies and minds to enhance their experiences of art and architecture.