We are in one of the most evocative and fascinating places on Lake Maggiore: the beauty of nature and the art of man guide us to learn about its history.
Who has ever dared to build a convent on a shaky rock balcony and above all, why?
Let's go back to the origin of the Hermitage of Santa Caterina del Sasso, in the middle of the Middle Ages, when the lake was not only a pleasant holiday resort, but a fundamental communication route: crossed by merchants, pilgrims and travelers of all sorts.
It is here that Alberto's legendary story is born: belonging to the wealthy Besozzi house (of Arolo or Monvalle), rich and greedy merchant, husband of an equally rich girl, he leads a carefree life. Returning from the "Vergante" market, a sudden storm, with rain and strong wind, surprises and overturns his small boat; floating clinging to a piece of wood, frightened by possible and near death, Albert invokes the holy martyr Catherine of Alexandria in Egypt, vowing to change his lifestyle and devote himself solely to penance and prayer.
Fortunately managed to run aground just below the Sasso Bàllaro or Rupe Bàllara, he retreats to a natural cave, eating herbs and roots.
When, many years later, a terrible plague strikes the territory along the shores of the lake, the inhabitants of the neighboring villages ask the hermit for prayers and he, in exchange, has a small chapel built in honor of Saint Catherine, similar to the sepulcher of the martyr on Mount Sinai: it is from this ancient heart, now hidden in the back of the church, that everything that we can admire today is born: buildings, frescoes, the wonder of nature seen from this man-tamed rock balcony.
The place becomes a pilgrimage destination, although built in a place that is difficult to reach and despite the curious fact that, not only has there never been news of Albert's beatification but that, indeed, there is not even confirmation of its actual existence.
We have news of him in a much later story, from the sixteenth century, compiled by a Besozzi probably wishing to include the founder of the beloved Hermitage in the family and who collected traditions and stories related to the origin of the place; the heremit name was Alberto? Who knows and why not, certainly for us today it can only be like this and from this moment the legend intertwines with history: devotion and sources come to illuminate the subsequent news clearly.
We are at the end of the thirteenth century, even the nobles of the area are interested in the chapel of Santa Caterina del Sasso Ballaro. To eradicate an invasion of wolves in the nearby woods, a family from Ispra had a chapel built, it’s Santa Maria Nova, now barely recognizable in its volumes, because it is incorporated into the largest church.
Certainly since the beginning of the fourteenth century some men have chosen to follow the example of the hermit, retreating into the caves overlooking the lake, first without a precise rule and then gradually in an increasingly structured way, until they gave themselves the rule of S. Ambrose ad Nemus and thus form a first community of monks.
It’s now that the main buildings that we can still admire today are born, the chapel of Santa Maria Nova, the church dedicated to San Nicolao, both now inserted in the largest volume of the church, the bell tower, the convent and the southern convent: the frescoes and the building structure tell us about the antiquity of these places.
The convent is enriched with donations, sales, and inheritances, which reveal the prosperous economic recovery of the surrounding area. In fact, being at the center of one of the great communication routes between north and south (in particular the one from the Lukmanier pass and the Simplon pass), this whole area flourishes thanks to trade, crafts and agriculture. The monks rent vineyards, fields, meadows, woods and houses with substantial earnings: land that went from the ancient monastery to Vergiate, Somma, Masnago and even Pallanza.
Thanks to the proximity of the Besozzi family, which has always been linked to the Hermitage as we understand from the numerous family coats of arms imprinted on altars and frescoes, with the Sforza family, the sixteenth century is a period of great prosperity for the Hermitage: the small churches built in the time next to the chapel of Santa Caterina are transformed into a single large volume, which today constitutes the church and many of the frescoes that we can admire and that populate the rooms in which we find ourselves are painted with saints and characters.
A happy period that however ends, between the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, in one of decadence and misery: it is the seventeenth century of wars, famines and plague for all of Lombardy, the Order of S. Ambrogio ad Nemus was suppressed and only around 1650 the Hermitage was temporarily entrusted to the administration of the Abbey of S. Maria in Pertica in Pavia and then passed to the Carmelites of Mantua, whose coat of arms we recognize in the fireplaces and marble altars.
In recent years, landslides and rock failures lead to the fall of 5 boulders that break through the roof of the church, but remain stuck with each other, without damaging the ground. There is talk of a miracle, a commemorative plaque is inserted in the church, next to the tomb of the Blessed, to the visits of pilgrims are added those of curious tourists. The roof of the church is not the only "victim" of the collapses: a stone plaque at the bottom of the first portico reminds us that this structure, first in wood, was also rebuilt in stone in 1624 by prior Giulio Cesare Martignoni.
The edict signed by the Austrian Minister in 1770 led to the suppression of the Carmelite convent: most of the landed properties passed under the parishes of Cerro, Arolo and Laveno; the same church, taken over by the Curia of Milan, is joined to the Leggiuno Parish.
Despite the pilgrimages and processions, which have become very numerous as the lists of parishes carved on stone slabs at the entrance of the church tell us, the continuous erosion of the rock creates problems of maintenance and management of the site: we intervene as possible, even by renting or even selling the land owned. An agreement was reached between the Provost Biancardi and the company Navigazione Lago Maggiore for the creation of an anchorage for the tourist boat, to encourage the arrival of people and hope for new earnings.
The entrance to the Hermitage, even before the boat docked, traditionally took place via the lake. Access by land had to submit to the whims of nature and also of man. During the period of the Tridentine Council, it was forbidden to enter from the south door, which we still use today: it was inconceivable to pass through the premises of the monastic enclosure. A road was then built which, from the town of Reno, gives direct access to the church. This time it is nature that rebels, a landslide in the nineteenth century destroys this road: access must again take place from the south door and the good people of Leggiuno build a passage that descends where the staircase now stands. The latter has been restored today.
Left for 150 years without the daily and constant care of a resident community, despite the recognition since 1914 as a National Monument and the various repairs and restorations, the place is unable to return to the splendor of the past.
The extension of the natural grotto in the courtyard of the church dates back to 1915 for the creation of a "Lourdes Grotto", as often happened during that period of war in the villages and parishes of the area.
After the Second World War, the Hermitage experienced a happy period: the first room of the upper convent was transformed into a "restaurant" and the dock for the boat was rebuilt in concrete: tourists return to discover the beauty of the Hermitage and the life of Blessed Alberto.
Safe in safety nets, the Sasso Bàllaro awaits pilgrims and visitors to the Hermitage of S. Caterina del Sasso, so that the spiritual richness of this place, together with the spectacular colors of nature and the wonder of art created by the hand of the man, may they capture his soul and heart.