The convent stands nowadays in the place where there was once a majestic castle. This last one was built during the Langobardic era over a previously existing roman building. It was probably a legionnaires’ camp protecting the important route connecting the Po valley and the territories beyond the Alps. According to the scholars, the Mesma castrum was similar to the one in Buccione, both for the architectural technique and for the dimensions of the towers. The building was occupied, enlarged and fortified by the municipality of Novara at the beginning of the 13th century, during the phase of growth on the Cusio’s territory. At the base of the hill, on the southern side, the Municipality built the village of Mesmella in order to defend the castle. At the same time the village wedged into the territories the Bishop of Novara owned in the Cusio area. The controversies between the Municipality and the Bishopric lasted till 1219, when, following to an arbitration, the municipality had to give back to the Bishopric the castles and the villages lying in the northern side of the Baraggia of Briga as well as to destroy Mesmella. The Municipality of Novara remained in possession of the hill and of the Castle of Mesma. During the period in which Giovanni Visconti was Bishop (1329 – 1342) the castle passed in his hands as lord of Novara and he donated it to a relative of his own, Giovanni Visconti from Oleggio. This last one oppressed the Ameno and Ortallo’ inhabitants, who used the woods and the grazing lands of Mesma. In 1332 the Bishop banned him from going on with these actions. But when in 1336 Giovanni from Oleggio became Chief Magistrate of Novara he issued a decree forbidding to the two above mentioned communities to exploit the Mesma territory. Such law disposition was cancelled in 1349 by the new Bishop, Guglielmo: the villages of the coast could freely use the castle and the surrounding territory; but Giovanni Visconti started oppressing those who were caught on the hill. The communities turned to the Archbishop of Milan, Lord of Novara, who in 1322 prohibited him to harras them when they went to the hill for grazing, for collecting the straw or for cutting the offshoots of the undergrowth. The inhabitants of the coast, during the political crisis of the Municipality of Novara, destroyed the castle between August and October 1358. Giovanni from Oleggio accepted the situation and three years later he sold the rights on the castle and on the Mesma hill to the inhabitants of Lortallo for an amount of 50 florins. Ameno and Lortallo fought for some decades for the use of Mesma and finally in 1439 found an agreement for a common exploitation.

Next to the castle, there was a small oratory, which allegedly dates back to the Dark Ages and consecrated to the Virgin Mary. Anyway the ruins of the castle were used then to build an oratory dedicated to San Francesco.

In 1618 Francesco Obicini, a friar coming from an illustrious family from Ameno, got hold of it. The building of the convent started in the following years.

With his brother, Friar Bernardino, he proposed to the Community of Ameno to donate to the Reformed the place on the top of the Mesma hill in order to build a religious home, exploiting also the stones of the destroyed castle. The Obicinis belonged to a notable family whose members exercised the notary and held offices such as mayor, head of the militia, general counsel of the coast, with several representatives in the secular and regular clergy. Father Bernardino played prestigious roles in the order and died in 1621. Friar Francesco was Father Guardian in several convents and died during his stay at Mesma convent in 1633.

The people of Ameno did not appreciate the idea, mainly because of the scarce fertility of the place, which did not offer possibilities for a good begging, as well as for the existence of the Capuchin convent of the Sacro Monte in Orta. This last one raised several complaints about the project. The then bishop of Novara, Taverna, did not support the project as well. In addition, a big famine took place in the year 1618. But all these reasons were considered specious by the Obicinis. The historian Cotta writes at the end of the 17th century: “Ma la Provvidenza divina quando vuole in un attimo supera ogn’oppositione; muta le volontà umane; vince ogni difficoltà; e fa comparire agevolissimo quello che fù già appreso per impossibile. Correva l’anno 1618 di nostra salute, quando che Gio. Angelo Agazzino, Gio. Angelo Anto-nino, Fabrizio Agazzino, e molti altri de’ principali d’Ameno, giovani di spirito, si ritrovarono secondo l’uso del paese ne’ giorni estivi à ricrearsi a una delle fontane del Colle di Mesima; e doppo essersi colà ricreati col cibo, e con la frescura di quell’acque, divertendosi in discorsi sollazzevoli, come accade agli uomini di quell’età in simili congiunture; il fece Iddio cader sotto li occhi le rovine del Castello ivi avanzate, e intavolarsi da loro discorsij seri e quali invehirono contro se stessi, e tutta la Comunità biasimando, e detestando l’inflessibil’ostinazione, e durezza, con la quale havevano impugnata a’ Pp. Obicini la proposizione della fabrica del Convento, e riconoscendo l’inurbanità usata verso compatrioti si bene-meriti proposero, e risolsero d’emendar l’errore”. [“But - when willing -the divine Providence goes beyond any obstacle. It changes the human will. It wins any difficulties. It makes very easy what was meant as impossible. In the year 1618 Gio. Angelo Agazzino, Gio. Angelo Antonino, Fabrizio Agazzino, and many other of the main inhabitants of Ameno, young guys with spirit, met in the hot summer days for restoring in one of the fountains of the Mesma hill according to the usage of the village. After restoring with food and fresh waters, enjoying themselves with amusing conversations, as it is appropriate for men of that age in such a situation, God opened their eyes and showed them the ruins of the Castle. They started a serious discussion and blamed themselves and the whole community for the hateful rigid obstinacy and inflexibity with which they opposed to Father’s Obicini proposal for the Convent’s building. They recognized their unpoliteness against so worthy compatriots, suggesting and then deciding to amend their mistake”.]

Finally, in spite of a certain dislike by the parish priest of Ameno, don Farabino, followed by the old people of the parish, the assembly of the community accepted the proposal instructing the young promoters and Father Bernardo to go to the convent in Varallo to inform Father Francesco, who was the Guardian Father.

The work by Cotta reports a detailed tale, a real fresco, an interesting history of the foundation and development of the Mesma convent, which is not a mere narration, but a description - sometimes a bit emphatic - of the rise of a religious complex with its related matters. It involves also political aspects, internal dynamics, and local rivalries between the villages of the coast: on one side Orta and the Island, the places of the power, and on the other side Ameno and some communities close to the oriental coast, which claimed for decisional rights. In other words, on one hand the Island with its still strong canon Chapter and bishop's seminary, on the other hand Orta, which was proud of its Sacro Monte, whose building had also economic consequences. Mesma and the Reformed, the Monte of Orta with the Capuchins are not only two sacred and monastic places, where precious religious figures lived, but at the same time they are different and sometimes opposite expressions of two communities.

Knowing these purposes, the Obicinis acted quickly in order to grant Mesma's foundation. They made use also of the good offices of donna Margherita Taverna, sister-in-law of the bishop of Novara, and finally on August 18th 1619 they got the bishop's decree authorizing the building of the convent. They established to start immediately the work, defining the methods of the donation. In the meantime Friar Giuseppe from Arzago, guardian of the Province of the Reformed, arrived in place and on August 29th 1619 went together with the Obinicis and with the populations of Ameno and Ortallo to Mesma. Here, in the ancient oratory the Canon of San Giulio and vicar forane, Giovanni Battista Ferino from Ameno, celebrated the Mass. The notary Gio. Angelo Agazzino drew up the act of donation with 45 votes by Ameno and by Ortallo.

The act specified the following points:

  1. The oratory, the annex houses, the vegetable gardens, the vineyards, the lawns, the fields, the cultivated or wild soils, included the chestnut trees were given to the Reformed. The friars could build a monastery close to the oratory with the charities and live there in an adequate number; at the same time they could celebrate the divine office in the oratory and give the sacraments to the people of Ameno and Lortallo, without prejudice to any parish right.

  2. If the given area shouldn’t be large enough, the friars were authorized to extend also nearby in order to fence their monastery but leaving anyway free access to the fountain on the hill, which was meant to water the grazing animals.

  3. The people of Ameno and Lortallo should not be in any time compelled to bear the costs for the building of the monastery or for the restoration of the annex oratory.

  4. If the friars would go away and would not celebrate mass any more, every part of the donation had to return to the inhabitants of Ameno and Lortallo and restored as it was previously. The soil that was donated to the friars did not exceed ten perches and the buildings were four “rough hovels”.

  5. In order to show the acquired possession, after the stipulation of the act, Father Obicini erected on the small parvis of the oratory a high cross whose extremities were covered with shining white slabs to reflect the sun rays. On the following September 1st Father Francesco Cattaneo d’Arzago came from Milan and blessed the first stone of the convent, positioned by Francesco Zanone, known as Ceranino. He offered 50 ecus in order to obtain this honor, among several competitors. The constitution ceremonies were celebrated by ringing the bells, by shooting the muskets and by night fires.

The works started. The small houses were restored and the upper part of the hill was levelled and the waste material was used to build the small square and the two-storeys garden of the friars. The building of the convent’s church started too by keeping the original oratory as a part of it.

The Franciscan foundation of Mesma, which at the beginning raised even derision, became object of envy, particularly by side of the Capuchins of the Monte of Orta. They feared to be damaged by the presence of a new settlement in the same catchment area and collection of alms. Together with the Community of Orta they sent to the Vicar of the chapter in Novara “a voluminous memoir about several frauds”. Later, some rioters went to Mesma during the night, pulled out the cross and posted flyers on a wall with insults against the inhabitants of Ameno. On the following morning Father Obicini, who still lived with the other friars in Ameno, discovered the crime. The news spread; ten armed young boys were hired to protect the place. In addition, a person whose name is not revealed by Cotta went to the Sacro Monte of Orta with a crossbow and a long rod with an iron tip and there broke the largest possible number of beards and hoods to the statues in the chapels. Damaging the beard and the hood, symbols of the Capuchins, was a revenge. The inhabitants of Orta got angry because of the physical damage to the decoration of the chapels.

In September 1619 Cardinal Taverna died. He would have probably been able to appease the dispute between the two religious orders and their supporters as well. The opponents to the project reached their goal and obtained a bishop decree ordering to stop the works. In March 1620, when the works started again after the winter break, the fiscal consultant of the territory went to Mesma together with a group of partisans pleading to execute some decrees of the Roman Curia by showing a written text. But the most serious fact was the news heard by the inhabitants of Ameno that on the morning of May 1st 1620 the friars would have received the order to leave the convent. They decided to prevent this in any case and during the previous night, they stationed at Mesma’s slope waiting for the arrival of the fiscal consultant. When they saw him climbing up to Mesma, they attacked him by throwing stones and by shooting. The group with the fiscal consultant escaped towards the lake and got in the boats.

The bishop’s vicar ordered to the squire of the island to get away Father Obicini from the diocese as well as the friars from Mesma and to close the rooms where they lived in order to avoid them to become hideouts for wrongdoers. On July 17th the procedure was executed and the place was entrusted to three secular keepers, an inventory was done with the furnishings which were moved to the island. Any possibility to complete the project seemed lost: the Omegna parish priest, who was appointed since March 1620 to inform the Roman Curia about the case, sent a report declaring that the Riviera did not had the possibility to support two convents. After his departure, the general minister of the order instructed Obicini to go to Rome and discuss the issue.

In the meantime, on July 11th 1621 the local communities met in the oratory of San Bernardino in order to dissipate any doubt about the impossibility to maintain two religious foundations. With an official act registered by the notary Giovanni Angelo Agazzini, 97 family masters from Ameno and 11 from Ortallo engaged themselves and their heirs, with their own goods and the goods of their commons, to help maintaining the 15 friars at Mesma “with all they would need, day by day, hand by hand and time by time” in case the necessary alms would fail. It is a very important act giving a clear significance of the strong determination to support the foundation of the Friars Minor in any case. It is a sort of declaration of the “autonomy” from the capital of the Riviera.

On January 21st 1622 the Roman congregation deliberated that the works of Mesma should go on and that the friars could come back. They informed the Novara Bishop with a letter which was given directly in the hands of Obicini. The bishop’s vicar notified of the roman resolution to the squire of the island and this last one provided to inform the Capuchins. On February 15th 1621 the friars returned to Mesma and the works restarted vigorously. The Ameno’s community destined a consistent part of their incomes to the construction, several goods belonging to the ancient oratory of Mesma were sold, many alms were collected and at the end of the year the church was completed up to the cornice, the access corridor to the convent and the first cells were finished. In 1623 they realized the roofing of the vault and therefore the oratory which was still present was demolished. Father Obicini kept the promise and made build the Altar dedicated to Sant’Anna, in the place where now there is the chapel entitled to her and here he celebrated a solemn mass on May 3rd 1624.

In 1625 the church was completed, even if the building was truly finished in 1666. The Bishop Volpi consecrated it only on September 2nd, 1629. He granted the indulgency of 40 days in the day of the commemoration of the consecration, established on the first Sunday of September. A commemorative plaque positioned in the internal facade of the church celebrates such act.

The church, which maintained the orientation of the previous oratory, is already a building of the 17 th century, according to the typology of churches of Friars Minor of that time. Therefore it was without painted transept, with a unique body with choir and four lateral chapels, situated on the left. The Romanesque façade is introduced by a portico with Palladian window and oculus, the lateral parts include the chapels on the left and the entrance to the first cloister of the convent on the right. A painted lunette, representing San Francesco and the Virgin Mary, decorates the gate.

The convent includes two cloisters of great splendor, “realized with a really plain architecture; around the two courtyards there is a series of diminished arches, sustained by granite columns in Tuscan style and laying on a low wall. The two adjoining spaces are very similar; the module is double, creating in this way a bipolarity that increases the circularity of the single spaces without disturbing their intimacy. Further to the function of spaces for meditation and prayer, the two cloisters act also as a connecting structure among the several parts of the complex”. The first cloister was equipped in 1633 with the big tank for water provision, when the guardian Father was Bartolomeo from Acquate. Its construction was finished in 1653.

Up to the middle of the 17th century Mesma was reachable only by ancient paths. Father Gerolamo Stola from Novara, guardian Father since September 1658, decided to realize a route. He got the support of the Ameno’s community and the works started in the spring of 1659. First of all they paved the first junction from the church, by protecting the route with a wall. Then they “cut a large section of the wall in order to set upright the curving which from this site extended till the edge of the hill. Therefore, by creating two straight lines, which let between them an accentuated obtuse crossing, they positioned a comfortable avenue, almost reaching the end… this last one was protected by a low wall against any possible fall of stones, well-armed with poles and big sticks, where the height of the terrain threatens a more possible falling. In this place you could admire in the public holidays a hundred of workers, busy thanks to a burning wish to see the work completed”. The work went on until the crossroads to Ameno and Lortallo but it was interrupted on the following year due to the transfer of Father Stola. It started again on 1665 at his return.

The laws, which the Austrian Emperor Joseph II issued in 1782, affected the Lombardy convents and Mesma was always connected to this Minor province. The emperor was against monasteries and convents, in particular those of the mendicant orders, as he judged them as idlers. According to the laws establishing that a religious province could not have convents outside the country borders, Mesma was detached and later united with the other convents of the Novara diocese to the Minor province of San Diego.

The coming of the Napoleonic regime, during which the San Giulio Riviera was integrated from the administrative point of view in the Agogna department, brought to the introduction of the laws for the dissolution of the religious property. The Napoleonic decree of April 25th, commanded on May 10th 1810, became effective during the same month. The state property administration confiscated the convent. The friars had to leave it. The same happened for the Sacro Monte in Orta. The building was deprived of the furnishings. Some of the choral books – life work of Father Giacomo Agazzini d’Ameno (1654-1759) – went scattered everywhere. Some wooden works were positioned in Ameno and Gozzano as Susanna Borlandelli observes in her study. The building was finally left abandoned.

At this stage the municipality of Ameno, appealing to the 4th point of the notary act of August 29th 1619, claimed the property which was not anyway granted. The empty convent was rented by the government administration to Giambattista Travaglino, who went to live there and took care of the vegetable garden, while the church was used as junk room and warehouse. After the Bonaparte’s fall and the restauration following to the Congress of Vienna, the general minister of the Franciscans sent a delegate to the King of Sardinia Vittorio Emanuele I to accept the suppressed convents. While the friars of Piedmont succeeded to come back into their convents, for the Novara area the situation was not so easy: in fact, it was not always possible to find the friars to live there as it happened for Varallo. In 1817 the convent of the Capuchins of the Sacro Monte of Orta was offered to the Reformed where they entered on October 12th 1817. The municipality of Ameno moved some steps even in 1814 to get it back, anyway with success. In 1819 King Vittorio donated the convent to the bishop of Novara, Morozzo, who passed it directly to the friars. So they returned to Mesma after almost ten years of absence: the religious foundation was formally installed again by means of a solemn rite that was officiated by the bishop on October 22nd of the same year 1819. After realizing the necessary restoration jobs, the convent reopened in the following year. A solemn procession celebrated the return of the statue of Sant’Anna, relocated in the church of San Bernardino in Ameno. The collection of alms was divided between the two convents in Orta and Ameno. The Mesma guardian did not like this division and when he was elected to Province commissioner in 1824 he wanted the village of Santa Cristina near Borgomanero to add as area of alms collection.

The dissolution laws of 1866 stated that the religious congregations were no more recognized and at the end of the year the friars were compelled to leave the convent. They left after exchanging, upon invitation of the provincial father, the kiss of peace and charity, hoping that better times would come and trusting to meet each other again in God’s presence. Anyway on January 6th 1867 the Municipality rented the convent for the amount of 40 liras/year to Father Cipriano Zanotti who called back the religious. The dispersed friars came back to their convent.

Thanks to a lucky coincidence, the following year the friars entered again in possession of the convent. In fact, during a travel in Italy, Mrs. Giuseppina Pamelio, widow of the Italian vice-consul in Boston, cav. Nicola Reggio, was impressed by the fact that several men of the Church were chased away from their foundations and decided to purchase some convents to give them back to the friars. Informed about the situation of Mesma, she decided to buy it and give it to the Franciscan fathers for perpetual use. Her delegate Angelo Crotti filled out all the paper works and the purchase was formally concluded with an act dating September 5th 1870 and the payment of an amount of 30.510 liras and named as “Villa Reggio”.


 [1] Cotta, pp. 34-35.

[1] A portrait of don Ferino can be seen in the III chapel of the Sacro Monte in Orta, near the statue of the Assisi Bishop, which had the features of Bascapè.

[1] A. Molinari, Percorso architettonico, in Ameno, percorsi di conoscenza (a cura di F. Mattioli Carcano e A. Molinari), Omegna 2004, p. 53.

[1] Cotta, p. 102.

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