Rusca in the traditions of Valmalenco

When the archpriest Rusca was captured during the night between 24th and 25th July 1618 by a band of armed men of the Grigioni family, led by the Protestant minister, Marc’Antonio Alba, he was deported to Coira across the Valmalenco, along the “Cavallera” road of the Muretto pass, a road used for centuries to connect the Valtellina with the Engadine and the Val Bregaglia.

Chiareggio, church of St Anna. Plaque laid in memory of Nicolò Rusca as he passed through.

Rusca's forced journey across the Valmalenco which, according to the documentation, was supposed to have taken place that day, has been handed down by popular tradition with a few anecdotes and tales. They show the profound devotion, rooted among the people of the Valmalenco and kept alive until today, around the figure of the archpriest Rusca, who died a martyr for his faith.

First they tell the story that Rusca was taken in the middle of the night from his home in Sondrio and was made to mount on horseback: some versions say he was tied backwards or even under the animal's belly. Tradition goes on to say that the squad of armed men with the archpriest reached the outskirts of Ponchiera, where they met don Giovanni Cilichini, curate of Lanzada and Rusca's friend. The latter was trying to escape from the Valmalenco, disguised as a magnàno (tinsmith, the traditional trade of Lanzada) after he had been secretly warned that the next to be arrested after Rusca, would be him.

Although Don Cilicchini was not recognised by the heretics, he was recognised by the archpriest, who gave him a knowing look to say a final farewell without the sectarians seeing him. The Grigioni thought he really was a tradesman [a tinsmith], and asked him whether he had seen the parish priest of Lanzada. “Yes – he answered indifferently – he already held mass this morning”. They disturbed him no more and let him go*.

The armed band continued with their prisoner. On their arrival in Spriana, at the inn of Cà della Calchéra, they were stopped by the inhabitants of the village, who recognised the parish priest, untied him and gave him some wine to drink to comfort him.

The story goes that once they had got past Chiesa Valmalenco and arrived at the Giovello quarries, Rusca was again made to get off his horse to drink from a spring nearby, known as "Fontana mora". According to tradition, Rusca blessed the water and from that moment the water from that spring was drunk with devotion. Tradition also says that when the squad set out once again, the animal carrying Rusca on its back obstinately tried not to go any further.

When they reached the inn in Bosco (the old name for Chiareggio), the Grigioni stopped for the night with their prisoner. This time tradition is backed by documents preserved in the State Archive of Sondrio, which testify how the food and lodging for the band of armed men and the poor priest were charged to the archpriest himself and sent to his brother Bartolomeo, also a priest, who helped Rusca in the parish of Sondrio, for him to pay the debt to the innkeeper.

  • * Gervasio Bradanini, Memorie storiche dei Parroci e Parrocchia di Lanzada, Lanzada 1928, p.34