Asti, the Duomo District
For those who love to capture even the most subtle aspects of a city, the rarefied atmosphere and hidden details, Asti's cathedral district has endless pleasant surprises in store.
This Gothic-Romanesque masterpiece, the heart of the old town, is in fact the most faithful testimony to the district's history and traditions.
Therefore, it is not difficult to picture the actual, teeming life of this city in the 14th century: from Piazza della Cattedrale we turn onto Via Cardinal Massaia where, past a turnout, we immediately spot the imposing Palazzo Mazzola, which still looks like a fortified house but with Renaissance windows, staircases and loggias and, inside, some remarkable coffered ceilings. Today it is home to the invaluable Archivio Storico (Historical Archive), with the famous Codex Astensis "Malabayla" and the fundamental Codice Catenato which contains the city's statutes). The ground floor rooms house the Museo del Palio (Palio Museum).
Next we turn onto Via del Varrone: at number 54 we find Palazzo Pelletta, also known as "Pilate's House", perhaps because it was the site of a processional station during the popular re-enactment of the Passion; three polychrome Gothic windows are still on display on the top floor. The Pelletta family, bankers in Valle d'Aosta, Savoy and Cologne as early as the 12th century, were one of the town's richest families, as is evident in the side portal of the cathedral, dating back to the first decades of the 14th century, which was donated by them. At number 30, Via del Varrone, you can also see the remains of a Roman domus, with its splendid mosaic floor, a legacy of Hasta Pompeia. The name of the street is also reminiscent of the Roman Varroni Castle (castrum vallonii) built to guard the western gate. A stroll through the maze of narrow streets which unexpectedly unfold behind the medieval walls is highly recommended, both along Via Testa and the romantic, circular Via Gabiani.
Via del Varrone leads to the paved Corso Alfieri, the old Contrada Maestra, once the city's decumanus and still the heart of the city centre. The western gate of the castrum was here, as can be seen by the 16-sided Torre Rossa (Red Tower), one of the most beautiful in Asti, of Roman origin (it is entirely reminiscent of Turin's Porta Palatina), later raised in a delightful Romanesque style and finally used as the bell tower of the nearby Church of Santa Caterina. The church is a fine example of Baroque with an elliptical plan, built on the former site of San Secondo (the city's martyred soldier, imprisoned here in 119 AD, as the statue inside the tower reminds us). A little further on, the remains of the city's mighty walls (14th century) are clearly visible, walls which continue beyond Porta Torino behind Viale dei Partigiani, up to the ancient castrum episcopi (or Castel Vecchio, Old castle). The ancient walls can be walked along a pleasant pedestrian path immersed in the greenery up to the Partisans' Wood, from where the walls and path descend towards Piazza Alfieri down to Via De Gasperi.
But it is time to enter the monumental Corso Alfieri. To the right, at number 422, was the Mocambo bar, a tribute to the great artist Paolo Conte, the lawyer from Asti who started out as a young provincial jazz musician and went on to have an extraordinary career in theatres all over the world. Nearby, at number 381, is Palazzo dell’Ex-orfanotrofio Michelerio, with its delightful courtyard, the bare but impressive Chiesa del Gesù and the fascinating Museo dei Fossili - Parco Paleontologico Astigiano (Fossil Museum - Astigiano Palaeontological Park), which tells the story of the prehistoric sea and its fossils, hidden beneath the Monferrato hills: especially the legendary whale "Tersilla".
Beyond Piazza F.lli Cairoli, known by the people of Asti as the “Piazza del Cavallo” because of the monument to King Umberto I in the shade of the imposing plane tree, is the first work by the great architect from Asti, Benedetto Alfieri, one of the fathers of Piedmontese Baroque, who "renovated" the 13th-century house of his cousin Vittorio, namely the imposing Palazzo Alfieri.
Asti's most illustrious citizen was born here in 1749, at number 375 on the street that now bears his name, and then travelled all over Europe with his travels and writings. The palace, which was later donated to the city by Count Ottolenghi, now houses, as a museum, Alfieri's private rooms and the immense bulk of the archives of the Centro Studi Alfieriani (Alfieri Studies Centre): the rediscovered mediaeval tower, with a free open plan in the latest restoration work, is quite fascinating. The labyrinthine cellars house the surprising Museo Guglielminetti (Guglielminetti Museum), with a unique collection of works, sketches and models by the great stage designer from Asti.
Once past Palazzo Alfieri, everything is back to the Middle Ages: the tall Torre Comentina (Comentina Tower) stands out on the horizon along Corso Alfieri, while the thirteenth-century octagonal Tower of the Ghibellines De Regibus appears on the right, opening onto an esplanade that has always been called "Angolo dei Tre Re" (Corner of the Three Kings); it consisted of three towers: an octagonal one that used to be nearly 40 metres high, a triangular one that is now inside the houses and a square one. This last tower was probably the one which today is called "del Quartero", set on the corner of Via Roero and Corso Alfieri, which looks clearly "cut" along the Corso side. Opposite, just beyond the Astense Library, you will find the aristocratic 19th-century Classical High School, which was built on the remains of a large convent. The huge basement of the high school is another pleasant surprise: today it houses the Museo Lapidario - Cripta di Sant'Anastasio (Lapidary Museum - Crypt of Sant'Anastasio), one of the city's most charming museums (soon to be joined by the Archaeological Museum relocated from San Pietro in Consavia), which provides access to the magnificent Lombard-era crypt (dating back to the 11th century, with capitals from earlier periods) of the long-lost church of Sant'Anastasio, one of Asti's greatest artistic treasures.
Benedetto Alfieri's baroque style appears again in the next stretch, where he "signs" two of the richest palaces in Asti: at number 357, he created the sumptuous Palazzo dei Mazzetti di Frinco,which over the centuries hosted popes, kings and Napoleon I and today is home to the Pinacoteca Civica (Civic Art Gallery); opposite is Palazzo Ottolenghi (at number 350), where, in its splendid frescoed rooms, are preserved rediscovered masterpieces of the Renaissance, which can be seen in a dedicated museum, and that also hosts the Museo del Risorgimento (Risorgimento Museum). Next, you get to Piazza Roma, between the beautiful Alganon Gardens and the monument commemorating the Unification of Italy. Here, almost everything reflects the work of the great benefactor Leonetto Ottolenghi. The very tall Torre Comentina (or San Bernardino Tower, the highest medieval tower in Piedmont, with its 38.5 metres) is an intact 13th-century masterpiece, it has not to be confused with the early 20th-century neo-Gothic building, Castello Medici, that surrounds it.
Then turn left onto Via Rossi to cross Via Carducci, at the corner of which stands the massive Palazzo Bunej, which has been the seat of the Bishopric since 1400; Opposite is the Seminary (also designed by Alfieri) and between the two, under the trees of the small square, stands a stone column which is called the “mercy column” at whose feet the tools used in capital punishment were burned. Palazzo Bunej was one of the city's most powerful fortified houses (on the façade, three of the towers that have been severed are still visible today). It is perhaps worth remembering that the bishop of Asti was very powerful for a long time, since, as well as representing religious authority over the diocese, he was also the holder of civil power, as he was appointed count by the emperor. Via Carducci takes us, after a few steps, to the only surviving building of the Solaro family: a late tower from 1350. The Solaros were the noblest and richest of Asti's families. We stroll along Via Carducci to reach the tree-lined Piazza Castigliano, where the front of Palazzo Amico di Castell'Alfero stands out (the main façade overlooks Piazza della Cattedrale). Opposite is Palazzo del Collegio, home to the Lapidary Museum - Crypt of Sant'Anastasio. On the square, beyond the remains of a crenellated curtain wall, there is also the imposing Palazzo dell'Opera Pia, after which the street is named.
We continue along Via Carducci to finally reach Palazzo Zoya (at number 65), one of the best preserved in Asti. The side facing the street has six Romanesque windows surmounted by a cornice featuring three rows of rare hanging arches; the ogives of the ground floor show the pavement of the street used to be much lower, whereas the back boasts a magnificent Renaissance loggia with stone columns. We enter Via Borgnini to come out again in front of the Cathedral and then walk across the square, from the Pelletta Portal towards the magnificent bell tower, and then pass by Palazzo Amico in the narrow Via Cattedrale, one of the quietest and most romantic streets in the city. When you reach Via Giobert, if you turn right to return to Corso Alfieri, you will see Palazzo Della Rovere to the right, a 13th-century fortress that is almost intact, and Palazzo Strata to the left, almost at the corner with Via Carducci, featuring mullioned windows with two lights and polychrome ogival arches in sandstone and brick. If, on the other hand, from Via Cattedrale you turn left, at number 15 you will find another historic fortress: Palazzo Falletti. Today, it has a simple brick façade enhanced by a Renaissance portal, but it was here that Marquis Giovanni I of Monferrato settled in 1303, in defiance of the Guelph Falletti family, after they fled the city (the Falletti family then branched out into the Langhe and Roero: Barolo, Castiglione, Serralunga, Pocapaglia and La Morra).
Next, we turn onto Via Natta to find first Palazzo Verasis-Asinari, which mixes medieval ogives with Renaissance cross-shaped sandstone windows and presents a 16th-century loggia in the courtyard, then the Palace and Tower of the Natta family, as well as the already mentioned other Palazzo Pelletta. The Natta family was one of the most ancient in the city, and legend has it that they were descendants of Numa Pompilio. This tower was commissioned by Guglielmo Natta in 1300 and it was much taller than the present one. We continue on to the Church of San Giovanni (9th-14th century), which houses the fascinating Museo Diocesano (Diocesan Museum) and preserves an ancient crypt; the church, with its cloisters and sacristy buildings, forms an integral part of the Duomo complex.
And it is right to the Cathedral that we finally return: the project was started by Guido di Valperga in 1309 and completed in 1354 by Baldracco Malabaila. It is only the last of three older buildings and the 13th-century bell tower (1266), as well as the baptismal font and holy water fonts, are proof of this. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Gottardo stands on the site of Roman temples and is still an archaeological site. The church was therefore for centuries a "factory" in which many of the city's treasures ended up (the last major work was done by Vittone on the apse in 1764): magnificent and imposing, it is one of the best examples of Piedmontese Gothic style. Apart from the façade, which has three large rose windows near the three old entrance portals (of which only the central one still exists), the south façade with its narrow, very tall windows, the Romanesque bell tower (1266) and the already mentioned Pelletta Portal in flamboyant Gothic style, which is today's entrance to the church, are also worth visiting. In the centre of the tympanum, which features a large ogival arch surrounding the statue of the Assunta, appears a small female head, the Madama Troyana who married the eldest son of the Pelletta family, who donated the portico for their wedding. Inside there are works by Gandolfino da Roreto (or d'Asti), Giancarlo Aliberti and Moncalvo; a rare gem is the beautiful “Compianto sul Cristo Morto” (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), a complex 16th-century polychrome terracotta statue of poignant expressiveness.
And so we explored the heart of the city which, in the silences of the night, still really knows how to combine history and fantasy.
Text by Pietro Giovannini
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Point of interest along the way
Via Felice Berruti
36 Via Giulio Natta