Romanesque in and around Montechiaro d'Asti
Montechiaro d’Asti is a villa-nova founded by Asti on 13th March 1200. It lies at the top, between Val Rilate and Valle Versa, so it can have control over both, and is surrounded by a crown of castellated villages which are the essence of the Monferrato landscape.
We enter through the city gate with its imposing 13th-century municipal tower; the Town Hall is inside a fortified house, the Church of San Bartolomeo dates back to 1400, while the Parish Church of Santa Caterina is in the Baroque style. There are also three small gems: the Confraternity of Sant'Anna, that of SS Annunziata and the Chapel of Sant'Antonio Abate, all in the Baroque style.
The impressive Church of Sant'Antonio da Padova stands out in a panoramic position. Outside the old town we find the two oldest churches: Santa Maria Assunta in Piesenzana, to the north, one of the earliest in the area (perhaps dating back to before 1000), which still preserves part of the small rural cemetery; the parish Church of San Nazario e Celso, to the north-east, surrounded by pastures and overlooking the Valle Versa from the Mairano hill, is one of Asti's Romanesque masterpieces. It is tiny but is flanked by a tall bell tower with elegant double lancet windows (similar to the one in Piani a Neive, it. Langa of Barbaresco); the delightful chromatic effect is created by alternating sandstone and terracotta blocks. The details and decorations on the façade are valuable, while the interior is mostly bare.The nearby village of Villa San Secondo still follows the pattern of the old town, where the baroque parish Church has replaced the castle: the square below, with the Town Hall and the neo-Gothic Madonna delle Grazie, is harmonious. In Corsione, a small rural village, it is worth paying a visit to the small Chapel of S. Maria dell'Aniceto, of Romanesque origin, a panoramic viewpoint through the vineyards. Cossombrato preserves the imposing Pelletta Castle (privately owned) of medieval origin with 18th-century parts. The countryside here is truly unspoilt and it is wonderful to drive along the minor roads to enjoy the relaxing view.
Once past the Val Rilate we reach Chiusano where we find again elements of Romanesque architecture in the small rural Church of Santa Maria, surrounded by vineyards. Next, we head towards Settime with its ancient Roero Castle (privately owned) in the classic horseshoe shape. The castle was refined in the 18th century by adding an Italian-style hanging garden and a covered staircase. We also find fragments of apsidal frescoes (dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries) both in the small Sant'Antonio Abate and in the cemetery Church of San Nicolao, a fine example of Romanesque architecture mainly visible in the apsidal stone decorations.
Still on the ridge, we reach Cinaglio, the "village of canestrelli" (traditional wafers baked in a clamp mould); the Church of San Felice is a pleasant surprise: in addition to the Romanesque architecture, this 12th-century chapel has preserved remarkable 15th-century frescoes with a splendid Christ in an almond-shaped frame above the twelve Apostles. Interesting fact: there is a small Zen monastery in the village.
From Cinaglio you can enter the Valle Andona Nature Reserve (it. Parks of Monferrato Area), with the unusual equipped area of Gorghi (where natural pools are used to macerate hemp), or you can continue towards Camerano Casasco: here nature is wilder and more pristine amidst rocks of yellow sand and scented acacia woods.
The name is a combination of the hamlets of Camerano with the 17th-century Palazzo Balbo (Cesare Balbo lived there and hosted patriot Silvio Pellico and, later, Murisengo and Barolo). The public oven is also quite intriguing. The other hamlet is Casasco, a timeless place dominated by the imposing Castle of the Asinari family, which has a great visual impact. The elliptical Church of San Paolo is also worth seeing, as well as the ancient Church of San Bartolomeo, nestled in the woods towards Cortazzone, where there are Romanesque traces.
From Casasco we can turn towards Soglio (it. Romanesque in and around San Damiano d’Asti) or reach the Fortress of Cortanze (of the Roero family) guarding the watershed of the Rilate Valley; very scenic, "V" shaped, it is marked by two round cantilevered towers and a very imposing fortified tower. The parish Church, with its fine Baroque boiserie (wood panelling) inside, contains a precious ex-voto dating back to 1643 to celebrate the end of the plague described by Manzoni. In the nearby rich Confraternity of SS Annunziata, the austere brick façade conceals an unexpected 14th-century origin, with Gothic vaults and fragments of frescoes in the apse segments.
After a few bends, the road winds its way through wheat fields and pastures towards Piea, a small village dominated by an enormous 18th-century Castle where antiques auctions are regularly scheduled. The park is beautiful, with a delightful geometric garden; the pumpkins, the gastronomic glory of Piea, are delicious.
The route then continues towards the "land of mint", Piovà Massaia, whose name honours Cardinal Guglielmo Massaja, who was legendary missionary in Ethiopia but also an engineer, doctor and diplomat. The work of Benedetto Alfieri, one of the creators of Piedmontese Baroque (along with Guarini and Juvarra), can be seen in the impressive parish Church of SS Giorgio and Pietro, in the shape of a Greek cross, with a splendid bell tower and interiors full of style and grace. The walls of the important Church of San Martino di Castelvero (very rare, with a double apse) are preserved at the entrance to the village.
Passing through Carboneri, we head towards the Valle Versa, one of the most unspoiled places in the province. The gem of the route awaits us: Montiglio Monferrato, perched on a hill. The Castle, of considerable size, epitomizes many military events. Of thirteenth-century origins, it was almost entirely rebuilt in the fifteenth century and converted into a mansion in the eighteenth century. Inside we find sumptuous halls, scary dungeons and the Chapel of Sant'Andrea with some of the most interesting paintings (the cycle on the life of Christ) of the 14th century in Monferrato. High overhanging scarps, staircases, terraces and a delightful maze planted with boxwood and laurel all contribute to the complex.
Around the village there are 57 sundials, each with a Latin motto. It is an open-air museum meant to celebrate the talent of gnomonist Mario Tebenghi, a true artist of "time".
But the masterpiece is to be found in the village cemetery, where the Pieve di San Lorenzo has stood since the 12th century. It is bare and, at the end of the 19th century, instead of the three naves, a series of chapels were recreated to support the daring barrel-vaulted roof, replacing the original trusses. Like in Cortazzone (it. Romanesque in a around San Damiano d’Asti), the capitals describe, in ancient proto-Christian symbols, the celebration of Nature and the authentic medieval “thirst for God” in all its manifestations.
As we continue along the ridge, we get to the tiny village of Cunico. Only the dungeons of the Castle are left today, but it is worth seeing the cemetery of S. Maria Assunta and the isolated Church of San Martino (the only vestige of the now lost village of Ponengo), which both feature Romanesque traces on structures of a later date. Over the last few decades, Montiglio Monferrato has incorporated: Colcavagno (with a Castle and the Romanesque Church of SS Vittore and Corona), Scandeluzza (the village of the sculptor Alessandro Lupano, where the Romanesque Church of SS Sebastiano and Fabiano houses beautiful 15th-century frescoes in its apse) and Rinco (featuring two castles, a tower dating back to the year 1000 and a dreamlike intimate village).
The loop takes us back along the provincial road to the hamlet of Reale, from where we climb up towards Montechiaro d'Asti: the bell tower of San Nazario already appears through the folds of the hills and we can already perceive a "homely" atmosphere.
Texts by Pietro Giovannini
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