Romanesque in and around San Damiano d'Asti
San Damiano d'Asti, founded in 1275, is by far the most outstanding example of villanova in Asti. The grid plan of the old town, chessboard-shaped, is divided into ten blocks, most of which are still enclosed by the ramparts, and it is full of surprises with its palaces, churches and works of art (it. San Damiano d'Asti, a chessboard on the Borbore).
However, the surrounding area is even more interesting: there are numerous hamlets which alternate castles (Torrazzo and Lavezzole) with palaces and villas with historic gardens and churches of Romanesque origin (San Giulio and San Pietro).
The route continues, zigzagging through rural villages such as Antignano (with its small Romanesque Church in the cemetery), Revigliasco and Celle Enomondo (literally "Cantina del Vino Puro" - the pure wine cellar), before passing by the Asti "ventine" (hamlets) of Vaglierano, Variglie (both scenic and wooded) and Revignano. Next, you will reach the scenic village of Tigliole, home to the Osservatorio Ornitologico Astigiano (Asti Ornithological Observatory); here the small country Church of San Lorenzo (11th-12th century) is a must-see.
This Romanesque Church is part of a heritage of more than 80 religious buildings, built between the years 1000 and 1300, mainly in the open countryside or in cemeteries, and which consisted of simple gabled architecture in sandstone, stone and brick. Now we are along the Via Francigena, a series of alternative routes Canterbury and France to Rome where, in between convents, country churches would serve as guide and accommodation for pilgrims.
After passing near Baldichieri d'Asti, through chestnut and hazelnut woods, you reach Castellero, with its beautiful Castle and rare rhomboidal Tower. From here you can take a detour to Villafranca d'Asti (the parish Church of Sant'Elena del Castellamonte is quite remarkable) and Cantarana, and then continue on to the small villages of Maretto and Roatto (a beautiful private Castle). The next stop, Monale, presents two Castles (the white one with its slender Tower, "la Bastita", and the massive, dominant red one, known as "degli Scarampi", both castles are privately owned); the village is well worth a visit on foot, with its uphill narrow lanes and historic houses. The landscape is now a bit “wilder” and gives us an idea of how the Monferrato appeared to medieval wayfarers, amidst dangers and popular superstitions: in the nearby village of Cortandone there is the Festa delle Masche (Witch festival) which gathers echoes and legends about witches and forest goblins.
Further on, we find Cortazzone (a medieval village with a beautiful Castle, to be explored only on foot), with the Mongiglietto hill and the Church of San Secondo, one of the greatest Romanesque masterpieces in the Asti area: here, along the three naves and on the external façades, we can admire the so-called "talking stones" which speak of nature and life amongst animals and fertility symbols. The neighbouring small villages of Soglio and Viale feature private castles and enchanting landscapes where a thousand other Monferrato hamlets appear through the wooded ridges.
Montafia (whose mighty castle has only some ramparts left today) welcomes us with two Romanesque cemeterial gems: the Church of San Martino, with a couple of frescoes of the saint (15th-16th century) and the surprising San Giorgio in the hamlet of Bagnasco (where you will also find a city gate and the castle ruins); with three naves and three apses, the church is lit only by natural light coming from a few single-lancet windows, the exposed trusses of the gabled roof, while some frescoes of later date decorate parts of the apses and increase its charm.
Next, you pass through Capriglio, a tiny village where Margherita, Don Bosco's mother, was born, and which is famous for its "heart-shaped" pepper; both Churches of San Martino preserve some Romanesque traces.
Once we get to Buttigliera d'Asti we have reached the plains, the Asti Pianalto, which is part of the morainic plateau of Turin and used to be a proto-Adriatic beach about 5 million years ago. Another beautiful Romanesque cemeterial chapel dedicated to San Martino awaits us here, and the Church of San Michele Arcangelo, signed by Vittone, and the 52-metre bell Tower by his disciple Quarini.
One by one, we find the villages of Crivelle (homeland of the famous "blond hen of Villanova"), San Paolo Solbrito with its significant parish Church and romantic Castle village, Dusino San Michele with the Romanesque remains of the parish Church and its two Castles, and finally Valfenera with its beautiful "Cioche Mocc" (the bell tower).
Just behind this imaginary beach lies Villanova d'Asti - nomen omen - with a charming old town, the impressive parish Church of San Martino (in Lombard Romanesque style, with two paintings by Moncalvo), as well as the Romanesque San Pietro (with a fresco by Giotto's school and two other paintings by Moncalvo). The former Franciscan Monastery (later known as Palazzo De Robertis) alternates the convent porticoes with a neo-Gothic counter-façade. The civic tower overlooks the old town, just as the two curious "Bicocche" (watchtowers) watch over the town from the open countryside.
Set amidst the cultivated fields we find the ancient village of Corveglia, once a powerful provostry, later turned into a castle, then into a farm and finally restored to its former glory in the 1990s.
From Valfenera on our way back to San Damiano d'Asti we pass straight through Ferrere (it. Roero of Canale). Once again we have descended into the 'proto Adriatic', which today is just a sea of beautiful hills.
Texts by Pietro Giovannini
Along the way:
Point of interest along the way