A Brief Guide to Make the Most of Your Tour of Romanesque Monferrato Masterpiece
The History of the Abbey: From Legendary Origins to Modern RenewalThere is limited historical information regarding the founding of Vezzolano Abbey. Various legends have been constructed around this uncertainty, dating back to the early Middle Ages. The most famous legend attributes the foundation to Charlemagne in 773. According to this version, the then King of the Franks was hunting in the woods of Vezzolano when three skeletons emerged from a tomb, startling him. An hermit who lived there came to his aid and encouraged him to pray to the Virgin Mary. Once he recovered from the shock, he decided to build a church at the very spot of the apparition. Another legend traces the church’s founding back to the Lombards and claims it was later destroyed by Saracens. Despite the proliferation of legends, the first documented mention of the Church of Vezzolano dates back to 1095. In that year, two ecclesiastics, Theodolus and Egidius, received a church and other associated properties as a gift from local nobles. While there are no traces of that church today, it is known that the two ecclesiastics established an ecclesiastical community there. The construction of the church as it stands today began in the 12th century, primarily due to the efforts of Vidone, an ecclesiastic commemorated within the church. The church was completed in the 13th century, while the rest of the complex was built in the subsequent centuries. It’s worth noting that the abbey was inhabited by religious individuals until the early 19th century when, during the Napoleonic rule, the ecclesiastical institution was suppressed. It subsequently passed into private hands and, in the early 1900s, was donated to the state. Since 2015, the complex has been entrusted to the Polo Museale del Piemonte, which manages its accessibility (with the support of the Associazione Turismo in collina) and maintenance.
Visiting Vezzolano Abbey: Exterior
One intriguing aspect of Vezzolano Abbey is that, upon arrival, the first thing you see is the back of the church. Descending from Albugnano, you catch sight of the Romanesque bell tower and the apse of the central nave through the trees
As you continue along the boundary wall, you reach the entrance where another unusual sight awaits: two tall palm trees. It’s unclear who planted them and when, but the sensation upon seeing them is somewhat surreal.
However, your eye quickly moves past these to examine the façade. The style is Romanesque with Lombard and Pisan architectural influences. It features the characteristic alternating bands of white and red, made of sandstone and brick, and three levels of blind galleries interrupted by a bifora.
It’s here that you can start to appreciate the many sculpted figures adorning the façade. Instead of columns, you find Christ flanked by the archangels Michael and Raphael, armed with lance and sword. Gazing further upward, you’ll encounter other intriguing figures.
First, there are two angels holding candles, interspersed with three basins of Islamic origin. Above them, there are two seraphim (six-winged angels) each standing on a wheel. Lastly, you’ll see a half-bust representation of God..Even more fascinating is the portal. Among the decorations on the pillars, columns, and jambs, you can spot fantastical animals, floral motifs, and geometric designs. All of this adorns the sculpted scene in the lunette, where a Virgin enthroned is flanked by two angels while the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, whispers in her ear.
Visiting Vezzolano Abbey: Interior of the Church
If the exterior already leaves you satisfied with your choice to visit Vezzolano Abbey, the interior will make you want to return. Upon passing through the portal and your eyes adjust to the subdued lighting, you’ll be captivated by a finely decorated triforium.
Vezzolano’s triforium, crafted from sandstone, is supported by five pointed arches, each containing an opening for further exploration of the church.Vezzolano’s triforium, crafted from sandstone, is supported by five pointed arches, each containing an opening for further exploration of the church.
Before entering the central nave, it’s essential to take a moment to appreciate the two levels of decoration on the triforium.
The upper level, dedicated to the Madonna, depicts the three successive episodes that led to Mary’s assumption into heaven.
The lower level features representations of the 40 patriarchs, from Moses to Saint Joseph.
Aside from the fact that many traces of the original colors that covered the figures remain, what’s particularly noteworthy is that five of the patriarchs are painted on the columns beside. This likely resulted from the structure being longer, originally designed for another location, and later adapted.In the central nave, you’ll walk between two rows of benches until you reach the altar. Here, you’ll find a precious terracotta triptych from the 15th century, made even more enchanting by the almost hypnotic atmosphere created by the overlapping bands of the apse. Hidden to the sides of the apse window are two splendid 12th-century bas-reliefs, depicting the Archangel Gabriel and the Madonna
Visiting Vezzolano Abbey: The Cloister and Adjacent Rooms
A visit to Vezzolano Abbey inevitably continues with entry into the small cloister. Even without much experience, you’ll notice that the structure was not all built at the same time.
Even the most distracted visitor will observe that the four sides of the cloister have distinct shapes and characteristics.
From the older pointed arches supported by small columns, you move a few meters to a series of Gothic two-light windows, resulting from the restructuring of the third nave of the church.
Finally, the remaining two sides feature a series of lowered arches typical of 15th-century architecture.
In addition to being a place of peace and reflection, the cloister practically connected various areas of the abbey, including:
- Chapter House, where the canons gathered multiple times a day. Today, it hosts a photographic exhibition dedicated to the symbolic use of mathematical and geometric proportions in medieval religious constructions.
- Guesthouse, where travelers passing through Vezzolano found accommodation. Many were pilgrims traversing one of the branches of the Via Francigena, which passed by the abbey. It now houses a beautiful photographic exhibition aimed at introducing the numerous and beautiful Romanesque churches scattered throughout the province of Asti.
- Refectory, the Abbot’s Room, and the kitchen, though less historically and artistically significant, offer various ex-voto items from local residents. These may not be of the highest craftsmanship, but they deeply convey the spirit of the Monferrato region
The Cloister Frescoes
The cloister of Vezzolano Abbey is not only renowned for its exceptional architecture but also because it houses one of the most captivating medieval fresco cycles in Piedmont.
The frescoes are found in the bays resulting from the reconstruction of the church’s third nave and were painted by multiple artists between 1240 and 1354. All of them are interesting and significant, but we won’t overwhelm you with descriptions of each.
However, we want to highlight at least our favorite. It’s located in the second bay and is divided into two registers.
The upper register depicts the Adoration of the Magi, a work by the Master of Montiglio. In the lower register, you’ll find a representation that has led to much debate regarding its meaning.
Here, the “Contrast of the Three Living and the Three Dead” is portrayed, showing a monk pointing to three terrified knights and three skeletons, with a church in the background.
Many have associated this scene with the legend of Charlemagne we mentioned earlier. However, experts often place this representation within the medieval chivalric context, where it converges with the “ars venandi” (the art of hunting) as a symbolic religious admonition contrasting with the chivalrous lifestyle of medieval nobles.