Church of San Secondo
About one kilometre west of the town of Cortazzone, surrounded by a ring of trees on the hill of Mongiglietto is San Secondo, one of the most representative Romanesque churches of the Monferrato school. The building was canonically oriented along the East-West axis, so that the faithful were facing east, and it has three naves closed by semicircular apses. The church was built using sandstone blocks with the rare, sporadic use of bricks for decorative purposes. Two thirds of the façade has been maintained and the central area was completed using brick.
Comparison with other churches and the cosmological images sculpted into the columns inside San Secondo tell us that the church dates back to the twelfth century. At this time the fief of Cortazzone was temporarily dependent upon the Diocese of Pavia. We can therefore assume that the church once belonged to Pavia, as did the church of Tigliole and the parish of Ponte, a town which has now disappeared but was close to the present day Costigliole.
The historical data surrounding the church is scarce but significant: it was the first parish church of Cortazzone and in 1300 is recorded as being under the patronage of feudal lords of the area. These lords were the Montiglio and the Pelletta, powerful bankers from Asti. In 1345 it was under the jurisdiction of San Secondo di Montechiaro church, in turn under the power of the Chapter of the Cathedral of Asti.
A legal document of 1390, written in the church itself, cites the presence of the paintings of San Secondo and San Bruno (or perhaps St. Jerome, given the presence of a lion and the cardinal’s robe) which are still present in the church’s apse today . The pastoral visits recorded during the late sixteenth century tell us that mass was celebrated there sporadically and that in 1660 the parish function was moved, under the protection of the castle, to the then church of San Siro, which later changed its name to San Secondo. Around the turn of the eighteenth century, along with the restoration of the facade, vaults were built which changed the church’s internal spaces.
In 1893 considerable restoration work was carried out throughout the building by D’Andrade: internal plastering was destroyed, the northern part of the apse was rebuilt and foundations were inserted under large stretches of the perimeter walls. At this time, the foundations of a building, perhaps the belltower, were discovered to the north of the church.
The signs and symbols that can be found on the wealth of sculptures at San Secondo are egregious. Some of the external decorations are zoomorphic (eagles, birds, lambs) and others phytomorphic such as palmettos or corollas of flowers. In the central area of the clerestory there is an unusual representation of an embrace. The apses are beautifully underlined, just under the projecting base, by a two-tone denti di lupo coplanar.
Inside the church the pillars and columns support the enormous capitals where the stonecutters of Monferrato seem to have used all possible symbolic tropes: tempting sirens, peacocks, dragons. They drew upon cultural models, perhaps from Pavia, or perhaps from across the Alps, to find images that were to transmit the word of God to the faithful medieval people. In the third capital on the left, we can identify an astronomical event: the solar eclipse in 1153, during which the constellations of Pegasus, the Dragon and Cetus could be seen in the sky. In fact, in addition to winged horses and a dragon, a fish is also depicted. The complexity of the composition would suggest the presence of an astronomer in the group of sculptors. What is certain is that the singularity of the decorative themes, which have survived unharmed for almost nine centuries, makes the church on Mongiglietto a fascinating enigma.
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