Church of San Martino
San Martino is located about a kilometre south-west of the town of Montafia, within the confines of the village cemetery. The church appears to have followed the historical and territorial events that unite many Romanesque churches in Monferrato. The town of Varisella to which the church belonged, attested for since 1108, was moved to the fortified village “Castrum Montis Phialis”, a more elevated site than that of many medieval settlements, and the church’s surroundings (being consecrated ground) were maintained as a burial ground.
There is very little historical data regarding the church. The existence of San Martino is recorded for the first time in a diocesan registry of 1345, in which it is considered as being dependent upon the parish church of San Giorgio of Bagnasco, as well as the churches such as the Madonna of Vignole and San Marziano, also in the Montafia area. During his pastoral visit of 1585 the Bishop Peruzzi confirmed that it was, by then, just a country chapel, “built with ancient arches, with ceiling at times, covered with plaster,” but that it also had an adjoining cemetery at that time.
The original Romanesque structure is preserved in the apse, partly in its attachment to the main hall and probably also in part of the facade where the plaster fragments suggest a coloured arch that closes the entrance door. Inside we can see roof trusses and roof tiles. The apse is particularly beautiful , built with blocks of sandstone and brick-laid rows with great precision and very thin mortar joints.
There is a vivid contrast between the red brick and sandstone in the apse’s patternwork, similar to that of the apse of San Secondo di Cortazzone, with which San Martino is often compared. These comparisons help us to date the church back to the twelfth century. The crowning sculptures in the eaves are rich with decorative damier motifs and the hanging arches bear the classic motifs of medieval bestiary: a lion that tries to bite its own tail, goats hanging upside down, crouching deer …
San Martino broadly represents the Church’s system of communication with the faithful through the signs and symbols present in the sculptures and frescoes that adorn both the exterior and internal areas of the church. These are symbols forgotten by modern man due to the enormous cultural transformations that have taken place. They were symbols transmitted not only by the Church but also by the interpretation of those itinerant workers who worked on the constuction of churches and castles in Monferrato. There is an elegant crescent arch over the south-side door, which has been partly closed up.
The interior frescoes depicting the miracle of Saint Martin who gives part of his cloak to the poor reaffirm the saintly dedication of the church’s name. In the apse, as well as depictions of the saint, there are colorful geometric floral decorations (from the mid-fifteenth century) painted on preserved plaster fragments. The stone frames of the central lancet windows, the semi-columns and the damier frames also contain traces of even more ancient polychrome colouring.
In the eighties major structural work was carried out on the apse, which solved the problems of the sliding hillside on which the church sits. In 2003 the paintings in the apse were uncovered.
PITTARELLO L. (a cura di), Le chiese romaniche delle campagne astigiane. Un repertorio per la loro conoscenza, conservazione, tutela, Torino -Asti, Soprintendenza per i beni ambientali e architettonici del Piemonte – Provincia di Asti, 1984 (ed. 1998), pp. 110-114.
CAPPELLINO M., Chiesa di San Martino a Montafia, in a cura di, Osservatorio del Paesaggio, “Il paesaggio del romanico astigiano”, CRASTI, 2006, pp. 140-144.