MONTECHIARO D’ASTI
Church of San Nazario and Celso

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In the palaces and medieval towers of Asti we can often find chromatic decorative motifs, realised by alternating brick and sandstone blocks – a technique frequently used in the decoration of the Romanesque churches in the surrounding countryside. One building in which this architectural value is particularly striking is San Nazario and Celso in Montechiaro, the bell tower of which reaches truly refined levels both in the composition of its decorative motifs and in its geometric sculptures.
The church of San Nazario, which dates back to the second half of the eleventh century, was dependent from its beginning upon the Benedictine abbey of the Torre Rossa in Asti, which in turn was under the jurisdiction of the San Benigno Fruttuaria abbey, located north-west of Chivasso and considered to be one of the most powerful monasteries in Piedmont. The link with this great abbey was such that in 1203 a prior of San Nazarii de Mairana participated in the monastic activities at the Fruttuaria abbey. Originally it was, in fact, the church of the village of Mayranum, which then disappeared due to political reorganization operated in the thirteenth century by the town of Asti. An orderly new ‘chessboard-like’ series of villages were being created, and so the inhabitants of the ancient villages were gathered and relocated to the villenuove, in this case that of Montechiaro. This new fortified centre located on a high hilly ridge just south of San Nazario left the church and bell tower standing solitary on the hillside, in a position characteristic of settlements in the year 1000.
Pastoral visits of the late sixteenth century describe the church as being in poor condition, and throughout the centuries it continued to deteriorate so much that in 1845 the Bishop Artico ordered for the celebratory Mass of the patron saint to take place outdoors, because of the danger of the church’s collapse. During the years 1847-1849 substantial restoration works were carried out and most of the building: the apse and the north and south sides were taken apart and reassembled, reducing somewhat the building’s size.
The facade and the bell tower retain their original layouts albeit with some changes: the main door, decorated with successions of cornucopias, denti di sega decorations and twisted branches, has been reduced in height, having been broken. Some windows in the beautiful bell tower have been closed up with brick, also because of the danger of the building’s ruin. It’s important to point out the complex wall structure in which the alternation of sandstone blocks and pearly red bricks creates playful, checkered embroideries that demonstrate huge skill. The master stonemasons who worked on San Nazario were, however, skilled mainly in just two colors, and the ‘real’ sculptural interventions in the building are few and far between. The bell-shaped capitals of the mullioned windows and the rings of the single windows offer some examples. However, inside the church there is no shortage of wonderful wickerwork sculpture and palmettes with or without spirals, probably of transalpine derivation.
The interior, a single nave, can be entirely dated to the nineteenth-century and has a stone altar with faux marble decorations.
In 1982 and 2000 major restorations were carried out, particularly on the foundations of the bell tower, the outer walls and the interior.

Bibliography

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. 1119-125.
GALVAN C., Chiesa dei S.S. Nazario e Celso Montechiaro d’Asti, in a cura di, Osservatorio del Paesaggio, “Il paesaggio del romanico astigiano”, CRASTI, 2006, pp. 150-157.