Chiesa di San Lorenzo
The church of Saint Lorenzo is located about half a kilometre from the village of Montiglio, on a hilly headland that stretches to the east towards the valley of the Versa river and currently forms part of the village cemetery.
Originally Saint Lorenzo was the village church of Montiglio, which was a transit point on the Roman road linking Asti with the Po and Industria (Monteu da Po). The village was so important that in the twelfth century, the hill above was chosen by the local lords associated with the Marquis of Monferrato, as the site for the construction of a new castle. It was also chosen to be home to one of the 12 medieval pieve ultra Padum under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Vercelli. Saint Lorenzo is mentioned in these lists as early as the mid-tenth century. There are no descriptions of the original church and what remains today was rebuilt, according to historians, between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In the mid-fourteenth century the church was in charge of ten other churches in neighbouring villages, from which it received decime (taxes). A quarter of these decime were given to the poor, a quarter to the diocese, a quarter to the church itself and a quarter to the church’s priest. Between the twelfth century and the beginning of the fourteenth the wars with Asti took place and in 1305 an army of Asti guelphs burned down Montiglio, in order to encourage the centralization of the town around the castle for defensive purposes, and to declare the abandonment of the Saint Lorenzo site. Between the fifteenth century and sixteenth centuries the church passed from the diocese of Vercelli to that of the newly established (in 1474) Casale and Saint Lorenzo lost the title of parish church. This marked the beginning of the end for the church, in 1577 it was declared a cemetery church and the bishop ordered the construction of a new parish church, larger than the old one, at the foot of the castle.
A design for the grand, original eleventh century church from 1783, which depicts its layout shows us a church with three naves closed by semicircular apses, with specific characteristics typical of the Monferrato Romanesque. Unfortunately in 1778, due to poor conservation, the church began to undergo significant changes: the two aisles were dismantled and reconstructed in the form of chapels and the side apses were eliminated and a pseudo-transept with Romanesque stone blocks was built in their place. The facade was rebuilt twice, firstly at the beginning of the nineteenth century in a neoclassical style by the architect Bossi, then in 1955 when it was rebuilt in its present form, an interrupted salient. Probably only the main apse, the triumphal arch, the central nave with its beautiful cruciform pillars and the clerestory remain of the original building. The rest has been reassembled into its current form, with some easily identifiable naivety: the wide, often crooked joints, bricks from different eras assembled haphazardly … Nevertheless Saint Lorenzo of Montiglio recounts one of the most significant chapters in the history of the Monferrato Romanesque. The body of sculpture on the beautiful capitals of the clerestory frames and around the apse’s windows, in their variety of decorative patterns and of “symbolic conventions”, are of extremely high representative quality. The capitals, unfortunately partially incorporated into the walls of the side chapels, are carved with recurring medieval religious themes: the eagle (the unattainability of God) the double-tailed siren (a warning against the temptations of women), foliage and grape bunches (the vine as a symbol of Christian life), the Agnus Dei and the monstrous faces of pseudo demons. All of these symbols demonstrate the importance of such images in medieval communications with an illiterate, often unbaptized population.
The external decorations of Saint Lorenzo are also rich in symbolism and workmanship. On the outisde of the apse there are copeaux stones carved in the form of faces which hold up the apse’s crowing with billettes decorations and cornicing. The south side of the clerestory is embellished with twisted, arched cornicing and ashlar stone arches carved with wicker decorations, branches and foliage. The variety of decorative themes employed here to enrich the stone blocks is particularly impressive: Solomon’s knots, palmettes, cornucopias, all sorts of fruit and vegetables. Perhaps these decorations are intended to evoke that paradise that awaits the medieval devotee?
PITTARELLO L. (editor), 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. 134-139.
BATTISTONI M., LOMBARDINI S., TORRE A., editor, Comune di Montiglio, Schede storiche-territoriali dei comuni del Piemonte, s.d.
GALVAN C., Chiesa di San Lorenzo Montiglio, in editor, Osservatorio del Paesaggio, “Il paesaggio del romanico astigiano”, CRASTI, 2006, pp. 162-167.