Santa Maria di Vezzolano
The small but beautiful Romanesque abbey of Santa Maria Vezzolano with its echoes of the late fourteenth century, is located in the hilly territory of the municipality of Albugnano in the province and diocese of Asti. In the past, however, it was a dioecesis nullius ecclesiastical entity, in other words it was under the immediate jurisdiction of the pope. The so-called “abbey” of Vezzolano was actually a rectory, reformed according to Augustinian rules and it forms part of the group of religious foundations included in the reform movement of the Gregorian Church, which spread in northern Italy between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.
The complex of buildings at Vezzolano is made up of the two-nave church, the cloister, the guesthouse, the chapter house and an unfinished part, which all seems to be almost perched halfway up a small hill, south-west of central Albugnano, isolated in green surrounding countryside. After several historical ups and downs, including the break-up and sale of the unfinished section and the cloister during the Napoleonic period, since 1927 the complex has been owned by the Italian State. It is managed by the Superintendence for Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Piedmont, which guarantees its opening to the public with seasonal hours.
Events at Vezzolano are recorded as early as 1095, the date of a document in which the lords of Radicata and San Sebastiano (relations of the Aleramic and Arduinici Marquis and the counts of Biandrate), named the “officials” of the Santa Maria church Vezzolano. They thereby created a canonical institution that was for seven centuries one of the major foundations of Piedmont with landholdings of just under a thousand hectares, located in four dioceses, even in elevated locations such as Luserna San Giovanni. A deed from Pope Eugenius III in 1148 confirmed all of Vezzolano’s property, which included the entire estates of Albugnano.
The foundation was run according to “beati Augustini regulam” at least from the time of the 1176 papal bill: the monks obeyed few but precise principles of community life that were articulated in obedience, moderation with regards to basic needs such as food (and wine), the observance of silence and poverty.
The building preserves the jubè, a physical division between secular and religious visitors, beautifully decorated with bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Patriarchs or the genealogy of Christ. There should be 40 figures, but in reality there are only 35 because Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Mary’s husband have been cut out. Underlying these is an inscription which is almost unreadable today: “In the year 1189 of the Incarnation of the Lord reigning Emperor Federico, this work was completed under the provost Vidone” or under the Provost Guido. This is probably the period in which the entire building was reshaped and that the building we know today was created. There is a remarkable dual polychrome sculpture of the Annunciation on the doorposts of the main apse, which can be dated to the late twelfth century, confirming the building’s reconstruction around that date.
At the centre of the nave is the flamboyant, gothic terracotta altar which can be dated to around the last quarter of the fifteenth century. it probably depicts King Charles VIII of France in an act of devotion to the Virgin Mary.
In the cloister which encloses the third aisle of the church there are some remarkable capital sculptures between the north and west arms, depicting episodes from the life of the Virgin Mary: the Visitation, the Annunciation and the Nativity, arranged above the church-cloister passage. Of great interest especially are the preserved frescoes in the west arm, along the side of the church: in the third and fifth bays the master of Radicati worked during the mid-fourteenth century on a characteristic area of the fresco, which is without shading and has accentuated contours. In the second bay which was probably the tomb of the noble Rivalba family, we can recognise the work, with its Giottesco traits, of the maestro Montiglio. These frescoes date to around 1345.
Two elegant mullioned windows overlook the sacristy and the chapter house from the cloister. To the south there is the service quarters with kitchens and other residential areas of the Augustinian canons.
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. 276-293.
BATTISTONI M., LOMBARDINI S.. a cura di, Comune di Albugnano, Schede storiche-territoriali dei comuni del Piemonte, s.d.
Santa Maria di Vezzolano. Il pontile. Ricerche e restauro, a cura di, SALERNO P., Fondazione CRASTI, 1997, pp. 5-143.
RAGUSA E., SALERNO P., Santa Maria di Vezzolano. Gli affreschi del chiostro. Il restauro, MIBAC, Fondazione CRASTI, 2003, pp. 9-52.