In September 2008, on the initiative of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e Paesagistici (Board for Architectural and Pastoral Assets in Piedmont), in collaboration with the” Osservatorio del Paesaggio per il Monferrato e l’Astigiano” (Overseer of the Landscape for Monferrato and the Asti Region), the church of Santa Maria di Vezzolano was officially entered in the European routes project of the Transromanica, International Association recognised by the Council of Europe as a “Major European Cultural Route”. The objective of the Association is to emphasise the cultural and artistic unity of Romanesque Europe, with the aim of protecting the European Romanesque heritage and to spread the knowledge through an extensive awareness raising activity, in order to also promote cultural and religious tourism.
The Rectory of Santa Maria di Vezzolano
To reach Albugnano from Asti follow the SS458 towards Chivasso for about 30km until the crossroads for Albugnano, or at Gallareto turn left towards Castelnuovo Don Bosco and then from Castelnuovo towards Albugnano.
The complex rises in the greenery of a splendid valley, in one of the most evocative and unspoiled corners of Monferrato, among vineyards, meadows and woodland areas. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to whose worship the reformed churches of Sant’ Agostino were especially devoted. The first known document that makes reference to the church dates back to 1095 and is actually the investiture of the canons Teodulo and Egidio in the role of officials of the church of Vezzolano.
In the earliest years, the canonical institution had to be very active as the wealth of the donations testify but for unknown reasons it soon lost importance. The slow decline can be considered to have occurred between the two significant dates of 1405, the year in which the Rectory was made available to lay abbots resident elsewhere, and 1805, when the complex of Vezzolano was sold to private interests, due to continuing Napoleonic suppression. Since 1937 the church has been under the responsibility of the Board for Architectural and Pastoral Assets.
In Vezzolano story and legend interweave and the hypotheses of its being are many and mysterious. The 19th century historiography is without historic foundation in hypothesis but full of romantic suggestion. For some the church seems to be created as a private chapel of a past destroyed castle; others even think of it built in the 8th century. Without doubt, the most fascinating legend that contributes to the growth of a halo of mystery around this Romanesque jewel is the one attributable to the birth of the imperial will of Carlo Magno.
The legend goes that in the year 773 the emperor, hunting in the forest of Vezzolano, had been taken by an unexpected and gruesome vision: the disturbing dance of three human skeletons coming out of a burial ground. A vision that would have given rise to a considerable fear from which he managed to pull himself together, only thanks to the intervention of a passing hermit that encouraged him to ask for the help of the Virgin Mary. Recovering himself, thanks to the intercession of the Madonna, Carlo Magno would have arranged for the construction of the church in that very place. The original structure of the church appears to go back to the end of the 12th century, but there are features which appear to belong to the 13th century. The basilican plan of the church is oriented towards the east, with a nave and only one aisle and two semicircular apses: the second aisle (right hand side) is in part encompassed in the quadrangular cloister positioned on the south side of the church. The construction clearly suffered an abrupt interruption recommencing some decades later but with a reduced architectural structure.
The architectural setting out of the facade with blind lodges and the presence of the statues (Christ Redeemer, the archangels Michael and Raphael, cherubs, seraphs and plaques in decorated terracotta, symbols of hospitality) seem to indicate Burgundian influences, but the structure is clearly Lombardian.
The facade must have been dazzling with colour, with multicoloured statues and the ceramic bacini reflecting the sunlight. Terracotta and sandstone alternate and the whole is completed by three orders of blind loggias. Note the lunette bas-relief of soft stone on the splayed portal, representing the enthroned Virgin with the dove of the Holy Spirit, the archangel Gabriel and a devotee. The religious importance of the Madonna to Vezzolano is witnessed by the iconography of the Virgin that we find in the complex, works of art that embrace a period of almost two centuries and that recount the salient episodes of her entire life.
The most amazing element of the interior is the rood screen or jubè (Gallicism from the plea “jube Domine benedicere spoken by the preacher for the faithful) that traverses the church at the height of the first span, and is without doubt the most important preserved work in Vezzolano: a very rare architectural structure, it is one of the few still existing in Italy, as many were eliminated following the council of Trento. Realised in painted Monferrato sandstone, it shows five arcades with pointed arches supported by small columns with foliated capitals with a double row of bas-reliefs representing, in the upper one, scenes of the Dormitio, Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin between the symbols of the Apostles and, in the lower, the sequence of the ancestors of the Virgin holding in their hands a scroll bearing their names. The inscribed dedicatory date of 1159, is controversial, in that it is too early if it refers to the stylistic characters of the sculptures and of the architecture of the actual jubè, that art historians consider to be post 1230 AD. The exceptional artistic value of the jubè, to which the preciousness and originality of the colouring contribute, with the use of expensive and rare lapis lazuli coming from the mountains of the Caucasus (cloak of the Virgin and of Christ), indicates this work to be a rare medieval example of sculpture with unbroken polychrome. A jewel to treasure. The inside of the church is also enriched by sculptural decoration on the single openings in the apse (the Crowned Virgin), on the capitals, and a 15th century altar in polychrome terracotta. The altar is overhung by a 15th century triptych realised in polychrome terracotta. It represents the Virgin with the child; to the right Sant' Agostino, on the left a bearded figure accompanies a kneeling devotee in royal clothing (still the legend loves to recognise in this way the figure of Carlo Magno, while deeper studies have identified Charles VIII, king of France).
From the church, through a small door, one enters the cloister, a small area of absolute silence preserved over the centuries, symbol of the ancient peace of the Christian monasteries. In the cloister the four sides go back to different periods (12th – 13th – 16th century), the most ancient is that to west with stocky two colour columns alternated with small slim columns of sandstone that support lightly pointed arches. Of great narrative value is the incomplete capital in the cloister, where the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity are represented in a unique example of its type. The north side which originates from the south aisle of the church, is articulated in five bays and preserves an important cycle of frescoes painted in a period between circa 1240-50 (third and fourth bays), and 1354. In the second bay (graveyard of the Rivalba) a work of the so called Teacher of Montiglio the fresco representing the Adoration of the Magi goes back to this date. In the same wall, in the lunette, a Mandorla (A figure of Christ seated within an almond shape) between the symbols of the Evangelists is depicted and, in the lower section is, a depiction of the Contrast of three living persons and of three dead. This portrayal also appears in such a way in a rather mutilated fresco in the chapel of the Radicati (in the last bay) it is a recurrent theme dating back to the chivalrous era of Frederick II, which served as a warning by comparing secular with a religious life. Now dated, but always on the other hand fascinating to listen to, is the interpretation of the legend of the gruesome apparition made to Carlo Magno.
Diverse buildings look out onto the cloister but the alterations made over time make it difficult to determine their original use, except for the chapter house adjacent to the Presbyterian area of the church. The large space, at one time probably destined as a guest room, today accommodates a permanent exhibition dedicated to Romanesque Asti.
In the recent restoration of the garden a juniper tree has been planted in the centre of the cloistered space, the wood of which, according to popular belief, was used for the construction of the cross of Jesus. Also the flowers planted here (French rose, German iris and the lily, genus lilium candidum) have religious symbology, and were the sole flowers cultivated in the cloisters used to adorn the altar.