Dwight Peck's personal website

Northwestern Italy in the autumn

A sixteen days' exploration in northern Italy, 18 October - 2 November 2018

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The frescoes in Bastia Mondovì, and topping up the Grignolino in Lu

31 October - 1 November 2018

It's been fun, but it's time to leave Mondovì, and we haven't been able to coordinate the opening times of the Chiesa di San Francesco Saverio in the Piazza piazza, so . . .

. . . this morning, before vacating the territory, we stick our little camera through the grating just inside the front door and take a few souvenirs.

Very serious people must have been involved in this project; they've gone all out.

Now we can say that at least we've tried.

Goodbye to Mondovì Piazza -- one of our favorite old city centres.

We've raced our rolly luggage down the Via Vasco, loaded up the cute little Volvo (Sven), and we're off in the rain.

Our first stop is just 8 or 10 kilometres to the north, just across the autostrada -- the tiny town of Bastia Mondovì, fewer than 700 residents, and more particularly the Chiesa di San Fiorenzo and its frescoes.

We're here and awaiting our guide -- there is an association of enthusiastic volunteers, one of whom will come out to show the place at an agreed time (even in the rain). The little chapel was constructed somewhere around 1200-1220 over the tomb of Saint Fiorenzo at a crossroads along the ancient road (the 'salt path') that linked the sea with the towns of the Piedmont plain, and which here follows the river Tanaro. It was meant to serve pilgrims and merchants traveling from church to church for shelter, and was altered and somewhat expanded over time.

The river Tanaro in the rain, apparently nudging its banks around a bend in the river near town. We're informed by Bastia's website that in the early 1200s, the lords of Carassone (now a suburb of Mondovì) built a fortified town here on the far side of the river (a 'bastitta', hence Bastia) to maintain their independence from the Bressani lords of Mondovì, but after conflicts it became absorbed into Mondovì's territories by 1300 and its castle destroyed in 1303.

The interior from the presbytery -- 326 square metres of frescoes, many still in very good condition. There are signs of earlier decorations, but the town and church came under the powerful Lombard Della Torre family in 1409, and a certain Bonifacio Della Torre became a devoted patron who made improvements to the building and commissioned the present fresco cycles.

Our guide, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic 'Friend of San Fiorenzo', paused after an hour's explications of the pictures to ask whether he should stop, and we said no. At least two artists worked on the pictures, and one of the panels has the legend: '19 June 1472, Bonifacio Turrino commissioned this artistic work' (Turrino is a variant form of Della Torre).

Through the triumphal arch separating the nave from the presbytery, on the flat back wall there is the crucifixion, and below that the martyrdom of Sebastian, Madonna and Child between St Fiorenzo and St Martin, patron saint of Bastia town, and on the right the Archangel Michael weighing the souls and St Bartholomew with the flayer's knife.

On the right side, we're shown St George killing the dragon and rescuing the princess.

In the ribbed vault of the presbytery, there are Christ blessing people and each of the four Evangelists writing the scriptures.

The presbytery area is described as a contemporary enlargement of what was originally 'the primitive San Fiorenzo's sepulchral chapel', but this is not that chapel, though evidently it is San Fiorenzo within. The standard book on the subject, A. A. Boratto, Santi e demoni: affreschi in San Fiorenzo a Bastia Mondovì (2012), refuses even to mention it. From what we gathered from our guide, the tomb was refound during some renovations and 'some Germans' intervened to build a new chapel for it 'in the German style', ending up with something entirely out of character, what Kristin calls 'a woofer'.

Anyway, that's meant to be the saint his own good self.

Another view of the back wall

Around the triumphal arch there are the figures of several saints, in this case Margaret of Antioch, martyred in AD 309. Her father, a pagan priest, was furious when she refused a marriage proposal from the Roman Governer on the grounds that she'd vowed her virginity to the Christian God. During the ensuing tortures, various miracles occurred, including one in which Satan impersonating a dragon swallowed her whole, but the cross she was carrying upset his tummy and she got out, as shown here. [Jacobus de Voragine, in the 13th century Golden Legend, says that this particular story is 'of no historical value' (Penguin edn., p. 163)]. Margaret's the patron saint of childbirth, kidney disease, peasants, nurses, and Queen's College, Cambridge, amongst other things, and was very popular especially in England.

Here, along the southwestern wall of the church, we have events from the life of San Fiorenzo. He was supposedly a member of the famous Theban Legion, Roman soldiers who'd all converted to Christianity and were being transferred from Egypt by the Emperor Maximian to suppress rebellions in Burgundy. At Agaunum in the Rhône valley near Lake Geneva (now St-Maurice), in AD 286, the legionaries and their commander St Maurice refused orders to worship the Emperor and were decimated over and over, i.e., 10% executed each time until all were dead. Some escaped, however, according to some stories, and made it over the Alps to the Piedmont, did a lot of miraculous healing of the infirm, and finally got tracked down and martyred.

Fiorenzo himself was said to have been a nobleman who gave up the military life and took up a life of preaching and healing. Arrested and tried, he was beaten and beheaded, as in these middle panels, whereafter once dead he began working miracles, including ridding the countryside of an infestation of very large snakes (Boratto considers that this came from a confusion with another Fiorenzo, a monk in Umbria who according to Pope Gregory the Great also freed the countryside of horrible snakes.)

For a massacre of a whole Roman legion, there seem to have been a lot of survivors. We've seen churches all over northern Italy dedicated to one or another of them, and Boratto lists some of the cities that boast establishments under their names: Barolo, Cuneo, Piacenza, and Torino nearby and Bergamo and Verona farther afield. One of the putative survivors was also a beloved healer-saint in Cologne, Germany.

This ambitious series shows an epic representation of the blessed and Heaven, alongside the cavalcade of sinners and their fate with the demons.

Here, above the walls of Jerusalem, are various kinds of saints and martyrs celebrating in Heaven, surrounding the Madonna -- on the upper left are the soldier martyrs, including Fiorenzo, and there are the standard female martyrs on the top right, the founders of the religious orders, the Church Doctors and the Apostles.

Below the walls are the nice people who are performing the Opere di Misercordia or Seven Acts of Mercy (feeding the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead -- Brueghel the Elder's 'Seven Acts of Mercy', 1559, is the classic depiction), and . . .

. . . they're being conducted up to Heaven after death.

And this is what awaits the not so nice people.

Below are participants in the Seven Deadly Sins, bound together by an iron chain and riding appropriate animals, being led into the mouth of hell: from left, sloth, wrath, gluttony, envy, lust (the noblewomen riding a goat and showing her knee), greed, and pride (the king riding a lion and entering hell waving his sword in vain). The punishments all have a Dantesque symbolism to them as well, but many are pretty hard to decipher now.

Here are 12 panels showing the life of St Anthony the Abbot, or the Great -- withdrawing into the Egyptian desert, a few miracles, meeting Paul the Hermit of Thebes, breaking the miraculous bread with him and mourning his death; undergoing the famous Temptations (another lady showing off her knee) and facing up to the demons, then dying (in the last panel, which carries the inscription noting Bonifacio Della Torre's commission in 1472).

The far end of the church carries some events of the early life of Jesus, most notably here the engagement of Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus (with Joseph sitting outside enjoying some soup) . . .

. . . the slaughter of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt. The Dame Coronata and the Lazarus the leper are solitary figures to fit round the door, the space for which had been opened before the frescoes were begun.

He's identified as Lazarus because medieval lepers were required to carry the clacker with them to warn people to keep their distance. He's been identified by some as St Rocco, the patron saint of plague victims who had an enormous cult in northern Italy following the Plague of 1348 and especially in the 15th century, but Rocco's always pictured showing off the bubo on his leg and with his faithful dog bringing him bread.

The northeast wall is entirely taken up with the events of Christ's crucifixion, etc. It's been badly marred in places by water damage, but we didn't follow our guide's explanation of how and when that happened. The name Napoleon even slipped in there somewhere. Bastia suffered badly from the Tanaro flood of 1994, but it was evidently not that one.

All the standard episodes of the story, 22 scenes reading left to right across the whole length of the wall, then down to the left on the next row, in this case the Crown of Thorns. In the Last Supper, second panel, the main course looks like a pan of corn bread.

Pontius Pilate washing his hands

Meeting Herod above, the Crucifixion below, a virtually unrecognizable Ascension at the end, to the right.

The wonderful guide charged no fee but would surely welcome donations for the church. We bought some copies of Boratto's colorful books of photos and explications in Italian and English.

Our guide, after an hour and a half, is ready for his ciggie outside the door.

From here we're headed north, up the autostrada to the Torino ring road, down to Alba, up to Asti, and on the back roads to Vignale Monferrato, where we're expected.

The names of the towns we're progressing through are forgotten now, by us anyway.

That's a familiar church -- as so many of them are.

The last stretch towards Vignale and the Casa nel Vento B+B.

The wonderful Casa nel Vento, House in the Wind, where we've stopped several times, and our favorite room, giving out onto that first floor terrace, is ready.

Clean, charming rooms, very moderate prices, good breakfast, and Piera and her husband are extremely friendly and helpful with information about the surroundings.

Melvin the Doge investigating

Bedding down for a nap after a two hour drive in the rain


A much-anticipated dinner at our favorite restaurant in Vignale, the Osteria della Luna -- stinco di vitello, in this case -- a charming place with cosy furnishings and dozens of artisanal beers.

Yikes. Go for it.

A stopover in Lu Monferrato

The next day, 1 November 2018, we're on a sightseeing trip south again to Acqui Terme, but stopping off to buy cases and cases of Kristin's beloved Grignolino red wine in Lu.

This is taken en route, in Camagna, the next town eastward from the Casa nel Vento on SP68.

And here's Lu -- we've managed to stop in here at the end of every trip to Italy, filling up the cute little Volvo with Grignolino at the local Cantina Sociale cooperative.

Normally, we time our arrival for noon, for lunch at the little Trinità restaurant with the schoolkids, but today we're on a mission.

The Cantina Sociale di Lu, established as a vintners' cooperative in1906, the first in the region. Our usual friendly wine advisor has the day off, but his replacement was just as helpful.

All of the local varieties are here.

Grignolino, for € 1.40 the litre -- even with the Swiss customs tax thrown in for bottles over the untaxed limit, that's a quarter of its price in Switzerland.

Cantina scenes

-- While you're here, fancy a pumpkin?

-- Bring the car around.

-- Fill it up. We'll squeeze the luggage in tomorrow. Somehow.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 28 December 2018.

Bobbio and
October 2018