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.

Acqui Terme, the Roman spa town in Piemonte

1 November 2018

This is the Piazza San Francesco on the northern edge of the pedestrian centro storico of Acqui Terme, a town of about 20,000 some 30km southeast of Asti and the same southwest of Alessandria, in the province of Alessandria, Piemonte region.

The Chiesa di San Francesco just next door, first built in 1244, rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries, and rebuilt again in the mid-19th century in this neoclassical style.

The city began as a Neolithic settlement, along what's now called the river Bormida di Spigno, and was then a centre of the Ligurian Statielli tribe in the Bronze Age, evolving by cooperation into a trusted Roman ally -- it was helped along when the Roman road the Via Julia Augusta, from Piacenza to Arles, was begun in 13 BC and consolidated other Roman roads in the area. The local hot springs were already valued by the Romans -- mentioned by Pliny the Younger as amongst the best in the Empire -- and the town evolved through the regular stages of Roman recognition from Roman law to citizenship to municipium status.

The Corso Italia, the main north-south road through the old city centre. We're turning left by the Civic Tower and city clocktower up ahead.

One block over, in the Piazza della Bollente, this is La Bollente, Acqui Terme's best-known attraction, a small octagonal aedicule or shrine-style housing for a thermal spring built in 1879 by Giovanni Ceruti.

The central Piazza della Bollente. The buildings overlooking the square on the far side were the site of the Jewish ghetto from 1731 to 1848. As the area was opened and the via Saracco there in the centre created in 1888, the tenements were knocked down and the neighborhood restructured. The ghetto had apparently been the victim of pogroms in 1799 and again in 1848.

The Bollente spurts out 560 litres of 'sulfur-salty-bromine-iodic water' per minute at nearly 75ºC.

An exploratory walk around the town's pedestrian centre -- Corso Italia and Via Giosuè Carducci

Acqui developed a Christian community and had a bishop perhaps as early as the 4th century, and with its thermal waters and its bishopric it was able to get successfully through the tumults of the last years of the Roman Empire. Under the Lombards, it formed a significant border post facing the Byzantine holdouts of the Ligurian coastal regions.

The timing isn't perfect, but we'll look in on the Duomo and see if it's up and running at the moment. That arch is signposted as the Porta Schiavia or Slaves' Gate, originally from the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the late 10th century, as the Saxon Ottonians were intervening in the chaotic battles for the kingship of Italy in the northern territories, the local bishops continued to wield the political power in many cities, and the Emperor Otto II conferred an imperial commission on the then bishop in 978. Bishop Primo began the construction of a suitable cathedral in the last years of the century, when the first city wall was built as well, and the Duomo was consecrated by Bishop Guido (later Saint Guido, or Wido, of Acqui, patron saint of the city) in 1067.

The Piazza Duomo

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is an originally Romanesque building on the Latin cross plan, originally with a nave and two aisles (aka 'three naves'), with two more aisles added in the 18th century.

The Gothic belltower was added in 1479, the cloister in 1495, the rose window in the early 16th century, and the portico out front in 1614. And today it's closed for a long lunch. Much of the interior has been made over in a Baroque style, but original Romanesque remains are found in the apses, crypt, and cloisters.

So we, too, will have a long lunch.

And after lunch, we're on our way up to the Castello dei Paleologi at the top of the town -- it's meant to be opening up right about now.

The main entrance, however, is still locked up. We'll try round the back. No luck there either.

That's the Teatro Verdi built into the hillside just below the castle.

[My fans have let me down; none showed up. And just as I was launching into my first aria, some guy hurried over and insisted that I go away.]

For sale. Like other northern cities, Acqui had evolved into a comune form of government in the early 12th century, first documented from 1135, reducing the political powers of the bishops. In 1168, however, Genoa and the cities of the Lombard League, banding together to resist the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, founded the city and fortress of Alessandria 30km to the north (with the blessing of Pope Alexander III, who named it), and a lengthy period of rivalry for territory limited Acqui's development severely.

At last, threatened by Alessandria and riven by feuds among local families, in 1278 the city fathers gave themselves over to the suzerainty of William VII Aleramici, Marquis of Monferrato, head of an ambitious local dynasty that was a major player in the Piedmont region for a long time.

The three big and two little apses at the back of the Duomo -- we'll try the front door again.

Marquis William's daughter Violante had married the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II Paleologus, of the family that had successfully thrown the Frankish 'Crusaders' out of Byzantium in 1261 after their decades-long reign there, and when William's son John died without legitimate heirs in 1305, Violante's son Theodore succeeded to her brother's title of Monferrato. And thus the name of the castello here, which though it dated from the 11th century, was rebuilt by the Paleologi during their reign here.

The Paleologi family ruled the marquisate until in 1533 the last of its rulers died with only his niece Margaret as legitimate heir, and in 1536 the Emperor Charles V entrusted the marquisate to her husband Frederick II Gonzaga, newly Duke of Mantua. The Gonzagas remained Marquises and then Dukes of Monferrato until 1627 and the cadet branch of Gonzaga-Nevers until 1708, when the then Duke was declared a traitor to the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor Joseph I invested Monferrato in the Duchy of Savoy (soon to become the Kingdom of Sardinia), where it remained.

Locked up tight. However, in the Palazzo Vescovile or Bishops' Palace, directly across the square, there is a free exhibition going on about Italy during World War I, so why not?

The World War I artifacts are few and not thrilling, but the building is pretty remarkable. Around the walls are portraits of every bishop so far, most of whom served during the many years before realistic likenesses might have been available.

Here we can admire the visages of the 10th bishop, Bishop Bodo, and the 12th, Bishop Dodo.

Back to the cathedral. Surprise, it's just opening up now.

The nave and main altar. The now quite baroque cathedral is laid out as a Latin cross with a nave and originally two side aisles, with two smaller additional side aisles added in the 18th century.

Duomo views

The raised presbytery and main altar over the crypt

Down into the 11th century crypt

The crypt is divided into aisles by 98 marble columns.

A fresco of St Anthony Abbot, with his bell and staff, from ca. 1400

The pulpit from 1847, reusing marble from the early 16th century

Those are presumably the remains of Saint Guido of Acqui, the Bishop who consecrated the Cathedral in 1067 and died in 1070, now the patron saint of the city, said to be residing here, comfortably.

The view from the choir

A baptismal font from 1764, topped by a polychrome marble canopy on four columns

After poking around in some of the rooms of the sacristy, this fellow came along and brought us in to see this colorful triptych of the Madonna of Montserrat, the central panel of which was done by the Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo in about 1485, though he was aided by another Valencian painter, Rodrigo de Osona, on the wing panels. The triptych was commissioned by a merchant from Acqui living in Valencia at the time, specifically for this cathedral.

It's a remarkable work, or would be if it were really here. Those are photographs, it turns out, because the original has been lent out for an exhibition. The merchant who commissioned the work gets to share the spotlight with the Madonna.

That was fun, and educational. We'll have another go at the Castello dei Paleologi now.

After we've waited for a while outside the gate, a young fellow comes along and lets us in.

To the inner gates

The question of the tardy opening of the gate has been answered -- the ticket office is round at the other side of the castle, at the Botanical Gardens, and he's come down a few stories and a mile of corridors to let us in the back door.

A fine corridor, suitable for horses -- and out the door at the top of the climb into . . .

. . . the Giardino Botanico (called Il Birdgarden).

The Archaeological Museum is interesting enough, dedicated chiefly to prehistoric and Roman remains found in the local region. There is a lot of this sort of didactic material aimed mainly at schools, though it's only in Italian.

A glance down at our back gate. At the end of its useful military life, given the advances in artillery, the castle was used as a prison until the 1980s.

A typical room

A closed-in loggia at the top of the main castle building

Early excavations

We didn't need to spend too much time in the museum -- there's a sense in which, when you've seen a few rooms full of amphorae, you don't need to linger to see more. We're hurrying back down the hill, past the Duomo again.

And past the Bollente.

And across the Piazza della Bollente and past the Torre Civica dell'Orologio

Back to the Corso Italia

And a quick bit of shopping that needs to be done

On the Via Garibaldi facing the Civic Tower

Fun for the whole family at the pharmacy

Via Giuseppe Garibaldi street scene

We're looking for a special kind of yarn, but with no luck.

Passing up a chance to try a Turkish pizza

Out of town at dusk and wandering senselessly around the villages in the direction of Asti (we should have gone back to the autostrada)

Another great dinner at the Osteria della Luna in Vignale Monferrato. Tomorrow we go home.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 1 January 2019.

Bobbio and
October 2018