Art and history lovers - especially if with a passion for food and outstanding wine - will be amazed by the Vezzolano Abbey from the 12th century.
Piedmont and Turin might not have much from the Renaissance, but they sure have many well preserved Medieval and Baroque examples of art and architecture.
The Vezzolano Abbey is definitely one of the best examples of Romanesque and Gothic buildings and it stands in a peaceful area, in the northern portion of the Monferrato wine district, less than about one hour driving from Turin.
It is located among the vineyards of small family owned wineries that produce local wines like Freisa, Malvasia, Barbera and Albugnano, a wine that takes the name from the municipality of the abbey.
The legend has it that in 773, the emperor Charlemagne was hunting in the area where the Abbey is today and got scared by 3 skeletons that appeared to him. This scene is included in one of the frescoes inside the cloister. An hermit came to his aid and suggested he prayed the Virgin Mary, this is how he got the idea of building an abbey dedicated to the Virgin.
Apparently though, according to the historical data, there was already building and most likely the emperor enlarged it. Unfortunately, in the 10th century, the Saracens destroyed it and in the 11th century it got rebuilt and it finally became property of the church in 1095 and up to the early 1800s, the abbey was inhabited by monks.
The abbey is made of 3 parts: the church with a short bell tower, the cloister and a capitular hall. Its architecture displays both Romanesque and Gothic characteristics; sandstone and bricks define the architectural patterns common to other buildings in Tuscany and Liguria where building facades display lines and two colors.
It was completed in 1189 and it got restored and renovated during the Gothic period; in fact, initially, the main facade had three portals and now only two are visible in their Romanesque style. Columns and a large double window (bifora) together with the horizontal patterns remind us of the architecture in Lucca and Pisa.
The facade shows three levels of columns and a large double window in the center; vegetable and geometric patterns decorate the capitals, and above the door, the Virgin Mary is represented sitting on her throne with two angels at her side.
In the double window we can see the statues of Christ in the middle and of the archangels Michael and Raphael at his sides, holding a lance and a sword. Above them there is a pronaos with three colored medallions in ceramic showing an oriental style and two angels holding a candle.
Above them, there are two seraphs holding a wheel topped with the Christ bust in a niche.
The bell tower is in Romanesque style and it was remade in the upper part. it's located at the left of the abbey whose interior has Romanesque and Gothic shapes and has been reduced to two naves as the right portion got incorporated by the cloister. This explains why there are only two apses.
The cloister columns and capitals show different styles and an amazing cycle of frescoes that includes the Charlemagne legend. These frescoes represent one of the best examples of 14th century painting in Piedmont.
The vaults have ogival arches built on cylindrical pillars alternated to small columns, while the nave is divided by a wall. Right beside the cloister entrance, you can get into the capitular hall: its door has a double window on each side and it leads to a photo exhibit about the other medieval buildings in the area.
The most interesting and curious aspect of this abbey though lays within its geometry. In fact, back in the Middle Ages, people believed that as God was the architect of the world, so religious architecture should reflect the divine order. Schemes and bilingual explanations displayed in the abbey shows you how the structural proportions reflected precise calculations.
There is also a very precise astrological calculation behind the construction itself to reflect the belief that the Sun like God was at the center of the universe and on a specific night when the Moon is at its peek, in a 18 years cycle, its rays hit a specific part.
This is indeed a very fascinating and mystical site visited mainly by just a handful of Italian tourists. The church is still active and if you are lucky enough you can visit it on a sunny day when a wedding is celebrated.
More then an architectural site, the Vezzolano Abbey is a stargate to the Middle Ages, birds's songs are still the soundtrack and the green of the landscape seems to erase any trace of contemporary civilization.
Are you ready to leave your worries behind for a whole day and cuddle your soul in the intimacy of stone carvings and frescoes?