Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Real Italy: Asti

The town was founded by the Ligurians and became a Roman colony in 89 B.C. Its name probably comes from the Roman Hasta Pompeia. Under Roman domination the town plan was redesigned so as to take its regular appearance with the streets intersecting at right angle like in a military camp. In addition, the town walls were built.

Asti’s communal institutions can be dated back to the X century. In the XII and XIII centuries a period of great prosperity and intense trade expansion started for the town. The local bankers lent money to kings and princes all over Europe and Asti became the most importan commune of the region. In the XIV century the town expanded and so new walls were needed. While the old town mantained its regular Roman shape, the newer areas were characterised by the rural roads which radiated out into the country through the town gates. In the same century Asti lost its importance and power because of the strife between the important families of the town. It was thus subjected to Amedeo V of Savoia, who gave it to the French king in 1378. The French rule lasted until the XVI century, when Asti was once again under the rule of the Savoia family. From 1799 to 1814 it was under the French rule of Napoleon. At the end of the XIX century the town further expanded and ouside the town walls.

Distance from TORINO, nearest big city: 54 km
Altitude: 123 metres above the sea level
Nearest airport: TORINO
Train connections: easily accessible from GENOVA and TORINO
Zip code: 14100
Telephone: dial +39.141 before the number you want to call

The Church of San Secondo

The Church of San Secondo stands next to the Townhall in the square having the same name. The first church consecrated to San Secondo, the patron saint of the town, can be dated back to 313 AD, and for 400 years it was the cathedral of the town. The church we see today was built between 1440 and 1462 in a local variety of Gothic style. Three portals are on the fa硤e: the two minor portals date back to the XVI century, while the central one dates to the XVIII century. They are surmounted by brick rose-windows and the central one is surmounted by a niche that contains the statue of the saint patron. Inside there are three aisles divided by 12 pillars whose sandstone capitals date back to different periods: from the Romanesque monsters to the foliage of the Renaissance period. Right above where the nave and the transept intersects is the octagonal tambour which supports the octagonal dome.

The presbytery and the choir were built in the Middle Ages but were decorated later in the Baroque manner of the XVI and the XVII centuries. You cannot miss the beautiful walnut seats of the choir, engraved in the XVII century. In the first chapel in the right aisle some parts of a fourteenth century fresco are still visible. Through the stairs on one side of the presbytery you can reach the lower level where the Crypt of the Saint is, the oldest part of which dates back to the VI and VII centuries. In this Crypt, in a niche on the left side, you can see the sarcophagus which contained the remains of the saint until 1597, when they were placed under the high altar in a silver urn.

The Townhall

The Town Hall is in Piazza San Secondo (San Secondo Square) on the left side of the homonymous church. The building you see today is the result of an intervention on a pre-existing building donated to the town by King Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia. This intervention probably started in 1726 following a drawing by Benedetto Alfieri. The white fa硤e designed by Count Alfieri, the gable, the small bell tower, the circular windows and all the other details are very elegant indeed. However, the great simplicity of the whole building will certainly impress you. The only exception is the central part. Here the balcony of the large hall where the town council meets breaks the unity of the whole. The hall was designed by Benedetto Alfieri in a following intervention between 1740 and 1741.

Palazzo Ottolenghi

Palazzo Ottolenghi is in Corso Alfieri, the most important street in Asti. It was designed by Count Benedetto Alfieri, like the Town Hall. It was built for the Counts Gabuti di Bestagno in 1754. The building stands around the two courts of a pre-existing building. In Corso Alfieri you can see the fa硤e divided into five parts by a row of pillars. Each part has three windows with the exception of the central part where a beautiful portal between two columns is surmounted by a fine balcony. The palace was later bought by Jacopo Sanson Ottolenghi, who completed and transformed the inside. The original furniture was destroyed. The present furniture, in Napoleon III style, can be dated back to around 1851. In 1932 the whole building became public property and many rooms were transformed into offices.

The Cathedral

The first stone of this church was laid on 10 June, 1309. This event is celebrated by the fresco on the interior wall of the fa硤e. The building was finished in 1354. Because of the extent of its structure, the cathedral can be considered the most important example of Gothic architecture in the whole region. The Gothic structure is completely preserved while the inside underwent many alterations during the XVII century. The building has three aisles: the nave is 82,5 metres long, while the two aisles are 66,4 metres. The width of the whole building is the same as its height. The original part of the fa硤e in the upper part dates back to the XIV century while the portals date back to the XV century. The grand wooden doors were made in the XVIII century.

On the south side, visible from the square, you can see the campanile and a beautiful portal. The campanile, as we see it today, is the result of the transformation of an ancient tower, which was part of the Roman town walls. Fallen in 1266, it was rebuilt in Lombard architecture and its height was increased. In the XVIII century the seventh floor and the octagonal spire were pulled down. The portal, made in flowery Gothic style, was made in 1470. It is noteworthy for its sculptures and the different materials employed, which are wisely arranged: statues, baldachins and capitals are made of white marble.

The XVIII century saw the lengthening of the Cathedral with the building of the polygonal choir by Bernardo Antonio Vittone. This was a daring intervention for that period, because old bricks were used in order to match the older brickwork. A wooden choir, which you can still admire today, was placed in the new pentagonal apse. Also the Baroque tribunes for the organ and the choir were made in this period. At the end of the XVII century the frescoes that we see inside the Cathedral began to be painted. In order to do this, the two side doors of the fa硤e and some windows were walled and the ogival cordons of the cross-vaults were eliminated. The inside of the building was completely frescoed the way we see it today. Also the high altar in black marble was made in the same period.

The present floor dates back to the beginning of the last century and it is made of stone slabs from Barge. For this floor the level of the Cathedral was raised of about 10 centimetres, as we can see through a grating near the last pillar on the south side of the church.

The Church and Baptistery of San Pietro

The building complex of San Pietro, which lies at the end of Corso Alfieri, the most important street of Asti, consists of the Baptistery, the Church and the pointed-style Cloister, around which are the buildings which used to house the “Ospedale dei Pellegrini” and today are the seat of the Archaeological and Paleontological Museum.

The Battistero di San Pietro, erected in the XII century, has an octagonal plan outside and a circular one inside with a diameter of 14 metres. The octagonal dome, which rises on a high tambour, is supported by eight short columns made of alternating blocks of brickwork and tufa. The capitals are cube-shaped and the bases have octagonal or square plans. A XV century font, characterized by eight small columns of an earlier age, is kept in this building. The Baptistery communicates with the old Church of San Pietro, which dates back to the middle of the XV century. It was built in Gothic style with lancet windows decorated with brickwork and friezes, which also adorn the external cornice of the eaves. This was a parish church untill 1929, when the new Church of San Pietro was consecrated.

The Towers

In the Middle Ages a great number of towers were erected in Asti. In 1682 the medieval towers were 120, but unfortunately only ten still survive. They usually had a quadrangular plan and could be up to 40 metres tall. The most interesting and best preserved towers you can see today in Asti are:

Torre Rossa

Torre Rossa (Red Tower) stands at the beginning of Corso Alfieri, near the Church of Santa Caterina. Torre Rossa, so called because of the colour of the bricks it is made of, is also called Torre di San Secondo because the Saint Patron of the town was jailed in it in 119 AD.

The lower part of the tower has 16 sides and was erected in the Augustan Age, while the upper floors were altered around the year 1000, alternating layers of brickwork and tufa. It is in some way similar to the Towers of Porta Palatina in Turin. For this reason, it is supposed that it belonged to the Roman fortifications. Probably it guarded the entrance to the town together with another similar tower.

Torre Comentina

Going down along Corso Alfieri, on the corner of Piazza Roma, you will come across Torre Comentina, which was erected in the second half of the XIII century. It belonged to the Comentina family, as its name says. It is also called Torre di S. Bernardino, because it was annexed to the Church of S. Bernardino as if it was a bell tower. The church was later completely destroyed. This tower is characterized by Gothic elements, ogival windows, tufa and brickwork decorations.

Torre Troyana

Torre Troyana stands in Piazza Medici. It was built in Gothic style in the middle of the XIII century. It is one of the most beautiful towers in Piedmont. It was annexed to the palace of the Troya family. The tower has a quadrangular plan and with its nine original floors it is 37.8 metres tall. It has mullioned windows on each side, adorned with brickwork and tufa decorations and small ogival arches in the upper part, made with alternating brickwork and tufa. The roof you see today was made in the XVI century.

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