Alta Langa castles

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Prunetto Castle - Photo by Davide Dutto

Albaretto della Torre
You will remember the name by the stone tower that gives this village on the border between low and high Langa an unmistakable profile. One of the many lines of communication created in the twelfth century by the Del Carretto in their fiefdoms to keep Finale Castle in contact with the Monferrato hills. The towers had to transmit messages and - more often - alarms of invasions from the sea. Today another antenna attracts visits and messages from around the world: it is the kitchen of Cesare Giaccone, one of the legends of the high Langa, a real man of the Langhe, brilliant and irresistible.

Prunetto rises sheer above the Bormida valley that swallows part of the village, giving the castle an even more wild and unreachable appearance. A classic example of a thirteenth-century fortress, it has a perhaps Scottish aspect in the green fields surrounding it, separating it from the remarkable 14th century Sanctuary of the Madonna del Carmine with its important contemporary frescoes. The rest of the village coheres with its major monuments.

The village of the eponymous cheese, a DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) sheep’s milk cheese that along with Roccaverano (a DOP goat’s cheese) can be considered the cheese of the Langhe, was very rich, by virtue of its position straddling valleys that enriched it in duties and tolls for centuries. The centre has numerous palaces topped with high stone towers built by the Del Carretto (and therefore equal to all others in Langhe). Also worth seeing are the ruins of the last (or only?) Langhe windmill.
The Bormida valley was for centuries the centre of trade between the plain and the sea. Monesiglio was (along with Cortemilia) the most important village of the valley and the Castle of the Counts of Caldera reflects this dominance. Endowed with fine frescoes (16th century) in the private chapel, it preserves its original atmosphere and furnishings. Albeit reworked in residential function, the castle retains the shape and the charm of a crenellated fortress.

A small stone village with the tower that connected Cortemilia to Roccaverano, lying halfway up the infinite slope of Bric Puschera (851 m): Perletto retains an old world charm that must be discovered by walking the narrow streets of its centre or finding 15th century frescoes in the cemetery church or even bread ovens in the tower used for sustenance during long sieges. The statue of the Madonna subverts the usual silhouette of Del Carretto towers, square and severe made of the smoothest stones.

The last Langhe village in the Bormida valley already has the characteristics of nearby Liguria, with narrow "alleyways" and arches to separate the houses. The castle is one of the few examples of the Renaissance in Langa and makes us guess of the wealth of the local lords of the time. Important here are the contemporary frescoes and especially the nearby Bramantesque Parish of San Lorenzo, with an out-and-out book of symbols on its facade in which Dan Brown could find material for dozens of books.

The parish church of Santa Maria is the best example of sacred Romanesque architecture in the Langhe. Located beyond the Uzzone, in an especially quiet corner, at the foot of Monte Oliveto, all terraced with dry stone walls and culminating with the Ecomuseo dei Terrazzamenti del vino (Ecomuseum of Wine Terracing). The church boasts beautiful sculpture in high relief on its facade (the crowned Madonna) and a notable bas-relief inside (dating from before the year 1000 AD). It seems that St. Francis rested here for one night (which perhaps attests to the existence of a subsequent Franciscan monastery).

The church of San Sebastiano is more of a mystery, not coincidentally located in the village known as "that of the Masche" (somewhere between witches and goblins). During restorations frescoes of the Monregalese school were found whose existence was previously unknown, as were the reasons that led to the church being rotated and erected next to the entrance to the fortified refuge of the castle (which remain part of the secret).

The church of San Rocco, totally anonymous from the outside, has beautiful and very well preserved frescoes inside. It is likely that the (unknown) artist who worked in the valley was always the same man, or one of his students; we speak generically of the Masters of Mondovì, and for this we refer to the Monregalese cycle (“of Mondovì”), to precisely indicate a standard, a pictorial quality but also a unique style. The faces above all demonstrate the greatness of this fifteenth century Gothic school.

San Sebastiano Chapel, Bergolo - Photo by Edoardo Cicchetti

The Pieve di Cortemilia, the parish church of San Sebastiano, is undoubtedly the most interesting Romanesque monument. Placed in a high position, it still retains a few of the old cemetery tombstones and dominates the curious but fascinating Ezra Pound Memorial recently created just beyond it.

Alongside the romantic ruins of the marchesal castle (the abandonment of which Fenoglio lamented) we find the church of the Greek cross of San Martino, like the castle, dating from the sixteenth century. The Marquises Del Carretto had here one of their most important estates and were among the few proponents of Renaissance art in Piedmont. The church in fact retains an elegance and workmanship of great merit. Who knows how the complex must have looked in its original magnificence!

La Madonna dell’Acqua Dolce (Our Lady of Freshwater), whose very name speaks of sacred places from time immemorial. The Celts, then the Ligurians, the Romans and finally the Christians always considered the same sites to be sacred and special. Here the Romanesque church, today well preserved, is notable for what are perhaps the oldest frescoes in the entire valley (twelfth century) in Romanesque Byzantine style.

Santo Stefano Belbo
The Belbo valley was (re)colonized after barbarism by Benedictine monks who ascended it, founding monasteries and repopulating the abandoned hills with ora et labora (prayer and work), bells and studies, fields and mills. The abbey of San Gaudenzio was one of their most important centres, of which there remains only the Romanesque church.

The twelfth century church of San Frontiniano is one of the oldest churches in the hills. Directly dependent upon the eponymous monastery of Alba, it played an important role in bringing civilization to the woods and hills ravaged by centuries of barbarian invasions. Today in restoration, it lies just below the small village of Arguello, at the foot of the steep sternìa (the mule trail) that monks and pilgrims walked for centuries.

The Gothic masterpiece of Northern Italy is almost hidden in a small village nestled between the Tanaro and the rugged hills of Ciglié. San Fiorenzo is the pictorial testament of Canavesio, his peak of artistic expression which makes visitors’ jaws drop. The complexity of the mediaeval symbolism (and theology) of the Bible of the Poor instructed and terrorized peasant farmers and pilgrims alike, who trembled before the terrifying representations of Hell and Beelzebub but were also encouraged by seeing the walls of Jerusalem with its choirs of angels proclaiming eternal salvation. The martyrdom of San Fiorenzo, soldier of the Theban Legion, the life of Saint Anthony the Abbot and scenes from the Gospels complete an extraordinary cycle that alone is worth the trip to the Langhe.

Text by ©Pietro Giovannini

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