Casale Monferrato: The Duomo

Duomo or cathedral of Sant’Evasio.

The Duomo is one of the most eye-catching buildings of Casale Monferrato. It has only been the cathedral of Casale since 1474: it was in that year that the town was granted its first bishop. The history of the Duomo goes back way further though. That also holds true for the veneration of the saint to whom the cathedral is dedicated, Saint Evasius. Reliable information about his life is regretfully scarce. The martyr Evasius may have lived in the third or fourth century, but it may just as well have been the eighth.

History

The first church on this spot was dedicated to Saint Lawrence, the Roman deacon who was roasted alive in the year 258. According to tradition this church was enlarged during the reign of the Longobardic King Liutprand (712-744) and then co-dedicated to Saint Evasius. Evasius is usually depicted as a bishop and he was supposedly the first bishop of Asti. However, as was already mentioned, it is quite unclear in which century he lived and also whether he died a martyr at the hands of the pagans while working as a missionary or as a Catholic cleric at the hands of the Arians (i.e. heretics). However this all may be, the cult of Evasius quickly became popular and the church of Sant’Evasio in Casale is first mentioned in a document dating from 974. In the eleventh century this church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style, after which the new building was consecrated in 1107 or 1108 by Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118). In 1215 Casale Sant’Evasio – as the town was called back then – was pillaged and set ablaze during a war against Milan, Vercelli, Asti and Alessandria. The relics of Saint Evasius subsequently ended up in Alessandria.

Nineteenth-century floor.

After the destructions of 1215 the church was rebuilt. In 1403 Casale Monferrato – as the town was called by now – finally had its revenge on Alessandria. In that year the condottiero Facino Cane (1360-1412) captured Alessandria and confiscated the relics that had been stolen almost two centuries previously. These were taken back to the Duomo of Casale, where they have remained ever since. As was already mentioned above, the Duomo was promoted to cathedral in 1474, but in the nineteenth century the building was in a state of disrepair. The cathedral had in fact become so dilapidated that demolishing and rebuilding it was a serious option. In the end it was fortunately decided to restore the Duomo, a project that was executed between 1857 and 1872 by the architect Edoardo Arborio Mella (1808-1884). Thanks to his interventions the building is now a peculiar mix of original Romanesque and Neo-Romanesque elements, with a few Baroque elements from the eighteenth century to add to the flavour.

Exterior and narthex

The Romanesque hut façade (facciata a capanna) of the Duomo is a combination of brick and sandstone. The façade is clearly not symmetrical. It is wider on the left side, but a little higher on the right. At the same time the right tower is evidently higher than the one on the left; a third tower can be found at the rear of the church. The façade is largely a reconstruction from the nineteenth century, and so are its various decorations. On the high columns we see statues of the aforementioned King Liutprand and of Queen Teodelinda. She was not Liutprand’s spouse, but a Bavarian princess who lived in the sixth and seventh century and was married to two Longobardic kings, Authari (584-590) and Agilulf (590-616). If Christian, the Longobards were generally Arian Christians. In their view Jesus Christ was subservient to God the Father. Teodelinda, on the other hand, adhered to the Catholic faith and was seen by Catholics as influential in pushing the Longobards towards Catholicism, i.e. towards the proper religion.

Christ with Saint Evasius and Saint Lawrence.

Hunting scene in the narthex.

The lunette above the main entrance also dates from the nineteenth century. We see Christ on his throne giving his blessing. On the left is Evasius with the chasuble, staff and mitre of a bishop. He is holding a scale model of the Duomo in his hand and is offering it to Christ. On the right is Saint Lawrence, dressed as a deacon and holding both the palm branch of a martyr and the gridiron on which he was martyred in his hands.

The Duomo has a spacious narthex or vestibule. When we visited the cathedral it was mostly used for exhibiting modern Christian art, but we were more interested in the original medieval sculptures that were still visible here. Apart from beautiful Romanesque capitals and arches we for instance see a lunette with a dog grabbing a deer by the throat. On the right a human figure is blowing a horn, so perhaps we are dealing with a hunting scene here. The spacious narthex is unusual for Italian churches, and historians are prone to point to Eastern influences (Armenia, Georgia, the Islamic world). The narthex may in fact be connected to the Crusades, in which the marquesses of Monferrato participated enthusiastically[1], or to the Order of the Knights Templar, which had a base near Casale Monferrato. If there is indeed a link with the Crusades, then the narthex was likely not added to the building until several decades after the consecration in 1107 or 1108.

Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene – Giovanni Battista Bernero.

Interior

Interior of the cathedral.

The Duomo has five naves. The interior feels quite modern, but I thought the mosaic floor with Christian symbols was very well done (see the image above). Good sculptural work can be found in the Cappella di Santa Maria Maddalena. Here stands a sculpture group from 1770 representing the Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, made by Giovanni Battista Bernero (1736-1796). The group was originally made for a nunnery, but transferred to the cathedral in 1806. The frescoes in the apse are the work of the local painter Costantino Sereno (1829-1893). They are an attempt to imitate Byzantine mosaics.

In the Duomo we also find the tomb of Bernardino Gamberia, the bishop of Cavaillon in the Vaucluse, France, who died in 1506. The tomb was made by the sculptor Matteo Sanmicheli (1480-?), a cousin of the more famous Michele Sanmicheli. Unfortunately I have not been able to establish why bishop Gamberia was buried here in Casale Monferrato, 400 kilometres from Cavaillon by foot. The Biblical text on the monument (“rursum circundabor pelle mea”) comes from Job 19:26.

Tomb of Bernardino Gambera – Matteo Sanmicheli.

The most important object in the cathedral is a crucifix in the choir from the eleventh or twelfth century. The crucifix is made of wood that is covered with layers of silver and copper. Along the edges of the cross and on the crown of the Saviour we moreover see (semi) precious stones or crystals. This Christ on the Cross is a good example of the Christus Triumphans, the Christ who has triumphed over death. Later this image of the crucified Christ was replaced by that of the Christus Patiens, which stressed the suffering of the Messiah. An interesting fact is that the crucifix is, in fact, looted art. According to tradition Facino Cane did not just take the relics of Saint Evasius from the cathedral of Alessandria during his 1403 campaign, but also this crucifix.

Crucifix, eleventh or twelfth century.

We were really keen to visit the museum of the Duomo. Here one can still admire the original floor mosaics of the building, which were made in the eleventh or twelfth century. Moreover, visitors should be able to gain access to the Chapel of Saint Evasius through the museum, a chapel that is closed off with a gate. The museum has the name Sacrestia Aperta (opened sacristy), so we did not expect any problems with visiting it. Regretfully the museum turned out to be closed in August. There was nothing the tourist information office could do for us, and an email to the museum itself remained unanswered. The floor mosaics look rather spectacular, so we will definitely try to visit the museum again during our next visit to Casale Monferrato.

Sources

Note

[1] Guglielmo (William) V participated in the Second Crusade, his son Corrado (Conrad) in the Third. Corrado’s brother Bonifacio (Bonifatius) was one of the leaders of the Fourth Crusade, which led to the capture of the Christian city of Constantinople.

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