A walk in Asti

Corso Vittorio Alfieri with the Torre Rossa and the church of Santa Caterina.

The charming town of Asti in Piemonte has Roman origins. Asti was founded in the second century in Ligurian territory as Hasta. Hasta is the Latin word for a lance, but in this case the name presumably derives from a Celtic or Ligurian word for “hill”. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century Asti went into decline, but under Longobard and then Frankish rule the town flourished again. In 992 the future Holy Roman emperor Otto III granted the merchants of Asti the right to trade freely throughout the Empire. The town made the most of its favourable position at a crossroads of trade routes and its families founded many banks that lent money to princes everywhere in Europe.

After having been ruled by dukes, counts and bishops, Asti became a free comune in 1095. Unfortunately this freedom could not prevent Asti from getting caught up in the pointless and seemingly endless conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. During this conflict the town placed itself under the protection of King Robert of Anjou of Naples in 1312, only to be subjugated by the Visconti of Milan in 1342. Once again a county was founded (1342-1531), and during its first decades this was ruled by either the Visconti of Milan or the Paleologi of Monferrato. A very important event was the marriage in 1389 between Valentina Visconti (1371-1408) and Louis I of Orleans (1372-1407). Asti served as Valentina’s dowry, and so the town came under the dominion of the House of Orleans for a long time. In 1531 the emperor Charles V granted Asti to his cousin Beatrice of Portugal, who was married to the Duke of Savoy, Charles III. It was now the House of Savoy that was calling the shots in Asti. In 1720 the Dukes of Savoy managed to become Kings of Sardinia as well, and as of 1861 they ruled as Kings of Italy.

Our visit to Asti started at the local tourist office, which is housed in a building adjoining the triangular Piazza Vittorio Alfieri. The piazza is named after a playwright and poet (1749-1803) who was born in Asti. Each year in September a popular horse race takes place in the square, the Palio di Asti, which is older than the much more famous Palio of Siena. From the tourist office we walked to the collegiate church of San Secondo, which is closely associated with the horse race. The church is dedicated to the patron saint of Asti, Saint Secundus, who was said to have been martyred in the year 119. You can read more about this church from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in a separate post.

Piazza San Secondo.

San Martino.

The lady we spoke to at the tourist office told us that, apart from the San Secondo and the cathedral of Asti, at least one extra church should be open to the public: the Baroque church of San Martino. We therefore decided to pass by this church on our way to the cathedral. The San Martino is of course dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, whose statue graces the façade. The history of the building goes back to the ninth century, but the present church was built between 1696 and 1738. The San Martino has a rather conspicuous yellow façade, which looks like it could do with a lick of paint. On the left side we can still see the medieval bell-tower from the fourteenth century. The church must be counted among the most important religious buildings in Asti. The legend of a plan of the town in the Palazzo Mazzetti (see below) mentions the cathedral first, then the San Secondo and San Martino, and only then a long list of other churches. I personally thought the interior of the church was less interesting. Part of it was moreover obstructed from view by scaffolds in the choir.

The large cathedral of Asti or Duomo certainly deserves a separate post. The Duomo is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and San Gottardo. The building largely dates from the fourteenth century, but in the eighteenth century the interior of the cathedral was thoroughly remodelled. The result is a combination of Gothic architecture and Baroque frescoes. De gustibus non est disputandum. I personally thought the floor mosaics from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, laid for a predecessor of the current cathedral, were a lot more interesting. The cathedral moreover has a sculpture group from 1500-1502 representing the Lamentation of the Dead Christ. As regards the external features of the building, the highlight is definitely a splendid portal from the fourteenth century with statues from the fifteenth.

The cathedral of Asti, seen from the Torre Troyana.

Duck breast at Tacabanda.

After visiting the three aforementioned religious buildings it was time for lunch. We decided to follow the advice we found in our travel guide and went to a restaurant called Tacabanda in the Via Teatro Alfieri. The restaurant employs people with occupational disabilities, an initiative we thought was sympathetic and wanted to support. The food at Tacabanda was excellent, and the duck breast we had as a starter was just perfect. We really enjoyed our time in the charming yet quiet alley next to the restaurant and revelled in one big boundless holiday feeling. When we went inside to pay the bill, we noticed a picture of the proud staff posing with Pope Franciscus.

It was now time for art and culture in Asti again, and that took us to the picture gallery of the town, which is housed in the Palazzo Mazzetti. The history of the palazzo goes back to the Middle Ages, but in its current form it largely dates from the eighteenth century. In de middle of that century it was remodelled by that other Alfieri who left his mark on Asti, Benedetto (1699-1767), who was Vittorio’s uncle. The gallery possesses many works from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including works of local painters such as Carlo Nogaro (1837-1931) and Michelangelo Pittatore (1825-1903). Painters not born in Asti are well represented too, see for instance the paintings of Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), a Venetian, and Renato Guttuso (1912-1987) from Sicily. In a separate post you can read more about the pinacoteca.

Sull’Arno – Carlo Nogaro.

We also bought a Smarticket at the Palazzo Mazzetti, a ticket that gives access to a range of other attractions in Asti. In many cases these attractions do not have a staff and visitors use the Smarticket to open doors themselves. We first visited the crypt and museum of Sant’Anastasio. Sant’Anastasio was a Romanesque church from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, dedicated to one of the first bishops of Asti. The church was demolished at the start of the seventeenth century to make way for a new church in the style of the Baroque. When this new church was itself demolished in 1907 to make way for a school, the crypt and remains of the Romanesque church were rediscovered. In the museum we see capitals from the old church and the coats of arms of noble families from Asti. Directly behind the crypt there was a Longobard burial ground from the seventh to ninth centuries. The most beautiful object down here is the sculpted altar front that dates from the end of the thirteenth or beginning of the fourteenth century.

Altar front.

Domus Romana.

If you want to get an idea of Roman Asti, you can best visit the Roman house or Domus Romana in the Via del Varrone. The Romans invaded Liguria in the second century BCE. In 173 BCE the consul Marcus Popilius Laenas fought an extremely violent war against the tribe of the Statellati (or Statielli) and took their principal town of Carystum. Carystum is now called Acqui Terme and is located about 30 kilometres south of Asti. The founding of Hasta, the future Asti, can be placed chronologically in the aftermath of the campaign of the consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus against the Celts and Ligurians in 125-123 BCE. Flaccus was an ally of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, two important political figures who had proposed large-scale land reforms. The founding of Asti matches well with Flaccus’ position as a member of the land reform committee that had been set up under a law tabled by Tiberius. Like the two Gracchi the former consul ultimately met a violent end, the result of not everyone being happy with the reforms.

In the first century BCE the citizens of Asti were granted Roman citizenship. Their town was embellished with a forum (possibly where we now find the Sant’Anastasio), public baths and an amphitheatre with a length of 104 metres and a width of 78. The Roman house of which we can visit the remains must have belonged to an influential family. The remains themselves are not that interesting, quite unlike the beautiful floor mosaic with fish that has been preserved. Once it adorned the dining room (triclinium) of the house. The mosaic is the most tangible part of Roman Asti, together with a tower that stands some seventy metres south of the Roman house and of which the history also goes back to the Roman era. This Torre Rossa (see the first image of this post) was probably part of a gate in the walls once. The lower part of the tower is still original, the upper part was added in the eleventh century. Nowadays the Torre Rossa serves as the bell-tower of the eighteenth-century church of Santa Caterina.

Roman floor mosaic.

To conclude this post I would like to mention the Torre Troyana on the Piazza Medici. In the past Asti was a town with approximately 120 towers, but of these only about ten have been preserved. The Torre Troyana was completed in the second half of the thirteenth century. The name refers to the Troya family, a family of bankers and one of the many influential families in Asti. The original purpose of the tower was mostly that of a status symbol of the family (“my tower is higher than yours”). In the sixteenth century it was, however, converted into a clock tower, which explains the alternative name of the structure, Torre dell’Orologio. The tower has a height of 44 metres. Those who manage to conquer the 199 steps to the top get a nice view of the town. Unfortunately all the openings are covered by safety nets, which makes it difficult to take good photos.

Piazza Medici with the Torre Troyana.

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