Asti: a treasure trove of history and art
Not just food and wine
Often, when it comes to Asti and its territory, the first thing that comes to mind is the extraordinary enogastronomic heritage that characterizes them. The wines, naturally, appreciated all over the world and the result of a long tradition, kept alive and in step with the times by the commitment of the new generations, and then culinary excellences such as cooked salami, bagna caôda and white truffles, to mention only a few.
Not everyone knows, however, how much the city has to offer in artistic, historical and cultural terms, being one of the centers that, since the Roman age, has developed commercially thanks to its favorable geographical position: Asti has been for centuries a point of an obligatory passage for travelers, merchants and artists and played a decisive role in the chessboard of the political-military interests of northern and transalpine Italy during the Middle Ages.
Moreover, both the Church and the large families who lived within the city walls, having available large financial resources, have always dedicated themselves to impose their presence in the city and in the surrounding area with churches, palaces, towers and monuments, according to the style in vogue at the time, ranging from Gothic to Baroque and concealing behind sometimes disreputable facades, real treasures of art. The palaces of the Malabajla, of the Roero (with their innumerable fiefdoms), of the Alfieri, of the Zoya and of many other “casane” still today dot the city center recalling with their terracotta decorations, the brick and sandstone arches, and the paintings by artists such as Gandolfino da Roreto, the prestige of his family through art.
Even the strategic position of the city, a crossroads of important communication routes, has increased the political importance of Asti, which owes some of its most famous works to important historical events: just think of the complex of San Pietro in Consavia, born during the period of first Crusade and which was at that time just outside the walls, and the abbey of Vezzolano, about 30 km north of Asti, desired by Charlemagne victorious over the Lombards.
Hasta: a Roman colony destined for success
When the consul Marco Fulvio Flacco led a series of military campaigns to subdue the territories of present southern Piedmont, around 125 BC, his mandate was very clear: find fertile territories to be distributed to the Romans, as a practical application of policies by Tiberius and Caio Gracchus in favor of the plebs. Naturally, the territory of Asti was perfect for this purpose and so, after having traced a road that crossed these areas, via Fulvia, there was the foundation of some oppida, or fortified camps, destined to become cores for new cities.
Among these, Hasta is mentioned by Pliny the Elder as one of the most active craft centers, above all for the production of terracotta pottery, even if no archaeological evidence of this activity has yet been found. The Red Tower, one of the two towers that flanked the main entrance through the Roman walls, remains one of the city’s attractions. Made of bricks and polygonal-base, it was built in the first century after Christ and was subsequently raised, to be used as a bell tower of the church of Santa Caterina.
In addition, there are many places in Asti, where you can see the use of recycled materials from Roman buildings for new structures, following a trend that came from all of medieval Europe. Among the numerous examples we can mention the four statues of saints that adorn the side portal of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Gottardo, carved from pre-existing Roman materials, but also the bases of the two large medieval baptismal baths inside the Cathedral, consisting of two large inverted Corinthian capitals.
Commerce and the age of faith
The tumultuous decades that saw the end of the Roman Empire also invested Hasta which, however, was able to exploit its strategic position to become a center of primary importance for the agricultural and craft trades of the region. It was a renewed prosperity alongside with a profound Christian religious sense, lived as a fundamental element of all aspects of life. Even Hasta, which gradually becomes Asti, like many other places in Europe, is reborn after the collapse of the Roman dominion by the integration of these two aspects: an economic recovery linked to agriculture and commerce and the presence of the Christian faith as an element totalizing individual and public life.
Not surprisingly, among the medieval beauties of Asti there are many religious buildings, first of all the Collegiate Church of San Secondo, built starting from the tenth century in the place considered the martyrdom of the patron saint of the city. Its severe Romanesque forms still legible despite some alterations of successive eras and styles, enclose a jewel of art and beauty, in which the terracotta and sandstone decorations are in dialogue with the medieval frescoes recently brought to light.
Around the same time as the Collegiate Church of San Secondo is the San Pietro in Consavia roundabout, commissioned after 1000 by the bishop Landolfo di Vergiate, to reproduce the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem and ensure that the pilgrims, who could not afford one of the risky pilgrimages to the Holy Land following the first Crusades, they had a local destination to turn their devotion to and, of course, their cash offerings.
The Municipality and the large families
As the wealth of the city increased, especially for the development of businesses and the first financial activities, the most powerful families were freed from the power of the Emperor and also from that of the bishop, founding a Municipality, certainly before 1095, a year that dates back to a document indicating the city as the seat of an independent government.
The Cathedral, one of the most interesting examples of Gothic architecture in Piedmont, is, together with the numerous towers and strongholds that can still be admired in the city, the most magnificent expression of the power of the medieval town at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries of maximum splendor of the trades and, consequently, of maximum wealth of its inhabitants.
In this period the rich families of Asti also began to fight among themselves, dividing, as in most of Europe, between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and taking advantage of any opportunity to get spiteful and damage to each other and thus losing the opportunity to identify among them a leader able to keep Asti strong in front of the attacks of the many conquerors interested in taking control of the medieval urban center: in fact, in 1342 the citizens, tired of the continuous struggles, left the Visconti to enter the city walls, ending the free medieval town.
The palaces of this period, repeatedly reworked in the following centuries, still embellish the city center and help to maintain that unique atmosphere that makes Asti a quiet provincial town, apparently sleepy but a crossroads of many tourist itineraries.