What to see in Asti: history and art
Not just Asti Spumante
What to see in Asti is a common question because the first thing that comes to mind is the extraordinary enogastronomic heritage and many ignore the treasure trove of history and art.
The famous Asti Spumante wine is an important asset for the economy of the Piedmont region but many visitors are disappointed in finding out that in central Asti there are no wineries. Asti Spumante wine is produced mainly in the town of Canelli, 30 km south Asti.
Therefore, wineries are not an option when planning a day in the city centre of Asti.
Asti is worth visiting for the art
Not everyone knows how much the city has to offer in artistic, historical and cultural terms. Since the Roman age, this settlement developed commercially thanks to its favorable geographical position.
Therefore, Asti has been for centuries a point of an obligatory passage. Travelers, merchants and artists went by and Asti 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, have always dedicated themselves to impose their presence in the city and in the surrounding area. Churches, palaces, towers and monuments were built according to the style in vogue at the time, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. Real treasures of art are often concealed behind sometimes disreputable facades.
What’s Asti like
The tour of Asti is a walk through the city center and it lasts about two to three hours with a tour guide. However, an entire day could not be enough to visit all museums available in town.
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. Their terracotta decorations, the brick and sandstone arches, as well as the paintings by artists such as Gandolfino da Roreto, recalled the prestige of these families through art.
The strategic position of the city, a crossroads of important communication routes, has increased the political importance of Asti. The city 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, which was at that time just outside the walls.
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.
He wanted to 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, he traced a road that crossed these areas, via Fulvia. Then, 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.
What to see in Asti: the Torre Rossa
The Red Tower – Torre Rossa in Italian, 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 recalls the style of the Palatine gate of Turin and it was built in the first century after Christ. It was subsequently raised, to be used as a bell tower of the church of Santa Caterina.
The name, however, doesn’t come from the color of the clay but from a local family who lived nearby.
Roman remains in Asti
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.
In addition, there are the bases of the two large medieval baptismal baths inside the Cathedral, consisting of two large inverted Corinthian capitals.
What to see from the Crusade era
The tumultuous decades that saw the end of the Roman Empire also invested Hasta. However, the city 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.
The key was the integration of these two aspects: an economic recovery linked to agriculture and commerce and the presence of the Christian faith as an element affecting individual and public life.
What to see in Asti: San Secondo church
Not surprisingly, among the medieval beauties of Asti there are many religious buildings, first of all the Collegiate Church of San Secondo.
Included in all tour of Asti, because of its central location, the church was 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. The terracotta and sandstone decorations are in dialogue with the medieval frescoes recently brought to light.
San Pietro in Consavia
San Pietro in Consavia is the result of several buildings, commissioned after 1000 by the bishop Landolfo di Vergiate, to reproduce the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. The aim was to 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. It was then founded 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 of Asti
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 Asti reached the maximum splendor of the trades and, consequently, the maximum wealth of its inhabitants who invested in their Cathedral.
In this period the rich families of Asti also began to fight among themselves, dividing, as in most of Europe, between Guelphs and Ghibellines. They took 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.
In fact, in 1342 the citizens, tired of the continuous struggles, the Visconti from Milan entered 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.
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Thank you to Guido Camera for the photos of the frescoes of the Cathedral