The largest elliptic dome in the world
In many Italian cities it is quite common to glance elegant lines of domes rising in the sky and the majority of these structures have a round base: the Pantheon in Rome, with a diameter of 43 m (141 ft), the dome of St Peter and the one of the Cathedral of Florence designed by Brunelleschi, just to mention the three largest ones.
There is another type of dome, though, which is sustained by an oval drum and it is called elliptic. The largest brickwork example of this typology, is located in the countryside near the town of Mondovì: it is the Sanctuary of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary of Vicoforte, also known as Regina Montis Regalis. The guided tour of Vicoforte in Piemonte – Piedmont, Italy – with a certified tour guide lasts about one hour and it is possible to combine it with the climbing of the dome, open most of the year.
We are in the small village of Vicoforte in southern Piemonte – or Piedmont – not too far from the wine region of Barolo and the Maritime Alps bordering France and the Italian Riviera.
Mondovì actually preserves an extensive artistic heritage, Baroque architectures and one of the most picturesque squares of Italy, Piazza Maggiore, in the upper town (called Mondovì Piazza).
In the second half of the XVI century, when Turin became the new capital of the dukedom of the House of Savoy and this family was spreading the political control over Piedmont, Mondovì was already home of the oldest University of the region.
One hardly expects such imposing building to be in the middle of the countryside, with an height of 74 m (243 ft) and two diameters measuring 36 m (118 ft) and 25 m (82 ft). Nonetheless, it surprises that Vicoforte today only counts a few residential neighborhood but in the XVI century, just before the construction began, was nothing more than a wasteland.
The guided tour led by a certified tour guide sets off from the intricate historical background that led Carlo Emanuele I Duke of Savoy, to take on the project. Represented in the statue facing the Sanctuary of Vicoforte, the Duke needed to gain the trust back of the local population and of the bishop struck by the decision of Emanuele Filiberto (father of Carlo Emanuele I) to pull down in 1572 the former Cathedral of Mondovì built only fifty years earlier, in order to leave room for the military fortress.
In the meanwhile, in Vicoforte, a painting by local artist Segurano Cigna representing the Virgin Mary and the Child, was believed to bleed and generated an increasing traffic of pilgrims which contributed to the urban and commercial sprawl of the area. The story of the veneration of this shrine is partially set in a legend which will engage the visitor during the tour of Vicoforte.
Finally, the plan of the bishop to have a bigger temple to host pilgrims, combined with the interest of the Duke of Savoy – who was also influenced by the devotion of his wife Catherine of Austria – resulted in taking up the construction of the Sanctuary.
The mausoleum of the Savoy family
The Savoy initially agreed on appointing the future temple to be the mausoleum of the family but this plan was abandoned in the early XVIII century when the Basilica of Superga was built on the hill overlooking Turin. In facts, only Carlo Emanuele I was buried inside the Sanctuary of Vicoforte where his tomb can be admired in the chapel of St Bernard, highly decorated with colored marbles and guarded by the statues of Athena and Minerva that represent wisdom and military skills, considered to be virtues of the Duke.
Even the tomb situated in the chapel of St Benedict, conceived for the daughter of the Duke, Margherita, was never used, as the Duchess is buried in Spain.
No other member of the Savoy family was ever brought here until December 2017 when the remains of King Victor Emanuel III and the Queen Elena of Montenegro were reunited on Italian soil since the time of their exile, coming back respectively from Alexandria in Egypt and Montpellier in France.
Their return, secretly planned and publicly announced at the last minute, came under criticism as it woke up controversial opinions about the darkest chapter of the Italian history: the relationship between monarchy and Fascist dictatorship, the decision to enter WWII, the persecution of the Jewish community (considered to be the worst mistake of the King) and the end of the century-old Royal House.
The tour guide points out the three main styles layered on the facade (not always in a uniform way) which are the overcome of several plan’s changes and modifications to the original project designed by Ascanio Vitozzi who began it on July 7th 1596. The expensive working site, the static difficulties emerged from the weight of the brickwork and the great deal of hostilities between the Savoy and Mondovì which lasted until 1699, led to delays and interruptions of the construction site.
Vitozzi conceived an elliptic body originally surrounded by sixteen side chapels (only four were realized); this model was quite common at that time but when the architect died in 1615 only twelve meters (40 ft) of walls were standing and no ceiling was made yet.
The second phase started in 1702 when the local architect Francesco Gallo, still young and in need of work, took care of the chapel of Saint Bernard, of the high altar of the Sanctuary and other sections. Gallo came back in 1729 called by the neo-elected King Vittorio Amedeo II, to design and build the oval drum with a double order of windows which sustains the elliptic dome made of bricks, on top of which stands the lantern: a masterpiece of Baroque architecture which consecrated once for all Francesco Gallo as one of the greatest artist of the time.
Despite of the eight buttresses that Gallo added to the heavy perimetral walls of Vitozzi, the weight on a clay soil not particularly solid resulted in a need of several static interventions ended only in the 1980s.
The decoration of the dome
The view of the 6000 sq m (64,590 sq ft) of frescoes decorating the inner part of the dome is simply breathtaking. One can only imagine the hard work of the two artists Mattia Bortoloni from Milan and Felice Biella from Rovigo standing on scaffolding painting with their head up. Their work shows influence from the Venetian artist Tiepolo and it had to make up for the previous two commissions of 1737 by Antonio Pozzo and 1741 by Giuseppe Galli da Bibiena which did not meet up the expectations.
The theme of Salvation evolves with colors more vivid as the fresco reaches the upper part where it is represented the Glorification of the Virgin. The journey of Mary from birth to heaven is narrated with a great deal of episodes of her life.
The advantage of having a tour guide allows the visitor to read and recognize artistic elements and details otherwise hidden to the hurried glance. Baroque symbolism reaches in Vicoforte some of the highest level throughout numeric references to the Trinity and to the concept of infinity, light-shade contrasts and color choices conceived to express feelings and situations. Nonetheless, unusual choice of representing thirteen Apostles rather than twelve.
What to do in the area
The guided tour of the Sanctuary of Vicoforte lasts about sixty minutes and it can easily be combined with other sites in the area.
Mondovì guided tour from the lower part of town called Breo to the upper part, Piazza, riding the efficient and modern funicular.
Just outside Piazza we suggest a stop with a tour guide to the chapel of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) which boasts a unique brachial cross (one of the three in Europe), often forgotten by most tours.
For the active visitor we suggest the 3.5 miles paved countryside road which connects Piazza to Vicoforte with chapels dedicated to the Rosary.
For art lovers, in the village of Bastia di Mondovì (8 miles from Vicoforte) one can visit the church of St. Fiorenzo, a gothic masterpiece boasting over 3400 sq ft of frescoes dating back to the XV century.
Last, Cuneo and the Alpine valleys are not too far away, just like Alba and the Langhe hills which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, well known for white truffles and Barolo wine.
Written by Marco Scaglione