The legend has it that St. Mary’s Abbey at Vezzolano – Alto Monferrato, only an hour drive from Turin – was founded by Emperor Charles the Great. Rumours, more than a legend. Hoax, we might say today. There is no actual historical fact in support of such an idea. The other way around, there is plenty of historical facts and written notices that St.Mary’a Abbey dates not before the tenth century, maybe the eleventh. When Charles the Great was by a long time gone. The first Emperor of the Sacred Roman Empire, indeed, died on 28 January 814, some two hundred years before the first documented news about the abbey (1095).
It was on the 27th day in February of 1095 that certain Theodulus and Giles were appointed oficiales ecclesiastical’ at St,Mary’s: this is the first ever mention of the church, which was nevertheless to win a lot of importance in the following centuries, just to lose most of it when the balance of powers – and economies – shifted away from the Francigena road.
The legend of Charles the Great is probably linked to the figure of a French king depicted as he pays his tribute to the Virgin Mary in the tryptich on the altar. True, that figure is definitely a French king, the lilies on his mantle and the color of the mantel clearly speak for that. The king can be identified as Carlo VIII, who invaded Northern Italy in the 1490s. And lost. Which loss is the first cause of decline for St.Mary’s Abbey. When you side so strong and clearly with a player – to the point you dedicate to him a major place on the altar – and then he loses, you lose too. That is what happened to the abbots at St.Mary’s and that is, by the way, what preserved the abbey in its 1400s look, so different from the rest of the abbeys in the Po valley.
When you enter the church, indeed, first thing you see is a sort of bridge in front of you. It is called pontile, pier, indeed. It was meant, in the early Christian times, to separate priests from people, and it was introduced in Italy directly from Eastern Mediterranean territories. After the Council of Trento, is was dismantled and abandoned everywhere, but at Vezzolano. The abbey had, by then, fell into oblivion, and that preserved this unusual pontile from destruction. To our happiness and joy. The one in St.Mary’s seems a little bit out of size, as if it was relocated from another position or projected and built for another place. Whatever the truth, it does not fit into its current position, and some of its figures are out of place.
Strangely enough, it was not depredated of its masterpieces of art, fruit of its golden age through the 1200s and 1300s, when first-class artists came to Vezzolano by the hundreds to work. Even after 1801, when Napoleon closed it, the Abbey lost its many treasures.
The cloister is the major point of interest. Here frescoes tell the story of a local community where merchants dealt with the Low Countries and the farthermost ports of Eastern Mediterranean. Here we can see the evolution of the church, with one lane – the one to your right, when you enter – closed and walled to give way to the cloister itself. And the many frescoes on the new wall tell very interesting things about the local community. And about the abbey, too. Here we go back to the legend of Charles the Great as founder of the abbey.
One fresco shows three knights. Beautiful, full of life, and defiantly proud, they are challenged by three skeletons in their coffins. A warning sent by the priests – “Behave well and humble, for you are going to die nevertheless” – many claim. A reference to Charles the Great legend, others say. For the Emperor is said to have founded the abbey on the very spot where he had a dream, three skeletons coming out of a coffin (as in the fresco, indeed). A hermit helped him out of the terror, and to praise St.Mary he decided to build a church on the spot.
Whatever, what we have today is a jewel of the so-called Piedmont-style Romanic, a mix of Romanc, Gothic and other style. A testimony of the wealth of the local community in the centuries after the year 1000 and until the fall of the Duchy of Milan, in the last years of the 1400s. A place worth a visit, even if off the beaten path. Which is definitely a point in favor.