The Lombard Monasteries way

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In the Middle Ages, pilgrimage had a fundamental importance for social life. It was not just a journey, a slow walk along the road, but it represented a true missio, a special frame of meaning for the existence. The pilgrimage, through a concrete sacrifice, made it possible to experience the vicissitudes of Christ and to sympathise with him. Many were those who started their journey to experience its precariousness, leaving behind the burdens of life.

One of the most popular destinations was certainly Rome. The city, seat of the papal throne and heart of Christianity, is the burial place of Saint Peter, where God’s plans on Earth for the Church were realised. We can imagine that Italy was was traversed by multitudes of wayfarers travelling along ancient routes. Well known is the Via Francigena, which led from France to Rome and then to the ports of Apulia, where pilgrims embarked for Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, these were not unique paths. Rather, we could refer to bundles of roads converging at important points. This is the case of the transit routes located in the territory of Piacenza. On the flanks of the historic Via Francigena, which led from Fiorenzuola d’Arda to Borgo San Donnino, were a number of minor variants. Among these was the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley, used since the time of the Lombard kings – certainly Rotari, or perhaps even before by Agilulfo – who had it traced to reach central Italy more easily.

Lombard Monasteries way
Gateway to Castell’Arquato

The Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley

The Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley was originally planned as a military route; only in later centuries it was used for commerce and pilgrimages to Rome. It passed through Fiorenzuola and, on the way to Castell’Arquato, Vernasca or the monastery of Tolla, it continued to Bardi and Borgotaro. Finally, at Pontremoli, the road rejoined the traditional route of the Via Francigena.

In the Middle Ages, the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley was full of churches, convents, hospitalia and castles. The vitality and fervour along its route, characterised by a comings and goings that were sometimes mystical and compassionate, other times by frenetic trade, are now part of the past. However, it is still possible to trace the fortified architecture and the simplicity of the churches that once housed pilgrims. The medieval villages of Castell’Arquato and Vigoleno are admirable examples of this.

The village of Castell’Arquato, on the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley

A primitive fortified settlement in Castell’Arquato was probably built in accordance with the Roman military transit routes. However, the toponym of the village, located along the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley, is attested for the first time only in a deed of sale of 760, where it is stated “in finibus Castri Arquatense” [1]. In a document from 774, it is instead referred as Castro fermo [2].

The parish church dedicated to the Great Mother of God belongs to the 8th century. It was commissioned by “a powerful noble lord named Magno” at “the place or land called Castello Quadrato, or Alquadro, now called C. Arquato” between 756 and 758 [3]. No traces remain of the original parish church, as it was completely rebuilt after the earthquake of 1117, becoming the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta. The imposing fortress that surrounds the village of Castell’Arquato, on the other hand, dates back to the 14th century.

Lombard Monasteries way
Palazzo del Podestà was built by Alberto Scotti in 1292

The Visconti Rocca

The fortress was constructed since 1342 at the behest of the Commune of Piacenza [4]. It was then completed around 1349 by the Visconti family, who had conquered the village and driven out the local Scotti lords. The quadrangular structure is made of terracotta and entirely surrounds the ancient nucleus of Castell’Arquato. The perimeter consists of a main tower, called the keep, approximately 42 metres high, and four corner towers. Moreover, the fortifications are connected by two overlapping walls with Ghibelline battlements. Access to the village was ensured by a drawbridge with a moat, located at the foot of the keep.

Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta

The core of the village, guarded by the Visconti Rocca, is the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta.

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The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta and, in the background, the Visconti Rocca

There, pilgrims travelling along the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley stopped to entrust their journey to the Great Mother of God. The austere Romanesque salient façade, tripartite and distinguished by massive buttresses, overlooks Piazza Don Cagnoni like a scenic presence of ancient memory. It opens through a small round-headed portal and a bifora window. The entire 12th-century structure, with its bell tower, is built of sandstone and is impressive for its architectural simplicity with a great evocative power.

Lombard Monasteries way
The salient façade of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Castell’Arquato

Lateral to the building is the 15th-century Portico of Paradise, made of stone and brick. It overlooks the square through five round arches with a cross vault.

The splayed portal at the Portico of Paradise

Interior of the Collegiate Church of Castell’Arquato

The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta has a basilica plan, with three naves, semicircular apses and a wooden truss ceiling.

Via dei Monasteri Regi
The interior of the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta

Of particular interest are the Romanesque sculpted capitals of the bundled pillars and Saint Catherine’s Chapel. This opens at the entrance to the building, on the right aisle, and contains 15th-century frescoes attributed to Tuscan artists.

Chapel of Saint Catherine

At the presbytery stands the 20th century high altar made by reusing five panels from the 13th century. Similarly, the ambo integrates some panels depicting the Tetramorph, the iconography of the four evangelists.

At the end of the right aisle is the baptistery. It hosts a circular stone font from the 8th century, placed in front of a semicircular apse with three monofora windows.

Vigoleno Castle and the Parish Church of San Giorgio

Vigoleno Castle stands on the top of a steep hill, almost protecting the Arda Valley. It was probably erected in the 10th century as a military fortress on the transit routes from the Piacenza hills to Lunigiana. Nevertheless, the village, enclosed within the castle walls, probably served as a material and spiritual resting place for pilgrims since the Longobard era (8th century). In fact, Vigoleno is not far from Vernasca and the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley, and has the important church of San Giorgio. Nevertheless, the village is mentioned in a document from 1144 by which Marquis Oberto Pallavicino ceded some possessions to his son Guglielmo. Later, it became the property of the Guelph Scotti family, who had established a flourishing maritime trade in cloth and spices.

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The battlemented walls of Vigoleno

Vigoleno Castle was not exempt from the fighting between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Repeatedly disputed and courageously defended by the fighter Alberto Scoto, it was destroyed by the Ghibellines of Parma and later rebuilt. In 1389 Francesco Scotti obtained permission from the Duke of Milan to rebuild it again [5]. Since then, the castle’s battlemented walls, dominated by the imperious keep, have preserved their structure intact, thanks also to the almost uninterrupted centuries-long rule of the Scotti family.

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Glimpse of Vigoleno Castle

The Parish Church of San Giorgio

The centre of worship in the village of Vigoleno was the Romanesque Parish Church of San Giorgio. It is mentioned in two parchments, dated 1223 and 1284, kept in the parish archives. It is also ascertained that, at least in the year 1296, the church was subordinate to the Collegiate Church of Castell’Arquato.

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Parish Church of San Giorgio

The Church of San Giorgio has a basilica plan with a nave and two aisles and semicircular apses. The roof of the building has wooden trusses. On the outside, the quadrangular bell tower stands out, while the salient façade is elegant in its simplicity. Of great artistic interest is the entrance portal with splays and a sculpted lunette.

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The fight between Saint George and the dragon in the lunette; below the lintel are two cowering telamons

Here we find a depiction of a Saint George on horseback striking the dragon. Through the heroic gesture of the saint, God’s will is personified, as can be deduced by the presence of an angel. The entire iconography refers to the eschatological struggle between good and evil.

The narration of the fight between Saint George and the dragon, symbol of the evil spirit, is a frequent theme in the Middle Ages. It can be traced in the chivalric literature of the time and especially in the Golden Legend by Jacopo da Varazze (1298).

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The exterior apse: notice the two human figures sculpted near the blind arches

Inside the Parish Church

The interior of the parish church is permeated by an atmosphere of mystical sobriety. The soft light of the rooms invites to contemplation and silent reverence.

Lombard Monasteries way
Inside the Parish Church of San Giorgio in Vigoleno

Distances and spaces are marked by massive pillars with irregular bays, revealing richly symbolic carvings and sculptural testimonies on the capitals.

The frescoes along the aisles and on the pillars, a late-Gothic work by unknown authors, are of excellent workmanship.

Via dei Monasteri Regi
The frescoes along the naves, depicting Saint Benedict

Among them, the iconographic theme of Saint George, as a crusader knight, fighting the dragon reappears in the apse.

The apsidal frescoes with Saint George and the dragon. On the high altar, a flower of life and the Cross Pattée can also be seen on the panels.

A path of conversion along the Lombard Monasteries way of Arda Valley

The entire symbolic complex of the Pieve di San Giorgio in Vigoleno refers to the path of conversion that pilgrims had to undertake, following Christ, during their journey. The peregrinatio was characterised by precariousness and a constant struggle against temptations. Thus, Saint George ideally accompanied the journey, warding off the influences of the evil one; the bichaudate siren warned against the sins of the flesh; the flower of life and the palm tree were symbols of spiritual rebirth and eternal life, the deserved reward for those who persevere on the right path.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus


[1] Pierpaolo Bonacini, Cultura giuridica e prassi notarile nell’Italia longobarda: le carte di Varsi, Quaderno 5, Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Dipartimento di Scienze Giuridiche, 2012.

[2] Luigi Schiapparelli, Codice Diplomatico Longobardo, 1968, Bottega d’Erasmo, Torino.

[3] Piero Castignoli, Mario Casella e i cronisti piacentini, Bollettino Storico Piacentino, LXXXIV, 1989.

[4] Registrum magnum del comune di Piacenza.

[5] Carmen Artocchini, Castelli piacentini, Piacenza, Edizioni TEP, 1983.

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