The town of Castell’Arquato
attributed an orange flag by the Touring Club Italia , offers the visitor its terracotta buildings, its suggestive narrow lanes other signs of a glorious past which from its foundation in Roman times to its climax in the Middle Ages under the Duchy of the Milanese Visconti and later still the Sforza family on the Santa Fiore side.
Even the not so distant past is well represented by a neogothic revival of some buildings erected between the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A pleasant walk which begins at the town gate at the “lower town” unwinds uphill and passes by the little church of St. Peter, the Church of St. Stephen, the Geological Museum and the museum dedicated to the opera libretto writer Illica, until you reach the top of the township dominated by the awe- inspiring Visconti Rock which dates back to the fourteenth century, imposing itself on the landscape with its towers and crenellations. Having crossed the bridge overlooking the deep moat you enter the tower and from there to the overlying rooms interconnected by stairwells, until finally reaching the top of the tower, from where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the valley. The edifice was originally built for military purposes and was never used as a residence, except in its upper apartments, by the militia.
Another building which rises over the town is the Collegiata, with its Romanesque form and warm sandstone colour. If you look closely at the stones around the apse, you will notice fossil shells inside the stone, glimmering in the sunshine. Entering from the side portico one is immersed in medieval times as witnessed by the capitals with zoomorphic decorations, and sculpted stone of the altar table. Descending from the street flanking the Rock warrants a stop at the Torrione Farnese and the thirteenth century Duke’s Fountain which by virtue of its ten spouts has for centuries provided the township with water.
One is overwhelmed by the Church complex of Vigolo Marchese, the beauty in the forms of the basilica, but more especially for the baptistery, which may originally have been a pagan temple with its central plan. The external part is characterized by three jutting apsidioles, while the interior is defined by cylindrical pillars which support the small cupola. At the centre is a large white marble capital which at some stage replaced the larger fonts used during baptism for full immersion.
ALONG THE RIVER
The Arda torrent downstream from Castell’Arquato is a true paradise for birdwatchers and aspiring geologists. Duck, cormorants, moorhens, kingfishers live undisturbed along its pebbled sides, protected by high banks resulting from millennial erosion while birds of prey fly over the woods nearby. But long ago this land had been covered by the sea, as witnessed by the fossil fauna and flora which emerged after the waters retreated. Marine sediments are visible walking through the area, which is protected and is part of the geological reserve of the Piacenziano, although amateurs can view exhibits from the very distant Pliocene and Pleistocene eras in the Geological Museum at Castell’Arquato, which also boasts a fossil whale.
JUST A BIT FURTHER ON …
Chiaravalle della Colomba
The presence of the Cistercians in the Piacentine valley has left a wondrous sign in the Romanesque architecture of the abbey and monastery, which still today is a place of spirituality and industriousness. Legend has it that a white dove outlined the monastery’s perimeters with small straws, under the incredulous gaze of the monks. More likely, the dedication of the monastery to St Mary of the Dove is a reference to the Annunciation. The jewel of Chiaravalle is the fourteenth century cloister with its arches propped up by slender columns made of Verona marble, and decorated with narrative reliefs. Don’t miss the fresco of the Crucifixion with its obvious reference to Giotto, as well as the Infiorata (flower carpets) on the feast of Corpus Domini, which inundates the church with perfume and colour.
The medieval town of Vigoleno
Rising between vine covered hillsides overlooking the Stirone valley is the medieval fortified town of Vigoleno. Its massive town walls from Renaissance times enclose the beautiful parish church of St. George with its capitals featuring two tailed sirens, monsters, and other fantastical creatures straight out of medieval bestiaries; its small piazzetta complete with fountain and its castle. The sensation one has when visiting Vigoleno is to be re-entering the distant past, back to the times of the Marquis of Scotti, responsible for most of the buildings in the town.
Ancient Roman city, a sort of small local Pompeii with its thermal baths which you pass going downhill from the main entrance , mill, press, amphitheatre, basilica and forum. In summer it hosts an interesting program of plays linked by the common themes of ancient history and culture.