This time I take the stand:
Several years ago I went to a presentation organized by the Viticoltori dell'Acquese, the cooperative winery of Aqui Terme. It was late fall and the event was late in the afternoon, by which time banks of fog were rising and thickening among the trees as the light fell; I wondered what I had gotten myself into as I drove slowly through the flatlands of Alessandria, hoping I wouldn't miss a sign for Sezzadio.
I didn't, and eventually reached a large, rather forbidding farm complex. Imagine my surprise when I got out of the car, walked around the building, and beheld a spectacular Romanesque basilica!
Santa Giustina was founded, legends say, in the early 700s by Liutprando, a devout Lombard King who stopped at the site to take a nap, setting the reliquary with Santa Giustina's remains that he always carried with him on the bough of a tree. He awoke to find it dancing in the branches just out of reach, and decided that the Saint was telling him she wanted a church in that spot. So he gave the orders, and a Paleochristian church was built.
Santa Giustina subsequently became an important outpost of the Benedictines; the original church, which has elegant floor mosaics of the kind one also finds in Rome, became the crypt of their church, which is a classic Romanesque basilica with a central nave flanked by two aisles, a transept that's higher than the nave, and three apses.
The monastery changed hands several times over the centuries, and following the Napoleonic suppression of 1810 the church was transformed into a grain elevator. In 1863 it was bought by Senator Angelo Frascara, and when he began stripping away the whitewash (applied in the 1600s), in 1912, he found a fragments of an Annunciation in the left apse, and a beautiful XV century fresco cycle with scenes of Christ's passion and the Last Judgment in the central apse. A number of the columns of the nave are also decorated, with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern; many of the black squares have fascinating graffiti scratched into them, some of which might even be Renaissance in age.
The Senator also transformed part of the monastic complex into an extremely elegant villa with beautiful Romantic gardens, which is now used to host conventions, wedding receptions and so on. Visitors to the church are welcome, and if you call ahead you'll probably also be able to wander the grounds and perhaps visit the public sections of the villa. For further information see http://www.villabadia.com
To reach Santa Giustina, take the A 22 highway to the Alessandria Sud exit, and then follow signs for Acqui until you reach the turnoff for Sezzadio (to the right); you'll also see signs for the Abbazia. It's about 20 km from the A 22.
It's difficult to imagine a more unexpected pretty stopping place, and I am grateful to the Viticoltori deall'Acquese for introducing me to it.
Published Simultaneously by IGP, I Giovani Promettenti.
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