In the Piedmont, the northwestern corner of Italy, the ancient hillside city of Saluzzo takes visitors along a maze of charming cobble streets, all the way back to the Middle Ages when it was the seat of the independent Marquisate of the same name. For centuries, specifically from 1125 to 1548, its dynasty of fourteen Marqueses were able to keep at bay the aggressive attentions of their much more powerful neighbors: the House of Savoy, the French monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire.
A military stronghold was required to support such a feat. Built between 1271 and 1286 behind the original city wall and dominating the entire town, the Castiglia di Saluzzo was originally equipped with four bastions, a moat and a drawbridge. However, in 1492, Marquis Ludovico II (1438-1504) radically renovated the fortress upon the arrival of his French second wife, Marguerite de Foix-Candale (1473-1536). It’s not clear how much the addition of a garden and the massive round tower rising above its ancient walls improved upon it. Suffice it to say that centuries later, the still foreboding castle served as a prison from 1825 to 1992.
Today La Castiglia is home to the Museum of Chivalry and the Museum of Prison Memory, which commemorates the two main functions carried out by the building.
The Church of San Giovani
Until the construction of the cathedral in the early 16th century, la Chiesa di San Giovani was the most important place of worship in the city. Built by the Dominicans in 1330 on the site of a chapel dedicated to Saint John since 1281, it was finally completed in 1504. Its sober exterior, including the square bell tower with five rows of mullioned windows and octagonal spire added in 1376, harmoniously integrates into the mediaeval context of the ancient city. Meanwhile the interior is a fine example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. Among its most notable elements are the burial chapel of the Marquises, and especially the white marble monument of the Marquis Ludovico II (circa 1508) by French master Antoine Le Mortorier, and the monumental gilded wood tabernacle at the high altar (circa 1610).
In the adjoining cloister, commissioned in 1466 by Marquis Ludovico I, a terracotta stonework representing the Visitation is placed on the wall next to the entrance. The capitals of the gallery’s pillars feature the coates of arms of the most prominent families in Saluzzo. The cloister also houses the Cavassa Chapel, with the funeral monument of the General Administrator of the Marquisate, Galeazzo Cavassa (1483) and some well preserved frescoes.
For all the medieval charm of Saluzzo, the city’s undisputed gem is Casa Cavassa, the Renaissance-style mansion that was the residence of Caleazzo Cavassa and his son Francesco, both General Administrators of the Marqueses of Saluzzo. While traces of a medieval building can be found in the basements and in three ogive windows of the facade, Francesco completely redesigned the property in the early 16th century, in the early Renaissance-style that was becoming prevalent in Northern Italy.
The new construction took advantage of the sloping terrain to extend over six floors, three underground, including cellars, kitchens and servants quarters, while the reception rooms and private apartments were on the three upper floors. Here the richly decorated rooms feature ornately painted wooden ceilings, frescoed walls and loggias.
The building fell into serious disrepair throughout the following centuries, until it was purchased by Marquis Emanuele Tapparelli d’Azeglio (1816-1890), an Italian diplomat and politician born in Turin. He set out to restore the mansion following the 19th century principle known as “completion according to style”: everything that didn’t date back to the Renaissance was removed and replaced by works of art and antiques dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. According to d’Azeglio’s will, the mansion became a museum upon his death, and the property of the town of Saluzzo.
Even today the white marble portal and the sculpted front door (circa 1520’s), attributed to the sculptor Matteo Sanmicheli from Lombardi, bear witness to the splendor of the mansion at the beginning of the 16th century. The walls of the internal loggia still boast Grisaille frescoes by Hans Clemer, a famous Flemish painter who worked in the Marquisate from 1496 to 1511. The paintings (1506-1511) depict seven of the famous Labors of Hercules. Underneath the balcony, above the mullioned windows, a frescoed decorative band portrays the signs of the zodiac. The itinerary of the visit consists of 15 rooms full of remarkable frescoes, period furnitures and art collections, including the altarpiece “Our Lady of Mercy”, an incandescent masterpiece also by Hans Clemer, painted in 1499-1500.
Good to Know
- Getting there—By Road: Saluzzo is about 60 kilometers (40 miles) or a 75 minute drive from the center of Turin via regional road SP 139 or SP 663. It is also accessible by bus from the Torino Esposizioni bus terminal with one connection in Villa Franca Piedmonte. There are several daily busses and the route takes approximately two and a half hours.
- Getting around—Saluzzo is definitely best visited on foot. Comfortable footwear recommended.
- Visiting—Museo Civico Casa Cavassa, Via San Giovani 5, Saluzzo is open Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and Friday 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. + 39 0175 41455. E-mail. Confirming opening hours recommended. Note: published website was inoperational at the time of this writing.