An old fresco

1520 fresco in the Ostello, Alessandria

I’m sitting in the shade of a prolific climber, on one side of a beautiful square in Asti.  Yes, where the Spumanti comes from.

It’s an open and traffic-free square, with fine classical buildings on three sides, and a medieval tower to my left.  At the foot of the tower, which is now called the Torre di Vino, but perhaps didn’t start off like that, my audience is drinking its coffee, or passing by on the phone.

A lady, who I discover is called Lia, is taking an artistic video, panning across the square and settling on the cello.  She runs the wine shop on the ground floor of the Torre.

When I’ve finished playing, she says, she will treat me to something from her shop.  It’s too early for wine (at least for me) but lemonade will do nicely.  She presses on me some rather fine chocolate Amarettos too.

Drinking the lemonade outside, the proprietor of the bar comes scuttling out to tell me I’m sitting on his chair, not hers, and I must move.

Guiseppe and Janus, conspicuously handsome young men with a good deal of luggage, who obviously enjoyed the music more than the bar’s owner, invite me to share their table instead.

Asti is halfway along the day’s fifty mile route to Alessandria.  Most of the ride is on the Via Roma – you guessed it, straight and true, and going where all roads lead.

I ride the straight line for a few miles, then divert – nearly always up a hill – into a little village, and then go back down to the Roman road.  There’s no hurry.

The Roman road is smooth and quick.  The diversions are bone-shaking.  To slow the traffic, every village and town is paved with painful cobbles, the route further complicated by superfluous speed bumps and other impedimenta.  But always the houses, the churches, and all the other signatures of their histories, make the diversions worthwhile.

Alessandria is approached over a fine modern bridge.  I’m planning to lay out my stall, and hope for an offer of accommodation.  But then I get cold feet – metaphorically only; it’s drenchingly hot.

I scout out a hotel instead, feeling like a coward.  But en route is the perfect place to set up and play.  A little open space, with a small monument, some bars, plenty of concrete seats, and a flow of people.  So back to plan A.

But after a while – I earned the grand total of 50 cents in about 45 minutes – I begin to think that I would prefer the hotel.  The crowd is an odd mix of remotely supervised children and elderly gentlemen who might have known better days.  There’s no-one here who might offer me accommodation, I suspect.

The Ostello isn’t, despite the advertisement, a hotel.  It’s just what its name suggests, a hostel.  But it’s converted from a 15th century monastery, and very beautiful.  Marco explains it’s one of the very few old buildings to survive Napoleon’s attentions, and it only did so because he found it useful as a secure arms depot.

Since then it has seen service as a prison, a hospital, a school, an orphanage, a nunnery, and I forget what else.  Now the government doesn’t know what to do with it, and a jumble of good causes shares the space with the hostel itself.

Marco invites me to play in the garden, under the trees in the cloister, where the acoustic is just perfect, and the cicadas pause briefly – but only briefly – to listen.

And then Marco unlocks a heavy door for me, to show me the treasure.  It’s a fresco, partly restored, from 1520, at the edges of which you can see traces of an even older one.  

The fresco shows a boy, called Timoteus, entering the monastery as a novice, and donating his very extensive lands (which go from here right up into the hills) to the order.  You can see why they thought it worth painting over the older fresco to commemorate such a moment.

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