CHRISTIANITY IN TRIORA
The Benedictine Monks whom were devoted to prayer, agriculture and study were the first to evangelise the Upper Argentina Valley. Following the famous rule, Ora et Labora (Pray and Work) they ventured into the hinterland, up to the most arduous regions in order to found their monasteries. Hence a building dedicated to the Saints Faustino and Giovita, (brothers from Brescia and patrons of the same city) emerged in Aigovo in the XI century.
Around that time Triora saw the birth of the church dedicated to the Saints Pietro and Marziano Martyrs. The latter, bishop of Tortona is often associated to Faustino and Giovita in hagiographical narrations. Sadly, the only remains from that first Collegiate church in Triora, destroyed to make space for a parade ground are a few black stone slabs, some remnants of the capitals and three panels dating back to the late XIV century; one of those is the famous Baptism of the Christ by Taddeo di Bartolo signed and dated 1397. Whilst the only remnants of the original San Faustin church, changed and defrauded over centuries are two infilled monofores on the right and a lateral portal in porous ashral tuff.
If, to this cult of saints from Brescia and Tortona we connect Saint Dalmazio, also from Brescia, whom was dedicated another sacred building enclosed within one of the five Triora fortifications, we can presume that the devotion to these saints had travelled from the North across the mountains and reached the new villages that were establishing in this area at that time. Soon each village or hamlet had its own church. The largest centres erected parishes while others built simple but inspiring and much cherished sanctuaries. Along mule tracks and steep paths small chapels or even simple wayside shrines, locally known as geixette, were gradually built.
A well-known ancient oratory is the one dedicated to San Giovanni del Prato (St John of the Field nowadays erroneously called “of the fields”) to which people from both the Upper Argentina Valley and the Upper Nervia Valley refer to. On the 24th of June every year, crowds of pilgrims visit the old church, take part in Holy Mass celebration and recite the rosary whilst walking around the sanctuary nine times. From this ancient custom, described also in Triora dialect by Father Francesco Ferraironi and cited in the famous guide by Edward and Margaret Berry “To the West Gateway of Italy” (edited by the Institute of Ligurian Studies in 1963), nothing much remains besides the contagious cheerfulness that has ended up in the popular songs of today.
The main square of the ancient Triora village, dedicated to the blessed Tommaso Reggio Archbishop of Genoa hosts the Oratory of the Precursor next to the church of Santa Maria Assunta. Completed in 1677, it replaced the gloomy building located below the current parish church, where the Flagellants prayed and flogged themselves in order to expiate their sins. Inside the building is a gallery containing very valuable works of art by Luca Cambiaso, Battista and Lorenzo Gastaldi, a painting by a disciple of Domenico Fiasella and a panel depicting Saint Nicola of Tolentino accomplished by “an unknown maestro who gravitated around the late Giovanni Mazone; perhaps his son Antonio although the painting demonstrates a tendency towards a more updated Lombard influence”. The wooden altar is a real jewel, masterfully sculpted by Giovanni Battista Borgogno from Molini, known as “Il Buscaglia”. The altar perfectly encloses a canvas of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist signed and dated 1682 by Lorenzo Gastaldi. According to Gianni Bozzo this is the best work by the Triorese painter. The oratory also hosts an exquisite statue of the saint title-holder, commissioned as tradition claims to the great sculptor Anton Maria Maragliano around the year 1725 by the local Confraternity of the Flagellants.
The majestic Collegiate church is further testament to the ancient splendor of the medieval Triora village. From the original three-nave church with the steepled bell tower depicted in bequeathed drawings hardly any traces remain; the pointed portal in black stone and white marble blocks reminds us of an ancient and glorious Christian temple. The old neoclassic facade, restored in 1770 under the direction of architect Andrea Notari, unfortunately removed the black slabs and paintings depicting the Virgin Mary, Saint Giovanni Battista and Saint Dalmazzo. A Parish site since 1556, transferred here from the decaying church dedicated to the Saints Marziano and Pietro outside the walls, the Collegiate was transformed into one nave in the years 1770 to 1775 when it gained great importance as mother church, to which all the other parishes and rectories of the wide territory were subjected. With its imposing 38,4m in length, 12, 1 m width and 17m in height, this church houses important works of art.
The Baptistery preserves the most valuable artwork in Triora, the Baptism of the Christ, painted in 1397 by the painter Taddeo Di Bartolo from Siena. It is supposed that this was probably part of a cuspidal triptych due to the lack of a frame. What makes it unique is the signature: “Tadeo de Senis painted this in M.CCC. L.XXXX.VII”, making it the oldest signed and dated work of art in Western Liguria.
The main altar was restored when the old San Francesco (Saint Francis) church was destroyed and its materials were transferred to the main church. The polychrome marbles were in fact used to build two side chapels forming a new structure that, along with the two portals, allows access from the Presbytery to the choir. Above the choir backbenches is the majestic ancon of the apse, well framed in a sort of aerial altar decorated with golden stuccoes and columns placed against pilasters supporting an architrave with a broken pediment. Onto this, two angels seem to support the large halo that is elevated above the church cornice, with Mary’s monogram in the middle. At the base and on the sides of this construction are two stuccoed statues depicting the Saints John and Paul Martyrs which date back to 1789. The painting inside the ancon, the Assumption dates 1680 and is the work of the Triorese painter Lorenzo Gastaldi (1625-1690). It represents an amazing replicate of the painting by Guido Reni found in the church of St. Ambrogio in Genoa.
The two panels on the side altars, of excellent craftsmanship, are dated to the beginning of the XV century. The one on the right, La Pieta’ represents the dead Christ mourned by the Virgin Mary, Magdalene, Saint John the Evangelist and the pious women. Probably painted in Genoa, the panel (170 x 90 cm) which originally could have been the central part of a rather large polyptych, is further testament to the late gothic style already represented by the Baptism of Taddeo di Bartolo; on its base is a religious inscription, in Franco-Gallic characters which is difficult to decipher.
The panel of the left has a peculiar story: below the painting of the Ecce Homo applied here in the XVI century to make the painting more fitting to the cult of the Purging Souls, an x-ray taken during the restauration works of 1949 discovered the pre-existing image of St. Giacomo il minore, son of Alfeo. In this image the saint appears bearded with a pilgrim’ staff and hat hanging from it, depicted on a golden background subdivided in small lines shaped like a net. However, the symbols of the walking stick and the hat belong to St. Giacomo Maggiore, a pilgrim in Spain as demonstrated by Caravaggio in a painting kept at the Chiari Art Gallery (Brescia). The painting (150 x 73 cm) which was quite probably central part of a polyptych, reproposes similar composition schemes introduced by Taddeo di Bartolo, revealing however more decorative effects in the draping of the precious mantle of the saint that reminds of the Lombard tradition, placing this work at around the year 1435.
Above the altar is an ancient wooden crucifix by an unknown sculptor, while resting on the marble balustrade and dated 1737, is an exquisite Christ of the late XIV century exhibiting a slight French influence but most likely made in Italy. It is particularly revered and transported vertically (weighing about 60 kgs) to Monte delle Forche on the second Sunday after Easter. On the pulpit built in masonry and golden stuccoes is a wooden crucifix made in Genoa by Giovanni Maragliano. From this same pulpit San Vincenzo Ferrer and San Bernardo from Siena preached. The latter, on the occasion of his visits to Triora, a place he called “his little home”, left here in 1418 a walnut wood table representing the intertwined trigram of the name of Jesus (IHS), surrounded by a Franciscan belt.
Formerly dedicated to the Purging Souls, the second altar on the left was consecrated to the Holy Heart of Jesus after the Ventimiglia Dioceses, following the disastrous earthquake of 1887, made the vow of celebrating the festivity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus every year as if it were a matter of precept. A marble plaque ordered by the canonical Callisto Amalberti, from the Ventimiglia cathedral, reminds this event for posterity. The marble altar was built in 1901 by the artist Rocco Faraldi from San Remo on the occasion of the positioning, under the altar table, of an urn containing important relics of Saint Giovanni Lantrua, a Franciscan missionary born in the nearby Molini who was martyred in China in 1816.
Rather tall (about 38m) and slender, the bell tower houses four bells, one “big one” and three “ small ones” which before electrification emitted a characteristic sound that varied according to the person who played them. As soon as the bells started playing, people would immediately know who played them.
Going from Molini towards Triora, the first church we encounter is the one dedicated to the Madonna del Buon Viaggio, not very old. Worthy of note is a marble statue of the Virgin of excellent craftsmanship, placed on the only altar. It was moved here from the Collegiate church of Triora.
Before reaching the blackened houses we find another church, the one dedicated to Madonna delle Grazie. The idea to erect this building was due to Father Giorgio Ausenda from Triora whom, impressed by the number of pilgrims who venerated the devotional pillar and the chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the Graces in Mondovi, started to build the supporting walls for the open space onto which to build the temple, then the foundations were laid and part of the walls. Old age and lack of funds forced the friar to hand the property to the nobleman Fabrizio Vielli who completed the church in the spring of 1622 enriching it with an ancon depicting the Christ, the Madonna delle Grazie, San Giovanni Battista (according to the commission the painter Battista Gastaldi should have painted Saints Francesco and Domenico, however these are not visible as it is presumed the lower part was somehow removed). The small church is maintained thanks to the generosity and devotion of a few locals, in particular the ones living in carugiu sutan.
Much more interesting and old is the church of Saint Bernardino, erected according to the tradition on top of an earlier building, dedicated to Saint Bartolomeo Apostolo. After his visit and preaching in Triora in 1418, the locals touched by his sermons, decided to dedicate a sacred building to the friar from Siena. However, what truly impressed them and convinced them to do so was a miracle: following his Triora visit, San Bernardino on his way Loreto saw a thief who had stolen a lamb, throw the animal into a fire. By divine intervention the Saint managed to bring the lamb back to life and hand it back to its rightful owner.
The real attraction of this church is not its architecture with the characteristic pronaos but rather the frescoes found inside that were brought back to light thanks to a few volunteers at the beginning of the XX century, among whom was the young Father Francesco Ferraironi. Consistent works, in 1938, in the 60s and from 1996 to 2006, allowed besides the reinforcement of the building and the remaking of the roof, the recovery of further painted scenes. Despite part of the frescoes being missing, one can identify three distinctive work campaigns that saw different painters create the various cycles at different times.
The three painting phases can be framed within half a century, precisely from 1466 date of the completion of the paintings in the apsidal hemicycle to the first decades of the XVI century, years to which the Passion of the Christ paintings belong. The scenes depicting the Annunciation, Christ in Glory, the symbols of the Evangelists, two saints and a theory of apostles belong to the first phase. Among the possible authors of the first cycle are Baleison and the Lucéram maestro, an anonymous painter working in Western Liguria in the middle of the XV century. The second wave was that of the wonderful Judgement Day which could have been painted by Canavesio from Pinerolo an artist to whom all works had been attributed in the past or perhaps by the Biasacci brothers from Busca. The scenes of the Passion and the Death of the Christ on the left wall and on the counter-facade are chronologically placed to the first decades of the XVI century as well as the Crucifixion, which can be admired in its integrity. Particularly effective are the Limbo and The Boat in a Storm, according to some a miracle made by San Bernardino, while others think this could be one of the first “ex-voto”, created to give thanks to grace of God.
From Via Dietro La Colla in Triora, you can reach the remains of the Church of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria (St Catherine of Alexandria) within a twenty minute walk. Built by the Capponi family at the end of the XIV century, it is today in a state of disrepair; you can still observe part of the three lateral walls with two lancet windows on the outside surmounted on the inside by a rounded arch displaying a refined and perfectioned stone cutting technique; the facade appears almost intact, with a central splayed round eye and a portal representing the sculpted Capponi’s coat of arms and a wonderful inscription in gothic uppercase characters, abraded in parts, which tells the story of the church. The text is known thanks to the precious book by Gio Batta Ratti “Description of paitings, scupltures, archictecture etc that can be found in some cities, villages and Castles of the two Rivieras in the Ligurian State” (edited by Ivone Gravier in 1780). From this book, writted by the notary Manuele Sardo, we learn that the church was built in the year 1390 at the expense of Oberto Capponi and dedicated to God, the Holy Trinity and St Catherine. It is conveyed that the first foundation stone was laid on the fourth Friday in November by Bishop Giacomo known as Sualense, whom conceded indulgence to those who visited and supported this church, as confirmed by a letter written in his handwriting. Later the Serene Cardinal Bartolomeo through a mandate by Pope Boniface IX endowed it with many gifts sculpted in an inscription left by him. The inscription is important as it mentions a certain Bishop Giacomo who lived around the year 1390, unknown in the area and identified by Ferraironi as Giacomo Hayas of the Preachers, made bishop of Suelli (Cagliari) in 1384. Rossi instead wrote that “the first foundation stone of the elegant little church of Santa Caterina owned by the Triora’s Capponi family was laid by Bishop Giacomo Marzio”. It is worth noting that part of the inscription was erased by a member of the noble family in the middle of the XIX century to eliminate the words “hanc donis multis” (these many gifts) as he had been reprimanded for seizing the church’ riches: it was evident instead that the riches intended were spiritual ones such as the indulgences granted to those who visited the holy building.
Amid the pleasant paths found along abandoned meadows, chestnut groves and poplar woods two little churches were built that have since sadly collapsed: one dedicated to San Giacinto (St Hyacynth) was in the Ciaparaxe area and the other dedicated to Sant’ Onofrio, built by the Oddo family in 1601. Thankfully, almost as a wish to compensate for these losses, some volunteers built a small church dedicated to the Good Shepherd in the beautiful Goina area in 1996. A few years later, during the Jubilee celebrations, a huge wooden cross was lifted on top of the rock overlooking the Capriolo valley with the help of a helicopter. Sadly, the cross managed to protect the shepherds and their herds only for a few months as a lightning bolt destroyed it, much to the consternation of the devoted people.
Heading West from Triora, within 2 kms we reach the Sanctuary of the Madonna di Loreto, known on ancient maps as the Madonna of the Salt Pans, probably because it once marked the place where salt was traded.
Giovanni Gastaldi, from the noble Triora family, built this church in the first half of the XVI century. Later, other members of the same family contributed to its embellishment. Battista Gastaldi was the author of the painting in the ancon, probably dated 1608, depicting the Virgin with baby Jesus with the Saints John the Baptist, Joseph and two angels above; the small moon represents the Eternal Father and unequivocally recalls Luca Cambiaso. The altarpiece was added in 1693 by Giovanni Battista Borgogno “Il Buscaglia” within a splendid golden wooden altar by the Genoese sculptor Antonio Maria Vaccaro. Lorenzo Gastaldi also left a testimonial with a refined painting of the Annunciation.
Since 1901 a gigantic monument of Christ the Redeemer placed on top of Mount Saccarello at a height of over 2000m protects the High Valley. The story of this statue is so full of events both happy and sad that it would fill many pages, therefore we will simply recall the noblewoman Margherita Brassetti whom, although sceptical about the feasibility and the likelihood of erecting a monument of such stature, still donated ten thousand liras for the project, a huge sum of money at that time.
On the first Sunday of August each year a holy mass celebration takes place on the mountain in memory of the deceased shepherds and mountain people of the area. The chapel-refuge, built in 1927, contains many images: a painting by the Triorese Pietro Filippetto depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, other small paintings, a Jubilee tile by the artist Diana Fontana, as well as many letters, cards, candles and a register filled with signatures as evidence to an atavistic faith, resistant to the passing of time.
However, the population of the upper valley did not always demonstrate a pious nature, at least not in the true sense of the word. On at least two occasions, at the end of the XVIII and in the second half of the XIX century, the Triorese authorities were rather ungenerous towards the incessant work of the friars, in particular the Agostinians and Franciscans, driving them away from their own convents.
The story of the Sant’ Agostino church was stained with blood since the beginning, when Dr. Agostino Oddo to demonstrate his gratitude to the friars who consoled and healed him in Genoa where he had spent time in jail following an infamous accusation of betrayal to the Republic, decided to devolve all his wealth to the religious congregation under the condition that they would build a convent in his birthplace of Triora. However, fate did not allow the benefactor to see his dream come true: on the night of the 26th of July 1615, while on his way home, a group of armed men surrounded him, beat him severely and left him on the floor to die. Later, it was revealed that his closest family, including his wife, had hired unscrupulous people in order to kill him and get their hands on his substantial inheritance which amounted to three thousand scudos.
The first foundation stone for the Sant’ Agostino church was laid in 1622 and three years later, on the day of the Circumcision, although works were not fully completed, the monks were able to move into their convent. That year 1625 was sadly a tragic one for this area: Don Felice of Savoia, lord of Farignano and natural son of the Duke Carlo Emanuele I, while in charge of Franco-Piedmontese troops decided to attack and besiege the Triora stronghold. On the 21st of August the village inhabitants, by this point exhausted, were almost forced to surrender. Just as Triora was about to capitulate, Father Giovanni of San Nicola originally from Alba, at the sight of French soldiers mistreating some locals decided to come out of the convent and order the soldiers to stop harming the defenseless people. In return, the soldiers attacked and wounded him then left him on the floor inanimate. The rest of the friars hurriedly intervened to bring him inside and give him their best cures, however Father Giovanni’s fate was marked and he died on August 23rd, just as Triora was celebrating an unhoped-for victory, thanks to the help of auxiliary soldiers from the Taggia Valley, commanded by Captain Gio Vincenzo Lercari.
Declared a Priory by the Church of Rome in December 1642, the Sant’ Agostino convent started working in full effect and the friars’ activity, always at the disposal of the weak and the poor, was commendable. However, a few problems arose caused mainly by bequeathals left in favour of the Agostinians or by issues over the payment of tithes to the Triora Parish.
However, the worst was still to come. In 1794 General Andrea Massena arrived in Triora with his army and was hosted like a monarch. He brought horror, desolation and death with him. His aversion towards the holigarchs entailed the scraping of the coat of arms from the jambs of ancient noble homes, followed by the dispossession of all riches and the removal of all important works of art from private homes as well as from churches. During the first year of Ligurian Freedom and precisely on September 14th 1797, the municipal administration, invaded by immoral principles and revolutionary ideas, unanimously approved a resolution against the Agostinian Friars found “guilty of consuming, in religious idleness, an income of over seven thousand lire”.
Despite heavy protests by the majority of the population which culminated in violent episodes among which an assault on Mayor Francesco Carabalone, this eviction could not be prevented. The poor friars were forced to abandon their cells and find provisional accommodation in the Franciscan convent. Said convent had been built in the Sella area, in an enviable position surrounded by vineyards, near one of the seven fortifications and the San Bernardino church. The annexed church was completed on the 27th September 1630 when Bishop Pier Francesco Costa consacreted it with a solemn function. The building had eight altars, six of which belonged to the most important families in the area, namely Borelli, Verrando, Buzzacarino, Capponi, Oddo and Gastaldi. A member of one of these families, the painter Lorenzo Gastaldi painted the beautiful ancon representing the saint patron of the church in ecstatic rapture, supported by two cherubs.
The friars did not settle on work and preaching in Triora alone but ventured and celebrated mass services in the nearby villages such as Loreto, Cetta, Creppo and even up to Gerbonte. In the latter’s remote location lawyer Francesco Rossi built a small chapel with a small bell tower at the beginning of the XIX century. The friars as a means of communication with the brothers, started breeding pigeons in an area today still known as a “Colombera”.
The visitor Commissioner of the Saint Francis Order during an inspection in 1846 was favourably impressed by the exemplary conduct of the friars, naming Triora as a “convent of perfectly shared common living”.
However, about twenty years later and in truth not completely unexpected, some dramatic news reached the convent: the minister Quintino Sella with a law emitted on July 7th 1866 decided to suppress all religious institutions existing in the Italian Kingdom. Their wealth would be transferred into a special fund destined towards religious expenses and ecclesiastic pensions. The convent building, acquired by the Municipality with an act dated 26th September 1868 became the site for local schools until 1871, year when the friars were allowed to return to their home much to the joy of everyone. The locals thought this issue completely resolved when all of a sudden a rather negative event happened.
In order to defend the nation’s borders against France, with which it did not have an amicable relationship at the time, the Italian government decided to install a military outpost in Triora and asked the Municipality to find a large living space and a parade ground. In order to gain space for the latter, the Municipality did not hesitate in demolishing the centuries-old church dedicated to San Pietro and Marziano Martyrs, site of the old Collegiate, which was then in critical conditions. The church’ decorated portals were placed in the cemetery which around that time had been moved to the fort and under the hospital porticoes; the three precious panels and the most valuable objects were moved to the new Collegiata, while other objects and vestments placed in other churches. Along with the church walls precious frescoes dating from ‘300 by Pietro Berto from Pieve di Teco were sadly destroyed. The frescoes depicted God The Almight with the Evangelists and were thus signed: “M.CCC.LXXIIII tempore…de lavanda prepositi Triorae Petrus Bertus de Plebe pinxit hoc opus”
Nonetheless, a large space was still needed to host the soldiers. Unbelievably, Mayor Antonio Tamagni, unconcerned about the many councillors and the majority of the inhabitants opposing opinion, decided to give the convent building and the church to the army.
The clearing out of those spaces, which happened in April 1879, was rather arduous as no workman in the high Argentina Valley wished to desecrate the church where their well-known fellow countrymen had been laid to rest. Eventually, a company from the riviera intervened but they were only able to complete their task thanks to the intervention of the police force. As soon as the marble gravestones were removed from the floor, the workers and the crowd assisting in the “travesty” were subjected to a terrible spectacle: large quantities of human bones piled on top of each other and among those the cadaver of a friar buried over a century earlier whose body had remained intact. Shortly after a worker fruitlessly tried to remove the Crucifix from the altar, aided in vain by his co-workers the people started shouting louder and louder, with the youngest among them inciting the population to revolt. Just as things were turning rather sour, the Triora parish priest, Giovanni Carli appeared and persuaded the faithful to calm down, then gave a touching sermon that managed to appease people’s souls. After the sermon, he made his way among the astonished and emotional crowd and reached the altar. While people watched in complete disbelief, he took the cross and invited his fellow villagers to take all the paintings and other sacred objects and follow him. The following procession was the most touching that ever happened in Triora. While the convent bells rang for the last time – not to mark a death but solemnly – the priest started singing hymns to thank the heavens and was quickly followed by hundreds, thousands of voices. The unusual procession walked with a solemn and majestic step towards the Collegiata. Here Don Carli placed the Cross on the main altar, while the paintings and objects were rested against the balustrade. After thanking God for saving people’s lives, the crowd, now appeased returned home.
The departure of the Franciscans marked the end of the friars in Triora, who were sacrificed for meagre local needs. Their experience here ended tragically but was thankfully without any loss of lives. Local people regretted this decision and missed the presence of those familiar figures, who only did good and expected nothing in return. A village elderly, interviewed a few years back during an event connected with the now notorious Triora witches had no qualms in confessing: “The impoverishment and the depopulation of our village is definitely our ancestors’ fault; not for sentencing a few witches to death, but for carelessly driving the friars away!”
We would need a book to list all the small chapels, the geixette, the missionary crucifixes, the small shrines, the simple marble plaques built along the paths and found in the village centres. After the Lourdes apparition many chapels and grottoes housing a statue of the Virgin were erected. Triora also has its own “Lourdes Grotto” erected in 1915 thanks to popular subscription. The original grotto, in tuff, was largely modified in 1935 due to a sudden collapse. When signs of aging started to appear again, three local builders aided by an artisan from Sanremo volunteered their services in 1989 and the materials were made available by the people’s generosity. The grotto from the Pyrenees was faithfully reproduced; anyone visiting the historical centre can stop for a moment, light a candle and recite a prayer.