VILLAR SAN COSTANZO, The Ancient Benedictine Abbey and the “Ciciu” nature reserve

Historical background

The Benedictine Abbey in Villar San Costanzo was founded around 712 by the Longobard King Aripertus II. During the Saracen invasion of the Cuneo plain it was destructed, just like all the other abbey buildings in the area. Today, from the remains of the abbey complex we can deduce what the buildings and their layout were like around that time. The complex consisted of three communicating bodies: the church, the convent and the peasants' dwellings and they were all enclosed by a wall. After being destructed by the Saracens, the complex was reconstructed in the 11th century, in particular at time of Adelaide of Susa, but then it was subsequently damaged during the war between Manfredo IV from Saluzzo and the Angevins at the beginning of the 14th century. The monastery, the church and the village were reconstructed thanks to Abbot Dragone Costantia from Costigliole between 1316 and 1341 but, after the abbot's death, monastic life declined. Around 1450, Abbot Giorgio Costantia from Costigliole had the decaying structures restored and his funeral chapel built in the right aisle and called the painter Pietro da Saluzzo to fresco it. In 1722, the architect Francesco Gallo from Mondovì was commissioned to rebuild the church. On this occasion a new Baroque structure was introduced in the nave.

St .George’s Chapel

Giorgio Costantia from Costigliole was elected abbot in 1447 and had the crumbling structures of the complex restored. Between 1467 and 1469 he had his funerary chapel built in the right aisle and called the painter Pietro Pocapaglia from Saluzzo to fresco it. This artist had been unknown until 1977, but then his signature was found on a fresco signed by the 'Master from Villar'. Today inside the chapel we can admire the frescoes and the marble ark that Abbot Giorgio had sculpted by the two brothers Stefano Costanzo and Maurizio Zabreri from San Damiano Macra. The important pictorial complex of the Costanzia chapel can be briefly described as follows: on each sail of the cross vault an evangelist is depicted in the act of writing the beginning of his Gospel. On the wall of the ancient altar there are: the Madonna Enthroned with her Son among saints and martyrs, St. George baptising the Selenites and the Saint’s beheading. On the wall to the right of the altar there are stories taken from St. George’s life. On the intradoses of the arches we can find: the roundels with saints, the heraldic shields of the Costanzia family and the dedicatory inscription with the signature of Pietro da Saluzzo. On the outer walls of the chapel stories from St. George’s life are depicted, while on the pillar in front of the chapel we can admire St. Francis’s stigmata.

The Crypt

The architect Arnaudo was a competent and passionate lover of history and art. He took care of the restoration of St. George’s Chapel as well as the Abbey Crypt bringing back to light its pure architectural lines. Today this crypt is considered a true jewel being one of the most interesting examples in Piedmont. During restoration works, the staircase and the stone-arched doorway that gave access to the crypt were discovered. Today traces of the steps that once used to lead from the hall to the presbytery can be seen on the right-hand side of the room. The crypt is divided into three naves with rows of seven isolated columns surmounted by capitals supporting round archivolts resting on ten other columns leaning against the perimeter wall. There are octagonal and quadrangular ones and they all rest on crude bases, which were brought to light and are now visible. Above the crypt there are the three apses of the three original naves, while in the presbytery area behind the right apse there is a Romanesque bell tower.

The Church

The Baroque church was designed by Francesco Gallo. Its construction works started in 1722 and preserved some of the earlier structure, which dated back to the end of the 11th century. The apse and bell tower have clearly maintained their Romanesque origin, while on the northern side the triangular tympanum leaning against the bell tower is the result of the 19th-century intervention on the façade. The main body of the building is Baroque in its style, while the façade has undergone 19th-century alterations in its decoration. The church consists of a central nave with two side chapels, one on the right-hand side and one on the left. Walled up in the left aisle near the balustrade, there is the very stone on which, according to tradition, St Costanzo was beheaded and soaked in his own blood. Today this stone is protected by glass. From the right aisle visitors can access the Costanzia chapel.

The Ciciu

On the first slopes of Costa Pragamonti, just beyond the last houses of the hamlet of Pramallè, quite a good number of large themed columns, each one topped by a large stone boulder, are clearly visible from afar. These columns look like enormous mushrooms with the most varied shapes and sizes. People have always known them by their popular name: the Ciciu. According to a legend these Ciciu are Roman soldiers who were petrified by God’s will while they were chasing Saint Constantius. In reality, this reserve displays the signs of a singular phenomenon of geological erosion that, over the centuries, has led to the formation of the Ciciu. These large columns are made of yellowish earth and each one of them is surmounted by an enormous boulder of brown stone. The Ciciu were created by water through its washouts over millennia: it has progressively eroded the soil thus leaving behind these curious straight-up mushrooms, some of which are about 10 metres high. They are composed of friable clay soil, mixed with quartz granules and mica flakes, with deep vertical furrows. Their caps are erratic boulders of compact, dark grey gneiss. In the Riserva dei Ciciu there is a reception point as well as a picnic area. Visitors can go trekking and bouldering while in its sorroundings mountain biking, hang gliding and paragliding are also possible.

Historical background LIS

The Ciciu LIS


Direction: Paolo Ansaldi
Post-Production: VDEA Produzioni
Translation: Europa 92


Rotary Club Cuneo