The Italian region of Piedmont was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2014, and it's easy to see why – rolling hills of neat, well-tended vineyards, each topped with its own very individual palazzo, castello or torri; and wooded valleys of hazelnut and almond groves hiding biscuit-coloured villages and wayside chapels, like a scene from one of Guglielmo Micheli’s evocative paintings.
Yet hidden away among the more obvious manifestations of artistic enterprise are secret corners and surprising gems to discover...
You can’t miss it – it hits you right in the eyes as you gaze out across the rolling hills of manicured vineyards – a huge startling pink bench! There are a series of them scattered across the Langhe region of Piedmont – and a few further afield, too. What are they doing here?
They were the brainchild of American-born Chris Bangle, former Chief of Design at car-maker BMW. He wanted to create something less exclusive than luxury cars, and so came up with the idea of installing colourful benches in publicly accessible spots with breathtaking views – seats for the common man, woman and child and not just for the well-heeled.
This one is sited on a quiet back lane in the ‘middle of nowhere’, between the village of Perno and the town of Monforte d’Alba. There are now well over fifty, mainly in Piedmont, which are waiting to be discovered...
Roses and vines
You could be mistaken for wondering why some rows of vines have seemingly random rose bushes growing at the end. Is this purely for aesthetic reasons or something more profound? The truth is a bit of both, as in the past, roses played an integral role in ensuring the health of the vines.
Roses, you see, are susceptible to mildew fungus which also affects vines. However, it was discovered that roses show the adverse effects a week or so before the vines. Therefore, once the fungus was spotted on the roses, the estate workers could take pre-emptive action and treat the vines.
Today, scientific analysis and forecasting systems are used to contain the spread of such parasites and so roses are no longer needed, though many are kept as a reference to the old traditions. In the past, yellow roses were used to indicate white grapes and red roses for black grapes and this tradition is still a common sight today, with specific roses being created especially for the most important varieties of grape.
The Chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie
Artists certainly have a thing about placing brilliantly coloured objets d’art amid the muted palette of cultivated landscapes. One such startling installation stands amid vineyards just below the hill-top town of La Morra – the Capella delle Barolo. To give it its full name, the Chapel of the Madonna delle Grazie was built in 1914, next to an existing chapel that contained frescoes by local artist Giovanni Savio (1863-1950) from La Morra. In 1972, the Ceretto family bought the local vineyards and estate and this included the chapel.
In 1999, they commissioned David Tremlett (an English/Swiss sculptor, installation artist and photographer) to decorated the interior, while his friend Sol LeWitt (an American artist linked to various movements, including Conceptual art and Minimalism) concentrated on the exterior. This collaboration saw a startlingly bold re-design of the chapel and it now draws people from far and wide. It is nicknamed the ‘Barolo Chapel’, or sometimes the ‘Brunate Chapel’, after the region’s most famous wines.
La Bela Rosin's stripes
Shaded by trees amid neat vineyards stands a colourful, red-and-yellow-striped ruin that must once have been quite an imposing farm building. It is one of many in the vicinity that belongs to the Fontanafredda winery in the valley below, one of the oldest wine-producers of the region. This ruin was originally a hunting lodge of King Vittorio Emanuele II who bought it as a gift for his wife, known as ‘La Bela Rosin’.
Rosa Vercellana was born the daughter of an officer in the King’s Guard. While her father was serving as commander of the Royal Garrison in Racconigi in the province of Cuneo, the 14-year-old Rosa met Crown Prince Vittorio Emanuele (later King Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy, after unification). She became his mistress and they had two children, causing quite a scandal at the time. After his queen, Adelaide of Austria, died, King Vittorio married Rosa and she became his ‘morganatic’ wife – i.e. her lowly social status meant that neither she nor her offspring could inherit any of her husband’s titles. She was, however, granted the title of Countess of Mirafiori & Fontanafredda and her children did inherit the estate which they developed into the award-winning vineyard of today. To differentiate their buildings from other estates, they are painted in red and yellow bands, just like Cà ‘La Rosa’, the romantic ruin on the hill above.
By the book
Just outside the tiny hamlet of Panerole, south of Barolo, you will come across a very poignant memorial to an act of immense heroism dating back to World War II, when the country lay under the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini and his Nazi masters in Berlin. A Jewish family from Turin, Mario and Benvenuto Nizza and their baby son Ferruccio, were on the run (Mario was a doctor known to have been treating anti-fascist partisans) and found themselves hiding out in Panerole. They were immediately taken in by local couple, Giovanni and Genoeffa Blangino – with the full support of the entire Panerole community – and hidden from their would-be persecutors from 1943 until the liberation of Italy in 1945, an act that brought great danger to everyone involved.
Their heroism is celebrated in a simple memorial beside the road – a large open book featuring a photograph of Mr and Mrs Blangino and a verse from the Talmud which says “whoever saves a person is as if he had saved the whole world” (made famous in the film, Schindler’s List). This memorial was erected by the Jewish Community of Turin in 2011, a few steps from the house in which they lived. Attending the ceremony were Giuseppe Blangino and Ferruccio Nizza, sons of the families at the centre of the story, who both spent their formative years here.
The murals of Bergolo
High on a wooded ridge, south of Cortemila, with views north to the snow-capped Alps, stands the small, tranquil settlement of Bergolo, known as il paese di pietra – ‘the stone village’, because of the fine local stone from which the houses are constructed. The village is medieval in origin, and was enlarged during the 17th century, when the Parish Church of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary was built. On a small hill nearby stands the 12th-century chapel of San Sebastiano overlooking a memorial to American poet, Ezra Pound, who wrote his Pisan Cantos while living here during World War II. However, what marks the village out amongst its neighbours is the annual summer Art Competition created by Romano Vola in 1993. As you wander through the cobbled streets, look up at the house walls to see dozens of works of art, including murals, paintings and sculptures, left by the artists who come from all over the country to participate in the competition.
Who exactly was Ezra Pound?
I’d heard the name Ezra Pound before but was never quite sure who he was or what he’d ever done. So when I came upon a memorial to him near the village of Bergolo (see above) I decided to take a closer look. The memorial takes the form of a nine-stone circle beside a path leading up to the medieval chapel of San Sebastiano, with colourful extracts from his Italian Cantos (in Italian) lining the route.
Pound was an expatriate American poet and critic, who became a major figure in the early modernist poetry movement – and a fascist sympathizer. He had moved to Italy in 1924 and began to embrace fascism, expressing support for Mussolini and Hitler. During the war he worked for the Italian government broadcasting against the US – which got him arrested in 1945. Whilst incarcerated in the US, he began to write his Pisan Cantos, extracts of which you see here. In 1958, he returned to live in Italy until his death in 1972.
The Cantos are a complicated piece of work that earned him the Bollingen Prize in 1949, but are hard to follow – at least, to my untrained eyes. They are often described as chaotic and incoherent, but I’ll leave you to decide...
Pais dra nisora
At the entrance to the village of Cravanzana, a simple sign welcomes visitors with the legend Pais dra nisora, in the regional dialect, which translates as 'the place of the hazelnuts’. Cravanzana stands on a high ridge in the heart of hazelnut country and from its lofty perch you can gaze out in all directions over miles of wooded hills.
Wander up to the castle and, around its lower walls, you will find an ‘open-air’ museum in the form of a series of colourful information panels depicting The Success of the Hazelnut in Cravanzana.
It’s little wonder, then, that Ferrero Rocher was founded in nearby Alba in 1982, taking advantage of the prolific hazelnut production in the area. Today, over 3.6 billion individual Ferrero Rochers are sold every year though demand has exceeded local capacity and they are now grown and harvested on a global scale in many countries. The company also made a cream and hazelnut paste called ‘Pasta Gianduja’, which in 1964 changed its name to... Nutella.
Libano's Cedar Tree, 'Il Cedro'
Near the town of Annunziata, you may notice an immense cedar tree standing majestically on Monfalletto Hill near the vineyard of the Montezemolo family. It is known locally as ‘Libano’s Cedar’, or Il Cedro, an evergreen Lebanese conifer, the pride of local residents and a ‘must see’ for tree-lovers, artists and photographers.
The wine estates here have been in the Falletti and latterly Cordero di Montezemolo family for 19 generations. The Fallettis acquired the land in 1340 and developed their estates over several centuries until 1941, when the last of the line, Countess Luigia, died childless. The estates went to her nephew, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, and remain with his family to this day, under the guardianship of Paolo’s great great nephew, Luca di Montezemolo (former president of Ferrari and Fiat cars).
The story of the tree began in 1856 when the young Costanzo Falletti di Rodello and his bride Eulalia Della Chiesa di Cervignasco, planted the tree to celebrate their wedding and affirm their love of each other and of this land. The cedar was chosen for its longevity, a symbol of a love that is strong and durable, that could be passed down through the generations. It still stands 164 years later (2020) and appears to be in robust health.
It’s so big, you can easily spot it from the hill-top village of La Morra. Like Stonehenge in England, there is a fence to protect the tree from too much attention, though it’s still worth a detour to the bottom of the hill to see it in all its majesty.
Love amongst the vineyards
One thing you must do in Piedmont is visit a winery, and where better than the Marchesi di Barolo’s antiche cantine (‘ancient cellars’) in the town of Barolo itself? The English-speaking guide takes you through cavernous subterranean halls lined with immense ancient wooden barrels and stainless steel vats. The highlight of the tour is a fairy tale complete with child’s ‘pop-up’ book (pre-X-Box technology) delivered by your guide, which explains how the sumptuous Barolo wines of today came into being.
It all began in 1807 when the local aristocrat, the Marquis of Barolo Carlo Tancredi Falletti, married Giulia Colbert de Maulévrier, a French noblewoman and the great granddaughter of the Louis XIV’s Finance Minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert. Giulia, no stranger to wine-making, convinced her husband that leaving the hitherto unremarkable Barolo wine to complete fermentation by a long aging process in wooden barrels would improve the quality and taste. And so it proved, Giulia having sent regular shipments to the king for his approval. Giulia was also a great philanthropist and when she died in 1864 without issue, her legacy was the foundation of the Opera Pia Barolo, a charitable entity to preserve her cultural and economic heritage. In 1929 the Abonna family bought the vineyards, and today they continue the work that began more than two centuries ago.
The charitable work of Giulia has since been recognized by the Catholic Church and a case for canonization (sainthood) began in 1990. In 2015, Pope Francis titled her ‘Venerable’, a step on the way to becoming a saint...