The Convent of San Bernardino al monte


Historical events

The convent of the Observant fathers is the second community of Friars Minor present in Albenga, after the one dedicated to St. Francis, founded in 1322, in the district of Santa Maria. The presence or passage of saints and blessed of the order contributed in a decisive way to the diffusion of the Observants in western Liguria. Among these it is worth mentioning above all the blessed Battista Tagliacarne from Levanto. And Bernardino of Siena himself, whose presence in Albenga is attested for Lent 1431.

The location of the new foundation in an extra-urban area is due precisely to the presence of another convent of the Friars Minor. The choice thus fell on the Vadino area, along the slopes of Mount San Martino, a secluded area, also for this reason pleasing to the Observants, who preferred solitary places, favorable to prayer and meditation. But at the same time an area close to the Roman road Iulia Augusta and in any case not very far from the urban center.

The construction of the building, whose name of the designer is not known (perhaps a member of the order himself) began in 1467, starting naturally from the church. In fact, the donations of citizens, especially those who wanted to be buried there, would have allowed the construction of the entire convent. The consecration of the church took place on 9 October 1480. The Municipality of Albenga also intervened on several occasions with funding that will make it possible to complete, among other things, the cistern (1471) and the infirmary (1479). The changes and additions to the convent, however, will last a long time, even up to the century. XVIII.

In 1708 the northern wing was enlarged with the construction of two new rooms, in 1780 the six rooms already present in the upstream wing were raised and the roof was redone. A new double flight staircase is also built outside the northern walls to connect the two floors.

In 1794, with the arrival of French troops, the convent was used as a hospital and barracks and the friars (few) were forced to move to Lusignano. Two years later, thanks to Napoleon's great victories, the front moved away from this area and they were able to return, however, finding the structure in disastrous conditions.

With the fall of the Republic of Genoa (1797) and the advent of the Ligurian Democratic Republic, religious communities were suppressed and many church assets were confiscated to cope with the difficult financial situation of the state. That of San Bernardino was the only male convent in Albenga not to be closed. This is because the building was already owned by the municipality, and the few assets it had were administered by two municipal councilors, it enjoyed great popularity among the people and, thanks to the apothecary, it provided an important service for the community.

But in 1799 the French militias returned and the convent was once again used as a military hospital (the Municipality had to take charge of putting it back in order given the deterioration in which it was located).

The friars were moved to San Domenico, within the city walls, where they remained until 1810, when, after Liguria had become part of the French Empire directly in June 1805, even the last remaining monasteries were closed.

Meanwhile, S. Bernardino remains abandoned. In 1806, after the Edict of Saint-Cloud, the tombs in the chapels on the south side were used as public burials for a couple of years, and then again from 1813 to 1835.

The friars returned in 1827, but forty years later, on 1 January 1867, they left for good, following the anticlerical laws of the government of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The complex returns to the Municipality of Albenga and various hypotheses are made about its use, all discarded due to the lack of financial resources, while the deterioration of the building became unsustainable. In 1881 it was put up for auction, but it went deserted. The following year it was decided to use part of the church as a district prison and part as a gymnasium for schools. The church was thus divided into two parts with a wall.

In 1894 it was decided to use the convent as a barracks for the military genius who had to take care of the various forts that had been built in those years in the area. The works lasted three years and produced considerable upheaval on the whole.

In 1897 the 2nd Brigade of the 5th Engineers' Regiment of Turin took up residence there. Subsequently, artillery units settled there and remained until the fateful 8 September 1943

In 1897 the convent became the seat of the Genius Miners' barracks and was then enlarged with two new buildings, one to the west, extending the northern wing and one to the east to replace the ancient east side. The military remained until the end of the Second World War. Then there was abandonment and decay.

To be interested in a possible restoration of the monument was above all the International Institute of Ligurian Studies and its director, prof. Nino Lamboglia. In 1961 the front room of the church was returned to religious use and in 1964 the parish was established.

In 1971, the now dilapidated district prison was closed, and the first restorations began, carried out by the International Institute of Ligurian Studies. Then, starting from the 1980s, there have been interventions on the church and on the entire complex on several occasions.

Then the Municipality decided to recover it for school use, commissioning the engineer. Giampaolo Campodonico of the project. The works began in 1979 and ended only in the 90s. In 2000 interventions on the cloister and rearrangement of the churchyard with the creation of the typical "risseu" cobbled paving.

The outside

The church of San Bernardino di Albenga is certainly one of the most significant artistic testimonies of the fifteenth century in the Riviera di Ponente. The architectural structure represents a mediation between the traditional Gothic and the new construction concepts adopted by the Minori Osservanti during the fifteenth century. The Observants preached the return to poor and humble materials, so plaster is used to finish the walls, both inside and outside, which however had to last a very long time, like stone, and therefore had to be of excellent workmanship, with abundant slaked lime mortar and well-cleaned sand, spread with successive passes with a trowel, to obtain a smooth and polished finish.

The façade has a simple portal in black stone with an architrave surmounted by an ogival arch inside which there is a painted lunette with the Madonna and child and Saint Catherine in the center and Saints Francis and Bernardino on the sides. Above a splayed circular oculus. The corner pilasters and the hanging arches under the sloping roof are still in late Gothic style, while the radial pattern that surrounded the oculus (still visible at the end of the 19th century) and the lunette were already more modern.

In some ancient maps and views of the city a bell tower appears next to the church, but it is probably the result of the author's imagination. In fact, the studies show only a small bell gable on the apse ("above the choir at noon with two bells whose strings hang in the choir")

In front of the entrance to the convent was an external loggia, with two spans, in order to repair access to the convent, but also to the apothecary, and also to give shelter to travelers and the poor. The structure was demolished in the late nineteenth century. When the convent became the barracks of the military engineers, as well as the apothecary. The two-storey building which still exists today was built in its place, intended to house the guardhouse on the ground floor and the command offices on the upper floor.

The church

Inside, the imitation of noble stone materials is even more visible, as all the structural elements are covered with decorations that imitate the alternation of black and white stone ashlars.

The church is located on the south side of the convent with the apse to the west. The original layout of the church provided for a clear separation between the front part intended for the faithful, with the devotional chapels only on the south side, and the rear part of the friars with a deep presbytery, in which the choir was located (in front of the altar, as practice before the Council of Trent) and therefore the main chapel. This is evidenced by the presence of two single-lancet windows in the first part (to facilitate the reading of texts) and only one in the terminal part. In 1585, after the Council of Trent) the two parts were reversed, to separate the two parts was a low curtain in which a door opened, of which evidence remains at the end of the century. XVI (Mascardi).

The two rooms of the presbytery have a typically Gothic roof with cross vaults (as the corbels are still the original ones) and have simple vaulted keys in black stone with the representation of a cross.

Only on the south side of the single nave (since the cloister is on the north side) do the chapels open, according to a pattern that is frequent in the churches of the Osservanti. They are 4, of regular shape, which arose together with the church, to avoid the disorderly proliferation of chapels that had occurred in many churches in previous centuries. They were originally separate rooms, with a practically square plan, covered by vaults. They were unified by the nineteenth-century transformations. The fourth chapel, the one closest to the altar, was dedicated to St. Bernardino (or St. Francis?) And which the monks took care of directly. It was frescoed and traces of the decoration remain on the pillars (four saints, S.Caterina, S.Lucia and perhaps S.Ludovico di Tolosa and S.Bonaventura) and in the under arch.

The other chapels were those of the Ascension and the Assumption of the Virgin, both whitewashed ("dealbate"), and that of the Annunciation (perhaps of the Marquis family), the latter was decorated ("picta").

In the church there are also detached frescoes from the second half of the fifteenth century from Santa Maria del Bossero near Leca.

The plan of the church respects very precise geometric relationships: the main hall is a double square, the chapels are 4 squares whose side corresponds to half the light of the church. When it comes to the size of the choir, there is a precise relationship between depth and width (this time based on the root of two).

In the first decades of the nineteenth century the chapels were used, at least temporarily, as a cemetery (as there were no others in the city) and a wall was raised to divide them from the nave of the church which in the meantime had been entrusted to the monks after the Napoleonic period. The new cemetery was created in 1835, but the bodies remained there for another 50 years.

The fresco on the north wall

The brothers Tommaso and Matteo Biazaci from Busca (CN) worked in the second half of the fifteenth century between Piedmont and Liguria: in addition to Albenga at the sanctuary of Montegrazie, in Piani di Imperia and also in the Dianese area.

The fresco of the Last Judgment on the north wall of the church was made in 1483. Measure m. 8.50 x 5.

The scenes are divided into 4 superimposed registers. From above

1st register

Heaven with Christ in almond, surrounded by cherubs (blue wings) and seraphs (red wings). Under the almond, to symbolize the dominion of Christ over the world, the terrestrial globe is depicted, under which there are the innocent saints. On the right are three rows of saints, preceded by St. John the Baptist. On the left, in a symmetrical position, three ranks of religious preceded by the Virgin Mary: Franciscans (with St. Francis and St. Bernardino); Dominicans; other chosen spirits. All are turned towards Christ, who judges and welcomes the saved in the heavenly Jerusalem, surrounded and protected by stone walls with cylindrical towers and Guelph battlements. On the right side a lake of purifying fire welcomes the souls in Purgatory (with angels and the bread and wine of the Eucharist). The 10 commandments are shown on the staircase leading to Paradise. At the bottom of the staircase an angel draws a purified soul from the flames, while at the top St. Peter accompanies another towards the door.

On the left, however, the fate of those who have not followed the law of God. The archangel Michael, with sword and scales weighs the souls, while two angels carry the books with the names of the saved. The scale indicated with the letter b is higher, because the good souls are light, while the wicked ones carry the weight of sin and for this reason the plate with the letter m is much lower: the man with the red cloak he is then grabbed by a demon, while an angel wipes his tears, and another demon with a wheelbarrow throws the damned into Hell. Above is Limbo with the gateway, depicted as a kind of prison, guarded by a demon with a stick.

2nd register

Series of infernal tombs, depicted as gloomy rectangular caverns, in each of which one of the seven deadly sins is punished, which are recognizable thanks to the writings in the cartouches, only partially preserved, also bearing the name of the devil.

We start on the left with pride: we recognize the horned head of Lucifer. Among the damned, in the upper right are the heretics.

Then the tomb of avarice: the damned are skewered by a giant spit.

Near the pictorial damage caused by the wall that divided the church into two parts, there is that of lust.

Then Envy, with a large toothed wheel maneuvered by a devil: the sinners inside are pierced by the spokes, while those on the outside are nailed. During the movement of the wheel the bodies are also burned by the flames below.

The tomb of the throat has been lost; probably there was a table set around the damned bound and gorged by demons.

In that of anger the damned are skewered by the branches of a bare tree.

The series ends with sloth: the damned are inside a large pot (there are some religious). Others are used as firewood under the pot. Still others are immersed in ice and are tortured and beaten by demons.

3rd register

In the third register, of which very little remains, we note on the far left the Leviathan, quoted from the Holy Scriptures, with his jaws wide open, his sharp teeth and his eyes wide open, which is about to devour the deadly sins. These are astride an animal, and the characters are all tied by a chain around the neck, and had to follow the same order as the tombs above: pride, the worst vice, astride a lioness. Only a shred of the dog remains of the envy, the wolf of the throat. Anger, whose reference animal must have been the bear, is represented by a character who pierces his chest with a sword; sloth, asleep, holds his head with his hands and probably rides a donkey (traditionally an indolent animal).

On the right side you can see some blue cloth: perhaps virtues were represented there.

The depiction of vices and virtues is part of the medieval tradition widespread in France and Piedmont.

4 register (bottom)

The scene is difficult to understand due to how little is left. We see a devil playing a bagpipe in front of a burning barracks, a young man dressed in red who plays the lute, nearby bears a strangely written in medieval vernacular and not in Latin.

The frescoes had a moral and didactic purpose, with undoubtedly more space dedicated to Hell than to Heaven. In the latter, order and serenity seem to reign. In the first, chaos and violence.

There is not much news of the Biazaci di Busca brothers, but in addition to Albenga they operated in Montegrazie near Imperia. In the fresco of San Bernardino it is almost impossible to distinguish the hand of the two brothers, but from other works Thomas appears to be the most gifted. While not reaching the levels of Giovanni Canavesio, they still appear as artists of a good level, even on a cultural level.

Tommaso had also painted frescoes in the presbytery, now lost.

In 1956 the recovery of the frescoes on the north wall began.

The convent - The cloister

The structure of the convent obviously suffers from the need to adapt to the particularity of the place and the slope of Mount San Martino. This is why the church is located on the south side.

The complex is arranged on two levels: the first that of the church and the cloister, the second raised of approx. 5.20 meters is that of the north sleeve. There are also two rooms below the sacristy and the parlor.

The convent of S, Bernardino had only one cloister, and not two as usually happened, a choice perhaps dictated by the size and characteristics of the space available. The cloister, which today is preserved only on two sides (south and west), also developed on the north side and leaned directly against the rock of the hill, which had been cut. It still existed in the mid-eighteenth century (but not in 1832). It was demolished in the first decades of the 19th century to increase the space for military use. The imprint was found during the restoration work in 1971. The columns of the cloister, octagonal, are in brick. When the building was used as a barracks they were made circular. Then they were restored in 1971. It is to be excluded that there was also on the east one. On the latter side, on the other hand, there was a wing of the convent, consisting of a single room destined to the laboratory and warehouse of the apothecary (pharmacy). This side was demolished in 1895 when it was transformed into a barracks. Above the sides of the cloister and on the apothecary there was still a partially coplanar terrace on the first floor of the convent, accessible from different points of the dormitory.

Note the openings, brought to light during the various stages of the restorations: the oldest are narrow, those of the eighteenth-century reconstruction with a lowered arch, and the larger ones of the nineteenth century.

The most important side of the cloister was the west one, because it put the church, choir and sacristy in contact with the other monastic spaces and, via a staircase to the northwest, with the dormitory above.

After the convent was used as a barracks (named after G. Garibaldi), this area was considerably transformed to house rooms for warehouses, kitchens and officers' canteens.

The sacristy is still located in the southwest corner, which was accessed from the church choir by crossing a corridor that forms an extension of the west branch of the cloister. The sacristy is a room with ribbed cross vaults supported by rough corbels.

The adjacent room, with a square plan, was to be the parlor, a filter between the enclosure and the outside world. It was an important place: the presence of the coat of arms of the city above the entrance testifies to this (the convent was owned by the municipality).

In the center of the west side, the largest room was almost certainly the refectory, which could also be used as a chapter house if necessary. It had two large windows to the west.

It is enriched by the presence on the south wall, of the fresco depicting the Crucifix with Maria Addolorata and the Magdalene, and the saints Giovanni Evangelista, Francesco and Bernardino, by Giovanni Canavesio. A part of the fresco was destroyed by the opening of a door, which was subsequently plugged. The figure of the Magdalene, at the foot of the cross, has almost completely disappeared, just as the faces of the other saints have been seriously damaged.

Giovanni Canavesio, a native of Pinerolo, worked in Albenga in the second half of the 15th century, where he painted a similar subject in the Loggia Comunale in 1477.

To the north of the refectory there is a narrow passage where there must have been a sink, then a square compartment corresponding to the kitchen and a subsequent one, probably the pantry. The kitchen was then resized to improve the connection with the access staircase to the floor above.

A steep staircase between the refectory and the parlor led to two rooms below, to be identified as the cellar and the woodshed.

All the rooms on this side have vaulted roofs, functional to the presence of an upper floor which has always been used as a dormitory.

Behind the convent on this side stretched the garden.

The convent - The first floor

In the west wing, at the end of the corridor to the southeast was the infirmary, with a small chapel (built in 1645) in contact with the apse of the church. Through openings the elderly monks, sick or in any case with walking problems, could attend the functions that took place in the church.

The large room in the southwest corner was the library (following the spread of the press, the monasteries of the Friars Minor were also equipped with libraries). The location allowed better sunshine and favored reading and writing.

On this side the cells are arranged on two sides separated by a central corridor, with short transverse corridors from whose windows they took light. The dormitory we see today is not original, which must have been much more spartan, but is the result of modernization carried out around the middle of the seventeenth century. The rooms were in fact enlarged and equipped with a false vault. Traces of pictorial decorations still visible today date back to these interventions: scrolls with figures of Franciscan saints and martyrs. They re-emerged on the occasion of the restorations of the 80s / 90s.

After the transformation into barracks at the end of the 19th century, the monks' cells became rooms for officers and non-commissioned officers.

In the northern sleeve there were six larger cells, only on the south side, while on the north was the corridor. In 1708, two rooms were added on the east head.

In 1781 this side was raised with a second floor reachable by a two-flight staircase placed on the north front in correspondence with the one that went up from the ground floor, at the beginning of the corridor. The new floor was structured like the one below.

This distribution was functional to solar exposure: in fact the west body gets light from two sides, while the north one only gets light from one.

In 1897 the north wing was extended with the construction of a new building towards the west, also on two floors, so as to have a total of 21 dormitories with services. Four companies with 12 officers and 180 men took their places.