Interview with Sergio Arditi and Giampiero Cassero
by Marina Paglieri
A series of precious wooden reliquaries from the 1700s was found in an armoire in the church. A fresco dated 1532 of the Virgin Mary with St. Matthew and St. Bonaventure and a client, discovered during the restoration of the sacristy, was attributed to Luchino Ferrari of Castellazzo Bormida. And eleven paintings of the apostles by another Piedmontese painter were discovered in a closet in the Municipal building. The creation of the Museum of Sacred Art in Cassine, opened in 2011 in the spaces of the old convent of San Francesco, led to a series of discoveries. The last one was the seventeenth-century altarpiece "Nativity of St. John the Baptist", attributed to the Milanese painter Giuseppe Leva, which had been stolen from the church, along with other seven paintings, during the night of August 4, 1997. Now, thanks to the intervention of the police officers of the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Venice squad, it is back at its original site in the chapel of St. John, which had been restored in the meantime, where it was placed in July.
"We received the first prize of 'After Unesco, I act!' for this”, Sergio Arditi, the Deputy Mayor and Councillor for Culture, proudly stated as he showed us the other treasures of the complex, including the chapter room which preserves a series of fourteenth century frescoes, as well as the reliquary tiara of St. Pius V, the Pope who was born near Bosco Marengo, and the chapels of the beautiful late thirteenth-century church where, among other masterpieces, a large fifteenth-century wooden crucifix was discovered. The treasures of the Picture Gallery include the cycle of the Stations of the Cross by Pietro Fancelli.
The Museum of Sacred Art is the main attraction in this town of just under 3 thousand inhabitants which, even if only marginally – since it is part of the so-called "buffer zone", – is part of the Langhe and Monferrato-Roero site included in the list of World Heritage Sites in 2014. We spoke about tourism, which still hasn't not caught on here as much as the local people would like, notwithstanding the many artistic treasures and beautiful, pristine landscape, with Giampiero Cassero, a former councilor for culture and Lieutenant of the police in Cassine, who is now on the board of Italia Nostra in Alessandria
Giampiero Cassero, let's start with start with the discovery of the painting stolen in 1997. How did that come about?
"Look, we were lucky, because not only did the police in Venice find the altarpiece of the Nativity of John the Baptist, in 2011, but they also carried out thorough iconographic research on the Internet, something that is not at all to be taken for granted, and therefore traced it back to us.
Unfortunately, the other stolen works are still missing, but since the investigation is still open, we can hope we will receive more good news. The thieves took all the altarpieces except the painting with San Martino, which is nailed to the wall. The one that resurfaced, which among other things, was placed under the protection of the Ministry of Culture, is the most valuable one: it was the subject of a conservative restoration by the Nicola Aramengo laboratory, under the guidance of the Superintendency, so whoever commissioned the theft saw fit to make some additions in order to make it more marketable, and that is how it was when it was returned to us".
You referred to an iconographic research: how did they manage to trace it back to the church in Cassine?
"I should tell you a little about this story, starting with 1978 and the founding of the Association of Friends of Cassine, which I have belonged to since it began. We began to oversee the complex, which was abandoned except for some parts, including the chapter room that was used by the schools. Instead, the church, declared cultural heritage of the town since the 1800s, and the sacristy were used for various purposes, including as storerooms for the Pro loco (the local culture and tourism association). A decision was made to upgrade the complex and with this aim, a cataloging of stored materials was undertaken, which in 1997, was then posted on the city administration's website, where the Venice police found the news about the stolen painting".
Therefore 1978 is the date of the beginning of the rebirth of the complex. Then what happened?
"In 1979, quite by chance, in the Chapel of St. Urban of the church we found a collection of wooden reliquaries that had arrived in Cassine in the 1700s with the remains of the martyr: there had been some mention of it by historians in the 1800s, there were some lists, but then the collection had gone missing. In that same year, they were exhibited here in Cassine in an exhibition sponsored by the Association of Friends and made in collaboration with the Superintendency. In the eighties, it was then decided to turn the ancient complex into a museum and the work began, which was supported by the Region, with the help of the San Paolo and CRT Foundation banks. But it was not easy."
What do you mean?
"Some structural interventions had to be made, which meant making complex technical choices. For example, a vestibule of access to the outside was created, so as not to have to open the wall with the risk of damaging the frescoes. Each time we had to come to an agreement with the Municipality, or the developer who had invested the money, with the Superintendency, and other offices. But we managed to do so."
Who runs the museum and keeps it open?
"At first the management was entrusted to volunteers who were also responsible for the cleaning. Then, through a cooperative, the Municipality has funded year-round Sunday afternoon openings. In the end, a job has been created, even if with few hours. In 2015, we had a thousand visitors, both those who paid to go directly to the museum and those who only visited the church. But the real difficulty is the lack of visibility."
Are you a part of MUD, the museum system throughout the Bormida Valley?
"Yes, we are, but that is not sufficient. I think we really have to learn how to create a network: it is a question of mentality, here there is still no tourism policy. There aren't any accommodation facilities, even for hikers. What prevails around here is an autonomous tourism, done by amateurs, not by travel agencies or bus tours. A family may come here with their Touring Club guide, or there those who have organized everything via the Internet and make a stop here, perhaps on their way to the seaside in Liguria. In short, prevalently just tourists passing through."
Is tourism considered to be a resource?
"I wouldn't say so, or at least not yet: I think a lot of work remains to be done. Those who were born here generally prefer to accomplish things easily and quickly rather than invest in the future. Let me give you an example: here the restaurants aim for lunches, weddings, and first communions, so if in the middle of a banquet there are two people who ask for a table, it is only only a nuisance for them. We should focus more on communication. In the Alessandria area there are notable residences of ancient Ligurian families, from Palazzo Pallavicini in Mombaruzzo to Palazzo Spinola in Arquata Scrivia: people are talking a lot about itineraries among the old residences, such as the circuit of Savoy castles, which are also nearby, but they don't know much about that here. However, these are resources that should be cultivated."
Are there any concrete plans to promote tourism that are having difficulty in getting started?
"There are no concrete projects for now, however there has begun to be serious talk regarding the 'incoming' (travelers): they are trying to figure out what forms of entrepreneurship related to reception would work in the territory. In reality there are no package deals, no one sells them. Travel agencies send people to the Maldives, but they do not promote the local wine territory. In short, they send people far away, but do nothing so that they will come here. It's a shame, because in the area, for example in Acqui, there are tourism high schools: how are we able to form these young people? Even Our Italy, which I work for, is not able to do much: it organizes itineraries, but mostly in a local context. The problem here is that there are no mass tourist flows and therefore nobody is willing to invest: not the big entrepreneurs, who apparently don't care about what we have to offer. There is a lack of private investments, as as well public investments. The Pro loco in Trentino has done miracles, here they just organize feasts."
Has the fact of being in the vicinity of the UNESCO sites brought about any advantages?
"A great effort has been made in this direction, but to be successful, it is not enough to be a known territory. It 's true, we are in the so-called buffer zone, in the vicinity of the main sites: but the Dolomites are a Unesco heritage site only with regard to the mountain peaks, and yet everything that lies below them works very well. The challenge is to rely on this certification, monetize it, even though we are in the marginal area. Reflection is needed to understand what the weak points of our proposal are. Nor can we rely too much on institutional networks, for mayors and councilors are forced to deal with everyday life, and tourism, which does not have a direct effect, is certainly not a priority. We are an attainable destination, but someone who can 'pitch' the territory is lacking: but if you don't believe in your own territory, it is difficult to 'pitch' it."
by Umberto Scaliti Del Carretto, chef at the restaurant “L’Aldilà”, Mombaldone (interview transcript)
"Today we'll make a simple and delicious dish that is strongly linked to the territory. After melting a pat of butter together with a little extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan, sauté the onion over a low flame. Previously make a vegetable-based broth with oven-charred beef bones, and strongly flavored with spices to 'accompany' the wine's acidity. When the onion is translucent, slightly toast the rice and stir with a spatula. At this point, add the wine, slightly raising the flame, and then add the broth. The proportions are 50% wine, 50% broth. The quality of wine used to make the risotto is very important. The rice should be kept moist and must never dry out during cooking, otherwise the grain splits. When the rice begins to thicken as it cooks, amalgamating with the starch, use the tip of a kitchen knife to add a small amount of spices. When the cooking is finished, then add the pepper. Afterwards proceed by adding the butter and Parmesan cheese to make it creamy, while stirring gently... Another secret is to remove the risotto from the heat and let it 'settle' instead of serving it right away. Setting the pan on a cold surface, steel or marble for example, generates an absoption of flavours of the dish. After dishing out the risotto, lay a slice of Robiola on the side of each serving.
The risotto is ready. Enjoy your meal."
* Robiola di Roccaverano is the typical cheese of our area, and truly excellent. It is a cheese produced in a large part with goat's milk and minimally, sheep's milk. There are no words to describe it, you just have to taste this cheese, which a European Community law wanted removed from production, because it is made with raw milk. Fortunately, it has been saved. It is commonly called "formaggetta" (little cheese).
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