The Via Francigena is a historical itinerary leading to Rome from Canterbury, a major route used by thousands of northern European pilgrims on their way to Rome. At the beginning of the 11th century mainly, a multitude of souls "looking for their Lost Heavenly Home" began to travel across Europe. This route bears witness to the importance of the practice of pilgrimage in medieval times; the pilgrim was to travel mostly on foot (for penitential reasons), covering about 20-25 Km a day, and was driven by a fundamentally devotional reason: the pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Christianity. There were at the time three main centers of devotion: Rome, first of all, the site of the martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul; Santiago de Compostela, the place chosen by the apostle Saint James to rest in peace and, obviously, Jerusalem in the Holy Land. The pilgrim did not travel alone but in a group, and he carried the pilgrimage emblems (the shell for Santiago de Compostela, the cross for Jerusalem and the key for Saint Peter in Rome). Along these very same pilgrim routes, an intense trading activity was carried out and armies followed the same itineraries in the course of their movements.
In Piedmont, the Susa Valley section of the "Via Francigena," from Turin to Lyons via Moncenisio, is a segment of one of the many "Via Francigena" itineraries that crossed the Alps during the Middle Ages. It does not correspond to the modern concept of road but probably consisted of a set of parallel paths along the floor of the valley, more or less numerous according to the width of the area crossed.
Each wayfarer, whether pilgrim, merchant, prince, peasant or clergyman, plotted his own itinerary, setting his sights case by case on specific objectives and modifying his route according to practical needs. Places of worship, market towns, obligatory points of transit and tollage, monasteries, "hospitals" and places to stay had to be established beforehand as essential reference points during the journey. Along the route, which could also be of medium or short range, that is to say designed for an intermediate destination, the pilgrim encountered widely or only locally renowned places of worship. In most cases, the main directive of his route offered many occasions for intersecting other religious routes. The most distant destination of the Holy Sepulchre could be accompanied by one dedicated to the worship of St Michael (Sacra) or St John Vincent (S. Ambrogio, Celle), alongside and in addition to stages dedicated to prayer (chapels), to the care of souls (priories and parishes) and specialized assistance, proposed by an effective system of hospices (Moncenisio and Ranverso), monasteries (Novalesa, St Justus of Susa) and Charterhouses (Montebenedetto and Banda).
This firmly-entrenched and now more than 1000-year-old system is wisely distributed and closely interconnected with the dense, parallel and complementary network of lay noble presence, an expression of more or less vast and authoritative territorial power (castles, fortresses, redoubts).
Sacra Di S. Michele
The Benedectine Abbey of St Michael is perched on the top of Monte Pirchiriano from where it dominates the entrance of the Susa Valley. Over the centuries, the Abbey, which was built at the end of the 10th century, experienced a period of considerable intellectual and economic importance during which the Abbey was extended and enriched. It started to decline from the 14th century onwards. In the 12th century, craftsman from the Valley of the Po, who also worked on other important Romanesque cathedrals in the region of Emilia during the same period, were employed at the Abbey. The splendid Zodiac Door by Master Niccolò dates back to around 1130, while the capitols of the nave and the sculptures of the apse are dated some decades later. Inside the church with a nave and two side aisles, are 16th-century frescoes and an important triptych by Defendente Ferrari.
Abbazia Di Novalesa
The prosperous Benedectine Abbey of Novalesa, founded in 726, was endowed by Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious. It earned fame and prestige as a spiritual centre and for its rich library. It was destroyed in 906 during a Saracen raid but flourished again in the 13th century, continuing to provide hospitality to pilgrims until the 17th century when the monastery was taken over by the Cistercians. The Benedectine monks returned in the 1970's and have opened a workshop for the restoration of ancient books. The central nucleus, including the church and the nearby convent, is surrounded by a number of chapels dating back to the Early Middle Ages. The most interesting is undeniably that of St Eldradus (abbot of Novalesa in the 9th century), completely frescoed inside with scenes from the life of St Eldradus and of St Nicholas dating back to 1096-97.
The tightly-woven medieval fabric of the "old" town of Avigliana, stretching along the route that led from Turin to France, and of the "new" town which developed from the 12th century onwards at the foot of the castle (now in ruins), preserves important traces of the 13th century (the decorated stone capitols in Piazza Conte Rosso and on the Porta Ferrata house) and 14th-century buildings. The beautiful façade of the church of St John The Baptist (paintings by Defendente Ferrari) dates back to the mid 15th century. Outside the oldest walls, the Church of St Peter, founded prior to the year 1000, was part of the domains of the provost of Moncenisio from 1205 onwards. The present building dates back to the 12th century and was integrated between the 14th and 15th centuries with application of terra cotta cornices and pinnacles. Inside are frescoes of different cultural origin.
An important city in Roman times, Susa still preserves many traces of that particular period in its history such as the amphitheatre (2nd century AD) and the Arch of Augustus (9-8 BC). The impressive bulk of the castle, known as the castle of the Marchioness Adelaide, built at the end of the 10th century and remodeled several times subsequently, towers above the city. The impressive façade of the Cathedral of St Justus, founded in the 11th century, stands beside one of the Roman gates, known as Porta Savoia. Inside the cathedral, visitors can admire the triptych by Bonifacio Rotario of 1358 and a triptych on board dated 1491 coming from the Charterhouse of Banda. The façade, the canon's house and the Romanesque bell tower are visible from the nearby church of Saint Mary Major (closed for religious ceremonies in1749). The most ancient vestige of devotion to the Virgin along the routes followed by the pilgrims is preserved in the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art: the statue of the Madonna of the Bridge (12th century). Legend has it that the Convent of St Francis was founded by Beatrice of Savoy at the request of St Francis himself who passed through the city in 1213. Inside the church, with a Gothic portal and pediment, 15th-century frescoes depict the Evangelists. In the middle of fields and vineyards stands the charming deconsecrated church of St Saturnino, an important Augustinian priorate of the De' Barrali family of Susa until 1231 when Rudolph donated it to the "Prevostura" of Oulx.
The Precettoria of S. Antonio di Ranverso, an important place of sustenance for pilgrims traveling along the via Francigena, was founded at the end of the 12th century by the Hospitalier Order of the St Anthony of Vienne. In addition to rustic buildings, it also included a hospital, of which the façade with pediment and pinnacles still remains, the "precettoria" and the church. Today, the church is characterized by articulated 15th-16th century forms embellished with terracotta decorations and flanked by the 14th-century Gothic bell tower. Inside are various cycles of frescoes dating back to the 13th-15th centuries, the most outstanding of which are those by Giacomo Jaquerio, dating back to the start of the 15th century. In the presbytery is a beautiful polyptych by Defendente Ferrari dated 1531, with protective door panels, also painted.
Among the religious buildings along the Via Francigena, the recently-restored Charterhouse of Montebenedetto is the best preserved vestige of the original presence of the Order of the White Monks. In the Susa Valley, the Carthusians gradually moved from the mountain (Losa, Montebenedetto, Banda) towards the plain Avigliana, Collengo).The years in which they dwelled at Montebenedetto marked the period of maximum expansion of their community.