Bellinzona has always had great historical and political standing due to its position on the intersection of several crucial roads between the north and south of the Alps. Numerous religious, military and civil monuments including the castles (listed by Unesco in 2000 as part of our World Heritage) are all evidence of Bellinzona’s important past.
This itinerary is centred on the church of San Biagio - (noteworthy for the quality of its artistic 14thC and 15thC decoration), followed by a walk revealing the history of the capital of Ticino. Start from the church square in front of San Biagio, Ravecchia and pay a visit to the church itself followed by a look at Villa dei Cedri (now an art museum). Almost opposite, on the other side of the railway line you can see Bellinzona’s best loved landmark - the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, famed for its wonderful Renaissance frescoes. Unfortunately the church was seriously damaged by fire in 1996 and is still being restored. Moving towards the town centre along via Pedotti and via Lugano as far as Piazza Indipendenza you come to the church and monument of San Rocco.
Continue down via Camminata as far as Piazza Nosetto in the heart of the old-town, where you can see town houses with interesting doorways, arcades, wrought iron balconies, and old signs up and down the medieval streets.
Follow via Teatro as far as Palazzo delle Orsoline, now Canton government offices situated in Piazza del Governo. Backtracking along via Nosetto as far as the Collegiata, across via Codeborgo and Piazzetta della Valle (adjacent to Piazza del Sole) you come to the elevator which takes you up to Castelgrande (towers and museum to visit). From the walls of the castle there’s a wonderful view over the other two castles and surrounding area.
The church of San Biagio is in Ravecchia, a southern part of the territory of Bellinzona, set in the piazza of the same name, overlooking the gardens of Villa dei Cedri. There was probably a monastery in the area, but by the time the church became the property of the town of Bellnzona (14thC-15thC) it is unlikely that there was still a monastery associated with San Biagio. The present day 13thC building could be a reconstruction, but is more likely to be an expansion of the pre-existing church. This was the conclusion reached by early 19thC archaeologista during investigations carried out in preparation for the major restoration works of 1913-14 which brought the church back to its original form, eliminating various modifications made over the centuries.
The bell-shaped façade is of natural stone; the upper part of the square bell tower was rebuilt in 16thC. The façade gets its character from the frescoes, some of which are still legible, and recently restored. Above the entrance is a lunette of the Madonna and Child between saint Biagio, bishop , to the right and saint Peter to the left. Higher up is the Annunciation with a picture of Christ in the act of benediction. To the left is a giant sized saint Christopher with the Infant Christ on his shoulders . The protector of travellers was an important figure, visible from afar and an invitation to travellers and pilgrims to enter the church and pray. Painted in a richly decorated frame, the saint gazes across the river with a flowering staff in his hand. The artist is unknown, but scholars refer to him as Maestro di San Biagio, a late 14thC Lombard artist.
Influenced by Giotto, his compositions are well balanced, his drawing delicate and precise with a noble sense of design, and an invaluable sense of colour. The elegant Gothic lines of his human figures are very expressive. Inside, the church opens onto a wide basilica with a nave and two side aisles supported by pillars ending in three choirs ; wooden ceiling, 16thC and 17thC tombstones on the wall.
At one time the artwork must have covered the walls completely, but what remains has not weathered well. However it is still possible to discern the quality of the artistic interventions.
The oldest (?1340) is the one over the Arch of Triumph, almost certainly by an artist known as Maestro di Sant’Abbondio for his work in the church of that name in Como. He painted the Madonna di Misericordia on the upper reaches in the first half of 14thC (he also worked on the Chiesa Rossa in Castel san Pietro). The Madonna welcomes the faithful under the rich folds of her cloak (a symbol for the whole community); the composition is simple and direct, enlivened by surrounding angels; below is a an Annunciation with a central vase of lilies.
The paintings in the apse have been attributed to the hand of Maestro di Biagio, although they appear to be from an earlier period than the paintings on the exterior. The four Evangelists are depicted on the vault, below a Crucifixion (only partly visible) and the apostles. This excellent quality of this work can be seen in the use of colour, the characterisation of the human figures and the restrained realism of the balanced composition. On the south wall the fragment of the Crucifixion stands out for its fine quality among other frescoes of a votive nature (unknown artist working at the end of 14thC).
On the opposite side of the façade are numerous portraits of saints - Apollonia whose teeth are being pulled out with pincers, a particularly intense Veronica, and a Madonna surrounded by other saints (14thC-15thC). On the north wall is the remnant of a Deposition of Christ retrieved from a demolished oratory, saint Antonio Abbot and saint Lorenzo, martyr. Even the pillars are richly decorated- a late 15thC saint Bartolomeo is in evidence surrounded by the symbols of his martyrdom in the Seregnese style (a knife and pieces of skin taken from his body), as well as a somewhat static saint Agata disfigured by graffiti.
Finally there is an invaluable canvas of the Virgin Mary flanked by saints Biagio and Gerolamo (1520) by the Lombard painter Domenico Pezzi, better known as Sursnicus.
(Key from the parish - Tel. +41 (0)91 825 25 05)
Villa dei Cedri (art museum)
permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. Works by Swiss and Italian 19thC artists (and later).
Tuesday-Saturday 10.00-12.00 and 14.00-18.00
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
exceptional Renaissance frescoes.
Monumento all’Indipendenza and church of San Rocco in Piazza Indipendenza.
Renaissance style building reconstructed in 1924 (Piazza Nosetto)
built in 19thC. Conservative restoration in 1992-1997 Palazzo delle Orsoline, now Canton government building, first constructed as a convent in 1738.
Collegiata saints Pietro and Stefano
Renaissance façade, frescoes, stucco and canvases of the Lombard school.
Castello di Montebello
Interior core 13thC/14thC, extended in 15thC. Historical and archaeological museum
(open March to November, 10.00-18.00)
(13thC) retaining wall, Torre Bianca, Torre Nera. Interesting restoration (arch.Galfetti) 1981-1991. Art, history and archaeology museum.
Open daily, 10.00-18.00.
Recommended period: january - december
San Biagio: Bus, no. 5 from rail station, alight at Posta Vecchia. Bus, no. 1 or 2, alight at Cimitero;
follow signs to Villa dei Cedri.