Day Trips from Milan
Castiglione Olona and Masolino
Masolino, Baptism of Christ (c1435)
A Small Piece of Tuscany in Lombardy
Castiglione Olona is often described as a little piece of Tuscany in northern Italy. And the old centre of the town has a remarkably Tuscan air to it. The reason lies with one man, Cardinal Branda Castiglioni. Coming from the local noble family, he became an influential Papal Legate (to Hungary), a Cardinal and right-hand-man to various Popes. Though he lived most of his life in Rome and Tuscany, he remained attached to his home town of Castiglione and set about creating an ideal Renaissance environment where he would spend his later years. He employed the Tuscan artist Masolino to fresco the Church, Baptistery and palace, and the Baptistery frescos are considered to be the painter's late masterpiece.
Villa Church, Castiglione Olona
Take the train from Milano Cadorna (Ferrovie Nord) to Venegono Superiore-Castiglione (Milan-Saronno-Varese-Laveno line - journey time around 50 minutes, plus 30 minutes walk). Trains leave Milan Cadorna at 33 minutes past each hour, and return trains leave Venegono Superiore at 32 minutes past each hour.
On arriving at Venegono Superiore station, walk along the platform you alight on towards the back of train, to reach the level crossing. Do not cross the railway lines but take road westwards from level crossing, away from town of Venegono Superiore. Follow this minor road, in part through countryside, for about 15-20 minutes. It becomes Via Fratelli Rosselli on descending into Castiglione, leading to a main road with traffic lights (Via C. Battisti). Cross over the traffic lights towards the Church and take Via Papa Celestino. This soon leads into Piazza Repubblica; bear right into Via Volta. At the roundabout take Via Matteotti. The road curves round and descends, nearing the old centre. Almost at the point where it becomes Via Marconi, look for some steps down on your right, leading to an entrance arch. This is the start of the old centre.
Alternatively, a local bus service (GLC Giuliani & Laudi) runs between the stations of Tradate and Varese via Castiglione Olona with stops in Via Papa Celestino and Via Marconi. Buses leave Tradate at 11:00 or 13:05 (Mon-Sat) and 12:10 or 13:50 (Sun and bank holidays). Return from Castiglione at 17:42 (Mon-Sat) or 17:24 (Sun and holidays) (check times at number below).
By car, Castliglione Olona is only a few kilometres away from the A8 motorway (Milan-Varese) and the Castronno exit. There are various car parks in Castiglione, mainly to the north and east of the old centre.
Getting Your Bearings
The old centre of Castiglione Olona is rather small. You normally enter the town from the eastern entrance gate on Via Roma; following this road you can quickly leave the town via the western arched gate and walk a few steps outside the walls and down to the river, the Romanesque bridge and the mills. Back in the town, the Museum of Plastic Arts is in Via Roma. Via Cavour also leads off Via Roma to the main square, Piazza Garibaldi, with Palazzo Branda, the information office and the Villa Church. Two roads lead north from Piazza Garibaldi, Via Cardinale Branda leads past the Villa Church to the Collegiate Church and Baptistery.
Places to See and Visit
Palazzo Branda in Piazza Garibaldi was the family home of the Castiglioni family, the local nobles. Built originally in the 14th century, it was enlarged and embellished over the years, in particular by Cardinal Branda Castiglioni (1350-1443) who employed artists such as Masolino and il Vecchietta to fresco some rooms. On the first floor a display records the important events in the life of Cardinal Branda. The Cardinal's room has delightful frescos of putti trying to steal fruit in all manners of ways, while his study has a fresco by Masolino of a Hungarian landscape, done at a time when landscapes were used normally only as background decorations. Look also for the frescoed head of a black boy near the staircase! The chapel has frescos by il Vecchietta. Generally open Tuesday to Sunday, 09:00-12:00 and 15:00-18:00 (Sunday morning opening at 10:30; entrance ticket also includes admission to the Museum of Plastic Arts).
Villa Church in Piazza Garibaldi was built in the 15th century and was inspired very much by Tuscan architects, especially Brunelleschi. Square in plan with a hexagonal tympanum, it has two massive statues of saints on either side of the entrance. The domed inside has a fine triptych showing the Virgin, Saint Sebastian and Saint Rocco.
Collegiate Church and Baptistery at the end of Via Cardinale Branda. Once the site of the town's fortress, as the entrance gate suggests, the Church and Baptistery were built in the 1420s. The lunette above the main door to the church shows the Virgin between Saint Lorenzo and Saint Stephen; kneeling on the Virgin's right is Cardinal Branda. Inside the Church, the apse contains Masolino's frescos showing the story of the Virgin. The sarcophagus on the left of the apse contains the body of the Cardinal. The small Baptistery, originally the base of an old fortress tower, lies in the far corner opposite the side entrance to the Church. On either side of the Baptistery entrance door, red sketching can be seen for Masolino's fresco of the Annunciation, which has been removed and can be seen in the small museum through the other door under the Baptistery portico. The Baptistery houses Masolino's late masterpiece fresco series showing scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, painted around 1435. The Tuscan 15th century baptismal font is also worthy of note. Opening times similar to Palazzo Branda (the Collegiate Church entrance ticket includes visits to the Church, Baptistery and small museum)
Museum of Plastic Arts (Museo di Arte Plastica - MAP) in Via Roma houses a new collection of pieces by modern artists including G. Balla, Man Ray, etc. (entrance with same ticket as for the Palazzo Branda, similar times).
Other places of interest include the Romanesque (mediaeval) bridge, various other palazzos (especially Palazzo Clerici and Palazzo Magenta Marchesi, not normally open to the public), courtyards, and the Castle of Monteruzzo, just outside the old centre in Via Marconi, which is used for special exhibitions and has a large park (open all year round). A small bric-a-brac market is held on the first Sunday in the month, and a Palio is held in July.
The Artist Masolino da Panicale
Masolino was born in Panicale (central Italy) around 1383-84 and christened Tommaso, though it was his nickname "Masolino" (from "Tommasino" meaning "little Thomas") that stuck. We know little of his early years, though it is thought he worked for the studios of artists such as Ghiberti. His first known works date from the 1420s when he was in his forties. He is usually studied along with the painter Masaccio ("big, bad Thomas") since they both worked on the landmark frescos of the Brancacci chapel in Florence. Whereas Masolino worked in the older "International Gothic" style, following somewhat in the footsteps of Giotto, Masaccio developed a strong, heroic, austere style, a forerunner of the style adopted by Michelangelo. Masaccio's agonising Expulsion of Adam and Eve is often contrasted with Masolino's effete Fall of Man, both in the Brancacci Chapel. Masaccio's revolutionary style was cut short by his early death, aged just 27.
Although Masolino was by no means a revolutionary, his skill as a painter is remarkable and he is unfairly overshadowed by contrast with Masaccio. While in the later 1420s Masolino was greatly influenced by Masaccio, in the 1430s and especially in his frescos in Castiglione, he reverted to his earlier, more serene style. The beautifully-worked faces of his Baptistery frescos and some of the garments point back to the "International Gothic" style, for instance. Masolino worked mainly thanks to the esteem of his patron, Cardinal Branda, and he is known to have accompanied the Cardinal even to Hungary.
Masolino, Banquet of Herod (c1435)
The St. John the Baptist Fresco Cycle in the Baptistery
Masolino's fresco cycle in the Collegiate Baptistery shows the gospel story of St. John the Baptist. In the apse is a fresco showing St. John baptising Christ and other followers in the River Jordan. The figures being baptised on the left are thought to include portraits of both Cardinal Branda (kneeling) and Masolino (behind).
The other frescos mainly relate to the imprisonment and death of St. John after King Herod became alarmed by the activities of John the Baptist and Christ. As the frescos clearly show, St. John was first imprisoned for censuring the incestuous marriage between King Herod and Herodias, the wife of his brother. Herod avoided sentencing John the Baptist to death to escape any trouble from the populace. However, at Herod's birthday party Salome, Herodias' daughter, danced before the guests, and Herod was so delighted that he promised to fulfil her any wish. Prompted by her mother, Salome asked that St. John the Baptist's head be presented to her on a dish.
King Herod unwillingly succumbed; St. John was beheaded and his head was brought on a dish and given to Salome, who then presented it to her mother. St. John's followers later managed to reunite head and body and bury the corpse.
Tourist Information Office - Piazza Garibaldi 4, Castiglione Olona (VA) - tel 0331 858048
Castiglione Olona website: www.comune.castiglione-olona.va.it
Palazzo Branda - Piazza Garibaldi, Castiglione Olona (VA) - tel 0331 858301
Museum of Plastic Arts (Museo Arte Plastica - MAP) - Via Roma 29, Castiglione Olona (VA)
GLC Giuliani & Lauda (bus service) - Via Bainsizza 27, Varese (VA) - tel 0332 236127
Local taxi service (Maria Marazzi Seconda) - tel 0331 830417 - mobile 348 2615885
Ferrovie Nord Milano - Piazzale Cadorna 14, Milano (MI) - tel 02 20222 - website: www.ferrovienord.it
Food and Drink
A minute or two's walk into Venegono Superiore from the station, there are bars, cake and ice-cream shops.
In Castiglione Olona, there are various bars and restaurants:
La Cantina del Borgo - Via Roma 19, Castiglione Olona (VA) - tel 0331 859021
Al Vecchio Portico - Corte dei Ragni (via G. Lucioni 4), Castiglione Olona (VA); (follow Via Mazzini from Piazza Garibaldi) - tel 0331 824824
Pub Old Inn - Piazza Garibaldi, Castiglione Olona (VA) - tel 0331 850772
Other bars and restaurants are mainly to be found on the main road (Via C. Battisti) going south.
© Nigel J. Ross, 2004 (no liability accepted)