Serravalle, Blenio Valley, 13.04.2017
The Blenio Valley
This valley stretches 25 km South - North from Biasca to Olivone, then 20 km East - West from Olivone to Lucomagno pass. Nowadays it has some importance for tourism and as a direct link between Ticino and the upper Rhine valley in the Grisons. The situation was quite different during antique times and during the Middle Ages when the valley was of great strategic importance. Until the 13th century the San Gottardo massif was an unsurmountable obstacle, especially for the transport of goods, because there was no bridge over the Reuss gorge between Göschenen and Andermatt. Therefore the main North – South route through the Alps was through the Blenio valley and Lucomagno pass. And there was much more traffic during those times than we would imagine today. Long before the EU freedoms of movement a lot of long distance trading was going on, but also soldiers, pilgrims and other people were using this route.
During the 15th century Biasca, the Leventina and the Blenio valley were disputed between the duchy of Milan and the central Swiss cantons which invaded and occupied them temporarily several times. At the end of the century they were definitively annexed and then administered by the Confederation for the next 300 years.
At the beginning of this century the valley was still divided into 17 municipalities. After a serious of mergers there are only 3 of them left: Blenio in the upper valley, Acquarossa in the middle part and Serravalle in the lower part. The total population is around 5800.
We walk here through the ruins of a very large old fortification, actually the 3d most important one in the Ticino, after those of Bellinzona and Locarno. It has been built on a rocky outcrop at the mouth of the Blenio valley overlooking the plain. This was an excellent location to control the North – South traffic and to defend the valley against potential intruders. The name Serravalle comes from the Lombard period in the early Middle Ages, when the term Sara/Sala indicated the presence of a juridical and administrative entity (cf. Sala Capriasca near Tesserete).
The history of the castle is long and complex. It could well be the subject of a one semester university course, but not of our talk during the Walk. Here only some basic data: The castle has been built, destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. It was first constructed during Carolingian times, around 900 A.D. In the 12th century the lord of the castle and of the valley supported emperor Federico Barbarossa of the German Empire against the Lombard League, an alliance of Northern Italian cities fighting for more independence from the empire. Before the important battle of Legnano (1176), emperor Federico is said to have passed some days in this castle. In 1182 the people of Blenio Valley and Leventina Valley joined in an alliance, overthrew the lord of Serravalle and destroyed the castle completely.
In the 13th century the Orelli family took over control of the region and with the help of Milan rebuilt this castle and made it their residence. The Visconti family became master of Milan and as such also rulers of The Blenio valley. Towards the end of the 14th century the Viscontis gave Castle Serravalle to a noble family from Bologna. But the local population did not accept that a new foreign ruler was imposed. They overthrew him, probably even killed him and destroyed the castle in 1402 for a 2nd time, and this time for good.
Only the church at the lower end of the castle was spared. This church is documented already in 1329, but its present appearance is from the 16th century. The two frescos on the outside wall are well connected to this place: St. Christopher, the patron of all kind of travelling people – and there were a lot of them along this South-North route. Then the allegoric figure of Justice, reminding us that the term Serra in Serravalle means a place with a juridical function. Please note also that unlike most other representations of Justice this one does not have the eyes blindfolded.
During the following centuries the ruins were completely abandoned and forgotten. Only in the years 1928-30 the first archaeological surveys were done. Since the beginning of this century more archaeological research and restoration has been done and is still ongoing. The plan is to turn the whole area into a archaeological park with information boards for the visitors.
Ludiano: Church San Secondo
This impressing baroque church was built towards the end of the 18th century. But a previous church is already documented 500 years earlier (1293). The interior has a rich decoration of Corinthian pillars, stuccos, various paintings and sculptures. The old Romanesque tower has been restored. The church is dedicated to S. Secondo, deputy of S. Maurice, commander of a Roman legion executed as martyrs around the year 300. Currently the interior of the church is undergoing a complete restoration that should be finished in autumn 2017.
Ludiano: il gande torchio (the big winepress)
This is one of the biggest preserved wine-presses in Ticino. The lever is about 10 m long. It dates from the 18th century (inscription: 1756) and is property of the local Patriziato. It is kept in Cá Mutal, an old building in the upper part of the village.
The press is still functional and is used every year during wine harvest time, which ends with the Festa del torchio.
Motto: Church San Pietro
This church is another evidence for the strategic importance of the route through the Blenio valley. It holds one of the oldest signs of Christian presence in Switzerland. If you look under the large stone slab of the altar, you see what remains of the small original altar that dates from the 6th century. It is thought that during Roman times there was already a small altar where people were worshiping pagan deities and that it has been Christianised when the new faith gradually conquered the valley. In and around the
church archaeologists found several graves from the 8th–10th century. The characteristic Romanesque church we see now is basically from the 13th century. It became a baptism church and then parish church for the surrounding villages, until it was replaced in this function by the churches of Ludiano and Semione in the 14th century. In 1570 S. Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan, visited the church during one of his pastoral visits to his Ticinesi parishes. 10 years later the church was again enlarged and took the present shape and the bell tower was erected. Major restoration works were carried out in the 70ies and 80ies of last century.
The most remarkable feature of this church is a cycle of frescos by anonymous masters from the late 14th to the early 16th century. The frescos in the apse (Christ in the mandorla surrounded by 4 evangelists, Annunciation, the 12 apostles, St Antonius the Eremit) are attributed to the school of Antonio da Tradate, that painter from Northern Italy who decorated many churches in Ticino with his works, ex. S. Ambrogio in Negrentino which we visited 7 years ago,. Like in Negrentino, one of the 3 little windows in the apse was enlarged later; for the sake of more light in the interior one apostle was sacrificed, in Negrentino even two. On the left wall pay attention to the majestic figure of S. Peter, saint patron of this church, represented as a Renaissance pope with the tiara crown on his head, the keys to heaven in one hand and the other hand in a teaching or blessing attitude. In the 19th century a painter made a “modernised” version of St. Mary with child just above the older version of another painter.
Outside on the southern wall we notice a big St. Christophorus and a Christ over the entrance, frescos that have suffered a lot from weather conditions over the centuries.
The former railway Biasca - Acquarossa
The walking trail on which we walk back from Motto to Malvaglia follows exactly the railway line of the historic narrow track railway from Biasca to Acquarossa. It was running from 1911 – 1973. Originally it was planned to extend it until Olivone, but the plan was never realised. Along the way we can still see some of the basis for the metal masts holding the power line. The beginning of the 20th century was a golden age for the opening of new narrow track railways in Ticino: 1907 Locarno – Bignasco, 1908 Bellinzona – Mesocco, 1909 Lugano – Tesserete, 1911 Biasca – Acquarossa, 1911 Lugano – Cadro – Dino, 1923 Locarno – Domodossola.
Tony Walker (Anton Marti)