The Church of Sant'Antonino

The church to Saint Anthony stands isolated on the road leading to Canossa Castle, at the foot of the hills of Monte Vetro and Bianello, the first of the Four Hills to the east that give their name to the Quattro Castella area, and which were part of an important mediaeval defensive system erected to preside over the Apennine hinterland and the mountain passes to Tuscany. The current appearance of the church is the result of the numerous demolitions and rebuilding that took place over the centuries which profoundly changed the original structure. Nowadays, the building is oriented liturgically, with a west-facing façade and its apse to the east; this fact testifies to the antiquity of the architectural layout, which is further demonstrated by copious examples of Romanesque sculpture still to be seen on the façade and the southern side of the building. This suggests either a transformation of the original layout during the Middle Ages, or that the church was once located somewhere else and transferred here in an unknown era, recycling some of the ancient building materials.

Of the rich set of Romanesque sculptures still visible on the outer walls of the current building, the most significant is a lunette with a mythological depiction of Hercules strangling snakes, reinterpreted in a Christian key as an image of Jesus dispelling all Evil on Earth. Also visible are numerous friezes on lintels and jambs in a Romanesque style, with interwoven motifs of vegetable inspiration. This remarkable sculptural heritage is matched by an equally rich array of art treasures preserved inside the church. Of particular importance is the altar in the sanctuary, with a walnut throne attributed to Francesco Domenico Ceccati, accompanied by an interesting collection of eighteenth-century paintings, most notably the altar painting of the martyrdom of St. Anthony by an unknown artist.

The present appearance of the building dates to the restorations made by Prior Don Alfonso Canossa in the years 1701 to 1716, when the nave was extended by nine metres, the altars to the saints Peter and Louis were added, and the current façade was built (although never finished). From the Church of Sant’Antonino begins an extensive system of hiking trails of scenic and tourist interest, which lead into the Quattro Castella Park, with branches heading for the nearby Bianello Castle, whose access avenue begins just a few dozen metres to the west of the church.

Instead, to reach the heart of the park it is necessary to walk for about 200 meters up the road for Bergonzano, until reaching the entrance to the path that climbs the hill of Montevetro and then heads west in the direction of Bianello and other hills, in due course descending to the village of Monticelli. Instead, for the path that leads to Canossa, follow the red and white painted signs of the Due Ducati provincial trail to Monticelli, which leads into the charming little valley of the river Moja. The path then continues into the hinterland, arriving at the historic Canossa Castle after about three hours.

Along the road to Canossa we come across the historic church of Madonna della Battaglia, which commemorates the place where, according to tradition, the famous Battaglia delle Nebbie or "Battle of the Mists" was fought between the troops of Matilda of Canossa and Emperor Henry IV. During an attempt to take the Castle of Canossa by surprise in October 1092, the Emperor’s troops were defeated by a vanguard sent out by the Countess to bar their way. The earliest records of the current building date back to 1528, when rumour was rife in and around Reggio Emilia that a Madonna with miraculous powers was to be found there. Destroyed by fire, it was rebuilt in 1724 and, until a few decades ago, on the first Sunday of May and the 8th of December, a pilgrimage walk took place that left from the Church of Sant'Antonino.