Municipality of Toano.
The Matilda-era parish church of Santa Maria Assunta and the ancient villages of Stiano and Manno

Continuing our exploration of the extensive possessions of the Grand Countess Matilda of Canossa, we come to Toano, a small village nestling in the magnificent countryside of the Apennine range. The first mention we have of Toano is in an Imperial privilege granted by Otto II in 980 which also refers to the parish church: Plebem de Toano. It appears again some decades later in a list of castles and parish churches that changed hands between Marquis Boniface of Canossa and the Bishop of Reggio. There is reason to believe that Toano was one of the last fortifications to be built by the Canossa family.

Even though no trace of the castle can be found when climbing up to the church, the building was recorded as already in existence shortly after the year One Thousand and was surrounded, together with the church, by sturdy defensive walls. The castle presided over the major access road into Tuscany, which would have been the one that Countess Matilda most often used.

Leaving from Canossa for Marola and Carpineti, this road reached Toano, then descended towards the Dolo stream as far as the Quara Spa, to then snake upwards towards Romanoro, joining the ancient Via Bibulca to cross the Alps. In the Middle Ages the church was destroyed along with the castle during the struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines, however, several studies maintain that its current form may not have seen any radical alterations after the last period of rebuilding somewhere between the XII and XIII centuries, apart from an apparent lowering of the highest part of the central nave and exterior refacing of the sides. The church, named after Santa Maria Assunta, was seriously damaged on the 5 August 1944 by retreating German troops, who set fire to it inside. This fire completely destroyed the roof, the furniture and the liturgical trappings. Traces of it may still be seen on the walls of the apse and on the two large sculpted capitals.

Restoration work only began in 1946, and today it remains one of the most beautiful examples of Romanesque architecture in the territory of Reggio Emilia. During restoration the three apses and the roof were rebuilt, while the floor was lowered to the level of the primitive one, bringing to light the bases of the internal columns and pillars as well as revealing major Romanesque elements in sandstone from the XII century. The interior is characterised by an uncluttered spaciousness that seems to shroud us in an atmosphere of far-off times. The interior is divided into three distinct naves by two orders of stout columns with generous rounded arches. The decorations sculpted into the capitals, lunettes and architraves depict interlacing vegetal, geometric and zoomorphic motifs. The decorations of the capitals are of exceptional interest and obey a quite particular religious and liturgical symbolism typical of the Romanesque style that is to be found in other churches near Reggio from the same period. Of particular significance is the second capital of the right-hand nave which is finely decorated with a bestiary.

Both the capitals and the columns are similar to those of the parish church of Marola, which however displays greater refinement and variety in the forms.Meanwhile, it seems very likely that the Toano church was modelled on the major Italian cathedrals of the XI century such as those at Parma and Modena. Thoroughly enchanted by the Romanesque art of Santa Maria Assunta at Toano, we move on just a few kilometres to visit the small ancient villages of Stiano and Manno, nestling in a peaceful natural landscape amongst woods of oak and chestnut.

Stiano lies in a fine position facing the high Secchia valley and overlooked by the Castle of the Carpinete. The village has conserved several ancient buildings including the so-called “House of the Ceccati” – a rare example of a medieval Apennine house/fort, a kind of tower house dating back to the XIV-XV century. The walling features parallel lines of stone, while on the façade, in the architraves of the windows, symbolic motifs of medieval origin can be made out. It was once a home and workshop for the Ceccati, a family of important sculptors and carvers who were at work in the Apennines near Reggio from the 1600s to the 1800s. A point of interest is the Giannasi farm with its fine, four-arch portico and an entrance portal attributed to the Ceccati From Stiano, after passing Montecroce, a two-kilometre walk takes us to Manno, where we find the Ghirardini farm, a significant example of a noble dwelling, even though partially in ruins.

Of note is the grand entrance portal with its rounded arch delimited by sculpted sandstone medallions depicting the Saints Paul and Prosper, very likely made by the Ceccati workshop. The other interesting ancient village in the Municipality of Toano is Frale, a small nucleus of houses on the slopes to the left of the Dolo stream.

Sadly, a recent intervention has virtually destroyed the fine nobleman’s residence situated at the entrance to the village. Its typological characteristics and architectural elements suggest a date around the XVI century. Of the three buildings making up the complex, the two to the west remain substantially as they were. The infrequent symmetrical windows feature sandstone surrounds with finely carved geometric motifs. Inside is a splendid portal sporting the date "1597". The nearby Marazzi house also boasts elements of great interest. Of particular note are the cornerstones with sculpted geometric motifs and anthropomorphic figures and masks. Also extant is an archivolt portal with four monolithic elements finely reeded in rays dating back to the XVI century while, on the south side, in the architrave of a window, three sculpted crosses may be noted along with Roman numerals that read 12 November, 1473. At the entrance to the village lies a small chapel dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Throughout the village are other interesting details including an ashlar depicting a scorpion, dated 1566.