Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta – Riola, Italy - Atlas Obscura

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Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta

A design by master architect Alvar Aalto in a small village in the Apennines near Bologna. 

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Standing at the foot of the Bolognese Apennines, surrounded by the peaceful village of Riola di Vergato, is a modern masterpiece of sacred architecture: the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, designed by the Finnish master architect Alvar Aalto upon commission by the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro; a unique combination of art, nature and faith, embodying the prelate’s vision of bringing beauty even to the most remote places. 

The story of Riola di Vergato’s church began between late 1965 and early 1966, when Cardinal Lercaro visited an exhibition of Alvar Aalto’s designs at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. He was fascinated by the creative genius of the renowned architect and immediately wanted to entrust him with the construction of a church. The cardinal had already shown his deep interest in contemporary art by attempting to commission works from Kenzo Tange, Le Corbusier, and Pablo Picasso. Unfortunately, for different reasons, none of these projects had materialized. This, however, was the right time.

Aalto accepted the cardinal’s invitation and, after an inspection in Riola, drew up a project that fit perfectly into the surrounding landscape. The church was built with prefabricated concrete panels that were assembled on-site. Its façade is characterized by asymmetrical half-arches, which abstractly evoke the profile of the nearby Apennines. The interior is simple and linear, with natural light filtering through large ceiling windows and creating an atmosphere of quietness and contemplation that is an invitation to prayer and meditation. The construction began in 1975, but unfortunately, neither Cardinal Lercaro nor Alvar Aalto lived to see the work completed, as they both passed away in 1976. The main body of the church was finished in 1978, while the bell tower in front was inaugurated in 1993, completing the work.

Today, the Church of Santa Maria Assunta di Riola di Vergato stands as a testament to human creativity and devotion, a jewel of architectural brilliance nestled in the mountains near Bologna. Its unique design, a fusion of art, nature, and faith, continues to inspire awe and admiration, drawing visitors from far and wide to bask in its beauty and tranquillity.

Know Before You Go

Riola di Vergato is easily reachable by train from Bologna. In its surroundings, visitors can find Rocchetta Mattei, the surreal residence of the father of electrohomeopathy.

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