Exquisite examples of late-medieval painting, created in the workshops of artists who wandered the foothills of the Alps in Ticino, are preserved in the church of Santa Maria della Misericordia. The choir of the church contains one of the most complete cycles of late-gothic frescoes in Switzerland, painted in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century. The walls are adorned with a series of 66 paintings dedicated to the Old Testament and 36 dedicated to the New Testament, which allowed believers to ‘read’ the Holy Scriptures.
The St. Peter and Paul’s parish church, meanwhile, has two extraordinary canvases by Giovanni Serodine (1600-1630) to admire. The painter, who divided his time between Ascona and Rome, reveals the influence of late sixteenth-century Roman artists, and in particular the great painter Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, from whom Serodine took the spirit of realism that runs through all of his work.
The town’s art museums, the best-known of which are the Town Museum of Modern Art, the Museum Castello San Materno and the Epper Museum, hold works by artists who stayed or lived in Ascona during the last century. These include major figures such as Marianne von Werefkin, Alexej von Jawlensky, Mischa and Ignaz Epper, Arthur Segal and many other masters of this rejuvenated art form which, freed from the rigid, sterile academicism of the past, began to express more intimate and hidden emotions.
In Piazza San Pietro, next to the town hall, is Casa Serodine, a building erected in 1620 that reflects the architectural style of the noble residences of sixteenth-century Rome. The facade is clad with outstanding full-relief and bas-relief stuccoes, created by Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Serodine, the sons of the building’s owner Cristoforo, as shown by the scroll containing the family’s coat of arms below the architrave of the entrance portal.
Precious ancient artworks can also be admired in the historic St. Fabian and Sebastian’s church, which today is home to the Parish Museum. The baptismal font, located in the St. Peter and Paul’s parish church until 1580, is particularly special, and features two delightful sculpted Byzantine crosses.
For those who love to immerse themselves in nature, the Sculpture Trail that winds for roughly a mile through the woods above the town, following the Pini trail towards Arcegno, is well worth investigating.
Ascona is home to several noteworthy examples of modern and contemporary architecture. Two 1920s buildings designed by two different German architects are particularly worthy of attention: the Monte Verità hotel by Emil Fahrenkamp (1885-1966) and the Teatro San Materno by architect Carl Weidemeyer (1882-1976). These two Bauhaus-style constructions were followed by many others, particularly residential properties, designed by architects such as Richard Neutra and Marcel Breuer, as well as Weidemeyer himself. Ascona therefore became the first municipality in Ticino to combine traditional architecture with modern, rationalist designs with a Nordic flavour.
Particularly important in the Ticino region are the buildings by architect Livio Vacchini (1933-2007), who was responsible for renovating the Monte Verità hotel, building a new wing which included a restaurant and auditorium. Along with private houses, Vacchini also came up with the plans for the public lido. Designed as a sort of transition between the land and the lake, the structure is divided up by large circular openings across the entire reinforced concrete facade.
2019 is the centenary of the foundation of the Bauhaus, and three of the most important cultural institutions in Ascona, the Town Museum of Modern Art, the Monte Verità and the Teatro San Materno, are marking this anniversary with a joint programme of events. See their websites for further details.
Poetry and literature
Founded in 1926 by Charlotte Giese, Rosetta Gelmini-Perucchi and Giovanni Francesco Poncini, as well as other Ascona residents, the Biblioteca Popolare library has played an important role in the town’s cultural life since it opened. Thanks to the generosity of Laura Pancaldi-Pasini and with the assistance of Baron von der Heydt and the writer Emil Ludwig, in 1955 the library moved to its permanent location on the lakefront, where to this day it has an important, dual function, acting both as a small cultural centre and a treasure trove for literature lovers.
It was summer 1913 when Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958), along with some of his pupils, Mary Wigman, Suzanne Perrottet, Katja Wulff and Maja Lederer, reached the shore of Lake Maggiore and stayed on Monte Verità for several months. Hence, Laban’s dance school (founded in Munich in 1910) was established south of the Alps, supported and assisted by Henri Oedenkoven, Ida Hoffmann and other colony inhabitants. The result was the Monte Verità Art School, designed in the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk (a synthesis of the arts), where every pupil, while retaining total freedom of expression, was directed towards each form of art, from dance and movement to music and public speaking, based on the concept of a simple and community-focused life.
In 1928, Charlotte Bara (1900-1986) founded the first school of modern dance south of the Alps at the Teatro San Materno, meaning expressionist dance was no longer limited to Monte Verità and so made headway in the cultural spaces of the canton, reaching a wider and more varied public.
The Teatro San Materno hosts mystical, Oriental and sacred dance performances staged by Charlotte Bara, her students and her partner, dancer Gordon Ludwig.
The Settimane Musicali were launched in 1946, and over the years have become one of the most important autumn events in the canton. Almost all leading performers of twentieth-century classical music have performed at Ascona’s Settimane Musicali.
The Golden Leopard gleams on the shore of Lake Maggiore. Since its launch in 1946, the Locarno International Film Festival has established itself as one of the leading showcases for cinema in the world, alongside the Cannes, Berlin and Venice festivals. The festival at the Lake Maggiore is a favourite among cinephiles due to its constan search for the unconventional and its ability to give space to emerging filmmakers, while also hosting the biggest stars from the sector, people who have made cinema history. Every year, for ten days, Piazza Grande becomes a giant openair cinema, hosting up to 8,000 spectators and films projected on a huge 26 x 14 meter screen. Hundreds of movies are shown in venues in and around Ascona and the many exciting red carpet events draw big crowds.