In 1070, Gandolfo and Oggero, lords of Canelli, obtained from S. Guido, Bishop of Acqui and their relative, the authorization to build a church in the castle. This church, dedicated to St. Michele, was entrusted to the Benedictines of St. Leonardo in the twelfth century and protected by the walls, it became the headquarters of the Parish, located in the Aie Region, Cascina S. Leonardo.
Between 1450 and 1463, after having changed the dedication in that of S. Leonardo, it was completely rebuilt beside the current Canonica and re-consecrated together with the adjacent cemetery.
For reasons of instability of the land, for the growing number of the faithful, it was decided to build a new church on a more stable area. The construction was due to the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit.
The Sardinian family donated the parcel of land within the walled enclosure of Villanuova and placed between the two gates that connected the valleys. The City walled the Door in front of S. Rocco and fill the gap between the ramparts and the first houses, transforming the walls into supporting structures for the new churchyard.
In 1682, under the guidance of the master builder Stefano Melchioni, the construction of the church was begun, designed by an architect whose name is not mentioned in the documents. In 1694 the main body was completed, in 1691 the bell tower was erected, in 1694 the façade was finished and plastered with the addition of the squared pronaos still existing.
The primitive structure was more longitudinal than the present one, since much importance was given to the choir and the apse that were to host the meetings of the Brotherhood.
Around the middle of the 18th century, the apse and the choir, built on the ground, threatened to collapse. In 1747-49 the part of the choir and the apse was demolished, considerably reducing the area of the presbytery moved towards the nave.
In 1750, work began on aesthetic renewal and stylistic updating that lasted for a long time, with the refacing of the main altars, the frescoing of the walls and vaults and the installation of the monumental nineteenth-century organ, restored in the eighties.
It is an interesting example of the persistence of Renaissance taste in provincial environments of the late 600 with rigorous, balanced, elegant accents.
Two pilasters set on high plinths, lock it up and support the tympanum; inside this space a false arch (of Renaissance style), externally highlights the nave illuminated by a large window.
The portal is surmounted by a portico that interprets the medieval protiro in a classical way. In ancient times, the façade was painted with intense tones and decorated with allegorical figures of the Faith and Charity that have now disappeared.
It has a single nave flanked by two pseudo naves made up of side chapels. The shortening from the apse did not distort the initially more impressive and spectacular volumes.
• Right side
First Chapel: patronage of the Sardi family, is said of the “Epiphany”, or of the “Magi Kings”, for the altarpiece painted by Giancarlo Aliberti in 1700. From the same artist the small cimasa with the Nativity and the frescoes of the sub-arch. The side walls are frescoed with paintings attributed to the Aliberti or his school and represent the “Three Wise Men in the presence of King Herod, the massacre of the Innocents, the dream of St. Joseph, the flight into Egypt”.
Approximate renovations have made most of the works illegible. The Chapel is a precious example of stucco decoration of seventeenth-century taste, unfortunately heavily degraded.
Second Chapel: today of the Sacred Heart but once dedicated to the Guardian Angel. It was built in 1689 at the behest of Gerolama Cacheramo Scarampi Crivelli, last marquise of Canelli.
Modified in the 19th century and stripped in the last post-war period. The ancona remains in seventeenth-century stuccowork but disfigured by modern paintings. La Mensa is from the 900. The vault of the chapel is decorated with a beautiful fresco by C. Gorzio from the second half of the eighteenth century.
Third Chapel: it is from the Compagnia del Rosario. The walls are decorated with “eclectic” paintings by Davinci Aliberti, a Canellese artist in 900.
The altarpiece with the Madonna del Rosario of 1698, is one of the first documented works by G. Aliberti. Valuable marble altar is by the Pelagatta brothers (1775). In the same Chapel, in a glass cabinet of 1725, the “machine” processional of the Madonna of the Rosary, made in 1711 by the Asti-born sculptor Giovanni Battista Bonzanigo, is kept.
It is a valuable Baroque work surmounted by the rich canopy and by four little angels that accompany the Holy Representation. The processional group of the “Madonna del Rosario” is of particular interest to understand the figure of the author: the Bonzanigo to which it is attributed with formal documentation. Commissioned in 1711 by the confreres of the S. Sacred Sacrament, it marks a period in which the processional groups had particular interest and dissemination.
The author, in this work, denounces a solid profession and spectacular insights (typical of the time). The modeling is soft and refined especially in the faces; the folds of the garments and even more of the mantle show a fluid and enveloping trend that accentuates the group's regality.
Overall vision, together with the floral decorations, seems to evoke the festive processional event.
• Left side
First Chapel from the entrance, once dedicated to St. Anne, is now used as a Baptistery. Completely rebuilt, it is frescoed with scenes from the Old and New Testament, works by Laiolo (20th century).
Second Chapel: originally dedicated to St. James, had a golden wooden altar, replaced in the first decade of the twentieth century from a marble altar on which was placed the altarpiece of S. Giacomo, work by G. Aliberti dated 1714.
From the nearby church of S. Rocco comes the altarpiece “S. Rocco among the plague victims”, also dell'Aliberti placed on the left wall.
The Chapel was the patronage of the Ravazza family.
Third Chapel: of the Company of the Holy Spirit, has a marble altar of 1774 (Pelagatta), now very deteriorated. Valuable is the altarpiece depicting “Pentecost”, a young work by Aliberti still influenced by late Roman mannerism.
The Chapel was frescoed with fake architectures of the early eighteenth century performed by Canella Vanzino but inexplicably covered by a reddish tint.
• Presbytery and choir
The marble balustrade (Pelagatta 1796) delimits the Presbytery. The high altar (Pelagatta 1749) was placed in place of the previous demolished following the structural changes due to the reduction of the apse.
The vault of the presbytery, frescoed by Gorzio and by De Carvalho, Lisbon painter, in 1766, represents the Triumph of Religion on the four parts of the world; interesting work that in the past was attributed to Aliberti. Del Gorzio are the frescoed paintings on the walls with stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (inferior quality of the previous ones).
In 1757 Gorzio painted the altarpiece of the “Madonna, S. Leonardo and Clodoveo, king of the Franks”; with De Carvalho he created the trompe d'oeil decorations on the back wall. Architectures and allegorical figures create the illusion of the suppressed apse. The choir, whose twenty stalls were carved in 1656 for the previous parish and modified in 1686 for the new arrangement, is noteworthy for its sculptures.
• Vault of the nave
It was painted by Carlo Gorzio with the help of De Carvahlo and completed in 1768.
It is an interesting baroque cycle influenced by the painters Pozzo, active in those years in the Asti area.
Within the exuberant “rocailles” decorations with garlands and flowers, the “glory of St. Leonard, the Virgin and St. Joseph” has sprung. The fresco was restored in this century by the Canelli painter G. Olindo, the monochrome medallions of the Gorzio, were replaced by portraits of saints in strong contrast, breaking the most delicate eurythmy of the Baroque era.
Gorzio's vault, for the exuberant color scheme, for the brightness of the colors, for the easy security of the design, and above all for its integrity just scratched by the Olindo, represents an exceptional art document, practically unique throughout Oltretanaro, where baroque cycles of such complexity, vastness and commitment are not known. In the same Asti, which also boasts superb fresco cycles of the early eighteenth century, there is nothing similar to the exclusion of Carloni's paintings in the Duomo, at least 20 years later.
The church, which was the seat of the diocesan Vicar Foraneo in the mid-1700s, had a wealth of silver, precious vestments, sculptures and reliquaries. Sacked several times by enemy armies (in 1696 the Alemannic ones looted it strongly) and by local thieves, the initial patrimony did not remain traces at the beginning of this century.