The Basilica of Sant’ Andrea is the glory, the gem and the symbol of Vercelli. Just like the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals scattered all over Europe it can be seen from faraway and it shows the traveller the right way to get to our city. We are so proud of its beauty that we even make miniature silver rose windows – silverware factories being another element to be proud of – to give to our important guests, famous visitors and dear friends: in other words to all the ones who want to keep a part of us with them once they have left. Therefore nowadays Sant’Andrea is our best ambassador as well as Guala Bicchieri, the founder of the Basilica, and Giovan Battista Viotti, the talented musician, used to be two wonderful ambassadors in the past.
The complex was erected between 1219 and 1227, thanks to Guala Bicchieri’s considerable donation: he even wanted to be present at the laying of the foundation stone on 19th February 1219. The structure of the Basilica is reminiscent of the Benedictine- Cistercian structure: we can notice a cloister and around it are the pantry, the refectory and the dormitory. Unfortunately the identity of the architect in charge of the complex building works is still unknown, but maybe the aura of mystery around him makes the Basilica more and more fascinating. The complex style shows an incredible fusion between the Gothic model and the Romanesque trends on the facade, which were typical of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna at that time.
The materials used are bricks, green-grey stone, lime, calcarenite and red marble. All these materials came from the areas surrounding the building yard or from areas nearby: bricks were produced by using the local clay, the green-grey stone came from the quarries near Pralungo, the lime from Sostegno while the calcarenite was extracted in Monferrato.
The plan of the church is a Latin cross. We can notice a nave and two side aisles: each of them is made up of six bays. An octagon lantern overlooks the transept.
If we look at the front two details draw the visitor’s eye, besides the extraordinary beauty of the whole building: a magnificent central rose window ( there are two more in the apse and in the right transept) and three lunettes ( one above the main doorway and two above the side doorways). Probably the rose window used to have stained glasses such as the ones we can admire in the great European cathedrals that both Guala Bicchieri and Tommaso Gallo ( the first abbot of the abbey) certainly appreciated during their long stayings in France. The light effects produced by the stained glass windows must have been particularly striking due to the beautiful high single lancet windows in the right side aisle and to some circular windows in the left side aisle. Two of the lunettes on the front are important: the central one represents St. Andrew’s martyrdom, while the left one represents Guala Bicchieri offering St. Andrew the model of the new church in a pious and respectful attitude. We can read under this lunette on the architrave:
“( …) Cardinal Guala himself realized this work. The Father devotes the work he made to St. Andrew”
In another inscription in the same lunette we can find a great praise to Guala Bicchieri: the Cardinal is presented as “light of the clergy and pride of the country”, bestower of truths, a man with deep religious culture and honest heart.
There are many details linked to Guala Bicchieri: one is the gravestone walled up in the left side of the presbytery: here in 1904 the town of Vercelli buried a little coffin containing Bicchieri’s remains. His bones had been discovered by Earl Arborio Mella in 1823, who was also responsible for the restoration of the Basilica and the “Scrinium Cardinalis”, that is one of Guala’s magnificent caskets.
San Cristoforo is a little gem erected in the 16th century and restored towards the middle of the 18th century.It stands in Via San Cristoforo, next to the County Council Palace and it is a real pride for the town.
What makes it so valuable and appreciated are the frescos by Gaudenzio Ferrari (~1480 / 1546), which adorn the chapels in the transept at the end of the side aisles. It is a real “ theatre through images” which we can find on the walls of many other churches in Piedmont and Lombardy, particularly in the Chapels of the Sacred Mount of Varallo.
The church is rightly well-known all over Piedmont and its value has been enhanced in the last few years thanks to important concerts given by international artists. Among them we remember the Orchestra Camerata Ducale, who interpreted concertos by Giovan Battista Viotti (the world-famous talented musician was born near Vercelli) in the “Viotti Festival”.