Aflourishing city: this is the description the historian Tacitus gave of Vercelli in the first book of his Histories. According to the ancient Roman historian, together with Milan, Novara and Ivrea, Vercelli was one of the most prosperous cities in the ancient Transpadane region of that time, that is, in the 1st century AD. Economic life was based on agriculture, given the city’s position in the fertile alluvial Po plain. The foothills area, rich in thick woods and pastures, was favorable for the intensive farming of cows, sheep and pigs. This state of well being allowed for the importation of a large quantity of luxury items, which were transported along the major roads of which Vercelli was a major crossroads. The quotation from Tacitus concerned a city that had been founded several centuries earlier. Many theories have arisen regarding its origin, based on the information provided by ancient authors (Pliny the Elder, Polybius, Ptolemy). Vercelli was founded by the Libicii, a Celtic tribe, on the earlier Ligurian Salluvii settlement, around the 6th century BC. The ‘Romanization’ of the city began after the Second Punic War, probably by means of a treaty of submission and loyalty to Rome, and ended in 49 BC, when the free municipium of Vercellae was instituted, then incorporated with the Aniense tribe. During the Imperial Age the city flourished to a certain degree and perhaps this was one of the reasons it was the first diocese established west of Milan, the result of a long process of evolution that began with the spread of Christianity in Vercelli among the upper classes at an unspecified date. The quartering of Oriental troops, which directly supported Arianism, further explains the desire to organize the Christian community around an episcopal figure. Eusebius, who hailed from Cagliari, was acclaimed bishop of the Vercellese community around AD 345. His episcopate was quite troubled because of the continuous strife in the Christianized world between the Arians and those who believed in the Nicene Creed. He was exiled to Palestine in 355 and was able to return to his diocese only in 363, remaining bishop up to the time of his death in 371. Three years later, in 374, St. Jerome wrote the following in a letter: “Vercelli, once a powerful city, is now almost in ruins, with few inhabitants.” The period of prosperity during the Imperial Age now seemed remote, but then, about twenty years later, St. Ambrose described Vercelli as a “flourishing community” in a letter. These changing circumstances seem to characterize the destiny of Vercelli in all periods, a ‘seesaw,’ as it were: one day prosperous, the next day in decline, first stagnant and then extremely active. The barbarian invasions were imminent. The first one took place in 401-402, when Alaric led his Visigoth troops, and Attila arrived with the Huns in 451. Vercelli was then a Lombard city in a period that has provided us with no certain information. Under the Franks, who transformed the Lombard duchies into feudal comitates, the new temporal authority of the bishop took on form. From the 9th to the 11th century Vercelli was governed by the bishops, who, because of their cultural background, restored the civil and international character of the city, despite the new invasions on the part of the Hungarians in the late 9th-early 10th century. Attone (924-960) and Leone the Great (999-1026) were the most dazzling examples of what was called the ‘episcopal lordship’ of Vercelli. Their reforms and religious, political and cultural activity led to the reconquest of territories (such as the Valsesia), new sources of income, and a vigorous revival of letters and art. In the 12th and 13th century this feudal episcopal regime began to deteriorate side by side with the progressive rise of the free commune, which was first documented in 1141 and later became part of the Lombard League (1168). The 1117 earthquake, the increase in population, and a new civil and social spirit were the major events in the city during these two centuries. A new city wall was erected from 1162-64 to 1263, the elements of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture were fully absorbed, Santa Maria Maggiore Church was consecrated anew in the presence of Pope Eugene III in 1148, and the churches of San Michele, San Vittore, San Bernardo and the Sant’Andrea were built, this last-mentioned in purely Gothic style. The year 1228 witnessed the foundation of the Studium, the first university in Piedmont, and the first free communes were created in the rural areas. The conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines soon involved Vercelli, where the Guelph faction was represented by the Avogadro family and the Ghibelline first by the Bicchieri and then the Tizzoni. This was a period of bloody encounters, violence and raids that, everything considered, were caused by the struggle between the city republic or commune and the bishop, which soon became a struggle between the families that sided with these factions. The emperor Henry VII was present at the 1310 peace treaty, but tension remained high, a situation aggravated by the new religious crisis that had ended three years earlier with the heretic Fra’ Dolcino being burned at the stake and the annihilation of his followers in the Apostolic movement (1307). The Tizzoni ruled Vercelli until 1335 and improved the appearance of the city, building new structures, palazzi, towers and various fortifications in the countryside. However, weakened by continuous strife and sieges and deprived of its leading figures, the city changed its type of government in a long and gradual process. In 1335 Vercelli was ruled by the Visconti and remained in their sphere of influence for about one century. Here again, periods of peace and good administration alternated with more difficult times because the Visconti were extending their dominion more and more, triggering the reaction of the neighboring duchies, which felt threatened. With the marriage of Filippo Maria Visconti with Maria, the daughter of Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy, the coat of arms of the Savoy became an integral part of Vercelli in 1427 and remained for the most part until the advent of the Republic. The city lived in peace for the entire 15th century, and the Duchess Jolanda lived there from 1471 to 1473. In this period and the one immediately following the Ivrea canal was built and rice began to be cultivated on a large scale in the region. Peaceful times also led to a revival of the city’s artistic life, giving rise to that extraordinary school of painting that boasted such artists as Martino Spanzotti, Defendente Ferrari, Gerolamo Giovenone, Sodoma, Gaudenzio Ferrari and Bernardino Lanino. Unfortunately, the Savoyard duchy was soon overwhelmed by the bloody struggles between the French and Spanish, and Vercelli was at the mercy of the Spanish troops that constantly overran the city. After being driven away from Turin in 1536, Duke Francis I found refuge in Vercelli, where he brought the famous Holy Shroud (1543) and where he remained until his death (1553). General de Brissac took advantage of the chaos that followed on the heels of the duke’s death to attack the city with hundreds of soldiers, who pillaged everything they could lay their hands on; however, they did not manage to capture the citadel governed by the Spanish. With the peace treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) Vercelli again passed under Savoyard dominion, and in 1560 Duke Emmanuel Philibert was welcomed with a grand celebration. Vercelli was the capital of the duchy for three years, until the duke returned for good to Turin in 1563. The 17th century was probably the worst in the history of Vercelli. Sieges, wars, and pestilence assailed the population, which, because of the city’s strategic position, found itself right in the middle of the war of succession over the Monferrato area, which the duke of Savoy had claimed for himself since 1612. The Spanish laid siege to Vercelli from May 1617 to the summer of 1618, leaving the city in bad shape indeed. But the worst was yet to come. Miraculously saved from the horrible plague of 1630, supposedly due to the supernatural intervention of the Virgin Mary, the city was attacked once again in 1638 by the Spanish, who governed it until 1659, when Charles Emmanuel managed to conquer it again. There was a slow revival in city life thanks to intelligent concessions, tax exemptions and amnesties, but war was once again looming. The combined French-Spanish army led by the duke of Vendôme bombarded the citadel and dismantled the fortifications in 1704; under the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) Vercelli again became of the Savoyard state. The construction of new buildings, churches and a theater, the newly laid out avenues and squares, the flowering of letters, art and science, and the success of the handicrafts economy, all bore witness to the long-lasting well being of the 18th century. The royal family visited the city in 1789, a short time before the revolutionary earthquake was felt in the Vercellese area as well. The Savoy broke off diplomatic relations with the newly formed republic and the reactions were not long in coming. Under Napoleon they lost Nice and Savoy, and in a short time all Piedmont was annexed to France. Vercelli found it had somewhat of Jacobin vocation, but crushed by the serious economic crisis, yielded to Napoleon, who arrived in the city in May 1800. Not long afterward the city became the capital of the Department of Sesia; the French language and tax and legal systems were adopted, and the religious orders were suppressed. Under foreign domination, Vercelli rediscovered its atavistic industriousness. Commerce flourished, new buildings, avenues and theaters were constructed, periodicals were published, and the foundation was laid for scientific research. In this last-mentioned field, in 1811 the physicist Amedeo Avogadro, while teaching at the Regio Collegio or Royal College, formulated the hypothesis later known as Avogadro’s law, which was one of the basic concepts of the atomic theory of matter. In 1814 the Savoy monarchy was restored. The old officials returned to their posts and the province was re-established. The Restoration was not accepted by the population. Revolts broke out, poverty spread again, aggravated by illness and drought. Many citizens took part in the liberal rebellions and the wars of Italian independence, especially the latter, in which Vercelli distinguished itself in the struggle against the Austrians. After the unification of Italy, the Vercellese were quite active in political and administrative life; becoming mayor or deputy was a major objective, and ideology was left by the wayside. Pamphlets, newsletters and newspapers multiplied (in 1871 “La Sesia” was founded) in order to support various battles, above all those against the clergy. Public education was supported and favored and the percentage of illiterate persons was much lower than the national average. This period witnessed the foundation of the technical institute, the classical high school, the normal girls’ schools, the drawing and music schools and, in 1875, the city library. The theater seasons became the occasion for social meetings and debate. With the arrival of the first industries in town, the political scene began to change. The first working-class organizations rose up and the first strikes were held. Little by little a center-right faction connected to the middle class and a left-wing faction that later gave rise to the socialist circles were formed. These developments were the nucleus of the social struggles that took place from 1901 to 1909 for the reduction of the working hours and the realization of the ‘eight-hour day’ for the laborers in the rice paddies. Vercelli paid a heavy price in the First World War as 3,000 of its citizens lost their lives in battle. The postwar period was marked by a heated political debate that soon led to the organization of the Fascist paramilitary squads. In 1927 the first Fascist governor took office in Vercelli. Fortunately, being far from the central power in Rome, the local party officials administered the city impartially and life in Vercelli was tranquil. The Second World War also cost the sacrifice of many locals, and the Resistance movement produced acts of true heroism. Postwar reconstruction was slow and laborious and was due mainly to the initiative of minor entrepreneurs. Thus the local building regulations lacked far-sighted planning and the historic center of Vercelli was partly demolished or drastically altered. Only in the latter part of the 20th century did mature cultural awareness lead to enterprising restoration work and to the aesthetic improvement of the public areas and monuments. Today Vercelli is on the official list of the thirty or so Italian art cities thanks to an intelligent and persevering cultural program aimed at promoting the true value of this beautiful and sound city that visitors cannot but admire.
The ups and downs of history - testo in italiano e inglese di Paolo Pomati
da "Vercelli e provincia" Guida edita da Whitelight Editore