Alessandria – land of castles, villas, and noble abodes

Feltrinelli Castle, Villadeati (Alessandria)
Feltrinelli Castle, Villadeati (Alessandria)

Alessandria, chief town of Province, is situated in the south-oriental shred of the Piedmont, at the confluence of the rivers Bormida and Tanaro and is in the center of the firm triangle composed by Milan, Turin and Genoa. It is land of castles, villas and ancient noble abodes.

The history of Alessandria

The date of foundation goes back to 1168, when the inhabitants of the villages of Rovereto, Marengo, Bergoglio, Gamondio, Solero, Foro, Oviglio and Quargnento were reunited to build a town called Alessandria in homage of Pope Alexander III.

In the 1171 the new town was integral part of the Guelph drawing up and the emperor Federico I Barbarossa, in his fifth invasion in Italy, encircled it of siege for various months between the 1174 and 1175, before allowing a truce. In the 1183 Alessandria had an official recognition, but had to accept, with the imperial power, the imposition of tolls and gratuities and the new name of “Casarea”.

Big importance in the life of Alessandria during the medieval epoch recovered the presence of the religious movement of the Umiliati that, begin from XII century had an important role in the development of the activity of working of the wool (in Lumelli road n.13/17 and still can be visited the Tinaio degli Umiliati, that remainder of the imposing monastic structure of the Umiliati of San Giovanni del Cappuccio, one of the Alessandrian center of the order.

The underground room, recently restored, entertained one of the monastic workrooms).

Castle of Camino (Alessandria)
Castle of Camino (Alessandria) – Photo vittorio tauber
The thirteenth century

During the thirteenth century Alessandria engaged in a number of wars originated by territorial disputes with the marquis of Monferrato and the city of Asti, and experienced a period of civil strife between Guelph and Ghibelline families. The establishment of a Chamber of the Elders and a Council of Sages strengthened the city’s internal political structures; meanwhile, the rising bourgeoisie of artisans and craftsmen consolidated its power at the expense of the feudal nobility. Towards the end of the thirteenth century Alessandria was subjected to Charles of Anjou and, later, to Guglielmo VII of Monferrato; in 1316, finally, the leaders of the Guelph and Ghibelline factions of Alessandria submitted to Matteo Visconti, conferring to the powerful Milanese family the domain over their city.

Under the rule of the Visconti, Alessandria reorganized its political and economical institutions, but became involved in the antagonism between the Milanese dukes and the major Italian and European powers of the time: 1391 two citizens of Alessandria, Iacopo dal Verme to victory over the French troops of Kings Charles VI; in memory of the victory over the troops of earl of Armagnac on July 25 1391, day of Saint James was erected the Church of Saint James of the Victory, placed in the homonymous street.

The 1404 Alessandria invasion

In 1404 Alessandria was invaded by the military commander Facino Cane from Casale, who got hold of a significant part of the Visconti’s possessions.

Only after Facino’s death the Milanese family could regain its territories by arranging a wedding between Filippo Maria Visconti and the widow of Facino, Beatrice di Tenda.

After the death of Filippo Maria in 1477, the signiory of the Visconti came to a close, and Alessandria passed under the rule of Francesco Sforza.Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the decline of the Sforza seignory was accompanied by a bloody upsurge in warfare: Alessandria was sacked by French troops in 1499, occupied by the army of Massimiliano Sforza in 1512, and again invaded by the French in 1522.

Caught up in the wars between France and Spain, in 1525 Alessandria became part of Charles V’s empire. The only Spanish building left in Alessandria, this church was built by Governor Matheo de Otanez: in the niche overlooking the entrance is decorated by a fresco of the Madonna di Monserrato; the black Madonna over the shrine is the work of a seventeenth-century Spanish artist.

The political framework of the Spanish government remained in force up to the end of the seventeenth century; meanwhile, Alessandria acquired growing importance both as the fulcrum of interchange among the cities of Genoa, Tortona and Pavia, and as a military stronghold. During the eighteenth century Alessandria became an important stronghold for the defense of Monferrato.

Cittadella di Alessandria aerial view.
Cittadella di Alessandria aerial view.
After the Spanish domination

The Savoy kings designed an impressive system of fortifications, which required the demolition of the ancient district of Bergoglio and the construction of a powerful hexagonal Citadel designed by Ignazio Bertola: the Citadel, with its massive stra-shape structure is an outstanding example of European eighteenth-century military architecture. After the demolition of the ancient district of Bergoglio, the construction of the new fortress began in 1728 and continued in the second half of the century. In 1821, the Citadel was one of the cardinal pints of the liberal insurrection. On the other hand, the new fortifications played an important role in eighteenth-century warfare, and in particular during the Austrian war of succession, when the House of Savoy entered into an alliance with the Austrians in order to oppose the French-Spanish supremacy.

Thanks to a number of administrative and political reforms, the House of Savoy was able to exercise safer and more rational control over the territory of Alessandria: local governments were given new rules, and new authorities such as a land registry office and a Royal Council of Justice were established. The second half of the eighteenth century was a period of crucial changes in Alessandria’s urban plan, thanks to the construction of new government buildings such as the town hall, the Civic Theatre, the trade fair halls and the Hospital complex; the city’s religious architecture ( Church of Saint Alexander and Saint Charles, the Church of Saint Giovannino) underwent significant changes as well.

The population growth

At the hub of a wide network of trade routes between the regions of Lombardy and Liguria, Alessandria flourished and expanded: its population grew remarkably over the previous century, reaching 15.000 people.

After being defeated by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1796, Vittorio Amedeo III signed the armistice of Cherasco and ceded to the French part of his territories: Savoy, the city of Nice, and the fortresses of Cuneo, Tortona, and Alessandria. Bonaparte returned after the Battle of Marengo (at which the city has dedicated a Museum) but fifteen years later of French government ended in 1814 when the city was seized by the Austrian army.The industrialization of Alessandria, now become a provincial capital, began in the 1870s, shortly after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, and dominated the city’s economic life up to the end of the nineteenth century.

Vintage Borsalino hat
Vintage Borsalino hat
The Borsalino Hats

The hat factory owned by Giuseppe Borsalino quickly became the leading concern: the number of its employees rose to 2.000 in 1910. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century Alessandria underwent a significant reconstruction of its urban plan, under the direction of Ludovico Straneo: as the city expanded westwards, crumbling neighborhoods were knocked down, the ancient walls were dismantled, the network of main road was greatly developed; of this period the realization of Garibaldi square, a wide spectacular space between the town and the railway station gardens.The ancient mediaeval town plan, extensively transformed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was modified further in the twentieth century.

The damage caused by bombings during the second World War transformed some parts of the city. During the post-war period, Alessandria expanded with the construction of new residential districts: of the twentieth century are significant the Dispensary for Tuberculosis Prevention, designed by Ignazio Gardella and built between 1936 and 1938, one of the most original works of Italian contemporary architecture, the House of the Employees of the Borsalino, work of the architecture of the fifties and the Main Post Office, an example of rationalism of the use of “autarkic” materials; the facade is decorated with mosaics of Gino Severini that show the evolution of the post and telegraph; indoors, the former writing room is decorated by a wall painting by Giulio Rosso.

Where to stay in Alessandria

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