Vercelli San Gaudenzio
Vercelli San Gaudenzio

Vercelli is a town of East Piedmont developed on an area 130 ms above sea level. A tribe of Liguri (the Salluvii perhaps) dwelled on this land once and founded the town later, probably about the 6th century b.C.

Vercelli: The History

Vercelli had been submitted to the Romans since the 2nd century b.C., only in 89 b.C. was Vercellae considered a Roman colony and in 49 b.C. did it become one of the most important free municipium in Northern Italy, accordin to Tacitus thanks to its strategic position in a plain on the great communication roads.

Strongly important was the role that Vercelli played in the conversion of the Northern regions to Christianity. Eusebius of Vercelli was the first bishop in Piedmont and all the other dioceses were definited out of this mould little by little.

Barbaric invasions did not spare the town, which soon became the seat of a Longobard duchy and constantly underwent several sieges and destructions.

The Longobards’ conversion to Catholicism led to a period of improved relationships between the two peoples.

Between the 9th and the 11th centuries the bishops of Vercelli, by means of their education and culture, could make it an international town, embellished with architectures and beauty spots of immense value.

In 889 the Hungarians’ invasion plunged the town into the chaos again and it took several years to reach a permanent re-organization, probably during the episcopate of Atto (924-960) and of Leo (999-1026). The bishop became a reference point both for the church and for the people.


The decadence of the bishop’s power began later, together with the birth and the assertion of the free town (1141); soon the struggle between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines reached Vercelli too; the Guelph party was embodied by the Avogadro family, the Ghibelline one by the Bicchieri, and later by the Tizzoni. Peace was made before emperor Henry VII in the chapter-house of St.Andrew abbey in December 1310.

The rule of the Tizzoni in Vercelli lasted until 1335, when Vercelli was acquired by the Visconti and the free town came down to be a mere administrative and bureaucratic machinery, deprived of its original democratic functions.

In 1427 it passed definitely under the rule of the House of Savoy and for at least one century it benefited from a period of peace during which the arts could flourish.

The 16th and 17th centuries, on the contrary, are a dark period marked by plague, famine, sieges and invasions now by the French and then by the Spanish; only in 1713, thanks to the treaty of Utrecht, did the town go back under the rule of the Dukes of Savoy.

After the French Revolution Vercelli was annexed to France and it became the capital city of the Sesia Department under Napoleon I (1801). The people of Vercelli took part into the liberal revolt and into the wars for independence; in the second one this land plays an active part in the fight against the Austrians.

Vercelli passed the under the government of Novara and was restored as a province about 70 years later, in 1927.

Towards the end of the 19th century the political debate ignited the public life, leading to the constitution of both liberal and socialist organizations. In 1906 the mondine (rice-weeders) played a fundamental role in the workers’ achievement of a limit of eight working hours a day.

At the beginning of the 20th century the first industrial factories were set up in town. At the end of the First World War, after a short period of socialist rule, Fascism got the upper hand, taking hold of every nerve- center of power.

Yet, during the Second World War, Vercelli demonstrated a heroic spirit in the Resistenza and could later regain a period of welfare.

To See…
The Basilica of St.Andrew is the symbol of the town, a beautiful example of the passage from the Lombard-Emilian Romanesque style to the French Gothic architecture. It was built between 1219 and 1227 at the commission of Cardinal Guala Bicchieri of Vercelli, one of the most influential members of the Roman Curia, a leading protagonist of the events that marked the history of England during the hard times of John Lackland’s succession to the throne.

The cabin-shaped facade, bordered by slender, elegant towers, is embellished with refined lunettes on the three portals. The central one, representing St.Andrew’s martyrdom, is ascribed to Benedetto Antelami.

The pure Gothic structure emphasizes the stately interior with the nave and two aisles, with a groined cross vault, a very high transept, a wide presbytery and a square apse where beautiful XVI-century wooden choir is set. In the last chapel on the right there is the 14th century, recently pulled out of a later cover.

The chapter house is one of the finest in Italy; this is where, in front of emperor Henry VII, the Guelph and the Ghibelline parties of Vercelli made peace (1310). The rectangular cloister, with full centerd arches, bears relieves, brickwork and paintings dating from the early 16th century (now nearly disappeared).

Vercelli Basilica di Sant'Andrea

In front of the basilica is the Salone Dugentesco (13th century Hall), that is what remains of the Ospedale dei Pellegrini (Pilgrims’ Hospital) founded in 1224 by the Bicchieri family. Its entrace is embellished by a 13th century painted lunette; in the elegant interior is kept a nice 16th century fresco.

The Cathedral of St.Eusebius was built as a cemeterial basilica, probably by Eusebius himself, and it was rebuilt for the first time in the 5th century; the Medieval bell tower is the only remaining part of this first period of reconstruction.

The second rebuilding began in 1570 following a plan of Pellegrino Tibaldi and was concluded at the end of the 19th century. The choir loft, the presbytery and the sacristy date from the late 16th century; the chapel of the Blessed Amedeo dates from the end of the 17th century. The well lit chapel of St.Eusebius (where the mortal remains of the bishop are worshipped) and the dome belong to the 19th century.

The impressing facade with neo-classical entrance hall by Benedetto Alfieri leads to the grand interior with Latin cross nave and two aisles. In the presbytery, in the middle of the central nave, hangs a beautiful silver leaf Cross. Thanks to a recent restauration, made after a dreadful act of vandalism, this work was definitely dated to Leo’s episcopate (999-1026). The Chapel of Blessed Amedeo of Savoy, built by Michelangelo Garove (a pupil of Guerini’s) between 1682 and 1685, is extremely interesting; here you can find the tombs of the Dukes of Savoy and the urn containing the mortal remains of Amedeo the IX of the house of Savoy.

In the cathedral there are also paintings by Pier Francesco Guala (St.Eusebius in Glory and St.Ambrose; The Miracle of the Spring made by St.William of Vercelli) and by the Gandolfi brothers (the Inventio Crucis; St.Eusebius Martyrdom), 6th century epigraphs (the acrostic of Eusebius bishop and martyr and St.Flavian inscription), small wooden boards from the 16th century choir, the statue of Our Lady of the Slap, a marble statue from the 13th century.

The Cathedral Treasure Museum contains shrines of great value dating from the 7th century to the 12th century, urns, busts and silver chalices.

At the entrance you can see the original filling of the Cathedral Cross, found during the long lasting restauration work. The Capitular Library, instead, is independent by now: it is one of the most interesting collections of manuscripts, among which you can find the Codex Evangeliorum, the oldest Latin translation of the Gospels, the Constitutiones Longobardorum (8th century), the Apollo Medicus by Isidor of Sevilla (9th century), the C Codex with sumptuous miniatures, and the Medieval Map of the World, which dates to the end of the 12th century or to the beginning of the 13th.

The most widely known item of the library is the “Vercelli Book”, a 10th century manuscript written in Old English on parchment. How it has reached Vercelli is still a mystery.

The Camillo Leone Museum is the town’s historical museum, founded by Camillo Leone, a notary from Vercelli (1830-1907). It is set in the 16th century Alciati House, that is linked to the 18th century Langosco Palace by a joint built in the Nineteen Thirties. The present arrangement was laid out between 1934 and 1939.

In the first rooms there are relics belonging to the Palaeolithic period, to the Neolithic age, to the Lead and Iron ages, as well as objects from Egyptian tombs, baked-clay vases from necropolis in Apulia and from the Etruscan area of Campania, examples of Etruscan bucchero (a particular kind of clay) and of Cyprus clay. The Roman room is very charming; it keeps the oldest witnesses of the history of Vercelli, among which we can remember the Celtic-Latin stele, two impressive sarcophagus, a rich collection of glassware and an old Roman paved road with milestones. The epigraphic department is very rich and important; it shows inscriptions from the Vercelli area (2nd century b.C.-2nd century a.D.), which were found in the 19th century by Father Luigi Bruzza.

The early Christian period of Vercelli is testified by epigraphs and copies of works of art, the best of which is the copy of the main portal of the ancient church of Santa Maria Maggiore; the original 12th century mosaic flooring of this latter is also kept, as well as the sculptures from the old pulpit of the Cathedral. The colletion of incunabula and of 16th century books made by the greatest printers in Vercelli and Trino is extremely interesting. Some of C. Leone’s colletions of decorative art is displayed in the rooms of Palazzo Langosco. This precious and varied collection (furniture, chinaware, glass, bronze, etc.) contains jewels like the Bicchieri Casket, a Limoges 13th century work, the Embriachi Casket (late 14th century), a remarkable series of majolica works by the main manufacturies of the period from the 16th to the 19th century; among these stands out the plate signed by Avelli (Urbino, 1530-40). At the end of the tour you can see the collection of 18th century clothes; soon also ancient coins and arms, Medieval forged iron and pre-Columbian chinaware.

The Francesco Borgogna Museum is the second biggest picture-gallery in Piedmont. It is set in a neoclassical building bought by the lawyer Antonio Borgogna (1822-1906), who named it after his father and then offered it to the town. It keeps Borgogna’s rich collection of paintings, furniture and objects of art, and the wide gallery of Vercelli Renaissance pictures gathered by the School of Fine Arts.

The first rooms contain valuable Medieval frescos taken from churches that no longer exist. The 16th century collection displays oustanding works by Sodoma, Gaudenzio, Ferrari, Defendente Ferrari, Spanzotti, the Giovenones, the Oldonis and Bernardino Lanino; there are also works by Francia, Bergognone, Bernardino Luini, Palma the Elder and paintings ascribed to Titian.

Also the 17th century collection (with paintings by Ludovico Carracci and by Sassoferrato), the Nordic one (Hans Baldung Grien, Jan Steen, Gerard Ter Borch, David Teniers the Younger, Pieter Neefs the Younger, Philipps Wouwemann) and the 19th century italian one (Induno, Chierici, Palizzi, Quadrone, Ussi, Morbelli, Favretto, Follini, Migliara, Massimo D’Azeglio) are absolutely remarkable. On the 2nd floor there is a collection of chinaware and glassware.

Piazza Cavour, perhaps built on the old Roman forum, always called “the Major Square” before it was given its present name in 1864, is the pivot of the town space and of urban life. The eponymous statue of Cavour was made by Ercole Villa and Giuseppe Argenti.

Reminders of the Medieval past are the arcades dating from the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th, another series of arcades, which are remarkable for the 15th century brick decoration of the intrados, and the powerful Angel Tower (14th-19th century), that is probably the only remains of an old fortified house.

Once there was a series of three churches here, but only does the bell-tower of St. Thomas’ church remain of it; it was turned into a clock-tower in 1856. A few steps from here you will find the seat of the old Broletto, which was set in today’s Piazza Palazzo Vecchio, commonly known as Piazza dei Pesci (Fish Market Square).

The Town Hall stayed in this place from the 13th century to the beginning of the 19th. The old Municipal Tower, dating back to the early 13th century, is a very charming witness of the Middle Ages of Vercelli.

The church of St.Christopher is the place where you can find the best works of Gaudenzio Ferrari (the altar-piece of Our Lady of the Oranges, the Stories of St.Mary Madgalene, the Stories from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary).

The interior, with the nave, two aisles and transept, has a 13th century frescoed vault. A 15th century crucifix stands on the high altar and another one, probably of the 16th century, is placed in the chapel that reproduces the Holy House of Loreto in its minutest details. The wide presbytery is separated by elegant banisters, which were made following a plan by Juvarra (1730).

The choir, the pulpit, the confessionals, the sacristy furniture are made of a valuable wood and date back to the mid-18th century. On the main altar there is a precious wooden Cross; in the side chapel of the right aisle, that reproduces the Holy House of Loreto, there is a 16th century Cross by Gaudenzio Ferrari. There are eight paintings by Mayerle in the sacristy.

The church of St.Bernard is the seat of the diocesan sanctuary of Our Lady Health of the Sick, a very important center of popular devotion. It is made up of two parts: the former is the oldest Romanesque monument in Vercelli, built between 1151 and 1168; the new part was built in 1896 after Locarni’s plan. Of the old building we still have the brick facade with two zoomorph tiles and the fine Romanesque capitals of the first spans.

The story of this church is connected to the miracle which saved the people of Vercelli from the plague in 1630, thanks to St.Mary intercession (celebrated in the great fresco made by Carlo Morgari in 1914). From then on the feast of St.Mary Health of the Sick is celebrated fervently and a 17th century icon is venerated in the third chapel on the left of the church.

Corso Liberta’ is the old street that linked on a West-East line the two great communication roads to Turin and to Milan, cutting across the town center. It starts from Piazza Pajetta, where Ercole Villa’s monument of Vittorio Emanuele stands (1887). The Corso ends in Piazza Cugnolio, at the side of the ancient nunnery of St.Claire.

Churches of the town center
Santa Maria Maggiore, co-cathedral church, is the first Christian church built in Vercelli (4th century), perhaps at the commission of Eusebius bishop. After the rebuilding of the 12th century the church was restored and embellished according to the time’s taste, until when, in 18th century, it was destroyed and built again by order of the Jesuits on the place where it is today (about 100 meters from its original site).

St.Francis, now St.Agnes, is the third Gothic church in Vercelli, though it can only be admired in its present Baroque architecture. The stately interior with the nave and two aisles, contains a Madonna with Holy Child, Donor and Saints by Giuseppe Giovenone the Younger (1570-75) and Gerolamo Giovenone’s St.Ambrose (1528-35). Basins of graffito clay (14th century) and an Announciation by Morazzone (about 1620) are kept in the sacristy.

St.Julian is very old as well. During the Middle Ages the new elected bishops used to stop at this church to wear the pontifical gown before getting their episcopal chairs. The interior keeps an Adoration of the Three Magi of the Gaudenzio Ferrari school and a Resurrection of local school dating from the same period. Also the frescos on the wooden pilasters of the nave and on the internal walls of the steeple date back to the 16th century.

St.Lawrence, now showing an elegant 18th century structure, once had a hospital for the pilgrims on the via francigena to Rome.

St.Paul, old Dominican church, founded in the 12th century, is utterly relashed in its present appearance. Only do the bell-tower and the first three spans keep their original shape. In the interior there are two works by Bernardino Lanino (the Nativity and Our Lady of Grace). In a hall leading to the sacristy there are frescos of The Saints dating back to the late 13th century.

St.Michael probably has pre-Longobard origins, though the oldest element is now the Romanesque bell-tower (early 12th century). The present building dates back to the 16th-17th century. In the interior, of great interest, are a fresco by Lanino representing a Madonna with Holy Child, St.Anne and St.Jacob, a wooden polychromatic crucifix of the 14th century and a tarsia.

Holy Saviour’s church has been rebuilt according to late 17th century architecture. Inside there are polychromatic marble structures and paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Great Buildings

The Seminary was founded in 1572-87 by the bishop of Vercelli Francesco Bonomi; the oldest part of the building is linked to the internal courtyard, planned by Filippo Juvarra with a very harmonious rectangular design. In St.Eusebius Hall there are frescos with scenes from the Aeneid, ascribed to Bernardino Lanino.

The Archibishop’s Palace. Although it is not the palace which housed the first bishops of Vercelli, the one we can see today, dating from the Renaissance period, is very worthy from the artistical and historical point of view. Inside, the grand Throne room houses a picture-gallery of masterpieces of the 16th century-Vercelli school of painting. In the delegation rooms you can behold frescos and views, and remind events and noble people who stayed here. The Bishop’s Library contains about two thousand books.

Visconti Castle, of quadrangular plan, was built from 1290 on, at Matteo Visconti’s command. Later it became the Savoys’ dwelling place. The Blessed Amedeo died here in 1472 and was buried in the chapel in the Cathedral. Spoiled after the Spanish attack in 1638, it was used as military headquarters during the Napoleonic period; in 1832 it was changed into a prison and then into law-court from 1838.

The Synagogue, is the first to be built in Italy after the amancipation of the Jews ratified by Carlo Alberto (1848) and it reminds of Vercelli Jewish Community’s past welfare. It was built between 1875 and 1878 with Arab-Moresque style, after a plan by Marco treves and Giuseppe Locarni. The facade is based on the color alternation of white and grey-blue of the sandstone. The interior (at present unfit for use), with the nave, two aisles and polygonal apse, is brightened up by Carlo Costa’s fine decorations.

Tizzoni House is situated in a square, better known as “Chestnut square” because chestnut roasters used to be there steadily until the half of our century. Of the old mansion we still have the tower and a 16th century rebuilding: the lower hall was decorated by Moncalvo in the first half of the 17th century.

Centori’s House is well-known for its elegant courtyard, made at the end of the 15th century according to Bramante’s style. The surrounding area is very charming: on the right there is the Volto dei Centori, commonly known as the old Chimney Sweepers’ Contrada.

Where to stay in Vercelli

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