The Piedmont town of Alessandria sits some 80km south-east of Turin, roughly the same distance due north of Genoa, and a similar distance south-west of Milan. Today its strategic importance exists mainly as a major transport hub, with the railway mainlines and major motorways having intersections here. A millennium ago, this positioning was more militarily important, and it was to this that Alessandria owed its rise in the twelfth century.
There was an existing town here in 1168, when the Lombard League decided to fortify the town, using it as a base to defend northern Italy against the predations of Barbarossa. The League had been founded a year earlier, uniting 26 of the major northern Italian cities (including Milan, Cremona, Padua, Treviso and Verona), and it had the support of Pope Alexander III, who was keen to see a rival face down Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, and thus the Pope’s major religio-political rival on the European mainland. The comuni of northern Italian proudly valued their independence and feared the imperial ambitions of Barbarossa. Standing as it did in the lands of the Marchese of Monferrato (an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor) the new fortress was considered the perfect geographical and strategic base at which to take a stand against Barbarossa. The new city was duly christened ‘Alessandria’ in honour of the Pope … and as a direct challenge to the Empire.
The clash came during 1174-75 when the Emperor’s forces laid siege to the new town. Anticipating the attack, the Lombard League had ensured that not only was the town well fortified, but well supplied with grain too, and after an 18-month siege the Imperial forces, sorely weakened by malaria, drew back. A more colourful local legend has a peasant named Gagliaudo outsmarting Barbarossa. As supplies in Alessandria ran low, Gagliaudo took the last of the grain and fed his cow to bursting. He then left the city with the beast and allowed himself to be ambushed by Imperial soldiers. The hungry soldiers slaughtered the cow for cooking and were astonished to find its belly full of grain. Our crafty peasant then explained that there was so more grain left in the town than the people could eat, and so they were feeding up their cattle. The Emperor, losing faith in his siege, ordered the retreat.
Plucky little Alessandria won a charter as a free comune in 1198 but internecine fighting, so typical of the city states of medieval Italy, saw warfare with Asti. In 1348 the Visconti (all-powerful rulers of Milan and, incidentally, the family of Italian moviemaker Luchino Visconti) invaded. Passing in turn to the Sforza family (which inherited the Visconti possessions) Alessandria then became part of Savoy in 1707 and, subsequently, a territory of Piedmont.
Alessandria, Napoleon, Marengo and the House of Savoy
Northern Italian towns became used to the buffetings handed out by war and politics, and in 1800, after Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo, Alessandria became a French possession. In 1814, with the fall of Napoleon, Alessandria was back in Savoy, and now part of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alessandria became strongly supportive of the Risorgimento movement that swept Italy from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 onward. The political ideology advocated a united Italian nation, thus sweeping away the city states (or at least their political and military independence) and the internecine wars that had bedevilled the likes of Alessandria for centuries. Politically liberal Alessandria was the first Italian city to elect a socialist as mayor, with clockmaker Paolo Sacco in July 1899.
Conflict was to hit the city hard once again during World War II. Alessandria’s strategic importance made it a target for Allied bombing. One raid on 30 April 1944 left 238 dead and hundreds wounded; another on 5 April 1945 saw 160 dead, among them 60 children. The latter was especially painful, as the city had already been liberated by the resistance.
Today you are perhaps more likely to pass through Alessandria than make a long stop, though there are sights to see. There is a fine cathedral with a statue of that man Gagliaudo. There is some fine Piedmontese countryside to explore, with quick access to the Ligurian coast just south. Genoa, Milan and Turin are all within easy reach and, of course, Piedmont has some of Italy’s finest cuisine (and certainly some of its richest). Butter, cream, truffles, porcini mushrooms will be on the menu, while the proximity of Asti, Alba and Monferrato mean the wine list will never disappoint: sparkling whites from Asti join big reds such as Barolo and Barbera.
Students of history must visit the Marengo Museum, while fans of culture should note that Alessandria has produced more than its share of artists: painters from the town include Carlo Carra, Giovanni Migliari and Angelo Morbelli, while Name of the Rose author (and polymath Italian intellectual) Umberto Eco is also a scion of Alessandria.
Popularity: 100% [?]
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.