A flourishing city: this is the description the historian Tacitus gave of Vercelli in the first book of his Histories. According to the ancient Roman historian, Vercelli was, together with Milan, Novara and Ivrea, one of the most prosperous cities in the ancient Transpadane region during the 1st century AD.
The economic life was based on agriculture, given the location of the city in the fertile PO alluvial plain. The area, rich in thick woods and pastures, was favourable to the intensive farming of cows, sheep and pigs. This state of well-being allowed the importation of a large quantity of luxury goods, which were transported along the main roads of which Vercelli was an important 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 through a treaty of submission and loyalty to Rome, and ended in 49 BC, when the free municipium of Vercellae was established, then incorporated with the Aniense tribe.
During the Imperial Age, the city flourished to a certain extent and perhaps this was one of reasons it was the first diocese established west of Milan. It was the result of a long process of evolution that began with the spread of Christianity among the upper classes on an undetermined date. The division of the Eastern troops, which directly supported Arianism, further explains the desire to organize the Christian community around an episcopal figure. Eusebius, who came from Cagliari, was acclaimed bishop of the community of Vercelli around 345 AD.
His episcopate was quite troubled because of the continuous conflict 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 this diocese only in 363, remaining bishop until his death in 371.
Three years later, in 374, St. Jerome wrote in a letter: “Vercelli , once a powerful city, is now almost in ruins, with few inhabitants”. The period of prosperity of the Imperial Age now seemed far away, but then, about twenty years later, St. Ambrose described Vercelli as a “flourishing community”.
These changing circumstances seem to characterize the destiny of Vercelli throughout its history, a seesaw so to speak: one day prosperous, the next day in decline, first stagnant and then extremely active. The barbarian invasion was 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 did not provide us with any certain information. Under the Franks, who transformed the Lombard duchies into feudal committees, the new temporal authority of the bishop took shape.
From the 9th to the 11th century, Vercelli was governed by bishops who, because of their cultural background, restored the civil and international character of the city, despite the new invasions by the Hungarians in the late 9th- early 10th century. Attone (924-960) and Leone the Graeat (999- 1026) were the most dazzling examples of what was called the episcopal lordship of Vercelli .
Their religious, political and cultural reforms and activities have led to the reconquest of territories, new sources of income and the vigorous rebirth of art and letters. In the 12th and 13th century, this feudal episcopal regime began to deteriorate along with the progressive rise of the free commune, documented first in 1141 and then as an integral part of the Lombard League in 1168.
The earthquake of 1117, the increase in population, and a new civil and social spirit were the main events that characterized the city during these two centuries. From 1162 to 1263 a new city wall was erected: the elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture were completely absorbed. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore was consecrated again in the presence of Pope Eugene III in 1148, and the churches of San Michele, San Vittore, San Bernardo and Sant’ Andrea were built, the later purely in Gothic style.
Article written by: M. C. Tinchi