Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Ten days in the Veneto (without Venice)

February - March 2017


You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

Scenes of Biella in northwestern Italy

There were Celtic and Ligurian pastoralists in this region of the Alpine foothills some 20km northeast of Ivrea, but Biella is first documented as a town in AD 826 when it was entrusted by Charlemagne's son Louis I the Pious to a local lord, and again in 882 when the Emperor Charles "the Fat" engaged in some donations of local land to the Bishop of Vercelli. We're here to see what's left, 25 February 2017.

A lovely, clean mall across the street from the Tourist Information office, before we get started . . .

. . . to which we've been directed for the lovely, clean restrooms.

Just across the street, in the beautiful Giardino Pubblico Zumaglini, we find a good monument to the Alpini troops of World War One.

The Alpini mountain brigades were first formed in 1872 to defend the Alpine borders against the French and Austrians, but over time they have served in Eritrea, China, Libya, etc., and they served here in Italy in World War Two as well, unfortunately on the "wrong side". (Though Biella was known as an especially vigorous centre of anti-fascist, anti-German resistance activities in the mountains.)

In the horrific "White War" or "War on Snow and Ice" against the Austrians and Germans in 1915-1918, however, the work of the Alpini was heroic and their suffering must have been appalling (bivouacked in winter at up to 3,800m altitude), and it is to Biella's fallen in that war that this tribute is dedicated. Since the end of the Cold War, only two brigades are still active . . .

. . . as here, supporting the local police on patrol on the Genoa waterfront in 2012.

We've been directed a few blocks up the Via Italia to see the good stuff.

Including the Fons Vitae fountain in the Viale Matteotti, the statue sculpted by Gino Piccioni, and inaugurated in 1936 by King Vittorio Emanuele III's son, the Crown Prince Umberto of Savoy, and paid for by the Società Acqua Potabile, or 'Drinking Water Company'.

This is Biella's high street, the Via Italia

Biella is presently a small city of some 45,000 citizens, well known for its garment industries and some prestigious brand names of clothing, and especially for its wool production, attested in guild regulations since AD 1245. It's the capital of Biella Province in the Piedmont region and, moreover, a twin city with Weihai, People's Republic of China.

We're looking for the cathedral, and the street-sign for the Via Battistero is a giveaway.

The 17th century Church of SS. Trinità is on the left, but we're bound for the Duomo and Baptistery at the end of the alley.

A Romanesque vision, adjacent to the cathedral. It's a Lombard-style baptistery from the 10th or 11th century Ottonian imperial period.

Locked up tight, of course.

The Piazza Duomo

The Piazza Duomo looking northwards -- the piazza was originally the cathedral's cloister with various religious building ranged around it.

The Cattedrale di Santo Stefano, or Duomo di Biella, is the seat of the Diocese of Biella -- the pre-existing church was begun here in 1402, to replace a small 11th century original, to fulfill the people's vow made during a plague in 1399. It was consecrated as a cathedral in 1772 when Bielle got its own episcopal diocese, then thoroughly enlarged and remodeled in a Neogothic style throughout the 19th century.

This intriguing trompe-l'oeil interior decoration was carried out in 1784 by someone named Giovannino Galliari, supposedly in conformity with the rigorous Jansenist sympathies of his employer, the Canon Giuseppe Antonio Gromo.

The austere Jansenists, it is assumed, would not have approved of lively colors.

Originally devoted to Santa Maria Maggiore, the duomo was rededicated to St Stephen Protomartyr in 1872 (patron saint of the city) when St Stephen's own church next door, St. Stefano Vecchio from the 5th century, had to be knocked down.

A single nave, with two aisles and side chapels that were evidently added ca. 1826.

The apse and slightly raised presbytery

A side chapel

The trompe-l'oeil decoration is brilliant.

The high altar with one colorful picture somewhere in the middle

A fine fresco lunette back in the sacristy

At Kristin's request, this gentleman has kindly taken us in to see the 10th-11th century baptistery affixed to the cathedral . . .

. . . which is known for its fragmentary but impressive 11th century frescoes (including another anatomically improbable Nursing Madonna).

The Baptistery again

What good fortune to have been invited in for a look. In summer, evidently, there are group tours -- groups, in that tiny room!

The modern building next door to the Duomo (which is off to the right) is on the site of the San Stephano Vecchio church demolished in 1872, but the 11th century belltower remains.

The belltower of the former St Stephen's Church

We're wisely following the advice of the lady in the Tourist Information Office and heading towards the medieval Borgo del Piazzo overlooking the city.

It's over this way. Way up there somewhere.

Ah, my doubts and fears were anticipated. (The funiculaire was inaugurated in 1885, wisely.)

The Borgo del Piazzo was established in 1160, on the Piazzo hill near the old town, by Bishop Uguccione of Vercelli, who offered trade and tax breaks for people who would populate the place, in order to create a refuge for people dislocated by the Guelph/Ghibelline wars going on in Vercelli itself.

The piazza at the top of the funiculaire. Bishop's Uguccione's own castle in Biella was destroyed in a revolt in 1377 by the Biellesi and the people from the countryside, after which the city was taken in charge by the Savoyards from over the mountains.

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries Biella, like other towns in the Piemonte region, was tugged back and forth, sometimes brutally, between the Savoyards from the French Alps and the Viscontis of Milan.

I seem to have lost my party. Similarly, in the 17th century, Biella and its contado were bounced around between the French and Spanish, occupied by the French in 1704, and again in 1798 when it was annexed by France. The Congress of Vienna, after Napoleon's fall, gave it back to Savoy.

During the so-called Second Italian War of Independence, Biella was besieged by the Austrian army in 1859, but Garibaldi and his volunteer brigade of Cacciatori delle Alpi or Alpine Hunters, disobeying orders if I recall, broke the siege and saved the day. The city was incorporated into the Province of Novara at that time, removed to the Province of Vercelli in 1927, and only became the capital of its own Province of Biella in 1992.

The central square of the Borgo del Piazzo, the Piazza della Cisterna (presumably where the water tank was)

A band setting up lots of amplifiers in the Piazza della Cisterna

The Chiesa di San Giacomo, consecrated in 1227, but closed today

A former palazzo in the Piazetta di S. Giacomo is . . .

. . . presently a collection of upscale apartments.

Three hundred metres along the Corso del Piazzo, next to the Palazzo Ferrero, we're visiting the Giardino Panoramico, with its kids' playground, once part of the grounds of Sebastiano Ferrero, the late 15th century Lord of Piazzo, a State Councilor and Treasurer in the Savoyard administration.

The view of downtown Biella from the Panoramic Garden -- the San Stefano belltower is clearly seen, and the cathedral is just to the right of that.

Down an alley on the far side of that palazzo with all the apartments in it

On the Via S. Giacomo, behind that palazzo, we're wondering how much they want for that thing. Once it's been fixed up a bit. (It's called the Casa Ferrero, 16th century.)

Down the Costa San Sebastiano, through the old Porta Ghiara (built in 1300) defending the upper town, we're headed back into the centre city, 'Biella Piano' (flat Biella).

From the Costa San Sebastiano, we're shortcutting over to the Costa delle Noci, or the 'walnut hillside walk'

Reentering downtown Biella

Along the Via Vescovado, a peek in at the diocesan stuff

Back to the Via Italia . . .

. . . at the hour of the passeggiata

Untempted by the Burger House

The Sacro Monte di Oropa

Biella is also famous for its Sacro Monte di Oropa, about 9km up into the hills; it's one of the nine Sacri Monti included in the UNESCO World Heritage cultural property "Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy", inscribed in 2003. The nine listed 'Sacred Mountains' date from the 16th-17th century following on from a late 15th century movement to recreate for European Christians scenes from the biblical stories as pilgrim access to the Holy Land originals was becoming increasingly difficult. The Sacro Monte di Oropa dates from 1617.

We did not visit the Oropa site, but we have seen the Sacri Monti at Varallo and on the Lago di Orta (as above). They are historically and culturally fascinating but visually often pretty creepy.

The road to Viverone

Afternoon sights along the road back to Viverone

And back to Viverone. Tomorrow -- Borso del Grappa (??)


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 1 April 2017.


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