- Written by Gabriele Pieroni
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In the words of the young writer Marco Candia, the secrets of Tortona – its history as a land of transit, commerce, borders, and conquest at the hands of many potentates – grew to be a part of the city. Tortona has a past full of war and destruction, dominators and dominated, central and periphery areas; but it also has the dignity and pride of a city that, as Candia writes, has always existed, “resisting the forces of energy from the transits that passed this city,” winning its independence century after century, fighting and sacrificing to maintain it.
Tortona is a small city of 25000 inhabitants in the province of Alessandria, 40 minutes away from Milan by car and about 50 minutes from Genova. After ten minutes of driving from Tortona, province of Alessandria in Piedmont, you’re in Voghera, province of Pavia in Lombardy. After about an hour of driving, you arrive in Turin, and in less than an hour, in Piacenza in Emilia Romagna. For this reason, Tortona has always been considered a crossroads, a place of transit and it’s here that I was born […] in the same hospital where Fausto Coppi got an incorrect diagnosis and lost his life: in Tortona, province of Alessandria.
Even Federico Barbarossa had to admit that the Tortonesi were tough. In 1155, when he disembarked in Italy to dominate Italian cities who refused to recognize his power, his army found themselves up against the strong wall and unbreakable spirit of Tortona. He pushed until, exhausted by their resistance, he resorted to poisoning the springs of the city to stipulate a surrender.
In memory of this and one hundred other battles that the Tortonesi fought, on the hill that overshadows the city rests the great Castle Tower. It is not much more than a pile of ruins, one might say, broken by time. But, in the surviving stones and bricks, the entire history of Tortona is written, from the Roman fortress of ancient Derthona Julia – a crucial junction for communication between Liguria and the Pianura plains – to its medieval period that opposed German resistance; from the Renaissance castle of the Viscounts at the Forte St. Vittorio, claimed by the Savoys in the 1700s to control western Piedmont; to the final decision of Napoleon Bonaparte, who ordered its demolition in 1801.
The Castle Tower and its surrounding park are excellent points of departure to visit Tortona. From here, follow the street Vittorio Veneto to Via XX Settembre in Piazza Cavallotti, where Via Emilia begins next to the Civic Hospital, along which the principal monuments of the city are erected. This was the ancient Aemilia Scauri, an important road whose construction was ordered by the Roman Proctor Emilia Scauro in 109 B.C. to connect the La Spezia territory to Vado Ligure without passing by the coast, impassable areas, and dangers.
Via Emilia cuts through the entire historical center in a succession of piazzas, crossways, and porticoes, called “Portici Nuovi” and “Portici Vecchi” (“new” and “old” porticoes) and divided by the Piazza Duomo. In this piazza, the Cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary Assuta and St. Lorenzo rises up with its Neo Classical facade and late 15th century origins.
Piazza Duomo is the cultural center of the city. An excellent example of collaboration between the public and private spheres is the Foundation Bank of Savings of Tortona, its seat located in the medieval palace along Corso Leoniero behind the Cathedral. In 2012, the Foundation inaugurated its permanent display Il Divisionismo, or Divisionism, a collection based in its original paintings of painter Pellizza Da Volpedo, then expanded with successive acquisitions. Today it displays over one hundred works of the most important Italian Divisionist artists, including Plinio Nomellini, Emilio Longoni, and Giovanni Segantini.
In the vicinity of Piazza Duomo is Palazzo Vescovile, a 16th century building that deserves a visit to see the precious Triptych of Lucedio, a painting by Macrino D’Alba. Behind it is the Episcopal Seminary, which houses the Cultural Diocesan Center and is the seat of one of the most important historical archives of Piedmont with over 1200 scrolls, the most ancient of which hails from the 10th century.
Still under the porticoes of the Duomo in an angle of the piazza, take an indulgent break in the Vercesi Bakery (Pasticceria), a tribute to the gastronomic history of Tortona. In fact, here the “Baci Dorati,” or “Golden Kisses” were first created, a variation of the Baci di Dama that were likely also of Tortona origin. Wrapped in golden paper, slightly oval and prepared with almond and chocolate, the Baci dei Vercesi are sold together with a poem from the 1930s that celebrated them in its phrase: “They’re exquisite, dear, and delicious / Like the smiles of Lovers and Newlyweds.”
Continuing along Via Emilia, the street opens up to Piazza Aristide Arzano, overshadowed by the civic tower from the 1400s, Palazzo Guidobono, designated for events and exhibitions; it is also the seat of the Tourist Office. Inside the Palazzo are important Ancient Roman artifacts, such as the valuable sarcophagus of Publio Elio Sabino in white marble with a base relief from the 3rd century A.D. (on the ground floor), while the underground levels conserve a mosaic pavement in addition to a Renaissance ice room, once used to preserve perishable foods.
Next to Palazzo Guidobono, inside the room of the Public Library, the city’s thousand-year old past asks for one, final tribute. Here, admire the painting of Andrea Gastaldi La Costanza from Tortona, known also as the Thirst of the Tortonesi. The picture, a scene of excruciating realism, depicts the persistent fight that developed over control of the founts of drinking water around the city during the siege of Barbarossa. As we know, history condemns the Tortonesi to defeat, but their sacrifice was carved in memory as a model of fierce independence and liberty. As author Carlo Varese writes in his historical fiction novel about the siege of Tortona, Folchetto Malaspina, “Breaking the valor of the Tortonese was a difficult task,” in a city “determined to resist with all their might.”