Vercelli: The Duomo

Cathedral of Vercelli or Sant’Eusebio.

The cathedral of Vercelli can be found on the north side of the historical city centre, not far from the famous abbey of Sant’Andrea. The Duomo is a remarkable building with a long history. Although that history goes all the way back to Late Antiquity, the present Duomo is largely the result of a rebuilding that was started in the sixteenth century and completed not so long ago. The building still features a number of remnants from the Middle Ages. On the outside we see the brick Romanesque bell-tower, while inside a large crucifix from the late tenth or early eleventh century immediately draws our attention. Lastly there is a statuette of the Madonna and Child, attributed to the great sculptor Benedetto Antelami (ca. 1150-1230).


The Duomo of Vercelli is dedicated to Saint Eusebius of Vercelli (ca. 283-371). He is considered the first bishop of the town, which was still called Vercellae back then and was mostly famous as the place where in 101 BCE the Romans had cut to pieces the Germanic tribe of the Cimbri. After his death Eusebius was buried at a necropolis just outside the town, and at an unspecified moment between the late fourth and early sixth century a basilica dedicated to him was constructed here. Later still, this Sant’Eusebio became the cathedral of the city, replacing Santa Maria Maggiore. The basilica was preceded by an atrium, had a nave and four aisles and must have been beautifully decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Unfortunately none of these decorations have survived. This loss must have been related to a shocking event that took place in 997. In that year bishop Peter of Vercelli was murdered by the nobleman Arduin of Ivrea, who in passing also set fire to the cathedral. The fire was followed by a Romanesque rebuilding, of which the twelfth-century bell-tower survives today.

Interior of the cathedral.

In the second half of the sixteenth century bishop Guido Luca Ferrero (1562-1572) decided to rebuild the medieval cathedral. In 1570 he commissioned the architect Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-1596) for this project, a man who in 1567 had also been charged with building the cathedral of Milan. Tibaldi worked hard on the new Duomo of Vercelli, but when he left the project in 1582 only the choir, two side chapels and two sacristies were finished. It is possible that a lack of funds prevented the architect from working on the other parts of the cathedral.

Then in the seventeenth century Marie Jeanne Baptiste of Savoy-Nemours (1644-1724) initiated the construction of a large chapel dedicated to Amadeus IX (1435-1472), who had been Duke of Savoy between 1465 and his death, and who had died in 1472 at the tender age of 37. In 1677 he was beatified by Pope Innocentius XI (1676-1689) and in 1685 the chapel dedicated to Beato Amadeo was completed. The chapel was designed by Michelangelo Garove (1648-1713) and built by Francesco Aprile (1657-1710). Other members of the House of Savoy have also been interred here, among them Charles Emmanuel II, the husband of Marie Jeanne Baptiste who had passed away in 1675. The painting in the chapel is by Daniel Seiter (ca. 1642-1705).

Cappella del Beato Amedeo IX.

The rebuilding of the cathedral continued in the first decades of the eighteenth century under the direction of the fairly obscure architect Stefano Negro. He built a new nave, the two aisles and the transept. In the second half of the century the work was continued by Benedetto Alfieri (1699-1767) and Luigi Michele Barberis (1725-1798). The cathedral was provided with a Neoclassicist façade and opposite the chapel of Beato Amadeo another chapel was built, dedicated to Saint Eusebius, whose relics had been rediscovered in 1581. This chapel was thoroughly remodelled in the nineteenth century by the architect Giuseppe Locarni (1826-1902). It was also in the nineteenth century that the cathedral got its dome, a work by Giovanni Larghi, constructed between 1857 and 1860. The façade was embellished with statues of Jesus Christ and the apostles; some of these were made by Ercole Villa (1827-1909). The architect Edoardo Arborio Mella (1808-1884) was responsible for the floor of the Duomo. At the end of the twentieth century the crypt was created, where the bishops of Vercelli found their final resting places. The crypt can be visited (and signs in the Duomo specifically invite us to do so), but it is mostly interesting for religious reasons.

Things to see

The famous crucifix of Vercelli was very likely crafted during the episcopate of bishop Leo of Vercelli (998 or 999-1026). It is made of wood covered in layers of (gilded) silver. The crucifix is over three metres high. The Saviour has been depicted as the Christus Triumphans, the triumphant Christ. The stylistic similarities between this crucifix and the crucifix in the cathedral of Casale Monferrato are hard to deny, but the crucifix of Vercelli has more intricate details. At the top we see the Ascension of Christ, although unfortunately the upper part of the scene has been lost. Below the Ascension there are tondi with the sun (SOL) and moon (LVNA). Above the crowned head of Christ we read the text of the titulus: IHS NAZARENVS REX IVDEORVM, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (see John 19:19). At the feet of Christ is a depiction of Jesus and the Harrowing of Hell. All the way at the bottom an angel, a kneeling worshipper and a bishop have been depicted (perhaps the aforementioned Leo of Vercelli or Saint Eusebius).

Crucifix, 10th or 11th century.

The Latin text below the arms of Christ is interesting. It reads:


Madonna dello Schiaffo.

The text is from John 19:26-27 (although it is not a literal quote).[1] The words refer to the situation after the Crucifixion. According to John, three Maries were present at this event, the Virgin Mary, her sister Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. Jesus then saw his mother and the so-called “disciple whom he loved”, usually identified as the young Saint John. The Latin text means “woman, behold your son, and to the disciple [he said] behold your mother”. The text has not been randomly selected, as Mary and John have been depicted next to Christ’s hands.

In a niche on the left side of the cathedral we find the aforementioned statuette of the Madonna and Child that is attributed to Benedetto Antelami. It may once have been part of a pulpit. The inhabitants of Vercelli have nicknamed the statuette the Madonna dello Schiaffo, which means something along the lines of the Madonna of the Slap. The nickname apparently refers to the peculiar stain that the Madonna has on her left cheek. It looks just like she has been slapped in the face.

Lastly I would like to mention the choir of the cathedral, which has two balustrades. In the central niche behind the high altar is a statue of Saint Eusebius from the eighteenth century. The four reliefs in the apse feature scenes from the life of the saint. These were made by Giovanni Battista Bernero (1736-1796), also known for his work in Casale Monferrato.

Choir of the cathedral.


  • Brochure ‘Have you ever seen Vercelli?’;
  • Capitool travel guide Italy (2014), p. 228;
  • Trotter travel guide Northwest Italy, p. 221;
  • Duomo di Vercelli – Wikipedia


[1] See Matko Matija Marušić, Devotion in Migration: The Employment of Religious Poetry in Thirteenth-Century Zadar and Split, p. 77.

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