A walk in Vercelli

We parked our car at a large free car park near a former military barracks on the east side of Vercelli’s historical city centre. From this car park it was just a short walk to our first destination in the town, the Museo Borgogna. The museum is the second-largest pinacoteca in Piemonte; only the Galleria Sabauda in Turin is larger. The Museo Borgogna is housed in a nineteenth-century palazzo owned by the lawyer Antonio Borgogna (1822-1906). Borgogna was a fervent collector of art who bought the palazzo in 1882 to store his imposing collection of artworks there. The lawyer never married and had no children. Upon his death the palazzo passed into the hands of the municipality, and in 1908 the Museo Borgogna opened its doors to the public. A remarkable fact is that the museum is not named after Antonio Borgogna himself, but after Antonio’s father Francesco.

The Museo Borgogna, with on the left the church of Sant’Agnese in San Francesco.

The museum is dedicated to Borgogna’s personal collection, which is composed of paintings, furniture and other items. This collection is complemented by paintings from the collection of the Institute for Fine Arts in Vercelli, and by frescoes and other works from churches in and around Vercelli that have been demolished. Especially Renaissance works from Piemonte are well-represented. Among other things, the museum possesses a tondo with the Sacred Family by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), more commonly known as Il Sodoma. He was born in Vercelli and the tondo happens to be the only work by Il Sodoma that can still be admired in the town. I would have happily dedicated a longer post to the Museo Borgogna, but unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures of the artworks. The museum is currently administered by a foundation, which simply does not allow photography inside.

Risotto, served at Ristorante Vecchia Brenta.

A friendly custodian in the museum gave us an excellent tip for lunch: go to Ristorante Vecchia Brenta in the Via Morosone. The restaurant has a small terrace outside and fortunately it still had a table available there for two stranieri. For obvious reasons we ordered risotto, as Vercelli is the undisputed rice capital of Italy. We had already seen what that meant when we drove to the town and passed by endless rice fields full of herons and mosquitoes. Risotto takes a while to prepare. Although we had not ordered any starters, the staff of the restaurant decided to serve us a complimentary hors-d’oeuvre. Heartwarming service indeed! The risotto was subsequently wheeled to our table on a cart and then scooped onto the plates, fresh from the pan. The risotto from Ristorante Vecchia Brenta, with big pieces of truffle, was among the best we ever had. Of course we ate everything, for which we received a compliment from the waitress.

After lunch we walked to the heart of Vercelli, the Piazza Cavour. It is named after the great statesman Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (1810-1861), a key figure in the Italian unification process. Cavour first served as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia[1] and then, from 1861, as Prime Minister of a unified Italy. In the same year he passed away, aged just 50. In the middle of the Piazza Cavour we find his statue, a work by the sculptors Ercole Villa (1827-1909) and Giuseppe Argenti (1811-1876). Behind the stately buildings adjoining the square we see a medieval tower, the Torre dell’Angelo from the fourteenth century. The upper part of the tower is, by the way, a lot younger: it was only added in 1875. It was apparently market day when we were in the Piazza Cavour. The market did not draw hordes of people, but then again it was at least 35 degrees centigrade outside.

Piazza Cavour.

From the Piazza Cavour we walked to the north side of the city centre and visited the famous basilica and abbey of Sant’Andrea, built between 1219 and 1227. The complex is so special that it deserves a separate post, and so does the building we visited next, the cathedral of the city, which is dedicated to Saint Eusebius of Vercelli (ca. 283-371). The history of the cathedral goes back to Late Antiquity, but the current building arose largely between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. For more information about the cathedral I refer to the aforementioned separate post.

Synagogue of Vercelli.

From the cathedral we swung south again and arrived at the spectacular synagogue of Vercelli. On 29 March 1848 the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia adopted a new constitution which granted freedom of religion to all its citizens. As a result of this, the Jews of Vercelli were allowed to build synagogues that actually looked like synagogues on the outside, and to practice their religion in public. The synagogue of Vercelli was built between 1875 and 1878 in Neo-Moorish style. The architects involved were Marco Treves (1814-1897) and Giuseppe Locarni (1826-1902). Unlike in Casale Monferrato, there was unfortunately no possibility to go inside and see the interior of the building.

Lastly we visited the church of San Cristoforo. This was again on the advice of the custodian who had recommended us Ristorante Vecchia Brenta. Again the advice proved to be sound. The church is famous for its altarpiece and frescoes by the painter Gaudenzio Ferrari (ca. 1475-1546). You can read more about it in a separate post.

Further reading: Trotter travel guide Northwest Italy, p. 218-222.


[1] The House of Savoy, which ruled over Piedmont, had acquired Sardinia in 1720 in exchange for Sicily. Until 1847 members of the House were formally only Kings of Sardinia, although their capital was at Turin on the mainland. The 1847 Fusione perfetta ended all administrative differences between the island and the mainland.

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