Vicenza

 

We hope this information will help visitors appreciate the history and artistic beauty of the city of Vicenza.

 

Vicenza: origins and history According to recent research, the first inhabitants of the Vicenza area were the Euganeans in the 6th - 7th millennium BC. Then the Romans invaded the area in the 4th and 5th centuries BC which is when the town situated between the Lessini and Berici hills became a “municipium” called Vicetia.

The local economy was based on agriculture, cattle-breeding and weaving, and one of the main activities of the area revolved around the wool industry.

 

At the end of the 4th century, after the first Christian evangelisation, Vicenza became a diocese ruled firstly by the bishop of Milan, and later by the metropolitan of Aquileia. At this stage Vicenza suffered a number of invasions from the north and the east by armies that crossed through Veneto on their way to Lombardy. It was a difficult period for the area.

The demographical crisis was aggravated by a dreadful series of plagues (lasting 400 years) which drove the inhabitants from the countryside and, with time, the land consequently turned into a swamp.

 

The Longobards, a population of Scandinavian origin, eventually came down from the Elba valley and the families settled and founded a new kingdom (568 BC). In order to defeat the Longobard reign, the Pope applied to the Franks who were much stronger and better organised. image Desiderio, the last king of the Longobards, fell to Charlemagne in Pavia in 774 AD. During this period the town started to become aware of the precious work of the Benedictine Friars.

 

The Benedictines settled in the outer areas of Vicenza (in S. Agostino) and began to reclaim the marshland. The monasteries of S. Felice and S. Pietro date back to those years. After the decline of the Carolingian Empire (814), a new tragedy struck as the Hungarians devastated the area. It was during the time of these continuous invasions that the authorities decided to build walls around the town as a form of defence. The first town walls had been built by B. D'Alviano.

 

The period between the Carolingian era and the time of the city-republics (11th ­12th centuries) is known as the “Bishop - Count” period. There were three mendicant friar orders in the city: the Dominicans, the Augustinians and the Franciscans (from 1260).A series of civil wars devastated the town during the 12th century and at the beginning of the 13th century.The noble Scaligeri family of Verona, who had made Vicenza part of their domain, fortified the town once again.

 

The Most Serene Republic of Venice was extending its power into the mainland and in 1404 Vicenza fell to the Venetians. The Venetian authorities respected the local institutions and only one captain, one podestà and one camerlingo were sent to take charge of the military, civil and financial affairs of the town.The Austrians governed almost peacefully until 1844, when the first insurrectionary movements broke out, which together with other factors, led to the town of Vicenza being annexed to the Italian Kingdom. Today, the ruins of the Ancient Roman era can be seen in the streets of the city and the aqueduct, which delivered water from the Lobbia river to the town inside the walls.Other Ancient Roman ruins include tombs, mosaic floors and inscriptions on gravestones.

 

The Cathedral's bell-tower and the churches of S. Silvestro, S. Pietro and S. Giorgio in Gogna, also date from this period. Many remarkable monuments of the Mediaeval town ­ Romanesque-Gothic style - still remain today: the Temple of S. Corona (1265), built to house the Holy Thorn from the relics of Christ's Crown, the temple of S. Lorenzo (1280) and the Cathedral. These are amongst the most beautiful churches in the town. Ruins from the 13th century include the town walls built by the Scaligero family, with the so called “Rocchetta” and the S. Lucia and S. Croce gates (where tolls were excised as far back as the year 1000). A stroll down the main street of Vicenza will reveal a number of marvellous buildings, such as the “Da Schio” palace called “Ca' d'Oro” (House of Gold) because when the Venetians built it they had sumptuously gilded its capitals (1447).

 

There are also such beautiful buildings as the Da Porto-Breganze, the Colleoni-Da Porto, not to mention the house of the famous Antonio Pigafetta which, together with Cardinal Zeno's loggia, recall Ferrarese and Lombard influences.The church of S. Rocco and the oratories of S. Nicola and S. Cristoforo date back to the Gothic period.If Rome and Venice owe their monuments to the generosity of the Caesars, the Popes and the Doges, Vicenza owes its place in history to its ordinary citizens. The gothic, renaissance and eighteenth-century buildings are distinguished by their harmonious, refined and at the same time, unostentatious lines, which is why Vicenza, like all the towns in the Veneto region, have this one common characteristic: it is a town built for people. The 16th century was the city's golden century.

 

At first the noblemen and the rich middle class of Vicenza wanted to copy the residences of the rich Venetian merchants built along the Grand Canal, then they wanted to outdo them so they turned to the greatest architect of the Renaissance: Andrea Palladio. image In the 16th century, Palladio enriched the town with his precious masterpieces which became models reproduced for centuries in many parts of the world. The great architect designed the loggias of the Basilica, which covered the 15th century Palazzo della Ragione (so called because it was a court of law). Because of its enormous proportions and dimensions, the work on the Basilica employed manpower from around the province for decades; the wood for the scaffoldings came from the Asiago plateau, and the marbles came from Mossano and Valchiampo.Work on the marvellous Basilica began in 1549 and ended in 1614, after Palladio's death (1580).Another monument in the Piazza dei Signori is the Loggia del Capitaniato (1565) built as a prestigious dwelling for the captain who was the representative of the Most Serene Republic.

 

The original design included a building with a larger facade, but it was never built. One of the most fascinating works of the great architect was the Chiericati Palace, which now houses the Civic Museum. Other important Palladian buildings include the Barbaran-Da Porto, the Bonin-Longare, the Angaran-Vaccari, the Civena-Trissino and the Thiene. In 1580 the Olympic academics commissioned Palladio to design what has become one of the most beautiful and well-known theatres in the world, the Teatro Olimpico. The tiers, the proscenium (with its famous “via di Tebe”), the sky and the numerous statues are all made from wood. Another masterpiece of the sixteenth century is the magnificent villa, the Rotonda. It represents the highest achievement of Palladian classicism. Its central dome-shaped hall is inscribed in a square which has four Ionic six-column pronaos protruding from its sides.Until 1860, the “marcà dei socoli” (open air market of wooden clogs) was held in this square, an activity which adapted well to the central spaces of the town. Every space had its specific commercial function: the fruit and vegetable market was held in the Piazza delle Erbe, the grain market was held in Piazza Biade, the fish and poultry market was held in Contrà Pescherie, and the shoe market was held in Contrà delle Copparie.

 

Campo Marzio, a fine park for taking leisurely strolls, connected the town with the nearby hills of Monte Berico. The street, which crosses it used to join up with the present-day Viale della Stazione to create the famous “O”, which in 1864 became 804.5 meters long. It was a real hippodrome in accordance with international racing regulations. The ‘communal' theatre was dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi in 1901, the year of his death. It could seat 1626 people and there was standing room for 960 people. Completely restored after the first world war, the new theatre was destined to have a short life, as it was completely destroyed in a bombing in 1944. image The “Ferdinandea” railway built in 1844 connected Vicenza to Venice and Milan.In 1883 5 trains a day departed for Milan and in 1885 the first sleeping-cars were created.The fair of Vicenza dates back to the 13th century.

 

It started as a cattle fair and later horses were admitted as well. There were such large crowds of public, exhibitors and buyers that horse races and outdoor shows were organised for the occasion. The “Rua” was a traditional wooden wheel which was drawn in procession amidst the excitement and enthusiasm of the crowd. This was the beginning of one of the most popular traditional events held in Vicenza. Legend says that the “Rua” was probably a war trophy, the wheel from a “Carroccio” (cart used in medieval times to carry the standards of the city and consequently the symbol of the city during a war).

 

Actually, it was originally the insignia of the notaries, and since 1264 had taken part in the procession celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, like all the tabernacles of the other associations. The rich wooden decoration on the Rua was replaced every three years. Notwithstanding its size (65 ‘vicentine' feet high, that is roughly 24 metres), and its considerable weight, the machine was drawn very capably through the main streets of the town.The popular festival was cancelled in 1858 as a sign of rebellion against Austrian rule, and was not resumed until 1880. The “Rua” was paraded for the last time in 1912 as it could not pass under the electric power lines. In 1944 the last Rua was destroyed in a bombing. Up until the middle of the 19th century, the Rua parade took place at noon, and later in the afternoon on the same day there was a special horse race.Since 1259 this race had started from Ponte Alto, crossed through the town through Porta Castello and ended at S.ta Corona.

 

During the whole of the 14th century, the race was held to celebrate the town's military victories, and it was then reproduced in memory of those victories. Eight or ten unbridled horses were subjected to the torture of lead balls fitted with iron points which struck them on their flanks as they ran the race. This unusual show was abolished by the Austrian government in 1844. In 1923 the “Foro Boario” (cattle market) was built in order to supervise cattle sales, but mainly to control the outbreak of tuberculosis and smallpox. Later, the silk cocoon market was also established.In 1780, the Eretenio Theatre was built from a Venetian design. Its acoustics were extraordinary, and it could seat 1000 people. The hall was horse-shoe shaped, and with tiers of 25 boxes which were decorated with golden ornaments and blue drapes. On 14 March 1883, during a gala performance, the electric lighting, installed according to Edison's method, was inaugurated. It was the first experiment of the kind in Veneto.The main street of Vicenza, Corso Palladio, has always been one of the most important places in the town.It is still called the “Corso”, to remind us that horse races were held here up until the mid-19th century.The best shops, the trendiest coffee shops and the hotels lined the street. It was an elegant area which the local middle class people used as a meeting place. image The cultural heritage of Vicenza can boast famous people such as the poet Giacomo Zanella, the writer Antonio Fogazzaro, the political economist Fedele Lampertico, the scholar Paolo Lioy, and the astronomer and meteorologist Da Schio. At the beginning of the 1900's, at S. Lucia, silk weavers were still carrying out their ancient traditions, even though the sector was going through a slump.A spinning mill in S. Biagio employed 500 workers and its workshops along the Retrone River produced catgut strings for musical instruments. Many handcraft activities related to everyday life were slowly dying out.

 

These included crafts such as “el moleta” (knife-grinder), “el pegnataro” (pot seller), “el caregheta” (chair mender). In 1855, the city of Vicenza, in an attempt to increase local industrial activity, gave the Rossi brothers an area in which to build a cotton factory. The owners agreed to employ 200 workers to process cotton imported from America, and the city exempted the company from paying taxes for 30 years.

 

By 1877, the “A. Rossi Technical Institute” was already operating and it employed the best teachers. The school was divided into three sections: electronics, mechanical constructions and motor-driven machines. Today, the I.T.I.S. (State Industrial and Technical Institute) is the biggest school in the city. Two more large companies were established during that period: the “Magni” (later known as “Montecatini” (1898) which produced fertilisers and Zambon (1920).Today, Zambon is still one of the leading companies the pharmaceutical sector. In 1885, the inhabitants of Vicenza totalled 41,337, the 1901 census gives the number of inhabitants as 45,561 and the 1921 census as 60,267.

 

The town, which maintained its traditions for centuries, has undergone major transformations in recent years. The local writer Guido Piovene recently wrote:" … New large areas have arisen in the suburbs, destroying the shape of the city as seen from the hills of Monte Berico. It used to be shaped like a scorpion with its two pincers pointing eastwards. Today, we can see a shapeless agglomerate, in the middle of which, fortunately, stands the slender tower, the Palladian Basilica below and the large dome of the cathedral. Alas, this is the destiny of all our towns.

 

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