Alessandria

Article and pictures by Marcello Invernizzi, all rights reserved.

Alessandria is situated in the south-east part of Piedmont, at the confluence of the Bormida and Tanaro rivers. Its geographical position gave it a considerable strategic value in previous centuries and it is still an important railway junction.

Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa besieged it for several months between 1174 and 1175. It subsequently changed hands several times until the Treaty of Utrecht assigned it to the House of Savoy in 1713. The town had previously been fortified, but the enceinte, largely made up of the old medieval walls and earthworks, was rather weak. To at least partially remedy this it was decided to build a powerful hexagonal citadel in place of the Borgoglio suburb which occupied the river bank opposite the city. Construction began in 1732 and lasted thirteen years, being completed just in time to succesfully resist a French blockade during the War of the Austrian Succession.

The citadel would see action again in 1799 during the War of the Second Coalition. Defended by a small mixed French Cisalpine garrison it was besieged in July by a large Austro-Russian corps equipped with a powerful artillery train which fired over forty thousand shots and shell in a week, enabling a quick advance of the sap to the covert way and forcing the French commander General Gardanne to ask for terms soon after.

Later, back under Napoleonic rule, it was repaired and strengthened by Chasseloup-Laubat. An ambitious plan was launched to turn the town into an immense fortress that would function as a place de depot for armies operating in the Po valley. The fall of Napoleon meant the end of the works and the demolition of what had already been built. Some fortifications were later built to protect the town against an Austrian attack.

The fortress still retains a largely intact glacis on the country side which masks its masonry from sight. On the four sides facing the countryside the outworks are particularly elaborate. The fortress features ravelins equipped with both redoubts and counterguards. The bastions faces are protected by counterguards and their sides and the curtains by tenailles. Under French rule some casemated redoubts were built in the re-entering angles of the covered way, and a counterscarp wall was added. The citadel was later ringed by a line of advanced works. Of those only the remains of a crownwork and a lunette are still visible. The main entrance is through the gate built into one of the two sides facing the river and the city. The ditches are wide, up to 120 meters in some areas. Originally they were wet, fed mainly by the seeping water table, but the stagnating water proved too troublesome and they were made dry by partially filling them while the possibility of flooding them by river water was retained. Two of the bastions are still in original 18th century conditions, with curved recessed flanks and cavaliers. The other four were extensively rebuilt with casemates in the early 1800s. The citadel contains a number of 18-19th century buildings: governor's quarters, officers' quarters, a large bakery, two powder magazines, an arsenal, an imposing barracks complex and several storehouses.

Visiting Alessandria

The city of Alessandria is easily reached via both motorways, such as the Turin-Plaisance, and a number of railways, such as the Turin-Genoa. There is a walk of about 1.5km between the railway station and the citadel, on the other hand if you travel by car there is a car park near the main gate.

Early spring is strongly recommended as the best time to visit, before the overgrowth covers many areas. The citadel is freely accessible except for some of the buildings and some of the bastion casemates, the latter however can be visited with the guided tours which are usually held on Sunday afternoons.

The fortifications are overall relatively intact but insufficient or absent maintenance, as well as Second World War damage, has left many areas in various degrees of unsafe conditions, ranging from single falling bricks/tiles to collapsing structures. In general it is advisable to pay attention and eventually keep some distance from most bricks constructions. Some parts of the rampart have caved in on the covered way and on top of the bastion faces. The town defences were completely demolished except for three detached forts built around 1860, these however are not accessible.

Article and pictures by Marcello Invernizzi, all rights reserved.

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