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The City of Novara


The town of Novara has very ancient origins. When the town was founded, Rome hadn’t yet been established. According to the historian Plinio, Novara had been founded by the “Gauls Vertocamori”, a native Celtic clan who lived in the Insurbian region before the Roman invasion. On the contrary, according to the Roman Catone, Novara was founded by the “Ligures”, a roaming tribe. In the old Celtic language, the name “Novara” meant above-water. In fact, the town is set on a hill dominating several surrounding rivers, streams and lakes.

Novara has the typical layout like all ancient Roman fortified towns in northern Italy. It is built on two main axes: the “decumano” east-west direction and the “cardo” north-south direction. Inside these fortifications, four big doors opened towards the four cardinal points of Milan, Switzerland, Turin, and Genoa. With the Roman invasion (196 B.C.), the city took the Latin name of “Novaria”. In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar transformed Novara into a Municipium (district capital). With its Christian conversion, “Gaudenzio” began as the first bishop of the Town. San Gaudenzio is still today the Patron Saint of Novara (22nd of January, the town’s holiday).

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Novara met with many Barbarian invasions. In the first years of the 400s it was invaded by the Byzantines who, after 40 years of domination, were defeated by the Goths. In 452 A.D., the Town was sacked by Attila and his Huns and Novara became unpopulated. Even the Bishop escaped to the castle on the island of S.Julius in the middle of Lake Orta (38 kms north). In 569, the Longobards came, who governed Novara for over two centuries. Later, came the Franks of Charlemagne. In 1110 the German Emperor Henry V, on his way from Switzerland to punish the rebels in Milan, destroyed Novara and set it on fire.

Later on, Novara met the beginning of the “Comune” (independent municipality) era. The “Comune” of Novara endured heavy clashes with the nearby Count of Biandrate to control all the areas north of the province. When in 1176 Novara sent 300 soldiers to fight the Battle of Legnano allied with the Lombard League, the League won against the German Emperor (a friend of the Count of Biandrate), and all the Biandrate territories passed under the Novara control. In 1200 the first city hall (the still standing “Broletto”) was established, which became the political centre of the imperial free city of Novara. This was the era of Novara’s maximum splendor in history and Novara became one of the most important commercial cities in northern Italy. Between the numerous “Paratici” (free merchants and craftsmen) the most important were the “Shoe-makers” (cobblers) and Novara turned into the capital shoe market in Northern Italy. The “Paratico dei Calzolai” (The Shoe Makers Guild) was also named as the “University of the Shoe Makers” and it is one of the first examples of a craftman’s guild in Italy. It was a very wealthy league of mutual assistance and soon began to clash with the interests of the noblemen of Novara. The symbol of Novara was the “Tower of the Hours”, which was the highest tower in town. The upper part of the tower had the shape of a shoe-maker’s disk, and its watch kept the correct time for the whole of the province. At the end of the 12th century, Novara accepted the protection of the Duchy of Milan and became practically a dominion of the Visconti family and later of the Sforza family. The Novara Bishop, Giovanni Visconti, began to build the still-standing Novara Castle. For more than one century Novara was the battlefield between the Swiss-Lombard armies of the Duchy of Milan against the French armies allied with the Princedom of Savoia. Novara was right on the border between Piedmont and Lombardy and was the western fortified town under Milan rule.

In the Battle of Novara, Swiss mercenaries (the Italian speaking part of today’s Switzerland was under the Duchy of Milan), defending Novara for the Sforza family of Milan, overcame the French troops besieging the city. When Carlo V of Spain became the new Lord of the Duchy of Milan in 1521, Novara also passed under the Spanish Empire. The Spanish built new fortified walls all around the hill of the town so as to use Novara as a border defence fortress against the French armies. The Spanish governed Novara and the Duchy of Milan for 181 years.

In 1706 Novara, which had been promised to Amadeus VIII of Savoy long before, was occupied by Savoyard troops. The following year, with the Peace of Utrecht, the town together with Milan, became part of the Habsburg Empire of Austria. The Austrians confirmed the border line between Lombardy and Piedmont as the river Sesia, so Novara remained part of Lombardy. After its occupation in 1734, Novara passed over to the House of Savoy the following year. The Prince of Savoy then moved the border line from the river Sesia to the river Ticino (actual border) and Novara became part of the Piedmont region and Kingdom of Sardinia. The Savoys, however, changed the aspect of Novara. The ancient Spanish “Baluardi” and some parts of the medieval town were largely destroyed and replaced with large boulevards. The Romanic cathedral of XI century was replaced by a new neoclassic cathedral and they also began the construction of the “Cupola” tower (121 mt.) both of which were designed by the famous architect Alessandro Antonelli (also architect of the “Mole Tower” in Turin). At the end of May, in 1800, Napoleon I invaded Novara, during his campaign in Italy. Novara became the capital of the Department of the Agogna, and once again became part of the Lombardy region and of the French-ruled but indipendent “Kingdom of Italy”, with Milan as its capital. The border line moved back to the river Sesia once again and the rest of Piedmont, and like all of the Savoy Kingdom, became part of Napoleon’s French Empire.

After the fall of Napoleon, Novara was then reassigned to the House of Savoy in 1814. In an even bigger fight the ‘Battle of Novara’ in 1821, the Sardinian army was defeated by Field Marshal Radetsky’s Austrian army. This defeat led to the abdication of Charles Albert of Sardinia and to the partial occupation of the city by the Austrians. A decree in October 23th 1859 (Decreto Rattazzi) created the province of Novara, which then included the present-day provinces of Vercelli, Biella and Verbania making the Province of Novara the largest in Italy.BR>
During the First World War, 692 families in Novara had lost a son in action against the Austrian Armies. The Fascism regime in the '20s e '30s, turned Novara into one of the most important agriculture capitals in northern Italy, thanks to the rice-growing and red-wine economy. Novara also became an important military base.

During the Second World War, Novara's east side was bombed by english "RAF". In 1943, during the “Partisan Resistence”, the Nazis led many incursions to Novara against the partisans who had joined the allied anglo-american troops. On the 30th of April 1945 the American troops entered the town of Novara.

From the twenties until the seventies Novara has been the rice-growing capital of the Italian economy. This saw the period of the demographic boom and immigration towards Novara. In 30 years (1950-1980) the town passed from 35,000 to more than 100,000 inhabitants. In the late '50s Novara was the third richest town in Italy and its Province was 7th regarding the average income per inhabitant in Italy.

The Novarese Dialect is a part of the “Western Lombard” language, spoken in the west Lombard provinces and in the southern part of italian speaking Switzerland.

In Italian-speaking contexts, Western Lombard is often generically called a “dialect”. This is often incorrectly understood as meaning a dialect of Italian, which actually is not the case. Instead It has more than some resemblances with southern French and Catalan. Western Lombard and Italian are different languages and are not mutually intelligible. Western Lombard belongs to the romantic language. Nowadays, Western Lombard does not have any official status either in Lombardy or anywhere else as the only official language in northern Italy is Italian and only the elderly people still use it daily. In fact, the Western Lombard Dialect has been listed in the UNESCO book of endangered languages.