History of Casale Monferrato


See Casale Monferrato guide for highlights and historic monuments

The original and primitive nucleus of Casale Monferrato probably developed near the Po River, around the castle of the Paleologi. The origins of Casale, as we explain below (in 'etymology'), most likely coincide with the Roman city of Vardacate, as various archaeological finds in the area demonstrate.

It was also part of the Longobards domain, and in 882 Charles the Fat (839-888) gave to the town the Bishopric of Vercelli.

History of Casale Monferrato

For two hundred years Casale Monferrato was the capital city of the 'Marquisate of Monferrato', a small but fierce State that retained its independence for 800 years and that ceased to exist only in 1708, when it was subjected to the domain of Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy (1666-1732).

The city rebelled in 1196 and became a free municipality, then in 1215 it was razed to the ground by allied armies of Vercelli, Alessandria and Tommaso of Savoy (1178-1233).

It then was rebuilt under Frederick II (1194-1250), before transferring in 1303 to the Aleramici family. In 1474 Casale Monferrato obtained the title of city, and in 1559, with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, it came under the dominion of the Gonzaga of Mantua, who fortified the town even more.

Casale Monferrato suffered throughout the 17th century, a result of several sieges by the Spanish and French, until the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, when it also lost its role of capital with the transfer to become part of the Savoy. By the end of the 19th century the city became an industrial centre of considerable importance.

At the hub of a vast agricultural region, Casale has now also developed significant industrial activities like the production of cement, a material extracted from the surrounding hills. The city has also developed the mechanical engineering industry, the production of printing presses and industrial refrigerators, and, of course, tourism.

Origins of the name Casale Monferrato

Casale Monferrato is an ancient city which, when under Roman domination, was called "Vardacate", and this name was mentioned by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD). The transition to the modern name was pretty slow, but, following the events of the ancient church of St. Evasio, the patron saint of the city, we can reconstruct the change of name through the centuries.

In fact, Aldo A. Settia, who studied the transformations of the city name around the 1970s, wrote that the Church of St. Evasio is cited as:

"[...] located ‘in loco Casalis' ("in a place called ‘Casalis’), in documents dating back to 928 and 1020; and the Church itself is quoted 'infra Castro qui dicitur Casalo ' ('inside a fortified place called' Casalo'') in a document dated 1100, and, finally, ‘in Burgo Casalis’ (' in the Village of ‘Casale’), regularly from 1173 onwards (...) From the 13th century the expression ‘Burgus Casalis’ therefore indicates  the whole town, probably fortified by a moat outside [...] [1].

In the Middle Ages, from the 11th century, the term "Burgus" meant a sizeable inhabited place, second only to 'civitates' ('cities'). The term "Burgus" has been explained very well by Aldo Settia, who writes:

Burgus: definition

"The term 'burgus', with the clear meaning of 'little castle', makes its appearance in the Latin Imperial age, then undergoes a clear semantic splitting; while in the Germanic area it retains its original meaning of ‘fortification’, it took, first in France and then throughout the Romance territory, the exclusive meaning of ‘unprotected conurbation’." [2].

As regards the term "Casalis”, as  G.. Romani says:

" ‘Casale’, etymologically, means an aggregate of farmhouses, since 'casa', in Latin, means 'hovel', 'hut' or 'dwelling of peasants'" [3].

As regards the second part of the name, "Monferrato", the question is difficult to solve. Over the centuries, scholars have proposed many different solutions. There were those who suggested the etymology from " Mons Ferratus” (Mount of 'iron' or ‘Fortified Mount’); others derived the name from the Latin “ferax” and therefore we would have a "Mons Ferax" or "fertile land, rich in fruits."

The solution of the enigma is perhaps in the reasoning of some scholars, who noted that the name "Monferrato", combined with "Casale", is not so much related to a soil characteristic of the ancient "Burgus Casalis" as the military expansionism of the Marquisate of Monferrato, which evolved to include and encompass the "Burgus casalis”, which, when it was conquered by the Marquis of Monferrato, also took the name, hence "Casale Monferrato".

As Dino Gribaudi explained:

"[...] this name has found its fortune in the rise of a political power [the Marquisate of Monferrato] endowed with an excellent expansive force, so, abandoning the hills of Turin, migrated eastward, reaching the hills of ‘Casale’, which came under the dominion of the Marquis of Monferrato [...]. In this sense we must give the name "Monferrato" “ […] a larger meaning more extensive than strictly historical, and coinciding with the hills around Turin, to expand it “across the wide Central Piedmont Hill between the Po River and the Ligurian Apennines" [4].

In conclusion, we could say that the meaning of "Casale Monferrato" is "'Burgus-Casalis' belonging to the Marquisate of Monferrato”, which is probably the most correct and plausible etymology.

Origins of the Roman name Vardacate

We conclude the discourse about the etymology with a note about the ancient Latin name "Vardacate", mentioned, along with other cities, by Pliny the Elder:

"near the Po River, rich in waters, the whole area stands out for its noble cities, such as Libarna the colony of Dertona, Iria and Vardacate” [5].

According to studies carried out by the “Centre for Studies of Piedmont”, Vardacate would mean a "city situated on the river.":

"[...] (the etymology of the name) 'Vardacate' is uncertain, but it is possible that it is connected to the geographical situation of the city, on the banks of a river;  'Vardacate' would therefore be attributed to the Indo-European root 'uar-', indicating 'water' and comparable with the ancient Celtic term “Vardo”, which is the name of the present-day Gard River, a  tributary on the right of the Rhone [...]" [6].

We use the conditional tense, because, in fact, the etymology has been questioned by A. Settia, who pointed out that the course of the Po River had undergone many changes over the millennia, so it is actually very difficult to establish whether "Vardacate" was located really close to the Po.

Anyway, the question of etymology of "Vardacate" is far from closed, because the city was known by another name, "Sedula" and "Sedulia", mentioned in some medieval sources, is however considered by scholars "unsafe and uncertain" [7]. Indeed to some scholars, the term "Sedulia" (from the Latin "sedulus", “industrious”) has appeared, rather than a name, to be a simple adjective ("Sedulius" from "sedulus," " laborious," "diligent"), so with "Sedula" or "Sedulia”, they probably wanted to indicate a village “active and industrious".

The only thing we can say, and it is widely accepted by scholars, is that "Burgus-Casalis”, as demonstrated by the discovery of a Roman necropolis in its environs, was located where once there was the Roman city of “Vardacate”, which was “municipium”  and   belonged to the tribe "Pollia".

See also the Casale Monferrato travel guide.

References

1. See Aldo A . Settia, “Monferrato: strutture di un territorio medievale” ["Monferrato: structures of a medieval territory”], Celid, 1983: 110, 205. The previous edition was published in the late '70s, “Sviluppo e struttura di un borgo medievale: Casale Monferrato”["The Development and Structure of a Medieval Village:  Casale Monferrato”], 1978: 37-39

2. See Aldo A. Settia, “Lo sviluppo degli abitati rurali in Alta Italia” ["The Development of Rural Villages in Upper Italy"], in G. Rossetti Pepe, “Sulle tracce della civiltà contadina”["On the Trails of Peasant Civilization”], Bologna, Il Mulino, 1980: 177, 173

3. See G. Roman, “Storia di Casalmaggiore” ["History of Casalmaggiore"], 1828: 12 and note

4. See Dino Gribaudi, “Piemonte e Valle d'Aosta” [“Piedmont and Valle d'Aosta”], 1960:174

5. Pliny the Elder, “Naturalis Historia” (Bibliobazaar, 2009: 18-19)

6. See S.G. Giorelli, “Il caso di Vardacate” ["The case of Vardacate"], 1994: 100

7. See A. Settia, “Chiese, strade e Fortezze nell'Italia Medievale” ["Churches, Roads and Fortresses in Medieval Italy], Herde, 1991: 203