Precious Alexandria: an exhibition on the city crossroads of the arts between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

In Alexandria, Palazzo del Monferrato hosts, from March 21 to October 6, 2024, the exhibition "Precious Alexandria. An International Workshop in the Sunset of the Sixteenth Century": paintings, goldwork, sculptures, and tapestries to highlight the city's role as an important artistic center between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Alexandria as an important crossroads of the arts between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a meeting place for artists from different parts of Europe, a significant center for the dissemination of Counter-Reformation art, as well as a center of power linked to the Piedmontese pope Pius V (born Antonio Ghislieri, a native of nearby Bosco Marengo) who faith of the city as a sort of very active widespread artistic workshop: these are some of the topics of the exhibition Precious Alexandria. An International Workshop in the Sunset of the Sixteenth Century, which welcomes visitors to the Palazzo del Monferrato in the center of Alessandria from March 21 to October 6, 2024. The exhibition, curated by Fulvio Cervini and benefiting from the organizational planning of Roberto Livraghi, director of Palazzo Monferrato, ideally follows the exhibition Alessandria scolpita in 2019, a fascinating immersion in the city’s art between the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Precious Alexandria continues the discourse of that exhibition and aims to explore the vibrant creative civilization of Alessandria between the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with a particular interest in the suntuary arts, in the context of the rise of international Mannerism during the period of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The exhibition is divided into seven sections, with a total of about eighty works. The focus is on precious metal sculptures, highlighting the importance of the suntuary arts, from goldsmithing to toreutics, from the art of armorariums to the carving of semi-precious stones. After an introduction entrusted to the monumental Eucharistic tabernacle from Monteu da Po, which initiates the public into the exhibition’s themes, the first section(The Middle Ages Reactualized: Ancient Images as Answers to New Questions), which addresses the theme of the image policy that the Church developed after the Council of Trent, enhancing ancient effigies and relics as paradigms of devotion (among the manifestos of the new course, the Alexandria stauroteca is one of the most valuable and illustrative pieces). The second section, The cultural project of Pius V: a sumptuous building site in Bosco Marengo delves into the story of the grandiose Dominican convent of Bosco Marengo, founded by Pius V in the village of his birth, and in which important Tuscan and Roman craftsmen worked (the works of Giorgio Vasari, who was the “leading” artist of the sanctuary, being one of the pontiff’s leading names, are famous). The next section, Alexandria at the Crossroads of Arts and Cultures, collects works that show how the city was a place where artists from various backgrounds converged and elaborated a modern, precious, scenicdevotional art .

The gaze widens with the fourth section, The Autumn of the Sixteenth Century in Casale: a European Gateway, which ideally takes the public to Casale Monferrato, a landing place of precious arts thanks to the work of Flemish tapestry makers and the arrival of notable German goldsmiths, especially in the third decade of the seventeenth century. A lunge on arms characterizes the fifth section, The Craft of Arms: Armor as Statues, which illustrates how arms became a status symbol of the ruling class of the time and often, in the hands of skilled Milanese masters, became almost works of art. The sixth section is entitled A Very Lombard Tortona. And yet never so international, a focus on the centrality of Tortona in the events of the time (it was a fief of Cristierna of Denmark, who made it a vital center of artistic production that attracted artists especially from Milan, from Giuseppe Vermiglio to Camillo Procaccini via Giovan Mauro della Rovere known as il Fiammenghino). Finally, the seventh and last section, Genoa beyond the Apennines: the birth of a new naturalism is devoted to the relations between Alessandria and Genoa, passing through Oltregiogo.

The dual objective of the exhibition is to profile the advent of international Mannerism, the bearer of a new sense of reality and form, through a selection of goldsmithing, metalwork, paintings on canvas and panel, and wood and marble sculptures; and that of showing how the territory of the province of Alexandria was a place where heterogeneous forces and cultures converged, which not only did not disfigure when compared with other more celebrated cities of the Po Valley, but in fact constituted a happy exception. Alessandria and its territory acted as a crossroads between Milan, Pavia and Genoa, while the convent of Santa Croce in Bosco Marengo, desired by Pope Pius V, represented an artistic meeting point, with its admirable synthesis of Tuscan-Roman influences. The exhibition therefore aims to promote knowledge and in-depth study of the region’s cultural and artistic roots, and it does so by taking an in-depth look at various themes, among which religious devotion emerges, represented by a precious collection of ecclesiastical objects from the dioceses of Alessandria, Casale and Tortona.

Reliquary of the Wood of the True Cross (Alexandria, Cathedral)
Reliquary of the Wood of the True Cross (Alexandria, Cathedral)
Tabernacle door of the high altar (Bosco Marengo, Holy Cross Museum)
Tabernacle door of the high altar (Bosco Marengo, Museum of the Holy Cross)
Reliquary of St. Sebastian (Alexandria, Cathedral) Reliquary of
St. Sebastian (Alexandria, Cathedral)
Reliquary bust of St. Martian (Tortona, Cathedral) Reliquary
bust of St. Martian (Tortona, Cathedral)
Reliquary of St. Stephen (Casale Monferrato, Santo Stefano) Reliquary of St. Stephen (
Casale Monferrato, Santo Stefano)
Reliquary of the Holy Thorn (Alexandria, Cathedral) Reliquary
of the Holy Thorn (Alexandria, Cathedral)
Lucrezia Quistelli, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (1576; oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm; Silvano Pietra, parish church of St. Mary and St. Peter)
Lucrezia Quistelli, Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (1576; oil on canvas, 180 x 120 cm; Silvano Pietra, parish church of St. Mary and St. Peter)
Flemish tapestry maker, Circumcision of Christ (c. 1570-1575; tapestry; Casale Monferrato, Museo Civico)
Flemish tapestry maker, Circumcision of Christ (c. 1570-1575; tapestry; Casale Monferrato, Museo Civico)
Milanese workshop, Rotella with Hercules (c. 1570; steel, gold and silver agemina; Turin, Royal Museums, Royal Armory)
Milanese workshop, Rotella with Hercules (c. 1570; steel, gold and silver agemina; Turin, Musei Reali, Armeria Reale)

Among the works on display are the splendid busts made for Pius V by Antonio Gentili, the aforementioned Alexandria Cathedral stauroteca, which holds an older Byzantine reliquary, and the magnificent goldsmiths of San Filippo a Casale and San Salvatore Monferrato. Also of particular note is the St. Martian from the Cathedral of Tortona, the work of an early 17th-century Genoese silversmith. Among the works on display is a previously unseen standard embroidered in Milan in the late 16th century from the Diocesan Museum in Tortona, restored thanks to funding from the Consulta alessandrina. The exhibition also focuses on the connections between painting, sculpture and goldsmithing in the late 16th century, with the influence of Nordic craftsmen, who created such extraordinary works as the Magdalene Calvary from Novi Ligure. There is also a section devoted to the art of war, represented by armor and military portraits.

Special attention, as noted, is given to the “Roman-Florentine island” of Bosco Marengo, with the presence of Giorgio Vasari. But the exhibition is not limited to the halls of Palazzo Monferrato: it is itinerant and extends to various places of culture in the province of Alessandria. In fact, tourist itineraries have been prepared that the public discovers at the conclusion of the exhibition, thanks to a guidebook and a downloadable QR Code to have a map of the places to visit. It begins in Alexandria where, at Palazzo Cuttica, the “Routes of the Civic Museum” offer the chance to admire the Chorales of Pius V, that is, the liturgical-musical books commissioned by the pontiff to the papal scriptorium then dominated by the artistic stature of the Croatian Juraj Klovicic (whose name was romanized into Giulio Clovio), who in 1540 had entered the service of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, nephew of Pope Paul III. The original group of books must have consisted of 42 copies, later dispersed over the centuries. Also in Alessandria, Palatium Vetus, the medieval city’s ancient municipal palace, displays a collection with paintings representative of the Alessandria area coeval with the works on display in the exhibition, including precious artifacts such as the Saint Margaret or the devout image of the Madonna of Crea, both by the painter Guglielmo Caccia known as Moncalvo. And then Gaudenzio Ferrari ’s depiction of Christ and the Samaritan Woman, continuing with panels by Defendente Ferrari, Bernardino Lanino until Moncalvo ’s works and Crivelli’s large altarpiece, commissioned for the church of San Marco.

Leaving the city, one can travel to Bosco Marengo to visit the basilica of Santa Croce and the Museo Vasariano, to Tortona where one visits the Cathedral and the Museo Diocesano (the works preserved here confirm that in its pictorial production Tortona’s figurative culture is deeply influenced by that of Milan, starting with Aurelio Luini’s altarpiece depicting the Madonna with Jesus Child between Saints Sebastian and Rocco from 1592), to Torre Garofoli where there is the church of Santa Giustina with the pictorial cycle of the Life of St.Agnese by Camillo Procaccini, and then again to San Sebastiano Curone where the parish church preserves interesting works, such as the grand altarpiece of the Crucifixion in polychrome wood, attributed to Stefano Vil, a carver of German origin, the author above all of wooden choirs, documented at the end of the 16th century between Tortona, Bosco Marengo and Alessandria (awork by Vil is part of the exhibition’s itinerary), to Novi Ligure where the Calvary Group housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maddalena in Novi Ligure and completed in 1606 can be admired, which ties in with the tradition of the Sacred Mountains that arose at the same time in Varallo Sesia and Crea. The itineraries then continue to Voltaggio, where we visit the rich and important Capuchin Art Gallery, to Casale Monferrato to discover the arts of the area between the 16th and 17th centuries (many works by Guglielmo Caccia known as Moncalvo and his daughter Orsola Maddalena Caccia) and the treasure of the Cathedral Museum or the church of San Domenico, and finally to Serralunga di Crea to visit the Sacro Monte wave in 1589 on the initiative of Costantino Massino, Lateran prior of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Assumption with the desire to offer the numerous pilgrims a devotional path on the life of the Virgin.

“The Alexandrian area between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” Fulvio Cervini explains, “proves that cultural identity is built dynamically, and not by closing walls. Even when the cultural line is dictated by a seemingly monolithic organism such as the Counter-Reformation Church. On the figurative level, this space is a great laboratory of modernity, in which metal and carving artists also become more proactive than painters and sculptors.”

“After the fortunate experience of five years ago,” adds Roberto Livraghi, “Palazzo del Monferrato returns to offer itself as a venue for an original exhibition, with absolutely new contents, and as a place to promote a territory capable of reserving great surprises on the historical-artistic level. Moreover, reflecting on a historical function as an interregional hinge and a laboratory where different cultural influences mingle is also a useful exercise for planning the vocations of this territory for today and tomorrow.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalog to which distinguished scholars and members of the exhibition’s scientific committee have collaborated, both with some general background contributions on the period and the artistic currents represented, and with fact sheets dedicated to the works on display in the exhibition. The exhibition is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of Alessandria-Asti, the Piedmont Region, the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Alessandria, the Municipality of Alessandria, the Council for the Enhancement of the Artistic Heritage of the Alessandria area, the Turin Council, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio for the provinces of Alessandria, Asti and Cuneo, the Slala Foundation and ATL Alexala. Finestre Sull’Arte is an industry media partner.

Opening hours: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Thursdays open by appointment. Tickets: full 8 euros, reduced 5 euros (for children 12 to 18, over 65, university students up to 30, groups of at least 12 people up to a maximum of 25, FAI members), free for school classes, registered journalists, children under 12, Piedmont-Aosta Valley-Lombardy museum season ticket holders, members of the University of the Third Age, the disabled and accompanying persons. Guided tours 60 euros by reservation. For information:

Precious Alexandria: an exhibition on the city crossroads of the arts between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
Precious Alexandria: an exhibition on the city crossroads of the arts between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

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