A shortish history of Piacenza, in Emilia-Romagna, through WWII

Last November, 2021, I had the incredible opportunity of time and money to explore the region of Emilia-Romagna. I love getting to know Italy, but this was a region I had seldom visited and really didn’t know. What an adventure and pleasure it turned out to be for me.

I love the etymology of the name Piacenza, tracing its origin from the Latin verb placēre “to please.” In French, and occasionally in English, it is called Plaisance. The name means a “pleasant abode,” or as James Boswell reported some of the etymologists of his time to have translated it “comely”. However you look at it, it is a name “of good omen.”

But, like most Italian cities, what a history it has! Read it, try to understand it, and be amazed, as I am!

The area now known as Piacenza was inhabited by Etruscans, who were overtaken by the Gauls when they overtook the entire Po Valley.

Next came the Romans: Piacenza and Cremona were founded as Roman military colonies in May 218 BC. The Romans had planned to construct them after the successful conclusion of the latest war with the Gauls ending in 219 BC. In the spring of 218 BC, after declaring war on Carthage, the Senate decided to accelerate the foundation and gave the colonists 30 days to appear on the sites to receive their lands. They were each to be settled by 6,000 Roman citizens, but the cities were to receive Latin Rights; that is, they were to have the same legal status as the many colonies that had been co-founded by Rome and towns of Latium.

The reaction of the region’s Gauls was swift; they drove the colonists off the lands. Taking refuge in Mutina (now Modena), the colonists sent for military assistance, but the small force sent under Lucius Manlius was prevented from reaching the area. The Senate then sent two legions under Gaius Atelius. Collecting Manlius and the colonists, they descended on Piacenza and Cremona and successfully placed their castra there of 480 square meters (0.12 acres) to support the building of the city.

Piacenza must have been walled immediately, as the walls were in place when the Battle of the Trebia was fought around the city in December. There is no evidence of a prior settlement at that exact location. Piacenza was the 53rd colony to be placed by Rome since its foundation. It was the first among the Gauls of the Po valley.

It had to be supplied by boat after the Battle of Trebbia, when Hannibal controlled the countryside, for which purpose a port (Emporium) was constructed. In 209 BC, Hasdrubal Barca crossed the Alps and laid siege to the city, but he was unable to take it and withdrew.

In 200 BC, the Gauls sacked and burned it, selling the population into slavery. Subsequently, the victorious Romans restored the city and managed to recover 2000 citizens. In 198 BC, a combined force of Gauls and Ligurians plundered the whole region. As the people had never recovered from being sold into slavery, in 190 BC they complained to Senate of underpopulation; in response the Senate sent 3000 new settlers. The construction of the Via Aemilia in the 180’s made the city easily accessible from the Adriatic ports, which improved trade and the prospects for timely defense.

There is an object in Piacenza known as “The Liver of Piacenza,” which is a bronze model of a sheep’s liver for the purposes of haruspicy. The model was discovered in 1877 at Gossolengo just to the south of Piacenza; it bears witness to the survival of the disciplina Etrusca well after the Roman conquest.

Although sacked and devastated several times, the city always recovered and by the 6th century Procopius was calling it “the principal city in the country of Aemilia”.

The first Bishop of Piacenza (322–357), San Vittorio, declared Saint Antoninus of Piacenza, a soldier of the Theban Legion (and not to be confused with the sixth-century Antoninus of Piacenza), the patron saint of Piacenza and had the first basilica constructed in his honor in 324. The basilica was restored in 903 and rebuilt in 1101, again in 1562, and is still a church today. The remains of the bishop and the soldier-saint are in urns under the altar. The theme of Antoninus, protector of Piacenza, is well known in art.

Middle Ages

Mosaic of the old city Coat of Arms


Piacenza was sacked during the course of the Gothic War (535–554). After a short period of being reconquered by the Roman emperor Justinian I, it was conquered by the Lombards, who made it a duchy seat. After its conquest by Francia in the 9th century, the city began to recover, aided by its location along the Via Francigena that later connected the Holy Roman Empire with Rome. Its population and importance grew further after the year 1000. That period marked a gradual transfer of governing powers from the feudal lords to a new enterprising class, as well to the feudal class of the countryside.

In 1095, the city was the site of the Council of Piacenza, in which the First Crusade was proclaimed. From 1126, Piacenza was a free commune and an important member of the Lombard League. In this role, it took part in the war against Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, and in the subsequent battle of Legnano (1176). It also successfully fought the neighboring communes of Cremona, Pavia and Parma, expanding its possessions. Piacenza also captured control of the trading routes with Genoa, where the first Piacentini bankers had already settled, from the Malaspina counts and the bishop of Bobbio.

In the 13th century, despite unsuccessful wars against Frederick I, Piacenza managed to gain strongholds on the Lombardy shore of the Po. The preliminaries of the Peace of Constance were signed in 1183 in the Saint Antoninus church. Agriculture and trade flourished in these centuries, and Piacenza became one of the richest cities in Europe. This is reflected in the construction of many important buildings and in the general revision of the urban plan. Struggles for control were commonplace in the second half of the 13th century, not unlike the large majority of Medieval Italian communes. The Scotti family, Pallavicini family and Alberto Scoto held power in that order during the period. Scoto’s government ended when the Visconti of Milan captured Piacenza, which they would hold until 1447. Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti rewrote Piacenza’s statutes and relocated the University of Pavia to the city. Piacenza then became a possession of the House of Sforza until 1499.

Map of Piacenza (Italy) from 1882 by Camillo Guidotti. Nuova pianta della citta di Piacenza. 

Renaissance era +

A coin from the 16th century features the motto: Placentia floret (Piacenza flourishes) on one of its sides. The city was progressing economically, chiefly due to the expansion of agriculture in the countryside surrounding the city. Also in the course of that century a new city wall was erected. Piacenza was ruled by France until 1521, and briefly, under Pope Leo X, it became part of the Papal States. In 1545, it became part of the newly created Duchy of Parma, which was ruled by the House of Farnese.

Piacenza was the capital city of the duchy until Ottavio Farnese, Duke of Parma (1547–1586), moved it to Parma. The city underwent some of its most difficult years during the rule of Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma (1622–1646), when between 6000 and 13,000 Piacentini out of a total population of 30,000 died from famine and plague. The city and its countryside were also ravaged by bandits and French soldiers.

Between 1732 and 1859, Parma and Piacenza were ruled by the House of Bourbon. In the 18th century, several edifices which belonged to noble families such as Scotti, Landi and Fogliani were built in Piacenza.

In 1802, Napoleon’s army annexed Piacenza to the French Empire. Young Piacentini recruits were sent to fight in Russia, Spain and Germany, while the city was plundered of a great number of artworks which are currently exhibited in many French museums.

The Habsburg government of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma (1816–1847), is remembered fondly as one of the best in the history of Piacenza; the duchess drained many lands, built several bridges across the Trebbia and the Nure and created educational and artistic activities.

Union with Italy

Austrian troops occupied Piacenza until, in 1860, a plebiscite marked the entrance of the city into the Kingdom of Sardinia. 37,089 voters out of 37,585 voted for the annexation. Piacenza was therefore declared Primogenita dell’Unità di Italia (First-born of the Unification of Italy) by the monarch. The Piacentini enrolled en masse in the Giuseppe Garibaldi’s army in the Expedition of the Thousand.

Piacenza has two nicknames – it is known as ‘Primogenita d’Italia’ (Italy’s firstborn), as it was the first city to vote in favour of annexation to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which would then become the Italian Kingdom.

It is also known as ‘La Città delle Cento Chiese’ (the city of 100 churches). Throughout the centuries, some churches have disappeared, other have been deconsecrated and now have other uses – like Santa Margherita, turned into an auditorium.

In 1858 the geologist Karl Mayer-Eymar named the Piacenzian Age of the Pliocene Epoch based on deposits close to Piacenza.

In June 1865, the first railway bridge over Po river in northern Italy was inaugurated (in southern Italy a railroad bridge had already been built in 1839). In 1891, the first Chamber of Workers was created in Piacenza.

World War II

During World War II, the city was heavily bombed by the Allies. The important railway and road bridges across the Trebbia and the Po and the railway yards were destroyed. The historic center of city itself also suffered collateral damage. In 1944, the bridges over the Po became vital for the supply from Austria of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Gothic Line, which protected the withdrawal of Kesselring’s troops from Italy. Foremost among these were the railway and road bridges at Piacenza, along with supply depots and railway yards.

In Operation Mallory Major, July 12–15, allied medium bombers from Corsica flew 300 sorties a day, knocking out 21 bridges east of Piacenza, and then continued to the west for a total of 90 by July 20. Fighter-bombers prevented reconstruction and cut roads and rail lines. By August 4, all the cities of northern Italy were isolated and had suffered heavy bombing, especially Piacenza. Transport to Genoa to the south or through Turin to the north was impossible; nevertheless, Kesselring continued to supply his men.

On the hills and the Apennine Mountains, partisans were active. On April 25, 1945, a general partisan insurrection by the Italian resistance movement broke out and on 29 April, troops of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force entered the city. In 1996, president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro honoured Piacenza with the gold medal for Valour in Battle.

There was a prisoner of war (POW) camp located here, Veano Camp PG 29, Piacenza.

2 thoughts on “A shortish history of Piacenza, in Emilia-Romagna, through WWII

  1. Hi. Interesting about the Scoto guy. When Semifonte was destroyed by the Florentines, a Lord Scoto led a group over to a nearby hill and they built Certaldo. Lord Scoto built his house, documented to have been begun in 1202, and it is now a hotel. If you’re ever in Certaldo, go see the owner Albert and let him tell you more.

    Love your newsletter! Alison

    Alison Taylor-Brown Short stories for mind & ❤️ Once on a Hill in Tuscany . . .

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