Valenza: a precious history

If you take the B-road 494, which bisects the most northerly corner of Lombardy, you will find yourself driving over the river Po and emerging in a different region, Piedmont. The first Piedmontese town that you come to is the elegant Valenza, which counts some 18,000 inhabitants, and which marks the gateway to the wonders of the Monferrato. You would think it one town among many, were it not famous for one of the most prestigious and internationally recognized fields of Italian craftsmanship. What’s that, I hear you ask. Goldsmithing, say I.

Yes, this town on the riverbank is in fact the world capital of jewellery-making. The story began in 1817, when a native of Pavia by the name of Francesco Caramora came to settle here, along with his uncle Luigi. The pair opened a goldsmith’s workshop in Contrada Maestra, and though Francesco died ten years later, he had made sure to hand the tradition down to his chief apprentice, Pietro Canti. Pietro then trained up Vincenzo Morosetti, who is considered the “third father”, as it were, of Valenza’s bejewelled history. We can see evidence of Morosetti today in the Ufficio Marchi in Alessandria, where he left a seal with his initials and the Sacred Heart at the centre.
Morosetti revolutionized the way that the work inside a jeweller’s workshop was practised and understood: he drew a sharp distinction between the actual goldsmiths, who fashioned the articles in question, and those who sold them. Under his tutelage, goldsmiths divided their labour, each one specialising in a particular element of production; selling and marketing, though, was another matter.

After Morosetti, it was Vincenzo Melchiorre who took the reins, and who also stamped his mark upon Valenza’s goldsmithing tradition. Melchiorre was the product of a long apprenticeship, which had taken him first to Turin and then to Paris, where he had worked with the celebrated jewellery designer Camillo Bertuzzi. But in 1873 he founded his own workshop, La Melchiorre & C., where he turned his efforts to producing a style of jewellery that could respond to the taste and trends of a contemporary bourgeois public well attuned to the latest fashions. His company would go on to shape the goldsmithing tradition not just in Valenza, but the length and breadth of Italy.

A hundred years after Caramora’s arrival, Valenza could boast some 43 goldsmiths with an estimated total of 613 employees. A hundred years after that, in 2017, the number of jewellers active in the area had risen to 800, and the workers to around 4,500. In Valenza, jewellery-making is the cornerstone of the economy, but that’s not all there is to it. It is also a city full of history: its circuit of Roman walls, for example, which ensconce it in large part. But we might also mention the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, whose three naves are packed full of paintings and sacred art. Nor should visitors miss the Oratory of San Bartolomeo, once the church of Santa Caterina, the town’s most ancient monument. You should also have a look at Palazzo Pellizzari (built 1834), which today functions as the town hall; the Palazzo Valentino, the civic library; and the eighteenth-century neoclassical Villa del Pero. And then, of course, the diffused goldsmithery museum, which includes spaces both physical and virtual, scattered throughout Valenza.