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Early Piedmont was a Celtic land known to the Romans as Cisalpine Gaul and was absorbed into the Empire around 220 BC at the time of the Carthaginian wars during which time the town of Taurisia (modern Turin) was razed by Hannibal’s invading army who marched through the Alps with their elephant corps. After many centuries of being a Roman Empire backwater province settled by legionnaire veterans, after the collapse, Piedmont’s history was influenced by its strategic location as the entry point into the Italian peninsula from the surrounding Alpine passes. Today the many hilltop towns and castles give evidence to this turbulent era.
After the unsettling period of “barbarian” invasions, Piedmont became the buffer zone between the Lombards and Burgundians, and was absorbed into the Frankish empire of Charlemagne. Piedmont was apparently a favourite hunting ground of the Emperor and he founded the old Abbazia di Vezzolana at Albugnano after a battle with the Lombard’s. This abbey still exists today and is one of the best examples of Romanesque churches in Italy.
Around the first millennium (1046) Piedmont became part of the territory of the Counts of Savoy, a family who controlled this region for almost 900 years. The Savoy lands stretched at one time from Geneva to Nice, including modern Piedmont and Provence, and were a buffer state between France and the Italian possessions of the Austrian Hapsburgs. In the 14th century the Savoy counts became dukes and moved their capital to Turin and gradually absorbing the neighbouring Duchy’s of Saluzzo and Monferrato as well as the medieval republic of Asti. After the war of Spanish succession in 1714, the Savoy’s stabbed Louis XIV of France in the back siding with the winning Austrians, and were awarded Sardinia and Sicily as prizes and elevated to Kings.
The Savoy’s were determined to make their mini-state into a rival of Paris and Vienna and over the next 200 years, Turin was transformed into a city of baroque porticoed avenues and squares and many extravagant palaces, which have been declared World Heritage Sites and turned into galleries and museums displaying many of the treasures acquired by the Savoy’s during their collecting spree years. These include one of the world’s largest Egyptian collections and the famous “Shroud of Turin” , allegedly the funeral shroud of Christ.
France annexed Piedmont during Napoleon’s tenure, and his first great battle was fought at Marengo just outside of Allesandria (inspiring 2 great dishes, “Chicken Marengo” and “Coupe Marengo”). After the Emperor was sent packing, Piedmont was returned to the Savoy’s and then became the key player in the “risorgimento” , the re-unification of Italy, under King Victor Emmanuel II, who became the first king of modern Italy, and his canny prime minister Count Cavour (although France grabbed Provence and Savoy from Piedmont as the "reward" for helping) . Turin briefly became the first capital of unified Italy in 1861, before it was moved to Florence (1865), and later to Rome (1870).
In the 19th century Piedmont was modernised by the Savoy’s who created railways and other infrastructures and so enabled Turin to become Italy’s industrial capital, and it was here that the Italian auto industry evolved, many small manufacturers (you can see many early models at Turin’s car museum) being eventually swallowed up by the giant F.I.A.T. company. Although severe bombing in WWII destroyed many of the factories, they were rebuilt in the post war boom with the help of many immigrants from Southern Italy. The Savoy family was exiled for its role in supporting Mussolini, and Italy became a republic after a referendum in 1946. The 1960’s were a difficult period for Turin and Italy as a whole, with massive labour unrest and the rise of the “red brigades” but today Piedmont has become an affluent part of Italy, and is reinventing itself as an area of high technology and culture. Tourism is on the rise as people discover this part of Italy, rich in wines, cuisine, history and culture.