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The La Marmora crypt in the basilica of San Sebastiano
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From the Rennaissance to the Risorgimento: the Masserano and La Marmora branches of the Ferrero family in the history of the Basilica of San Sebastiano in Biella 
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The story of the Ferrero of Biella developed in the early Middle Ages originating from Besso di Stefano Ferrero’s two sons: Sebastiano and Gian Enrico.

The branch of the Princes of Masserano began with Sebastiano (1438-1519) and continued for 14 generations, dying out in 1833; while it was Gian Enrico (1468-1525) who started the branch of the Marquesses of La Marmora which still exists today and numbers 17 generations.

Founder of the Basilica of San Sebastiano in Biella was Sebastiano Ferrero between 1500 and 1540. An important politician, Sebastiano Ferrero was the first councillor of state and general treasurer of the Savoys, then, when the French conquered the Dukedom of Milan, Ferrero moved to the Lombard city to take on the duties of councillor, general treasurer and financial administrator.

Over the centuries the link between the Ferrero of Masserano branch with the Biellese gradually diminished until they finally moved to France. The absence of the patrons of the basilica affected its maintenance. The situation continued to worsen to such an extent that, in the years following the French occupation, San Sebastiano fell into a state of partial abandon.

1824: San Sebastiano like Altacomba in the Lamarmora plans

The members of the La Marmora family who were living in Biella, unlike their Masserano cousins in Paris, were concerned about the conservation of the basilica, as the symbolic value of this sacred place held a special place in their hearts. In 1824 Edoardo La Marmora and his uncle Tommaso Ferrero followed the Savoy court on its journeys through Savoy where King Carlo Alberto was finalizing a project to turn the monastery of Altacomba into the family mausoleum. This abbey, which is situated in France near Aix-les-Bains, had been the burial place of counts and dukes of Savoy since 1200 and it is also the place where today the last king of Italy lies , Umberto II (1904- 1983) and Queen Maria José (1906-2001).

Inspired by this example the La Marmora family conceived the idea of making the Basilica of San Sebastiano into the family mausoleum.

1829 - 1830: the transfer from Turin to Biella

In 1829 when the town council of Turin decided to close the cemetery of San Lazzaro where the La Marmora family tomb was situated, the brothers Carlo Emanuele and Edoardo La Marmora took the opportunity to organize the transfer of bodies to Biella. 1829 was also the year when bishop Bollati had asked for the soldiers to be removed from the church in Biella and had entrusted it to the order of Observant Friar Minors. That was when the La Marmora family started to restore the complex of San Sebastiano and between February and March 1830 the transfer of the bodies of the relatives took place, arranged by Edoardo.

Thus were transferred from San Lazzaro in Turin to San Sebastiano in Biella the mortal remains of the La Marmora generation born in the 1700’s: Count Filippo, an important figure in the Savoy diplomacy in the XVIII century; Celestino and Raffaella Ferrero della Marmora , parents of Edoardo and 15 other children; Celestino’s uncles, Giuseppe, Angelo, Luigi and Paolo.

The bodies of several children who died young during those two generations were also removed from Turin and buried in San Sebastiano, as well as Edoardo La Marmora’s brother, Paolo Emilio, who died prematurely of an illness.

Two years later in 1832 on the death of his uncle Tommaso Ferrero, which occurred in Naples, Edoardo managed to obtain permission to transfer his body to Biella, thereby consolidating the first stage of the creation of the family mausoleum.

1854: death of Carlo Emanuele La Marmora. The initiatives of the Marchioness Marianna

In 1854 at the age of 66 Carlo Emanuele La Marmora died of pneumonia in Turin. He was the first of the four brother generals involved in the events of the Risorgimento to die and be buried in San Sebastiano. During the years of the War of Independence and the following years the religious complex had officially served different purposes, being used as a military hospital, then later as barracks. It also functioned as a storehouse for straw and as a soldiers’ dormitory. Only in 1862 did Marchioness Marianna, widow of Carlo Emanuele, decide to take in hand the situation asking Monseigneur Losana for the Holy Sacrament to be present in the basilica. She personally took it upon herself to pay the chaplain, the sacristan and to provide for the needs of the church.

1855: Alessandro La Marmora died of cholera in the Crimea

In 1855 Alessandro La Marmora was lieutenant general in command of the second division of the army corps sent to the Crimea, where his brother Alfonso was already high commander of the Savoy contingent in the Orient. Two other members of the family (Alfonso’s wife and nephew Vittorio) were also in that country.

Shortly after his arrival Alessandro La Marmora fell ill with cholera and died on a camp bed at Kadikoi. He was buried in the cemetery for heroes at Balaklava; his body was brought back to Italy in 1911 and buried in San Sebastiano in Biella.

When Alberto La Marmora died in 1863 he too was buried in San Sebastiano, consolidating once and for all the image of the church of Biella as the family mausoleum. An important role in this new phase of its history was played by Quintino Sella who, as a close friend of Alberto La Marmora, in 1863 established a committee at the town council of Biella to raise the funds required for the construction of a funereal monument to his friend. Sella dealt with the project personally, entrusting the execution of the bust of Alberto La Marmora to the Ticinese sculptor Vincenzo Velain in 1865. The sculpture was placed in San Sebastiano, where Sella intended other important personages in the city to be buried in order to make the church “a sort of small Biellese Pantheon”. In fact Quintino Sella’s idea never took off but the La Marmora family continued to be involved with the church in the following years, carrying out various restoration works.

1876: commemoration of Alfonso La Marmora’ s wife, Jane Bertie Mathew and Tabacchi’s commission

Following the death of his wife Giovanna Bertie Mathew in1876, Alfonso La Marmora performed some highly symbolic acts in memory of her: first of all he made generous donations in his wife’s name; secondly he commissioned one of the most important portrait artists of the time, Michele Gordigiani, to paint a portrait of her. Finally, he commissioned the sculptor Odoardo Tabacchi to create works of art to be placed in San Sebastiano in Biella: a sculpture of his wife and a monumental portal for the La Marmora crypt.

1878: death of Alfonso La Marmora in Florence

Alfonso La Marmora stated in his will that he wished to be buried in the crypt of San Sebastiano in Biella and in the final years of his life, besides other charitable works, he financed the restoration and decoration of the religious complex. He died in Florence in 1878 a few days before king Vittorio Emanuele II and for this reason his death was an event which passed almost unobserved in the news of the day.

1911: transfer of Alessandro La Marmora’s body from the Crimea

The culmination of the La Marmora project to transform San Sebastiano in Biella into a place to venerate their ancestors occurred in 1911 with the transfer of Alessandro La Marmora’s body from the Crimea where he had died of cholera in 1855. The return to Italy of the remains of the founder of the Bersaglieri was an event which was closely followed by the media of the day and represented a great success for the La Marmora family who, from the Risorgimento to the early 1900’s, had been striving to make their family history of public relevance. With the arrival of Alessandro the crypt of San Sebastiano became a symbolic place where the heroic deeds of the Risorgimento of the Ferrero La Marmora family could be celebrated and where their experiences officially became history.

From all over the world to Biella

The story of the family crypt in the church of San Sebastiano in Biella proves how attached the La Marmora family were to their Biellese roots throughout history. Determined to create a family mausoleum in Biella, they bravely organized the removal of the bodies of their ancestors and relatives from different parts of Italy and the world at a time when today’s means of transport were not available. The members of the La Marmora family who died in the 1700’s were brought to Biella from Turin, Alfonso La Marmora who died in Florence and Tommaso Ferrero who died in Naples were brought back to the Piedmontese town. However, the apotheosis occurred in 1911 with the repatriation of the body of Alessandro La Marmora, founder of the Bersaglieri, from the Crimea to Biella.


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