Asti is a city and comune of about 75,000 inhabitants located in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, about 55 kilometres east of Turin in the plain of the Tanaro River. It is the capital of the province of Asti and it is deemed to be the modern capital of Monferrato (Montferrat in English).
Ancient times and early Middle Ages
People have lived in and around what is now Asti since the Neolithic period. Before their defeat in 174 BC by the Romans, tribes of Ligures, the Statielli, dominated the area and the toponym probably derives from Ast which means "hill" in the ancient Celtic language.
In 124 BC the Romans built a castrum, or fortified camp, which eventually evolved into a full city named Hasta. In 89 BC the city received the status of colonia, and in 49 BC that of municipium. Asti become an important city of the Augustan Regio IX, favoured by its strategic position on the Tanaro river and on the Via Fulvia, which linked Derthona (Tortona) to Augusta Taurinorum (Turin). Other roads connected the city to the main passes for what are today Switzerland and France.
The city was crucial during the early stages of the barbarian invasions which stormed Italy during the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In early 402 AD the Visigoths had invaded northern Italy and were advancing on Mediolanum (modern Milan) which was the imperial capital at that time. Honorius, the young emperor and a resident in that city, unable to wait for promised reinforcements any longer, was compelled to flee from Milan for safety in the city of Arles in Gaul. However, just after his convoy had left Milan and crossed the River Po his escape route through the Alps was cut off by the Gothic cavalry. This forced him to take emergency refuge in the city of Hasta until more Roman troops could be assembled in Italy. The Goths placed Hasta under siege until March when General Stilicho, bringing reinforcements from the Rhine, fought and defeated them at the Battle of Pollentia. After this first victorious defence, thanks to a massive line of walls, Hasta suffered for the barbarian invasions which stormed Italy after the fall of the Western Empire, and declined economically.
In the second half of the 6th century it was chosen as seat for one of the 36 Duchies in which the Lombards divided Italy. The territory of Asti comprised a wide area, stretching out to Albenga and the Maritime Alps. This remained when northern Italy was conquered by the Franks in 774, with the title of County.
In the late Carolingian age Asti was ruled directly by his bishops, who were the main landlords of the area. Most important are Audax (904-926) and Bruningus (937-966), who moved the episcopal seat to the Castel Vecchio ("Old Castle"), where it remained until 1409. The bishopric of Asti remained a powerful entity well into the 11th century, when Pietro II received huge privileges by emperor Henry II. In the second half of the century, Bishop Otto tried to resist the aims of the powerful countess Adelaide of Susa, who damaged the city several times. During Otto's reign, a commune and the consul magistrates are mentioned for the first time (1095) and make this City-State the first republic of Europe.
Asti was one of the first free communes of Italy, and in 1140 received the right to mint coins of its own by Conrad II. As the commune, however, had begun to erode the lands of the bishop and other local faudataries, the latter sued for help to Frederick Barbarossa, who presented under the city walls with a huge army in the February 1155. After a short siege, Asti was stormed and burnt. Subsequently Asti adhered to the Lombard League (1169) against the German emperor, but was again defeated in 1174. Despite this, after the Peace of Constance (1183), the city gained further privileges.
The 13th century saw the peak of the Astigiani economic and cultural splendour, only momentarily hindered by wars against Alba, Alessandria, Savoy, Milan (which besieged the city in 1230) and the Marquesses of Montferrat and Saluzzo. In particular, the commune aimed to gain control over the lucrative trade routes leading northwards from the Ligurian ports. In this period, the rise of the Casane Astigiane resulted in contrasting political familial alliances of Guelph and Ghibelline supporters. During the wars led by Emperor Frederick II in northern Italy, the city chose his side: Asti was defeated by the Guelphs of Alessandria at Quattordio and Clamandrana, but thanks to Genoese help, it recovered easily. After Frederick's death, the struggle against Thomas II of Savoy became fierce: the Astigiani defeated him on February 23, 1255, at the Battle of Montebruno, but Thomas (who had been taken prisoner) replied ordering all traders from Asti to be arrested in Savoy and France. This move showed worry on the part of Asti's neighbouring states over the excessive power gained by the city, which had captured Alba and controlled both Chieri and Turin.
This state of affairs led to the intervention of Charles I of Anjou, then King of Naples and the most powerful man in Italy. After some guerrilla actions, Asti signed a pact of alliance with Pavia, Genoa and William VII of Montferrat. In 1274 the Astigiani troops were defeated at the Battle of Cassano, but, on December 12, 1275, were victorious over the Angevins at the Battle of Roccavione, ending Charles' attempt to expand in Piedmont. In the 1290s, after William VII had also been defeated, Asti was the most powerful city in Piedmont. However, internal struggles for the control of trading and banking enterprises soon divided the city into factions. The most prominent faction were the powerful bankers of the Solaro family, who, in 1314, gave the city to king Robert of Naples. The free Republic of Asti ceased to exist. In 1339 the Ghibelline exiles recaptured the city, expelling the Solari and their allies. In 1342 however, the menace of the Solaro counteroffensive led the new rulers to submit to Luchino Visconti of Milan. Visconti built a citadel and a second ring of walls to protect the new burgs of the city. In 1345, at the Battle of Gamenario, the Ghibelline Astigiani and John II of Montferrat again defeated the Neapolitan troops. John ruled over Asti until 1372, but seven years later the city council submitted to Galeazzo II Visconti's authority. Galeazzo in turn assigned it to Louis of Valois, Duke of Orléans.
French and Savoyard domination
With the exception of several brief periods under Visconti, Montferrat and Sforza rule, Asti remained under Valois control; it eventually became a direct subject of the French Crown. The situation changed in the early 16th century, during the wars between Charles V and Francis I of France. In 1526 it was besieged in vain by Charles' condottiero Fabrizio Maramaldo. Three years later, the Treaty of Cambrai assigned Asti to the German emperor, who in turn gave it to the viceroy of Naples Charles de Lannoy. After the death of the latter, Charles included it in Beatrice of Portugal's dowry: when she married Charles III of Savoy, Asti became part of the dominion of Savoy.
Asti was one of the main Savoyard strongholds in later wars. In 1616, besieged by the Spanish governor of Milan, it was defended by Duke Charles Emmanuel I himself. In 1630–1631, the city suffered a high mortality rate from an outbreak of the plague. Some years later Asti was conquered by the Spanish, although Savoy regained the city in 1643. Another unsuccessful Spanish siege occurred in 1650. In November 1703, during the War of Spanish Succession, Asti fell to France again; it was reconquered in 1705 by Victor Amadeus II. In 1745 French troops invaded the city once more, but it was liberated the following year.