Brescia has been called the “City of 1000 Fountains” due to its 75 public and 2000 private water features.
We had initially booked accomodations for a winter stay in Bolzano, Italy in the heart of the Dolomite Alps. Unfortunately virus numbers were again spiking in that region so we opted to change our travel. We had skipped visiting Brescia (pronounced bray-sha) a few weeks earlier and decided now was the opportunity to spend a few days exploring the city. Brescia sits at the base of the Alps in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy and is a nice sized city with a population of 200,000.
Numerous myths abound about who actually founded Brescia. It may have been Hercules or the Etruscans or a fugitive from Troy named Altilia or it could have been Cidnus, King of the Ligures. The latter has recently gained more acceptance because archeologists have discovered remains of a Ligures settlement dating back to 1200 BCE.
After reading through pages and pages of Brescian history, we learned that this city has historically and consistently resisted attempts of domination. The city has repeatedly lived up to her nickname of the “Lioness of Italy”.
The Temple of the Capitoline was the main temple in the Roman town of Brixia (Brescia). Today the ruins are part of an archeological site which includes a Roman amphitheatre that seated 15,000 and a museum. Out front is a partial portico made of Corinthian columns where a dedication to the Emperor Vespasian can still be seen.
The temple was built in the 1st century BCE and inside are remains of the original mosaic floors and the wall frescoes. An ancient landslide buried the temple but in 1823 it was rediscovered and both excavation and restoration work continues to this day. In 1826, an impressive bronze statue of a winged Victory was found inside the temple. Victory would originally have rested her left foot on the helmet of Mars, and held a shield on which she had inscribed a victor’s name, holding it up to be seen by onlookers. The figure was inspired by older models widely used to represent Aphrodite. The statue was made just after the mid-1st century CE and is one of the few surviving Roman bronze statues – quite remarkable considering its size and shape.
Civici Musei Storia Santa Giulia
In 2011, the Santa Giulia Museum was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monastery complex of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia has been transformed into the Museo di Santa Giulia, which contains nearly 11,000 works of art and archaeological finds. It was a great stop providing the opportunity for us to discover the history of Brescia and the region of Lombardy.
The 12th century Basilica of San Salvatore was built within the complex and served as a chapel for the monastery. The Church of Santa Giulia was built between 1593 and 1599 and Santa Giulia’s beautiful interior is decorated entirely with painted frescoes. Various funerary monuments are displayed and a 2nd century CE carved stone griffin caught our attention. The griffin was sacred to Apollo and the Sun God and it represented the ascent of the deceased to the gods. Next to the griffin is the tree of life.
To stay with the griffin theme, this amazingly detailed and now fragile textile was found in a reliquary beneath an altar in a Brescian church that had been hit by a bomb in 1945. The textile dates to the 8th-9th century making it one of the oldest textiles we have found in our travels to date.
This museum offered one of the more interesting collections of ancient artefacts, relics, historical artwork and sculptures we have seen in the region. We explored the lower level, beneath the monastery, where there are preserved Roman houses complete with beautiful mosaic floors. Wonder if that was water or wine he was feeding his big cat.
Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo
A visit to the municipal art gallery was our next stop.
After Paolo Tosio’s initial bequest in 1844 the collection has grown substantially. The paintings, bronzes, jewelry, majolica, enamels and 16th-18th century Murano glass collection are displayed chronologically starting in the 14th century.
We saw Raphael’s Angel and Christ Blessing as well as art by Vincenzo Foppa, Romanino, Moretto, Francesco Hayez, more paintings of wee folk by Faustino Bocchi and Thorvaldsen’s pristine sculptures. There were dozens of wonderful paintings in the gallery yet the unique painting style and colors the Brescian painter Floriano Ferramola (1478-1528) used, drew us in. It is rather unusual to find non religious art from the century. There is so much going on in the painting and the odd sizing of the animals somehow add to the interest. It was painted in 1517-1518 and is entitled Falconry.
Convent of San Francesco D’Assisi
There is a sense of peace about each Saint Francis of Assisi church we enter. Even on a grey and foggy day it was palpable in Brescia’s church.
Saint Francis first visited the city on his own and soon after, in 1220, the Franciscan order arrived in Brescia. Construction on their church and cloister began in 1254 and was completed in 1394. Monks still live within today.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli
The marble carved details of the exterior of the Church of Santa Maria are ornate and quite stunning. Although a smaller church we thought the interior walls, ceiling and pillars were even more impressive than the exterior; and it has an interesting backstory.
A plague hit Brescia between 1480 and 1484 and rumors began that a Madonna and Child fresco in front of one local house had begun to perform miracles. The church quickly purchased the house and started construction of the church, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, on the site. It was built between 1487 to 1490 and is considered a jewel of Lombardy Renaissance sculpture.
Duomo Vecchio – Old Cathedral
The circular, flat roofed, 11th century old Cathedral of Brescia stands next door to the Duomo Nuovo or New Cathedral. The old Cathedral is known as the Winter Co-Cathedral while the new Duomo Nuovo is called the Summer Cathedral.
There are iconic artworks by Italian masters on the walls and the beautiful 16th century organ has recently been restored. During our visit the Duomo Vecchio had an excellent collection of unique nativity scenes on display and this was one of our favorites.
Duomo Nuovo – Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
Building began on the new and much larger, Baroque style Duomo Nuovo or New Cathedral in 1604 and it was completed in 1825.
Inside, the cathedral is decorated simply and beautifully but there are a few opulent chapels as well. In our experience, Italian churches, in general, are decorated using paintings, frescoes and sculptures by famous artists whereas Spain, in general, uses gold and silver in the interior of their churches.
One famous resident was Bartolomeo Beretta (1490-1565), gunsmith and founder of the Beretta Firearm company, which creating pistols, shotguns and rifles. The first documented contract is dated 1526, where Beretta was to supply 185 “arquebus barrels”, a type of long gun, to the Republic of Venice. Beretta has supplied weapons for every major European war since 1650.
Brescia has the world’s largest sturgeon farm, annually producing and exporting 25 tons of caviar contributing to Italy’s status as the 2nd largest caviar supplier in the world.
The stone quarries of Brescia supplied all the marble for this gigantic monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, found in Rome.
Franciacorta is Italy’s leading traditional method of sparkling wine and it is produced in a compact, enclosed region with defined boundaries in Brescia province. Although the sublime flavor of Franciacorta DOCG is extremely popular, only 15% of production is exported so it is not well known outside the country.
The Mille Miglia was a multiple day thousand-mile endurance race through the heart of Italy. It was created in 1927 by two young Italian Counts. Rather than race on tracks, the fastest sports cars in the world would compete on roads beginning in Brescia and racing via Ferrara and San Marino to Rome and then back again via Siena and Florence. The race was discontinued in 1957 following several accidents and deaths.
However it was revived 20 years later and today it has become a prestigious classic car endurance race. Entrance into the race is limited to car models of which at least one had taken part in the original races between 1927 and 1957. There are only 450 hand selected teams that are able to participate in this exclusive race. This beautiful competition is incredibly popular and a highlight each year. The race is set for June 15-18 in 2022. We did learn there is a 2007 documentary film called Mille Miglia – The Spirit of a Legend, which might be fun to find and watch.
The colorful clock in Brescia’s Torre dell’Orologio or Clock Tower was built in 1543. The magnificent clock, photo as the header of this writing, is divided into 24 hours. The hour hand, which rotates only once a day, has a golden sun with a face on it indicating the hour as well as the Sun’s position in the zodiac. It may be difficult to see in our photo the details in the inside ring but it does tell the date. In the center of the dial one can see the phases of the Moon. It’s fascinating to see the amount of information these beautiful old clocks provide.
As mentioned at the beginning of this writing, stopping in Brescia was a last minute change of plan. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in this lovely region of Italy, discovered many gems and departed with rich memories.
Salute from these Bresciano,
Ted + Julia