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The unknown knight and other mysteries of Bergamo

Bergamo has ancient origins. The Orobii period attests the first settlement from the Orobii, a Celticized-Ligurians population who lived in the area where the city is placed during the Iron Age. Pliny the Elder [1] affirmed that “Como, Bergamo and Licini Forum […] were of the Orumobii lineage […]”. Really, the origins of the urban center are still debated. Firstly, history should be distinguished from the myth. A famous legend tells that Cydno, progenitor’s son of the Orobii population, traced a first boundary with a plow. He located the Barrasettlement between the Fara and the Saint Euphemia hills (in the current Upper City of Bergamo).

Bergamo, the Colleoni Chapel


Historiographical notes

Nonetheless, the official historiography did not identify a certain date of foundation. Generally, it is located among the 9th and 4th centuries BC. Instead, some scholars argue that Bergamo was founded by the Etruscans since the 6th century BC.

Subjected to the Cenomani’s incursions, the city came under the Roman dominion after 390 BC. Its inhabitants became Roman citizens thanks to an edict promulgated by Julius Caesar in 49 BC. Since the 5th century AC, Bergamo was continously subjected to the Barbarian invasions, which caused the fall of the Western Roman Empire due to Odoacer. During the 6th century the Lombards took possession of the city, that became an important Duchy of the kingdom. The conquest of Northern Italy by Charlemagne (774) generated many benefits for the city. It became a County, with its own political structure and a big commercial market.

Among the 11th and the 12th centuries, Bergamo experienced a flourishing political and socio-economical period. In fact, it became a Common. In 1167, it was part of the Lombard League, founded in the Benedictine monastery of Pontida. After the Visconti leading, lasted for a century (since September 1332), in 1428 Bergamo joined the Republic of Venice. During those years we have the construction of the Muraine, the walls protecting the lower part of the city, which developed during the Middle Age.

The Colleoni family

The Venice domination is linked to the name of the Colleoni family, particularly to the condottiero Bartolomeo. He restituted Bergamo to Venice, after that it was conquered by Francesco Piccinino, leader of the Visconti family.

During the Venice domination, the inhabitants of Bergamo started the construction of the Venetian walls (second half of the XVIth century). Their function was to protect the Upper City, frequently assaulted by French and Spanish. The perimeter had four doors (the Saint Augustine Door, the Saint Andrew Door, the Saint Jack Door and the Saint Lawrence one) whose closure was stated by the strike of 100 rings of the Civic Tower, known as the Campanone.


Palazzo della Ragione

Palazzo della Ragione is one of the most important historical buildings of the Upper City of Bergamo. It is also the most ancient municipal palace of Italy. It was constructed in the 12th century as a symbol and headquarter of the city power. The current structure was subjected to various remake by the Republic of Venice. Additionally, some fires provoked many damages to different parts of the building. The first fire dates back to 1513 by Spanish, who wanted to occupy the city. Concerning the others, it is supposed they were set by some inhabitants of Bergamo.

Palazzo della Ragione

Palazzo della Ragione is structured into two levels. The first floor is composed by a loggia, open in three sides, with round and pointed archs, which are supported by columns; the capitals are enriched by typically Romanesque elements, with zoomorphic (lions, monkeys, birds) and antropomorphic figures. Among them, there is the famous representation of human figures holding hands, like creating a chain. This symbolism indicates the collaboration between Bergamo inhabitants and its governors.

Capital near Palazzo della Ragione.

Some studies of the art historian Francesca Buonincontri tried to identify the meaning of these representations. For instance, the capital of the median pillar in the western side of the building shows a peaceful and meek lion, whose jaws are open on a prone little lion. According to the secular interpretation, the lion identified the king, thus it was the symbol of the power and the government. In the upper floor there is the Palace of the Jurists, whose the Room of the Truss is part. There, justice was administered. In fact, the Palazzo della Ragione became the venue of the justice administration during the Venetian dominion.

The sundial of Giovanni Albrici (or Alberici)

A sundial embellishes the floor of the square inside the portico of the Palazzo della Ragione. It divides Piazza Vecchia, symbol of the political power, from the Piazza del Duomo, symbol of the religious power. Giovanni Albrici, abbot and capable scientist, created the sundial in the 18th century. The religious engraved on thin slabs of marble, to whose sides the zodiacal signs and the hours of the sunrise and sunset referred to midday were carved.

The sundial

When the sundial was created, one of the sides of the portico was closed. It was a building characteristic that allowed the Gnomon to correctly indicate the moving of the midday sun and the corresponding zodiacal sign of the day. The Gnomon was a horizontal iron plate, that was long among the 20 and 30 centimeters, sustained by four vertical planks. Over this plank there was an adjustable bronze plaque, that allowed to form the so called “solar spectrum” over the floor, that permitted the instrument functioning [2]. This plank was decorated with Gothic ornaments, both internally and externally. They were realized by Giuseppe Vecchi, a collaborator of Giovanni Albrici.

In 1819, the Town Council ordered the demolition of the perimeter wall, determining the removal of the shaded area that allowed a better reading of the sundial. Carlo Bravi wrote about it “A flaw of our sundial is to be practiced in a place that is too brightly lit, so at times close to the winter solstice, the solar spectrum becomes difficult to see” [3].

The Gnomon during the Cisalpine Republic

With the fall of the Cisalpine Republic (end of the 18th century) and the arrival of the Austro-Russians in Italy, the Cossacks looted Bergamo, ousting the French. In fact, in 1797 the French general Napoleon entered Italy and established a republic in the Northern part of the country (that corresponded to the current regions: Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, and some areas in Veneto and Tuscany). Bergamo was an integral part of this political “construction”: the Cisalpine Republic.

During the fall of the Republic a thick stone-throwing damaged the Gnomon, that was considered a symbol of the French progress. It probably caused the damages to the sundial too. There are not certain data about this, nor it is known the authors of this episode. In its Historical Memories, don Giovanna Battista Locatelli Zuccala, parish priest of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo, wrote: “Having French left the Broseta Door, the people cut the Tree of Freedom and tore apart the slab under the Old Palace of the City where the vile adulation of our Constituted Podestas were carved in gold letters. They professed gratitude to the French Republic that tyrannized so much” [4].

Last restorations

During the next two centuries after the fall of the Cisalpine Republic, the sundial was subjected to restorations. Particularly, in the second half of the 19th century, the restoration works of the sundial started by Austrians, who had conquered the city. These works determined the substitution of some old marble slabs, with some thicker and longer. Moreover, a lemniscate curve (curve in a shape of eight) [5] of the average time was traced for the first time [5], whilst along the line of the sundial was located a square slab of marble containing the Compass Rose, where Albrici indicated “Vertical Point”.

Additionally, among this last and the summer solstice a slab was inserted containing the Longitude 27°29′, Latitude 45°43′, height over the Adriatic Sea, meters 360 and 85. Finally, along the sundial the hours and minutes of the Sunrise (from 4th and 13 to 7th and 41) and the ones of the Sunset (from the 7th and 49 to 4th and 19) were again engraved. During the 70s of the last century, the Gnomon was finally substituted by a Bronze Sun, set in the arch of the loggia.

The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore

The church of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the most important religious buildings of Bergamo, located in the main square of the city: Piazza del Duomo, where the Palazzo della Ragione and the Baptistery face. It was built in the second half of the 12th century. It presents a typical Lombard Romanesque architectural style (it is evoked also in the Colleoni Chapel), whilst the internal part calls to mind the most sumptuous Baroque style. The excavations made under the floor demonstrated that, actually, the religious building was constructed over a pre-existing pagan temple, consecrated to the goddes Clemenza.

The interiors of the Cathedral

An inscription located on the portal of the Southern entrance, known as “of the White Lions”, reproduces the date when the works of constructions started: 1137. Overtime, the church was subjected to restorations and extensions (from which the epithet Maggiore, “Mayor”, derives. It was added after the original denomination Saint Mary). Additionally, the sacristy was demolished, to make space for the Bartholomew Colleoni Chapel.


One of the most particular characteristic is the Cathedral has not a main facade, since in the past there was a unique wall that connected it to the Bishop’s Palace. Furthermore, there is not a main entrance, but four side entrances. Among them, the entrance “of the Red Lions”, oriented towards Piazza del Duomo, and the “White Lions” one, located in the southern side. Three apses characterize the structure, that are internally decorated by frieze, monoforas and various representations, like a portrait of a bearded man inside a clypeus (portrait inscribed in a round space). The inner part of the cathedral is amazingly painted with a Baroque style, even it maintained the original Greek cross plan, with three naves divided by pillars. A particular: its interior hosts the tomb of Gaetano Donizetti, citizen of Bergamo.

The Baptistery

In front of the Cathedral the Baptistery is located, that was constructed since 1340. Originally located in the central nave, it was frequently moved. Finally, a new structure (the current) was constructed around the 19th century.

The Baptistery

The curious coat of arms of the Colleoni family

Bergamo is historically linked to the name of the Colleoni family, particularly to Bartholomew. A particular surname, which may derive from the Latin term coleus(testicles). The coat of arms of the family reproduced this peculiarity: in fact, there are three roundish figures in it, that are representations of three testicles, of which two whites on a red field, and one red on a white field. Some scholars attributed this representation to polyorchidism (presence of an extra testicle) that they supposed Bartholomew suffered, although this hypothesis was never confirmed: the first who was denominated Colione was the ancestor of the family, Ghisalberto Colleoni, since 1123.

The coat of the arms of the family Colleoni [10]

Later, some supporters of Bartholomew tried to “dignify” the surname of the condottiero, suggesting it may derive from the motto:cum lioneorcaput leonis(with the lion or head of the lions). This interpretation, in fact, was aimed at glorifying Bartholomew, condottiero of the Republic of Venice (whose coat of arms was a lion).

Independently from the various meanings given to the Colleoni surname, it is known that Bartholomew Colleoni was very proud of his surname, so much so that he made it a war shout: Coglia, Coglia (Balls, Balls).

Biographical notes

Bartholomew Colleoni, of Lombard lineage, was born in the 15th century. He started his military career at the age of fifteen, following the Lord of Piacenza, Filippo Arcelli. Later, he worked at the service of the condottiero Caldora, with whom he participated to various expeditions: among them, the Siege of Bologna for the Pope Martin V. Thanks to these feats his celebrity spread to Venice and in 1431 he was hired by the Serenissima. He participated to the war between Venice and Milan, distinguishing himself during the (albeit failed) attack to Cremona, obtaining numerous honors. Further, he defended his city, Bergamo, by the attack of Niccolò Piccinino, the captain general of Gian Maria Visconti. Despite the military support of the Serenissima, he never got the charge of captain general, working always at the service of other condottieri: first Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, after the Gattamelata and Niccolò da Tolentino.

Later, with the end of the war between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice, Bartholomew Colleoni moved to the service of the Visconti. He was hired another time by Venice (1448) due to the troubled relationships with the reigning family of Milan. During this period he obtained glory and richness but, because of the intrigues of the condottiero Gentile da Leonessa, he was accused of treason. For this reason, he escaped to Milan and started working for Francesco Sforza, who in the meanwhile became the Lord of Milan. In 1453 he left Milan another time and definitely came back to Venice.

Bartholomew Colleoni in Bergamo

Bartholomew Colleoni worked with great committment for his city, Bergamo, during the dominion of the Serenissima. He created the charity Institute Bartholomew Colleoni, with the aim of furnishing the dowry to the girls who had not the possibility. His links with Bergamo was so strong that he built an imposing mausoleum, known as Colleoni Chapel. To this end, he knocked down the sacristy of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in order to provide more space to the monument dedicated to him, that should protect his rests after his death. Some scholars considered it an act of arrogant soldierly[6], whilst today it is supposed Colleoni was authorized by the Church administrators.

The Colleoni Chapel (at right) and the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore (at left)

This hypothesis was supported by a document written by Vanoto Colombi, very faithful of Bartholomew, who affirmed “was disrupted and demolished with the Church rectors and administrators’ consent” [7]. Despite this, in 1470 the construction of the mausoleum started. Inside it the funeral monument of the condottiero was located, dominated by an imposing wooden statue that depicted him, realized in 1501 by Sisto and Sery from Nuremberg. Moreover, there rests Medea, daughter of Bartholomew, died at an early age.

The mystery of the “unknown knight”

Some events regarding the burial of Bartholomew Colleoni assumed the appearance of a legend. For many centuries no one had ever doubted that Bartholomew Colleoni was buried inside the monument. However, the actual location of his rests had never been demonstrated. Only at the beginning of the 20th century, after the visit of the king Vittorio Emanuele III, the investigation of the real location of the body of the condottiero was begun. Particularly, the prior of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Monsignor Locatelli, sustained the body of Colleoni was not deposed inside the mausoleum. To support this theory, the first findings conducted inside the sarcophagus of the Colleoni showed no traces of human remains. A question raised among the historians and the bergamaschi population: where Bartholomew was buried?

The interior of the mausoleum and the tomb

In 1950, a discovery seemed to dissolve all the doubts. Below the floor of the Santa Maria Maggiore church, a stone sarcophagus containing human bones was found. The finding was immediately linked to the Colleoni rests.

The mystery continues

However, a deepen analysis of the remains denied he was Bartholomew. The height of the deceased did not corresponded to that of the leader. Moreover, the presence of a wooden instead of a metallic sword and the absence of an inscription determined the end of all historiographical velleity: the skeleton was not of Bartholomew Colleoni.

Another mystery added: whose the remains found below the Cathedral of Bergamo are? Was he a brave medieval knight? And further, why a wooden sword was located at his side? The mystery is still unresolved. In the meanwhile, the remains of the “unknown knight” were located inside an ebony box positioned under the romanic church.

The new researches

In 1968 new researches of the body of Bartholomew Colleoni started. At the insistence of the new prior of Santa Maria Maggiore, Monsignor Angelo Meli, stone material was taken from inside the sumptuous sarcophagus of the Mausoleum. The analysis wanted to confirm the absence of the remains inside the ark. Surprisingly, a pear wood box was found during the excavations. It was two meters long and 45 centimeters high. They were made below the Greater Ark.

The box contained the remains of some clothes and a captain hat, and a lead slab at the foot of the coffin, that reported the inscription: “BARTOLOMEUS COLIONUS NOBILIS BERGO. PRIVILEGIO ANDEGAVENSIS ILL.MI IMPERIJ VENETORUM IMPERATOR GENERALIS INVICTUS VIXIT ANNOS LXXX IMPERAVIT IIII ET XX OBIIT.III.NO.NOVEMBRIS CCCCLXXV SUPRA MILLE” (“Bartholomew Colleoni, noble Bergamasco by privilege of d’Angiò, invoked general leader of the Illustrious Venetian Lordship. He lived for 75 years and commanded for 24 years. He died the 3rd of November year 475 above the thousand”) [7] [8]. Finally, the remains of Bartholomew Colleoni were found, although they were never moved from the place all thought they were.

The Colleoni Chapel protected the body of the young daughter Medea, died at the early age of 14 years. Bartholomew embalmed the little bird with whom his daughter used to play. The bird, having felt the agony of its young owner, let itself die the same day. Hence, in proximity of the sarcophagus of the young girl there is a little animal, protected under a glass dome.

Daniela Campus


[1] Plinio il Vecchio. Naturalis Historia, III.

[2] Alessandretti, G. (1990). La meridiana di Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo.

[3] Alessandretti, G. (1990). Studio storico-architettonico della Meridiana del Palazzo della Ragione.

[4] Don Giovanni Battista Locatelli Zuccala (1936). Memorie storiche di Bergamo dal 1796 alla fine del 1813.

[5] On a sundial the Middle Time curve appears as an eight curve, known as “lemniscata” since it remembers the homonymous curve on the plane studied by Bernoully. It is normally centered at 12 o’clock, but it can also be shown on all hour lines represented on the sundial.

[6] Belotti, B. (1940). Storia di Bergamo e dei Bergamaschi.

[7] Meli, A. (1970). Bartolomeo Colleoni ritrovato nel suo mausoleo. Bergamo, Il Coventino.

[8] Corriere della Sera (21 novembre 2004). Il Colleoni, gran condottiero e benefattore. Gloria di un mondo pittoresco e popolare.

[9] Bonavia, M. (1970). Storia di una ricerca – La scoperta delle spoglie di Bartolomeo Colleoni.


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