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A fascinating journey into the city of Brescia

The city of Brescia, located next to the Camunian Alpes, has ancient origins. A legend tells that Cidno, king of the Ligures, founded the city near a hill known as Cidneo. However, the Ligures origins are not sure, since the historiographical sources attribute its foundation to the Etrurians. Moreover, it is ascertained the Gallic invasion by the Cenomani in the 4th century BC. They were the first people who developed the rural area around the Adige river. When the Punic wars started, the Cenomani were allied with the Carthaginians, whose general Hannibal crossed the Alpes with his army including 37 elephants! The alliance with the Carthaginians did not last long: some years later the Gauls joined the Romans. 

The Roman age

Therefore, Brescia became a Roman settlement. During this period the city was an important religious center and had at least three temples. One of them partially survived: the Capitoline Temple. The life of the citizens was fruitful: evidences of this vitality were the theatres, baths, aqueducts and the forum that animated the ancient Brixia. 

Brescia: the forum area and the Capitolium
An interesting reproduction of the Roman Brixia

Even the civil buildings were masterpieces. At the Museo di Santa Giulia it is possible to observe several mosaics: 

To be noted the symbolism of the Solomon’s knot, swastika and the Chessboard

The area of the ancient forum was very important. It was constructed by the will of the emperor Vespasian (73 AC). Over there are the remains of the wonderful Capitoline Temple, whose pediment shows the following writing:


The Capitoline Temple had three cells hosting the altars dedicated to the divinities Minerva, Jupiter and Juno. The high tympanum was based on six Corinthian colums and it was probably decorated with monumental statues. 

Sideways to the square there are the remains of a theatre with the typical structure of the period. 

The Roman theatre

The Roman remains of the city of Brescia 

During the Middle Age the area of the forum was buried by a landslide of the Cidneo Hill. After this event it was incredibly forgotten. Paradoxically, it aimed its preservation; only in the third decade of the 19th century, during some excavations, the remains of the ancient Brixia appeared. Then, the citizens of Brescia found an unexpected and glorious artistic heritage. The Capitolium was not the unique surprise: some prestigious bronze heads and the famous Winged Victory were found.

The bronze heads probably were portraits of emperors, Museo di Santa Giulia.
A reproduction of the Winged Victory at the Museo di Santa Giulia: the original work is being restored at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Firenze.

The Winged Victory, a wonderful bronze sculpture, dates back to 250 BC. Probably a Greek sculptor, from Rhodes or Alexandria, reproduced a body with smooth features. However, originally the sculptures had not the winges: they were added after 69 AC, after the emperor August obtained the statue, by Vespasian to celebrate his military victories. The Victory was an image of the divinity Aphrodite, who held an oval mirror in her hands. 

Brescia during the Barbarian age

In 402 Brescia was invaded by the Barbarians who moved from the Cisalpine Gaul. That people were the Visigoths (Alaric), the Huns (Attila), the Heruli (Odoacer). In 493 the Ostrogoth Theodoric conquered Brescia trasforming it into one of the most important military and housing center.  

Byzantine and Lombard age 

The city moved under the control of the Byzantines after the Greek-Gothic war (562). Their domination of the city lasted only six years. In 568 Brescia was conquered by the Lombards yet, becoming an important duchy. Here some of the most important Lombard kings were born: Rotari and Desiderius, who founded extraordinary Benedictine monasteries, like the monastery of San Salvatore.  

San Salvatore, Museo di Santa Giulia

Detail of a capital in the Cripta di San Salvatore

As the Winged Victory, symbol of the Roman city of Brescia, even the Lombard age has its iconic handwork. It is the Cross of Desiderius, a wood processional cross decorated with around 200 precious gems, cameos and coloured glasses. The work belonged to the emperor Desiderius and it is preserved at the Museo di Santa Giulia. It is universally considered the most valuable and refined handwork of the Lombard period.

Among the representations inside the cameos of the Cross of Desiderius, there is a portrait of a woman and her sons, traditionally recognized as the empress Galla Placidia. 

The battle of Legnano and the medieval period

In 774 Charlemagne conquered Brescia, which became a county of the Holy Roman Empire. Then, the city was a free municipality, in contrast with the temporal power of the bishop. During that historical period important military battles with the nearest cities occurred, like Cremona, Lodi, Pavia, Bergamo. Brescia won against its historical enemy Bergamo at the Grumore (1156) and Malamorte (1191) battles.

The armies of the Lombard League created a coalition for contrasting the coming of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa who wanted to restore his influence in Northern Italy. This alliance was defined inside the Pontida Abbey (1167). The citizen flags, like the Milan red cross over a white background, were placed on a four-wheels big chariot: the famous Carroccio.  After various conflicts, a battle in Legnano determined the defeat of the emperor and the Peace of Constance (1183) was signed.

A legendary tale [1] concerning the Legnano battle, written by Galvanus de la Flamma  (13th century) spread all over Europe. According to the legend a heroic leader, Alberto da Giussano, strenuosly defended the Carroccio. He led a military unity of knights, known as death company, since they had sworn to defend the city until the end. 

The Duomo Vecchio of Brescia dates back to the start of the 10th century, The building has a particular circular architecture.
In the late-Baroque period the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore, or Duomo Nuovo, was constructed beside the Duomo vecchio.
The Duomo Vecchio and the Duomo Nuovo.

The city of Brescia from the Middle Age until now 

In the 13th century the conflicts between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines took place also in Brescia. When one of the most important Ghibelline family was expelling from the city (the Maggi), the army of Cangrande della Scala and Matteo Visconti besieged Brescia. The Veronese Cangrande stormed the city and constructed a castle in the Hill Cidneo for the Maggi family, known as the “Brescia castle”.  

The Brescia castle

Later, the Visconti family from Milan had obtained the control of Brescia before they were substituted by the Republic of Venice in 1426 until the arrival of Napoleon.

After the Risorgimento, Brescia became part of the Lombard-Venetian Reign under the dominance of the Austrian empire. In 1849 the city faced the anti-Austrian Risorgimento riots. Hence, the city became part of the rising Italian Reign.

The San Nazaro accident

Near the current Piazza della Repubblica there was one of the most important entrance doors of the city: Porta di San Nazaro. Here a big defensive tower was located. In 1769, when Brescia was governed by the Venetian doges, most of the citizens did not know that the tower kept a large quantity of gunpowder (maybe 800 quintals). During a storm, among the thunders, one more deafening was heard: the lighting bolt struck the San Nazaro tower. The subsequent explosion was so devastating that in few seconds one seventh of the city was destroyed and 500 people died. 

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)


[1] Paolo Grillo, Legnano 1176. Una battaglia per la libertà.

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