Our trip to Bassano del Grappa in the summer of 2017 can basically be summarised as follows:
- the Duomo: closed;
- the church of San Giovanni Battista on the Piazza Libertà: closed for maintenance;
- the famous Ponte Vecchio or Ponte degli Alpini: only partly accessible because of much needed repairs;
- the church of San Francesco on the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi: closed.
And yet we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the historic centre of this lovely town. Bassano del Grappa has a population of about 40.000. It is perhaps best known for its production of grappa, an alcoholic drink made from the remains of grapes (called ‘pomace’). However, do not be fooled: grappa is produced elsewhere in Italy as well; Bassano certainly does not have a monopoly on the beverage. In fact, the town was simply called Bassano – or Bassano Veneto – for most of its existence. The ‘del Grappa’ part was only added in 1928 and has nothing to with the drink. It is a reference to the Monte Grappa in the Venetian Prealps, where thousands of Italian soldiers died during World War One. It is hard to image nowadays, but in 1916-1917 Bassano was a warzone and very close to the front.
We parked our car at the Parcheggio Prato just north of the historic centre. It was a hot Sunday and the town turned out to be very quiet. We first wanted to visit the Duomo, constructed in the late tenth century, but rebuilt in 1417 and then restored on many further occasions. Its official name is the Santa Maria in Colle. We had been told that it featured works by Leandro Bassano (1557-1622), a scion from a noted family of painters. Leandro was a son of Jacopo Bassano (ca. 1510-1592), the most famous painter from Bassano del Grappa. The local Museo Civico allegedly has the largest collection of his paintings in all of Italy, but we did not visit it (if you want to go there: the address is Piazza Garibaldi 34, next to the church of San Francesco). We ended up not visiting the Duomo either, because it turned out to be closed that day.
From the Duomo, we returned to the sturdy tower of the Castello degli Ezzelini, named after the Ezzelini family that ruled the town in the thirteenth century. The family’s most famous and most notorious member, Ezzelino III da Romano (1194-1259), has been discussed previously on this website (here and here). After Ezzelino’s death, the town became part of the territories of Vicenza, Padova, Verona and Milan respectively before it was finally incorporated into the Terra Firma of Venice in 1404, the Serenissima’s mainland possessions. From the Castello, we walked down the Via Giacomo Matteotti (see the image above) to the Piazza Libertà. There we admired the huge church of San Giovanni Battista, which was unfortunately closed for maintenance. The church is what the Germans call a Querkirche. This is a term that is not easily translated, and the best attempt is probably ‘transept church’. Usually the transept is shorter than the nave, but in the case of a Querkirche, it is the other way round. The church we see today dates from the early eighteenth century and was built in the Late Baroque style.
From the Piazza Libertà, we continued our stroll down the Via Roma to admire the impressive Porta Dieda, a former city gate. It was originally part of a second castle, the Castello Inferiore, which was built in 1315 by Padova to protect the villages that had sprung up outside the walls of Bassano. Under Milanese rule, some 75 years later, new city walls were constructed and the castle was neglected and replaced with houses. The Porta Dieda, however, survived. The frescoes we see today date from the sixteenth century, when Bassano was under Venetian dominion. This is pretty clear from the huge Lion of Saint Mark and the kneeling Doge. Above the lion and the Doge, we also see the Reichsadler, a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. This is no doubt a reference to the Hohenstaufen emperors of the twelfth and thirteenth century; the aforementioned Ezzelino III da Romano was a lieutenant of one of them, Frederick II (1194-1250). Below the lion are four coats of arms. The one on the far right is the coat of arms of Bassano del Grappa. Just above the portal are the remains of a fresco showing the legendary Roman hero Marcus Curtius on his horse. Not much of it remains, but it is attributed to Jacopo Bassano and therefore important.
We then continued to what should be the highlight of any visit to Bassano: the wooden bridge across the river Brenta known as the Ponte Vecchio or Ponte degli Alpini. Parts of it were not accessible because of some urgently needed maintenance, and it certainly looked a bit wonky, but we were still able to cross the river and admire the Prealps from the bridge. The covered wooden bridge was designed by the famous architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) from Vicenza. In 1569, it replaced an older bridge from the early thirteenth century. Palladio’s bridge is still arguably Bassano’s most famous landmark, even though the original structure was destroyed by a flood in 1748. Because of its importance, it was quickly rebuilt and then destroyed again during the Second World War, apparently by Italian partisans. The Ponte degli Alpini we see today was constructed in 1947, again following Palladio’s design. The name of the bridge derives from the Alpini, Italy’s elite corps of Alpine soldiers.
After crossing the bridge again, we walked to the church of San Francesco on the Piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi (see the image above), only to find it closed. We decided not to visit the Museo Civico and went back to our car. In spite of the fact that many of the main sights could not be visited that day, we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay in Bassano del Grappa. One of the reasons to come back one day is to check out its white asparagus, for which the town is deservedly famous.