The church of Sant’Alessandro, located at the intersection of the Via Moretto and the Corso Cavour, was not mentioned in any of our travel guides. Fortunately it was mentioned on a free map of the city that had been given to us by the staff of the local tourist information office. The map promised us a work by the Venetian painter Jacopo Bellini (before 1400-ca. 1470) and it was this promise which lured us to the church. When we arrived, we noticed that a crowd had already assembled in front of the building. At first we assumed these people had come for a Saturday morning mass, but as it turned out, they had actually come for a funeral. The funeral cut short our visit, but it was nonetheless worthwhile.
The Sant’Alessandro has always been dedicated to Saint Alexander of Bergamo, a Christian soldier who was said to have been martyred in Milan in the early fourth century. The church is very old indeed. According to tradition, it was founded in the first half of the fifth century by the then bishop of Brescia, Saint Gaudiosus, who passed away around the year 445. It should be noted that nothing has been preserved of this Early Christian church. The Sant’Alessandro was thoroughly remodelled in the fifteenth century. Around the same time Servites from Bologna took over the church and adjacent monastery. Their devotion to the Virgin Mary helps explain why the church was co-dedicated to her in 1466.
In the sixteenth century the Servites commissioned the local painter Lattanzio Gambara (ca. 1530-1574) to decorate the church with series of frescoes. A little earlier, in 1524-1525, Gambara’s father-in-law Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566) had already painted a beautiful altarpiece for the high altar. The painter Il Moretto (Alessandro Bonvicino; ca. 1498-1554 or 1564) was active in this church as well. In spite of all this artistic activity, a search for the works of Gambara, Romanino and Il Moretto in this church will regretfully be in vain. There are two reasons for this, which are by the way related. First of all, the Sant’Alessandro was remodelled extensively again in the eighteenth century. Most of Gambara’s work was destroyed during this project. Today one can only find a tiny piece of a fresco by Gambara, transferred to panel, in the fourth chapel on the right. The second reason is that the Servites suffered from a chronic lack of money. In order to keep the church running, they had to sell part of their, often splendid, works of art. Romanino’s altarpiece, a pentaptych featuring the Nativity with Saints Alexander, Jerome, Gaudiosus and Filippo Benizzi (a general superior of the Servites), ended up in the National Gallery in London. Il Moretto’s painting of Saint Rochus and an angel is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
The remodelling project of the eighteenth century was extensive and expensive, but unfortunately it was inevitable. In 1769, 90.000 kilos of gunpowder, stored in a bastion at the Porta San Nazaro, exploded. The explosion claimed the lives of hundreds of people and left part of Brescia in ruins. The church of Sant’Alessandro suffered serious damage as well. Between 1785 and 1792, the church was restored, and basically rebuilt, by the architect Giovanni Donegani (1753-1813). The church owes its Neoclassical façade and current interior to him. On a side note, the façade was only completed at the beginning of the twentieth century, by the architect Carlo Melchiotti (1839-1917). Two cloisters originally stood next to the church, but both were destroyed by Allied bombardments in 1945. The Sant’Alessandro itself was damaged, but restored after the war.
Things to see
The Neoclassical façade by Donegani and Melchiotti is stylish, but simple. The enormous Corinthian columns immediately catch the eye, and the protruding parts of the triangular pediment are conspicuous as well. But that is basically all in terms of decorations. If we inspect the plain interior of the church, we see more Corinthian columns, this time executed in red. The church has a single nave and four shallow chapels on either side. In the fourth chapel on the right, where a piece of Gambara fresco is kept (see above), we can also find the relics of Saint Gaudiosus. These were rediscovered during the fifteenth century remodelling project, in 1453 or 1454. The Sant’Alessandro does not have a transept.
Although a lot of precious art has left the building, there is still much to enjoy. Jacopo Bellini’s Annunciation is by far the most beautiful and most interesting work (see the image above). Jacopo was the father of two famous painters, Giovanni (ca. 1430-1516) and Gentile Bellini (ca. 1429-1507). He was also the father-in-law of Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), who had married his daughter Nicolosia. Jacopo himself was a student of Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370-1427), and that explains why his style was influenced by that of International Gothic painting. However, the Annunciation, which was painted in 1444, also has a few elements that shows Renaissance influences. The predella below the Annunciation features five scenes from the life of the Virgin.
I should also mention the painting of the Deposition from the Cross in the third chapel on the right. This is a work by Vincenzo Civerchio (ca. 1470-1544), a painter from Crema who was very active in Brescia. The Deposition was painted in 1504. The Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene feature prominently in the painting. They are holding the dead Christ in their arms. Around them we see three men. They are, from left to right, Saint Alexander (in military garb), a naked Adam and Saint Paul (with a sword). The background is exceptionally well done: here we can still see the three crosses on Mount Golgotha. The story continues on the predella, which has three scenes pertaining to events after the Resurrection: Doubting Thomas, Noli me tangere and the meeting on the road to Emmaus.
- Information panel in front of the church;
- Italian Wikipedia;
- Turismo Brescia city map.