Brescia: Santa Giulia (part 1)

Interior of the San Salvatore.

The Museo di Santa Giulia is Brescia’s municipal museum. It can be found in the enormous monastic complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia, which in 2011 was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage as one of the seven Longobard Places of Power.[1] It should not come as a surprise that the history of the complex is closely linked to that of the Longobards in Italy and therefore with the period that starts in 568 and ends in 774. At the same time it should, however, be noted that the complex arose in the late Longobard era (starting in 753), but this does not in any way diminish the importance of the many buildings that are part of it. The municipal museum opened its doors to the public in July of 1998. It is so large that visitors can easily spend an entire day here. I will therefore dedicate several posts to the museum. Part 1 is about the oldest section of the complex, the church of San Salvatore from the eighth century.

The Longobards in Italy

The Longobards were a Germanic people that began their invasion of Italy in 568. At the time, Italy was part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. In the same year or the next, the Longobards managed to capture Brescia. They subsequently founded the Kingdom of Italy in Northern Italy. The kingdom’s capital was at Pavia, a city that had fallen into their hands in 572. In the decades following the capture of Pavia the Longobards continued their southward expansion. There were few who opposed them. Tuscany (Tuscia) was added to their territory and further to the south the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento were founded. These soon became de facto independent from the central authorities in Pavia. Only the coastal areas of Italy, including the city of Rome, and the islands of Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily remained under Roman rule. The territories on the Italian mainland were part of the so-called Exarchate of Ravenna, which constantly had to repel Longobard threats.

Capital in the San Salvatore.

In 636 a certain Rothari ascended the throne. He was the first Longobard ruler to hail from Brescia. More than a century later the city would produce a second king: Desiderius, who was born in Brescia between 710 and 720 and ascended the throne in 757. The new king had every reason to be proud of his career so far. Under his predecessor Aistulf he had been comes stabuli (literally master of the stable) and also served as duke of Tuscany and probably also of Brescia. It was in Brescia that, in 753, Desiderius and his wife Ansa founded a Benedictine women’s convent, dedicated to San Salvatore. A daughter of the couple, one Anselperga, was appointed as the convent’s first abbess. Desiderius and Ansa subsequently also founded convents in Sirmione on the shores of Lake Garda and in Leno, a town south of Brescia.

San Salvatore

The church of San Salvatore in Brescia was the nucleus of the convent. The new church was built over an older church from the middle of the seventh century. This older church had, in its turn, been built over houses from the Roman era. It was T-shaped and had a single nave, a transept and three apses, a large one and two smaller ones. The church that Desiderius and Ansa built was considerably larger than its predecessor. Columns divided the interior into a nave and two aisles. Some of the columns and capitals were taken from Roman buildings (spolia) while others were specifically made for the San Salvatore. The church was decorated with splendid stucco works and beautiful frescoes, works of arts of which – alas! – only traces remain. The complex became increasingly important when, in 761, the relics of Saint Julia, a martyr from the fifth century, arrived at San Salvatore. These relics were a gift from Adalgis, one of Desiderius and Ansa’s sons. In order to house this precious gift, a crypt was constructed beneath the central apse. Later more relics were stored here.

Remains of frescoes.

Fresco of Saints Peter and Paul from the exterior of the San Salvatore (mid-14th century).

In the meantime, in 757 to be exact, Desiderius had become king of the Longobards. There are fairly compelling reasons to assume that he intended to turn the church of San Salvatore into his family mausoleum. The southern wall once held a tomb which may have been Ansa’s. Although the tomb was removed long ago, its inscription has been documented: ANSA REGINA REGIS DESIDERII UXOR (‘queen Ansa, wife of king Desiderius’). In other words, the inscription gives us a clue whose final resting place once stood here. There are furthermore fairly strong indications that Ansa’s father and her two brothers were buried in the church. On the other hand, we have a fair degree of certainty that Desiderius himself did not find his final resting place here. This had everything to do with the turbulent times in which the king lived and the major changes that were about to occur.

The end of the Kingdom of Italy

In 751, Desiderius’ predecessor Aistulf had captured the city of Ravenna, thereby ending the eponymous Exarchate. Not much later he was threatening Rome. Since the Eastern Roman Empire was powerless to intervene, Pope Stephanus II (752-757) turned to a rising power in the West for protection: the Franks of Pepin the Short. And Pepin was more than happy to answer the call for aid. In 755, he inflicted a severe defeat on Aistulf, but less than a year later the latter was again besieging Rome. This hostile action prompted a new intervention by Pepin, who marched on the Longobard capital of Pavia and put it under siege. Aistulf was forced to surrender and died not long after as a result of a hunting accident. Desiderius was his successor, but the new king ascended the throne at a time when the stars seemed ill-disposed to the Longobards.

While continuing the work on the complex of San Salvatore, the king tried to establish friendly relations with both Pope Paulus I (757-767) and the Franks. Initially Desiderius appeared to have achieved the first goal, and it may have been his good relationship with the Pope that paved the way for the translation of Saint Julia’s relics to Brescia in 761. In 763 Pope Paulus travelled to Brescia in person to consecrate the now completed church of San Salvatore. Unfortunately the king’s relationship with Paulus’ successor was horrible, as Pope Stephanus III (767-772) constantly tried to drive a wedge between the Longobards and the Franks. In the meantime Desiderata[2], another daughter of Desiderius and Ansa, had been married off to the Frankish king Charlemagne. Gisela, Charlemagne’s sister, may for her part have been engaged to Adalgis, who in 759 had been appointed co-ruler of the Longobard territories. Pope Stephanus protested with Charlemagne against these family ties, and as a consequence the latter decided to repudiate his wife in 771, while Gisela and Adalgis never married. Poor humiliated Desiderata was sent back to Brescia and presumably became a nun in the convent that had been founded by her parents and was led by her sister.

Crypt of the San Salvatore.

Pope Stephanus III died in 772, but his successor Adrianus I (772-795) hardly had a more favourable attitude with regard to the Longobards. An armed conflicted with Desiderius erupted, which in turn led to a new Frankish intervention in 773. Charlemagne managed to defeat Desiderius at Mortara and subsequently laid siege to Pavia, which in 774 was forced to surrender. With the capital in Frankish hands, the Kingdom of Italy had fallen. Desiderius was sent into exile, probably to the Abbey of Corbie in Picardy. But the decisive defeat of the Longobard king did not spell the end for the complex of San Salvatore. On the contrary, the complex retained its importance under Carolingian rule, as is demonstrated by the fact that new abbesses often had royal connections and many nuns were from important noble families.

Later developments and main attractions

In the twelfth century, the square oratory of Santa Maria in Solario was added to the complex (see part 2). Starting in the fourteenth century, the church of San Salvatore was restructured, but not before its crypt had been enlarged. The church was provided with a bell-tower and lateral chapels on the north side. In the fifteenth century a new two-storey structure was placed in front of the church. The ground floor of this structure gave access to the church while the floor above served as the nuns’ choir. The addition of this new space was closely connected to reforms within the Benedictine Order; the nuns’ choir allowed the nuns to seclude themselves during mass, i.e. to attend it without being seen (see part 3). At around the same time the large northern cloister was built, followed by – between 1593 and 1599 – the church of Santa Giulia. This church was deconsecrated long ago: in 1882 the Museo dell’Età Cristiana was established here, a predecessor to the current museum. After the Second World War, the entire complex was acquired by the city of Brescia which decided to use it to house the municipal museum. As was already mentioned above, this museum was opened in 1998.

Church of Santa Giulia (left), nuns’ choir (centre), bell-tower and church of San Salvatore (right).

Relief of a peacock.

Visitors to the Museo di Santa Giulia are in for a stiff walk before they reach the church of San Salvatore. The central apse of the church usually serves as a backdrop for a piece of modern art, in our case – our visit was in July of 2019 – a photo of a white woman, dressed in white, holding two black babies. I personally preferred the older works of art. Especially beautiful are the sculpted capitals (see above) and the marvellous relief of a peacock (see the image on the right), which was probably once part of a pulpit. Unfortunately not much is left of the frescoes from the eighth century. The theme of the frescoes was the life of Jesus Christ, which should not come as a surprise, considering the fact that the church is dedicated to him (San Salvatore). In the centre of the southern wall, we may still be able to discern some people and buildings (see the image above). Admittedly, it is not much to look at, but even the scant remains demonstrate that the work must have been of high quality. The frescoes included in this post presumably depicted some of the miracles performed by Christ.

With much difficulty, we may also still be able to read a Latin text beneath the frescoes: REGNANTEM  DESIDERIUM TIRO HLU. This is a clear reference to Desiderius. The last two words were probably added later and these may refer to either Louis the Pious or Lothair, respectively a son and grandson of Charlemagne. At the foot of the bell-tower we find frescoes by Romanino (Girolamo Romani; ca. 1484-1566), whose condition is much more satisfactory. Other frescoes in the church were painted by Paolo Caylina the Younger (ca. 1485-1545). Finally, do not forget to pay a visit to the crypt. Visitors will not find many decorations down here, but the dense forest of columns is quite impressive.



[1] Together with the remains of Brescia’s Roman era forum, which are situated just west of the complex.

[2] She is also called Ermengarda.


  1. Pingback:Brescia: Santa Giulia (deel 1) – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:Brescia: Capitolium and Roman theatre – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.