Brescia: City of piazzas

Statue of Arnold of Brescia.

If there is one thing I have discovered about Brescia, then it must be that it is a great city to go for a stroll. And that is exactly what I am going to do in this post: present my readers with a written stroll through the centre of Brescia. In doing so, I will pay special attention to the beautiful piazzas in different styles that can be found in the city. But first some important information about parking your car. Parcheggio Arnaldo is safe and provides good value for money. This parking is directly on the rectangular Piazzale Arnaldo and that happens to be the first piazza to be discussed in this post.

Piazzale Arnaldo

The Piazzale Arnaldo was named after the Augustinian canon Arnold of Brescia (ca. 1090-1155). Arnold had studied in Paris, where he had taken classes with the theologian and philosopher Petrus Abelardus (ca. 1079-1142). According to Arnold, the Church was to deal only with spiritual matters and reject any form of property. The doctrines he advocated stressed the need for radical poverty, and in this respect he was not unlike the later Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1182-1226). However, whereas Franciscus would end up as one of the most beloved and famous saints in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, Arnold ended his life on the scaffold. In 1145, after having been sent into exile multiple times, he joined the commune of Rome, a people’s republic that was initially led by Giordano Pierleoni, a brother of antipope Anacletus II (see Rome: Santa Maria in Trastevere). Pierleoni had managed to keep Pope Lucius II (1144-1145) out of the city, but he was deposed by the people not much later. It was in Arnold of Brescia that the Roman people subsequently found its spiritual leader.

Piazzale Arnaldo.

With his immense authority Arnold was able to keep Lucius II’s successor, Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), at bay for a long time. However, when the English pope Adrianus IV was crowned in 1154, the dream of the commune was soon shattered. Adrianus put Rome under an interdict, causing all religious life in the city to come to a standstill. This was too much for the people: they decided to expel Arnold. In the meantime, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the pope’s ally, had arrived in Italy for his coronation, and it was Frederick who had Arnold arrested and put on trial. Following his conviction for rebellion, Arnold was hanged in 1155. After the execution, his body was burned and his ashes thrown into the river Tiber. In 1882 a monument for Arnold of Brescia was erected on the piazza that is named after him. With this monument, the Augustinian canon has more or less been rehabilitated. The bronze statue is the work of the sculptor Odoardo Tabacchi (1831-1905), who also made the reliefs on the four sides of the pedestal, which depict episodes from the life of the canon. Antonio Tagliaferri (1835-1909), known for his santuario of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Brescia, designed the imposing pedestal.

Mercato dei Grani, with the church of Sant’Afra in Sant’Eufemia behind it.

On the edge of the piazza we see an enormous building which is called the Mercato dei Grani. It follows that this used to be a grain market. The Mercato dei Grani was built between 1820 and 1823 in the neo-classicist style by the architects Luigi Basiletti (1780-1859) and Angelo Vita. The building is 112 metres wide and 15 metres deep, and it features 20 arcades. Behind the Mercato dei Grani we find the equally imposing church of Sant’Afra in Sant’Eufemia, which is at least 100 metres deep. Until the end of the eighteenth century, a convent was attached to this church, and the Piazzale Arnaldo happens to be constructed over the kitchen garden of this convent. The long alley running alongside the church is called the Vicolo dell’Ortaglia, a name that refers to the former kitchen garden.

Piazza Tebaldo Brusato and Piazza Tito Speri

Palazzo Cigola Fenaroli.

The large Piazza Tebaldo Brusato, a square that is known for its many trees, is just north of the Piazzale Arnaldo. The ice-cream shop at the corner – Gelateria Brescia con Gusto – sells truly excellent products. The piazza was named after a nobleman from the Middle Ages, a member of the Guelph party who was the main adversary of bishop Berardo Maggi, bishop of Brescia between 1275 and 1308 (see Brescia: The Duomo Vecchio). In 1311, Henry of Luxembourg, the future Henry VII of the Holy Roman Empire, ordered Brusato’s execution. Now a piazza is named after him: a small comfort indeed. The piazza itself existed as early as the twelfth century and was mainly used for markets in those days. The hustle and bustle of the Middle Ages has now been replaced with peace and quiet. When we crossed the piazza, there was not a single soul in sight. The Piazza Tebaldo Brusato itself is not that spectacular, but do take a look at the conspicuous Palazzo Cigola Fenaroli from the sixteenth century (see the image on the right).

From the Piazza Tebaldo Brusato we now walk towards the Museo di Santa Giulia, the city museum which I have previously discussed in four parts. The museum can be found in the Via dei Musei, the ancient decumanus maximus of Roman Brescia, i.e. the street running from east to west in a Roman city. We follow the Via dei Musei, walk past the remains of the Capitolium and the Roman theatre and arrive at the church of Santa Maria della Carità. The next two piazzas are the Piazza Martiri di Belfiore and the Piazza (or Piazzetta) Tito Speri. The squares refer to the same historical events, as the hero Tito Speri (1825-1853) was one of the martyrs of Belfiore. He was one of the protagonists of the so-called ‘Ten days of Brescia’ (dieci giornate di Brescia) in March and April of 1849. At the time Brescia was part of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom, which in its turn was part of the Austrian Empire. The emperor of Austria was also king of Lombardy-Venetia. During the nineteenth century, the Italian unification process known as the Risorgimento led to widespread resentment against the Austrian domination. In 1848, the imperial garrison of Brescia had already been temporarily expelled, and in 1849 there was a new rebellion.

Statue of Tito Speri.

The moment for the rebellion seemed to have been chosen well. King Charles Albert of Piedmont-Sardinia had violated the ceasefire that had been agreed with the Austrians the previous year and now an Austrian army under count Radetzky was marching against him. There were very few imperial troops left in Brescia, and led by Speri the city revolted. Unfortunately for the rebels, count Radetzky cut Charles Albert’s army to pieces at Novara. The Austrian garrison entrenched itself in the castle of Brescia and not much later a fresh relief force appeared at the gates of the city. Speri and his men were subsequently attacked from two sides. There was particularly fierce fighting near the Porta Torrelunga, where later the Piazzale Arnaldo would be created, and near the future Piazza Tito Speri. In the end, the Austrians forced a breakthrough and on 1 April all of Brescia was back under Austrian control. The ‘Ten days of Brescia’ were over. In 1877, the city was honoured with the nickname of Leonessa d’Italia – the Lioness of Italy – because of the brave resistance put up by its citizens.

But what happened to Tito Speri? The man who had led the rebels managed to escape to Lugano in Switzerland and later moved to Turin, the capital of Piedmont-Sardinia. When amnesty was granted to former Brescian rebels, Speri returned to his place of birth. From Brescia he would continue to resist Austrian oppression, which led to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment in the castle of San Giorgio in Mantova. Tito Speri was hanged on 3 March 1853 in Belfiore, now part of Mantova. In 1888 a statue of him was erected on the piazza that now bears his name. The statue was made by Domenico Ghidoni (1857-1920).

Piazza Paolo VI and Piazza della Loggia

If we walk south from the Piazza Tito Speri, we arrive at the Piazza Paolo VI. The piazza was named after a local hero: Pope Paulus VI (1963-1978). Its previous name was simply the Piazza Duomo, and it should therefore not come as a surprise that this is where we find Brescia’s winter and summer cathedral. Both the Duomo Vecchio and the Duomo Nuovo have previously been discussed on this website, so I will just refer to these older posts. On the piazza, we also find the Palazzo Broletto, once the seat of the city administration.

Piazza Paolo VI.

From the Piazza Tito Speri we can also follow the Via dei Musei further to the west. If we do that, we will soon find ourselves at the Torre Bruciata, the ‘burned gate’ of which the name still reminds us of the Sack of Brescia by the French in 1512. Underneath the gate is the entrance to the minuscule church of San Faustino in Riposo, but we continue our way until we reach the next piazza: the Piazza della Loggia. Markets are often held on this L-shaped square, and on market days visitors may expect a lot of people. Between 1426 and 1797, Brescia was ruled by the Venetians, and it was the Venetian podestà of the city, Marco Foscari (ca. 1392-1467), who in 1433 began transforming the old medieval square into a modern Venetian-style piazza. Foscari was a brother of the Venetian doge Francesco Foscari (1432-1457), whose reign was the longest in Venetian history (see: Venice: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari).

Piazza della Loggia, with the Palazzo della Loggia on the right and the Monte di Pietà Vecchio and Monte di Pietà Nuovo on the left.

Of the buildings on the piazza that catch the eye I will first mention the Palazzo della Loggia, now Brescia’s city hall. It was built between 1492 and 1574. One of the first architects was Filippo Grassi, who worked on the palazzo until about 1510. The project was interrupted by the war and the Sack of Brescia by the French in 1512, and when in 1574 the Palazzo della Loggia was finally completed, architects such as Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) and Lodovico Beretta (1518-1572) had all contributed. The original roof had the shape of a ship’s hull; we find similar roofs in Padova and Vicenza, the city where Palladio left most of his work. Unfortunately the roof of the Palazzo della Loggia was lost in a fire in 1575. It was replaced with a temporary construction, which in its turn was replaced with a new roof by Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) as late as 1769. The current roof dates from 1914 and again has the shape of a ship’s hull. A good spot to observe the roof is the castle of Brescia.

Roof of the Palazzo della Loggia, seen from the castle of Brescia.

The buildings on the southern side of the piazza are the Monte di Pietà Vecchio and the Monte di Pietà Nuovo. The former building was constructed between 1484 and 1489 by Filippo Grassi. Its name literally means the ‘old pawnshop’. The new pawnshop next to it was built between 1596 and 1600, and was designed by Pier Maria Bagnadore (1550-1627). On the eastern side of the square we find the Torre dell’Orologio, a bell-tower designed by Lodovico Beretta, an architect already mentioned in the previous paragraph. In 1595 Bagnadore added a loggia below the tower, which runs from north to south and has a length of almost 350 metres. On top of the tower are Tone e Batista, who strike the bronze bell with their hammers each hour. As the Màcc de le ure – the ‘fools of the hour’ – they have been doing their job since 1581. The Torre dell’Orologio in Brescia is basically a smaller version of the eponymous tower in Venice. As Brescia was ruled by the Venetians until 1797, the piazza originally also had a column with the lion of Saint Mark. This column was removed once the Venetians had left and, in 1864, replaced with a monument for Bella Italia, which officially commemorates those fallen during the ‘Ten days of Brescia’.

The Torre dell’Orologio (right) and monument for Bella Italia (left).

Piazza della Vittoria and Piazza Moretto

On 28 May 1974, a bomb exploded during an anti-fascist rally on the Piazza della Loggia. Eight people were killed and another 102 wounded. The perpetrators were members of the fascist Ordine Nuovo, which makes it rather ironic that the piazza south of the Piazza della Loggia is dominated by buildings in the fascist style. This Piazza della Vittoria is nevertheless fascinating. The name of the piazza refers to the Italian victory in World War One. Previously this part of town had been the fishmongers’ quarter (quarter of the pescherie), but that was demolished to make room for the new square, which was constructed between 1929 and 1932 by the architect Marcello Piacentini (1881-1960). The most conspicuous buildings are the post office on the northern side and the very first skyscraper in Italy on the western side of the piazza. This tower – known as the Torrione INA – was built by Piacentini between 1930 and 1932 for the Istituto Nazionale Assicurazioni, the national insurance institute. It should be noted that the term ‘skyscraper’ is a little over the top for a building that is little more than 57 metres high.

Piazza della Vittoria.

In front of the post office is a white tower named the Torre della Rivoluzione. A little bit further to the south is a speaker’s platform made of stone which in the past was used by Mussolini himself. Still further to the south, and on the other side of the piazza, a fountain was created and initially provided with a statue by the artist Arturo Dazzi (1881-1966). Although the people of Brescia nicknamed it Il Bigio (‘The Grey One’), its official name was l’Era fascista, the Fascist era. Not surprisingly, that name was rather unpopular after World War Two had ended. In 1945, after multiple attempts to destroy it, Il Bigio was removed and stored in a depot. However, since the 1950s people have pleaded for the statue to be returned to the piazza. Obviously this is a sensitive issue, which explains why it has not yet been decided. On the pedestal next to the fountain, we now find a black marble statue by the contemporary artist Mimmo Paladino. Caffè Impero is just behind the statue: it serves a fine Apérol Spritz, which comes with a generous amount of nibbles if service is slow that day.

Piazza Moretto with the church of Sant’Angela Merici.

San Barnaba.

We continue our walk from the Piazza della Vittoria and in about ten minutes we reach the Piazza Moretto, a square that is of course named after the great Brescian painter Alessandro Bonvicino (ca. 1498-1554/64), who was nicknamed Il Moretto. His work has been discussed on this website many times. The painter’s statue in the square was erected in 1898; it is a work of Domenico Ghidoni, who was already mentioned above. There are plenty of things to do in the vicinity of the Piazza Moretto. Here we find the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo with its impressive collection of paintings and the church of Sant’Angela Merici. This church was previously known as the Sant’Afra, and as the San Faustino ad Sanguinem before that. According to tradition, Faustinus and Jovita, patron saints of the city, were beheaded and buried here. North of the piazza, along the Corso Magenta, is the Auditorium di San Barnaba. The building was a church once, but nowadays serves as Brescia’s auditorium and conference hall. During the ‘Ten days of Brescia’, there was particularly fierce fighting in this part of the city.

This walk was inspired by Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, chapter 3. Much of the information in this post came from articles on Italian Wikipedia (see the relevant links). John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XI, provided the bulk of the information about Arnold of Brescia.


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