Brescia’s Castello, perched high on the Colle Cidneo in the city centre, lost its defensive function long ago. The castle is a city park nowadays, where one can go for a stroll or enjoy a panoramic view of Lombardy’s second city. On the premises we also find several museums and until 1988 there was a zoo as well. The castle itself can be visited for free; for the museums there is a small admission charge. The castle in its current form dates chiefly to the end of the sixteenth century, when Brescia was ruled by the Venetians. If we study the main gate, it immediately becomes clear that the rulers of the Serenissima have been here: the lion of Saint Mark is hard to miss. Furthermore, it can hardly be a coincidence that one of the three bastions has been named after San Marco (the other two were named after San Faustino and San Pietro).
Brescia became Venetian territory in 1426, but the history of the castle started well before that. In Antiquity, a temple that was probably dedicated to Bergimus, a local Celtic deity, stood at the top of the hill. In 46 BCE, the inhabitants of Brescia were granted Roman citizenship and under the Flavian emperors, who ruled from 69 until 96, the existing temple was replaced with a much larger structure. Although I have not been able to find confirmation, I suspect that this second temple was dedicated to Bergimus as well, a deity about whom we know very little. Remains of the temple have been incorporated into the keep of the castle, the Mastio Visconteo. From this name we may deduce who ruled over Brescia before the Venetians arrived: the Viscontis from Milan. They built the aforementioned keep in the middle of the fourteenth century. In front of the keep is a curious cylindrical tower which at first glance appears to be part of the building. However, it is not. This Torre Mirabella was once part of the facade of the church of Santo Stefano in Arce. Other than the tower, not a trace remains of this church and it must be said that it disappeared under rather mysterious circumstances. Its ruins lie underneath the lawn in front of the keep.
The Mastio Visconteo houses the arms museum, named after Luigi Marzoli (1883-1965), a local businessman. It has an impressive collection of arms and armour from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. We may admire helmets, shields, suits of armour, edged weapons, pistols and even a few fully equipped horsemen. Lombard armourers were famous in those days, especially those from Milan, but those from Brescia were very good as well. One of the most beautiful objects that have been put on display is a small round shield (rotella). It features a scene with the triumph of the Greek god of wine Bacchus. The shield is partly gilded and the details are truly awesome. The rotella mentions the year 1563 and the name of the armourer who made it, a certain BP. He may have been a scion of the Piatti family. Many members of this family became famous armourers. It should, by the way, be noted that this shield was not used in actual combat. It was much to pretty for that. Use of the shield was confined to military parades.
Under French and then Austrian occupation, the function of the castle was changed. It was simultaneously used as a prison and a barracks. The former function is demonstrated by the large round tower south of the keep, near the drawbridge: it is called the Torre dei Prigionieri, the tower of the prisoners, because it was used to lock people up. During the ‘Ten days of Brescia’ (dieci giornate di Brescia) in March and April of 1849, the castle proved that it was still a formidable defensive stronghold, as the Austrian garrison managed to hold out against the rebels in the city. The ‘Ten days’ were a glorious chapter in the history of Italian unification (see Brescia: City of piazzas), and it is to this Risorgimento that the second museum within the castle walls is dedicated. Unfortunately it was closed when we visited the castle in July of 2019. We therefore had to skip the museum and concluded our visit by climbing the Torre Coltrina. This tower offers a panoramic view of the western part of Brescia.
- Evert de Rooij, Lombardije Oost, p. 54-55;
- Information panels at the Castello;
- Italian Wikipedia.