According to my guidebook, Brescia is “disappointing”. But we wanted a day out from Verona, and Brescia was an easy trip by train. So, not knowing quite what to expect, we went anyway, and we were not at all disappointed. We found Roman remains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and all the piazzas, churches and museums that you’d expect in an Italian city.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Even if it had nothing else, Brescia would be worth visiting just for the City Museum, housed in a site that encompasses a monastery, churches, Roman remains and an art gallery. Together with the city’s Roman ruins, the Museum is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site grandly named Longobards of Italy, Places of Power 568-774. This recognises the Longobard influence on early Christianity and architecture and includes seven sites across the whole of Italy (including the Basilica of Monte Sant’Angelo, which we visited last year).
The City Museum, also known as Santa Giulia, occupies the site of an 8th century convent, itself built on top of a Roman road and a number of Roman houses. It also includes later additions to the convent. The result is a dazzling and eclectic mix of art and architecture. Following a strict itinerary through the museum (necessary so that you don’t miss anything) you pass through the convent and on to the Renaissance Cloister. Then to the Church of San Salvatore, an important example of late Longobard architecture. For me, San Salvatore, with its pillars and frescoes, was a highlight of the visit. Beneath it is a crypt, a shadowy place that looks much as it must have done in the 8th century. And above is the Coro delle Monache (Nuns’ Choir), full of frescoes and funerary monuments, including the 16th century Martinegro Mausoleum.
But there’s more… The 12th century Church of Santa Maria in Solario, with the magnificent golden Cross of Desiderius, museum exhibits spanning the whole period of Brescia’s history, and a small art gallery at the very top of the building.
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Much of the City Museum is devoted to Roman Brescia (or Brixia as it was known), with rooms full of artefacts recovered from the city’s Roman ruins. But more remarkable is the remains excavated from the site itself. You can see a small part of the road that ran beneath the convent and remnants (complete with fragments of mosaics and frescoes) of two villas that had been buried beneath the kitchen garden. There is also a spectacular video reconstruction of Brixia showing the streets, Capitol and Forum as they would have been in Roman times. And in the Renaissance Cloister is a whole collection of Roman funerary inscriptions, giving an insight into the lives of people living in Brixia in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
Close to the City Museum is the Capitolium archaeological area, supposed to be one of the foremost Roman sites in Italy. Parts of the Capitolium (temple area) have been rebuilt and turned into a small museum. You can also walk around what remains of the original amphitheatre (in use until the 5th century but later damaged by an earthquake).
What Else Can You See in Brescia?
Over lunch in the Piazza della Loggia (a smart Venetian square) we looked at the leaflets we had picked up at Tourist Information. There was far more to see than we could fit into a day. Churches packed with artworks, and all sorts of museums including a collection of classic cars in another monastic complex. We would have liked to go to the Castle but it would have been an uphill climb and it was a very hot day…
We settled for a quick look at the Cathedral and a visit to the Brixia Light Box where we descended into the basement through the remains of the Roman Forum and watched a virtual reconstruction of the excavated buildings. As we walked back to the station I reflected how glad I was that I’d ignored the advice of the guidebook.
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