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Bergamo – a Lombardian treasure

— September 2015

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Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo. Photo © Stephen Kingsley

Recently we went to Milan for a holiday. Although we appreciated the city’s elegant avenues of Imperial architecture, its fashionable shops and enriching culture, we felt overwhelmed by its high-pitched, frenzied tempo. Fortunately, fate determined that we would strike up a conversation with a gracious Italian woman who was sitting behind us at the opera. ‘Go to Bergamo’, she advised in a commanding tone when we parted. ‘It’s magical, an urban elixir’. And so we did, the next morning, only to return the following day (Bergamo is about 50 km from Milan), with suitcases in hand, to stay for the remaining few days of our journey.  Our acquaintance was a prophet in disguise.

We stayed at the Relais San Lorenzo. ‘Chic, sleek and upmarket’, reviewers could write, ‘warm, welcoming, with steadfastly attentive service, nothing is too much trouble’.  In the breakfast room there are restored Roman and mediaeval walls. In the nearby Da Mimmo, a buzzy restaurant frequented by locals, there are also preserved Classical remains in one of the dining rooms. A proud manager showed them to us.

The citta alta sits on a hilltop surrounded by Venetian defensive walls. It is so quintessentially pretty that it could be part of a Hollywood movie set for a happily-ever-after fairy tale with prince and princess, rather than real life; and one cannot help but be charmed by the fact that the church bells do not ring in unison. It is possible to walk to the heights from the railway station, or take the funicular. Once there, we wander through piazzas and narrow, cobbled stoned streets, lined with buildings with wrought iron balconies, shuttered windows, and renderings of brown, coral, pink and cream tones. There are very few cars in the streets.  We pass shops (useful ones, too), cafes and restaurants. There is no sense of the vulgarity of kitsch tourism, no intimations of litter and graffiti. Each morning we purchased bread from the bakery and tomatoes and fresh basil from the greengrocer, and brought our provisions to the cheesemonger so that she could make up our sandwiches with Taleggio.

The Piazza Duomo enlightens with religious architecture. There we find the Duomo; its construction began in the mid 15th century and was completed in 1886 with the neo-classical west front. It is built in the form of a Latin cross with a nave.  One is struck by the heavily gilded white walls and columns, encouraging a sense of lightness and shades of intimacy, feelings which one does not usually experience in cathedrals. At the entrance there is a statue of Pope Saint John XXIII, a reminder of the city’s reverence for ‘their’ pope, who was born in a nearby village. A few steps away is the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, built between 1157 and 1521, which has a dark, sumptuous, ornate interior. In the presbytery there is a series of wooden reliefs depicting Old Testament stories, designed by the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto.  The Cappella Colleoni, next door, is the mausoleum for the Venetian general Bartolomeo Colleoni. He had the old sacristy of Santa Maria Maggiore demolished in order to make room for his chapel.  This was primarily designed by the sculptor Giovanni Antonio Amadeo, who also carved the general’s tomb.

The Museo di Scienze Naturali Enrico Caffi, in Piazza Cittadella, is vast; one feels very small in light of its vast collections and the prevailing silence.  There one discovers an extensive array of mineralogical, geological, paleontological, zoological and ethnographical treasures. At the entrance, an enormous mammoth welcomes one. In the same edifice, a former ‘cittadella’ dating from 1355, resides the Civico Museo Archeologico, where we viewed an exhibition entitled ‘Food – The Archaeology of Nutrition from Prehistory to Antiquity’. This was inspired by the theme of Milan Expo 2015, which is ‘Feeding the planet, energy for life’. (See panel right.) The exhibition explored mankind’s discovery and use of meat, sea resources, cereals and legumes, wine, oil, salt, honey, milk and fruit in geographical, cultural and social contexts.

Just outside the citta alta, one finds the designated birthplace of Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), once an unhealthy, dank hovel among many where labourers, stable-keepers, blacksmiths and tailors lived in crowded conditions. Donizetti was born in the basement where sunlight never shone. (Actually, his true birthplace is a few doors away, informed sources say.) His family were textile workers. Exhibits upstairs are devoted to Donizetti’s musical education and achievements.  The composer was fortunate to have come to the attention of a wealthy patron – the composer Simon Mayr – who appreciated his talents and helped him to realize them as a composer. Unexpectedly, when we visited, an informal operatic concert was taking place in one of the upstairs rooms. Opera students were performing traditional arias. The sun was shining and the balcony doors were open, revealing stunning views of the surrounding landscape.  This occurred on our last day. We felt as if our visit were ending on a great triumphal note. 

There is another funicular journey to be savoured, rising high above the heights of Bergamo to the Castello di San Vigilio, a mighty and bulky stronghold. The views over the city and the Lombard plains with vineyards, olive trees, villas and farmhouses are very special.  Interestingly, there is little evidence of livestock.

The lower city, citta bassa, where most of the Bergamese (about 125,000) now live, began to develop rapidly in response to increasing industrialization in the 19th century and later as a result of the unification of Italy in 1870. In 1907, in accordance with an urban plan by Marcello Piacentini, broad avenues and spacious squares were created there, which today one still enjoys, finding quite a few ‘smart’ shops and chic restaurants. The lower city, nonetheless, on the whole, is not as picturesque as the heights of Bergamo.

One advantage of visiting the lower city is seeing the light, spacious and quiet, Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, which occupies a former 15th-century convent. Its permanent collection includes a broad selection of work by Italian 20th-century painters, such as Giorgio de Chirico  and Giorgio Morandi http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/02/the-quiet-voice-of-stillness/?psrc=around-the-galleries  and the Futurists Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni,  and painters from abroad such as Kandinsky   and Graham Sutherland.   There is also on view a selection of  bronze sculptures by Giacomo Manzu (1908–91), who was born in Bergamo. The primitivism of early Christian art and the Renaissance sculptor Donatello were great influences upon his work.

Across the street we find the recently restored neo-classical Accademia Carrara which holds over 2000 masterpieces, dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, by such masters as Bellini,   Botticelli,  Canaletto,  Lorenzo Lotto   (a pupil of Bellini’s), Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Moroni,  Raphael,   Tiepolo and Titian,  many of which come from a legacy of art donated to the city by the local benefactor Count Giacomo Carra. The original building was constructed in 1810.  A painting and drawing school, which still exists, offering three-year courses among others, was established on the premises roughly at the same time that the museum opened.

In the 14th century, the first real ‘school’ (‘school’ referring to a geographical location rather than a particular style) of art in Bergamo began to emerge. It was led by masters of the Campionesi, a group of sculptors, master builders and stonecutters active in northern Italy and Switzerland from the mid 12th century until the late 14th century. Under Giovanni de Campione they built one of the small porches of Santa Maria Maggiore, and the octagonal baptistery located just outside the Duomo, in a courtyard. The local school of painting included such artists as Palma Vecchio,  Andrea Previtali and Giovanni Cariani. Lorenzo Lotto lived in the city for 12years and painted numerous works there, including altarpieces and frescoes. His panels in Santa Maria Maggiore, noted above, are especially remarkable.  The late Renaissance painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, born in a nearby village, worked in Bergamo for most of his life. He is esteemed for his elegant and realistic portraits of his secular bourgeois patrons.

Artists who are associated with the city during the 16th to the 18th centuries include Evaristo Baschenis, whose still lifes of musical instruments are especially penetrating, Giovanni Battista Cavagna and Giuseppe Ghislandi. The sculptor Andrea Fantoni is noted for his woodcarvings  – the confessional and the bishop’s throne for the Santa Maria Maggiore, in particular.

When I tell friends, who visit Milan from time to time, about the beauty of Bergamo and its rich cultural heritage, they look a little bewildered.  The city doesn’t feature on their travel landscape, unlike the regions of the Lakes. Assuredly, though, their journeys would be all the more enlightening and refreshing if they would stop in Bergamo for a short while and enjoy the gentle rhythm of its every day life.


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