Italian Lakes (2013)

BRESCIA

Lombardy’s “mini-Milan” is relishing its cultural renaissance, thanks to its revitalised city centre, restored Roman remains, the most rewarding historical museum in Italy – and the wine lakes in its back garden.

Main Attractions

Piazza Della Loggia

Duomo Vecchio

Brixia

Museo di Santa Giulia

Il Castello

Long overlooked, dignified Brescia strikes few chords with lovers of the lakes, but to envious Italians it means money and materialism, sparkling wine and Slow Food. To the locals, it means a hinterland of wine and lakes. The city itself is a Lombard workhorse – handsome rather than beautiful – though the multi-layered urban mix of Roman temples, Romanesque churches and Renaissance palaces is a draw for locals and visitors alike.

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Duomo Nuovo on Piazza Paolo VI.

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Once considered to be a philistine city that placed commerce before culture, Brescia has only recently woken up to its artistic goldmine. Often dubbed a “mini-Milan”, Brescia has been reborn as an art city: Roman, Romanesque and Renaissance Brescia represent a true heritage trail. The rebranding came with the transformation of Santa Giulia into Italy’s leading historical museum, followed by an ongoing series of blockbuster art exhibitions. Today, Brescia’s reputation as a ploddingly industrious city is being buried under plaudits for its artistic flair.

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A picturesque cobbled backstreet.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

The Longobard era

The city was always underrated, even in its early medieval heyday, when craftsmen created intricate stone sculpture, frescoes and jewellery that defined the Longobard and Carolingian eras. The Longobards, a warlike Germanic people, conquered the lakes and colonised Brescia in the 6th century. Despite intermarrying with the natives and dutifully espousing Christianity, the settlers retained their stolid image. Perhaps this residual Teutonic work ethic, coupled with a lack of corruption, produced the resolve that paved the way for Lombardy’s phenomenal industrial success. This murky period of the Longobard and Carolingian conquests is well presented in Brescia’s stunning Museo della Città.

Where

Tourist Offices: Via Trieste 1; tel: 030-240 0357; Piazzale Stazione; tel: 030-837 8559; www.bresciatourism.it .

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The lower city

Dominated by the medieval castle, the lower city is a reminder that Brescia was a stronghold of the Lombard League, and an arms producer since the Middle Ages. Long before that, Brixia (Brescia) was a prominent Roman base, which is easy to overlook as Lombard and Venetian palaces made their mark, along with the brutal stamp of Mussolini’s boot. This multi-layering is clear in the interlocking squares of Piazza della Loggia, Piazza della Vittoria and Piazza Paolo VI, which form the heart of old Brescia. Here, a provincial mood prevails, with neon-and-chrome bars losing out to cosy inns and quaint shopfronts.

The piazzas

Piazza della Loggia 1 [map] is the symbol of Renaissance Brescia, and the city’s loveliest square, liveliest during the Saturday market. The space is dominated by La Loggia , the town hall, which combines Renaissance style with neoclassical sensibility: the facade was designed by Sansovino (1486–1570) and Palladio (1508–80) but only finished in 1575.

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Piazza della Loggia.

Dreamstime

The square’s harmonious mansions, gilded astronomical clocktower and graceful loggias are testament to the Venetian influence in the Renaissance era. Architecturally, the square is a poetic Venetian ensemble, in contrast with the more prosaic Lombard style elsewhere. Even so, Brescia’s love of recycling is seen in the facades, which are studded with Roman inscriptions, symbolically sited there by the Venetian rulers in 1480.

Under the porticoes, where Via dei Musei meets Piazza della Loggia, lie two chapels woven into the urban fabric of the city. The tiny frescoed chapel of Santa Rita is dedicated to the patron saint of lost causes, while the adjoining chapel of San Faustino in Riposo (Via dei Musei; Mon–Sat 8.30am–noon, 2.30–5.30pm; free), is a snug chapel hung with ex-votos .

Possessing rival cathedrals and the seat of the medieval city rulers, Piazza Paolo VI 2 [map] represents the convergence of spiritual and temporal powers. The cylindrical Duomo Vecchio (Old Cathedral; daily 9am–noon, 3–6pm; free) is the star, one of the few such Romanesque churches in Italy. Its deep spiritual presence is picked up on by the head of tourism for the city, Massimo Ghidelli, who said, “Catholicism is in our DNA.” But so too are ambition, art and commerce, as Massimo cheerfully admits.

Dwarfing it in size but not in spirituality is the Duomo Nuovo (New Cathedral; tel: 030-42714; daily 7.30am–noon, 3–7pm; free), a chilly concoction with a facade carved out of local white botticino marble. Beside it, the turreted Broletto , which incorporated Roman columns as a status symbol, was the medieval seat of power when Brescia was a city state, though its facade is caked in flouncy statuary.

Here you could sit and have a drink in one of the square’s Latin-style outdoor cafés, and then enjoy the distractions of the elegant shops on the porticoed Via X Giornate ; they are consolation for the somewhat soulless Piazza della Vittoria 3 [map] . This ponderous tribute to Fascism, Mussolini’s podium, fails to re-evoke the glories of ancient Rome. Instead, this “new” Fascistic forum, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1932, resembles a troubled De Chirico canvas, with its alienating geometrical dislocations.

Shop

Shopping under the chic porticoes (portici) is very Brescian: stroll from Portici X Giornate, which follow the foundations of the Roman walls, to grand Corso Zanardelli. From there, head west to Corso Palestro and Piazza del Mercato, a lovely Renaissance square, before heading south to Via Moretto and Via XX Settembre.

Roman Brescia

Far better loved is Brixia , the real Roman Brescia , represented by the remains of the Capitolium, Forum, Amphitheatre, Basilica and a cluster of villas, some of which were unearthed in the Santa Giulia complex. The grid-like Roman street plan has left a deep imprint on Brescia, influencing urban design to this day. Moreover, not only does Brescia boast the greatest concentration of Roman buildings north of Rome, but the discoveries continue; Unesco recognised its importance in 2011 by awarding it World Heritage Site status.

The latest archaeological excav­ations below the Capitoline Temple have revealed part of a Late Republican sanctuary decorated with geometric friezes and Pompeiian frescoes, which will eventually be on display.

Between Piazza della Loggia and Via dei Musei lie most of the visible Roman ruins, which are being incorporated into an archaeological park. Yet the medieval Via dei Musei runs across the Roman Forum, provoking the eternal Italian debate: can we justify destroying one ancient historical treasure to rescue another?

The most eye-catching site is the Capitolium or Tempio Capitolino 4 [map] (Piazza del Foro; tel: 030-240 0640; www.bresciamusei.com ; mid-June–Sept Tue–Fri 10.30am–7pm, Oct–mid-June Tue–Fri 9.30am–5.30pm), which was preserved by a medieval mudslide that covered it until 1823. Above the ancient Forum loom the graceful Corinthian colonnades of this Capitoline Temple, erected by Vespasian in AD 73. The best Roman sculptures are already in the Museo della Città, including an arresting Winged Victory , a fitting symbol for such a warlike city.

Adjoining the Capitolium is the Teatro Romano , the partially restored Roman amphitheatre, one of northern Italy’s largest, which was used for public meetings until well into medieval times.

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The Duomo Nuovo and Duomo Vecchio.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Museo della Città

The Museo della Città 5 [map] (City Museum, Via dei Musei 81; tel: 030-297 7834; www.bresciamusei.com ; mid-June–Sept Tue–Sun 10am–7pm, Oct–mid-June Tue–Sun 9.30am–5.30pm) is located in the nearby Santa Giulia monastic complex, which lies on the decamanus maximus . The museum is the broadest-ranging historical museum in Italy – also recently declared a Unesco World Heritage Site – covering Brescia’s 3,000-year history in a compelling presentation that touches on most aspects of our common European heritage. Set in a former convent, itself built over Roman baths and Carolingian churches, the museum forms a labyrinth of buildings found in situ , including patrician Roman villas, a Byzantine basilica and a Romanesque oratory.

The convent was founded in AD 753 by Desiderius, king of the Longobards. Brescia was an 8th-century duchy under Desiderius, whose daughter was married to Charlemagne as part of the deal to crown him Holy Roman Emperor.

Given Brescia’s artistic mining of its past, even the Cross of Desiderius , a bejewelled Carolingian gem, incorporates tiny Roman cameos. In an unspoken dialogue between generations to come, one cameo shows a Roman woman appearing to peer perplexedly into the descending Dark Ages.

However, there is nothing dry and dusty about this museum: Hellenistic goddesses, Longobard kings, Dionysus and his pet panther, and that cameo of a Roman noblewoman all speak to us across the ages. The city symbol, the powerful Winged Victory , was recently revealed to be Greek, dating back to the 3rd century BC, although the wings were added four centuries later to turn Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, into an avenging symbol of Roman military might. Even the nuns of Santa Giulia have left a sense of their cloistered lives. Mostly wealthy noblewomen, they were forbidden contact with the outside world but could at least spy on visitors from the gorgeously frescoed confines of the Nuns’ Choir.

While the city’s splendid Renaissance art gallery, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, is undergoing restoration, part of the collection is on view at the Museo della Città Giulia providing further reason to make a visit.

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The Roman Capitolium.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

The castle

For the most atmospheric walk up to the castle, turn right out of the Museo della Città to the café-lined Piazza Tito Speri , sitting at the foot of the castle. On a sunny day, take the bucolic route via Contrada di Sant’Urbano , a succession of stairways winding up the hill. Even exploring the twisting back alleys below the castle will allow you to travel back in time.

Looming above the city, the Castello 6 [map] (Via del Castello; grounds 8am–8pm; free) has a leafy feel, with the languid mood underscored by the haunting sounds of piano-playing that float through the windows of the music students. Inside the castle, the Museo delle Armi (Arms Museum; tel: 030-297 7833; www.bresciamusei.com ; mid-June–Sept Fri–Sun 11am–7pm, Oct–mid-June Thu–Fri 9am–4pm, Sat–Sun 10am–5pm) acts as a reminder that Brescia has been Italy’s main arms producer since medieval times. The locals play down their deadly expertise, but are secretly proud that the FBI “buys Brescia”, and that “their” Beretta pistols are the handguns of choice for the New York police.

Also in the castle, the Museo del Risorgimento (tel: 030-297 7833; same hours as Museo delle Armi) holds an array of artefacts relating to the Italian Risorgimento, including paintings, ceramics and sculpture.

Tucked into the wooded slopes, San Pietro in Oliveto 7 [map] (Via del Castello; tel: 030-41531/49264; Mon–Sat 7–11.30am, 4–7.15pm, Sun 9.30am–noon, 4–8pm; free) enjoys a tranquil setting. Today home to Carmelite friars, the harmonious complex conceals 16th-century cloisters and a Renaissance interior.

Via Piamarta , one of the original Roman thoroughfares, lies below, and at the bottom of the hill is Piazza Tebaldo Brusato , an atmospheric, tree-lined medieval square that feels like it could belong in Provence. For a return to contemporary Brescia, join the cocktail circuit on Piazzale Arnaldo , the former grain market further to the south.

Nearby, one of the city’s big attractions, the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo 8 [map] (Piazza Moretto 1; tel: 030-297 7834), is currently closed for large-scale restoration; the collection of Lombard Renaissance art is on display at the Museo della Città and the Museo Diocesano.

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Brescia’s castle.

Glyn Genin/Apa Publications

Corso Zanardelli

It is pleasant to window-shop along the arcaded boulevard of Corso Zanardelli , where cafés, boutiques and the colonnaded opera house await. The Teatro Grande 9 [map] (Corso Zanardelli 9; tel: 030-297 3333; www.teatrogrande.it ) offers a dynamic mix of opera and classical music. Just north, Piazza del Vescovato , on Via Mazzini, is an elegant square with lime trees around a monumental fountain.

Tip

In the city centre, Mariabruna Perfumery is a haven from urban stress run by Mariabruna Zorzi, Brescia’s beauty guru. Here you can concoct new perfumes, get impartial advice on beauty products, or try a new beauty or spa treatment (Piazza Vescovato 1; tel: 030-45194; see recommended spas click here ).

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The Cross of Desiderius, the Museo della Città’s prized exhibit.

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Corso Matteotti and Corso Mameli

Further west, the church of San Francesco ) [map] (Via di San Francesco d’Assisi; tel: 030-292 6701; Mon–Sat 7–11.30am, 3–7pm, Sun 3.30–7.30pm; free) is the most serene late Romanesque church, enhanced by Gothic cloisters and vaults frescoed by Romanino. Santi Nazaro e Celso ! [map] (Corso Matteotti; tel: 030-375 4387; Sat 3–7pm, Sun 8am–noon, 2–7pm; free) has a grand neoclassical facade but is best-known for Titian’s Averoldi Altarpiece , a masterpiece that fuses Venetian mystery with Roman muscularity.

This atmospheric area of Corso Matteotti, Mameli and Garibaldi is gradually being renovated rather than gentrified. Bourgeois Brescians had abandoned their crumbling mansions and immigrant communities had moved in, but the tide may be turning. The regeneration of Corso Mameli reflects the new spirit, typified by the locals’ pride in Torre della Pallata , a rough-hewn medieval gateway, and the restoration of a magnificent fountain.

Nearby, the Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra @ [map] (Via Gasparo da Salò; tel: 030-40233; Thu–Tue 10am–noon, 3–6pm) displays religious art, including works by Moretto and Tiepolo; a few works from the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo are also being housed here.

The Carmine District

A short walk away is San Giovanni Evangelista £ [map] (Contrada di San Giovanni; tel: 030-240 0224; daily 7.30–11am, 3.30–6.30pm; free), with its 15th-century facade and Renaissance art by Romanino and Moretto. This is the vibrant Carmine district, the ethnic part of town which adds another interesting dimension to the city. Meandering around here dispels the myth of Brescia being a static, closed place. There are plenty of North African rugs and Ghanaian robes around, and some of the dilapidated palazzi are now being renovated. At the heart of the district is the handsome, barrel-vaulted Gothic church of Santa Maria del Carmine $ [map] (Contrada del Carmine; tel: 030-304 169; Fri–Sun 10am–noon, 3–6pm; free).

Santi Faustino e Giovita % [map] (Via San Faustino; tel: 030-292 195; Mon–Sat 7.30–11am, 3–7pm, Sun 7.30am–noon, 3–7pm; free) is a Benedictine foundation with a facade carved out of botticino stone, and art by Tiepolo and Romanino.

At the southern end of the Carmine stands the 16th-century monastery of San Giuseppe (Vicolo San Giuseppe 5; tel: 030-40233; Mon–Sat 7.30–11am, 3–5.30pm, Sun 7.30–11am; free), its finely frescoed cloister (Mon–Sat 8.30am–noon, 3–6pm) squeezed between tall mansions.

Where

The Mille Miglia (thousand miles) vintage car rally goes in a loop from Brescia’s Piazza della Loggia to Rome and back. Held every May, this is Italy’s most famous rally, and attracts over 20,000 people to line the streets in the section from Brescia to Desenzano on Lake Garda.

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Vintage cars compete at Brescia’s Mille Miglia.

Dreamstime

Mille Miglia

Despite cobblestones and steep slopes, Brescia is overrun by cyclists, though it also manages to remain in thrall to cars. The city’s Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles) rally has played its part in helping Italians fall in love with cars for ever. It’s a short cab ride east to the Museo Mille Miglia ^ [map] (Viale della Rimembranza 3; tel: 030-336 5631; www.museomillemiglia.it ; daily 10am–6pm). Set in a Benedictine monastery, the Vintage Car Museum showcases the vintage rally cars in their racing colours. British racing driver Stirling Moss’s record time of 10 hours 7 minutes to Rome in 1955 was a milestone in racing history.

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The clocktower on Piazza della Loggia.

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La passeggiata

Back on the streets, Brescia is sometimes dismissed as a city of somewhat ponderous souls, characters as conservative as they are Catholic, but a ritual evening stroll reveals a less strait-laced side. Corso Zanardelli comes alive for passeggiata , the parade that lake-loving Brescians call “le vasche ”, as in “doing lengths” in a communal pool. These “Lengths” tend to end in trusty wine bars like Vineria, or hearty inns like Al Frate, where deals are clinched over Franciacorta wine, salami and cheese. As citizens who believe in working hard and playing hard, it seems that Brescians were born to mix business with pleasure.