At first glance, the Italian city of Brescia seems to be an industrial pole, not a lion’s pride. Lombardy’s second-largest city (Milan is first) is respected for its metallurgy and machine-tooling prowess and for Beretta, its firearms manufacturer. But the city center has a sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site and a 3,200-year-old history you can experience on winding streets and splendid piazzas. Brescia offers tourists everything they might want in the quest for dolce vita – food, wine, shopping, sites, culture, and antiquity.
In Italy, Brescia is known as the Leonessa d’Italia (Italian Lioness). The name was bestowed by Italian poet Giosuè Carducci in 1849, after the city rebelled against its Austrian conquerors and fought them for 10 bloody days before being forced to yield. (It’s like “Remember the Alamo” for Americans). A stone lion guards the main gate of the city, but has nothing to do with Carducci. It is the symbol of Venice, a reminder of past Venetian domination.
Brixia (the city’s original name, meaning “a high place”) has had a long history of resisting conquest. Its founding is attributed to Cidneo, king of the Ligures, who conquered it in the late Bronze Age. Colle Cidneo (Cidneo Hill) , where the Castello di Brescia now stands, has yielded traces of a settlement dating back to that period, so this version seems more reasonable than alternative myths, like Hercules as the founder.
Brescia became a strategic location under Roman occupation, and the best-preserved Roman archeological area in northern Italy can be seen here. It is part of the UNESCO site recognized as “Longobards in Italy: places of power (568-774 AD). “ Start by visiting remains of the Capitoline Temple and the Forum, both constructed in the first century, during the day. Artful lighting helps you admire them at night.
Beside them, set in a hill, are remains of the theater built around the same time. It was once the largest in northern Italy after the Arena of Verona, and seated 15,000 people in its prime. Our guide helpfully clarified the difference between a Roman theater (Brescia) and amphitheater (Verona). The former is built into the side of a hill and is a semicircle with the stage at one end. The latter is built on flatland, is oval in shape, and the stage is in the middle. Displays illustrate how the massive building projects might have looked 2,000 years ago, and what significance – social, political, religious — they had for the town’s then-6,000 residents.
The second part of the UNESCO site is the monastic complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia. Today it is an immense museum, with more than 11,000 pieces of art, but it began as a monastery built in 753 AD by Longobard king Desiderius for his daughter Anselperga. Its basilica (church built in the Roman style) is considered to be one of the best examples of medieval architecture in Italy.
During the transformation from monastery to museum in the early 1990s, workers stumbled upon two amazing domus (Roman houses) from the 2nd century AD. Ortaglia and Dionisus were cleverly incorporated into the museum, so visitors can inspect their elaborate mosaics. These reveal much about the life of their original owners, their tastes and sophistication. One mosaic depicts hippos, which never lived in Brescia but must have been seen as exotic décor. The homes have bathrooms and heated floors, with the water supplied by aqueducts.
A high point of the museum is the golden Cross of Desiderio, studded with 200 gems, many stolen from Ravenna by the Longobards. A guide will explain how the Church made use of pagan images for Christian propaganda purposes in this objet d’art.
The Castle of Brescia is another “best of”, as it is the second-largest urban fortress in Europe, and one of the best-preserved. The actual structure dates to Venetian rule in the 16h century, though it rests on the ruins of a Roman temple. The castle’s commanding view of the city and surrounding countryside have earned it the name “Falcone d’Italia”, or the falcon of Italy. www.scopribrescia.com offers periodic tours. If you want an English-speaking guide, write them in advance. firstname.lastname@example.org
Of all the various invaders over the centuries — Constantine, the Visigoths, even Attila the Hun – two have left a particular mark on Brescia. The Republic of Venice bought the town in 1426 and remained in charge until the French attacked in 1512 and ransacked it violently. The Venetians regained control in 1520, but Napoleon’s army reclaimed it for France in 1796. This history has left the city with some sterling examples of Venetian High Renaissance architecture, such as the Palazzo del Popolo (City Hall) in the Piazza della Loggia.
Opposite City Hall is the 11th century clock tower, the Torre dell’Orolgio, with two figures that strike the hours. They are referred to as macc (local dialect for matti, or crazy) because they didn’t keep accurate time till the year 2000, when the clock was corrected.
The back and forth between Venice and France has also resulted in missing art and artifacts. For example, the relics of Santa Gulia, for whom the city’s museum is named, were moved outside Brescia during the time of Napoleon, as the locals knew that the French were likely to take anything of value and cart it off to Paris.
Napoleon left the city another lasting legacy. The magnificent Teatro il Grande, modeled after La Scala, was so named to honor Napoleon, aka “Napoleon il Grande”. (It was constructed on the site of the first public theatre in Brescia, built in 1644). When Napoleon did not attend the 1810 inauguration of the theater remodeled in his honor, the offended locals renamed it Il Teatro Grande. Interiors remain burgundy, beige, and gold, colors favored by Napoleon . . . and by the Romans 2,000 years earlier.
If guided walks and museum talks seem too, well, structured, Brescia still has you covered. The annual Franciacorta Wine Festival celebrates the area’s acclaimed wines, with open cellars and tastings one weekend each September. The Strada del Franciacorta, founded in 2000, helps visitors plan an itinerary from one vineyard to another all year round. The Festa dell’Opera each September is a unique musical experience. The Mille Miglia Storica (historic thousand miles), held every May, is one of the most famous classic car races in the world. Only automobiles produced before 1957 can participate in what has become a showcase for vintage cars rather than a true race. The course is from Brescia to Rome and back. The Mille Miglia Museum in Brescia, fashioned from a former monastery, holds enough memorabilia to satisfy car buffs the rest of the year.
Brescia the province (as opposed to Brescia the city) claims three lakes: (Idro, Iseo, and Garda, the latter much beloved by German tourists), a national park (Stelvio), three regional parks, 671 hotels including 124 four-star properties and 12 five-star hotels. Access is easy, with five airports less than 1.5 hours distant.
The lioness of Italy has a right to be proud of her kingdom.