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Slow tour 6

Brescia, Teatro Grande

From Corso Zanardelli to corso Palestro

The tour starts from Corso Zanardelli ( Corso Zanardelli has smooth paving and level pavement) that represents the centre of the city life and is the privileged promenade for the local people. It is characterized by the arcades which follow the outline (included the east side of Via X Giornate) of the roman walls and, later, of the first medieval boundary walls (XIIth century). 

Built in the XIIIth century, in the beginning they were only one-arch arcades with simple one-storey dwellings, but were doubled in the eighteenth century in order to line the dwellings up with the entrance of the just restored city theatre. In the middle XIXth century the Corso reached the present appearance with the lining up of the buildings along all the southern side. About halfway along the arcades there is the Teatro Grande, built, in smaller size, by the Academy of the Wanderings in 1634 and redesigned by Manfredi in 1739. The simple facade with its three great arches and the monumental access staircase, planned by Turbini in 1789, don't do justice to the rich and elegant inner halls which make it one of the most beautiful Italian theatres. A curious consequence of the raising of the building is still visible, to the right of the theatre at n. 27, where an original balcony with pergola and zinc canopy was built in the eighteenth century by the then owners to be able to go on enjoying the view below. Quite at the foot of the balcony there is the fountain with central cylinder (in the beginning placed midway of Via S. Faustino) put in here in 1983.

In the same year the fountain by Vantini, celebrating the heroic Porcellaga brothers, was moved to the facing square or ' crociera' of S. Luca, named after the ancient church that once gave onto the square, before they inverted its orientation in the middle nineteenth century, and also named after the surrounding cross of the first city  ‘hospitale magnum', founded in 1447 by the 'Umiliati di Gambara', that marked the boundary of the square to the south, but of which no trace is left.

Now let's leave Corso Zanardelli and continue the tour towards the first part of Corso Palestro ( Corso Palestro has smooth paving), once called Corso del Gambero (crayfish), perhaps because of the presence, since 1465 until the sixties, of the old inn that stood at the beginning of the street, at the corner of the present Corsia del Gambero , and that had this shellfish on its sign. More probably the name derived from the Gambara family, owners of the whole area, who really had a red crayfish on their coat of arms. By the same name 'Gambero' were called the houses (1550-55) planned by architect Beretta, appointed by the municipality, on both sides of the street. The nine shops to the south (three of them onto Via Gramsci) are still visible, without porch and with flat above, while on the facade to the north you can admire the well-preserved frescoes by Lattanzio Gambara, the owner of the houses: forty-eight great paintings inspired to biblical episodes and Roman and Greek events (1556-57), partly visible also from Via Gramsci.

This peculiar urban solution of the Renaissance, wanted by the municipality and one of a kind, is even better shown in the buildings, designed by the same architect Beretta, present in the nearby Piazza del Mercato, ( Piazza del Mercato has smooth paving and level or ramp access to the north and east side)where we arrive passing the junction with Via Gramsci ( the junction with Via Gramsci has level pavement. This stretch of street is a little steep). This is one of the most important city squares, so rich with history, since the fifteenth century heart of the trade and craft activities, as proved by the names that marked it out during the centuries: Piazza dei Rebotti (from the dialect 'rebelòt' = jumble), then Piazza del Lino (linen), then Piazza delle Erbe (vegetables) or dei Commestibili (foodstuff) and at last Piazza del Mercato (market). To the south there is the row of the case bottega (shop-houses) (1547), simple and thin, with a porch with twelve spans, each corresponding to one shop on the ground-floor with dwellings on the upper floors. The Casa a Portici (house with arcades) in front is more elegant (1558), probably destined to rich shopkeepers, with a ten-arches colonnade with rusticated pilasters. The upper floor is decorated with wall masonry pilasters with Corinthian stucco capitals, in between the windows open, alternatively surmounted by pediments either semicircular or broken in the centre by a small bust. In the high part there is a stucco fillet with friezes, leaves and busts and, on the west side of the building, it has a shield in the centre with the name of the probable author of the stuccoes. In the XVIIth century the buildings on the west side completed the present image of the square: the little church of S. Maria del Lino (1608), closed at present, designed by Bagnadore, harmonious and plain, its facade is in the classical style with a nice bell tower at its side; it was built to honour an image of the Virgin displayed in the surrounding street and considered miraculous (then it was kept on the high altar). At the end of the square there is the imposing Palazzo Martinengo Palatini (1675), now seat of the 'University of Brescia', with harmonious baroque features. The magnificent facade is divided into three parts: in the central raised part, linked to the side ones by two stone volutes and decorated with the statues of Mars and Minerva attributed to Sante Calegari  il Vecchio, the beautiful portal stands out, flanked by columns with Ionic capitals decorated, in the middle, with original festoons supported by a lion head. Above the portal there are the beautiful balcony with rich decorations of arm trophies and the first floor windows with broken and arched pediments and banister windowsills, just like the nearby windows in the side parts, these last flanked by others with small balcony. In front of the building there is the ancient fountain, renovated in 1831 by Donegani and enriched   by Labus with a statue  representing a boy who holds a cornucopia and leans against a dolphin.

Let's go back to Corso Palestro, elegant and very busy city street, natural development of Corso Zanardelli, that,  though it is ancient, shows only palaces rebuilt between the nineteenth and twentieth century, except for this first stretch delimited to the north by the shop-houses of the next Piazza del Mercato, and by the side of the church of Santa Maria del Lino.


From  the chiesa di S. Francesco to contrada S. Croce

After the junction with  Corso Martiri della Libertà ( the junction with Corso Martiri della Libertà has level pavement), we reach the parvis of the church of S. Francesco d'Assisi (1254-65), superb example of the style of transition from Romanesque to Gothic, which was extended up to the present shape in 1470 by architect Zurlengo.

Church of San Francesco d'Assisi

Notwithstanding the innumerable adjustments undergone over the centuries, the church still keeps the west side intact, as well as the grand imposing facade, of light local stone, with the beautiful frieze with fired brick arches running below the roof, the two little splayed eyes, the magnificent rose window and the elegant round portal below, enclosed between thin balusters.

In order to enter the church ( access to the church of S. Francesco from Tresanda San Nicola n. 4, through the gate that leads to the Renaissance little cloister), we can go along Tresanda S. Nicola ( the junction with Tresanda S. Nicola has pavement with ramp; the street has level but quite uneven pavement), the lane running  behind the apse and part of the next Franciscan monastery, and we go past the nice Piazzetta dell'Immacolata, where there is the beautiful nineteenth-century fountain with three chubby masks spurting water (once to the right of the portal) and the statue of the Virgin, on a column placed here in the seventies. The beautiful bell tower rises onto the little square, it is as old as the church, with the two double lancet windows one above the other:  the lower ones are Romanesque and round arched, while the upper ones, more elegant and lancet arched, are of the fourteenth century.

Through the small gate next to the square you go into the little garden and then, past the access arch with a high relief medallion above representing S. Francesco (XVIth century), into the small Renaissance cloister, square and elegant, with two round arches at each side and a marble little fountain in the middle ( the sacristy of the church of S. Francesco is not accessible. To reach the corridor you must pass two spring-doors: the first has one wing, the second is a double door). On  the walls there are frescoes with decorations of the XIIIth century, while in the lunettes there are frescoes by Marone (XVIth century). Going past the sacristy we enter the corridor where, on the left, there is a beautiful fresco 'Christ resurrected', unfortunately mutilated in the lower part, attributed to Romanino. Below the fresco there is a precious bas-relief niche, made of stone from Sarnico, with a  'Madonna with Child and a Saint' inside, while, on the right there is an ancient fourteenth-century chapel that now contains the tomb of Friar Giacomo Bulgaro.

The interior of the church has recovered, thanks to the restoration of the fifties, the classical austere basilican shape with a nave and two aisles, with two rows of lightly pointed arched columns and covering of simple sight beams, and it contains very important works of art. First of all the frescoes of the XIIIth, XIVth and XVth century that, in the beginning, decorated the whole church; remarkable examples of them still remain on the wall of the right aisle, such as: two well-preserved panels in the upper fillet at the beginning, both representing a  ‘Madonna Enthroned with Child' (XIVth century); between the fourth and the third altar, in the lower part, an 'Annunciation' with 'St. Peter' beside (XVIth century), plainly Byzantine style, as well as the rich upper fascia, decorated with a  series of busts of angels and haloed saints which recurs in the upper part of the wall between the third and second altar, both certainly belonging to the most ancient decoration of the church (XIIIth century). Here there is also the really remarkable fresco, transferred on canvas, of the 'Pietà' (early XIVth century) of evident Giottesque school, proved by the realism of the figures depicted and by the plasticity of the work, while Byzantine style again is the above large group of figures (middle XIVth century) representing the Franciscan School.

In the fourth altar to the right we point out a precious fresco, transferred on canvas, by Romanino: 'The Descent   of the Holy Spirit'. It has  an extraordinary perspective depth, created by the faces and movements of the characters surrounding the Virgin. In the first altar, though, there is  a Renaissance masterpiece by Moretto, 'St. Margaret of Antiochia between the SS. Jerome and Francis' (1530) where the magnificent, almost Titianesque, figure of St. Margaret stands out, together with  the fine emphasis on colour of the clothes. In the lunette above the ancon there is the fresco of the 'Visitation' (1520) by Prata da Caravaggio, perhaps an artist from the  Romanino school. The same artist is also the author of the beautiful altar-piece in the opposite first chapel of the left aisle, the 'Marriage of the Virgin with St. Joseph' (1520), remarkable for the regular symmetric balance of the figures and for its emphasis on colour. In the next chapel there is the great painting on wood 'Jesus Crucified' (1320), rare Lombard painting extremely realistic and dramatic which, as they used to do in the Franciscan churches, was originally hung in the middle of the presbytery. There it probably remained for two centuries, when the splendid ancon by Romanino was put above the high altar,  'Madonna Enthroned with Child and Saints' (1516), early masterpiece, remarkable for the balance and power of the composition, the richness of the colour and the variety of tones and lights. By the same artist, in the apse, the frescoes in the gores of the vault representing the 'Redeemer' in the centre and, at the sides, the four 'Evangelists' and, in the lunettes, the four 'Fathers of the Church'. In the lunette in the middle of the apse there is a marvellous  ‘Virgin adoring the Child with Angels playing musical instruments', a work by artists from the school of Bembo  (Xvth century).

We shall finish our visit entering, through the door halfway along the right aisle, the beautiful cloister built in 1394 on the pre-existent one of the XIIIth century. It represents an exquisite example of claustral architecture, with the little brick lancet arches , the acanthus capitals and the small columns made of red marble from Verona.  Above the door there is a roman funerary high-relief  (Ist century A.C.) with three frontal busts, while, walled in the north wing, there is the shield with lion rampant, Sanson's coat of arms reminding the construction of the dormitories and refectories (1497). (Guide-book on sale in the sacristy)

Let's leave the church now and go back to Corso Palestro as far as the junction with Corso Martiri della Libertà ( Corso Martiri della Libertà has level but quite uneven pavement), important ancient city route ending with the gate of S. Nazaro, where nowadays  Piazzale Repubblica lies.

In the first blind lane on the right, once called 'of the Cyclopes', we discover, on the north wall, a precious  fifteenth-century fresco representing a 'Madonna with Child’, very similar to  the miraculous image of the Virgin that caused the foundation of the nearby church of  S. Maria dei Miracoli, where it is still kept.

On the opposite side of the street, at n. 13, there is Palazzo Martinengo Villagana (XVIIth century) at present seat of  UBI Bank. Built according to Carra's design, the building has an imposing facade characterized by the many columns that frame the ground floor windows, with original small oval windows above, with little obelisks with ball  aside. Columns frame also the first floor windows, with arched pediments broken to hold high-relief busts. Powerful are the columns of the two symmetric portals with balconies above, with small columns interrupted by balusters and the windows also framed by fluted columns. Inside the palace, converted in 1926 into the seat of Banca  S. Paolo by architect Dabbeni, we find unchanged: the two great allegorical stone statues, in the niches in the hall, the 'Liberality' and the 'Unselfishness', attributed to Calegari; part of the round arched porch, with coupled columns enclosing the beautiful  courtyard, with two elegant fountains in the two corners: with shell and mask the one in the north east corner, with marble statue of Venus or nymph  the one to the north west. Under the porch, the original grand staircase with the four powerful Telamones that seem to support the whole two-flights stair, with baluster banisters, adorned with small statues.

A little farther, at n. 17, we can see Palazzo Appiani ( the hall of Palazzo Appiani has uneven paving), a simple, elegant building of the XVIth century, unfortunately very damaged, with a beautiful Renaissance portal, two Corinthian pilasters at both sides taken up again  in  the French window of the above balcony, and decorated with two medallions, once coloured, in the semi-pendentives. The last floor with the small wrought iron balconies was added in the XVIIIth century. Also peculiar is the little courtyard with the baroque fountain against the backdrop , frescoed with simulated structures of the XIXth century, while to the south side there are four arches (now walled up) with early sixteenth-century columns. In the hall, to the left, you can catch a glimpse of the stately grand staircase of the XVIIIth century  attributed to Marchetti.

In front of the palace the wonderful facade of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli ( access to the church of S. Maria dei Miracoli from the small door to the right of the portal. Threshold with ramp) stands out, made of marble from Botticino. Its central part, begun in 1488 and finished in 1500 adding the elegant vestibule  with the niche with triangular tympanum above, was originally built to hold the miraculous fresco of the Virgin, nowadays kept inside. Tradition has it that , on the occasion of the annual procession, between the opposite Palazzo Appiani and the facade, large pieces of canvas were spread over the street to shelter clergy and authorities from bad weather. This part of the facade was probably made by the same  master sculptors in marble engaged in the construction of the Loggia and of the Monte Vecchio di Pietà, as proved by the inventive and refined decorations impossible to be described  in short, important example of Lombard Renaissance sculpture. In 1560 the facade was completed adding the side parts and the upper crowning, while in the XVIIIth century the domes were completed and the statues of 'St. Anna with the Child' and 'St. Joseph' by Calegari were added in the niches above the side doors. The interior was largely destroyed in 1945 by the bombing, that spared only the precious facade,  properly protected by scaffoldings and air-raid barriers. Thanks to an accurate and elaborate restoration, the interior has recovered the  original Renaissance features that we find also in the friezes and in the festoons of the columns and of the pilasters of the aisles, recurring also in the cornices and tambours of the domes over the nave and over the side chapels. The statues of the twelve 'Apostles' (1489) and of the 'Angels’  are still almost intact in the tambour of the first dome and so are also the busts of four 'Doctors of the Church' in the pendentives as well as the busts of the four 'Evangelists' in the second dome. In the apse you can still admire the refined sculptural decorations, original of the XVIth century, in  the pilasters of the arcade and in the two little windows with four figures of saints in the small niches. On the right wall there are the 'Assumption' by Pietro Marone and the 'Purification of the Virgin Mary' by Grazio Cossali (1594). On the left wall there are the 'Annunciation' by Pier Maria Bagnadore (1597) and the 'Nativity of Mary' by Tommaso Bona from the school of Savoldo. On the back wall there is the fifteenth-century fresco of the 'Virgin with Child', unfortunately very much restored, which motivated the building of this church.

Leaving the church, at n. 19, we see Palazzo Onofri, present seat of Bank of Italy, built around 1760 according to a design by Turbini, on whose elegant facade the marble portal stands out with a stone balcony above and nice decorations below the small shaped balconies of the last floor.


From contrada  S. Croce to piazza Bruno Boni

Turning left into Vicolo Speranza we reach Contrada Santa Croce where, at n. 14, Palazzo Ferraroli ( level, quite uneven pavement in Contrada S. Croce),  then Fenaroli, stands, designed by architect Turbini towards the middle of the XVIIIth century. It has a very peculiar E-shaped plan that uses the central wing of the building, accurately reconstructed after the bombing of the last war, to divide the two courtyards: the one of honour, larger, to the south and the one of the stables to the north. The facade is formed by the three wings of the palace, each of them with beautiful stone balcony on the first floor, linked by a high wall decorated with scrolls where the two  twin stone portals open, of smooth rustication, with coat of arms in the central arched lintel and architrave supporting two stone vases with iron flower (repeated also on the sides of both portals) and closed by elegant gates of wrought iron. According to a typically baroque perspective device, across the street there are two little gardens (now incorporated in other buildings) closed by rich three-wing railings of wrought iron flanked by coupled columns and with stone and iron decorations, exactly like the ones of the  facing facade.

The same spectacular “optical telescope” solution was visible across the junction with Contrada Soncin Rotto, where there is the side entrance of Palazzo Martinengo Villagana : from the main portal in Corso Martiri della Libertà, through the inner courtyards and the right side door onto Contrada Santa Croce, the sight opened on the garden that served as a background, nowadays occupied by the Palazzina Pirlo of the early XXth century, planned by Trebeschi. Unaltered, instead, is this sober, elegant facade, probably subsequent to the main one, dominated by the two portals (the left one now changed into a window) that are linked to the above windows with  tympanum interrupted by a bust in a stone shell, while the other windows of the first floor are decorated with cymatia containing profiles and with rococo fruit and festoons cornices, repeated also on the ground floor windows.

Remaining in Contrada Soncin Rotto, at n. 1, we reach Palazzo Soncini, elegant and simple, designed by architect Marchetti around 1760. On the facade the majestic portal juts out, with curved corbels supporting the above stone balcony, while the first floor windows with cymatia are typically late baroque. From the hall you can see, at the end of the courtyard, the garden with the great fountain by Berenzi (1809) and also a little part of the large picturesque nine-arched porch.

Let's now cross Via del Cavalletto  and take Tresanda del Territorio ( Tresanda del Territorio has level, quite uneven pavement and the last part is steep), an ancient street that owes its name to the presence, from the XVth to the XVIIIth century, of the palace of the  Delegation of the Territory, revenue institution of the Veneto Republic. At n. 16 we discover a rare XIVth century residence, perhaps the seat of the Delegation, with remains of fresco decorations on the facade reproducing coloured marble panels and lozenges below the roof. We find the same decorations below the lancet arches of the porch with columns with leaf capitals in the picturesque little Gothic courtyard, at n. 18. On the wall under the porch, above the original decorations, there are some frescoes with simulated structures of later age, while to the south side there is an original stone staircase with a cordon of red stone as a handrail.

At n. 17 Via Gramsci ( Via Gramsci has level, uneven pavement) we find Palazzo Bettoni Cazzago (XVIIIth century), now seat of the ‘University of Brescia’. On the facade the baroque rustication portal stands out as well as the essential style windows: the ones on the first floor with shaped cornices containing shells  and arm trophies and the ones on the last floor with elegant little wrought iron balconies.

Past the junction with Via Moretto ( the junction with Via Moretto has level pavement), a little forward, we reach the church of S. Lorenzo ( the church of S. Lorenzo has ramp access from the right side entrance): of very ancient, though uncertain, origin, it was first rebuilt in the XVth century and then, up to the present shape, between 1751 and 1763 (the parvis of the church of S. Lorenzo has cobbled paving with central stepping stones of 60 cm). On the facade the high Corinthian columns stand out, as well as the tympanums, the projecting eaves and the banisters decorated with the beautiful little autograph putti by Calegari crowning the two side entrances, and the portal on whose tympanum the statue of St. Lawrence stands, perhaps by Carra, from the previous church. In the passage of the right entrance there is the great ancon by Cossali ‘Jesus meets his  Mather’ (1616) and, beside, the tomb of Bishop Averoldi (1538), both of them once in the old church. In front, behind the altar of the chapel dedicated to S. Maria Crocifissa di Rosa, we point out the remarkable painting by Pietro Marone ‘An encounter of Abraham with Melchizedek’ (late XVIth century), while in the next second left chapel, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of Providence, there is the fresco representing the 'Madonna Enthroned with Child' (XIVth century), found in 1755 during the restoration of the church and, unfortunately, too much restored. The fresco is placed in the splendid niche, by Calegari, with deep blue marble cloth held up by little putti (middle XVIIIth century); above it the brightly coloured eighteenth-century ancon by Lorenzi, 'Virgin with Child, St. Anna and St. Joachim'. Above the high altar, particularly rich with precious marbles used for the wonderful tabernacle and for the urn below containing the relics of Bishops Ottaziano and Vigilio, there is the beautiful ancon by Cigaroli, 'Martyrdom of St. Lawrence', full of life, movement and bright colours.

(Leaflet available at the entrance).

We shall now leave the church and reach, to the north of the parvis, the passage through the wall of the church of the ancient monastery of Santa Maria Maddalena, founded by the Umiliati di Gambara, a religious-lay order, present in Brescia and province from the XIIIth  to the XVIth century, that settled with its domus exactly in this part of the city, both because of  the charities carried on in the nearby Hospitale Magnum, and because of the presence of the river Garza whose water they used for their activity of wool weaving.

The wall of the ancient church, dating back to the XIVth century but with  fifteenth-century brick decorations, delimits the characteristic Piazza Bruno Boni ( Piazza Bruno Boni has smooth paving) to the south; this square actually represents that connection between Via Moretto and Corso Zanardelli (the so-called cross- road of the Crayfish) theorized since the nineteenth century, but realized only at the beginning of the year 2000. The original irregular plan of the square is due to the intelligent choice to build exploiting the empty pre-existing spaces, without demolishing interventions, as proved by the large initial part obtained where there once was the garden of Palazzo Bettoni Cazzago  whose colonnade closes the west side of the square today. Behind the memorial bust of Bruno Boni, mayor in Brescia from 1948 to 1975, and past the remains of the wall (probably belonged to the ancient church of S. Marco degli Umiliati of the XVth century), we discover the final part of the square, quieter and delimited on three sides by a colonnade that still keeps, enclosed in the back wall of the west side, a fragment of the portal of the church. At the end of the colonnade the picturesque corsia del Gambero ( Corsia del Gambero has smooth paving and is very steep) begins, final connection that, leading us again to Corso Zanardelli, concludes the tour.

From the guide "Brescia Possibile" by SLOWtime
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