On the castle hill
Cidneo Hill, the Castle, the Luigi Marzoli Arms Museum, the Museum of the Risorgimento, the Church of San Pietro in Oliveto.
Approach roads: by car from Piazza Cesare Battisti, Via del Castello, or, from Piazzale Arnaldo up Via Brigida Avogadro; on foot starting from Piazza Tito Speri up Contrada Sant'Urbano, or up Via Piamarta.
The ancient part of Brescia, Roman Brixia so-called since the first century BC because of the rocky, hilly ground on which it is built, is bounded to the north-east by Cidneo Hill (245m). Brich was the Celtic word meaning rocky summit, high places. And the hill with its wonderful view over the whole city, has represented the most important element in the town's history from the time of the first settlements in the Bronze age up until the eve of the XX century.
The castle is called the "Falcon of Italy" because of its position on the summit of the hill, where it overlooks the city from above. It is one of the largest fortified complexes in Italy with 75,000 square metres enclosed within its surrounding walls. The old Venetian-Visconti stronghold dominates the city and its well preserved buildings illustrate the evolution in military techniques that over time have rendered the defensive system impregnable and made it a perfect instrument to control the city for the various "dominators" who succeeded one another in Brescia.
Walking along the path that leads from the entrance up to the top of the hill, the visitor travels through history: from XVI century military buildings (the time when Venetian domination began) to XIX century ones (the period of Austrian occupation) and then back in time again to the innermost surrounding walls built by the Visconti in medieval times.
The Castle and hill together have always been an integral part of the city. Yet, nowadays, "going up to the Castle" means not only visiting the massive fortifications of the stronghold but also strolling in the spacious gardens within the walls or along the shady roads leading to the top of Cidneo hill.
The natural characteristics of the site were used for defensive purposes right from the time of the first settlements but have over time changed their function. The slopes of the hill, which were barren originally and covered in stones to make it easier to sight the enemy, are quite different nowadays; since the end of the XIX century they have been completely changed: tree-lined avenues have been created and monuments and stelae put up; so that the Castle has taken on a public role that is both recreational and educational.
Since 1988 the Visconti Keep houses the municipal Luigi Marzoli Arms Museum, one of the most important of its kind in Europe because of the wealth of XV and XVI arms and armour and XVII and XVIII guns in its collections. The exhibits, of great historical and artistic interest, are set out in various sections according to type and period. There are about six hundred items on display offering significant examples of both Milanese arms production and that of Brescia, which boasts a centuries-old tradition in the sector.
The municipal Museum of the Risorgimento is housed in the Grande Miglio (corn store), and has many interesting objects on display: documents, pictures, period prints, and historic relics. It is laid out in sections which are devoted to the most important figures and happenings of the period ranging from the revolutionary years at the end of the XVIII century to the late XIX century.
Tour of the Castle: standing on what was in the past the old drawbridge, but is now an embankment across the moat that was excavated to improve the defensive system, the structure of the mighty fortifications of the castle can be seen. The encircling wall, begun in 1588, under Venetian domination (from 1426 - 1797 except for brief interruptions) is the work of specialised military engineers, such as Lorini and Savorgnan, and is characterised by the walls linking the bastions (from this position the ones of S. Faustino on the left and S. Marco on the right can be seen).
The main door was built at the end of the XVI century following Sammicheli's monumental style and is an excellent example of a coming-together of art and military science. Two large stone slabs with the coats of arms of the Venetian judiciary, the emblem of the Doges with their characteristic cap carved in the keystone of the entrance arch and the grandiose bas-relief of the lion of San Marco in Istrian stone (a XX century copy of the defaced original) all recall the rulers of those times.
In the entrance there are inscriptions commemorating important events in Brescian history.
Directly opposite inside the entrance to the fortress there is a high wall, turning right in front of it and walking through the area, you come to the upper part of S. Marco's bastion, where the Cidneo Observatory was set up in 1953 and has been ever since.
A defensive structure, called cavalier, rises up behind the bastion, and below it there is a road roofed over with barrel vaults leading to the middle-bastion of San Pietro and the Torre dei Francesi (the Frenchmen's tower), so called because, after a powder store had blown up, it was rebuilt by the French, who had won control of the city from the Venetians and ruled it from 1509 to 1516.
If you turn left inside the entrance to the castle, you come to a wide open space called Piazzale della Locomotiva after the railway engine standing there, this space is bounded to the east by the Palazzina Haynau, named after the Austrian general who commanded the ferocious repression of the Risorgimento uprising during the Dieci Giornate (1849), a heroic episode of resistance that earned Brescia the title of "Leonessa d'Italia" (the Lioness of Italy).
At the end of the Piazzale della Locomotiva, the Strada del Soccorso starts; it is a paved ramp, partly steps and partly tunnel, that descends to a fortified post below positioned to defend a door. It was a 'service road' used to bring outside help to those besieged in the castle. Gaston de Foix used it in 1512 and General Haynau in 1849. Fortified defences rise up above it, typical of XV century military architecture: a round tower attributed to the engineer Jacopo Coltrino, from whom it takes its name - the Coltrina tower, a cannon post with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a small bastion.
Ascending the slope that leads to the gate in the oldest wall round the castle, you come to the Piccolo and Grande Miglio, which were built respectively in 1597 and 1598 as corn stores. Crossing the Visconti moat via the drawbridge, built in the first half of the XIV century, you reach the last part of the castle with its medieval layout. Looking down into the moat you can see the craggy rocks of local limestone on its floor that reveal the geological make-up of the hill. In 1337 the powerful Milanese Visconti family took over the government of the city, where they would remain in control for a considerable time, and set about rebuilding its fortifications on a grand scale. The Torre dei Prigionieri ( the Prisoners' Tower), built at the end of the XV century and so-called because under Austrian domination it was used for housing political prisoners, the Torre Coltrina and the Torre dei Francesi mark the area enclosed, these three towers were the only ones left standing after the explosion of a powder store in 1747 caused the collapse of the whole east side of the fortress.
On the other side of the drawbridge there is another circle of defensive walls. You pass through an arched passageway and a series of flights of steps which lead to the Piazzale della Torre Mirabella (XIII century) on the top of the "fortified hill". Archeological excavations carried out under the lawn brought to light the ruins of the great medieval church of S. Stefano, flanked to the north by large cisterns, a Roman building and a martyry from late classical times. The Visconti keep, a XIV century construction with a rectangular layout restructured under the direction of the architect Carlo Scarpa, was built on the foundations of a I century AD Roman temple, whose wide stairway, brought to light during recent restoration work, can be seen inside. There are interesting frescos of artistic value on both of the two floors, some of them go back to the times of Giovanni Visconti (1343 - 1354). As regards its exterior the XIII century Torre Mirabella is the only construction of the time of the city states built on top of a pre-existing edifice, in fact the rectangular late Roman base of the tower from which it rises roughly twenty metres is evidence of this. From the top of the tower, with its dominant position in the Castle, and even from the Piazzale beneath, there is a wonderful view over the recently developed area in the north of the city, and the mountains of the Alps and their Southern foot-hills can be picked out too, where they bound the valleys that meet where Cidneo Hill rises.
Coming down from the Castle towards Piazzale Arnaldo, you find the Church of San Pietro in Oliveto, it is a very old church and some Romanesque parts still remain although it was rebuilt at the beginning of the XVI century in Lombard Renaissance style. From the outside a fine front creates the illusion of a deep porch and gives the building an air of sturdy solidity, reinforcing the severity of the flat geometrical design in the decoration of the facade. The interior, with a barrel-vaulted nave, is well proportioned with its series of semi-engaged columns on high bases, which before meeting the ribs of the roof support a white and grey, stone architrave. This is woven with acanthus garlands, fantastic figures and biblical scenes in the elegant friezes and is the work of a numerous group of stone-carvers under the direction of Antonio Medaglia. There are some fine paintings in the church by Andrea Celesti (1637 - 1682) and Paolo da Caylina (c.1550). In the nearby monastery of the Barefoot Carmelites the cloister and vestry are open to the public.
Not far from the church in Via del Castello there are the ruins of the Porta di Sant'Eusebio, which was destroyed in 1517, these remains are all that is left to remind us of the gates in the three kilometres of city wall built by the Romans in the I century AD. By the hairpin bends on the road down to Piazzale Arnaldo (tour 2) you can see the ruins of the Roman aqueduct that brought water from Lumezzane, and a tower from the time of the Augustan age. In the last straight stretch before reaching Piazza Arnaldo, Via Brigida Avogadro follows course of the eastern part of the city wall which, in this area remained unchanged from Roman times on.