Early Medieval and Romanesque-Gothic Brescia
After the invasions, the Lombard period, the city state during the fighting between the Guelphs and Ghibellines up to Visconti domination.
At the time of the dissolution of the Roman Empire Brescia too was invaded by barbarians: in 452 the Huns led by Attila sacked the city and the Roman ruins still show today marks of devastation and fire. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Brescia was ruled in turn by the Goths and the Byzantines during the VI century until, in 569, it fell to the Lombards and became one of their most important dukedoms. This was a period of great dynamism for the city; the port of Brixia, which may have been where Via Mantova is today, continued to function,and provided mooring for the boats transporting salt and other goods along the Po; important civic and religious centres were set up , such as the Benedictine convent complex of San Salvatore and Santa Giulia, erected by order of King Desiderio and his wife Ansa. It was here their daughter,Hermengarda (Manzoni's Ermengarda), took refuge and died of grief,after she was repudiated by Charlemagne, King of the Franks.
The Frankish rule which followed lasted for a century until 888, then on the break-up of Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire, Brescia lived through a difficult period of fierce strife. These were also years of religious dispute and renewal,when the rebel Augustine monk, Arnaldo of Brescia (executed in 1155), preached against the corruption of the clergy.
In 1090 Brescia became a city-state on the side of the Guelphs but, as her neighbours, Bergamo and Cremona were Ghibelline, was continually involved in border wars which were only interrupted when a common enemy attacked, such as Frederick I, who descended on the city and in 1162 ordered the destruction of its walls and towers. The Lombard League took part in the struggle against Barbarossa and showed courage and tenacity, traits brought into play again when it resisted Frederick II,who unsuccessfully besieged Brescia for 66 days (3rd August - 9th October,1238).
** This, the period of the city-state, was a time of great building activity: in the space of two centuries the urban layout was radically changed. The city walls were strengthened and enlarged with a first circle of walls built between 1174 and 1196 and a second between 1237 and 1254, which would remain unchanged in its layout until the XIX century.An urban area of about two square kilometres was thus enclosed and the hovels of the villagers,the many convents and churches with their bell towers, which had been built well outside the old Roman walls, were encompassed and defended against brigands.
After 1220, Franciscan, Carmelite, Dominican and Augustinian friars settled in the city and, helped by the municipality , built religious edifices within the city boundaries, notable examples of this are the Church and Monastery of San Francesco (1254 - 1265).
The artisans and tradesmen lived in districts to the south west of the civic and religious centre, intersected by streams used as water power. Their houses were wretched wooden tenements up to six stories high with their shops and workshops on the ground floor, while the top floor was made up of open attics or loggias used for spreading skins or wool out to dry (these can still be seen in the Carmine district).
In 1172 the government of the commune opened the new market (now Piazza Tebaldo
Brusato) on an area used for vegetable gardens and pasture The economic and political strength of Brescia was shown by the erection in the heart of the town in the main square
( where Piazza Paolo VI is today) of a building of great importance; the Broletto with the
Torre del Popolo (1223 - 27), one of the most interesting municipal buildings in Lombardy.
Also the Rotonda (the old cathedral) was built on the ruins of the winter basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and, although its lines are simple and plain, it is a magnificent example of a Romanesque cathedral. It is here that the remains of Berardo Maggi are preserved. Between 1298 and 1308 this bishop and lord of Brescia succeeded in placating the disorders and internal struggles among warring factions which plagued the political life of the city. After his death the hostilities between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines broke out again and the city passed under the rule of various powerful families, such as the Visconti and the Malatesta. The former governed the city until 1402 and built up a military structure to serve the seigniory. They transformed Brescia into an impregnable strong-hold, both by strengthening the walls and fortifying the top of the hill with a Castle built round the fourth century keep and by creating the New Citadel within the city, a real system for the defence and control of the town made up of a double curtain of crenellated and turreted walls over a kilometre long, which descended from Cidneo Hill and traversed the city from north to south until it reached the town walls. On the death of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1402) trouble among the factions broke out again and Captain Pandolfo Malatesta,in the service of Gian Galeazzo's widow, occupied Brescia ,which for the next 17 years was like the capital of a tiny independent state. It was a period of peace and intense cultural activity culminating in the arrival of Gentile da Fabriano (c.1410), summoned to fresco the chapel of the enlarged Broletto.