At the foot of Cidneo hill lies the former monastery of S. Chiara Vecchia, which today hosts the Faculty of Economics and Commerce of Università degli Studi in Brescia.
The first reliable information on the existence of a monastery in this area dates back to the first half of the 13th century. The date of August 1st, 1232 appears on the act through which the Archbishop of Brescia Cavalcano de Salis extended to the nuns of the Order of S. Damiano residing in the convent of S. Maria near Petriolo a privilege given by Pope Alexander III to Agnola. The privilege consisted in the exoneration from the Episcopal jurisdiction of “ecclesiam et locum S. Mariae sitam in civitate Brixiae apud portam Pedrioli”, except for the consecration of the church and the altars, the blessing of the Prioress and the nuns, and the use of the Sacraments whenever it was requested by the nuns. This privilege was confirmed in a few lines also in another document registered shortly after, dated November 29th, 1255: it stated that Pope Alexander IV, by accepting under his protection the community of nuns, ordered that in such community they could perpetually practice the monastic order according to the rule of Saint Benedict and to the norms of San Damian already prescribed to them by his predecessor Pope Gregory. From the document it is clear that the nuns owned the area on which the community thrived, but also all the properties acquired or inherited from religious or common people in the future. It is not clear when exactly the Benedictine rule was abandoned in favour of the Franciscan one but, from some selling acts, it seems probable that this happened in the last quarter of the 13th century. No trace remained of the buildings that constituted this first settlement because as time passed they have been transformed and enlarged. Among these changes, the first is linked to a tragic accident that marked Brescia in 1508, when the tower called Mirabella del Castello, used as gunpowder deposit, exploded because of a thunder that hit it. This fact caused numerous damages to the surrounding area, and particularly to the S. Chiara monastery.
The city supported the nuns economically and allowed them to rebuild the monastery. S. Carlo Borromeo, on his pastoral visit to the church in 1580, described it as "sufficiently large and decorous, covered with vaults”. The main altar was consecrated but not enclosed with gates; there were two side altars, also not enclosed. Few years later, at the beginning of the 17th century, the priest Bernardino Faino thus describes the building: "non molto grande ma pulito con trei Altari; il primo Altare che il maggiore vi è una pala compartitavi diversi quadretti a olio di mano di latanzio gambara nobile etgraziosi le altre doi pale laterali sono di luca Mombello” (Not very large but clean, with three altars. On the first altar - the main one - there is an altarpiece divided in several small pictures painted with oil by the noble Latanzio Gambara; the lovely two side pieces are by Luca Mombello). From these few notes it is clear that the decorative apparatus of the holy building revolved around the altarpieces decorated by famous and valued painters from Brescia, and new and important embellishments were to be made only a century later. A plan of the building dated 1633 and preserved in the State Archive of Venice is the first document able to describe the planimetry of the monastery of S. Chiara. There are two churches, one outside and another inside for secluded nuns since 1255. The outside church is very simple in structure and presents the three altars described in the Borromeo’s visit of 1580. The entrance is on the same wall of the façade overlooking the street, there are two windows facing north, whereas the two windows of the inside church open on the opposite southern side facing a courtyard built in the 16th century. The archival documents point to a series of works carried out at the monastery between 1668 and 1672, thanks to a series of generous funds bequeathed to them. There is no evidence on where the nuns concentrated their efforts in this period of renovations, but the analysis of the architectural styles reveals that it was probably the second courtyard that was being renovated, the one where the main entrance is located today. At the beginning of the following century an important text by Francesco Paglia, Il Giardino della Pittura, a book written partly in verse and partly in prose, describes the works present on Brescia's territory and adds new descriptive details to S. Chiara church. The polyptych on the main altar painted by Lattanzio Gambara depicting the Assumption of Mary was still there. This masterpiece though, as indicated by Paglia, was to be substituted some time later because of its poor conditions. The new painting represented the Immaculate Conception with the Saints Clare, Francis, Bonaventure, and Polissena by Francesco Paglia himself. It is known that there were still the two small altarpieces on the side altars painted by Luca Mombello, presenting – on the southern side – the Nativity with Mary and the Saints Joseph, Anne, Catherine, and Magdalene. On the opposite northern altar there is the Infant Jesus on the clouds holding a cross in his left hand, in the right he holds the Tables of the Law. Beneath him there are Saint Jerome, John the Baptist, Hyacinth and Peter the Martyr. The church went through more restructuring works at the end of 1730s: more precisely, Francesco Maccarinelli in his guide Le Glorie di Brescia written between 1747-51, and another guide titled Le Pitture e Sculture di Brescia Esposte al Pubblico written in 1760, provide information on the decorations inside the church that we can still see today. In 1739 Giovan Antonio Gagini, a painter of obscure origins, but certainly not from Brescia, painted the segmental barrel vault with frescoes portraying the Glory of S. Clare and S. Francis. Giovanni Zanardi from Bologna painted “Le pareti e le architetture negli specchi del parapetto dell’orchestra” (the walls and architectural apparatus on the parapet of the orchestra). On the cornices where the geometrical intersection of the vault creates a splayed shape there are 14 figures: two on the sides of the triumphal arch (probably Faith and Justice), two on the sides of the counterfaçade (angels playing music) and five on each side of the nave, and a central allegory that captures the glance of the surrounding angels. Also the façade overlooking the street was involved in the renovating works of the church, as witnessed by the elegant marble portal on which stands the window framed in an elaborated decorative cornice in relief. On the main altar there is the altarpiece painted by Francesco Paglia, whereas the sculptor Antonio Calligari created some marble angels surrounding it. The paintings on the side altars had been attributed first to Luca Montebello, then to Floriano Ferramola, later to Francesco Richino, all from the same school. The last majestic embellishment in the church dates to 1756: it is the scenographic marble staircase created on the sloping hill beneath it, and that culminates in the niche with the statue of S. Clare. The historical phase with the suppression of monastic orders that started with Marie Thérèse and ended with Napoleon Bonaparte, also involved the monastery of S. Chiara which in 1804 became property of the state, deprived of its riches and transformed into a barrack for soldiers. The altarpiece of the main altar was auctioned in Milan and bought by a private citizen; in 1817 the whole convent was rented – on a public auction – to Giuseppe Baldoni, a priest from Brescia, who used it for his prestigious school for boys. When the renting contract expired, since it lasted nine years, the convent was put on sale and Baldoni had the right of first refusal over other prospective acquirers. He took advantage of his right but in 1830, due to a financial crisis, the Baldoni school for boys was sold to another institute in Brescia, the Peroni college, with the clause that the building had to be used for education purposes. The sale offered a chance to evaluate the building and produce a blueprint, still a very important document to carry out a comparison of the state of the convent after the suppression with the original plan. The structure of the inside and outside churches is still recognizable, though the altars have been eliminated and a wall had been built just before the counterfaçade. Here a compass, probably a wooden one, was placed at the entrance and determined a new entry path that is not towards the nave but enters in the adjoining room facing southward. The outside church cannot be accessed from the street any more: it must have been used for religious purposes at the service of the college, thus it is accessible only through the inside church that is linked to the large cloister.
The building and the church remained as described until 1887 when, following the school reform and a reorganization of institutes, the college had to be closed and the building was bought by Brescia Municipality. While the monastery was used to host different schools before becoming an university at the beginning of the 1990s, the church had been left in a state of abandon for several years. At the beginning of the 1970s the former church of S. Chiara was transformed in a theatre and managed by Compagnia della Loggetta, which later became C.T.B. (Centro Teatrale Bresciano) founded in 1974 and still active. Between 1970 and 1990 there had been several restoring works on painted walls, such as the plaster decorations with their first coat of mortar, the covering metallic pigment, and the filling of some missing parts in the frescoed walls based on leveled fine mortar and pictorial retouching shades.
The walls are covered with cheap colours that concealed some solid lime coating whereas in the apse, covered with removable paint, remains only the image of the Virgin in the lunette above the altar, the last evidence of the 18th century decorative style. The Santa Chiara theatre inauguration took place in the summer of 1963 with the play I giganti della montagna by Luigi Pirandello, under the direction of Mina Mezzadri. Since then the theatre has been an important reference point for the city. It hosted numerous shows produced by CTB and directed by important figures such as Mina Mezzadri, Massimo Castri, Nanni Garella, Federico Tiezzi, Sandro Sequi, and Cesare Lievi.
SANTA CHIARA THEATRE
Contrada Santa Chiara, 50