Santa Grata Inter Vites – Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata - Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata – Macabre Paintings

Leaving through the Porta di San Alessandro in the north-western section of the walls of Città Alta, and walking just a little beyond the bottom funicular station that takes you up to San Vigilio (the highest point to look down on Bergamo) you’ll arrive, on the right going downhill, at the narrow street of Via Borgo Canale. A couple of hundred metres down this road, on the left hand side, is the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, home to the macabre paintings by the local painter Paulo Vincenzo Bonomini (1757-1839). 

Along with the Romanesque church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, the Santa Grata is one of the places that I think is a must on any visited to the Città Alta of Bergamo. Not that there’s not a lot of interest around the Piazza Duomo but these two churches offer the opportunity to see something unusual and on a scale that’s a little more human. Cathedrals were constructed to make the individual feel small, the Romanesque frescoes and the macabre paintings in these locations were designed to make the individual think of his/her place in the world.

Macabre paintings date back to the 14th century but few examples from that time have survived. There’s speculation as to why this form of depiction of ‘life’ was chosen in the first place. Some argue that it was in response to the Black Death that wiped out anything from a third to a half of the population of Europe in the thirteen hundreds. Others argue it was to depict the constant struggle that humans have with Death, even though in that battle there will only be, and can only be, one winner.

Whatever the original reason for their becoming widespread during the medieval period Bonomini chose this style when he was commissioned to create a series of paintings in his local parish church in 1800. The fact that Europe was then embroiled in the biggest and most widespread war up to that time, with country after country falling to the Empire of the Corsican upstart and usurper of the gains of the French Revolution, might well have influenced his theme.

Bonomini couldn’t have been more of a local choice of artist for the commission. He was born in the same street at No 10 and was baptised in Santa Grata church on Christmas Day 1757 (Gaetano Donizetti, of bel canto opera fame, and the cellist Alfredo Piatti were also both born in Via Borgo Canale and baptised in this church).

There are six paintings in total, located behind the altar, and can be seen by the congregation between the pillars and the silverware.

One depicts a country couple, the man sitting down, with agricultural produce in their hands or on the ground, perhaps on their way to market.

Santa Grata - Rustic Couple

Santa Grata – Rustic Couple

Another is of a better dressed bourgeois couple simply out for a stroll. This follows the idea from many pre-Renaissance frescoes that Death had no respect for class.

Santa Grata - Bourgeois Couple

Santa Grata – Bourgeois Couple

One is of a drummer dressed in the uniform of the National Guard and another of a carpenter, walking to a job with the tools of his trade.

Santa Grata - Drummer

Santa Grata – Drummer

Santa Grata - Carpenter

Santa Grata – Carpenter

Of the last two one depicts a couple of priests (they were more than likely destined for Hell after their death) and what is considered a ‘self-portrait’ of Bonomini, an artist standing at an easel painting Death, with his wife on one side and an assistant on the other.

Santa Grata - Priests

Santa Grata – Priests

Santa Grata - Artist

Santa Grata – Artist

I like these paintings because they are different and not something I seen many times although there is a small collection, with the same idea of embracing everyone regardless of class or status, in the Adriano Bernareggi Diosesan Museum of Sacred Art.

These are, for me, the main reason for visiting this church but there are a few other points of interest. There’s what looks like a recently re-discovered fresco of a breast-feeding Madonna to the right of the altar.

On my last visit I was also directed to what I assume is the sacristy (the room where the priest prepares for the mass). This has a painted, mock wood ceiling and around the top of the walls are representations of the Virtues as well as one of Death castigating some poor individual. I’ve not been able to find out anything more of these paintings, i.e., by whom or when they were created. Next door was what can be only described as a store-room of church paraphernalia – statues of the Madonna, angels, crucifixes and other material that would be used on feast days or other special occasions.

Outside, to the left of the main entrance, fixed to the wall of the church is a war memorial. Originally placed there to commemorate the fallen in the First World War two additional plaques were added after 1945. What is interesting about these plaques is that the majority of those who didn’t return to the parish were killed or went missing on the Eastern Front, at the hands of the Soviet Red Army.

Location: in Via Borgo Canale, opposite the steps of San Gottardo.

Access: I was told, by one of the women who was preparing the flowers for a special service that coming weekend, that the church is open to visitors every Sunday from 08.30 to midday. The Tourist Information Office told me something else (which wasn’t even close to reality) and a local shop keeper gave another suggestion which didn’t seem to fit the facts either. However, if you’re not around on a Sunday see if anyone is moving around in the courtyard to the left of the church – there’s a very substantial iron grill at the street side. Begging might get you entrance. To the best of my knowledge they don’t charge. A book has recently been produced (€10) which provides more information about the church and its decoration (which I didn’t buy).

San Michele al Pozzo Bianco – Bergamo

San Michele al Pozzo Bianco

San Michele al Pozzo Bianco

The small church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, on Via Porta Dipinta, just about 200 metres down the hill from the Piazza Mercato della Scarpe (where the top station of the funicular is located) in Città Alta, Bergamo, without a shadow of a doubt houses the finest collection of en situ Romanesque religious paintings in the city. Covering the period from the early 12th to the late 16th centuries its possible, in this one small building, to get an idea of the evolution not only of the artistic styles but also the way of thinking of the population during that 500 year period. For some reason unknown to me it rarely gets mentioned in any of the tourist material, either on paper or online.

Close to the place where most tourists arrive in Città Alta (the cable railway from the lower town) the San Michele suffers from one major disadvantage in attracting visitors – the walk down is not so much of a problem but the walk up is. That means that on all the occasions I’ve been there I have mostly had the place to myself. Contrast this to the Duomo or the Santa Maria Maggiore where, if you arrive at the wrong time, there may be large group after an even larger group of organised and guided Italian children or pensioners as well as groups brought to Bergamo by the major foreign tour companies who are ‘doing’ the city in a day.

Unfortunately all of them are missing out on a little gem but if you make the effort to go down the hill you’ll be rewarded by a peaceful and quiet art gallery where you can take your time, quietly taking in the frescoes, in the cool of one of the oldest structures in Città Alta.

The Nave

The Nave

It’s on record that there was a church of some kind on this spot from as early as 774 AD but it has gone through a number of reincarnations to get where it is now. As tastes changed some of the older frescoes were covered by a new layer of plaster and frescoes painted on that. That wouldn’t be such a problem if it was just a matter of covering the old so that they could make way for the new. However, in order to prevent the new layer of plaster just slipping down to the floor the workmen had to key the new plaster to the wall, this meant having to basically destroy (or at least mutilate) the older frescoes and that’s way when restoration work uncovers the past they are very often either deeply scratched or pitted where the hammer has made an anchor point for the new layer.

So there’s an element of evolution of styles and the way of telling the Bible story. Personally I have come to like the older, more naïve frescoes. They are primitive, lack perspective very often but tell a better story. In the San Michele church some of the oldest to be seen are on the back wall of the nave where you’ll find depictions of the serpent tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit and the Damned chained together being taken by the Devil’s servants to spend eternity paying for their sins on Earth. One of their number includes a Bishop, with his mitre, thus showing that at the time of the final judgement even the church hierarchy will not be immune.

The road to Hell

The road to Hell

At a time when the church was all-powerful and dominated the lives of the ordinary people I like the way that the local artists were allowed to make such statements in the very places that the priests would have been preaching. The fact that few of them changed their ways even with these images directly in front of them everyday just goes to show their hypocrisy in peddling the myths upon the vast majority of the population.

It’s this literal interpretation of the Bible story that I find quite charming, made by artists who probably DID believe in what they were being told for a congregation that DID fear what would befall them after death.

Frescoes from different centuries

Frescoes from different centuries

In places, in both the nave and in the crypt downstairs, the restoration process has taken the plaster back to the original but also decisions have been made to preserve some of the later works if they had been considered worthy of preservation. Where the different periods meet can be seen directly in front of you when reaching the bottom steps into the crypt, the remains of the 13th century pictures being seen next to those from the 15th. To the right of that alcove an earlier marble pillar, from the original structure has also been uncovered.

Saint with spectacles

Saint with spectacles

In the crypt, in a fresco that dates from around the 15th century, is something I’ve never seen before and that’s a Saint wearing spectacles. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t, I just find it quaint.

It would take too long in mentioning all the different frescoes around the walls (examples can be seen in the slide show below) suffice it to say that in its heyday this small church must have been very colourful indeed, especially when the paintings were new and before time had faded them.

However, there a some aspects of the decoration that merit special mention.

The chapel to the left of the altar was painted by Lorenzo Lotto in 1525, the final year of his more than 10 year stay in Bergamo. The main theme is the ‘life’ of the Virgin, from her birth, through her presentation at the Temple to her marriage to Joseph. These frescoes are more naturalistic than many of those which exist in the nave and the crypt and are a product of the Renaissance. Lotto was a contemporary of Titian but Giorgio Vasari (who is remembered today principally for his book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) didn’t think that the two were on a par and devoted little time to Lotto in his book on art history. An article I read about Lotto suggested that this might have been that Lotto wasn’t any good at painting nudes, either male or female, an interesting take on how an artist attains fame.

Birth of the Virgin, Lorenzo Lotto

Birth of the Virgin, Lorenzo Lotto

Whatever Vasari might have thought Bergamo proclaims Lotto, not only for his work in San Michele but also for the altarpiece from the Church of the Santo Spiritu (just along from the Teatro Donizetti in the new town). At the moment there’s a gaping hole on the right hand side of the nave as the painting (the Pala di Santo Spiritu) has just completed a long and expensive renovation. It went on public show in the locale of one of the banks that had funded the restoration on the very afternoon that I left Bergamo so I wasn’t able to see it. I assume, however, that in the not too distant future it will return to its original home.

The central chapel was painted by Giovani Battista Guarinoni d’Averara in 1577. There’s a lot going on here and some of it is difficult to see as the huge altar gates prevent close inspection. What I like about Guarinoni d’Averara’s work is that it seems to be at that point of transition between the Romanesque and the Renaissance, even though he’s working quite late.

Expulsion of Rebel Angels from Heaven

Expulsion of Rebel Angels from Heaven

To illustrate my point have a look at the lion in the top left hand corner, the symbol of Saint Mark, which has an almost human face. On the right hand side of the altar the depiction of the Archangel Michael chasing the Devil and, on the left, God’s good angels chasing Lucifer’s rebel angels out of Heaven all have reminders of the primitive and literal images that are in other parts of the building.

In the centre of the altar sits the small painting of the Madonna and Child (La Madonna del Buon Consiglio). On the 26th April each year this painting is mounted on a silver frame and paraded around the parish by the Pozzo Bianco Fraternity.

Madonna del Buon Consiglio

Madonna del Buon Consiglio

This is a small church but full of things to see and well worth the effort it might take to visit.


In the porch, right next to the doorway into the church itself, there’s a slot machine where, for different amounts of cents, you can light up parts or even the whole of the nave and crypt. If you arrive on a reasonably bright day there’s enough ambient light from the windows to see the majority of the frescoes (although the central altar will still be dim) but without the aid of the paid for light you’ll get little appreciation of the paintings in the crypt.


Via Porta Dipinta, 35/37, Città Alta, Bergamo

Opening Times:

Daily: 09.30 – 12.00 and 15.00 – 18.00

Entrance: Free

Partisan Monument – Giacomo Manzù

Monument to the Partisan - Bergamo

Monument to the Partisan – Bergamo

In the Piazza Matteotti, just a few metres from the Porta Nuova in Bergamo’s New Town you come across the very moving and poignant Partisan Monument by the local, Bergamo born, sculptor Giacomo Manzù (the pseudonym of Giacomo Manzoni (22nd December 1908 – 17th January 1991).

It depicts a nearly naked, young anti-Fascist Partisan fighter hanging upside-down, having been tortured to death by the Italian Fascists or the German Nazis. Alongside him stands a young woman – presumably his girlfriend/bride – looking sadly at the broken body but unable to do anything to help him. The work of art was presented to the city by the sculptor and unveiled on 25th April 1977

On the reverse of the obelisk from which he is hanging is a short poem, by Manzù, a translation of which says:


I saw you hanging.


Only your hair moving

gently on your forehead.

It was the evening breeze

that subtly crept,

in silence,

and stroked you

as I wanted to do.

Monument to the Partisan - Bergamo

Monument to the Partisan – Bergamo

Manzù was one of those hybrids which you find in Catholic countries, a believing Roman Catholic as well as calling himself a Communist. It’s been difficult, in the short time available, to find out a great deal of his life but whatever he may have called himself politically he was able to survive, even thrive, during the period of Mussolini’s dictatorship.

He was appointed to the chair of sculpture in the prestigious Accademia de Brera in Milan, a position he held until 1954. During the war he concentrated on religious sculptures, drawing the parallel between the suffering of Christ on the Cross with those who were suffering during the Second World War and but even this attracted the ire of some of the Fascists in 1942.

He survived this, possibly due to his relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome – many of his works were commissioned by the Vatican – and also his close personal friendship with Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who was later to become Pope John XXIII (who was also born close to the city of Bergamo).

After the war he continued to produce works for religious buildings, the most important of which were the doors for Saint Peter’s in Rome and Salzburg Cathedral.

And the religious influence that coloured all of his work can be seen in this representation of the young partisan – who could well have been an atheist Communist. He’s hanging upside-down but this is to all intents and purposes a crucifixion scene with the young woman standing in for one of the two Marys.

Monument to the Partisan - Bergamo

Monument to the Partisan – Bergamo

Fêted by the Vatican Manzù was also hailed in the Revisionist Soviet Union, being awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1965.

This is a very moving monument commemorating those who fought against Fascism and won’t be visited by many tourists even though it’s in the centre of the new town and not that far from the Teatro Donizetti. Anyone close to the important transport intersection of the Porta Nuova and with a few minutes to spare could do much worse than visit this quite unique modern sculpture.

Being a local boy there’s a small collection of some of Manzù’s smaller sculptures in the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea.