The Eccentric, Unusual and Bizarre in Bergamo

Capital - Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo

Capital – Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo

When people arrive in a tourist destination they often have a list of those highlights they wish to tick off – the ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt’ sort of idea. Whilst, in general, there’s nothing wrong with that approach it tends to mean that tourists race around (or are taken around) the major sites and in the process miss out on what makes the place ‘human’, somewhere people have lived for generations. Here I hope to give an introduction to the eccentric, unusual and bizarre in Bergamo.

There’s a widespread misconception that cities and towns in the medieval period were drab places to live and that everything was without colour. We know from paintings of the era that the rich and powerful lived a sumptuous life, in both their clothing and the way they decorated their palaces, but it’s becoming more widely accepted that the lives of the workers and peasants weren’t totally devoid of the occasional splash of colour.

Yes their homes were hovels and their clothes were rough and (hopefully) functional without a great deal of adornment. This mirrored their lives which was generally ‘nasty, brutish and short’. However, in public places they too could appreciate an escape from the drabness of their existence.

Those who visit Bergamo and enter some of the many churches can understand the colourful experience that ‘going to church’ offered even the most meek in society. This exposure to art and culture didn’t start with the Renaissance but goes back at least 1300 years as the walls of the Romanesque gem in Bergamo, the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, testifies. These frescoes date back to the year 700, more or less, and were being updated for the next 700.

But how many of those who make the effort to down the hill from the funicular station look up to the left of the entrance to make out the faded frescoes on the outside of the building. The entrance has undergone many changes and it’s certain that some of the frescoes have been lost forever. The ones that still exist are gradually fading and becoming very indistinct but they do provide a clue to how the town would have looked in its medieval heyday.

Although many are suffering the ravages of time and lack of maintenance there are still exterior frescoes in a number of locations in the Città Alta, all you have to do is look up. Leaving Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe and going along Via Gombito towards the Piazza Vecchia, high up on the right are scenes depicting the buildings and canals of Venice, demonstrating the connection between the two cities. There are also remains of such wall paintings in the Piazza Mascheroni and the Piazza Cittadella.

Also worth looking for are the tromp d’oeil (those paintings that give an illusion of reality). In Bergamo these are often false windows or pilasters, architectural devices that make the building grander than it really is, as well as being a bit of a joke. Many hundreds of thousands of people walking through the streets of Città Alta have seen them but how many knew what they were seeing? Remember it’s the illusion of reality and by concentrating you are able to break down that illusion and determine what is, and what is not, real. There’s also a fine interior example of a false window above the main door of the Cathedral.

Cathedral Trompe d'oeil

Cathedral Trompe d’oeil

As you’re walking around notice that the general façades of the buildings are much more colourful than they are in the likes of the UK. There’s no excuse to say that Italy is a Mediterranean country as Bergamo is in the foothills of the Orobie Alps. We are now starting to realise that in Britain even the Cathedrals were multi-coloured on the outside more than 500 years ago – we just seem to have lost that desire for colour in our everyday life.

As you walk around look out for the clocks – both mechanical and non-mechanical. In the small square of Piazza Angelini you have a fine example of a sun-dial on the side of a building stretching to four or five stories high, this is known as the Greek Clock. Another sun-dial can be found in the Piazzetta Duomo. The ‘mechanism’ is on the ground under the Palazzo della Ragione, white stone amongst the grey. But it’s all dependent on the light coming through a hole in a metal plate with a ‘sun face’ which is attached to the top of the arch above. You get a good view of this plate from the steps of the Cathedral/Duomo.

Clocks which are easier to read are also to be found in a number of places. The most obvious is that which on the tower of the Campanella, the gateway between the Piazzas Mascheroni and Cittadella. Another, this quite ‘hidden’ is one that’s in the inner courtyard in front of the entrance to the Museo Donezettiano in Via Arena.

Going on to faces of a different kind there’s an interesting carving on a keystone over an arch of Casa Lunga, which is just up hill from the Gombito Tower (where you find the Tourist Information Office) and close to one of the public wash-houses. This carving is from the 11th century and represents San Vincenzo (Saint Vincent).

Another charming, and I’m sure often missed, ancient carving of a face can be found on the outside of the central apse of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (that’s the other side of the main altar). This is said to be the image of designer (why not architect, I don’t know) and Master Builder Fredo, who began the building in 1132.

Master Builder Fredo

Master Builder Fredo

A couple of other faces, this time of animals, are also found close by on the walls of the Santa Maria Maggiore and these are of the Lion (the symbol of Saint Mark – and again another reference to Venice where he is the Patron Saint) and the Bull (the symbol of Saint Luke). I looked for, but didn’t find, the symbols of the other two evangelists, Matthew (an angel) and John (an eagle) but couldn’t find them. It’s possible that they were on that part of the wall that was destroyed when the local gangster caused the Colleoni Chapel to be built in place of the Sacristy in the 15th century.

What I did find, in this same part of the building, was the plaque that tells you that Bergamo’s Città Alta is 369.38 metres above sea level at high tide on the Adriatic. This is a little faded and why it was of any great interest when it was placed there I don’t know how many years ago is a little bit of a mystery to me. From my time travelling around Spain I know that such plaques exist in at least one location in virtually any place of any size but haven’t come across quite the same situation in Italy.

I’ve been in hundreds of churches of all shapes and sizes in the past and after a very short while the Crucifixion and the Nativity start to become much of a muchness. To keep the interest going I always search for something different. In Bergamo the gem of the unusual (and the bizarre) are the macabre paintings behind the altar of the Santa Grata Inter Vites. However, other churches offer up items of interest.

In the Santa Maria Maggiore you can find (to the right as you enter the building from the South Portal) a painting of the Last Supper. What I like about this one is the young serving boy who is looking over Judas’s shoulder at the bag containing the 30 pieces of silver. Also in this basilica is the modern statue of a very gaunt, kneeling Christ.

In the church of Santa Agata del Carmine it’s worth looking for the skull relics, in a chapel on the left hand side as you walk towards the altar, as well as a painting on the ceiling of a young Christ carrying a large piece of wood into his father’s carpentry workshop, presaging his walk to Golgotha. The Crucifix is literally hanging from the pillars and to the right of the altar is a painting of Santa Apollonia having her tongue pulled out as part of her martyrdom.

I always look out for Last Supper paintings to find out what was on the table, this was after seeing an impossibly huge guinea pig presented for the meal in the Cathedral in Cuzco. If what’s up for grabs isn’t different the depiction often is and I like the pig that’s on the table in a fresco in the Aula Picta (attached to the western side of the Santa Maria Maggiore) which has its four legs just sticking up in the air – painted at a time when perspective had yet to be re-learnt. Also on the walls here is a somewhat aggressive looking Christ with a sword in his teeth – a little unusual.

I could go on in much more detail but I’ll just list a few other things to look for: the carvings at the top of the old capitals throughout the town; the face corbels holding up the roof over the steps leading up to the entrance of the Palazzo della Ragione; the modern painting on the side of a house in Via Tassis: a studded door in the same street; the pump to get water for the fish market from the ancient cistern of the 14th century Fontanone Fretto; plaques of the original basilica (San Alessandro) that was outside the city walls, at the top of what is now Via Borgo Canale; as well as ornate door knockers and pillars on the doors of the houses of the rich and niches with Madonnas and street corner shrines. That doesn’t cover it all and I’m sure there’s much I’ve missed or yet to find.

Once you’ve done the main attractions just take some time to walk slowly around the town, eyes directed a little upwards and you’ll be rewarded with a better understanding of the history of the place through noticing the eccentric, unusual and bizarre in Bergamo.

Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

Colleoni Chapel, Città Alta, Bergamo

The Colleoni Chapel is the Renaissance structure built beside (in fact having taken some of the space of) the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazzetta del Duomo in Città Alta in Bergamo. It seemed that the condottiere (mercenary, feudal gangster) Bartolomeo Colleoni made the local confraternity, the Consiglio della Misericordia, an offer they couldn’t refuse when he was looking for a place to build his own mausoleum. With his military power came – not unsurprisingly – an arrogance that he could do what he wanted with impunity but it’s not reported whether the members of the Consiglio found horses heads in their beds. The sacristy for the Santa Maria Maggiore had to go and Colleoni gave them a sop by agreeing to build a new one at some time in the future. He conveniently died before he could carry out this promise. As is normally the case in these situations it was the State – in this case Venice – that ended up footing the bill. His megalomania knew little bounds as it is reported that he even wanted the demolition of the Palazzo della Ragione as it partly obscured the chapel from the Piazaa Vecchia. So I’m not really a fan of the condottiere as he just used fear to get what he wanted. Neither do I agree that the chapel named after him really fits into its location next to the Basilica. Only about 125 years separates the chapel from the north entrance to Santa Maria but that was a period of change in architecture styles which moved from the Romanesque to the Renaissance. The chapel contains his tomb and that of one of his daughters who died at the very young age of 15. I’m sure I read somewhere, but can’t find it now, that one of the glories of the chapel was that it was constructed in such a grand manner to demonstrate his love for the girl. The fact that she died before the chapel was even started and her tomb remained in the family home of Malpaga until it was moved to Bergamo in 1842 is conveniently forgotten. There’s also a little stall selling books and postcards which also means you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the building. The interior decoration is over the top – as you would expect for a building catering to the desires of someone who had almost unlimited power, getting close to death and wanting to buy his way into Heaven and with little taste, the motto being ‘more is best’ – but it’s the outside of the building that I find more interesting. That’s mainly due to the myth that Colleoni created around himself. All around the façade of the chapel, and on the iron fence and gates that are locked when the chapel itself is closed, are images of the gangster’s crest/shield. This is a relatively simple affair. On the top third are three partial rows of fleur-de-lis and below, taking up the rest of the space are three kidney shapes – these are, in fact, supposed to be testicles. A sword for hire, which he sold to the highest bidder and changing sides multiple times, he is said never to have been treacherous. This I consider a bit strange, presumably he told one paymaster he was going to leave and fight for the other side before actually doing so – so a truly honourable man! But being a fighter he wanted to be able to say that he literally had more ‘balls’ than his opponents, hence the three testicles. ( For those with an interest in such matters this condition – when it actually exists – is called polyorchidism.) Doing a little bit of research it seems that three actual and real testicles in one scrotum is extremely rare and it’s doubtful if Colleoni had anything other than a wayward wad of fat which allowed him to boast that he was different, i.e., stronger, from mere mortal men. For the tourist this vanity gives, literally, a hands on opportunity when visiting the Colleoni Chapel.

Colleoni Crest

Colleoni Crest

On the middle, towards the top, of the left hand gate there’s an image of the Colleoni crest. What you are ‘supposed’ to do is rub this for luck. You can’t miss it, so many people over the years have done so that they have effectively polished that small part of the gate. (Others seem to have done the same to the crest held by an angel that sits on top of the fence.) I leave it to you to decide whether this tradition is really for luck or just an excuse for people to caress some testicles. Although from my experience most people just pass through the gates and go into the chapel. Yes, there’s lots to see but it’s also worthwhile having a look at the bas-reliefs on both sides of the entrance, at shoulder level. These depict episodes from the life of Heracles from whom, surprise, surprise, Colleoni considered himself (metaphorically) descended. Also there are ten episodes from the Bible, including The Creation of Eve, The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise.

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

These are all the work of the sculptor Giovanni Antonio Amadeo (who also designed the Colleoni Chapel). Unfortunately they have been damaged over the years (I don’t know when or why) and a number of limbs are missing (as is the blade of Archangel Michael’s sword) but you can still work out what they depict – if you have a reasonable amount of knowledge of the Bible or Greek mythology. Location: Piazzetta del Duomo, Città Alta, Bergamo Opening Hours: 09.30 – 12.30 and 14.00 – 18.30 every day Entrance: Free

Il Circolino Ristorante – Cooperativa di Città Alta

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

Cooperativa Citta Alta sign in Via Colleoni

I was glad I persisted in my search for a reasonably priced ristorante in Bergamo’s Città Alta, and not restricted my search to the new town, otherwise I would have missed out on Il Circolino. This is the restaurant within the building run by the Cooperativa di Città Alta, to be found in the dead-end alley off Via Colleoni (opposite No 22) with the Cooperative’s sign on the corner.

It wasn’t till I was back home and did a bit more research that I realised I’d missed a few things during my lunch time visit – that’s the problem when you put together a programme, some things might just be missed out due to ignorance or time constraints.

The Cooperative was started back in 1981 to counter a trend which local people could see developing with increased tourism. Some might profit from the hoards of people with money to burn, and the general price inflation that normally accompanies such, but what about the local people who had lived there before tourism was so important and weren’t on the receiving end of this new income?

Although invited to sit outside (it was quite a pleasant day on my visit) I chose to eat inside, not least because you get a better idea of how the place is run when able to see the staff dealing with the customers.

I decided on this place based upon the menu posted in the information case situated to the left of the main entrance. This had the options for the day including a ‘il menu prezzo fisso’ of €14. For this you were able to choose one starter and one main from the 3 options that were highlighted in each category. On top of that you had bread and water, a drink (wine or beer) and a coffee to finish.

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

Il Circolino Restuarant Entrance

For the pasta course I chose the Casoncelli della Bergamasca (meat filled ravioli, garnished with bits of bacon and drizzled with butter). These were both tasty and filling and it was good to be able to try one of the local specialties.

I don’t drink water but asked for a glass of red wine. This was a very good wine which came in a large glass but (unfortunately) not filled to the brim, in fact the brim was a long way from the surface of the wine. This is one of the problems of the Città Alta, all the booze suffers from a massive mark up, even in a place that was established to counter this hyper inflation. Fortunately it was a good local wine, rich and with plenty of taste, so perhaps what I lost in quantity I made up for in quality – perhaps too much of a pleb to be a wine connoisseur.

For the main course I chose the salmon – I know I had that a couple of days before in the Autogrill but didn’t want more meat and had limited choice. But I was glad that I did go for the fish. There were two reasonably sized salmon steaks, which had been grilled and then served with a sauce of capers, cherry tomatoes and black olives then the whole lot sprinkled with ground cinnamon. This was a combination of flavours I hadn’t come across before and the contrast between the sweet and the sour really worked. This time there was no vegetable accompaniment. Both the dishes arrived hot so not a put off for some British travellers.

And that was adequate for what I wanted. Not too much but at the same time I wasn’t left wanting for more. At the price I think I would have been in that situation if I’d gone into the other places off the Vias Gombito or Colleoni. Some places offer a ‘reduced’ menu but that seemed to mean pared down to the bone and they didn’t appeal to me at all.

The coffee was the spoonful of caffeine in a tiny cup that’s the standard in Italian cafés. I’m not really a coffee drinker so didn’t bother to see if the coffee came in another format.

I had arrived just after 12.30 thinking that things might get a bit busy after 13.00 but that wasn’t the case. From what I could make out I was the only non-Italian eating in the large dinning room. A couple of tables had small groups of building workers and one table had a group of 8 or so, apart from that there were only a handful of singletons. As the arms of the clock approached 14.00 the waiters started to clear the tables of the glasses and the packets which contained the cutlery and serviette so I got the impression that the lunch time was really only from about 12.00 to 14.00.

Considering the location (just off the main street of the Città Alta) I thought this ristorante good value for money and I can’t say anything but good about the quality of what I was served. This is place I would return to on any future visit and have no qualms in recommending it to others.

I learnt more of the history of the location after having been there so at the time I didn’t realise at what I was looking. The building had started life as a monastery, then was converted into a prison from the time of the French Napoleonic invasion and maintained that role until relatively recently. If I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have rushed away and would have explored the garden and looked for the frescoes from the time it was a religious building. If you think of going to Il Circolino Ristorante it would be well worth checking out the website of the Cooperativa di Città Alta. In that way you might get a bit more out of the visit than I did.

Location:

Il Circolino Ristorante

Cooperativa di Città Alta

SocietàCooperativaSociale a r.l.

Vicolo Sant’Agata, 19

24129 Bergamo

Tel. 035 218568 or 035 210545