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

Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

The Bergamo Skyline

The Bergamo Skyline

Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy. What to do? Where to go? What do you need to know? How much will it cost? From the links below you will be able to find the information, practical hints, tips, suggestions of visits and food, etc., to make a full three day visit to the northern Italian city, in the foothills of the Orobie Alps and about 45 kilometres to east of Milan, an enjoyable experience .

Most of the principal tourist historical, cultural and artistic attractions are to be found in the Città Alta (the High City, also known as the Old Town – although there is evidence of ancient settlements where contemporary development is taking place)) the walled mediaeval city built on the top of one hills that commanded the trade routes in times past. The old city got its Venetian Walls during the 16th century and they dominate any aspect from afar. As the politics of the country changed (especially after Italian Unification – Risorgimento – of the 1860s) more expansion took place below the hill and this is where you’ll find locations dominated by 19th century architecture, including some of the most important art galleries such as the Accademia Carrara, the Museo Diosesano Adriano Bernareggi and the Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Bergamo (GAMeC). Also in this area you’ll be able to see the Monument to the Partisan, by Giacomo Manzù, and the Teatro Donizetti, the local opera house.

In Città Alta you’ll find: the Duomo (Cathedral); the Colleoni Chapel – the mausoleum of the mercenary Bartolomeo Colleoni; the Campanone (The Big Bell) and The Gombito, two towers dating back to mediaeval times; the Contarini Fountain; the Baptistery, dating back to the 14th century – but not in the same place; the library; locations connected to the life of Gaetano Donizetti (the bel canto opera composer); the Palazzo della Regione; a number of interesting churches, including the Romanesque San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, with its frescoes, the church of Santa Grata Inter Vites, with its macabre paintings behind the main altar, the tiny church of Santa Croce and the huge Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore – which challenges the Cathedral in its decoration and splendour; as well as a number of comic, interesting, sometimes bizarre and unusual examples of ‘street art’ – long before Banksie people were painting the outsides of buildings just for the sake of it and as a relief to the mundanity of their lives.

The old city is tiny and the only way to see it, and that’s because there’s no alternative transport to take you through the narrow streets and alleyways, is on foot. However, it’s not a logistical problem to get around the more dispersed attractions of the new town and guidance will be provided about how to do that in the most convenient and cheapest way possible. This will include the quaint funicular railway which takes some of the pain out of climbing the steep hills and allows you to get to the highest point in the old city at the Castello di San Vigillio.

Eateries exist in the Città Alta but they are almost exclusively directed towards the tourist trade and may not, for that reason, most may not be particularly good value for money. However, I went to one restaurant in the new town and one in the old town. One day I choose snack food and a picnic at San Vigilio.

Accommodation reports will be limited to one. I am staying at the Nuovo Ostello della Gioventu di Bergamo, part of Hostelling International to which the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) of the UK is affiliated. Although on the outskirts of the new town there’s a couple of very convenient bus routes (the 6 and the 3) that can get you to both the old and the new town without a lot of pain, the No 3 to the Citta Alta having its terminus at the bus stop immediately outside the hostel. If you don’t mind sharing dormitory accommodation for a few nights it provides all you really need, a clean, comfortable and convenient place to lay your head.

Bergamo easily has enough to keep someone with wide and catholic tastes busy for a full three days. More than that you might find yourself retracing your steps a bit too often. However, generally it’s a pleasant location and it’s not too bad a choice as a base to explore some of the surrounding historic towns such as Brescia or Carravaggio or even for a swift day trip to Milan.