The Baptistery in Piazza Duomo, Città Alta, Bergamo must be the most peripatetic Baptistery in the world. It might not have travelled far but it moved often. Starting out inside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore it was moved to two other places in the vicinity of the Piazza Duomo before ending up in its present location at the end of the 19th century.
It was designed in the 14th century by Giovanni da Campione. He was also commissioned to build the porch over the two, north and south, entrances to the Basilica as well as the ‘side’ entrance tucked away in a corner to the left of the red lions holding up the north porch.
I found it difficult to find out very much about Campione as the majority of work attributed to him seems to be connected to the already mentioned structures in Bergamo. It seems that all his efforts there took place in the period, roughly, between 1420 and the late 1460s. Where he came from, when he was born, where he went afterwards and when he died is still a mystery to me.
The Basilica lost its status as the baptismal church once the Cathedral was completed and that prompted the first move, out into the cold of the courtyard where it remained for a couple of hundred years before making its next couple of journeys.
It’s difficult to see the thinking of Campione in designing such a large structure to place inside the even larger Santa Maria Maggiore as it must have looked out-of-place from the start. Not only did he design the octagonal building, the statues on the outside (representing the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity; the Four Cardinal Virtues, Temperance, Justice, Prudence and Fortitude; with the addition of Patience to make the eight to fill the available niches) he created the marble bas-reliefs and statues inside as well as the font.
Considering its age and the number of times it has been moved it’s in a remarkably good condition, as can be witnessed by the intricate carved marble on the entrance arch.
The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta – Door Arch
Normally the building is not accessible unless being used for actual baptisms – when the private nature of the function means that visiting is not really on the cards. However, in my visit to Bergamo in May 2014 there seemed to be crowds of either Italian school children or pensioners going inside on private, guided visits almost every time I passed by.
During the first I came across, a school visit by primary children, I was able to get inside and have a look, quickly taking some pictures before the guide had the chance to break off from her talk to the children and throw me out. Unfortunately unless you are bare-faced and opportunistic there seems to be little opportunity to get a close-up look at Campione’s craftsmanship.
The colours inside, not unsurprisingly, mirror those on the outside. As well as a statue of John the Baptist, standing facing the font and the entrance under a bas-relief of The Crucifixion, there are seven other bas-reliefs in marble depicting the normal story of Christ from pre-conception to death.
The Baptistery, Piazza Duomo, Città Alta – Interior
The Piazza Duomo has grand buildings on all sides and the Baptistery is very much the smallest but it seems to fit into its present location and now looks as if it belongs where it took more than 500 years to arrive.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.