Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo

Young Donizetti

Young Donizetti

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Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo

Fans of opera, and especially that form known as bel canto (of which both Rossini and Bellini were also well-known exponents), will be able to follow a route following the life, literally from the cradle to the grave and a few stages in between, of Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti in Bergamo.

Donizetti was born in a house outside the city walls in Via Borgo Canale. To get there go through the Porta di San Alessandro, pass below the San Vigilio funicular station and the street is the third on your right – going downhill.

There’s not really a great deal from Donizetti’s time (although the house has been declared part of the National Heritage) but there is information about Donizetti’s life and the theatre in the newer part of town. However, it is an opportunity to get an idea of the type of housing of the relatively well off at the end of the 18th century.

From here head down hill to the Church of Santa Grata Inter Vites. This was where Donizetti was baptised on 3rd December 1797. The plaque is inside the small door to the left of the main double door entrance on Borgo Canale. If you can get this far don’t miss the opportunity to see the macabre paintings by Vincenzo Bonomini (who was also born in the street and baptised in the same church – but 40 years before) which are behind the main altar.

Head back into the walled city to Via Arenal – which is south-west of the principal religious and administrative buildings in the vicinity of Piazzas Vecchia and Duomo. (In fact Via Arenal and Via Borgo Canale were an extension of each other before the building of the large Seminario Vescovile.) At number 19 is the Donizetti Museum. This is a smallish museum on the first floor, up a wide staircase, and houses a number of paintings of Donizetti, examples of his manuscripts, the pianos he used, a small room with musical instruments from the period he was writing and – his death-bed. Looking at it you could imagine that Donizetti was quite happy to die in order not to have to lie on it anymore.

Donizetti's Death Bed

Donizetti’s Death Bed

Continue down Via Arenal and go into the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore by way of the southern entrance. A few steps into the building and then to the left, against the rear wall, is Donizetti’s tomb. However, this was not the first resting place for his bones.

In 1845 he was diagnosed as suffering from cerebro-spinal syphilis which appeared to be eating away at him physically and mentally. This meant that different groups of doctors, depending upon who was paying them, came to different conclusions about what sort of treatment he should undergo and where. Having doctors fight over your fate is just about as bad as having lawyers do so and Donizetti seemed to be the only real loser.

He returned to Bergamo in October 1847 but although greeted by the city’s dignitaries and wealthy (in one of whose houses he was offered a home) he eventually died on 8th April 1848. He was originally buried in the local cemetery of Valtesse (to the north of the Città Alta) but a few years later, in 1855, he was transferred to the Basilica where a large monument awaited his remains.

This is the work of Vincenzo Vela – whose other work includes the monument to the 199 workers killed in the construction of the Gotthard Rail Tunnel between Switzerland and Italy.

This is quite a charming monument. At the top Harmony sits in mourning, a lyre in her right hand as she looks down on a picture of Donizetti – presumably she wasn’t aware of his syphilis (or does it even matter?). On the front of the plinth on which she sits there are distraught putti, the seven musical notes, breaking their lyres in their distress.

You have to head down to Città Bassa for the other two references to Donizetti. And they are both next to each other.

The Teatro Donizetti is not far away from the Porta Nova, the principal crossroads in the new part of Bergamo, along the primarily pedestrianised Via Sentierone. This provides a full programme of performances, especially between October and June. As well as a varied programme of opera there is also the Gaetano Donizetti Bergamo Music festival each year between September and December, where many of Donzetti’s works are featured as well as others from the bel canto tradition.

The theatre dates from the end of the 19th century but has undergone many changes, extensions and renovations in subsequent years without, as far as I can see, fundamentally changing the character of opera houses of the period.

Teatro Donizetti Interior

Teatro Donizetti Interior

Apart from buying a ticket for a performance there are no organised ways to visit the theatre just to have a look around. If you travel with a group it’s worth phoning to see if you can organise a group visit. Otherwise I suggest you just try what I did on my last visit. I went to the ticket office to ask a general question about visits to the theatre. The young woman got on the phone and said that someone would be down in a few minutes.

This was a pleasant surprise but soon realised that someone was taking their time off from their normal work to just let me into the place to have a look at the auditorium. But that was much more than I was expecting. Whilst only there for a matter of minutes and not getting a lot of information about the building it did satisfy my curiosity and I was able to get one or two pictures of the interior, without crowds of people who are the problem on performance days. Just try your luck – you’ve nothing to lose.

In the square opposite the entrance to the ticket office is the final bit of the Donizetti trail in Bergamo.

This is the Donizetti Monument in Piazza Cavour, the work of the Calabrian sculptor Francesco Jerace, erected on this spot in 1897 – at the same time as the opening of the theatre in the year of the 100th anniversary of Donizetti’s birth.

A strange story surrounds this monument. The sculptor, Jarace, had previously offered this design to the town of Catania in Sicily as a monument to their home-grown bel canto composer, Vincenzo Bellini, a more or less contemporary of Donizetti. Catania said no but Bergamo said yes (after a three-horse competition which Jarace won). This seems like a return to the days of the Roman Empire when the torso of the person remained the same but the head was different and could be removed to save on the expense of creating a completely new statue. Does that, do you think, mean that Donizetti’s head is removable?

Practical Information:

Casa Natale Donizetti (Birthplace)

Via Borgo Canale 14

Città Alta

Tel: 39 035 52 96 711 (Saturday and Sunday) 39 035 24 44 83 (Monday to Friday)

Opening Times: Saturday and Sunday, 10.00-13.00 and 15.00-18.00

Admission: Free

Church of Santa Grata Inter Vites:

Via Borgo Canale (opposite the steps of San Gottardo)

Città Alta

Opening times: Sundays from 08.30-12.00

Admission: Free

Donizetti Museum

Via Arena 19

Città Alta

Tel: 39 035 24 71 16

Opening times:

October to May

Tuesday to Friday 09.30-13.00

Saturday and Public Holidays 09.30-13.00 and 14.30-18.00

June to September

Tuesday to Sunday 09.30-13.00 and 14.30-18.00

Admission: €3 – free with the Bergamo Card

Teatro Donozetti

Piazza Cavour/Via Sentierone

Città Bassa

Tel: 39 035 41 60 614/622

Opening Times:

No set times for visits to the theatre. However, if you are in a group it might be worth phoning in advance to see what is available. There will probably be a charge.

Donizetti Tomb

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore

Piazza Duomo

Opening times:

November to March, weekdays 09.00-12.30 and 14.30-17.00, Sundays and public holidays 09.00-12.45 and 15.00-18.00

April to October 09.00-12.30 and 14.30-18.00

Admission: Free

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Santa Grata Inter Vites – Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata - Macabre Paintings

Santa Grata – Macabre Paintings

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Santa Grata Inter Vites – 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).

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

The Bergamo Skyline

The Bergamo Skyline

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Three days in Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

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.

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