The castle of Brescia is a medieval fortress perched on Cidneo, near the historic city of Brescia. The castle stands on Cidneo Hill, which constitutes an important park area within the city. It is one of the most interesting fortified complexes in Italy, in which signs of the various periods of domination are still evident.
The central keep, the impressive battlemented walls and the tower were built by the Visconti, whereas the massive ramparts and monumental entrance with drawbridge bear witness to the power of the Venetian Republic, which sustained the city for more than four centuries.
Once focus of Brescia’s famous “Dieci Giornate” rebellion, the castle has now abandoned all belligerence and instead offers visitors the opportunity to stroll on its rolling slopes. The hilltop can be reached from the centre of the old city centre, Piazzetta Tito Speri, by means of Contrada Sant’Urbano. The castle is full of unexpected paths and hidden rooms and provides a marvellous panorama of the entire city centre, nearby hills and valleys.
The encircling towers and the “Strada del soccorso”, an escape route of Viscontean age, have participated in the numerous sieges which the city has known. Following the paths, you can also discover the castle’s balanced eclecticism; one of the city’s oldest and most prized vineyards, on a slope of the hill, coexists naturally with Roman remains, such as a group of olive oil tanks, medieval bastions and a 1909 railway locomotive, the “Prigioniera del Falco d’Italia”, for the enjoyment of younger visitors.
The first settlements on the Cidneo date back to the Bronze Age, 9th century BC, but the first real construction was a small temple dedicated to the Celtic god Bergimus. The real reorganization of the hill is attributable to the Romans who at the end of the first century BC inserted the perimeter within the city walls. Also by the Romans, in the first century AD a monumental temple was erected which was to correspond almost perfectly to the size of the keepvisconteo: the ancient retaining walls and the foundations of the staircase within this area can still be seen today. Over the centuries and with the advent of Christianity, the Cidneo area increasingly assumed the role of sacred area: an early Christian martyrium dedicated to Saint Stephen was built, then replaced by a large basilica, demolished in the eighteenth century after the explosion of a powder keg, which had seriously damaged it. Today only one of the two façade towers remains of the basilica, known as the Mirabella tower, probably built in turn on a scalar tower from the Roman era.
During the early Middle Ages, news about the area became increasingly rare, but from the year 1000 onwards it continued to increase, even if there is no exhaustive information regarding the fortifications built. Between 1237 and 1254, the walls were enlarged, which gave Brescia the appearance that would have characterized it until the end of the 19th century. In this period the area was dotted with Roman walls and rich in religious buildings, in addition there were numerous markets and fairs.
During the Visconti domination, massive renovations of the city defenses were carried out: in 1337 there is the birth of the Cittadella Nova, a wall that starting from the castle included the buildings of the ecclesiastical and civil power of the city, that is the area of the Broletto and the Duomi, which at the time were the Old Cathedral and the cathedral of San Pietro de Dom. The only evidence of this extensive renovation work that has come down to the present day is the Mastio, intended to be the residence of the captain of the garrison with rooms decorated with polychrome bands and geometric and floral motifs, only partly preserved.
At the same time, the keep was also surrounded by a defensive system consisting of six towers, covered passageways and perhaps drawbridges. The Soccorso road is traced, then expanded in the sixteenth century, an escape route to the north, often used by opponents in the following centuries (see later).
In 1426 Brescia came under the rule of the Venetian Republic, which was concerned immediately to restructure the city’s defenses hit hard during the war against the Milanese, resulting in 1466 in a complete overhaul of the city walls that were lowered and surrounded with ramparts and moats. The castle was affected only marginally by these modifications and the only works of arrangement concerned the towers which were modified by passing from a square to a circular plan: of these only one tower of the northern perimeter survived. In 1509the French army defeated the Venetian army and took possession of Brescia and its castle.
During the period of dominion beyond the Alps, new works were undertaken to extend and reinforce the walls, which however were never completed; However, the monastery of San Martino paid for it and was demolished to make room for the walls that should have risen in its place. It was precisely in this period that Brescia through its darkest period, a dispute between the French masters and the Venetians who sought to reconquer it. The maritime republic took over the city in 1512, at the price of many deaths and enormous sacrifices, with the climax of the tragedy on February 19, when the sack of the city took place by soldiers of almost every political part, from the French (who used the Soccorso Route to enter the fortress) to the Gascons, from the Germans to the Swiss, even from Cremona and Mantua.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, with the return of the Venetians and the stabilization of the government, further improvements were made to fill the defects that emerged during the war, such as the enlargement of the Strada del Soccorso mentioned above. A new wall was built: the bulwarks of San Pietro, San Marco, San Faustino and della Pusterla were therefore built. The fortress was also equipped with buildings for the storage of provisions, (the Small and the Big Mile), ovens, barracks, religious buildings, cisterns and powder kegs. Due to the shifting of the conflict line with Milan on the Adda and the consequent concentration of the defensive efforts on Bergamo, in this period the strategic function of the castle ends, which history will never want to be involved in any war activity, starting a slow decline of the structure. Subsequently, only the defense system was strengthened with many fire stations, but for a long time the castle did not receive major modernizations.
The 10 days of Brescia
Under the new French dominion the castle did not undergo any improvements and was used as a prison and barracks: the same fate would have happened to him shortly after under Austrian domination. Despite this, Cidneo was still an excellent defense and attack point. In 1849 during the city revolt of the Ten Days of Bresciathe Brescia population rose up against the Austrian garrison following the refusal of payment for the lack of support to the Imperial Royal government during the first war of independence civic guards, gatherings and formations of pro-independence groups led by Zanardelli but no revolt and the removal of the troops from the city took place peacefully, that’s why the Brescians did not intend to pay). Part of the duration of the uprising is due to the fact that the Mazzinian guide did not consider the rumor that the Piedmontese had lost in Novara to push the approximately one thousand active combatant citizens to continue in the resistance.Mantua. After ten days of fighting, the city was reconquered by the Austro-Hungarian troops, thanks to the support brought by General Julius Jacob von Haynau, who entered the fortress using the Via del Soccorso.
In the most delicate passage of the Risorgimento epic, 1848, the people of Brescia organized a clandestine committee headed by Tito Speri and Don Pietro Boifava, curated in Serle. It will be the news of the expected collection, by the Austrians, of a substantial fine, imposed on citizenship for a previous city uprising, to trigger, on March 23, 1849, the collective rebellion against the oppressor.
The spark was also triggered by the conflicting voices that came from the front, in the second phase of the First War of Independence (1848-1849), declared by Carlo Alberto, king of Piedmont and Sardinia, to conquer the Lombard-Veneto region, freeing it from the Austrians. In fact, misleading news of the victory of the Savoy troops arrived, mixed with the real dispatches on the Piedmontese defeat in Novara (23 March 1849), Brescia, insurgent trusting in the Piedmontese aid, chose not to surrender to the Austrians again winners, engaging in resistance for ten, very long days, with the involvement of the people, who fought strenuously house by house and behind the barricades set up in the key points of the city, while the Austrians, perched in the Castle, bombed the urban perimeter.
The entire city became a theater of war: the Torre del Pégol of Palazzo Broletto lent itself, like other buildings, as a lookout from which to set defense strategies and as an operational base for the marksmen chosen, to target the Austrians sheltered on Colle Cidneo. The highest symbols of the municipality were also targeted by Habsburg shells, such as Palazzo Loggia, where the hole caused by an Austrian bullet fired from the Castle still remains at the base of the southern wall of the Vanvitellian Hall. The insurgents, led by Tito Speri, managed to defeat the enemies at Porta Torrelunga and S. Eufemia, while the guerrillas also extended to the Ronchi, and involved S. Barnaba and Contrada Sant’Urbano as a theater of war.
The surrender of the Lioness of Italy took place only at the end of ten days of extreme combat, on April 1, 1849, after the notorious Marshal Haynau, called “la jena” (whose name still remains linked to the building erected at the entrance del Castello), had rushed to support the Austrian garrison led by General Nugent (whose uniform is preserved in the Museum of the Risorgimento). On the night of March 31, in fact, by taking advantage of the Viscontea Strada del Soccorso, a secret and still existing safeguard that connects the top of the Castle to the city, new armed garrisons led by Haynau had managed to reach the Cidneo. The insurrection was extinguished in blood, with a violent repression against civilians, bent on executions that continued over time, until August 12, the date of the amnesty wanted by Radetzky. The insurgents taken prisoner were locked up in the Castle and many of them shot in the ditches and on the terraces and buried on the spot. Overall, 378 civilians died during the Ten Days.
The intolerance towards the Austrian rulers, however, was not dormant, so much so that Tito Speri will animate a new clandestine insurrectional committee, a choice that will cost him his life, ending up hanged in the stands of Belfiore, in Mantua, in 1853. A sort of detailed and ante litteram reportage still remains of the Brescia uprising that has gone down in history, made by the variety of paintings and objects, among which the portraits of Tito Speri and father Maurizio Malvestiti, signed by Angelo Inganni, in addition to those of the many lesser known protagonists of the Days. On the other hand, the four canvases by Faustino Joli offer almost direct evidence of the most salient moments, including that of the Combat at S. Barnaba, together with lithographs and charcoals that narrate scenes of night bombing and shooting of patriots.
The Leonine courage with which Brescia distinguished itself in the Risorgimento era still holds the title of Lioness of Italy, coined by Giosuè Carducci in the Odi barbare, Book V, composition of May 1877, which ends with the famous quatrain
After the Second Italian War of Independence (1859), the Brescia castle returned to being used as a simple military prison. Shortly afterwards the municipality purchased the hill and the restoration work was started, which slowly led to the military distortion of the fortress making it much more similar to the place it is today, that is, a leisure center and public events venue in Brescia. In 1904, on the initiative of Dominatore Mainetti, president of the Brescia Chamber of Commerce, and Federico Bettoni Cazzago, mayor of the city, the Brescia Industrial Exhibition was organized inside, an extremely important economic event, personally inaugurated by King Vittorio Emanuele III. For the occasion, important folklore shows and various sports competitions were organized and some temporary pavilions were built to host the exhibition. The castle was covered with an interesting temporary Art Nouveau cladding, under the direction of the engineer Egidio Dabbeni, and was connected to Corso Zanardelli by an electric tramway.
In August 1909 it was the site of another exhibition, dedicated to electricity, and organized by ASM Brescia which a few weeks earlier had obtained the assignment of the production and distribution of electricity in the city.
After this last exhibition, the castle was recovered as a public area on the initiative of the mayor of the mayor Girolamo Orefici. It became the seat of the Museum of the local Risorgimento, housed in the rooms of the Grande Miglio, and of the Museum of Natural Sciences to which the zoological garden was soon annexed. The area outside the ramparts became an urban park.
Today the castle houses the Risorgimento Museum, the Luigi Marzoli Museum of Arms, containing armor and weapons from the medieval period, the Cidnea Specola and two large model railways.
It is possible to visit the internal and hidden environments of the fortress thanks to visits led by the Brescia speleological association, which for years has conducted explorations of passages and conduits, bringing to light now forgotten paths.
Structure, buildings and monuments
For anyone arriving in Brescia, from any direction, it is the imposing stony mass of the Castle that marks the panoramic profile of the city. The complex of fortifications, occupying an area of about 300×250 meters, is one of the largest in Italy, and completely covers the Cidneo hill. Having never had a specific function as a feudal castle, let alone a noble residence, it is immediately evident that the fortress, well inserted in the city context, is richer in buildings of worship and military character rather than residential and executive structures in the strict sense of the term.
The castle is accessed through an imposing sixteenth-century monumental portal, attributed to Giulio Savorgnan and built on the inspiration of the forms of military architecture by Michele Sanmicheli, adorned with a large Lion of San Marco and the coats of arms of the Venetian rectors. On the sides you can admire the ramparts of San Faustino (left) and San Marco (right). After crossing the entrance, following the path on the right, you reach the bastion of San Pietro, also meeting a sixteenth-century well to which two stone lions by the sculptor Domenico Ghidoni were placed in 1890. Following the path on the left, however, you first notice the bell tower of the ex-sanctuary of Santo Stefano Nuovo, then go along the Haynau building, so called because from here, in 1849, the Habsburg marshal Julius Jacob von Haynau directed the military operations against the Brescia uprising.
On the vast square above the bastion of San Faustino there is a characteristic steam locomotive, one of the symbols of the Castle, which at the beginning of the twentieth centurycarried out the Brescia-Edolo route. On the right, at the long building of the officers, you have the entrance to the Soccorso road. Beyond there are the buildings of the Piccolo Miglio, now an exhibition site, and of the Grande Miglio, where the Risorgimento Museum is housed. Here is also the entrance to the covered passage that leads to the fifteenth-century Coltrina tower.
Climbing the ramp you reach the fourteenth-century wall with an entrance with a double drawbridge: on the right stands the Prisoners’ tower. Proceeding to the left you skirt the keep, inside whose wall you can still see traces of Ghibelline battlements. Finally, you reach the northern gardens, with the top of the Coltrina tower on the left, the Martyrs’ grave in the center (where some Resistance exponents were shot in 1945 ) and, on the right, the French tower. Otherwise, from the fourteenth-century drawbridge you can reach the top of the fortress with the square of the Mirabella Tower, where you also have access to the keep that houses the Luigi Marzoli Museum of Arms. Inside, moreover, the remains of the foundations of the Roman temple are visible.
The keep – one of the oldest portions of the castle, built by the Visconti in the fourteenth century, and an imposing part of Cidneo Hill’s surviving fortifications – houses the “Luigi Marzoli” Arms Museum, which was inaugurated in 1988 and designed by Carlo Scarpa. This is one of the most important European collections of old armour and weaponry. The ancient Brescian tradition of arms production is illustrated by the 580 swords, firearms and suits of armour on display (selected from the 1090 items bequeathed by the industrialist Luigi Marzoli), together with the history of warfare and artistic expression which these armaments (which are largely from 15th to 18th-century Brescia and Milan) also embody.
This main collection has been enlarged by further 300 pieces, 19th-century firearms in particular, from the civic collection. The museum’s ten exhibition rooms of artistic craftsmanship start with a presentation of armaments from the fifteenth century, the time of armoured cavalry, when helmets and body armour were strategically important. The rarest pieces include a large Venetian helmet and under-helmet with visor in the shape of a dog’s muzzle; the thirteenth-century sword is the oldest item on show.
The collection includes numerous sixteenth-century arms, which reflect the changes in modes of attack and development of more dynamic battle tactics in this epoch. Lighter and more comfortable armour was required, such as the superb Maximilian-style suit of armour, almost ostentatious with its shiny, curved surfaces. The museum illustrates the aspects of social display and public honour that weapons and armour began to acquire, in addition to their battleground functions, as objects of prestige and admiration at public parades. The reconstruction in the “Elk Room” of a cavalier’s twin escorts, composed of soldiers on foot and on horseback armed with halberds and maces, adds to the striking general effect. The artisan never loses his sense of artistry, which may at times dominate over technical considerations, such as in the case of the two round parade shields exhibited in the Luxury Armour Room; one is initialled and dated 1563. These are genuine works of art: finely embossed with gilt sections and portraying the Triumph of Bacchus.
The historical voyage of discovery of the arms’ secrets includes the evocative history of the sword, which evolved from being an all-purpose sharp-edged weapon into a fine fencing instrument, a process documented by the mid-sixteenth to eighteenth-century examples displayed, which become increasingly functional and offer progressively more protection to the combatant’s hand. Ample space is given to halberds, muskets, pistols and other guns in the museum section dedicated to the extensive firearm collection, featuring pieces made by the most famous gunsmiths, Cominazzo, Chinelli, Dafino and Acquisti.
The arms on display often show originality in the gunpowder sparking mechanisms or decoration, may be of Brescian or foreign manufacture, and constitute an unusual exhibition of craft engineering through the centuries. Those visitors to the Arms Museum interested in historical art and architecture have the opportunity to appreciate frescos from the Visconti era which decorate the rooms of the keep, the only remaining portion of the fourteenth-century fortifications.
The evocative atmosphere of the museum is further increased by the presence of the remains of an underlying 1st century AD Roman temple; the edges of the foundation and a wide staircase are visible. This is the sole survivor of a group of temples which once stood on Cidneo Hill, an impressive acropolis in the Roman period.
The reorganized Risorgimento Museum was inaugurated in October 2005 in the upper rooms of the Grande Miglio building in the castle, once a large granary for the castle’s Venetian garrison which was built in the late sixteenth century. The display is organized in accordance with up-to-date interpretations of the historical events and features a selection of materials from the various collections in the museum’s possession, including portraits, mementos, historic proclamations and prints documenting the epic deeds and patriotic risings which led to the establishment of national unity. By means of its iconographic collection, the museum illustrates the main historical events, following a micro-historical method in which the objects and the language of every-day events, together with mementos and documents, provide an explanation of important historical events.
Particular attention is dedicated to local historical events which led to the establishment of the 1797 Brescian Republic, the “Dieci Giornate” (Ten Days’) uprising, the important role in the war of independence and important local battles. In the new museum it was decided to use part of the collection to construct an itinerary centred on the theme of the battle of San Martino and Solferino, entitled La grande battaglia, l’immenso ospedale (The Great Battle, the Enormous Hospital).
An itinerary which travels backwards in time through Italian history, stopping in 1859 to recount the events of the Second War of Independence and present its protagonists, from Napoleon III to Cavour, Vittorio Emanuele II and Garibaldi, and brings into sharp focus one of the episodes on which the Risorgimento was founded, the battle of San Martino and Solferino, which involved and profoundly scarred Brescia and the surrounding territory, and led to the defeat of the Austrians by the French and Piedmont armies and the historic transferral of Lombardy to the Kingdom of Sardinia The museum presents a wide range of exhibits: geographical maps indicating troop movements, flags, prints, paintings, sculptures and various other objects, as well as propaganda and documents in memory of the fallen, and illustrations of the sites and physical contexts in which this hard and bloody struggle was played out.
The display also takes another point of view and directs attention to the city of Brescia, which at the same time was transformed into an enormous hospital, and where patriotic fervour was tempered with human charity – instilling in Henry Dunant, an eyewitness of the battle, principles that led him to found the International Red Cross. A special section is devoted to Brescia’s Ten Days’ rebellion in March 1849, a popular uprising which was the idealistic prologue to the movement that inspired the difficult journey towards Italy’s unification, the events of which are narrated elsewhere in the museum.
The exhibition design helps the visitor to identify with the subject matter, thanks to the atmosphere created by the contrasting white walls and flooring of rough black iron slabs, and the striking continuously curving red backdrop against which the events are recounted. The museum’s historical perspective is complemented by the artistic spectacle offered to visitors of paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics and sculptures which bear witness to the vivacity of the figurative arts in the 19th century and present an original panorama of the traditions and lifestyles of the recent past.