The church of San Salvatore is one of the most important surviving examples of Early Medieval religious architecture. The Lombard church of San Salvatore, erected in the mid-8th century AD, is an important example of Early Medieval religious architecture; the original building is easily distinguishable from later additions.
King Desiderius (re Desiderio) founded the monastery, dedicated to San Salvatore, in AD 753 and later had the remains of the martyr Saint Julia (Santa Giulia) brought there. The church-mausoleum was intended as a symbol of the dynastic power of the monarchy and the Lombard dukes.
The Lombard church is divided into nave and side aisles by two lines of columns; some of these are reused Roman items, as are several lavishly decorated capitals. The nave and side aisles are abundantly frescoed with episodes from the life of Christ and the Christian martyrs whose relics were kept in the crypt. Beneath the panels on the wall there was an inscription commemorating the founder, King Desiderius.
Fine stucco decorations on the arches link the architecture with the painted decorations. Stucco decorations is embellished with glass inserts. Basket capital of Byzantine origin reused in the northern aisle of the church.
Recent restoration work inside the building has brought to light part of the original walls, the remains of an underlying Roman domus (1st – 4th centuries AD), several early Lombard constructions (568-650) and the foundations of an earlier church, now only partially visible.
The bell-tower was built in about 1300 and in the 14th century the chapels on the north side were added. The facade was demolished in 1466 to make way for the construction, at a higher level, of the Nuns’ Choir (now annexed to the church of Santa Giulia), the ground floor of which functions as an entrance hall to San Salvatore. The capitals on two lines of heterogeneous columns (some re-used from Roman buildings) are interesting: two are in the style of Ravenna (6th century). The Carolingian (9th century) stuccos survive as fragments and patches of preparatory drawings.
On the eastern wall and in a chapel there are frescos by Paolo da Caylina the Younger, and at the base of the bell-tower, frescos by Romanino portraying the life of Sant’Obizio (c. 1525). On the right side wall, under an arch, there is a frescoed niche under which excavation has revealed the presence of a tomb, held to be that of Queen Ansa, set into the wall. The crypt, probably built in 762-763, was enlarged in the 12th century. Inside there are fragments of slabs bearing finely sculpted peacocks, in which Byzantine elegance and a certain late-antique naturalism are combined with Lombard cultural themes and usage.
Slab with peacock
Among the rich sculptural furnishings of the basilica of San Salvatore, symbol of a taste and an artistic skill that in the Lombard age had reached unexpected heights, two trapeze-shaped slabs in proconnesium marble, depicting two peacocks, stand out for refinement and precision. While one plate has come down to us intact, the other only has a few fragments.
The aristocratic peacocks, delicate and supple, seem to advance in the composition in a forest of vine leaves and branches with bunches of grapes arranged in spirals, and contained by a sumptuous band with intertwined ribbons, which runs along the lower side. The ornamental and geometric motifs cover the entire surface creating a dense decorative texture, almost like lace, according to a recurring artistic language in the artifacts of the eighth and ninth centuries. The particularity of the composition lies in the refinement of the overall effect, which makes it one of the most important examples of bas-relief sculpture, in which the influence of motifs inspired by Byzantine art and late-antique naturalism blend with the themes dominant in medieval figurative culture.
The work is rich in symbolic values, according to an iconography recurring in the early Middle Ages and of paleochristian origin, which attributes to the peacock the allegorical meaning of the resurrection and immortality of the soul. The vines that surround them are traditionally traced back to the symbol of the Passion of Christ. Probably the two slabs had to compose parts of an ambo, placed inside the church, which lent itself for the reading of sacred texts and the recitation of the homilies. The artifacts were believed to adorn the sides of two stairways leading to the pulpit.
This slab, together with a mirror-image reflection of it, decorated the wall of a pulpit; the peacock, portrayed in great detail, was a symbol of immortality.
The furnishing of the church founded by King Desiderius is carved in Greek marble; it was probably the top of an altar. The decoration included a series of rare mould-made terracottas decorated with bunches of grapes and vine leaves.
Santa Giulia museum
The Museum of Santa Giulia is the main museum in Brescia, located in via dei Musei 81 / b, along the ancient decumanus of the Roman Brixia. It is housed inside the monastery of Santa Giulia, built by King Desiderio in the Lombard era and variously enlarged and modified in more than a thousand years of history. The City Museum, unique in its design and location – a monastic complex of Lombard foundation – and with display areas covering 14,000 m², offers a journey through Brescia’s history, art and spirituality from prehistoric times to the present day.
The Benedictine convent of San Salvatore – Santa Giulia was founded in 753 by the last Lombard king, Desiderius, and his wife Ansa and occupied a role of great religious, political and economic importance, which continued after the Lombards’ defeat by Charlemagne. According to tradition, the dramatic story of Ermengarda, daughter of Desiderius and rejected bride of the Frankish emperor, was played out here; it was recounted by Manzoni in Adelchi.
The area below the Museum is rich in archaeological finds from various eras, mostly belonging to the Roman era and well preserved, in particular the Domus of Ortaglia. The museum includes all the structures of the ancient monastery, including the church of Santa Maria in Solario, the choir of the nuns and the church of Santa Giulia. The site is composed of parts from many different epochs: a stratification of memories and a continual source of unexpected discoveries. The complex was built on the ruins of impressive Roman town houses and includes the Lombard church of San Salvatore and its crypt, the Romanesque Santa Maria in Solario, the Nuns’ Choir, the sixteenth-century church of Santa Giulia and the monastery cloisters. It is the perfect location for the City Museum and the natural focal point for a visit to Brescia.
The Museum’s special distinguishing feature is the close relationship between the historic buildings and the objects on display, which number about 11,000 and include Celtic helmets and horse harness ornaments, Roman portraits and bronze sculptures, Lombard items, grave goods, frescos, an applied art collection and artefacts dating from the medieval period to the 18th century AD. The Winged Victory, the city’s symbol, is a large bronze statue from the Capitolium. Recent studies have shed new light on the sculpture’s history and the life of ancient Brixia.
Thousands of objects and works of art from the Bronze Age to the nineteenth century are preserved in the museum, mainly from the city context and the province of Brescia, which make it a real city museum, whose in-depth themes mainly concern the history of the city of Brescia and its territory. The numerous works of art include the Winged Victory, the Desiderio Cross, the Lipsanoteca and the “Collectibles and Applied Arts” sector, where all the private collections donated to the museum between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are kept.