Museum of Santa Giulia, Brescia, Italy

The Museum of Santa Giulia (Italian: Museo di Santa Giulia) is the main museum of Brescia, located in via dei Musei 81/ b, along the ancient Roman decumano of the Roman Brixia. It is composed in its interior by the monastery of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia, built by the King of the Longobards Desiderio; In its more than one thousand years of history it has been expanded and modified on different occasions.

The San Salvatore-Santa Giulia Monastery in Brescia was founded in the mid-8th century AD by Desiderius, last king of the Lombards, and his wife Ansa. A Benedictine convent, it welcomed the widows, sisters and daughters of high-ranking figures, and accumulated valuable endowments. Over the centuries the monastery was embellished with new buildings, frescoes, reliefs and furnishings, some of which were lost after Napoleon’s suppression of monastic orders at the end of the 18th century.

The area below the Museum is rich in archaeological finds from various periods, most of which belong to the Roman period and are well preserved, in particular the Domus dell’Ortaglia. All the structures of the ancient monastery are part of the museum, including the church of Santa Maria in Solario, the choir of the nuns and the church of Santa Giulia.

In the museum are preserved thousands of objects and works of art ranging from the Bronze Age to the nineteenth century coming mainly from the city context and the province of Brescia, which make it a real city museum, whose topics of study focus mainly on the history of the city of Brescia and its territory. Among the numerous works of art we mention especially the Vittoria Alata, the Croce di Desiderio, 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.

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 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.

Virgin, saint, martyr. Its name is found in all martyrologists, including the oldest ones. In the Geronimian Martyrology we read: “In Corsica insula passio Sanctae Juliae”. This is probably news from a 5th century martyrology at least. The passio of the saint came to us in various reviews written aces later than the events narrated.

According to the oldest reviews (about the seventh century) – probably the work of monks from the Gorgona and Capraia islands – Carthaginian Giulia was sold as a slave, following the capture of her city by the barbarians. During the journey to Gaul, the ship of its master Eusebio ran aground on Capo Còrso, the promontory of Corsica. Here, while Eusebio participated in a pagan sacrifice, Giulia was taken from the ship, tortured and crucified in hatred of her Christian faith. By heavenly warning, his body was stolen by the monks and buried, with all honors, on the Gorgona island.

A later review, from Brescia, adds the news about the translation of Giulia’s body from the Gorgona island to the city of Brescia; translation that took place in the year 763, by the Brescia-born Desiderio, king of the Lombards and his wife Ansa, probably to increase the Benedictine monastery they had just founded (754-760).

It is certain that the events of Giulia’s martyrdom, probably inspired by a story by Teodoreto di Ciro, give rise to all sorts of doubts. Already around the circumstance of the taking of Carthage the historians are divided, proposing two different solutions: one proposing the occupation by the Persians in the year 616, the other instead supporting – and certainly with more valid arguments – the most famous conquest by part of the Vandals in 439. The circumstances of martyrdom in Corsica are also unfounded, taking into account the particular uses of time and place. There is in fact more than one scholar who tends to believe that for Giulia, as for other martyrs of the first persecutions, an exchange has arisen, in popular tradition, between the person and the relics. In this case Giulia, probably African, would have suffered martyrdom in Carthage and only her relics would have arrived in Corsica, after 439, by refugees from the vandal persecution. It would then be the same Giulia whose relics were already venerated in Carthage, together with those of San Florenzio.

What is certain, however, is that Giulia’s relics, already transferred from Corsica to Gorgona, passed to Brescia in 763 and found their first accommodation in the church of San Salvatore, erected – at the Benedictine monastery of the same name – by King Desiderio and Queen Ansa and consecrated by Pope Paul I in that same year.

When, in the late 1500s, the church of Santa Giulia (now a museum) was built next to this church, the relics were placed under the high altar of the new temple (December 17, 1600).

After the Revolution of 1797, the suppression of the monastery of Santa Giulia (title that took over from San Salvatore in the XII century) took place and the relics of the saint were received in the nearby church of San Pietro in Oliveto and, later – after other pilgrimages – in the even closer church of the Body of Christ, annexed to the diocesan seminary.

Hence Giulia’s relics passed recently (1957) in the new seminary in Brescia, entitled to Maria Immacolata, to then be destined for the parish church of the Prealpine Village of Brescia.

The spread of the cult of Giulia is linked above all to the enormous importance enjoyed for several centuries by the aforementioned Brescia monastery, continually enriched with privileges and also possessions throughout Italy. Particular centers of this cult, in addition to the Brescia area, must be considered Corsica and the city of Livorno which recognize Giulia as their patron saint. As for Livorno, we want to connect the first local church to the cult of Giulia, in memory of a stop of the relics during the transfer from Gorgona to Brescia. In Corsica, then, Giulia is particularly honored in Nonza, where a tradition indicates the place of her martyrdom, as a theater of singular wonders.

Since 1998, after architectural restoration, archaeological excavations and refurbishment of the buildings, it has been home to Brescia’s City Museum, which recounts local history from the 3rd millennium BC until the 1700s. The museum itineraries incorporate structural and other remains of the monastic complex, two Roman town houses, a Lombard church, a Romanesque chapel containing the monastery treasure, and a Renaissance choir.

Sections of the museum:

Route 1: The history of the museum:
The route3 is dedicated to the fundamental phases of the religious, architectural and artistic history of the whole. In the environments are exposed materials belonging to different periods, according to a studied route that accompanies the visitor from the founding of the monasteries until its extinction (occurred at the end of the seventeenth century). In the tour you can also visit the main environments of the former monastery, which are the three churches and the choir of the nuns.

The history of the monastery:
The section is developed in three successive rooms of the old monastery and deepens, through objects, sculptures and paintings in the different chronological phases of the complex. The same rooms are relevant by themselves, covered with ribs supported by columns with capitals of large leaves; all done in the style of ‘400.

The church of Santa Maria in Solario:
The tour continues in the two rooms of the church of Santa Maria in Solario, built in the twelfth century using, both inside and outside, numerous Roman tombstones reused. In the lower room, for example, the central pillar that holds the four cross arches is nothing other than a large Roman altar dedicated to the Sun God.

The facade of the medieval church of Santa Maria in Solario faces onto Via Musei. It is Romanesque in style and was built in the mid-12th century as the nuns’ chapel.

The lower room is square in plan, with massive ashlar walls in local limestone which incorporate fragments of Roman inscriptions. The octagonal vaulted upper chamber is girdled by a decorative gallery of small Early Medieval columns and capitals (8th-9th century AD). An atmospheric staircase built inside the wall connects the two floors of the church.

On the ground floor, a large Roman altar is re-used as a central pillar and precious objects dedicated to the cult of sacred relics, the monastery’s treasure, may be seen: the Lipsanoteca, a carved ivory box (4th century AD) and a reliquary cross of gold, pearls and semiprecious stones (10th century AD).

The upper floor, which has a more intimate atmosphere, was used for the most important ceremonies of monastic worship. Under the starry vault, frescoed – like the walls – by Floriano Ferramola between 1513 and 1524, visitors can admire the Cross of King Desiderius, a rare example of metalwork from the early Carolingian era (9th century AD), decorated with a total of 212 gems, cameos and glass paste ornaments, some dating from the Roman and Lombard periods. The upper church is completely covered by an intense cycle of frescoes made by Floriano Ferramola between 1513 and 1524; besides some parts dated in the ‘400 and a great fresco of the’ 600. In the church there are two of the most important works of the museum: The Lipsanoteca and the Cross of Desiderio.

The church of San Salvatore:
In the church of San Salvatore, the ancient nucleus of the monastery preserved almost completely intact until our days, the most important artistic traces of the Lombardy and Brescia domination have been preserved and, indirectly, of its stage in the history of the whole. The church is accessed through the large room with columns that holds the Chorus of the nuns, where they are relevant pieces. The same church houses, on its walls, different works of art; among which we can highlight the strawberries of Romanino and Paolo Caylina the young.

The church of San Salvatore is one of the most important surviving examples of Early Medieval religious architecture. 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.

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.

The Nuns Choir:
The Nuns Choir, built under the facade of the church of San Salvatore in the second half of ‘400 to allow the nuns to hear the mass without seeing the faithful. It was completely covered with frescoes in the first half of the succeeding century by Floriano Ferramola, Paolo Caylina the Younger and other minor artists, probably from the workshop. The atmosphere is dedicated to the funeral monuments of Venetian age, of which excellent examples are collected, the most remarkable being the Martinengo Mausoleum.

A splendid frescoed chamber where the Benedictine nuns of the Santa Giulia convent took part, hidden from view, in religious functions – was opened to the public in 2002 after a lengthy period of restoration and preparatory work, and thus became part of the Santa Giulia Museum. This sumptuous place of worship, with two floors, was built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The east and side walls are richly decorated with frescos by Floriano Ferramola and Paolo da Caylina the Younger.

The iconographic scheme was inspired by the theme of salvation, illustrated by scenes from Jesus’ childhood, the Passion, the Resurrection and other related subjects, separated by devotional images. The sequence of episodes forms a meditative or processional series which has also a didactic purpose, and is enriched by lively and engaging details. The overall effect is harmonious, strikingly coloured and highly evocative. One of the most interesting works on display in this section of the museum is the great Martinengo Mausoleum, a masterpiece of sculpture and one of Lombardy’s finest Renaissance pieces.

The church of Santa Giulia:
Built by Giulio Todeschini between 1593 and 1599, the church of Santa Giulia concludes the succession of religious spaces containing, in a unique structure, the church of San Salvatore and the Chorus of the nuns. The church is on the outside of the exhibition route of the museum as it has become a conference room: therefore it is not impossible to visit. The church, therefore, was completely evicted from works of art and liturgical objects during the ‘800 and does not possess any object of historical or artistic interest beyond mere architecture. The only piece present in the porch of the duomo of Chiari, built in 1513 by Gasparo da Coirano, which was dismantled in 1846 and relocated to the interior part of the church’s façade in 1882.

Domus dell’Ortaglia
The “Market-Garden” Domus formed part of a Roman residential quarter situated on the lower terraces of Cidneo Hill, between the monumental town centre and the eastern city wall.

Reception rooms are arranged around stone-paved atria, together with private and service rooms; mosaics and frescos are modelled on similar decorations in Rome and Pompei, and they back onto flower gardens and vegetable patches towards the town wall. The more important rooms had centrally heated floors and walls. A network of lead pipes, fed by one of the city’s aqueducts, supplied running water to services and fountains; the latter were also installed inside reception rooms, an indication of the householders’ elevated social and cultural level.

These Roman town houses were occupied from the 1st to 4th centuries AD, after which they deteriorated and were eventually abandoned. Under the Lombards, the area became part of the royal court estate and later the Santa Giulia monastery fruit and vegetable garden. Since the walls and floors are well preserved and the area is adjacent to the Santa Giulia Museum, it was decided to design an itinerary which would allow visitors to pass directly from the museum’s archaeological exhibition rooms into the domus interiors, under the cover of a protective structure which guaranteed the correct environment for the preservation of the remains, their optimum visibility and an increased perception of their relation to the ancient city. Externally there is a reconstruction of the Roman houses’ vegetable and flower gardens (hortus and viridarium), together with a collection of funerary monuments and architectural fragments.

Route 2: The city museum:

The Prehistoric and Protohistory:
The section, which takes place in the half-buried plane of the old monastery, illustrates the evolution of human settlements in the territory of Brescia since the third millennium BC. until the Iron Age. Presenting numerous objects discovered in the city and in the province.

This section illustrates the evolution of occupation on yhe site of the city, from the first scattered villages to the foundation of a proto-urban settlement in the Iron Age. The second major theme is that of the occupation of Brescian territory from the Copper Age until the period of Romanization.

The Roman Age:
The section of the museum dedicated to the Roman Age is divided into four sectors: the first dedicated to the Roman witnesses present in the territory; the second to the Roman domus dell’Ortaglia and the analogous pieces recovered in the city; the third to the tombstones and funerary objects and the fourth to the inscriptions. In the latter, in particular, numerous specimens of inscriptions of all kinds are preserved, dating from the first century BC. until the fifth century.

The sequence of exhibits gives a picture of the city from the 1st century BC until the 6th century AD; material from religious and secular public buildings, private houses (domus), cemeteries and the oldest Christian churches is on display.

The Medieval High Age: Longobards and Carolingians:
The testimonies of the domination of the Longobards and the Carolingians, which took place in the city between the 6th and 11th centuries before the first birth of the Municipalities, are on display in the area. The exhibits are mainly warlike (weapons and clothing from tombs) and domestic (jewelry and everyday objects) as well as other objects of artistic and religious value, among which the beautiful Gallo de Ramperto stands out.

The Age of the Municipality and of the ‘Signorie’:
The section, dedicated to the Middle Ages, guards the artistic and cultural testimonies of the history of Brescia from the birth of the Municipality (1038) until the beginning of the domination of the Republic of Venice, passing through the period of the Signories (señorías) and of the government of the Visconti. In the various rooms, the pieces are divided in such a way as to illustrate the social and political organization of the temple city, grouping together the documents of economic, political and ecclesiastical power.

The sequence of exhibits includes architectural pieces, sculptures and frescos made for buildings in the city and surroundings countryside between the late 11th century and first decades of the 15th century.

The Venetian age:
In this section the artistic pieces referring to the last phase of the history of Brescia, which was submitted to the dominion of the Republic of Venice between 1426 and 1797, are exhibited; when the institution was abolished by Napoleon Bonaparte and the citizen government passed to the Republic of Brescia.

The sequence of exhibits gives a picture of the city in the 15th and 16th centuries; materials from public and private buildings, convents and churches is on display.

The section is divided into two parts: the first safeguards the preferably sculptural works coming from the public citizen context, while the second focuses on objects of decoration and private nature, coming from the great noble palaces of the city.

The Santa Giulia Museum has a collection of several of Francesco Filippini’s most important works.

Since 2004, the foundation of Brescia Musei, in collaboration with other public and private companies and foundations, has started a series of exhibitions lasting about 5-6 months, focusing mainly on avant-garde painting of the ‘Nineteenth and twentieth century and other historical themes, including Monet, Giuseppe Amisani, Van Gogh, Matisse, Turner and Inca civilization, all returned to the great project called “Brescia – The splendor of art”.