Discovering Bergamo and its history
During the winter months I was invited by AGRI TRAVEL & SLOW TRAVEL EXPO to attend to a blog tour in the province of Bergamo, to bring to the attention of international tourists a beautiful part of Italy, full of history but still pretty much undiscovered.
The first day we took part to the fair AGRI TRAVEL & SLOW TRAVEL EXPO Fiera dei Territori, on his 4th Edition.
There we had the pleasure of meeting many Italian and international exhibitors, which were participating to promote destinations of nature, art, traditions and good food to those tourists and industry professionals looking for authentic and emotional itineraries, but at the same time maintaining strong links with quality of life, sustainability and the environment.
But let’s start with a quick look at the history of Bergamo – I will dedicate a post to the city soon.
Quick History of Bergamo
The Origins of Bergamo
Bergamo is located in Lombardy, in the northern part of Italy, right at the foot of the Alps region.
Celtic people already inhabited this area of Italy during the V century BC. Around the III century BC, the Gauls conquered this area and it became known as Gallia Cisalpina.
The first historical evidence of population dates back to the year 223 BC, when it is certain that Roman military forces were present in the area.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar granted the status of “Municipium” to the city, hence beginning its process of Romanization.
Bergomum, as Bergamo was called in Latin, has always had several public buildings protected by walls, some of which still exist, and by large medieval fortifications. These fortifications remained relatively intact after the fall of Rome, so that Bergamo was called by historians “operibus munitae”, or “surrounded by walls”.
Bergamo and the Barbarians
Being on the path of most of the invaders, Bergamo was always involved in the whirlwind of the barbarian invasions that shook northern Italy over the centuries, beginning with the Visigoths of Alaric, who in 401 AD arrived in Italy and in 402 AD almost completely destroyed the Roman Bergomum.
When the Gothic advance in Italy was rejected, the city saw the passage of Attila, king of the Huns, who came from France and passed through a town full of ruins and deserted.
In 493 AD, when Odoacre was opposed and defeated by the Ostrogoths led by King Theodoric (454-526 AD), Bergamo passed under the Ostrogoths domain and was remembered among those cities best equipped with military defense works, probably for the walls already arisen in Roman times.
A few years later and for almost two centuries, Bergamo was dominated by the Lombards, warlike peoples of Germanic ancestry, led by Alboino who left a duke to rule the city in 569 AD.
Bergamo as a municipality
Bergamo, as early as 1098, with the end of episcopal authority, was a municipality, which it achieved by changing its political and social organization.
In 1152 the emperor Frederick I, called the Barbarossa, initiated the attempt to re-establish the principle of imperial authority over Italy.
In 1156 Federico Barbarossa granted the city the right to coin money.
The Lordship “Signoria” took over from the City in February 1331, when Bergamo offered to Giovanni of Bohemia (son of Henry VII) his complete subjection, moved by a desire for tranquility and respite and by the will of a government that was subtracted from the uncertainty and the alternation of the parties.
Bergamo: The Visconti Family and Venice
This act coincides with the beginning of the Visconti domain, being Bergamo passed over to the Lordship of Azzone Visconti; the political body of the Municipality of Bergamo thus became the administrative body of a Lord who held the city in his domain.
This marks an important period for Bergamo under the control of the Visconti family, which we will explore better when talking about Brignano, Treviglio e Pagazzano.
A milestone in the history of Bergamo was also its incorporation into the Venetian State in 1428, which lasted for over three and a half centuries. The territory of Bergamo remained under the dominion of the Republic of Venice until its disappearance, in 1797.
The city then became part of the kingdom of Lombardy and Veneto and was finally annexed in 1859 to the Kingdom of Sardinia and Savoy, which later became the Kingdom of Italy.
So you can see: a very troubled history, which is totally reflected in all its territory, full of forts, walls and palaces.
We started the tour by visiting the small town of Brignano, in particular the Palazzo Visconti of Brignano.
Brignano Gera d’Adda
Brignano Gera d’Adda (Brignà in the dialect of Bergamo, and simply Brignano until 1863) is an Italian town of about 5,900 inhabitants in the province of Bergamo, in Lombardy.
The origins of the town date back to the I century BC when in the area there were numerous Roman settlements, as evidenced by the numerous archaeological finds of the time.
The history of Brignano is intertwined with that of the Visconti family since 1186, when Federico Barbarossa granted them the territory in fiefdom.
Sagramoro I, the illegitimate son of Bernabò Visconti, was the forefather of the dynastic line of the Visconti di Brignano.
Palazzo Visconti of Brignano
In the inhabited center you can admire the Palazzo Visconti, a tangible sign of the long Visconti dominance within the village.
Palazzo Vecchio, built between the second half of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century is defined as one of the most beautiful examples of Lombard Baroque.
The Visconti of Brignano, family branch of the lineage of the old Milanese family, in order to manifest their power, entrusted the demonstration of their greatness to their residential building, because the social prestige of a noble family passed also through the appearance of their home.
Recently restored, it houses the town hall on the ground floor.
It is hypothesized that the residential building had been built on a pre-existing fortified nucleus, that is the ancient Castle of Brignano, of which some architectural elements remained, but hardly compatible with the subsequent construction.
The building is an architectural complex of severe style, made of grey stone.
From its entrance you reach a portico courtyard, delimited by columns with a square plan, which in turn leads to a court of honor, on which there are windows with linear moldings and a balcony in correspondence of the main floor.
If on the outside the building is essential and sober, on the inside the pictorial decoration is nothing short of spectacular and is linked to an explicit propaganda and celebratory will of the Visconti.
The representative staircase, which acts as an entrance, has walls entirely frescoed with mythological figures and feminine allegories: monochrome figures stand out on the walls next to smashed perspectives, typical of the period.
The decorations are allegorical and moral; the personal qualities of family members emerge.
The figure of Hercules with the pomes of the Hesperidia symbolizes cunning and intelligence.
The main floor offers numerous frescoed rooms, which make it one of the most successful pages of Lombard Baroque.
In the big upstairs rooms we can observe frescoes dedicated to the dynastic splendor, in particular in the so-called throne room, dating from 1675, in which the most illustrious exponents of the Visconti family stand out on high pedestals in the form of painted monochrome statues
The Hall of the Unnamed
The Unnamed, one of the most famous literary character of The Betrothed (Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni, is the name chosen for this room, which originally appeared as a gallery with numerous paintings, sculptures and mirrors.
The name refers to Francesco Bernardino Visconti, descendant of Sagramoro I, son of Barnabò Visconti. Was he really the character whom Alessandro Manzoni was inspired to in the Promessi Sposi?
After a short drive, we stopped in Treviglio, another small town in the Po Valley!
Second municipality of Bergamo for population after the capital, Treviglio is located in the middle of the Po Valley, about 20 kilometers south from Bergamo. Founded by the union of three towns, during the early Middle Ages, for defensive purposes, the town today is a strategic point at the crossroads of roads and railways that connect it with Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Lodi and Milan.
We visited the Bell Tower, which is now a Civic Museum.
Vertical Historical Museum – Torre Campanaria
Probably dating back to the XIII-XIV century, the Church tower of Treviglio was born as a civic tower, with the function of representation and sighting.
The tower, 65 m high, is entirely built in brick and decorated with cross-shaped hanging arches of Gothic style and with bricks positioned at the edge that make the structure elegant and light.
The presence of embrasures loomed inwards attests its original defensive function.
The ground floor was decorated with fourteenth-century frescoes, perhaps from the Giotto school.
In the tower, of municipal property, there was the lodge of the custodian who, appointed according to the rules, established in the municipal statutes of 1392, had the task of keeping the structure in good condition and warns the population in case of danger.
For security reasons he accessed the bell tower from the first level of the tower using retractable ladders that were removed after use.
Vertical Historical Museum of Treviglio
The Vertical Historical Museum of Treviglio is a journey through the history of the city that develops through sections covering the seven levels of the civic tower.
Going up the perimeter stairs, the visitor comes across a succession of multimedia and interactive experiences, which allows to communicate the history of the city and the collective events that have constituted its identity over time.
You can discover about the foundation, the moments of crisis and transformation, the social works and the artistic monuments, which are all relived through sound and immersive environments. The variety of proposals ensures that every break in the climb offers a new and passionate experience.
The museum also enhances the civic and bell tower with installations specially designed to explain its specific functions, like the bell tower and clock as well as its social functions, like the loud verbal communication.
If they tell you that you will have fun like crazy playing the bells of the Torre Civica di Treviglio, trust me, it’s true!
The Castle of Pagazzano
Castello di Pagazzano, a hidden wonder for a trip out of town in Lombardy.
The Visconti Castle of Pagazzano, in the homonymous locality, is a true gem hidden in the Bergamo plain, on the border between the provinces of Bergamo, Milan and Cremona.
La Bassa Bergamasca is littered with fortresses and palaces ready to tell and recount a very important part of Northern Italy’s history.
The Castle of Pagazzano, dating back to the fourteenth century, is located between the green fields of the Bergamo plain, in the territories that were under the dominion of the Visconti.
Among the best-preserved castles in the whole of Lombardy, The Castle of Pagazzano rises outside the homonymous village, along the road to Treviglio, among the cultivated fields of the low Bergamo plain.
The castle was founded as a fortification to defend itself from dominance struggles over the territory, first between the municipalities of Bergamo and Cremona, then between the duchy of Milan and the Venetian Republic, so much that, in the thirteenth century, a moat was dug, called “fosso bergamasco”, just to define its boundaries, reinforced by sighting towers.
This is the only example of a moat existing in the entire province of Bergamo. Along the walls stands the lookout tower from which the bell rang, so people could take refuge inside the walls in case of danger.
The castle is square and surrounded by a curtain of walls with two towers at the corners of the north side, where the ancient holes for arches and other weapons, used in the Middle Ages at the time of the construction of the castle, are still visible.
It is believed that in the keep there is a passage that led to a place of great secrecy that served as a prison. In 1272 the castle belonged to the Torriani family, later it passed into the hands of the Visconti family who apparently connected it to the castle of Brignano through a secret underground passage.
The Visconti in Pagazzano
Bernabò Visconti carried on the massacre of the Guelphs in Bergamo right from the castle of Pagazzano. It was the scene of several battles between 1431 and 1437 during the war between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice;
But the first time we hear about the Castle of Pagazzano is in 1186, when Barbarossa gave it to the Visconti Family.
Later the previous castle was abandoned and rebuilt again a short distance away, in the first free area outside the town.
The current building dates back to the early 14th century and was built in place of a former fortress that stood next to a church, as in the early Middle Ages it was customary to erect fortifications alongside sacred buildings.
At that time the Lords of the area were the Visconti: it was this family who built the new castle under the regency of Giovanni, whose death took place in 1354, when Bernabò took over.
Tradition also wants that in the rooms of the building at that time had also lodged the poet Francesco Petrarca in 1359.
For three hundred years the castle remained the property of the Visconti family. In 1657 it passed to the Bigli family and in 1828 to the Crivelli family, who owned it until 1968. After a succession of other owners, in 1999 the Municipality of Pagazzano acquired the castle.
The exterior of the castle of Pagazzano has retained its original defensive character, while over the centuries the interior has undergone various changes that have increasingly adapted it to a function of stately home.
The rooms are embellished by the “Museum of Peasant Civilization”, which contains objects and ancient work tools, coming from private citizens and, in part, found inside the Castle. The collection, today, is made up of over 2000 exhibits that testify to an agricultural economy linked to the territory.
The Multimedia Museum of the lowland castles also includes a particular projection that represents a very interesting and imaginary dialogue between Bernabò Visconti, lord of Milan and Bartolomeo Colleoni, a very important leader of the city of Bergamo.
Where to eat when staying near Bergamo
Convento dei Neveri
Would you love to dine in a museum, or in the church of a monastery, or in the cloister of the same? This is the incredible experience, which will welcome you, when booking a meal at Convento dei Neveri. Elegance and gourmet cuisine in an astonishing location, “Il Convento dei Neveri” is a must try!
Along the road that connects Bariano with Romano, just before the river Serio, stands the structure of the former convent of the Carmelite Friars, recognizable by the drum and the bell tower of the adjoining church, dating back to 1480. The restoration of the complex, begun 12 years ago and is still ongoing. It has allowed the discovery of a Roman settlement of the first century and important medieval finds.
The site’s history is complex, structured on various levels corresponding to different historical periods.
The superficial layer: convent of the Carmelite Friars erected in 1480 and decommissioned in 1770. Auctioned, the place was acquired by a dozen peasant families who turned it into a rural farmhouse to go to live there. About a century later (in 1860), to expand the production space, they demolished the main church of the convent, called S. Maria dei Neveri.
Twelve years ago the last owners, thinking of going there to live, began its restoration. With general surprise, in the course of the work, remains of a complex of considerable proportions and of much older origins began to emerge.
The layer immediately below the surface.
The first area of findings concerns the area of the demolished church. The excavations have made it possible to ascertain that it was built on the layout of a Roman villa dating back to the first century, whose foundations and perimeter walls are clearly recognizable in good condition. The discovery is of considerable interest because with their 13 meters of height and 28 of overall development the walls are the highest in northern Italy referable to a private building. Usually the original masonry structures of buildings of this type do not exceed (or slightly exceed) one meter in height.
The restaurant “Il Convento dei Neveri” is on the second floor of the structure and is divided into several rooms. Thanks to the variety of spaces, used as a restaurant, it turns out to be a unique environment. Suggestive is the Hall of Allegories, which seats up to 60 people, finely furnished with a large wall left intact that brings us allegorically to the past. On the walls hang paintings of successive eras but of great artistic value. The white armchairs are enhanced in their shape by the wooden floor on which they are placed.
Beautiful is the Sala dell’Abside, long and narrow but furnished with armchairs and tables, used for relaxation and conversation and can accommodate up to 25 guests if necessary. The lighting is particularly designed to make the atmosphere quiet and peaceful, suitable for those who want to talk quietly and discreetly as befits a place like the Convent of the Neveri.
The Cloister, with a capacity of 240 people, surrounded by a beautiful portico and vital fulcrum of the ancient life of the monks, hosts, on request, large tables for dinners and banquets. Upstairs, an elegant restaurant inside the ten cells with a capacity of 2 to 8 seats, where once the friars were sleeping, and which have now been transformed into small privée rooms, designed to offer the opportunity to have lunch and dinner even in perfect intimacy, tasting the best and varied cuisine that does not fail to look at the territory. The cells have a sober and essential style and are surrounded by an aura of spirituality that gives guests a contemplative predisposition to food.
If this was not enough, the Convent of the Neveri has also opened “Il Braciere del Convento” (80 seats), a place that is part of this majestic structure and is inspired by traditional taverns. With 25 euros for dinner and the incredible sum of 10 euros for lunch, you can eat the best Italian grilled meat and reserve “The Table of Friendship” for 20 places to stay with friends.
A special thank you to the organisers and my fellow bloggers, who made this quick but fun packed blog tour very interesting and enjoyable!
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