Brescia – Roman-Lombard city of arts

Even though Brescia is the second-largest city of Lombardy with its almost 200,000 inhabitants, it likely won’t be your prime holiday destination. There certainly are better known places in this region letting the heart one of the country’s largest industrial regions fall by the wayside. However, that’s more than unfair to Brescia as the capital of the eponymous province can look back on a long and eventful history that yielded astonishing sights and excavation sites. Your wanderings of this insiders’ tip will even introduce you to part of an impressive UNESCO World Heritage piece.

How Brescia became Brescia

City of arts Brescia


Here’s a shocker: we kick things off by looking at the history of this city of arts, and it is quite something. The name Brescia derives from Brixia, the name of this settlement given by the Gallic Cenomani. They surrendered to the Roman Empire in 225 BC who eventually declared the region a civil colony. Various tribes occupied Brescia during the Migration Period before the Lombards eventually ensured quieter times. The city rose to new heights and even yielded two kings before Charlemagne ended the Lombard rule. Over the course of the following centuries the monastery San Salvatore, founded by Queen Ansa, was the city’s centre.

Brescia’s more recent history, however, wasn’t quite as spectacular. A communal revolt resulted in a rather brutal dispute between the citizens and the bishop in 1138. The city would later become very active in the Lombard League. Among the rulers in the following centuries were the Scaliger, the Visconti of Milan, and the Republic of Venice. Brescia even was one of the wealthiest cities of Lombardy during the early 16th century. The Brescia Explosion of 1769 killed thousands of people and devastated the city when the Bastion of San Nazaro storing 90 tons of gunpowder was struck by lightning. Eventually, the city fell under Austrian rule. Not even a revolt could free Brescia, though it remained active during the Risorgimento earning it the nickname “Leonessa d’Italia” (“Italian Lioness”). Italian troops eventually conquered the city and Brescia was included in the newly founded Kingdom of Italy.

Traces of Ancient Rome and the Lombards

The early years of Brescia during Roman and Lombard rule are something that (should) make the second-largest city in Lombardy a must-see destination for people around the world. Two sites have been part of the UNESCO World Heritage “Places of Power of the Lombards in Italy” since 2011:

  • San Salvatore: Queen Ansa, wife of the Lombard king Desiderius, founded the monastery in 753. Her daughter Anselperga later became abbess. The complex, also known as Santa Giulia, is now home of a huge museum with over 11,000 finds and works of arts. You will most certainly be wowed and impressed by the architectural mix of different Roman, pre-Romanesque, Romanesque and Renaissance elements. Don’t forget to take a walk through the old, restored basilica!
  • Capitolium: Furthermore, you will find the best-preserved Roman buildings in all of Northern Italy. Among them is the Capitolium of Brixia, the old main temple. The buried site was rediscovered during excavations in 1823, and fully unearthed and restored over the years. It is now part of a vast archaeological park that includes the ruins of an old theatre and a sanctuary from the 1st century BC.


Cathedral Square and Piazza della Loggia

City of arts Brescia


But that’s enough for the ancient peak of Brescia. We move on to two of the most important squares of the modern city. Cathedral Square is our first stop. It used to be the site of three monumental Romanesque buildings until the summer cathedral was demolished in the 17th century and replaced by the following new building:

  • Duomo Nuovo: The so-called New Cathedral was built over the space of over 200 years. Several young regional architects and artists left their mark on and inside it. Many a fresco is hidden behind the façade made of the bright limestone Botticino.
  • Duomo Vecchio: Right next door you find the Old Cathedral or winter cathedral. This spectacular, circular Romanesque church was built in the 11th Inside you find several Gothic bishop tombs and other masterworks.
  • Broletto: Situated on the west side of the square, this medieval city hall originated in the 12th and 13th Broletto is very characteristic of its time with the tall tower and the Loggia delle Grida. Three of the encompassing facades in the courtyard date back to the Middle Ages.


We leave the predominantly medieval charm behind and turn to Brescia’s cradle of the Renaissance. Piazza della Loggia is the epitome of a Renaissance square and remains likely the city’s most beautiful square even nearly 600 years after it was established. Here you find Palazzo della Loggia, currently used as city hall, with its stunning Vanvitelli rooms and two 15th to 16th century Christian lending houses, so-called Monti di Pietà. The facades are embedded with ancient Roman tombstones. The imposing Torre dell’Orologio rises tall at the centre of the square’s east side. The original 16th century clockwork still works.

Other highlights in Brescia

As stunning and as impressive as these two squares might be, we now move on to finally introduce to even more neat spots and sights in Brescia you most definitely shouldn’t miss out on:

  • Santa Maria della Carità: This church is probably the most beautiful of all baroque buildings in Brescia. Behind the traditional façade you discover an octagonal layout with a spectacular, ostentatious main altar. The marble floor is a genuine eye-catcher. You will certainly be wowed by the breathtaking frescos and stuccos, and the clever perspective work of the cupola.
  • Santa Maria dei Miracoli: There were rumours of the miracle powers of a fresco of the Madonna and Child in front of a house in San Nazario when Brescia was hit by the plague between 1480 and 1484. The Catholic Church bought that very house and built the church of miracles. Artful marble reliefs adorn the façade. The monumental porch with its four pillars leads you inside the church with many an impressive painting.
  • Pinacoteca Tosi Martinengo: While there many art museums in the city, none match this institution. Opened in 1851 in Palazzo Tosio, this gallery’s collection includes more than 800 paintings currently displayed in 21 different galleries. Among them are works by Raphael, Vincenzo Foppa and Lorenzo Lotto.
  • Torre della Pallata: Built in 1254, this tower of a bastion that used to be part of the medieval city walls certainly is something special. Merlons, a clock and a small tower were added to Torre della Pallata over the years. There’s even a Mannerist fountain on its west side.


Brescia is only non-descript to those that have never really dealt with this fascinating city of arts. The hidden gem of Lombardy is home to a particularly exciting World Heritage Site and to architectural highlights ranging from ancient Rome to Romanesque art of the baroque. Still it maintains a harmonious, charming and inviting overall flair. Don’t forget to spend a few days in Brescia during your next trip to Northern Italy!

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