by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Cathedral at Brixen and the Millennial Column (right) erected in 1909 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the town's foundation

An Ancient Prince-bishopric and Cultural Landmark

By Roderick Conway Morris
BRESSANONE, Italy 16 October 1998


The most ancient city in the South Tirol, Bressanone is the most beautiful and best preserved of the larger towns in the province. In a glorious mountain setting at an altitude of more than 1,800 feet (560 meters) it is pleasantly cool in summer, and has an average of three times as many sunny days as Vienna.

There was a settlement here in the Dark Ages called Prichsna, and in the Middle Ages it was recorded as both Pressena and Brixina, the former giving rise to the modern Italian name Bressanone and the latter to today's German name, Brixen (the majority of the inhabitants being German-speaking).

Bressanone's position at the confluence of the rivers Eisack and Rienz on the southern side of the Brenner Pass and at the head of the Eisack Valley - the Emperor's Way that linked Germany and Italy - gave it strategic importance, and the Holy Roman Emperors were anxious to make sure it remained in friendly hands. Although it was already the seat of a bishopric as early as 970, Emperor Conrad II made Bressanone a prince-bishopric and the capital of the Tirol in 1027. Thus the prince-bishops were endowed with extensive lands and secular as well as religious authority.

Although the prince-bishops' powers and lands were gradually eroded by the rise of the counts of Tirol, and the Austrian Habsburgs became their overlords on the death of the son of the last countess of Tirol, the prince-bishops continued to rule Bressanone until 1803. They left their indelible stamp on almost every aspect of this former ecclesiastical principality, which maintains a timeless, almost Ruritanian air.

The old town is still confined within the area of its original 11th-century walls and has for the most part defied incursions from the 20th century. Soaring above the central square is the prince-bishops' majestic twin-towered cathedral. Built and rebuilt on the first 10th-century cathedral site, it was completely restructured and given a gorgeous baroque interior in the mid-18th century, and an elaborate neo-classical portico was added as late as 1790. The attached medieval cloister with its extensive and diverting frescoes painted between the 13th and 15th centuries was fortunately left intact.

On the north side of the cathedral is the more modest St. Michael's Church with its Gothic exterior, baroque interior and soaring bell-tower and spire. Between church and cathedral is the grassy court of the old cemetery, on one of whose walls is an evocative relief full-length portrait of the South Tirolese aristocrat and troubadour Oswald von Wolkenstein (1377-1445). The soldier-poet spent time in Bressanone in the service of the prince-bishop and had a passionate affair with a local woman, Anna Hausmann, to whom he addressed numerous love poems. Hausmann took a dim view of his decision to dump her to marry a countess, and she contrived to have him seized and taken over the Brenner to Innsbruck, where he was tortured.

Across the main square is the prince-bishops' palace, an unusually successful blend of the Renaissance and the baroque, the palatial and domestic. The spacious inner court is lined with brilliantly modeled terra-cotta statues by the sculptor Hans Reichle (1570-1642) representing prominent Habsburgs through the ages. The palace's 70 rooms now contain a fine museum of Tirolese art.

Beyond the square on the north side is the charming Grosse Lauben (Great Arcades), since the Middle Ages the town's principal shopping street. The stores beneath the arches overflow with tempting local produce from hams, cheeses and sausages to wild mushrooms, woodland berries and wines. Also off the square, at 3 Domgasse, is the celebrated Finsterwirt (called Oste Scuro in Italian). The building dates from the 13th century and has been an inn since the beginning of the last century. It now consists of two restaurants; the one downstairs has a shady garden and is an ideal place to sample local dishes (tel. 0472-835343).

The patronage of the prince-bishops and the burghers of Bressanone made the city the most important artistic center in the Tirol, and its key position on the route between Germany and central Europe opened it to influences from both north and south. The outstanding Renaissance product of this cultural exchange was Michael Pacher, who was active in the region from at least the early 1460s until shortly before his death in Salzburg in 1498.

Pacher was both a wood sculptor, carving being a sophisticated traditional art form in the area, and a painter. He combined both arts to stunning effect in monumental altarpieces, achieving architectural scale and drama with a profound sense of humane individuality and intimacy. Pacher traveled to Italy and was clearly influenced by Donatello, Filippino Lippi and Mantegna, whose works he encountered in Padua. He absorbed their lessons in such a way as to make them an integral part of his own distinctive vision. Scarcely less worthy of attention are some of Pacher's associates, notably the master of Uttenheim and Freidrich Pacher, who may or may not have been related to Michael.

A significant part of Michael Pacher's and his associates' work is still in the South Tirol. But changes in taste, and especially the remodeling of churches in the baroque style, meant that many of the works found their way to galleries outside the region, mainly in Austria and Germany, with some going as far afield as Israel and Australia.

A good number of those from abroad have been temporarily loaned for a special exhibition, 'Michael Pacher and his Circle,' that continues at the Neustift (Novacella) Abbey near Bressanone until Oct. 31.

Neustift, historically one of the Tirol's leading patrons of the arts and Wolkenstein's last resting place, can be reached from Bressanone by a one-hour leisurely stroll through orchards and vineyards along the banks of the Eisack, or a 10-minute bus ride.

The Augustinian abbey was founded by the prince-bishop the Blessed Hartmann in 1142. It has a flamboyant pink and gold baroque church, gilded library and many other curious features. In the middle of the main court is a singular fountain with external frescoes of the Seven Wonders of the World and, by the main gate, the fortified round chapel of St. Michael inspired by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

The abbey is also famous for its Sylvaner white wine, cultivated in the surrounding vineyards in a microclimate so delicate that only a kilometer to the north it is too cold to grow grapes. This wine, and those from the abbey's vineyards elsewhere in the South Tirol, can be bought to take away; their aromatic bouquets, when encountered in distant places, are certain instantly to transport any drinker back to this delightful region.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023