by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Upper Town of Bergamo

The Beauties of Bergamo

By Roderick Conway Morris
BERGAMO, Italy 12 June 1998


'It standeth on the side of a hill, having in the east and south the pleasant plain of Lombardy before it. So that from many places of this city there is as sweet a prospect as any place in Italy doth yield,' wrote Thomas Coryat, who visited Bergamo when he walked from England to Venice in 1608.

Although only a bit under 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the sprawling metropolis of Milan, Bergamo has maintained many of its attractive views, and its medieval and Renaissance center is so well preserved that Coryat would readily recognize it today.

The course of its history, too, was very different from Milan's, principally because from 1428 to 1797 Bergamo was part of the Venetian Republic - indeed, was the westernmost bastion of the Serenissima's mainland possessions, on the border with the territories ruled by the Dukes of Milan and later the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs.

From ancient times Bergamo consisted of the Upper Town, perched on a natural citadel, and the Lower Town on the plain below. It became rich in the Middle Ages and the site of a famous fair - 'the greatest I ever saw in my life, except that of Frankfurt in Germany,' as Coryat recorded - that attracted traders from all over Europe. (Coryat suffered the familiar problem of arriving in town at the height of the fair without a hotel reservation: 'This city,' he wrote, 'yielded me the worst lodging for one night that I found in all my travels out of England.')

The prosperity of the leading families allowed them to spend lavishly on the arts, leaving the city with an enviable architectural and artistic heritage. Prominent among the major painters to leave an extensive and distinctive mark on Bergamo was Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556). This outstanding artist, much admired in Bergamo but unjustly neglected elsewhere (although his reputation has been rising in recent years), is the subject of an excellent exhibition, 'Lorenzo Lotto: The Renaissance's Restless Genius,' at the Accademia Carrara until June 28. More than 50 paintings from the city itself and collections around the world are included in the exhibit, which will be at the Grand Palais in Paris from Oct. 12 to Jan. 11.

For practical reasons, however, many of Lotto's key works - frescoes, large altar pieces and the amazing marquetry-work pictures he designed for the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore - will not be making the journey.

Lotto was born in Venice. He was influenced initially by the Bellinis but soon developed a strongly individual and intensely atmospheric - sometimes positively febrile - style of his own. A man of exceptional sensitivity, deep religious conviction and lifelong restlessness, Lotto embarked on a peripatetic existence, traveling widely in northern and central Italy in search of commissions.

In 1508 he was called to the Vatican, when Raphael and Michelangelo were working there, to fresco some of Julius II's papal apartments. Unfortunately the Pope did not like Lotto's work, and the frescoes were destroyed to make way for those by other hands. This setback propelled Lotto onto his wanderings again, but Rome's loss became Bergamo's gain when he was chosen to paint the altarpiece for the San Bartolomeo Church here in 1513.

This was the start of one of the happiest and most productive periods of the artist's life. Further commissions followed - for portraits as well, which established him in this genre as well - and he remained in the city for a dozen years. In fact, so identified with Bergamo did Lotto become that a legend grew that he was actually a native of the place.

Apart from San Bartolomeo, Lotto painted two other important altar pieces in the Lower Town, at the Santo Spirito and San Bernadino churches. Both are in the old Borgo Pignolo quarter, an elegant neighborhood where the town's wealthy burghers built numerous mansions.

There, too, is the Accademia Carrara, which houses an unusually grand collection for a provincial town. It was founded by Count Giacomo Carrara in 1795, on the eve of the fall of the Venetian Republic, but survived the upheaval and was subsequently enriched by further donations from local connoisseurs. Aside from half a dozen Lottos, the gallery has splendid works by Mantegna, Pisanello, Botticelli, Carpaccio, the Bellinis, Titian, Antonello da Messina, Tiepolo, Canaletto and Guardi, among others.

A broad flight of steps leads from the Accademia up to the Sant'Agostino Gate, emblazoned with the winged lion of St. Mark, and the Upper Town (which can also be reached by funicular).

Not far from the gate is the 15th-century church of San Michele of the White Well, in which Lotto frescoed a side chapel shortly before he left the city. In 1524, a year earlier, he had completed the larger and more complex cycle of frescoes for the Suardi Oratory at Trescore Balneario, 13 kilometers to the west, the most ambitious and successful wall paintings of his career.

The chief change in the appearance of the Upper Town after Lotto's death was the construction of the massive encircling walls - the final phase of Venice's defense of this vital outpost against its Spanish neighbors - built at vast expense between 1561 and 1588.

Only the Upper Town was thus fortified, to make it evident to the Habsburgs that this was a purely defensive measure, not the prelude to territorial expansion westwards. The Venetians even invited the authorities in Milan to come and observe the nature of the works. The apparent impregnability of the completed fortress town was such that no attempt was ever made to besiege it. (It is now possible to walk the tops of the walls, a distance of nearly two kilometers, along which several of the bastions have been made into parks.)

Almost 250 buildings, including the ancient cathedral, monasteries, palaces, houses and shops were demolished during the creation of these imposing ramparts, but the handsome main square with its fountain, Town Hall and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, was left alone.

The basilica's choir contains a magnificent cycle of 69 marquetry-work panels, the result of a felicitous collaboration between Lotto, who provided the drawings between 1524 and 1532, and the wood-inlay master Giovanni Francesco Capoferri. The principal themes are taken from the Old Testament, Lotto himself adding an incident from the story of Lot not in his patrons' original scheme, in reference to his own name.

Beside the Basilica is the sumptuous chapel tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-1476), the renowned Bergamasque mercenary commander, who grew immensely rich in the service of Venice and ended his days a celebrated patron of the arts. The chapel houses his own equestrian monument and the tomb of his daughter, Medea, who died in her teens, and its vaults are decorated with some uncharacteristically gruesome frescoes by Tiepolo - of the beheading of John the Baptist and the flaying of Colleoni's namesake, St. Bartholomew.

A few streets away is the humble, partly subterranean dwelling where Gaetano Donizetti (1805-1848) was born and reared. Despite his desperately poor beginnings and tragic life, the composer produced a series of joyously lyrical operas, and his memory is celebrated in a festival every September at the charming 18th-century theater now named after him in the Lower Town.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023