Brescia Kicks off Capital of Culture 2023 Calendar With an Exhibition on the City’s History

The city designated together with Bergamo as Capital of Culture 2023 begins a long program of events reflecting on its history to talk about the history of many other Italian cities.

Massimo Tapparelli d'Azeglio, Il carroccio (The Battle of Legnano), 1831, Turin, GAM - Civic Gallery of Modern and Contemporary. Ernani Orcorte

The first big event of the program of the Italian Capital of Culture in 2023 is being held in Brescia. The exhibition “The Lion’s City. The Age of Communes and Seignories: Brescia” at Museo di Santa Giulia examines through 120 art pieces a crucial historical period in the development of the city and its regional identities by looking at a chronological period from the second half of the 12th century, when the first signs of municipal civic institutions first appeared, to 1426, the year Brescia was annexed by the Republic of Venice.

Through the analysis of a historical era, the exhibition aims to increase awareness of the city’s past displaying documents that are primarily unpublished or little known. During this period, which was marked by significant changes, the city developed its shape and identity both architecturally and politically by establishing its dominance over the surrounding area, locating its center of gravity in the square watched over by the municipal palace and churches. Some civic symbols that persist to the present are explored, tracing the beginning and development of those factors that shaped Brescia character: the civic cults of Saints Faustino and Giovita, the Holy Crosses, and the Virgin, which hold a central place in the civic devotion of medieval Brescia and still punctuate the city’s calendar of festivities, to the coat of arms of the rampant lion, a true urban identity emblem made famous by Italian poet Giosuè Carducci, who associated it with the heroism of the city.

The exhibition, curated by Matteo Ferrari, provides visitors an incredibly rich display of works, including sculptures, paintings, archival documents and manuscripts, coins and goldsmithing: a narrative that highlights not only the events of the city and its territory during three crucial centuries, but also as a paradigm for the history of many Italian cities.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to documentary value, such as imperial diplomas and coins with the effigy of the lion. © Archivio Fotografico Musei di Brescia.

The story of that time, in which civic institutions play a major role, is based on artifacts from the city’s archives, libraries, and museums, which enrich the region’s rich cultural heritage with loans of items related to worship or that can only very rarely be displayed, like the priceless reliquaries of the Sante Croci and the Croce del Campo from the Sante Croci treasure. The exhibition can then invoke other incidents and figures connected to the historical period under consideration thanks to certain fundamental contributions from Italian and international institutions; for example, the chapel of San Giorgio in Broletto or the work of Gentile da Fabriano, “The Madonna of Humility,” a loan from the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo in Pisa, are on display in the exhibition.

Along with paintings and sculptures, plenty of room is devoted to less common items with obvious documentary value, such as imperial diplomas, archival registers, and coins with the effigy of the lion and other patron saints. A visit to the exhibition cannot be considered complete without taking in the important enrichment and expansion of the museum’s age of the communes section. This portion of the exhibition is a rare opportunity to get an overview of a time period that has never really been explored in all of its complexity and grandeur, a thorough examination of the Santa Giulia Museum.

The exhibition is organized around thematic and chronological nuclei that are chained together and divided into four sections, each of which is identified by four different colors that suggestively characterize the layout.

The exhibition path proposes juxtaposing very different objects in terms of provenance and materiality that provide insight into the evolution of the Brescian society, the definition of the new urban and monumental face, documentary changes related to administrative practices, developments in civic religion, the use of images for the purposes of political communication, and the role of material components and pictorial techniques in the transmission of ideologically charged images.

Visitors can extend their experience in the permanent sections of the museum, where some pieces that couldn’t be moved due to conservation and cluttering concerns are located.

“The Lion’s City. The Age of Communes and Seignories: Brescia” is on view at the Museo di Santa Giulia until 29 January.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.