A journey through Brescia’s history, art and spirituality, from prehistoric times to the present day
Unique in Italy and in Europe due to its display concept and location, this museum set in a monastic complex of Longobard origin, offers a journey through Brescia’s history, art and spirituality from prehistoric times to the present day across an exhibition area of approximately 14,000 square metres.
Inside the monumental complex, the Santa Giulia Museum sections are arranged in chronological and thematic order, with thousands of extraordinary pieces from the 4th millennium BCE to the 18th century.
Visiting routes across the complex lead visitors to the discovery of monastic spaces and significant architectures such as, for example, an archaeological area with two Roman era houses (1st and 3rd centuries CE), the Longobard basilica of San Salvatore (8th century CE), the Choir of the Nuns (early 16th century) and the Romanesque Oratory of Santa Maria in Solario (12th century), where the nuns kept the monastery treasure. Two items of this treasure still survive: the Lipsanotheca, a precious ivory reliquary casket, and the Cross of Desiderius, a Carolingian goldsmith’s work ornated with 212 gemstones.
The Basilica of San Salvatore
The basilica of San Salvatore is one of the most notable examples of Longobard religious architecture. King Desiderius, who founded the monastery in 753 CE dedicating it to Saint Saviour (San Salvatore), and later had the remains of the martyr Saint Julia (Santa Giulia) brought here, envisioned this church-mausoleum as one of the symbols of the dynastic power of the Longobard monarchy and duchies. Archaeological research carried out inside the building has revealed not only part of the original walls, but also remains of a Roman domus (1 – 4 century CE), structures dating back to the early Longobard period (568–650) and the now partially visible foundations of an earlier church.
The bell tower was built around 1300. The chapels on the northern side were opened in the 14th century. The original facade was demolished in 1466 in order to build the Choir of the Nuns (now annexed to the church of Santa Giulia), whose lower floor serves as atrium of the basilica of San Salvatore.
The interior of the basilica is divided into three naves marked by polychrome marble Roman columns topped by elaborate capitals. The arches joining them were completely covered in stucco work decorated with plant motifs. The frescoes on the walls, of which large sections still survive, depict scenes from Christ’s childhood and the life of martyrs whose relics were kept in the crypt.
On the counter facade and in one of the chapels are frescoes attributed to Paolo da Caylina the Younger; at the base of the bell tower are frescoes by Romanino with episodes from the life of Saint Obitius (from around 1525). Along the right wall there is a niche, with a frescoed sub-arch: this is an arcosolium tomb, traditionally attributed to Queen Ansa. The crypt was probably built in 762–763 and enlarged in the 12th century due to the large number of relics it contained.
This room contains fragments of a Slab with a peacock, a refined sculptural work where Byzantine-inspired taste paired with a certain late antique naturalism combine with the style and themes of Longobard culture.
The Choir of the Nuns
The Choir, an integral part of the Santa Giulia Museum, is an elegantly frescoed room where for centuries the Benedictine nuns of the monastery of Santa Giulia attended – unseen – religious services.
This splendid place of worship, structured on two levels, was built between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in accordance with the norms of the Benedictine rule. The walls are richly decorated with frescoes by Floriano Ferramola and Paolo da Caylina the Younger, with an iconographic apparatus inspired by the theme of salvation, illustrated with scenes from Jesus’ childhood, passion and resurrection and other relevant subjects, paired with devotional images. The overall result appears highly cohesive, evocative, and chromatically remarkable.
Among the most interesting works on display in this section of the museum dedicated to sculpture and funerary monuments from the Venetian period is the great Martinengo Mausoleum, a sculptural masterpiece and one of the most representative examples of Renaissance art in Lombardy.
The Church of Santa Maria in Solario
The Romanesque oratory of Santa Maria in Solario was built around the mid-twelfth century as an intimate place of worship for the nuns. Square in plan, with massive masonry medolo ashlars, with inserted fragments of Roman inscriptions, the sacellum is surmounted by an octagonal tiburium with a small blind loggia, supported by small columns and early medieval capitals (8th – 9th century CE).
An imposing set staircase connects the two levels of the oratory. The architecture of the ground floor is characterised by a large Roman altar serving as central pillar; valuable and spiritually important objects dedicated to the cult of relics, part of the monastery treasure such as the Lipsanotheca, a small ivory casket with a carved relief decoration (4th century CE) and the small reliquary-cross made of gold, pearls and coloured stones (10th century CE) are on display here.
The upper floor, with its more intimate atmosphere, was intended to host the most important moments of the monastic liturgy. Surrounded by frescoed walls and a starry vault, executed by Floriano Ferramola between 1513 and 1524, stands the Cross of Desiderius, a rare early-Carolingian (19th century CE) example of goldsmith’s art, ornated with 212 gemstones, cameos and glass paste elements dating from the Roman era to the sixteenth century.
The Ortaglia Domus
The ortaglia domus are part of a Roman residential area located on the terraces of the Cidneo Hill, between the monumental public area and the eastern walls of Brixia, the ancient city of Brescia.
Around stone-paved atriums we find the drawing rooms, and the private and service rooms, with mosaics and frescoes reflecting the same decorative models used in Rome and Pompeii, overlooking the viridaria garden and the vegetable patches extending towards the city walls. The main rooms are equipped with a wall- and floor-heating system; a widespread network of lead pipes, connected to one of the urban aqueducts, brought running water to the service rooms and fountains. There were even indoor fountains in the most representative rooms, testifying to the high social and cultural level of the owners.
The domus remained in use from the 1st to the 4th century CE and then were gradually abandoned until with the Longobards they became royal property and used as orchard (ortaglia) of the convent of the Monastery of Santa Giulia.
The good level of conservation of the wall structures and floorings, as well as the proximity to the Santa Giulia Museum, have favoured the definition of a homogeneous exhibition route, which allows visitors to seamlessly explore these spaces from the archaeological areas of the museum to the domus interiors, under a large contemporary structure that maintains conservation parameters stable and allows for a correct reading of the site as well as an optimal appreciation of its relationship with the old city.
The ortaglia domus museum area, affords views on the viridarium, the domestic garden of the ancient Brixia domus.
Starting from archaeological excavations, which have unearthed quadrangular areas bordered by walls, probably horti, the vegetable gardens of the Roman houses, visitors can admire these green areas adjacent to the domus, as they must have been two thousand years ago. In fact, if in ancient times the horti were mainly productive areas where fruit trees and aromatic herbs were cultivated, from the first century BCE the taste for decorative gardens, the viridarium, with flowers and tree species for decorative and contemplative purposes, became widespread.
While the domus were being set up as a museum area, archaeologists, botanists and architects worked at the recreation of a vegetable garden and a viridarium in Santa Giulia, covering an area of over 3,000 square metres, with tree species that were common and used in Roman times for ornamental, culinary or therapeutic purposes.
Along stone slab paths, following a simple and orderly geometry, fruit trees were planted in the hortus, including vine rows (as seen in many mosaics in the Dionysus domus), and fig, apple, quince, pear and medlar trees, as well as plum, peach and pomegranate trees, all essential ingredients in Roman cuisine and emblematic symbols of Mediterranean civilisation.
In the viridarium, on the other hand, recreating the atmosphere in which the inhabitants of ancient Brixia immersed themselves, visitors will find geometric hedges of box and laurel, a plant consecrated to Apollo, together with bushes of oleander, viburnum and myrtle. Roses in their most antique varieties, an important component of every Roman garden, add a touch of colour with a range of species including rosa canina, gallic, and rubiginosa, recreating the same scent and colours that could be enjoyed in the time of Augustus. Continuing towards the Roman walls is a display of finds from the excavations in different areas of the city, with inscriptions, votive altars, friezes, funerary monuments and large sarcophagi, surrounded by elms, cypresses and rows of acanthus trees.
Contemporary art in the viridarium: the green areas outside the domus are home to contemporary art installations that have been acquired over the years: Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Third Paradise (2015), Ariel Schlesinger’s Untitled (2019), Francesco Vezzoli’s Nike Metafisica (2021).
The new layout of the section ‘The Roman Age. The City’.
The section ‘The Roman Age. The City” is updated 25 years after the opening of the Santa Giulia Museum, with a profound renovation based on the most modern standards of accessibility and dictated by the ongoing investigations in the city, which daily lead to the enrichment of heritage and knowledge.
The main monumental contexts that, thanks to recent enhancements, can now be visited in the nearby Archaeological Park (Republican Sanctuary,
Capitoline Temple, theatre). These contexts are explored in the museum thanks to models, also dedicated tactile exploration, historical iconography, and valuable architectural pieces, illustrated in the didactic didactic apparatus, which offers a panorama of the most recent interpretations.
A new and very important insight is dedicated to the late antique period, in which pagan places of worship were abandoned; in Brescia, in the area of the Capitolium, two intentional deposits have been found that have given us back works and information of capital importance.
The first is the deposit of bronzes discovered at the temple in 1826, including the Winged Victory now exhibited in the temple itself. The set of portrayed heads, with figurative elements pertaining to other statues, is presented with new layouts that enhance their workmanship and precious decorations.
Another deposit, on the other hand, virtually unpublished and never shown in its entirety, includes a considerable amount of votive objects offered in the temple halls by worshippers during the life of this place of worship from at least the 1st to the 4th century AD: rare engraved glass, jewellery, ritual objects, simple and figured oil lamps, amphorae with precious contents, large plates for offerings to the deities, moulded ceramics, …
Three multimedia digital installations with a contemporary vocabulary are part of the museum itinerary, which interpret and render the themes of the section, evoking historical places and events in unconventional creative ways.
Since 25 June 2011, the monumental complex of San Salvatore – Santa Giulia and the Roman Brescia Archaeological Park have been included in the World Heritage List, promoted by UNESCO in the serial site “The Longobards in Italy. The Places of Power (568–774 CE)”.
In fact, numerous traces of the early medieval phases are preserved in the area (ceramic kilns, burials, modest houses) which testify to the long life of this area.
Santa Giulia 360°
360° photographs by © Pietro Madaschi, Italy – www.360visio.com courtesy of Fondazione Brescia Musei
Laid out on approximately 14,000 square metres, and displayed in chronological order, is a display of about 12,000 works, tracing the history of Brescia from the third millennium BCE to the Renaissance.
The works, found in the city and its surroundings, or coming from bequests from Brescian collectors, are organised in chronological and thematic order. Those exhibited in the archaeological sections refer to monumental architecture of ancient Brixia, which can be visited in the nearby Archaeological Park. Among the works exhibited in Santa Giulia, some are of universal value, due to their rarity and historical importance, such as the bronze head portraits, the late antique ivory diptychs, and the Cross of Desiderius.
Pricing – UNESCO Ticket (Santa Giulia museum + Archeological area)
The ticket allows entry to Brixia Roman Archaeological area and Santa Giulia Museum.
On Friday 27 January, UNESCO tickets will be free for those born and/or resident in the city of Brescia and its province.
Last admission at 5:15 p.m.
Information and booking
via Musei, 81/b – Brescia
By Bus and subway
- Arnaldo, piazzale Arnaldo
- Goito, via Spalto San Marco
- Fossa Bagni, via Lombroso
- Agip, Piazza Vittoria
- Castellini, via Castellini
To visualise all the parking areas and the ZTL areas (zones of restricted circulation) please check the Brescia Mobilità website
Gabriele D’Annunzio Brescia Airport
(20 Km from Brescia)
Orio Al Serio Bergamo Airport
(56 Km from Brescia)
Valerio Catullo Verona Airport
(70 Km from Brescia)