Perched at the top of the Cidneo Hill, the Castle is one of the most fascinating fortified complexes in Italy and the second largest in Europe, still bearing the traces of the various dominations of the past.
The Mastio, the fortified keep on the top of the hill, with its mighty Torre dei Prigionieri (Tower of the Prisoners), the drawbridge and the Mirabella Tower, the last trace of the church of Santo Stefano in Arce overlooking the town, bear witness to the communal period and the Visconti domination. The imposing bastions, with their monumental gate, are testaments to the power of the Republic of Venice – La Serenissima – that ruled the city for about four centuries.
The Castle is home to charming and little-known passages, atmospheres infused with mystery, affording sweeping views over the city, stretching from the Ronchi slopes and the Brescian valleys to the Apennines and the Alps.
Stage to many key events in the history of Brescia, including its famous Dieci Giornate (Ten Days), the Castle is today one of Brescia’s most evocative sites, where several elements coexist: evidence of the Roman era, such as the oil warehouses with their Botticino stone tubs, medieval constructions, and a 1909 locomotive, displayed to the delight of younger visitors inside the “Falco d’Italia” (the Hawk of Italy, one of the Castle’s names).
The Ten Days of Brescia
In 1848, the most critical year of the Risorgimento, the people of Brescia organised an underground committee headed by Tito Speri and Don Pietro Boifava, curate of Serle. News had spread that the Austrians intended to levy a hefty fine on the people of Brescia to punish them for having joined the Provisional Government of Lombardy in 1848. This circumstance, on 23 March 1849 led to a collective uprising against the Austrian oppressor. The revolt was triggered by rumours coming from the front, in the second phase of the First War of Independence (1848–1849), declared by Charles Albert, King of Sardinia, in an attempt to reconquer, after the events of 1848, Lombardy-Venetia, freeing it from the Austrians. Misleading news of victory for the Savoy troops arrived, mixed with royal dispatches on their defeat at Novara (23 March 1849), which were followed by the abdication of Charles Albert and the signing of the armistice of Vignale (24 March 1849) between the new king, Victor Emmanuel II and General Radetzky.
Brescia rose up, trusting help would come from Piedmont, and chose to resist against the newly victorious Austrians, fighting against their occupation for ten long days. The people fought strenuously house by house and in barricades set up at key points in the city, while the Austrians, positioned in the Castle of Brescia, bombarded the urban perimeter. The entire city became a battlefield: bell towers and towers became lookouts and sharpshooters’ positions. The Hapsburg’s aimed their fire at the most representative symbols of the city such as Palazzo Loggia, where a hole made by an Austrian shell fired from the Castle can still be seen at the base of one of the walls of the Salone Vanvitelliano. The insurgents, led by Tito Speri, faced the Austrians fighting all across the city. Barricades were erected at Porta Torrelunga, in Contrada San Barnaba, in Contrada Sant’Urbano and in many other locations. The Brescian people also battled against the Austrians at the Ronchi and in the hamlet of Sant’Eufemia della Fonte.
Brescia, the Lioness of Italy, surrendered on 1 April 1849, after ten dreadful days of fighting, when the notorious Marshal Haynau, known as “the jena” (literally the “hyena” and whose name is still linked to the building at the entrance to the Castle), rushed to support the Austrian garrison barricaded in the Castle. On the night of 31 March, using the Visconti Strada del Soccorso, a secret and still existing safe-conduct connecting the top of the Castle to the city, new armed garrisons led by Haynau managed to reach the Cidneo Hill. The insurrection ended in a bloodbath, with the violent repression of civilians, who were executed by firing squads until 12 August, when Radetzky signed the amnesty. The insurgent prisoners were locked in the Castle and in the Sant’Urbano prison and many of them were executed. But Brescia’s intolerance towards the Austrian rule was not quelled. Tito Speri led a new clandestine insurrectionary committee, a decision that would cost him his life. He was hanged in Belfiore, Mantua, in 1853.
The lion-like courage with which Brescia fought during the Risorgimento earned the city the title of Leonessa d’Italia, the Lioness of Italy, coined by Giosuè Carducci in his Odi Barbare, Book V, a composition from May 1877, closing with these famous verses:
Rejoicing in the event Brescia received me,
Brescia the strong, Brescia the iron-handed,
Drenched in the blood of her enemies,
Brescia the lioness of Italy.
Historic phases of the Castle of Brescia
–From geological formation to the first prehistoric settlements
The summit of the Cidneo Hill is the earliest Brescian settlement. The oldest finds unearthed during excavations date back to the Iron Age.
The earliest significant anthropization of the hilltop area dates back to this period, when the Celtic populations, the Ligurians at first and then the Cenomani, used it as a place of worship, perhaps dedicated to the god Bergimus.
During the Roman period the hill continued to be used as a place of worship. Temples of uncertain dedication were erected whose steps are still visible inside the Weapons Museum.
Below the temple are oil warehouses and other containers whose function remains unknown to this day. Other oil warehouses were built underneath the grassy expanse today known as the Mirabella lawn.
–Late Antiquity and the Longobard period
The basement of the so-called Mirabella Tower probably dates back to the late Imperial Age. An early Christian martyrium has been found, attesting the perpetration of the site’s spiritual vocation even in the Christian period.
After the sackings of the Visigoths, Huns, and Heruli, came a period of Ostrogothic occupation, of which very few documentary and material traces remain but which was very important for the town. Then came the Longobards, who for the first time used the hill for defensive purposes, building the first castrum.
–Late Middle Ages (twelfth–fourteenth century)
In the late Middle Ages, in continuity with the hill’s cultic vocation, a number of churches were built, the most important of which was the church of Santo Stefano in Arce, whose entire lawn-covered base and some elevated structures, including one of the two bell towers (the Mirabella Tower), are still preserved.
Construction of the Mastio also began at this time.
–Visconti and Malatesta periods
During the rule of the Visconti family the fortification works were rationalised by taking down old buildings and erecting the Mastio above the old Roman temple and oil warehouses. These works were required by Luchino Visconti and his brother Giovanni, who also commissioned the frescoes that are still visible today.
–First Venetian domination
The Venetian domination is characterised by important works to modernise the fortified structures, starting from the transformation of an old quadrangular Visconti tower into a more modern round tower, the Torre dei Prigionieri (Tower of the Prisoners). Thanks to the work of Giacomo Coltrino, a new tower known as Torre Coltrina was built to replace an old one that had collapsed.
The short-lived French occupation was particularly significant for the Castle of Brescia, since the new rulers’ defensive necessities led them to lay out a state-of-the-art fortification system, specifically called Torre dei Francesi (Tower of the French), below the Mirabella lawn.
–Venetian rule and the Napoleonic period
It was with the return of the Venetian rule that the Castle underwent its most significant development, with the construction of a new walled enclosure, the widening of the Strada del Soccorso and the construction of the San Pietro, San Marco, San Faustino and Pusterla bastions. The fortress was also equipped with numerous embrasures and gunports, buildings for storing provisions (the Grande Miglio), ovens, barracks, religious buildings, cisterns, artillery stores (the Piccolo Miglio) and armouries.
–Napoleonic and Austrian periods
During the Napoleonic period, the Castle, which had been in decline for some time, remained unchanged and was used mainly as a prison.
With the transition from French to Austrian occupation, the Castle took on new strategic functions. The Austrian structures concentrated on re-functionalizing the buildings and military barracks, giving the Castle the form of large barracks. The Mastio area, on the other hand, was abandoned.
–Kingdom of Italy
In 1859 Brescia became part of the new-born Kingdom of Italy. The Castle, taking advantage of the Austrian structures, continued to be used as barracks for the Italian troops. The Mastio was used as a military prison. In the years between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thanks to the initiative of Captain Sorellli, restoration work began on the oldest and most precarious buildings, using the inmates of the Mastio as workforce.
In the twentieth century, the Castle made its debut as a public park with the 1904 Expo..
During World War I, some of the Castle’s structures were used for the detention of Austrian prisoners, before going back to being an urban space between the two world wars.
The Castle’s function as a city park from the twentieth century to the present day saw a dramatic re-functionalization during the Italian Social Republic, becoming barracks for the Fascist and German militias, while a few buildings were used as political prisons.
–From the Post-War period to the present day
The Castle has become one of the most loved places by the people of Brescia, who can finally enjoy its interiors. Over the course of the twentieth century there have been numerous redevelopment projects, starting with the arrangement of the zoo in place of the Venetian barracks, which were demolished and removed in the 1980s.
The Museums of the Castle
“Luigi Marzoli” Arms Museum
Inside the fourteenth-century Mastio Visconteo, the Luigi Marzoli Arms Museum houses one of Europe’s finest collections of antique armour and weapons, displaying Brescia’s time-honoured weaponry tradition, documenting its technological and artistic evolution between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.
Museum of the Risorgimento
In order to allow renovation work on the Museum of the Risorgimento building, its rooms are temporarily closed.
The Museum of the Risorgimento, inaugurated in 1959, has been closed since October 2005. Its displays were located in the Grande Miglio (a building named after the grain store for the Venetian garrisons built in the Castle of Brescia in the late the sixteenth century).
The Museum displays explored European and national history from the French Revolution (1789) to the Capture of Rome (20 September 1870). Particular attention was dedicated to Giuseppe Zanardelli, Minister of Justice and Prime Minister between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The focus of the museum route was on the historical events of the Brescian territory, such as the Brescian Republic of 1797, the Ten Days of 1849 and the key battles fought in the Brescian territory during the Wars of Independence, the battle of Solferino and San Martino in particular.
The museum layout presented a carefully selected range of pieces, including portraits, memorabilia, proclamations and period prints documenting the Risorgimento epic and the patriotic movements for national unity.
The Castle of Brescia is open every day, 365 days a year.
Opening hours may vary in case of events.
Via Castello, 9 – Brescia
By Bus and subway
Along the road that leads to the Castle there are several free and pay parking areas, also for people with disabilities.
From Brescia train station:
- on foot: 20-minute walk, direction Castello
- by subway: San Faustino stop + 10-minute walk / Vittoria stop + 15-minute walk
Aeroporto 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)
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