The town has two centres: "Città alta" (upper city), a hilltop medieval town, surrounded by 17th century cyclopic defensive walls, and the "Città bassa" (lower city). The two parts of the town are connected by funicular/cable car, roads, and foot-paths (the most convenient being immediately adjacent to the funicular station). Parking spaces are very limited in the upper city.
The upper city, surrounded by Venetian walls built in the 17th century, forms the historic centre of Bergamo. Città Alta is an extremely expensive place to live in, with properties being sold for a minimum of 2,000,000 euro.[
The Città Alta or Upper City is the original Bergamo, dating back to the time of the Celts who built a fortified town on this strategic hill-top. In the 2nd century BC the Romans arrived, and remained for 700 years. The road layout of Alta still echoes the one they laid out, with two main streets, the cardo and the decumanus, dividing it into quarters and crossing at the centre – today’s Via Gombito / Via Colleoni and Via San Lorenzo / Via Mario Lupo. The Romans would also have built a forum, arena, baths and a water supply system. Of these, almost nothing remains, although it is generally thought that the forum would have occupied the raised ground that now is home to the Rocca fortress.
As almost everywhere, when the Roman Empire collapsed Bergamo was left to a succession of barbarian invaders, before finding stability again under Venetian rule in the 15th century. Much of today’s Alta owes its appearance to this period. The Venetians built the walls around the city, laid out the Piazza Vecchia, and modified existing buildings, embellishing them in their own style – the many winged lions (the symbol of Venice) date from this period, although the one on the Palazzo della Ragione was added in the 18th century towards the end of Venetian dominance. It was also at this time that the city started to spread out on the plains below – the beginnings of the Città Bassa or Lower City.
Bergamo’s strategic location on this northern Italian hill meant that other too would occupy it over the centuries – after the Venetians came the French, and after them the Austrians. These too left their mark on the city, which is today a pleasing mix of ancient and not so ancient buildings jumbled together in winding back streets and around the various piazzas. It’s a place for wandering and discovering, so don’t just stick to the major sights listed in your guidebook; go too in search of hidden details and pretty corners, and you will really get a sense of the layers of history that make up this Città Alta.
I started my journey of discovery here on the guided walk organised for the VT group.
A characteristic sight of the Città Alta are these tall narrow houses that dot the skyline. At one time there would have been perhaps a hundred here, and the observant visitor can still find a fair number, though some have been partially lopped or modified (as in those seen in photo five).
Powerful medieval families built these tower houses in many northern Italian cities as both secure, easily-defended homes and as a sign of their power – only the rich and powerful could afford the necessary building materials to build so high. At times it was even a sort of “keeping up with the Jones” rivalry – if one built high, the neighbour would build higher in a spirit of “my tower is taller than your tower” competition.
The best known of Bergamo’s remaining tower houses is the Torre Gombito, a prominent landmark on the street of the same name. Today it houses the tourist information office (staffed by very helpful guides and experts on the city as I can testify) and a luxury boutique hotel. You can go up the tower for what is apparently a great view of the city, but as there is no lift I chose not to attempt the climb. (As an aside, a similarly great view can be had for considerably less effort by taking the lift up the Torre Civica or Campanone).
More great examples of these tower houses can be found nearby in the Piazza del Mercato Fieno (the Hay Market). One of these (on the right in photo one) used to be owned by Bergamo’s rich and powerful Suardi family and has a pretty little balcony under a double arched mullioned window. The houses seem still to be lived-in (probably as apartments) – what an interesting home to have! Though you would need to be fit, and to be prepared to put up with the many inconveniences of life in the Città Alta as described by our guide – horrendous parking, some distance from supermarkets, the responsibilities of maintaining an historic home for future generations, and of course all of us tourists gawping at your house all day!
From the Piazza del Mercato Fieno our route took us back across Via Gombito and into the Piazza Luigi Angelini
Monday in Bergamo meant the end of the VT meeting and the departure of most of the attendees, but a handful of us stayed on to see more of the city, Chris and I among them. This gave us an opportunity for more leisurely sightseeing and meanderings around Alta in particular. I started to notice more little details. In particular my eye was drawn by the old doors and the different shapes and designs of the door knockers. I started to photograph each that I saw, and later made this little collage as a reminder of our discoveries.
I also loved the colourful windows, especially along Via Bartolomeo Colleoni and Via Gombito, where the buildings for the most part appear much as they must always have done, at least if you raise your eyes above the shops on some of the ground floors. Photos two was taken here and photo three in the Via alla Rocca, while the lamp in photo four was in the Via Porta Dipinta and the mirror in photo five made for a fun photo on Via San Salvatore while on our Friday morning tour.
So let us explore more of Bergamo as Chris and I did on our final day here, starting with the Piazza Mascheroni.
Favorite thing: Erected in 1355 and restored in the 19th century, TORRE DELLA CAMPANELLA or Tower of the Small Bell, is a dominant feature of Piazza Mascheroni. On the left of the tower you can see the facade of the 18th century Roncalli Palace with a 16th century merchant portico frontage designed by Andrea Ziliolo in 1520.
Entering Citta' Alta from Colle Aperto, you will go under an archway and into PIAZZA MASCHERONI. The Square leads to Via Colleoni (pic #5) with its many shops and bars and gradually to Piazza Vecchia.
At the center of the Square is Torre Della Campanella, which was started in the 13th century, but was not completed until the oriental-style spire was added in the 19th century.
On the left of the tower you will see the facade of the 18th century Roncalli Palace with a 16th century merchant Portico frontage. This area of the Square (pic #4) often has merchants selling their wares.
On the wall of the buildings on the other side of the Piazza, you will see original 16th century frescoes, which were uncovered during renovations of the buildings.
Located in Piazza Del Duomo - Cathedral Square - Citta Alta.
Dedicated to the Saints Bartholomew, Mark and John the Baptist, CAPELLA COLLEONI or COLLEONI CHAPEL was built 1472-1476 as the personal shrine for the famous condottiere, Bartolomeo Colleoni, a member of one of the most outstanding families of Bergamo.
The facade makes use of Tarsia and Polychrome marble decorations. Over the main portal is a rose window, flanked by two medallions portraying Julius Caesar and Trajan.
The tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni, who died in November 1475, is in a wall facing the entrance. It is decorated with reliefs of Episodes from the Life of Christ, statues, heads of lions and an equestrian statue of the condottiero in guilded wood.
Bergamo Cathedral, or CATTEDRALE DI SANT ALLESSANDRO, was built to dedicate Saint Alexander of Bergamo, patron saint of the city.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral has a Neo-Classical Facade. Building began in 1459, but work continued and changes were made through the 19th century.
Located to the right of the Colleoni Chapel, in Piazza Del Duomo - Cathedral Square - is the ornate octabonal building IL BATTISTERO or the BAPTISTERY.
Built in 1340 by Giovanni Da Campione , to be placed inside the Basilica of Santa Mana Maggiore. But it was dismantled in 1680, reconstructed and placed in a courtyard to the side of the Duomo. In 1898, it was moved once again to its present site next to the Colleoni Chapel in the Piazza Duomo.
The upper part with its elegant marble pillars, has eight 14th century statues representing the "Virtues". Inside is the original baptismal font.
Leaving south from Piazza Vecchia, go through the arches and you will come to Cathedral Square PIAZZA DEL DUOMO First thing you will see right in front of you, is the incredibly beautiful Colleoni Chapel (pic #1), built as a personal shrine for the famous condottiere, Bartolomeo Colleoni, who is buried there.
You will see, to the right, the very ornamental, octagon shaped Baptistery (pic #2). To the left is the Bergamo Cathedral (pic #3) and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
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