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The Capitolium in the monumental area of the Roman Forum in Brescia.

The Captivating Province of Brescia

The Province of Brescia lies at the foot of the Alps in northern Italy and is the largest province in the Lombardia region, bordering no less than six other provinces. Its capital city, for which the province is named, is second largest city in the region after Milan. The province boasts three main lakes – Lake Garda, Lake Iseo and Lake Idro, as well as several other smaller lakes, plus three famous valleys – Val Camonica, Val Trompia and Valle Sabbia. The area south of the capital city is wide and flat and is known as the Bassa Bresciana.

Lake Garda is the largest lake in Italy and Brescia shares its borders with the regions of Veneto and Trentino. The province boasts three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The stone carvings of Val Camonica constitute the largest number of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world. The collection was recognized by UNESCO in 1979 and was Italy’s first recognized World Heritage Site. It contains over 150,000 categorized figures and symbols, spread throughout the valley, but concentrated in the areas of Darfo Boario Terme, Capo di Ponte, Nadro, Cimbergo and Paspardo. Some of the carvings are 10,000 years old.

Prehistoric Pile Dwellings around the Alps were added to the UNESCO list in 2011. It consists of 111 small individual sites in six countries containing the remains of prehistoric pile-dwelling (or stilt house) settlements in and around the Alps, built from around 5000 to 500 BC on the edges of lakes, rivers or wetlands. The five prehistoric settlements in Brescia include Lavagnone (in Desenzano del Garda), Lugana Vecchia (in Sirmione), Lucone (in Polpenazze del Garda), San Sivino and Gabbiano (both located in Manerba del Garda).

The City of Brescia is one of northern Italy’s hidden secrets. It is close to so many ‘must-see’ places that tourists tend to overlook its many attractions. Lake Garda is only eleven miles away and Lake Como, Milan, Verona and Venice are all within easy reach. When visiting Brescia, make sure to walk along Via dei Musei. It is the location of Decumano Massimo, the major Roman route from Bologna through the Alps. The Roman road is now about 15 feet below ground level and crossed the ancient center of Brixia from east to west.

Along the route, you will come across numerous museums which range from paintings to historical objects and from photography to natural sciences. There is even a Beatles Museum! Among the sights to see are the Piazza della Loggia, dating from the Renaissance, with its impressive tower and 16th century astrological clock and the Biblioteca Queriniana, home to many ancient manuscripts such as an original work by Dante Alighieri.

In 2011, seven groups of historic buildings in Brescia were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Called the “Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568-774 AD),” the groups comprise monasteries, church buildings, fortresses and the impressive City Museum of Brescia. It is housed in the 16th century Church of Santa Giulia. The museum includes ancient finds dating from the Bronze Age to Roman times. Among the artifacts are a 4th century ivory ‘Brescia Casket’ and a ‘Winged Victory’ statue.

The medieval section of the museum contains a crucifix alleged to have belonged to Desiderius. There are also architectural remnants from local buildings now destroyed, such as frescoes from the city’s Broletto, a statue of St. Faustine and a fresco cycle by Moretto da Brescia. But you will also find that medieval and Renaissance history abound throughout area. The Basilica of San Salvatore dates from the 9th century. It has a nave and two apses and is located over a pre-existing church, which in turn was built over a Roman building dating from the first century BC. The bell tower, rebuilt in the 13th-14th century, is renowned for its frescoes by Romanino, while the interior of the Basilica houses frescoes by Paolo da Cailina the Younger.

Nearby to the east is the archaeological complex of the city and there you will find the best-preserved Roman public buildings in the northern Italy. The complex includes the Republican Sanctuary, built in the first century BC, which is the oldest structure of the Forum. Nearby is the Capitolium of Brixia, which was the primary temple in the city. Built in 73 AD, it was almost entirely buried by a landslide of the Cidneo Hill. It was rediscovered in 1823 during an archaeological dig at the site. The Roman Theater is located immediately to the east of the Capitolium. It was built during the Flavian era and was subsequently remodeled in the 3rd century. With its 284-foot diameter, it is one of the largest Roman theaters in northern Italy and originally could accommodate 15,000 spectators. In the fifth century, an earthquake severely damaged the building. The original structure’s semicircular perimeter walls are still preserved, as well as many fragments of columns and friezes. While in the area, stop at the Palazzo Maggi Gambara, an aristocratic palace built in the 16th century atop the ruins of the western portion of the Roman Theater.

If you look to the north, the Castillo of Brescia will be in view. Also known as Falcone d’Italia (falcon of Italy), it is located at the top of Cidneo Hill. Built between the 13th and the 16th centuries, it is among the largest castles in Italy. Besides commanding a fine view of the city, it hosts numerous museums – the Arms Museum has a fine collection of over 600 armor pieces, weapons and firearms dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Become inspired in the Risorgimento Museum, which is dedicated to the Italian Wars of Independence. There is also an exhibition of model railroads and an astronomical observatory.

While traveling through the city, stop at the two duomos – the Duomo Vecchio and the Duomo Nuovo. Situated next to one another, the older structure contains the pink marble sarcophagus of Berardo Maggi, while in the presbytery is the entrance to the crypt of San Filastrio. The major attraction of the new cathedral is the frescos by Il Moretto, including the Ark of Saints Apollonius and Filastrius, which dates from 1510. Then stroll west to the Piazza della Vittoria. It is a wonderful example of Italian Art Déco architecture. Built between 1927 and 1932, you’ll find the Torrione on one of the square’s corner; it was the first skyscraper built in Italy. A few blocks southwest is the Teatro Grande Opera House, a national monument for more than a century. Renovated several times between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries, the horseshoe-shaped auditorium is richly decorated and has no less than five galleries.

Brescia also takes the credit for the inception of the famous car race – the Mille Miglia, an annual race that occurs in May. The Museo della Mille Miglia is located inside the former Monastery of S. Eufemia and celebrates the history of the 1,000-mile car race from Brescia to Rome and back that began in 1927.

In centuries past, the area of the Garda became a favorite resort for wealthy families coming from Verona. In the town of Sirmione, you can visit the Scaligero Castle, dating from the 13th century. It is a rare example of medieval port fortification which was used by the Scaliger fleet. It seems that in every corner of this enormous province there are sights that captivate the soul and stir the mind.