Bergamo Diary

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I was only in Bergamo for a short time, but it stole my heart just the same. We only had time to explore the Upper Town for part of a day, so I did not get to visit the Lower Town’s Accademia Carrara with its fantastic art collection.

The Upper Town was magical. What I loved more than the sights were the winding, narrow, hilly streets – so romantic and picturesque. I felt as if I had time-traveled back centuries while walking down those streets. In fact, the entire Upper Town made me feel as if I had gone back in time. I saw medieval houses and houses with 16th and 17th century facades. The atmosphere reminded me of that in Urbino, where I had visited a fabulous art gallery and Raphael’s birthplace as well as strolled down hilly, narrow streets.

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First, a few things about Bergamo’s history. Bergamo was founded as Bergomum by the Celts. It was given the status of municipality under the Romans in 49 BC, but then it was destroyed in the fifth century. It was rebuilt and blossomed into a significant town in Lombardy. I found out that Bergamo had been one of the stops on the mail courier route created by the Thun and Taxis dynasty during the 13th century in what was considered the first modern postal service. I remember hearing about this when I visited the palace in Regensburg.

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Bergamo was under Venetian domination as of 1428. During the period of Venetian rule, the middle class came into being, and Bergamo flourished artistically. Peace – something we experience little of in the world today – reigned over the awe-inspiring city for no less than three-and-a-half centuries. During the 16th century, the Venetians had defense systems built around the city. These structures have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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Then came Napoleon. The French troops took over the city on March 13, 1797. The Austrians didn’t take control of the territory until June of 1814. Some Italians were not satisfied with Austrian rule, and, in 1848, they rebelled against the monarchy. During 1861 Bergamo joined the Kingdom of Italy. The 20th century saw a major increase in industry. Three years ago, in 2017, Bergamo hosted the G7 summit. That’s when the Charter of Bergamo came into being, a proclamation focusing on reducing hunger in the world and helping agricultural development in Africa.

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We went to the Upper Town by funicular and headed for Piazza Vecchia, the main square. I admired the Baroque fountain in the middle, studying its adornment of tritons and lions. One of the most impressive buildings was the Palazzo della Ragione, constructed in the second half of the 12th century and housing administrative offices during the Middle Ages. The porticoes were elegant while the arches and three-mullioned windows above them were remarkable. I also admired the 18th century sundial on the pavement. The Torre Campanaria or Tower of the Big Bell harkened back to the 11th century. Every evening it tolls 100 times.

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The Palazzo del Podestà Veneto (Palace of the Mayor of Venice) is another architectural gem, built in the 14th century and now serving as a university. The Civic Library across the street was erected according to plans by Vincenzo Scamozzi, whose name I remember from my tour of Vicenza and its Palladian architecture. This structure in Bergamo dates from the early 17th century. The town hall was located on its premises from 1648 to 1873.

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The cathedral and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore are situated on the Piazza del Duomo, a small square where markets took place during the Middle Ages. The Baptistery includes eight bas-reliefs portraying the life of Christ. The basilica dates from 1137 and still has some Romanesque features. The loggias are very elegant. The interior was refurbished in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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What impressed me most of all was the Colleoni Chapel, where the sarcophagi of Bartolomeo Colleoni and his daughter Medea rested. Colleoni had been captain-general of the Republic of Venice and hailed from the Bergamo area. The church-mausoleum was built between 1472 and 1476 and is one of the most intriguing Renaissance structures in north Italy. The façade overwhelmed me with its tarsia and polychrome marble in red, white and black. The marble designs on the facade exuded a feeling of vivaciousness and a sense of harmony.

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The rose window took my breath away. I recalled the rose window in the cathedral of Altamura in Puglia – it had also put me in a sort of trance. Unfortunately, the Colleoni Chapel was closed when we were there, so I could only admire one of the most beautiful facades I had ever seen. I later read that inside there were remarkable ceiling frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo from the 1730s.

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The cathedral was built in the 17th century on the site of another cathedral. The façade on the west side was Neoclassical, a 19th century renovation. The cathedral got major makeovers in the late 17th century and in the 19th century. With a Latin cross ground plan, the interior was impressive, each altar enthralling in its own unique way. There was only one nave. A painting by Tiepolo adorned the apse. The baptistery dated from the Middle Ages with a font from 1340. On the upper level a colonnade included 14th century statues of virtues. The Diocese Museum was closed, unfortunately.

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The medieval houses that we passed on the way to the fortress included walled-up areas that are referred to as the doors of the dead. These entrances are opened only for a funeral of a family member. The fortress was built for John of Bohemia in 1331, and the tower, which we did not have time to go up, was sure to offer spectacular views. We also saw a 12th century tower. We did not have time to see San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, a 12th century church with impressive frescoes. I had also heard that the botanical garden was worth visiting.

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As I sat with a friend at a café on the main square, she told me it was her birthday. What a fantastic place to spend a birthday in! The evening was tranquil, the weather pleasant, without crowds as we had experienced in Verona in the morning. It was as if time stood still in Bergamo, as if peace momentarily reigned in the world just as it had in Bergamo for three and a half centuries.

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While we only had time to sample the city’s atmosphere, Bergamo made a distinct impression on me. One of the most admirable features of the Upper Town was the absence of souvenir shops. I wish Prague’s Old Town would ban souvenir shops. I remembered Prague of the early 1990s, when there were not so many souvenir shops and the center had yet to be overrun by tourists. Bergamo’s streets sported shops with local delicacies – I bought some tasty biscotti in one of them. There were also bookstores and stores for paper goods, for instance.

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What first comes to mind when I think of Bergamo are those streets, small and narrow yet romantic and poetic. I could walk down those streets for hours, around and around and around from dawn until dusk, getting lost and finding my way and myself over and over again.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Teatro Olimpico Diary

 

VicenzaTeatroOint17I cannot choose one place as the highlight of my trip to the magical world of Palladian architecture in Vicenza, but certainly seeing the Teatro Olimpico ranks right up there. Recognized by UNESCO, this is one of the three Renaissance theatres in existence. The 72-year old Andrea Palladio designed what is now the oldest covered theatre in Europe, and construction began in 1580. When Palladio died in August of that year, Vicenza-born architect Vincenzo Scamozzi took over.

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Still, the theatre clearly features many Palladian characteristics. For instance, the plan for the theatre was based on classical architecture. As usual, Palladio had found inspiration in the writings of Roman architectural guru Vitruvius, who lived during 1 BC. Indeed, I felt as if I were seated in a theatre dating back to antiquity. The classical forms gave the Teatro Olimpico a very majestic quality.

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The theatre held its first performance on March 3, 1585, as actors who were at the time well-known performed Oedipus Rex, a play chosen for its classical theme. The costumes were extravagant. About 1,500 spectators watched, and the play was a huge success. However, the theatre was only used for a few performances.

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Palladio had had his work cut out for him. The theatre was built on the site of a former prison, which had a box-like shape. Palladio was able to turn the audience hall into an oval shape, and the seating was sloped steeply, as if it were a Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatres I had visited in Taormina, Segesta and Syracuse, Sicily and in Arles, France came to mind. I also thought of the Roman amphitheatre I had seen the previous year in Lecce, Puglia.

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The classical architecture and statuary captured my immediate attention. Three orders of columns decorated the proscenium. The 41 statues that adorned the theatre on the proscenium and in the wings looked as if they were made of stone. That was just one of the many illusions in this theatre. In reality, the statues were sculpted from swamp reeds, tow, earthenware and mortar. While the statues showed off aristocrats from the 16th century, these figures were clad in classical attire, often wearing armor or long gowns. Thus, they were not portraits but likenesses set in a past time period. Because Leonardo Valmarana had been an ardent supporter of the Habsburgs, his statue has a face similar to that of Emperor Charles V.

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Notably, there were no women represented. Still, some of the men rendered had distinctive feminine features. Initially, some of the statues had been designed to show female figures, but they were changed into men. This produced some hilarious results. In the upper tier, the statue of Gerolamo Forni sports a beard but has a female body.

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Furthermore, all of the statues were not of the same quality. That’s because the quality of the statue depended on two factors – how influential the man represented was and how much the man had paid to have the statue sculpted. It would have been interesting to be able to inspect each one and learn who was most valued in Renaissance society. There were other statues, too. These included renditions of Olympic deities and one of Palladio himself, designed after the masterful architect had died.

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Hercules held a prominent position in the décor of the theatre. This legendary figure was the focus of stucco-clad bas-reliefs that told the story of his life. The artistic narration included scenes in which Hercules takes over for Atlas holding up the world, the Hercules – Antaeus encounter in which Hercules was victorious and Hercules’ successful fight against the Cretan bull. Thus, another classical theme was portrayed. The bas-reliefs by no means stagnant. There is a strong dynamic quality to the episodes that are brought to life in a vivacious way. So, while the theme stems from the classical world, the bas-reliefs provide a much livelier look than that expressed in the classical world. The figures even have a Baroqueness about them.

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One feature that enamored me was the illusive architecture, the false perspectives utilized in the design. The set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage far into the horizon, but it was really painted so that it created a fake perspective. I couldn’t believe that it was all an illusion. I could see myself meandering down the streets. It was architecturally amazing. I thought of the basilica at Hejnice and how the main altar was really painted on the wall, while it appeared three-dimensional. This feature of the theatre was designed by Scamozzi, who was known for his talent using false perspective. Via Theatres showed spectators a world of illusion. The world of the play was not the real world. This theatre also was a place of illusion itself.

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Another illusionary feature was the false sky above. It looked like the theatre was not covered at all, as if it were open and light under a clear sky. The likeness to a real sky was incredible. I did not sense I was in a closed space. This feature was designed at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The lighting played a major role in producing the illusive perspectives due to their location. Originally, the lights consisted of colored oils inside glass bulbs or wicks in metal boxes. They were hidden within the architecture featuring false perspective, so no one could tell where the source of the lighting was. It was a masterful idea, I thought. Scamozzi was responsible for the lighting. I wondered if my friend and former college lighting professor had ever been here. She would have a field day studying the lighting features.

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The theatre soon became an entertainment venue. During the 17th century, the theatre was used for receptions of VIPs the town was hosting. Fencing tournaments also took place there. Until recently, graduation ceremonies were held there. It is still used as a theatre on occasion, but only 400 spectators are allowed to watch performances for safety reasons.

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I appreciated the classical features of the theatre that had a distinguished feel. The statues added a classical elegance, and the bas-reliefs gave the theatre’s décor a vivacious character. I also was enthralled by the false perspective. Both the scenery and the fake sky were unbelievable.

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When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. I could have stared at the proscenium, wings and false sky for hours. It certainly was a unique structure. It would prove to be one of most bewitching sights I visited in Vicenza.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.