The convent of San Salvatore, later named after Santa Giulia (915) was founded at the wish of King Desiderius and his wife Ansa in 753 AD, and built on a particularly rich archeological site (the remains of Roman domus have been found under the basilica of San Salvatore and in the kitchen garden of Santa Giulia. Considerable enlargement and reconstruction over the centuries produced a building constructed round three cloisters, as it is today. Major alterations were made in the time of the city states (XII century: rebuilding of the cloisters, enlargement of San Salvatore’s crypt, building of Santa Maria in Solario) and in the late XV century (complete rebuilding of the cloisters and addition of the north cloister of dormitories, raising of the nuns’ choir and repositioning of the front of the church of San Salvatore, which was in turn destroyed and completely redesigned when the new church of Santa Giulia was built in 1499).
The Benedictine convent is where Desiderius’ daughter, Manzoni’s Ermengarda, after being repudiated by Charlemagne, took refuge until she died. The convent thrived and became one of the richest and most important in northern Italy, with estates all over the peninsular, also thanks to bequests from its nuns, who often came from aristocratic families. It was dissolved in 1798 under Jacobin revolutionary legislation, then turned into a barracks and deprived of its property. Its progressive dilapidation was halted in part when in 1882 The Museum of the Christian Era was set up in the three buildings, but it was only in 1966 that proper restoration work began when the town council acquired the whole area. Now the complex has returned to its original glory and houses the City Museum.
A visit to the museum begins in the underground part of the convent, in the past used as cellars and storerooms; the settling of Brescia and its surroundings from the Bronze Age up to Roman times is the theme here. The oldest exhibits, which come from the south side of the town, go back to 3000 BC and refer to the period when the inhabitants became farmers and craftsmen.
The Roman period is well represented in all its aspects, both in public and private life. In Vespasian’s time Brescia was given a monumental centre with Capitolium, basilica and theatre grouped round the forum. Relief models, videos and archeological finds enable you to picture the buildings that contained the famous bronzes discovered on July 20, 1826 in the cavity between the rear wall of the Capitoline Temple and Cidneo hill, and probably all used in the temple. The most famous is the “Winged Victory” possibly Venus originally before being transformed in Vespasian’s time, when it became an imperial votive offering. There are also some fine gilded bronze heads of Roman emperors.
The private domus display is next to the section dedicated to public buildings, with frescos and mosaics (those coming from the sumptuous villa of San Rocchino are particularly fine) and everyday household objects. This sector is unique in its inclusion of the remains of a house found under the convent garden.
The arrival in Brescian territory of Germanic peoples: Goths, Lombards and Carolingians, marked the passage from late Roman to early medieval art. The appearance of the city changed enormously as Roman public buildings were abandoned and poor mud and wood houses were built, while large areas of the town became farmland. It was during this period that the convent of San Salvatore was founded and it quickly took on an important religious, political and economic role as a gradual return to civil life began.
The medieval section begins with exhibits connected with the period when Brescia was a city-state, above all with objects from buildings which no longer exist. The frescos from the Broletto, the marble San Faustino on horseback from Porta Pile and the fountain statue of Berardo Maggi from the convent of San Barnaba should not be overlooked.
The visit continues in the church of San Salvatore and the old XV century refectory, a huge room divided into two by massive pillars down the middle, it is here that material from monumental buildings in the city is on display, illustrating the period from late Gothic to Renaissance.
In the IX century a new church was built on the foundations of the first one dating from the VIII century, it was 40 metres long and had a nave and two aisles divided by pillars with fine capitals. In the second half of the XVI century the front of the basilica was demolished, when the nuns’ new choir was built, – the choir is now the chancel of the church of Santa Giulia. The remains of stucco-work in the nave and north aisle date back to the IX century. Part of the right-hand aisle is taken up by the base of the bell-tower, which was erected between the XIII and XIV century. Its lower part was later decorated by Romanino (XVI century) The chapels on the north side are all decorated: the second one has frescos of the Lombard school dating from 1350 – 1375 and in the first one there is a series of XVI century frescos. The apsidal area of the crypt belonged to the first church and fragments of VIII and IX century frescos can be seen here. In the XIII century it was enlarged and columns with interesting figured capitals in the style of Antelemi, were added.
The next part of the museum is on the upper floor, where there are two sections dedicated to the applied arts, laid out in tune with the style of home or the collector’s taste. The splendid series of frescos painted by Moretto as a young man for Bishop Mattia Ugoni’s residence are particularly interesting.
The corner-stone of the next section is Santa Maria in Solario, a XII century votive chapel that was used as the “oratory” of the convent. On top of the square-shaped construction there is an octagonal lantern with a closed loggia. There are two floors joined by a stone staircase built in the thickness of the wall. The lower floor has a Roman altar stone dedicated to the Sun god in the middle, on which the central pillar of the room rests. The upper floor, under the cupola, is completely frescoed, for the most part by Floriano Ferramola (XVI century).
The treasure of Santa Giulia is on show here, consisting of: the Lipsanoteca (an ivory reliquary case decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testaments) and the great wooden cross of King Desiderius (IX century goldsmith’s work, covered in jewels, rare cameos and painted glass – including the famous triple portrait from the IV century).
The complex of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia is on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2011.