Sunday, May 23, 2010

Italy: Bergamo and the layers of history

I like how geography -- so baffling when you first arrive in a place as a stranger -- yields up ideas after a few hours of your putting yourself into it.

We stopped in Bergamo, in the foothills below the Italian lakes. It's a medieval town on a hill, still surrounded by its original walls. It is preserved because the modern town developed on the flat land below and basically left the old town intact. By the 18th century, there wasn't much defensive potential to being up on a hill behind medieval curtain walls, so the point of settling uncomfortably up there was gone. Modern towns needed roads, canals, railways, and room to grow.

The old town is criss-crossed by little streets, no more than alleys, tight canyons of masonry faced by unrevealing little windows and well-locked doors. But then you turn a corner and you're in a piazza; space opens up, maybe just a little; and the buildings open up, too.

You realize, walking these old alleys, why piazzas were so important for the Italians. In the streets, you can't really communicate with more than a couple of others; in the piazza you have room for a crowd. You can throw a party.

The Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo is fairly big, and very communal. On the north are the porticos of the public library; on the west, the entrance to the old university (Bergamo struck us as a pretty studious and serious town). On the east are cafés; we ate lunch at the Caffé del Tasso, "since 1476" (what would they have served then? not espresso, for sure).

On the south, the piazza is bordered by an interesting building, the municipal hall, or Palazzo del Ragion. Above, this is essentially one large room, an amazingly wide and high room with complicated medieval trusses, apparently the place for town debates, policy meetings, banquets, etc. Underneath, at piazza level, is an open portico. Thus you can look right through the building to a smaller piazza beyond. The piazza is both enclosed and permeable at the same time.

What you reach by going through the portico is the religious center of town -- the Piazza del Duomo, with its cathedral as well as a very large Romanesque church of Sta. Maria Maggiore, baroque-ified inside to beat the band. Literally next to this is a third church, a chapel that holds the tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a Bergamasque mercenary mostly working in the pay of Venice. ("Bergamasque" is the adjective form of Bergamo, and became used for a famous Renaissance dance.)

So beyond the portico lie two big forms of organized power - church and army. But back in the big piazza, power seems much more diffused: library, university, commerce, city government with its traditional neighborly squabbles.

In the portico itself, where the city council used to hold hearings, there's a nice reminder of how history changes. In the late 18th-century, some scientifically inclined citizen created a complicated sundial (an "analemma") on the floor, in inlaid pieces of marble. It doesn't tell the time, but the days of the year. Each sunny day at real-time midday (not noon, but apparently 12:21), the sun streams past the cathedral to shine through a hole at the top of one of the arches, and hits a long line in the pavement at some point that tells you what date it is. Aside from being a useful check on the less-than-reliable calendars of the day, it's a visual reminder of the tilting of the earth: in summer, close into the front since the noon sun is high in the sky; in winter, a ray stretching some hundred feet into the portico, since the sun's down near the horizon even at noon.

History layers itself: Medieval (a town walling itself in for its own life in a fierce environment of marauders); Renaissance (Colleoni putting his energy and guts -- sprezzatura, he'd have said -- up for sale to the Venetian Republic); Enlightenment: a rationalist creates a visual emblem of the predictability of Galilean planetary motion.


Gail said...

Great description, Nick. Brought back memories from our visit there over 20 years ago.

Stephen Jones said...

Nick--I enjoyed your description of this beautiful hill town and especially the photo of the early morning mist. I also like the way you teach using your blog; I've bookmarked the page and will return. This also reminds me of our travels together; we've got to do that again.

Love, Stephen