The CastleThe castle stands on Cidneo Hill, which constitutes an important park area within the city. It is one of the most interesting fortified complexes in Italy, in which signs of the various periods of domination are still evident.
The central keeps, the impressive battlemented walls and the tower were built by the Visconti, whereas the massive ramparts and monumental entrance with drawbridge bear witness to the power of the Venetian Republic, which sustained the city for more than four centuries.
Once focus of Brescia’s famous “Dieci Giornate” rebellion, the castle has now abandoned all belligerence and instead offers visitors the opportunity to stroll on its rolling slopes. The hilltop can be reached from the centre of the old city centre, Piazzetta Tito Speri, by means of Contrada Sant’Urbano. The castle is full of unexpected paths and hidden rooms and provides a marvellous panorama of the entire city centre, nearby hills and valleys.
The encircling towers and the “Strada del soccorso”, an escape route of Viscontean age, have participated in the numerous sieges which the city has known. Following the paths, you can also discover the castle’s balanced eclecticism; one of the city’s oldest and most prized vineyards, on a slope of the hill, coexists naturally with Roman remains, such as a group of olive oil tanks, medieval bastions and a 1909 railway locomotive, the “Prigioniera del Falco d’Italia”, for the enjoyment of younger visitors.
Arms MuseumThe keep - one of the oldest portions of the castle, built by the Visconti in the fourteenth century, and an imposing part of Cidneo Hill’s surviving fortifications – houses the “Luigi Marzoli” Arms Museum, which was inaugurated in 1988 and designed by Carlo Scarpa. This is one of the most important European collections of old armour and weaponry.
The ancient Brescian tradition of arms production is illustrated by the 580 swords, firearms and suits of armour on display (selected from the 1090 items bequeathed by the industrialist Luigi Marzoli), together with the history of warfare and artistic expression which these armaments (which are largely from 15th to 18th-century Brescia and Milan) also embody.
This main collection has been enlarged by further 300 pieces, 19th-century firearms in particular, from the civic collection.
The museum’s ten exhibition rooms of artistic craftsmanship start with a presentation of armaments from the fifteenth century, the time of armoured cavalry, when helmets and body armour were strategically important. The rarest pieces include a large Venetian helmet and under-helmet with visor in the shape of a dog’s muzzle; the thirteenth-century sword is the oldest item on show.
The collection includes numerous sixteenth-century arms, which reflect the changes in modes of attack and development of more dynamic battle tactics in this epoch. Lighter and more comfortable armour was required, such as the superb Maximilian-style suit of armour, almost ostentatious with its shiny, curved surfaces. The museum illustrates the aspects of social display and public honour that weapons and armour began to acquire, in addition to their battleground functions, as objects of prestige and admiration at public parades. The reconstruction in the “Elk Room” of a cavalier’s twin escorts, composed of soldiers on foot and on horseback armed with halberds and maces, adds to the striking general effect.
The artisan never loses his sense of artistry, which may at times dominate over technical considerations, such as in the case of the two round parade shields exhibited in the Luxury Armour Room; one is initialled and dated 1563. These are genuine works of art: finely embossed with gilt sections and portraying the Triumph of Bacchus. The historical voyage of discovery of the arms’ secrets includes the evocative history of the sword, which evolved from being an all-purpose sharp-edged weapon into a fine fencing instrument, a process documented by the mid-sixteenth to eighteenth-century examples displayed, which become increasingly functional and offer progressively more protection to the combatant’s hand.
Ample space is given to halberds, muskets, pistols and other guns in the museum section dedicated to the extensive firearm collection, featuring pieces made by the most famous gunsmiths, Cominazzo, Chinelli, Dafino and Acquisti.
The arms on display often show originality in the gunpowder sparking mechanisms or decoration, may be of Brescian or foreign manufacture, and constitute an unusual exhibition of craft engineering through the centuries.
Those visitors to the Arms Museum interested in historical art and architecture have the opportunity to appreciate frescos from the Visconti era which decorate the rooms of the keep, the only remaining portion of the fourteenth-century fortifications.
The evocative atmosphere of the museum is further increased by the presence of the remains of an underlying 1st century AD Roman temple; the edges of the foundation and a wide staircase are visible. This is the sole survivor of a group of temples which once stood on Cidneo Hill, an impressive acropolis in the Roman period.