THE portion of Bergamo known as the città, or ancient city, is a marvel of feudal-ism. It crowns a hill surrounded by monster bastions and parapets, now happily turned into pleasant walks shaded by great affluent horse-chestnut-trees. As one approaches from the Lombard plain, the città looks preeminently ” fit for treason, stratagems, and spoils,” although, Shakespeare assures us, that is exactly the condition of ” the man that hath no music in himself,” and yet Bergamo is noted as the birthplace of Donizetti and of lesser musical celebrities, such as Rubini.
Fig-trees and mulberry-trees in abundance climb up the fertile green slopes to the ram-parts. The houses stand in serried ranks, tinted in the shades of colour which the Italians love, yellow, pink, and blue; while the uniformity of the walls is broken by tiny loggias. Four great gateways give ac cess to the città. Up on top of the sheer bulwarks it is so quiet one can hear the distant talk of men working in the hill-side vineyards. A clock is striking, and off from the distance the blare of trumpets arrives mellowed and softened. Then, suddenly, the sound of some one practising scales on the piano tinkles and trickles from an open window, and suggests the musical interest which attaches to Bergamo.
The country northward, and in a measure eastward and westward also, breaks out into hillocks and rolling mounds, the final spurs which the Alps project into the vast, hazy Italian plain. On these fore-hills are fascinating bits for the colourist in farm, villa, and castle. At Bergamo the traveller is standing on the very fringe of the great mountain chain, treading on the tail of its coat.
The city is not on the direct line from Milan to Venice, like its neighbour and mediæval rival Brescia, and so needs to be sought out for itself. From Lecco the distance is only about twenty miles, and from Brescia a little over thirty.
From 1428 to 1797 Bergamo belonged to the Republic of Venice. Its annual fair of one month, from the middle of August to the middle of September, is said to have been held uninterruptedly since the tenth century. To-day this fair, like the majority of fairs elsewhere, has largely lost its commercial importance, yet a portion of the city lying in the plain is still set apart for its booths. To be accurate, Bergamo has long since overrun the crest of its crown, and has spread around itself a number of low-lying suburbs, or borghi. The main città on the height is 1,245 feet above the level of the sea, and there the Bergamesque families of ancient lineage were wont to dwell, who left the plain to traders and artificers, and to the fair. In our day Bergamo is still one of the prominent provincial centres of Northern Italy, with considerable industrial activity, especially in silk.
A wide modern street, the Strada Vittorio Emanuele, leads from the railroad station in the plain, past the fair grounds, to the foot of the old city. The hill is climbed by a gentle carriage road or by steep foot-paths. The traveller, entering at one of the gates of the città, finds himself at once treading the wonderful terraced boulevards and promenades of ancient Bergamo mentioned above.
In the centre of the città, almost hidden from view, lies the quaint municipal centre, now called Piazza Garibaldi, surrounded by buildings characteristic of local history. Here the Palazzo Vecchio, Broletto or town hall, stands on its columns, leaving an open hall beneath; we notice a projecting balcony (Ringhiera), recalling the days of the popular assembly; farther there is the unfinished Palazzo Nuovo; the statue of Torquato Tasso, whose father was a native of Bergamo, and a statue of Garibaldi. Near by is the cathedral and the Church of S. Maria Maggiore with adjoining Capella Colleoni. The latter was built by that condottiere, or free lance, Bartolommeo Colleoni, who was one of the most successful leaders of the mercenary companies which fought now on this side, now on that, in the Italy of the fifteenth century. His gilded equestrian statue crowns his monument in the interior; the recumbent statue of his daughter Medea is especially admirable for pronounced artistic worth. Outside the Porta S. Agostino is the Accademia Carrara, containing a picture-gallery.
When all is said and done, Bergamo has not only played a certain prosaic part in Italian trade as the place of the famous fair, and as sponsor for those long-legged Bergamesque sheep which come from the near-by mountains, but it has also won a picturesque share in Italian art, since it is a tradition on the Italian stage that Harlequin is a Bergamesque, both in bearing and dialect. Then there are the musicians.