Architecture and decoration between 19th and 20th centuries: Eclecticism and Art Nouveau in the area of Lake Iseo

The Napoleonic period and the subsequent Austrian dominion left a profound mark on the Lake Iseo area: the road system and lake navigation were improved with a consequent expansion of commerce and greater territorial and urban development. Following the Unification of Italy, the quarries, the iron industry, the use of water, the construction of the railway and a new and more dynamic trade network encouraged the development of the residential centres and led to new cultural and architectural undertakings. Despite a strong and characteristic note of traditionalism, the local bourgeoisie opened up to cultural and social experiments that were able to redesign the face of the prevailing particularism and a phase of modernity began, signs and traces of which can still be pinpointed in the residential architecture and, especially in the villas.

The growth of the urban centres was stimulated by the development of the railways. By 1876, Paratico was already connected to Palazzolo by a railway line of a strictly commercial type. The railway wagons travelled down the lake from the factories in Lovere and Pilzone on barges until they reached the landing stage on the lakeside at Paratico, the structures of which have been preserved and can still be seen today. This line was also used to transport tourists, but only at a later date. The Brescia-Iseo line which began operation in 1885, but was more widely used in the first decades of the 20th Century, gave rise to the first phenomenon of mass tourism on the Brescia side of Lake Iseo.

Throughout the 19th Century up until the first years of the 20th Century, the architecture of many of the historical centres on the lake (Sarnico, Iseo and Lovere especially) was characterised by eclecticism, in other words a trend that sought to find the “Italian style”. The result of this experimentation, however, is somewhat incoherent and divergent, passing from trends of a classical style with columns and gables, to neo-Renaissance patterns with wide ashlars and porticoes punctuated by arches and rows of windows above with intervals of pillar strips or concave or overhanging illusionistic mural paintings until reaching a revival of the neo-Gothic or neo-Romanesque style, above all in the centres of Brescia and Bergamo. Many significant examples can also be seen in the surrounding area thanks to the work of various experts of the time such as the architect Antonio Tagliaferri. As a result, the spaces of the new 19th Century town were mainly marked by the squares and with them the monuments which, especially towards the end of the 19th Century, catalyse and dominate the views and institutionalise the history of the community. In Iseo, the central Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi square) is bordered towards the lake by the imposing Palazzo dei Grani, which was designed by the architect Rodolfo Vantini between 1826 and 1833. The building later became the seat of the town hall and was extended in 1952. The famous architect from Brescia worked in this village which was growing rapidly as a result of the considerable industrial boom taking place there (between 1820 and 1860 many spinning mills and other factories were located on the shores of the lake). In 1840, the same Vantini undertook the renovation of the apse in the ancient baptismal church of Sant’Andrea. In the same church, the painting of the Tears of St. Peter by Giuseppe Diotti and the splendid Archangel Michel by Francesco Hayez (1838) show the difference between the styles of painting of the Academies of Bergamo and Milan. The later works of Hayez are documented by the paintings given to his grandchildren/nephews, the Banzolini, which are now housed in the Accademia Tadini in Lovere. Again in Iseo it is possible to admire the first Italian monument dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi, dated 1883 and made by the sculptor Pietro Bordini from Verona. Of the Brescia experts still imbued with neoclassical tendencies, mention must be made of the work of the architect Carlo Melchiotti who in Sale Marasino not only intervened in the cultural and religious life of the village, but also undertook an important artistic operation in order to blend the parish church of San Zenone with the shores of Lake Iseo. The set of steps with their marble balustrade leading up to the church and dating from 1870, represent a successful operation for framing and highlighting the religious building, as well as being a necessary structure for gaining access to the higher level of the churchyard. The figurative art of the time was also enriched, in the territory, by the romantic work of Antonio Guadagnini from Brescia, who was active in Pisogne (parish church and the Shrine in Govine), Marasino (Sant’Antonio), Curetto (oratorio dei Disciplini), Tavernola (parish church), Lovere (S. Maria in Valvendra). The painter who originated from the Valle Camonica (Camonica valley) left one of his best works in Palazzo Silvestri (Silvestri residence) in Sovere which he decorated with an important cycle of frescoes depicting themes of the Risorgimento to celebrate the Unity of Italy (1861).

In Lovere, on the contrary, work was being done by the painter Francesco Domenighini from Brescia who, between 1898 and 1900 decorated some of the rooms of the Milesi and Gregorini villas. The decorative solutions of this artist, which are full of vegetable and animal elements, retrace some of the themes of romantic art, but appear to tend more convincingly towards a rich realism and naturalism even with some hints of symbolism.

Another complex character is Giuliano Volpi from Lovere, an eclectic painter and skilled restorer who did work both on the frescoes of Romanino and in other churches and produced the entirely new frescoes in San Giovanni Battista in Conche (Sale Marasino) and the altarpiece of the parish church in Gratacasolo.

The artistic undertakings of the first few years of the 20th Century along the shores of Lake Iseo swung between late eclectic tendencies and the new, more modern Art Nouveau styles. With the exception of the restructuring of the church of Sant’Ambrogio in Qualino by the architect Giuseppe Pellini from Como in 1902, the first real 20th Century architectural undertaking in the territory was represented by the building of the parish church of Predore, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The building was designed by the architect Giovanni Barboglio from Bergamo in 1906 and completed in 1916.  The façade of the church closely follows the traditional Baroque tripartition found in most of the religious buildings in the area. Barboglio’s eclecticism may, therefore, be defined as neo-Baroque, as the influences and patterns, especially those of the 18th Century, triumph in every detail of the building. However, it is in Sarnico where the more mature Novecento (1900s) artistic style in keeping with the internationality of the prevailing Art Nouveau trend may be admired. Here the Faccanoni family, strong in their entrepreneurial success, attracted some of the masters of art and architecture of the time at the beginning of the 20th Century.  The architect Giuseppe Sommaruga, the metal worker Alessandro Mazzucotelli and the ebony worker Eugenio Quarti became the minds and executors of one of the most interesting Art Nouveau worksites in the whole of Italy. The three Faccanoni villas in Sarnico were, without a doubt, amongst the best examples of the new architecture up until 1914. Together with the three villas, the nursery school and the Faccanoni Mausoleum, again the work of Giuseppe Sommaruga can still be admired. In the same way, it is quite easy, while strolling along the riverside promenade in Sarnico to come across various buildings surrounded by gates and wrought iron fencing which were copied from an original idea by the iron worker Mazzucotelli: the Art Nouveau motifs of a fluttering curled ribbon are easy to find. The echo of Sommaruga’s passage continued, in this sense, even in the following decades. As far as sculptural work is concerned, mention must be made of the sculptors Ernesto Bazzaro and Ambrogio Pirovano from Milan who, in collaboration with Sommaruga, worked for a long time on the decoration of the villas and the Faccanoni Mausoleum in Sarnico (but also on the work of Sommaruga himself in Milan). Pirovano, in particular, also worked on the decoration of the Shrine in Lovere, which was completed in 1938 and bears the signature of  Mgr. Spirito M. Chiappetta. Although it was coherent in its neo-Gothic solutions and in its perfect harmony between outside and in, the Shrine appears to be somewhat behind the artistic styles of the time. One of the most interesting monuments in the area is the first world war memorial in Sarnico built by the sculptor Cirillo Bragozzi from Milan, while in Iseo near the port it is possible to admire the bust dedicated to Gabriele Rosa. The sculpture is dated 1912 and is by the sculptor Ettore Ferrari from Rome. The illustrious citizen of Iseo, a patriot, political figure and historian, was one of the promoters who helped to develop the area (his Guide to Lake Iseo dated 1874, is famous).


Massimo Rossi

Further information:

VAINI A. (a cura di), Sarnico. Testimonianze e aspetti di ieri e di oggi. Sarnico (Bg) 1986.

Brescia postromantica e liberty. 1880-1915, Catalogo della mostra, Brescia 1985.

ROBECCHI F., Il liberty e Brescia, Brescia 1981.

CHIESA G., SQUASSONI C., Il lago d’Iseo nelle immagini del fotografo Negri, Brescia 2003.

DE LUCA I., TOBIAS FACCANONI G. M., Il liberty a Sarnico, in “I quaderni della biblioteca”, Sarnico (Bg) 2006.

Iniziativa realizzata nell’ambito del bando Wonderfood & Wine di Regione Lombardia e Unioncamere Lombardia per la promozione di Sapore inLOMBARDIA

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