Churches in the Lake Iseo area from the Early Middle Ages to the 14th Century

During the Middle Ages, the Lake Iseo area played a complex role acting as a hinge between Brescia and Bergamo, especially at the southern part and at the confluence of the Val Cavallina and the Valle Camonica. As a consequence of the attention drawn to this area from secular and ecclesiastical powers, there was a significant presence of aristocracy in these areas which demonstrated its territorial control by constructing fortified buildings and places of worship and burial.

This phenomenon, which covered a long period, at least from the 8th–9th Century to the 12th Century, fits into an even longer and more complicated time of ecclesiastical organisation that was strongly conditioned by the different morphology of the territory. On the eastern shore of the lake, after the founding of the ecclesiastical circumscription of Iseo perhaps as early as Late Antiquity, the ecclesiastical circumscription of Vallis Renovata (the present day Sale Marasino) was developed and in the 11th Century, the ecclesiastical circumscription of Pisogne followed: the ecclesiastical circumscriptions extended their jurisdiction over a territory with inhabited areas of some significance spread both along the shores of the lake and on the hillside. On the contrary, up until the beginning of the 13th Century the steeper and less populated Bergamo side of the lake was without baptismal churches and was under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical circumscriptions of Telgate and Castelli Calepio in the south and Mologno (the current day Casazza in Val Cavallina) in the north; Lovere and the contested territory of Costa and of Volpino came under the Brescia ecclesiastical circumscription of Rogno in Val Camonica. Only between the end of the 12th Century and the beginning of the 13th Century did Santa Maria of Solto Collina become a baptismal church.

Numerous pieces of evidence remain of the rich fabric of medieval foundations especially in the southern part of Lake Iseo: examples of the privately founded churches of the early medieval period characterising the area of Val Calepio and Franciacorta can be recognised in the countryside between Val Calepio and the territory of Lake Iseo, such as the church of San Nazaro of Castione and San Giorgio in Predore on the shores of the lake; to these must be added  San Giorgio in Gallinarga of Tavernola, a private church that is not currently open to visitors; of the early medieval period and perhaps also of private origin is the oldest part of San Cassiano of Gargarino.

These are small, isolated churches with a quadrangular nave and semi-circular apse and are recognisable due to the seemingly rustic masonry in just enough rough-hewn material; all of the churches underwent extension work or were monumentalised and decorated in the Romanesque period, quite often with painting cycles of considerable interest. Built from just enough rough-hewn blocks of tuff beside the Roman necropolis, a similar origin may be deduced for the church of San Martino in Lovere that has now been deconsecrated and has undergone significant transformation. On the Brescia side of the lake, San Martino in Prada in Iseo is a privately founded church built in the 7th Century which was subsequently used for different purposes linked to accommodation.

The development of the great Brescia monasteries on the lake took place at the same time, in particular those of San Salvatore/Santa Giulia and of the Santi Faustino e Giovita. However, the properties do not seem to have been accompanied by religious foundations and no place of worship was connected, for example, to the fish pond of Sarnico or to the houses in Iseo, listed in the 10th Century as being amongst the assets of Santa Giulia.

Dating back to the beginning of the 11th Century, the expansion of the Brescia monastery of Sant’Eufemia della Fonte took place at the time of the first struggles for the Reform of the Church. The founder, Bishop Landulf, who opposed the reformists’ petitions, entrusted considerable areas of land to the monastery in order to control the diocesan territory: on Lake Iseo, the monastery acquired or founded the chapels of Sant’Eufemia di Vello and Santa Maria del Giogo on the route connecting Iseo and Val Trompia. The chapel of Vello, with its well preserved bell tower bears significant witness to the ecclesiastical architecture of the 11th Century and provides a useful comparison for dating the monumental bell tower of San Pietro in Tavernola. Here on a massive base of masonry consisting of just enough rough-hewn blocks a tower was erected with corner pillar strips in blocks cut from tuff (that have now been hidden on the outside by a concrete coating), completed by a belfry with supports of dubious workmanship very similar to the ones in Vello. The Romanesque masonry can also be recognised inside the church in the arcosolium on the northern side and externally on the southern side, confirming that the whole nave belongs to the medieval period.

Belonging to the period that followed immediately after are the numerous Cluniac foundations in the area of Lake Iseo. The great Cluniac monasteries of San Paolo d’Argon (1079) and Rodengo (built by 1095) were joined just a few years later by the churches and priories of Santa Maria di Negrignano in Sarnico (1081), San Pietro in Lamosa in Provaglio (1083), San Paolo on the island of the same name (1091), and  Santi Gervasio and Protasio (St. Gervasius and Protasius) in Clusane of Iseo (1093). Documents also refer in 1095 to the Cluniac chapels in Sarnico (of the three mentioned, those that can be identified are Santa Maria di Negrignano, which still exists although it has been radically transformed, and perhaps San Paolo, in the area of the castle) and Paratico (perhaps San Pietro). These chapels bear witness to the adhesion to the Reform of the Church on the part of the aristocracy which, in this way, managed to maintain control over its religious foundations and related incomes at a time of great transformation in the Church.

The presence of the Cluniac order was of great significance for the development of Romanesque architecture in the territory, even if by the 15th Century, the monastic settlements had been engulfed by the crisis and had disappeared or been replaced by other orders. The use of vaults and complex structures such as avant-corps, lanterns or towers in the sanctuary, as documented in San Paolo d’Argon and as can be determined in San Pietro in Lamosa (which is covered by vaults and preceded by an avant-corps), corresponds to a phase of significant development in the building skills of the Lombard craftsmen.

An important result of the skill acquired in building techniques and the solutions drawn up in the 11th Century can be seen in the baptismal church of Sant’Andrea, with its monumental tower on the façade and the documented presence of a crypt in which the remains of the bishop Vigilius were venerated. Sant’Andrea with its phases of construction between the 11th and 12th Centuries and the baptismal church buildings joined to it (the rectories and baptistery) and the bishop’s court (San Silvestro (St. Sylvester) and the building in front of which only a few traces of masonry remain) are clear examples of the phenomenon of reconstruction of the baptismal church buildings linked to the reaffirmation of the power of the bishop. The foundation of the baptismal church of Pisogne (in the mid 11th Century) belongs to the same process as well as the reconstruction of San Zenone in Sale Marasino. Of the former, archaeological excavations have unearthed a large-scale building with a crypt and a layout with three naves of the same size as the present day church: the church replaced an early medieval building of worship which was also of some significance due to an early medieval sculpture which was reused in the Romanesque crypt. A part of the rectory has also survived, with structures dating from the 11th to the 13th Centuries. San Zenone in Sale Marasino, of which the bell tower and the rectory remain, may perhaps represent an example of the transfer of the baptismal church: this seems to be proven by the place name Vallis Renovata by which it was known in the 12th Century and the distribution of the Roman and early medieval finds which were located almost entirely on the hillside, suggesting a transformation in the arrangement of the settlement  between the 10th and the 11th Centuries.

The parish buildings of Santa Maria Assunta in Paratico, belong to the end of the 12th Century and the mid 13th Century, although documents refer to it from as early as the 10th Century, and the apse of  San Michele in Cambianica dates back to the same period. The regularity of the ashlars that are perfectly square and placed in position with very fine joints, and the pronounced accentuation of the structural elements (pillar strips and small arches) mark the point of arrival of a long journey of which little significant architectural proof dating from the 14th Century is available in the Lake Iseo area. For this period, the painting cycles are more significant: besides the popular dissemination of Giotto style motifs linked to the figure of Maestro di Cambianica, mention should also be made of one isolated yet very significant fragment of a much higher quality in San Pietro in Tavernola which affirms a much greater understanding of the plasticity of Giotto’s figures.


Monica Ibsen

For further information:

BREDA A., GREGORI G.L., ROSSI F., Sul riutilizzo medievale del’antico: il monumento funerario di Ti. Claudio Numa a Pisogne (BS), in “Atti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia. Rendiconti”, LXXIII (2000-2001), pp. 199-212.

PIVA P., Iseo. Pieve di Sant’Andrea e nucleo vescovile, in Lombardia romanica. Paesaggi monumentali, a cura di R. Cassanelli, P. Piva, Milano 2011, pp. 240-242.

SCIREA F., San Pietro in Lamosa a Provaglio d’Iseo, in Lombardia romanica. Paesaggi monumentali, a cura di R. Cassanelli, P. Piva, Milano 2011, pp. 243-244.

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

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