Among the towns bordering the lake, Iseo is the historic center that has best preserved the medieval urban organization which, only partially modified in the 15th-18th centuries, remained almost intact until the last part of the 19th century.
The historic town widens in an irregular semicircle between the slopes of the mountain and the shore of the lake, on the wide cone of dejection that the Cortelo stream has formed with the sedimentation of materials carried by the current. It is assumed that the urban agglomeration has expanded over time from three functionally different cores: the castle on the hill, the harbour-market on the lake and the parish area to the north. A single centre was configured later with the construction of the walls at the beginning of the fourteenth century. The existence of a vicus in Roman times is documented by the discovery, in the upper part of the castle hill, of walls and floors, including mosaics (1st century AD), belonging to domus or villas. The sections of the aqueduct found in via Bonardi and in the wood located under the large cave called “Bus del Quai” in the north of the town can also be assigned to the Roman age.
In the early Middle Ages, Iseo grew in prosperity, becoming the most important centre of the area. The first mention of the toponym Hisegies appears in an imperial diploma of Lothair I of 837, in which its properties and courts are confirmed to the monastery of Santa Giulia in Brescia. The presence in Iseo of a castle is attested in the Polyptych of Santa Giulia, a list of the properties of the powerful Brescia monastery, dated between the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century. In the registration appears the curte Iseis, which, in addition to a rich endowment of goods, owned a vineyard in a “castle”. This indication indicates the existence of one of the oldest defensive structures in the Brescia area.
The foundation of the church dedicated to the protomartyr Stephen, placed next to the castle and rebuilt in its current form in 1665 with the new dedication to the Madonna della Neve, and the numerous burials that were distributed near the transit roads towards the Val Trompia and the Camonica Valley date back to the early Middle Ages too. The most consistent finding the one in the locality of Breda, where eleven burials have been brought to light, oriented east-west, with “cappuccina” structures and in a rectangular or anthropoid stone case. The small cemetery, dated to the 6th-7th century, is still visible today at the parking lot next to via Martiri della Libertà, near the level crossing.
Starting from the 11th-12th century, Iseo emerged as an economic and strategic center of the first magnitude for the control of exchanges and transits between the Brescia area, the Camonica Valley and the Bergamo side of the lake.
The existence of a public market, documented as early as September 1 of the year 1000, was connected to the goods that passed through the harbour, on which the monastery of San Salvatore-Santa Giulia held certain rights.
The parish church of Sant’Andrea was located in the northern area, which according to tradition was founded by the holy bishop Vigilio in the fifth century. Around the churchyard there are the parish church, the church of San Giovanni, built on the site of the ancient baptistery, and to the north the oratory of San Silvestro, a bishop’s chapel which later became the seat of the Discipline of the Holy Cross.
Iseo was surrounded by several circles of walls: the oldest probably surrounded the hill on which stood the castle and the church of Santo Stefano. Subsequently two other extensions were made before reaching the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the wider walls were built, which also included the area of the parish church. The perimetre of the fourteenth-century city walls can still be traced today, for the most part incorporated into the walls of the buildings. The entrance to the town was through three gates (demolished in the years 1844-46): Porta del Campo to the south towards Rovato and Clusane, Porta delle Mirolte, facing west on the side of the mountain, and Porta del Porciolo on the road which started in the direction of the Camonica Valley. Examples of towers can be seen in via Cerca and at the side of viale Repubblica, where the Sambuco tower stands, with the Scaligeri’s coat of arms carved on the keystone of the access portal.
The castle, the defensive centre of the town, is one of the best preserved examples of low-medieval military architecture in the province. The outer perimeter of the fortification retains the system of curtain walls and corner towers of considerable grandeur and integrity.
Between the 12th and 14th centuries the town was involved in wars with the Municipality of Brescia and in disputes between the empire and the papacy, experiencing dramatic moments, such as the siege and sacking which took place on 28 July 1161 by the army of Frederick Barbarossa.
However, Iseo retained a high level of wealth such as to allow the construction of high quality religious buildings (parish church of Sant’Andrea and church of San Silvestro) and the spread of civil stone buildings that can still be found today in the districts of the Sombrico and del Campo.
At the same time, several exponents of the local nobility emerged, among which the most representative and powerful family was the Ghibelline Da Iseo / Oldofredi family who, allied with the Federici family of Valle Camonica, maintained political and economic control of both the village and of large part of Lake Iseo’s and Franciacorta’s territories.
In 1454 with the peace of Lodi, Venice permanently extended its possessions to the territories of Brescia and Bergamo, which it would have maintained for about three and a half centuries. In Iseo the buildings were renovated, especially in the central part of today’s Piazza Garibaldi, and new building land was conquered by subtracting it from the lake.
The years between 1820 and 1860 were characterised by a strong economic expansion: spinning mills, tanneries and factories were located on the shore of the lake to take advantage of the water needed for manufacturing processes and for the ease of transporting goods through barges. Another source of wealth for Iseo was the harbour, which was strengthened, and the market which took place twice a week.
On the western side of Piazza Garibaldi the Palazzo dei Grani was built in 1833, based on a project by the architect Rodolfo Vantini, which involved the demolition of old houses consisting of warehouses and shops. The new building housed the grain exchange until 1952, when it became the Town Hall, it was enlarged by demolishing the sixteenth-century church of San Rocco which stood on the corner with Piazza Statuto.
In the same years Rodolfo Vantini also completely renovated the interior of the parish church of Sant’Andrea, giving it its current neoclassical appearance. At the end of the nineteenth century the Brescia-Iseo railway line was built, which was connected to the harbour through the demolition of the medieval houses of the contrada del Campo. After World War II, Iseo resumed its economic centrality in the Lower Sebino area, above all thanks to the rediscovery of its tourist vocation.
The starting point for visiting the town is Piazza Garibaldi, where all the entrance routes to the town spontaneously converge. In the centre of the square is the monument, sculpted by Pietro Bordini and inaugurated in 1883, dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi in which the leader is not depicted on horseback for the first time.
From the square you can then move north, through the interesting and well-preserved medieval district of Sombrico, reaching the sacred area of the parish church of Sant’Andrea; to the east you go along via Mirolte until you reach the castle, to the south you enter the district of Campo, once the site of spinning mills and factories.