“Brescia is one of the most surprising and contradictory of provinces” wrote journalist Guido Piovene in his 1954 book, Journey to Italy After the War. Reading those words in 2022, things don’t seem to have changed much. Compared to then, there are the same squares, the same churches, the same archaeological sites and the same beauties. But above all, there are the same Brescians, whom he himself defines hard workers, obstinate, savers, traditionalists in politics and fanatics about their independence – I couldn’t have said it better. The people of Brescia were, and are, imbued with a spirit of initiative, so much so that they have earned the title of Capital of Culture 2023. Brescia is therefore a capital, also because – Piovene has always said so – this is an “instinctively autonomous” land.
The Classic Itinerary
Brexia in Latin, the city preserves the entire archaeological complex of the splendid Roman Forum, the largest and best preserved in northern Italy. Brescia, however, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List thanks to a later inheritance, that of the Lombard era found in the Church and Monastery of Santa Giulia, containing thousands of works of art and archaeological finds. Brescia boasts a castle that dominates the city, surrounded by a large public park, the Venetian-style Palazzo della Loggia, the old cathedral and the new cathedral, beautiful squares such as Piazza Vittoria, the Venetian-style Piazza della Loggia, Piazza Paolo VI from which to admire the Broletto and the Torre Bruciata, and then Piazza del Foro which gives access to the Archaeological Park. These are the classic itineraries, listed in every guide, but if there is a glorious past to visit, today more than anything else, people come to Brescia to admire the resourcefulness indicative of the modern Brescian genius loci.
The Genius loci
The most iconic monument of the city is the Torrione, Italy’s first skyscraper and the first reinforced concrete skyscraper in Europe, its 15 floors and rationalist style an imposing presence in Piazza Vittoria. There’s Santa Giulia, a museum that has become a case study for temporary exhibitions, so acclaimed that in the 2000s Brescia (not Rome, Florence or Venice) was the top city in Italy for exhibition visits. Brescia can be explored easily on foot, but there is also a subway: 17 stops for a total of 13 kilometers (a walk, in fact). The stations sparkle with glass, mirrors and steel, embellished with works of art thanks to the SubBrixia project. One of the works is a sign of the city’s name written upside down, symbolic of a second city, the archaeological one underground or the underground one of clubs and nightlife, the real B-Side of a city devoted to work.
Weapons, Cars and Steel
Half mountainous, a quarter hilly, a quarter flat, the province of Brescia is inhabited by the descendants of farmers who for centuries faced a hard land. Then in around fifty years, with a huge leap between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it found itself the cradle of national heavy industry. Among its valleys, the metallurgy “district of the rod” was born, producing weapons and engines, the two local passions. This can be perceived from the worship of beautiful cars that whiz through the streets up to the mountain villages, where during Piovene’s time, sports cars were already driven. This is where the Beretta, of pistol and rifle fame, is based, where the Millemiglia race was born and starts every year. Brescia even invented the Italian Champagne, transforming the hills that separate it from Lake Iseo in Franciacorta, the name of the famous Italian sparkling wine. In Brescia sparkling wine is produced, imbibed, and better yet, popped, celebrating what once did not exist: free time.
Areadocks and the Sign of Change
“When we opened in 1995, it was an era of obscurity. The night was taboo, you had to work not have fun” says the founder of Areadocks, Alberto Marengoni, “a bit like Bergamo today” he says jokingly. A former professional rugby player (a sport that counts more than football in Brescia), in the 1990s he opened Seconda Classe, the city’s first steak house, which over the years expanded to become a huge urban redevelopment project. A former suburban railway warehouse, today it houses a pizzeria, three restaurants, a clothing and accessories concept store, a furniture and architecture studio, six bars, a pastry and ice cream shop, private rooms, an event space, and a brand new 13-room boutique hotel. “We brought the world to Brescia,” he says and in reality, the attention to detail and the interiors is more New York City than Pre-Alps. Open from six in the morning and closing late at night, hosting DJ sets and shows, this multipurpose loft is a symbol of Brescia’s rebirth. “Today this is the town center, with boutiques and new businesses opening all around”. More than anything, Areadocks stands for the evolution of an area, now wealthy, that started not only producing but also consuming.
From pirlo to Gourmet Pizza
Another spot representative of change is Lanzani. From a historic butchery to a bistro and wine shop, today it’s also Laboratorio Lanzani, an ultra fashionable space in town where you can eat raw fish and uncork bottles – strictly Franciacorta. It is located on via Milano, a seedier area until their arrival, and once again an artery that (as the name suggests) conveniently connects the small capital to the large metropolis.
These days the trattorias of the past, visited only on weekends and offering a few classic dishes, like beef in oil and casoncelli (a traditional stuffed pasta) are forgotten. Today you can eat them almost anywhere in more or less reworked versions, or as tradition dictates at Osteria Ai Bianchi, after a Pirlo aperitif (the local version of the Spritz). But in the city, innovation has made its way into places such as Vivace. Here, contemporary cuisine plays uninhibited with elements of the classics, with dishes such as cabbage in oil or lake fish cutlets. Alimento is an award-winning pizzeria that serves small gastronomic creations on a crunchy and well-leavened crust. Their pizza is eaten by the slice, with toppings ranging from Korean kimchi to beef in oil or mutton. Then there is Inedito, a pizzeria born on the premises of Brescia’s first pizzeria dating back to 1962, now completely renovated. The pizza is round, with an impressive cornice, quality toppings and a tasty spelt dough – the meal starts with antipasti and they also offer a tasting menu to try.
The Capitale of Pastry Shops
Brescia’s pastry shops are a different story, a true local pride. Iginio Massari was born and raised here and became the great sage of Italian pastry with his Pasticceria Veneto, on via Veneto. You cannot miss trying his baked goods such as panettone, bussolà or maritozzo with whipped cream. In the city, however, pastry shops have sprung up like mushrooms, of a high level and beautiful innovations. At Bedussi they also make excellent gelato and pizza and in the summer, outdoor dining is available under the pergola. San Carlo offers the traditional Brescian rose cake, a very rich brioche, that has become a popular dessert throughout Northern Italy, even in starred restaurants, bringing a Brescian gastronomic presence all the way to Milan. According to Piovene, the people of Brescia have always distrusted the Milanese “locust” who prey on everything, and the newfound popularity of their desserts certainly fills them with pride.
No smoke. Porsche
If Milan is the capital of fashion and design, Brescia competes for innovation in the digital field and beyond. Talent Garden launched in 2011, a pioneering start-up of coworking spaces for the digital and tech community; today it is one of the largest innovation networks in Europe. Also in 2011, Gummy Industries started, a “heavy manufacturer” of digital creativity, which among other things also curated communication campaigns for the city of Milan. “It (Brescia) is a city that suffers from adverse selection” Alessandro Mininno, founder and CEO tells me. “Many from my generation have left, attracted by nearby Milan or by international cities. Those who live or work here do so for convenience but also for vocation, so as not to surrender to the mediocrity of the countryside and change things. The fight isn’t only against previous generations, it is against a way of thinking.” Less known and more industrial, today it works connected with the rest of the world. “It’s there but often unseen, because Brescia’s nature is to do rather than communicate: in the country, as they say, the roast counts, not the smoke.”
“The people of Brescia have learned, but perhaps they have always known it, that positional consumption exists: art, design, and obviously fashion. Brescia is the first city in Europe to distribute streetwear brands” concludes Alessandro. I had another statistic: a Tesla store is now part of the immense Areadocks as well as Porsche NOW, where you not only buy the car but customize it. Brescia leads the brand in European sales, and here Porsche has its largest racetrack and largest customer center in the world. Because the Big Mac isn’t the only global economic indicator…