Piazza Vecchia, Bergamo's unchanging beauty

One of the most beautiful squares in Europe, where it would be a crime to move a single stone. This statement isn't new, but comes from none other than Le Corbusier, who of course knew a thing or two about architecture.
piazza vecchia bergamo

At first glance

The Piazza Vecchia, which captivates anyone who sees it at first sight (and continues to impress later), is the jewel, the heart of Bergamo’s old town. As it has been for centuries, it’s still the place for many of the city’s most important buildings, and from here you can reach the neighbouring Piazza del Duomo with its beautiful cathedral.

piazza vecchia bergamo

What can you see here?

Piazza Vecchia was long surrounded by many buildings standing in splendid harmony, just as they do today. When you enter the square, the first thing that will probably catch your eye is the Torre Civica, the city’s bell tower, whose large bell is called Campanone in Bergamo.

Next to it is the Palazzo della Ragione, which for a long time was the seat of justice. Its beautiful portico leads you to the neighbouring Piazza Duomo, where you can admire the magnificent cathedral, among other things.

On the other side of the square is the city’s library, the Biblioteca Civica Angelo Mai, with a prestigious collection.

On both sides, charming cafés await you to enjoy the atmosphere with a cup in hand, while the centre of the square is adorned by the beautiful marble fountain Fontana Contarini.

Chasing lions

Bergamo was a lively place even before the Venetians arrived, but it’s thanks to their style and sense of beauty that the Città Alta, and Piazza Vecchia in particular, still has a mediaeval look. The Venetians gave the square its Renaissance appearance and transformed it from an ancient Roman forum into a mediaeval centre. You’ll find clues to this in many places in the old town, just look for the familiar Venetian symbol, the lion. In Piazza Vecchia, for example, you can see a lion on the façade of Palazzo della Ragione, but you can also find lions among the statues of the Fontana Contarini, a beautiful octagonal marble fountain in the centre of the square (donated in 1780 by the Venetian magistrate of the time, Alvise Contarini, to provide the city with drinking water when it needed it).

piazza vecchia bergamo palazzo della ragione

Watch your step

Under the arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione, you don’t have to look far to see a long straight line. Stop for a moment and take a closer look, because you’ll see an interesting 18th century sundial. Find your zodiac or check when the sundial was made and how many metres above sea level it is. The best time to observe it is exactly at noon (winter time). At the top of the arcades, towards the cathedral, look for a hanging shield with a tiny hole in it. If you watch it at that exact time, you can see the sunlight coming through the hole and illuminating the current month and zodiac on the sundial.


Tower with a view

Don’t miss (especially if the weather is nice) the experience of climbing up to the Torre Civica (don’t worry, you don’t have to count the stairs, you can take the lift). There you can admire not only the biggest bell in Lombardy, but also a panorama that will tempt you to shoot tons of photos. Admire the two beautiful squares below, Piazza Vecchia and Piazza del Duomo, take a look at the impressive Basilica from a special angle and enjoy the view of the surrounding districts, the lush hills of Bergamo and even the mountains in the distance. On a really clear day, you can even see all the way to Milan.


Count to 100 at 10pm

Bergamo’s great bell, the Campanone, still announces the passage of time in the Torre Civica. It’s a reminder of the old days when the city went to bed at 10pm, the gates were closed and everyone retired to their homes. The time was announced every night by the Campanone to the people of Bergamo – with no less than a hundred bells. And what’s most interesting for us is that although nowadays there’s no longer a night curfew (at least not in epidemic-free times), this custom is still alive and well. So if you’re near the Piazza Vecchia at 10pm, count the exact number of bells. Thanks to the imposing size of the Campanone, you don’t have to stand right at the foot of the tower to hear it.


Where the bell was born

Once you’ve seen the popular Campanone, you should find out where it was made. Given its dimensions, many people wonder where this imposing bell was brought to the tower from. You don’t have to go far to find the answer. On the side of the tower facing the basilica, you’ll see a circle on the paving of the square with a plaque commemorating the place where the great bell was cast. In fact, this discovery was made quite by accident: when the pavement was once repaired, a large dark spot was found with the remains of melted bronze. It quickly became clear what the spot had been used for.


Photo: visitbergamo.net

Drink from the mouth of the Sphinx!

Okay, I don’t really want to ask you to do that, lest you be lumped in with certain uncouth tourists who see nothing but drinking water in the beautiful octagonal white marble sculptures of the Fontana Contarini. In any case, you should admire the fountain in the middle of the square, guarded not only by lions but also by two sphinxes from whose mouths drinking water actually flows. (The fountain is currently being renovated and is therefore fenced off and inaccessible, but you can peek in from one side).


Sharp bayonets

If you look closely at certain columns in the arcade of the Palazzo della Ragione, you’ll notice some strange scratches on the side facing the basilica. It’s a curious historical reminder: at the time when many northern areas of Italy, including Bergamo, were under Habsburg rule, Austrian soldiers used to sharpen their bayonets before going out on patrol (in their defence, they didn’t use whetstones then).


Sit on the bench of shame (if you're not superstitious)

Again, look under the arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione for a spot that doesn’t immediately catch your eye. Along the wall, where passers-by often rest on the stone bench, very close to the Caffè del Tasso, you’ll notice that in one place the seat isn’t grey-black but white, as if a cushion had been placed there. There are various theories about the stone’s former function: it was probably a kind of bench of shame on which merchants sat who were caught cheating or stealing, or on which defendants trembled waiting for the verdict of the dreaded judges.


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