26 August 2016

Sant’Alessandro of Bergamo

Annual festival keeps alive the memory of city’s saint

Sant'Alessandro, as portrayed by artist Bernardino Luini in 1525
Sant'Alessandro, as portrayed by
artist Bernardino Luini in 1525
The patron saint of Bergamo, Sant’Alessandro, was martyred on this day in 303 by the Romans for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

It is believed Alessandro was a devout citizen who had continued to preach in Bergamo, despite having several narrow escapes from would-be Roman executioners, but he was eventually caught and suffered public decapitation.

In Christian legend, Alessandro was a centurion of the Theban Legion, a legion of the Roman army that converted en masse to Christianity, whose existence prompted a crusade against Christianity launched by the Romans in around AD 298.

Alessandro was reputedly held in prison in Milan on two occasions but escaped to Bergamo, where he defiantly refused to go into hiding and instead openly preached, converting many Bergamaschi to his faith.

Of course, he was ultimately taken into custody again by the Romans and beheaded on August 26, 303, on the spot now occupied by the church of Sant' Alessandro in Colonna in Bergamo’s Città Bassa (lower town).

Festive lights in the Via Sant'Alessandro in Bergamo
Festive lights in the Via Sant'Alessandro in Bergamo
Today is the Festa di Sant'Alessan- 
dro. In fact, his memory is celebrated with a series of religious, cultural and gastronomic events that take place in his name over several days throughout Bergamo, which is decorated with festive lights.

In 2010, for the first time, there was a re-enactment of Alessandro’s execution in full costume at the place where it is believed to have been carried out, in Via Sant’Alessandro. 

The Chiesa di Sant'Alessandro in Colonna lit up for the Festa along with the Roman column
The Chiesa di Sant'Alessandro in Colonna lit
up for the Festa along with the Roman column
Travel tip:

A Roman column in front of Chiesa di Sant’Alessandro in Colonna in Via Sant’Alessandro is believed to mark the exact spot where Bergamo’s patron saint was executed by the Romans. The column was constructed in the 17th century from Roman fragments and there are various theories about where the pieces came from. The church of Sant’Alessandro in Colonna was rebuilt in the 18th century on the site of an earlier church. Its ornate campanile was completed at the beginning of the 20th century. The church houses a work depicting the martyrdom of Sant’Alessandro by Enea Salmeggia and one showing the transporting of Sant’Alessandro’s corpse by Gian Paolo Cavagna. It also contains paintings by Lorenzo Lotto and Romanino.

Travel tip:

Porta Sant’Alessandro, which leads from the Città Alta (upper town) to Borgo Canale and San Vigilio, was built in the 16th century in memory of the saint. It was named after a fourth century cathedral that had originally been dedicated to Sant’Alessandro  but was later demolished. The gate became a checkpoint manned by customs officers, who would tax farmers from outside the city bringing in vegetables, eggs, chickens and wine to sell to residents of the Città Alta. The Duomo in the Città Alta, originally dedicated to St Vincent, was renamed in honour of Sant'Alessandro in the 17th century.

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