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  • The tombs of Donizetti and Mayr in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the ‘charitable lessons’ classroom
  • The tombs of Donizetti and Mayr in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the ‘charitable lessons’ classroom

    Congregazione Misericordia Maggiore Bergamo

    The ‘MIA’ across centuries of culture and charity

    The Misericordia Maggiore, “Greater Mercy” or “MIA“, as it has been historically abbreviated over the centuries and appears in several works of art in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, was founded in Bergamo in 1265 as a spiritual and charitable association by two Dominicans, Bishop Erbordo and Blessed Pinamonte da Brembate, who dictated the original statute. The goal of the MIA was to help the poor, the sick, prisoners, and others in need, and its first income came from offerings collected among the Brothers, followed by donations, devices, legacies and bequests, which, over time, and with careful administration led to a considerable sum of assets.

    visit donizetti_fondazione mia_1

    The ‘Canevari’ charged with distributing bread, wheat, wine and salt
    Portion of a fresco removed from the old cathedral of San Vincenzo – Museo del Duomo, Bergamo

    The Misericordia became the main point of reference for those widespread orientations of the laity collectively known as the ‘Revolution of Charity’, providing all-comprehensive support, which crossed the boundaries of the solidarity of the brotherhood, grafting itself onto and at the same time exceeding the neighbourhood systems of providing charity to address the entire citizenship and cover the entire city, its suburbs and nearby valleys, in practice the entire territory of the medieval Municipality of Bergamo, that is the current territory of the entire province.

    In 1449, the City Council, recognizing the good management of the consortium, entrusted in perpetuity the administration of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore to the administrators of the MIA. The municipal decision, ratified by Pope Nicholas V in a papal bull of 1454, however, was not only dictated by the well-founded prospect of good administration. Since its origins, the MIA had been closely linked both to the cult of Mary as Mater Misericordiae, and to the church that carried its dedication. Indeed, between the end of the twelfth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century, the title of ‘Consortium Misericordiae Sanctae Mariae’ was affirmed in documents.

    While remaining fully autonomous from the municipality, the Misericordia, thanks to its Patron, knew from the beginning how to guarantee its support. The activities of the Misericordia moved ably within the confines granted by the regime of the Podestà, and it was precisely in the field of social assistance that the economic and political support of the municipal institution became more concrete. MIA had become a complementary body of the public administration, with the city delegating all public assistance functions that were not related to hospitals to the Misericordia.

    As the prestige of the consortium increased ever more, it became an institution of great importance, not only in charitable spheres, but also economic, social, cultural and educational. The shining example of the Misericordia Maggiore aroused the interest and emulation of wealthy families, thus allowing the survival of the institution. In the early seventeenth century, the adjective ‘Maggiore’ was definitively incorporated into the consortium’s title as ‘Consorzio della Misericordia Maggiore’, probably to underline its pre-eminence and importance among the many ‘Misericordie’, or ‘Mercies’, that had arisen in almost all the parishes of the city and the Diocese. By the end of the eighteenth century, the MIA was by far the most influential and important charitable organization in Bergamo.

    The advance of new philosophical and political ideas developed and spread through the Age of Enlightenment had led to the assignment of new and unprecedented tasks to government authorities in educational, scholastic, cultural and social fields. Charity was replaced by public assistance and charitable organizations of medieval origin, in which meritorious works of mercy had a theological foundation as well as one of solidarity, were transformed into charitable institutions with political and civil motivations. The new welfare system of organization was implemented in Bergamo with the establishment, in 1807, of the Congregation of Charity, divided into three sections; 1) Hospitals, 2) Hospices and Orphanages, and 3) Alms and Pawnbroking. In 1808, the MIA finally merged with the Congregation of Charity, serving as the coordinating body of the various shelter and almsgiving institutions.

    Under the Austrian government, the management of the Misericordia Maggiore passed to a new body called the ‘Luoghi Pii Elemosinieri’, which was headed by an Administrator directly dependent on the government for economic management, and by a Directorate, again appointed by the government, for charitable actions. In 1890, the Crispi Law rationalized the Italian welfare system and the Luoghi Pii assumed the title of ‘Istituzioni di Pubblica Assistenza e Beneficienza (IPAB)’, or ‘Institutions of Public Assistance and Charity’.

    In 1937, the Misericordia Maggiore (Opera Pia Misericordia Maggiore) merged into the Municipal Assistance Body, keeping the management of its patrimony separate. In December 1978, with the transfer of healthcare to the administration of the Regions, the Municipal Assistance Bodies were abolished. The Board of Directors of Municipal Assistance Body forwarded to the President of the Council of Ministers a request to exclude the MIA from the list of Institutions of Public Assistance and Charity destined to be transferred to the Municipality, citing as an argument the fact that one of the main activities of the institution concerned the educational-religious sphere. The request was accepted and MIA regained its autonomy.

    With the latest legislation, Regional Law No. 1/2003, the institution passed from an Institution of Public Assistance and Charity IPAB to being a Foundation administered by a board of nine Directors, appointed by the Mayor of the Municipality of Bergamo.

    What is the MIA today?

    Since January 2004, the ‘Congregazione della Misericordia Maggiore di Bergamo’ (Congregation of the Greater Mercy of Bergamo) or MIA has had the juridical form of a foundation, in order to be able to continue, with an organization more adapted to the needs of today, the mission that has distinguished it for over seven centuries of existence: education, culture, religion and assistance; all according to the principles of its Articles of Association, by which (as per Article 3) the Foundation:

    • Is a non-profit;

    • Reconfirms a commitment to the interests and purposes expressed in the founding tables and original statuary articles;

    • Participates, as per current legislation and in adherence to its Christian inspiration, in support of the social system, in the context of charity, welfare, education and training.

    In particular, the Foundation has the following primary and fundamental goals:

    • To promotes activities related to the religious and educational sphere, respecting its original Catholic Christian connotation;

    • To provide for meeting the needs of all the old and new conceptions of poverty;

    • To support activities of education and culture in the broadest sense and events aimed at both the conservation of instrumental assets and traditions, and the promotion of new activities and good works in the priority area of Bergamo, and then Lombardy;

    • To maintain and guarantee the office, ministry and administration of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Chapel of the City, and related religious, cultural and educational services, through special agreement with the Diocese of Bergamo;

    • To maintain, promote the value of and extends the entire property and real estate assets, managing those assets in the best possible way.

    The History of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore

    History tells us that, in 1133, the territory of Bergamo was hit by a severe drought, followed by famine and the plague. The people of Bergamo prayed to the Virgin asking for her help, and, in 1135, it was decided to erect a church as a votive gesture. The ‘Consorzio della Fabbrica’ (Building Consortium), set up for such purpose, collected citizens’ offerings, and, on 15th August 1137, the Bishop Gregorio of Bergamo blessed the first stone of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

    The history is perhaps intertwined with legend, but the fact remains that the Basilica, since then, has stood at the heart of ‘Città Alta’, or ‘Upper Town’, set between the squares of Piazza Vecchia and Piazza Rosate, in the most noble part of historic Bergamo, and surrounded by the ‘Mura Venete’, or ‘Venetian Walls’. Its urban and religious centrality is confirmed by two circumstances, the first being that the building is devoid of a facade in any traditional sense, but might even boast two, if we consider the wall on the south side (with the portal featuring ‘the white lions’) and that on the north side (with the portal featuring ‘the red lions’).


    Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore – Bergamo

    The visitor has no alternative but to see the Basilica from the apse, observe its austere profiles or cross and pass through it to reach the area of the city that was, once, the political, social, economic and religious fulcrum of the city: the Platea Sancti Vincentii, with the imposing Palazzo della Ragione, the main city market, the ‘Civic Tower’, the military garrison, the offices of notaries and coffers for the deposit of values, and the spaces for bargaining or for trade disputes. The Basilica was imbibed with that mature Romanesque style typical of the time, enriched with influences from diverse geographical origins, including European persuasions, such as those originating from the Rhineland. Of the five original apses, two survive today, the central one and the one to the south-west.

    The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was administered and officiated over by the Chapter of San Vincenzo from its origin until 1449, when it was separated from the cathedral complex and entrusted to the ‘Congregazione della Misericordia Maggiore’ (Congregation of Greater Mercy), who reserved the right to appoint the officiating clergy. It was a Collegiate Church until the 1970s, and also had an autonomous clergy and seminary. Today, the spiritual and liturgical life of the church is officiated by a Rector, who, in accordance with canonical tradition and the age-old autonomy sanctioned by Pope Nicholas V, even today it is called ‘Prior’. The administration of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is still today in the hands of the ‘Fondazione Misericordia Maggiore’, or the ‘MIA’ foundation. The stonemasons Masters Comacini and Campionesi amply contributed to the building of the Basilica, to a design by Master Fredo. In 1340, Giovanni da Campione built the Baptistery (later moved to the exterior), and, in 1353, the northern porch, while Nicolimo da Campione began construction of the small portal towards the cathedral.

    In the mid-fifteenth century, works of completion, decoration and transformation were intensified.

    The interior decorations, which initially consisted of frescoes, were modified from the end of 1500s. Some medieval frescoes are still visible, for example, ‘The Tree of Life’, a representation of the life of Christ according to the doctrine of Saint Bonaventure, which is now partially covered by a seventeenth-century canvas representing ‘The Universal Flood’, and a group of votive frescoes on the opposite wall.

    The stuccos and pictorial works that decorate the vaulting and walls of the church date back to the late 1500s and the whole of the 1600s. The Misericordia Maggiore commissioned various artists from Bergamo, including Antonio Boselli, Giovan Paolo Cavagna, Gian Paolo Lolmo, Enea Salmeggia and Francesco Zucco, but also numerous painters from elsewhere, including Francesco da Ponte, known as ‘Bassano’, Camillo Procaccini, Giovan Cristoforo Storer, Frà Massimo da Verona, Pietro Liberi, Ciro Ferri, Antonio Zanchi, Federico Cervelli, Luca Giordano, Nicolò Malinconico and Ottavio Cocchi, among others. At the end of the 1600s, the transformation had come to fruition, with many precious works adding to the artistic heritage of the Basilica.

    The first half of the 1500s saw the realization of the wooden choir with inlays made by Giovan Francesco Capoferri, following a design by the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto. Between 1583 and 1586, nine of the twenty-five church tapestries arrived in the Basilica from Florence. At the end of the 1500s, six bronze candlestick holders were forged, while, in the early 1600s, the bronze balustrades of the two pulpits were installed.

    In 1704, Andrea Fantoni built the confessional, which arrived in the Basilica in only 1899. Also of note are the valuable compasses realized in 1770 by Giuseppe Alari, with statues by Giovanni Antonio Sanz.

    In 1839, the tomb of Cardinal Guglielmo Longo degli Alessandri of Bergamo was transferred to the Basilica. The mausoleum commissioned by the cardinal himself and conceived by Ugo da Campione around 1330, had initially been erected for the church of Saint Francis, destroyed in 1805.

    The MIA and Maestro Gaetano Donizetti

    In the 16th century, in order to face the growing demands for guaranteeing the office of the Basilica, the MIA Administrators founded a school, or rather ‘Academy’ of clerics. A good musical education required that singing and instrument practice be carried out continuously and as part of a more general humanistic education. In 1635, the Academy was transformed into a ‘Collegio Mariano’, which admitted many students and, among the teachers, there was never a lack of Chapel Choirmaster or other music teachers. Thus the school reached a certain level of excellence in comparison with other schools, undergoing various transformations that can be considered at the origin of today’s high school ‘Liceo Sarpi’.

    In 1802, Maestro Giovanni Simone Mayr, who, at the time, was considered the most famous and important European composer, was appointed choirmaster. Mayr remained in the service of the Basilica for over forty years, right up until his death in 1845. It was Mayr who conceived the project of the ‘Pia Scuola di Musica’ (Pious School of Music) or the ‘Lezioni Caritatevoli di Musica’ (Charitable Music Lessons). The school was established in 1805, and was also attended by poor children, who were instructed in song and instruments. The ‘Pious School of Music’ attained excellent results, both in terms of the excellence of its disciples and of success of its performance in the Basilica. The ‘Charitable Music Lessons’ were intended to support the chapel activities in Santa Maria Maggiore, and were given in a building in Via Arena, situated in front of the Domus Magna, or original headquarters, of the age-old ‘Consortium Misericordiae Sanctae Mariae’. The ‘Charitable Lessons’ were one of the earliest experimentations in formal musical education in nineteenth century Italy, and organized on the example of assisted practice of the convent music schools of the ‘Ospedali Veneziani’, and on the educational model of the Conservatory of Paris.

    Giovanni Simone Mayr was the great maestro who soon recognized the genius of one of his pupils, the very young Donizetti, who in a famous letter of 1843 wrote to his old teacher, described being born into a poor house, where no light had ever entered, and from which he “took flight, just like an owl”. Donizetti found in his relationship with Mayr the main to discovering and developing his talent. Some years later, the ‘Pious School’ broke away from the chapel to become the ‘Gaetano Donizetti Civic Musical Institute’.

    basilica di santa maria maggiore_monumenti

    From left to right, funeral monuments dedicated to Giovanni Simone Mayr and to Gaetano Donizetti – Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo

    In the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore are the funeral monuments dedicated to Giovanni Simone Mayr, realized in 1852 by Innocenzo Fraccaroli, and to Gaetano Donizetti, realized in 1855 by Vincenzo Vela. The monument to Simone Mayr celebrates sacred music with three angelic figures, and is a fine example of the numerous monumental interventions commissioned from the artist in those years.

    Gaetano Donizetti brothers commissioned Vincenzo Vela to conceive the funeral monument to honour the memory of the famous musician. Vela chose a symbolic-allegorical subject to celebrate the Great Maestro, dominated by the figure of ‘Harmony’, a young woman bent over a lyre, who mourns the death of the composer portrayed in the medallion below.

    Cupid musicians personify the seven notes, and, with great expressive vitality, mourn the death of the Maestro.