Audio File length: 2.44
English / USA Language: English / USA

In the early Middle Ages, the Bergamo area suffered tremendous periods of drought, followed by famine and plague. At the time, the Virgin Mary’s intercession was requested to halt the scourge, so the people of Bergamo prayed to Mary to intervene, promising to build a church as a sign of their gratitude; in 1137, before all the local citizens and the bishop, the first stone was laid of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in the heart of the Upper Town, between two squares. The Basilica has no main façade, and has two monumental side entrances, each looking onto one of the two squares.

Right opposite one of the entrances, you’ll notice the richly decorated, mid-fourteenth-century portal “dei leoni rossi” (of the red lions), in Gothic style, featuring splendid red and white marble that stands out against the more humble sandstone of the walls.  

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that placing a lion at the entrance to a church could prevent evil from entering: here you can see two of them, at either side of the portal, supporting the columns.

If you look up, flanked by two saints, you’ll see a proud horseman: it’s Saint Alexander, the patron saint of the city. Further up, as if to protect the saint and the faithful entering the church, you can see the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus, and saints on either side.

Starting from the portal of the red lions, walk along the exterior of the church towards the left. The harmonious Renaissance building on the right is the New Sacristy, while the building on the other side of the street, with windows on the façade, is the original seat of the Ateneo, the University in the 18th century.

Don’t miss the centuries-old fountain at the bottom of the steps. Here, if you look up, you’ll be struck by the powerful architecture of the Romanesque church.


Now press pause and go to the right side of Santa Maria Maggiore.


Here, you’ll find yourself opposite another medieval portal with lions. This one is called the portal “dei leoni bianchi” (of the white lions), because it is brighter, thanks to the pale-colored Candoglia marble it is made from: the same marble was used for the Cathedral of Milan.

An interesting fact: to the left of the portal, hidden behind a wall, is the oldest monument in Upper Bergamo: the austere little temple of Santa Croce, built in the early 11th century.

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