Bergamo and the Romans: a post dedicated to my Dreaming Spires students.

Posting pictures from Bergamo is really damaging to my cachet with my Dreaming Spires students, who expect me to devote all my love to the Romans and Athenians.  There is a case for saying that the oldest parts of Bergamo, and many ancient Italian cities, are a better way of understanding the experience of walking a Roman street than any ancient site, with added ice cream.

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Piazza della Cittadella, Bergamo, Photo AES

In this very photo, we are only steps from the best ice cream in the Città Alta, the UPper City, but more importantly we are near the Civic Archaeological Museum of Bergamo, which is where the small but very interesting collection of Roman period remains is beautifully curated.  Photography is not encouraged, but I seem to have accidentally clicked my phone a couple of times while checking Whatsapp.

Bergamo was a city before the Roman era.  Northern Italy, to the Romans, was not part of Italia, but Gallia – they called it Gallia Cisalpina, Gaul on this side of the Alps.  This was a tribal area, and Bergomum was a hill town of the Cenomani.  The Piazza in the photograph is on a high point which may have been the original citadel, as the name suggests; in the 14th Century, a new fortress was built on a spur and this became the citadel.  The Romans called at least some of the Gauls ‘Celts’ and this has misleadingly become a term for Iron Age people in general.  The Cenomani didn’t call themselves Celts.  Livy records that the Cenomani had moved into Italy from France in about 400 BC, seizing and occupying Etruscan territory.   They probably spoke a dialect of a language we call Celtic, and definitely didn’t speak Latin at that time.

In the 5th Century BC, Rome was still a minor power within Italy.  In about 390 BC a Gallic tribe, the Senones, even sacked Rome.  The Cenomani, however, were actively pro-Roman, and fought on the Roman side in the major Roman victory over hostile Gallic tribes at the Battle of Telamon in 225 BC.  This battle ended the threat from the North, although Cisalpine Gaul was not formally organised into a province until 89 BC.  The Cenomani, remained loyal even during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy (218-204 BC).  Bergomum was granted full rights a Roman municipium in 45 BC, making citizens of the town full Roman citizens.  Shortly afterwards, in 42 BC, Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to the whole of Cisalpine Gaul.  The Bergamasks were now Romans.

The Cisalpine ‘tribal’ peoples on the edges of Rome’s growing Italian empire were not very different from the people within it.  The Romans themselves were tribally ‘Latins’ who developed an empire, first of all over all local cities and then elsewhere.  Even before the rise of Rome, the Northern Italians were living alongside the Etruscan empire, with its advanced social organisation, art and technology.  The Cisalpine Gauls used writing – hardly any survives – and made fine metalwork.  In the long period of cooperation between the Cenomani and Rome, there must have been a lot of cultural absorption and the number of Roman citizens in the territory will have increased both through migration and grants of citizenship to soldiers and the local nobility.  By the time Julius Caesar extended Roman citizenship to them, teh Cisalpine Gauls were integrated into Italian identity, and Latin was the language of the educated class.

Northern Italy 3rd – 4th Centuries BC

The Upper City of Bergamo is largely on top of Bergomum.  The stones of the Roman period buildings are holding up the houses and Churches visible today.  This makes the modern environment very rich, but it does limit the archaeology.  If you want to find a nice Roman carpet mosaic, then the best place to look for it it is in a field, which has been grazed on by cows for two millennia.  A place which has been developed and redeveloped again and again AND IS STILL BEING LIVED IN is not the obvious place to start wielding a trowel.  But having said that, here is a carpet mosaic from Bergamo.

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Bergamo Roman Mosaic, Photo AES

And here is an altar of Diana with a beautifully clear inscription.

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Altar of Diana, Photo AES

The distinguished man (CV = Clarissimus Vir) who set it up in fulfilment of his vow (VS = Votum Solvit) was consul in 201 AD, when the consulship had become more of an honour than an actual job.  Titles like Clarissimus Vir aren’t used on formal inscriptions from the Republic and Early Empire, but in the second century AD this becomes a standardised title for a Senator.  The use of formal honorific titles grows in the later Empire and grade inflation even sets in, until a really important official has to be a Vir Gloriosissimus.  In early Latin literature gloriosus means boastful, not glorious, which is quite pleasing.

Bull’s head from Roman Theatre Bergamo, Photo AES

This amazing bull’s head was part of a set of ornamental beam ends in the Roman theatre.  The strange creature on the side will resolve itself into a dolphin if you concentrate. Dolphins were associated with Delphi and Apollo, God of Poetic Arts and the Romans tend to make dolphin beaks very big.  My guess is that this came from people who hadn’t seen dolphins in non-dolphinous places like Bergamo copying popular motifs from drawings, but what do I know?  Bulls are associated with festive occasions as sacrificial victims, aka lunch.  Roman theatres were not commercial and did not have regular showings.  They were used for a variety of civic events, and theatrical performances were staged on holidays with the sponsorship of high-ranking locals who took care to get maximum publicity for their generosity.

And finally, something which ties in with my posts on Germanicus, nephew of the wicked Emperor Tiberius, who was murdered in AD 19.  He was an important member of the imperial house, and the founder of the dynasty, the Emperor Augustus, had intended Tiberius to be a caretaker ruler only.   After Tiberius, Germanicus would take over, and the dynasty would pass on through his numerous heirs.  In reality Tiberius clung onto power until 37 AD, more than a decade after the death of his own son, and nearly two after the death of Germanicus.  His successor was Caligula, youngest son of Germanicus, and one of the most notorious emperors; the experience of having his father murdered and mother and older brothers openly persecuted to death by Tiberius may have contributed to his instability.  All of this was court politics, recorded in vicious detail by Tacitus.  But  these fractures in the imperial house were not public property.  Bergamo is 400 miles form Rome.  Like other cities of the Empire, Bergamo culted the Emperor and the imperial house and monumentalised its members as the embodiment of Roman authority.  Up and down the empire, cities commemorated the death of Germanicus with plaques, honouring the wish of the Emperor, who, Germanicus believed, had ordered his horrible death, and who certainly went on to wipe out his family.  Here is Bergamo’s effort.

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Germanicus monument, Bergamo, Photo AES

Actually, that is a bit grim to finish on.  Here is a nice picture of exceptionally yummy nibbles and non-alcoholic beverages in Clusone, being investigated by my research assistants.

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Cafe in Clusone, Photo AES

And here am I, smiling at you.  Hey students, don’t forget to sign up.  This year there’s The Making of Fifth Century Athens and New Testament Language and Culture.  I’m also working on a GCSE Classical Civilisation course for 2020.  Hope to see some of you there.

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Mrs S selfie – scary or what?



The Dance of Death, Clusone

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Dance of Death, Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Photo AES

This post goes along with my Post on the Triumph of Death and the Three Living and the Three Dead.  The Confraternity of Disciplini at Clusone were very keen that we should get the message about death.  So they provided us with three separate images of the nearness of death, all of them popular at the time.

There is a lot of writing on the Internet about the Dance of Death, and I am only sharing this post in tribute to a lovely example.  The Three Living and the Three Dead go back to the 13th Century, but the Dance of Death seems to take off in the 15th Century, after the Black Death.  This example is from 1485.

The phrase ‘Dance of Death’ today suggests the bizarre and the horrific.   These associations are encapsulated by the composer Saint-Saens who used the usual French version of the name,  Danse Macabre, for his 1874 tone poem.  He envisaged a skeletal death animating the corpses in a graveyard to dance to a frantic and sinister tune on the violin.  This is very Gothic, and an interesting example of the 19th Century association of virtuosity, especially on the violin, and the dark arts – the Paganini connection.  There are examples of fascination with mere horror in the older tradition, for example this lurid woodcut, which could illustrate Saint-Saens’ music, if only Michael Wolgemut had supplied his skeletal musician with a viol instead of a  – is it a shawm? .

The Dance of Death (1493) by Michael Wolgemut, from the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel

Although the prancing corpses are definitely dancing and dead, they don’t really have much to do with the Clusone Dance of Death and the 15th century family of moralising images to which it belongs.  This Dance of Death is usually stately and relatively benign, taking the form of a chain dance, where each human participant is accompanied by a skeleton.  The skeletons don’t appear predatory or malign nor the humans horrified or distressed.  There is no violence or confrontation, the humans are not snatched away, rather, courtesy prevails in the manner of a courtly dance.  I think this type of Dance of Death is really an image of human life; we should understand the skeletons as our own skeletons, the mortality which accompanies us and is inseparable from our earthly existence.  Human life is literally a promenade with mortality – we seem to be one with our, we adorn and enjoy them, but they set a limit to our earthly existence, through fragility, decay and inevitable death.  Our real life is elsewhere.  As long as we understand this, there is no reason why we should fear the dance.

The Clusone Dance of Death is particularly amicable.  On the left of the picture the hooded figure in white is one of the Confraternity, taking his place in the dance alongside prosperous citizens of different walks of life.  Behind him is a richly dressed woman, the only one I could spot in the scene.  In front of him the man in blue seems to have drawn a particularly friendly skeleton who turns towards him and inclines his head courteously, while delicately holding his first two fingers.  The hand position seems to be a deliberate part of the dance motif.  The skeleton partners do take the arm or hand of the mortals.   I can’t make out the lady’s hold, but in the case of both the Brother and his neighbour, the skeleton reaches across to place its right arm over the right arm of its partner, but not fully touching the arm and holding fingers not the whole hand – very genteel.  Where the mortal figures do not have a free right hand the hold differs.  The man in the red stocking has the same hold, but on his left hand.  The man in green leggings is lightly holding hands with his skeleton; the next couple have linked arms completely, and the skeleton is also using his spare hand to grasp his partner’s wrist in a particularly confiding manner.

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Dance of Death, Clusone, detail, Photo AES

There are no poor people in this Dance of Death – the point isn’t about Death the Leveller, but Death the Companion.  The costumes indicate a range of occupations, which clearly feature being a woman and a confraternal Brother.  Apart from that, I am not specialist enough to judge.  My guess is that the dancers include a soldier, a huntsman, a merchant, a courtier and a man with a teapot and terrible dress sense.

The philosophy of the 15th Century Dance of Death reminds me of the cadaver tombs which occur in the same period.  Alice Chaucer, died 1475 and styled Princess and Duchess at her death, has a magnificent example in Ewelme, which I must get out and photograph for you.  There are two tiers.  On top she lies in her pomp, underneath she lies a shrivelled corpse, but (I know this because I crawled) looking at her very own painting of the Annunciation on the ceiling of her death chamber.  In Italy the tradition goes back to the 13th Century.   In case anyone from Cambridge reads this, Hugh Ashton has a splendid cadaver tomb (1522) now in St John’s College Chapel.




Lovere in the rain

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Lovere, Photo AES

‘I am now in a place the most beautifully romantic I ever saw in my life,’ wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, pioneer of smallpox innoculation and resident of Lovere for nearly 10 years.  In 1755 she wrote these lines there;

Wisdom, slow product of laborious years,
The only fruit that life’s cold winter bears;
Thy sacred seeds in vain in youth we lay,
By the fierce storm of passion torn away.
Should some remain in a rich gen’rous soil,
They long lie hid, and must be rais’d with toil;
Faintly they struggle with inclement skies,
No sooner born than the poor planter dies.

The town of Lovere loves Lady Mary and their promenade is named after her.  In temperatures of 33, 34, even 35, on July 9th 2019, we decided to hire a car and get out of Bergamo, head up into the pre-Alps, the Orobie and visit Clusone, with its amazing Triumph of Death fresco.  Then we would cross into the next valley, visit Lovere on the shore of Lake Iseo and then drive down the side of the lake.  It was a brilliant plan.  Luckily we couldn’t get a car until 2 pm, which seemed like a shame at the time.   Our outing coincided with a cloud burst which brought an hour of hail to Bergamo.  Where we were, it brought bouts of torrential rain so heavy we couldn’t even leave the car in Clusone.  In all honesty, I did, but noone else would.

We continued with the trip and managed to get out of the car in a period of drizzle and take some photos of Lovere in the rain.
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Lago d’Iseo from Lovere, Photo AES

Then I took my favourite video ever from under the awning of the Pasticceria Wender which served us drinks and very nice tiny pastries.  I can’t show it because I don’t have a Premium Plan, but it is a live version of this photo with the added sound of torrential rain.


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Lovere, Photo AES


After that we did did drive down the amazing lakeside road, scooped out of vertical cliffs which overhang it in places.  Part of it is tunnelled.  There are helpful notices warning about rock falls, and nets hopefully cantilevered out of the cliffs, to catch the boulders as they head towards your car.  Then we had really nice pasta in a trattoria in Sarnico, which for some reason thought it was an Irish pub, and then we went home.

The Three Living and the Three Dead, Clusone

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Oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone, Photo AES

This post is an add-on to one I made on the Triumph of Death fresco in Clusone, which is where I talked about the significance of the main scene and the people who put it up.  Today we are zooming in on the top left.  My photo is not terribly good, especially when  cropped, but here it is.

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You can just see three horsemen in rich clothing and their two hunting dogs.  They are riding towards a sort of hedge, actually representing a wood, and over the hedge two distressed faces show horror.  This is a version of a legend, really just a moral fable, going back to a 13th century poem by Baudoin de Condé, who should have an acute accent on his final ‘e’.  The gist is that three nobles, enjoying the wealth and leisure of their status, go hunting in the forest and meet three corpses who remind then that they will soon be as the corpses now are and urge them to repent.  In the 13th century original, the corpses are clergy, but this is a late version (1485) and follows a well known variant where the hunters meet their doubles, so that it becomes a doppelgänger story .

As far as I can make out, the horsemen in the foreground are the corpses.  Number 3 lies across his horse transfixed by a javelin – this is my main clue.  Number 2 seems to have a problem with his neck, and I think he may he indicating that he is hanged by a noose.  Number 1 looks fine to me, although he is very far forward over the horse’s neck,  but I didn’t have a good enough zoom to be sure.  The later frame has cut off part of the scene left including the third face.  I’m not quite sure what the prominent bird is doing: it may be a hawk, part of the hunting scene, but I’m not at all sure.  It isn’t a usual part of the group.

If you search for the Three Living and the Three Dead, you will find an enormous number of images.  This version is quite restrained.  Here are some I have harvested on the Internet


The Three Living and The Three Dead, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, 1480-1515
This is a Flemish version from about the same period.  The one below, also from Northern Europe is much earlier, about 1349.

Psalter of Bonne de Luxembourg, c. 1349

This version is from another Italian fresco, in the Monastery of St Benedict, Subiaco.  Here the corpses show three stages of decomposition, with maggots infesting the central one.  The nobles are carrying birds of prey – they are hawking.  I have seen this fresco in real life, but I have had to borrow the photo.

The Three Living and the Three Dead, Monastery of St Benedict, Subiaco, 1334, used under licence from Clippix ETC.

The Triumph of Death, Clusone


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Triumph of Death fresco, Clusone, Photo AES

Death conquers all.  Riches and rank will not save you.   Even the Pope and Emperor (look in the tomb) will die and get eaten by worms.  The Confraternity of the Disciplini of San Bernardino  wanted us to know this.  In 1485 they hired Giacomo Borlone de Buschis to paint this scene on the outside of their Oratory in the small town of Clusone, in Northern Italy.  It happens that 1485 is also the date of the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III, King of England, lost his crown on the field of battle and disappeared from history, only to turn up in 2011, buried in a car park in Leicester.  This is just the sort of thing the Confraternity would like us to think about.

This picture is accompanied by a Dance of Death fresco, and another scene representing the legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead.   These images were not uncommon in Europe in the period, and especially in this area, but the survival of such a huge and spectacular example, uniting three interlocking themes is a very rare and special thing.   I’ve got lots of other pictures.  In fact, this fresco is so well known on the internet, that it seems a bit superfluous to write about it, but I will try and bring together some parts of the story that you don’t always find in one place – it will take me more than one post.  I’m going to think about several questions – who and where were the Confraternity of Disciplini and why the interest in death;  who are the Three Living and the Three Dead?  I also want to blog about the Dance of Death and, separately, about the amazing interior of the Oratory.

Just for now, I will focus on the picture above, which is only a part of the whole.   Death, as a skeleton,  is wearing a robe and crown.  In Italian, Death is a feminine noun, so that it is culturally correct to say that she is the queen of this world, to whom we all submit.   This doesn’t make her evil.  Satan is sometimes described in the Bible as the ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of this world (e.g. John 12. 31) because he competes with God for power over mortal souls.  Death’s reign is different – for the Confraternity, at least, she serves God.

The scrolls surrounding Death spell out her powers; she is impartial and stronger than all; the ungodly will die with bitterness, but the godly and just will pass through the death of the body to eternal life.  So Death plays a part in sifting the good and bad, in levelling the unjust distinctions set up in human life and bringing us to judgement.  By the time of this fresco, Death was already established as the first of the Four Last Things; Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell.  This gives us the first insight into the motivation of the Disciplini – meditation on Death frees us from the delusion of human wealth and power and helps us evaluate the true significance of mortal life as a stage in the journey to Heaven or Hell.  If Hell is very bad, Heaven is very good, so Death is only terrifying to those who have placed all their confidence in worldly success.

This Death has two skeleton acolytes with rapid fire weapons which kill at a distance.  The archer holds three arrows at a time – I imagine he fits them in quick succession, rather than all at once, but I am not an archer.  On the other side, and early gun appears – the arquebus.  All around lie corpses, mingled with dignitaries, religious and secular, who are dismayed by death and offer bribes.  Even where they don’t have crowns or religious insignia, these suppliants are richly dressed; although death comes to the poor too, this is really a moral story about the vanity of riches and the humbling of those who trust in them.  In spiritual matters, the Confraternity appear to have a preferential option for the poor, and part of their work was to minister to them.

In  Renaissance Europe,  religious Confraternities were everywhere.  Some internet sites attribute this Oratory to ‘monks’, but members were mostly lay people.  They bound themselves together to practice spiritual discipline (hence the name Disciplini) and good works.  The Disciplini of St Bernardino were a 15th century foundation based in Bergamo, the Lombard city lying 35 km below Clusone, which is in the foothills of the Alps.  Other activities associated at this time with Confraternities were education, including the staging of religious plays, and participation in religious processions in their distinctive long hooded robes.

Many of the Northern Italian Confraternities were flagellants, as this group were – they whipped themselves in public to demonstrate repentance and their disdain for the body.   This practice can still be found in some Catholic areas of the Mediterranean today, and together with the faceless hoods, which now recall Klan costume, tends to make a negative impression on people from outside the culture.  Like most things, it’s complicated.  The Confraternities were crucial in providing spiritual ministry and charitable aid in towns and villages, in a time of great political instability.  They despised the violence and luxury of the ruling classes, particularly, the factional strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines, supposedly supporters respectively of the Pope and Emperor, which fomented in-fighting, murders, coups and all-out war between the Italian cities.  The faceless hoods were for self-effacement – their frightening associations come from later.  Public self-flagellation, though, was always shocking; the Disciplini had an urgent mission, like radical protesters today.  If they dwelt on pain and death, it was to save the population from worse miseries, including Hell, of course, but also, in this life, the wars and other miseries with which Italy was racked because of human disobedience, and, worse still, God’s powerful wrath in the form of plague.

So before I close this post with a bigger picture, scholars seem to agree in associating the rise of Italian Confraternities and their preoccupation with death with the coming of the Black Death to Italy in the mid 14th century.   It was so devastating that it took a generation or more to cease to live in its shadow.  The effects were as unpredictable as they were devastating: some areas suffered massive sudden mortality, while neighbours escaped lightly or temporarily.  The Lombard region was worst affected later in 1361 and 1373, and outbreaks across Europe continued.  The particular Confraternity active in Clusone was founded several decades after the major Lombardy outbreaks, but it belongs within a movement that began as a response to the horrors of the plague.  The disruption across Europe was incalculable.  The plague ran along the major trading routes.  Even animals died – especially sheep – and humans who contracted the disease rarely lived more than three days.  Scholars attribute all sorts of social changes to the consequences of plague, including the end of feudalism, the empowerment of women, and, indirectly, the Reformation.

The Church was disrupted by the plague and its consequences along with the rest of society.  Many clergy died, and their places were hastily and inadequately filled or left vacant.  Some of the traditional monastic institutions which performed both spiritual and charitable functions ceased to function. The Confraternities took on the job of plugging this gap.  Their intense spiritual focus was also a reaction to the godlessness of the plague years when sick and dead had been abandoned, regular worship was thrown into chaos and when many, as Boccaccio chronicles, had responded to the fear of sudden death not by prayer and preparation, but with a hectic last round of worldly pleasures.  The modern viewer probably hopes to live long and see few deaths, so coming across a giant painted skeleton is shocking in itself.  This is not the intended effect. The original audience lived in a period where premature and violent death was common.   The goal of the fresco was not to remind them that they would die, but to place  Death in a proper perspective, queen of our mortal bodies, precursor to Judgement, Heaven and Hell.

Here is the big picture I promised.  I can’t do anything about the lighting.Triumph of Death whole wall 1.jpg

I recommend this site

Via Pignolo, Bergamo

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Via Pignolo, Bergamo, Photo AES

Bergamo has long been two cities – the Upper, the Citta Alta, and the Lower, the Citta Bassa.  There should be a grave accent on the a of Citta, but I’ve no idea how to do that in WordPress.  The Citta Alta is the ancient citadel, surrounded by 15th Century walls.  The Citta Bassa is where later development was able to take place, joining up small settlements and monasteries on the plain. So the Citta Bassa contains the new, and the relatively new as well as the very old.  Its main shopping centre is on the wide boulevard called the Via Sentierone.

This street, the Via Pignolo is one of the most historic streets in the Lower City.  It runs from the plain, up the hill, towards the St Augustine Gate of the Upper City.   It is lined by 16th Century palazzi, now mainly apartment buildings, but originally built for prosperous merchants and local notables.  The ground floors often feature arcades, which are occupied by shops – like ancient Roman town houses, these palazzi face inwards.  Their favourite connection to street level is a robust door.  The street-facing windows are higher up and neither large nor showy.

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Via Pignolo, Bergamo, Chruch of the Holy Spirit in background, Photo AES

I really recommend you to walk the length of the Via Pignolo in Google Maps.  I am borrowing the image from Ostia Antica below.

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Roman era street in Ostia Antica, by

The town of Ostia Antica was active in the Roman period but later abandoned.  It is less famous than Pompeii and Herculaneum, but just as interesting.  You can see from the mosaic in one the the archways that it was used as a shop or bar.  This pattern of use is more than two thousand years old.  The plain exteriors give no clue to what lies inside the buildings, whose access to light and air is through interior courtyards.

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97, Via Pignolo, Photo AES

This is the door to the apartment block where we stayed – or at least to a section of the block, which has been divided.  There is nothing behind the door except a steep marble staircase.  The rest of the ground floor is used for retail and offices.  Our apartment was on the first floor.  It still had its high ceilings, but otherwise had been completely redivided and modernised.  However, the view from the windows told a different story.

This is the view into the courtyard.

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Courtyard, Via Pignolo 97, Photo Alison

Let’s look a bit more closely at the wall painting behind the balcony.

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Wall painting, interior courtyard, Via Pignolo, Photo Alison

I’m not an expert, but I would say that is 16th century, maybe early 17th.  Here is the view down.

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Interior courtyard, Via Pignolo, Photo Alison

The front window onto the street looks onto the Piazzetta del Delfino: Dolphin Place, named after the statue on a Triton on a dolphin which ornaments its fountain .  The Romans provided public water by channelling spring water, by aqueduct if necessary, to public fountains.  This system carried on in Italy, and although the fountains are now ornamental, there is nothing more typical than a fountain in a public square.  The water was icy cold.  I took this photo by night, when the bar next to the fountain was closed.  If I find a better photo I will add it to the blog.  Looks like it’s ‘Good Night’.

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Bartolomeo Colleoni and his Chapel

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The da Campione Porch of Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, left, the Mortuary Chapel of Bartolomeo Colleoni, right, photo AES

So what is the startling building, like a marble Wedding Cake, crowding the entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore and obscuring its facade?  The ancient and amazing Church, which I blogged about here, has no real front face.  The main entrance from the Piazza Duomo is just a very pretty porch in a blank wall; the rest of the building on that side is hidden by this later building.  When it was built in the 1470’s, the Sacristy of the Church had to be pulled down to make way for it.  Here is another view of it, which shows the contrast with the sober Romanesque architecture of its surroundings.

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Facade of the Colleoni Chapel, Bergamo, Photo AES

It may be correct to think the Colleoni Chapel extremely beautiful, although I think it is a bit hideous.   It is certainly spectacular, a High Renaissance riot of everything in the catalogue.  It has domes, it has roundels, it has pillars in contrasting shapes, it has a rose window, it has a colour scheme of red, white and black, all done in marble lozenges.  And on top of this, there are more decorative elements, although they get a bit lost in the overwhelming impact of the whole: reliefs of Biblical scenes and the Labours of Hercules, medallions of Julius Caesar and Trajan on each side of the rose window.  Even at the height of Renaissance Classicism, it can’t be said that scenes from pagan myth and history are standard decorations for religious buildings.  The general impression is that the man who commissioned this building said, ‘I want everything, and I want it to be very, very expensive.’   He probably did.

The walls and ceiling of the interior are as lavishly decorated as you would expect from the outside, but otherwise there is a lot of empty space.   The main feature is an extravagant tomb featuring a crowned figure on a horse, all in gold – this is the founder of the Chapel, Bartomoleo Colleoni himself, who lies buried here, with his daughter alongside in a separate monument.  The whole structure is a celebration of this one man, his wealth and power.

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Tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni 

Bartolomeo Colleoni is one of the most interesting figures in Bergamo’s history, not because he was extraordinarily powerful, but because his story encapsulates a particular period of the city’s history.  He was born in 1395 into a minor noble family associated with Bergamo, which at that time was ruled by the Dukes of Milan, 30 miles away.  But this period of Italian history was dominated by wars between the many independent city states which competed for their share of Italian territory and feuds and coups within the city states themselves.  This is the period of Romeo and Juliet, or, in real life, the Guelphs, political supporters of the Pope, and the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, who fomented rebellions and tore cities in two.  Along with this instability went vicious dynastic struggles, intrigue, murder.

The Colleoni family were Guelphs, out of favour with the ruling Visconti Duke of Milan.  While Bartolomeo was still a child, a relative killed his father and brother and seized the family fortress.  He was imprisoned himself, but released after his mother paid a ransom.  Dispossessed, the young Bartolomeo began his climb back to wealth and power in the obvious way – as a soldier.  He began as a nobleman’s page, and went on to distinguish himself in many battles as a mercenary, in a period when mercenaries were all important.

The Italian word condottiere or condottiero is often translated mercenary, but this isn’t strictly correct.  The condottiere was the leader of a band of mercenaries – a political power could make a contract (a condotta) with the condottiere for the services of his company – specifying how many men were being provided.  These were not enlisted peasants, but professional soldiers with the latest armour and weapons, usually lance-carrying cavalry.  The loyalty of the condottieri was wholly conditional on being paid very large amounts of money.  They were also liable to change sides at short notice.  Condottieri were powerful deal makers and breakers off the field of battle, giving them real power, which sometimes led to high political office.

Bartolomeo Colleoni started out as a man at arms in mercenary companies, but in the 1424 he became the leader of his own – just 20 cavalry.  This was in Naples, where he also became the lover of the Queen, Joanna II.  By 1428, his company was twice that number, and he was back in the Bergamo area, fighting for the Venetians against his personal enemies, the Duchy of Milan.  In this year, Bergamo passed from the control of the Dukes of Milan and became a Venetian possession.  Within 4 years Colleoni was leading 300 men at arms; by 1437 it was 800 and he was once again fighting for the Venetians against Milan.  In 1441, the Venetians and Milanese made peace, and Colleoni served Milan before being imprisoned by the Duke.  In 1447 Francesco Sforza, himself a condottiere became Duke, ending the rule of the Viscontis.  Colleoni served him for a while, but finally returned to the Venetians who, in 1454, made him their ‘captain general’ – effectively the head of the armed forces.  His commands now numbered thousands.

The reason for Colleoni’s spectacular success was his skill as a general and tactician, especially in deploying the relatively new weapon, artillery.  He lived to attain great power and wealth.  In 1456 he built himself a castle near Bergamo, which I haven’t seen yet.  I have borrowed this picture from Wikipedia.

Malpaga Castle

Originally, this castle was surrounded by defences: it was not ornamental.  However, the Venetians retained Bergamo and Colleoni never had to defend his estate, where he died in 1475, surrounded by his large family and his soldiers.  He had been created a member of the Venetian nobility and entertained the Danish king at Malpaga.  He was a Renaissance man – he had been brought up as an aristocrat, and although his success was based on warfare, he was a patron of the arts and interested in the intellectual culture of the upper classes.  He was also enormously keen to be remembered.  He left a great legacy to the state of Venice, on condition that the city erected an equestrian statue of him – this was cast in bronze by Verrochio and still stands in Venice.  He commemorated himself in the same way in his Mortuary Chapel at Bergamo, but with gold leaf too.

The Chapel tells us a lot of what Bartolomeo Colleoni felt he had achieved.  His funerary image is crowned – he was in effect an uncrowned king of Italy, a king-maker and decider of battles.  Plenty of retired warlords have ploughed their wealth into religious buildings as a kind of insurance against punishment in the hereafter, but there is nothing repentant about Colleoni’s shrine to himself.  The medallions of Caesar and Trajan, conquering emperors of high reputation indicates his vision of himself as a warrior-ruler in the Classical tradition.  Hercules was a demi-god who carried out twelve labours to the benefit of mankind: his appearance in the plaques on the Chapel reminds us of Colleoni’s own heroic labours.  Despite its Catholic elements, the Chapel seems to me to lack any sense of religious devotion.  It is a humanist temple to the attainments of a man who believed he had achieved the Renaissance ideal – he is a warrior, a ruler and politician, an acknowledged aristocrat, a landowner, but also a courtier, a man of the finest tastes in art and culture; modern, but steeped in the values of the noble Classical past, an heir to the Caesars.   There could be something sad about the ostentatious tomb of someone so invested in worldly success, but Colleoni’s self-confidence is overwhelming.  No doubt he felt entitled to eternal life too, but his Chapel isn’t overly interested in that.  ‘Look,’ he seems to say,’I did it.’  And he did.

Santa Maria Maggiore

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Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, Photo by AES.

The Nave of Santa Maria Maggiore: in case you are wondering ‘maj-OR-ray’ – St Mary the Greater.

You will find the main entrance to Santa Maria Maggiore in the Piazza del Duomo – Cathedral Square.  And you could be excused for thinking that it is the Cathedral, but it isn’t – that’s next door.  This Church was founded in 1137, and its underlying style is plain – architects call it Romanesque.   The main features of Romanesque architecture are massive walls, sturdy plain pillars, barrel vaults, round arches and colonnades.  The structures are usually symmetrical and uncomplicated – Santa Maria Maggiore is on a typical cross-shaped plan.  Windows are not a major feature: they are narrow and topped by round arches.  You can see a lot of these features in this picture.

Romanesque architecture may be essentially plain, but there is nothing plain about Santa Maria Maggiore: in this view you can see the lavishly decorated ceilings from the 16th century – and that is real gold.  The wooden balustrade separating the Sanctuary from the Nave is by Lorenzo Lotto.  Huge tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries cover much of the wall space, and the rest is taken up with enormous oil paintings of religious subjects.   You can get an idea of the size of the tapestries from this photo with a Confessional, elaborately carved by Andrea Fantoni, in the foreground.  Incidentally, this is a working Catholic Church and confession is offered in a number of languages for teh benefit of the international visitors.

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Confessional by Andrea Fantoni, Photo AES

Before all these pictures and tapestries came the 14th century wall paintings which are fully visible in some places.  In the UK, the Reformation stripped out the painted work, and left us accustomed to see ancient churches as austere structures of bare stone and plaster.  Santa Maria Maggiore remains chaotically decorated, as she always has been – originally by wall paintings, then later by everything subsequent eras, including the Italian High Renaissance and Baroque periods, could throw at her.  The effect isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I find it welcoming – like a giant lived-in room or Christmas.

The Church is so surrounded by buildings that it is hard to take a picture, so I have borrowed this one from Wikipedia.


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Santa Maria Maggiore

Although work started in 1137, building continued into the 14th Century and the process of adding long after that.   The bell tower was not started until 1436.  The main entrance is through Giovanni da Campione’s 14th Century porch; the top section of this was added a quarter century after his death.  This is a beautiful entrance, but it is a very narrow entrance for such a grand basilica, and not even central in the wall.  The reason for this is that the Church was once attached to the Bishop’s Palace, which took up the space where you would expect a Great West Door to be.  Why was the location so crowded?  This wasn’t the first Church on the site.  In fact the site started out as a Roman Temple.  The transformation of Temples into Churches was a general practice: we cannot know how long there has been worship on the site of Santa Maria Maggiore, but two thousand years is a minimum.

Back to the porch and the end of this post.

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Campione Porch, Photo AES

The porch is the elegant simple structure on the left, not the hideous marble wedding cake on the right.  That is something else completely.  Up the sides of the doorway run reliefs of dogs hunting.  Then come two tiers of statues.

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Close-up Campione Porch, Photo AES.

The central statue of the lower tier represents St Alessandro, who is commemorated all over Bergamo as their first evangelist, martyr and saint.  The story is that he was a military standard bearer in the 3rd century AD who was condemned to death in the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Diocletian.  After daring escapes, he hid in the woods around Bergamo, where the Gospel had not yet been preached.  He converted many, but his zeal for the Gospel led to his discovery and death by beheading.  The tier above contains statues of Mary and the infant Jesus.  She is attended by two female saints; one (I think the one on the right) is St Grata, an early convert who stole St Alessandro’s body for burial after his execution.  She carried the severed head herself, and persuaded others to lift the heavy body.  The column which is said to mark the spot of the martyrdom is still preserved outside the Church of St Alessandro in the lower city.

Mantegna’s Resurrection: a lost picture rediscovered.

Mantegna Resurrection
Resurrection of Christ, Andrea Mantegna 1492, photo by AES.

At the moment (Summer 2019) there is an incredible exhibition at the Academia Carrara, Bergamo, and it is all about this picture.  I wish I were an Art Historian, so that I could tell you all about what makes Mantegna’s work special.  You can see for yourself, that he mastered body modelling and proportion, perspective, foreshortening, not to mention vibrant use of colour: or can you?  Because the fact is, that for more than a hundred years, this wasn’t a Mantegna at all.

The Art world is a puzzling place. If you find a Renaissance masterpiece in your attic, there are several possibilities.  Perhaps it is an original by a named artist, or a work from his studio, where assistants did lots of the boring bits, or a work by his disciple, or a copy from his period, or a recent copy, or just a poster someone bought and framed.  Most of us can probably tell a cheap poster from an oil painting, but only an expert can tell the difference between the hand of the Master and a very good painting in his style – yet the difference may be worth millions.  And the experts are not always right.

This painting was originally considered a Mantegna – Count Guglielmo Lochis bought it as a Mantegna in Milan in 1846.  On his death, he bequeathed it to the Academia Carrara, with other works from his great collection.  That is cutting a long story short, because he originally intended the City of Bergamo to take over his whole collection and a brand new Museum he had built for it, but the generous gift was just too expensive for the city to accept.  Some lawyers later, there was a compromise, and the art expert Giovanni Morelli picked out about half the collection (240 pictures) to be re-homed in the Academia Carrara, a gallery which already existed in the city, the generous legacy of Count Giacomo Carrara in 1796.

Giovanni Morelli clearly thought this was a fine painting.  But he did not think it was by Mantegna.  His opinion carried a lot of weight because he was a pioneer of the use of scientific method in the identification of artworks.  Before this period, identification was a bit hit and miss, and salesmen had a lot of motivation to be optimistic about the origin of their wares.  If you know anything about pictures at all, clearly you can tell whether a picture looks like the work of an individual artist; perhaps you have a charming tradition that a work was by such and such an artist, or a letter to that effect signed by someone important and so on.  For Morelli, this was not enough.  He had trained as a doctor, and realised that objective analytical tests could be applied to painting.  He looked beyond broad resemblances to tiny details – how did the artist paint the folds of an ear or the fingers of a hand in a background character?  These techniques were the ‘tells’, the unique fingerprint of the artist.  And according to Morelli, this painting, though fine, was not by Mantegna himself.  This did not prevent it being a copy, or a work from his school, but it was NOT a Mantegna.

And so it remained until last year, 2018.  Morelli’s method has survived him, but we now have the advantage of many objective scientific tests unknown to him: X rays; ultra-violet light; advanced chemical analysis.  This painting has become the first painting of wood to be studied by tomography: imaged cross-section by cross-section.  We also have techniques of digital analysis and comparison which enable us to place side by side works which are located in different continents.  This is what happened here.  In 2018, it was discovered that this work was not only a Mantegna, but the top section of a larger work – the bottom section is in the Barbara Piasecka Johnson Collection in Princeton USA.  Yes – somebody at some point decided to double his stock of Mantegnas by sawing a big one up.   This is not that unusual.

Descent into Limbo, Andrea Mantegna, 1492
The paintings reunited.

Together, the two paintings make up a single story – and there would have been more on each side.  The red circle shows the location of a tiny cross that matches the sections together.  The colours in the photos I have uploaded are not very good – but you get the idea from my photo at the start.  So at the top, Christ rises from the tomb, to the astonishment of the Roman soldiers guarding it.  If you are English, no, he is not carrying the St George flag – the little white and red pennant is a symbol of the Resurrection.  Although Renaissance artists aimed at naturalism in representing objects, including the human body, the composition of religious pictures was still based around ancient symbolic elements.  Mantegna did not think Christ actually stepped out of the tomb carrying an aerial with the St George flag: the flag is one of the signs that the picture tells the story of the Resurrection.

If you think that stepping out of the tomb in flowing white garments is enough to tell us that we are in the story of the Resurrection, look below.  Christ still has the little flag, in a much more mysterious picture, but the fact that we know that the flag means the Resurrection helps us decode it.  Christ resurrected (with the little flag) is visting a cave: not a Biblical story.  In fact he is helping an old man climb out of it, while other figures, male and female, who appear to have ascended already, stand by in reverent attitudes.  All these figures wear nothing except scraps of drapery – their grave clothes.  This scene, the Descent into Limbo, also called the Harrowing of Hell, represents the rescue from death of those chosen by God in the Old Testament – Adam and Eve, the Patriarchs – who lived justly but could not be fully redeemed until the coming of Christ.  According to the tradition, this act of salvation took place between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Although this story is not strictly Biblical, it was taught as early as the 2nd Century AD.  Theologically, it is a way of solving the problem of how Adan and Eve, Noah and Abraham and all the Old Testament righteous could be saved if salvation is through Christ alone.  The many Christians, including Roman Catholic and Orthodox, who accept this tradition believe it is confirmed by a number of Biblical texts, especially 1 Peter 3: 19-20.  The Athanasian Creed and the Apostle’s Creed both contain the words ‘he descended into Hell’: here the word ‘Hell’ really means ‘Hades’, the realm of the dead, as the damned are not rescued.  Modern Christians may understand these words differently; for Mantegna and his world, they referred to the Harrowing of Hell.  The painting is split permanently, but together the two parts illustrate the connection between the Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of Mankind, which has begun even before Christ leaves the tomb.

Botticelli’s portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici

Many years before I had a chance to go anywhere virtually, I spent some real life time in Bergamo, with Italian friends.  This was my first experience of Italy, and I was lucky enough to be completely unprepared for the cultural shock.  Bergamo has a beautiful historic centre with many astonishing buildings, and, unassumingly tucked away, one of the world’s great Art Galleries, the Academia Carrara.

I memorised some of my favourite portraits including Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear.  But today I am going to share an image I actively disliked, but which drew me with the kind of magnetic quality which makes children keep creeping up to something nasty to see if it is still as horrible as it was the first time round.  In fact, last week I visited it again: I was back in the Academia Carrara and it is hard to miss.  So here it is.

Portrait of Giuliano De’ Medici, Botticelli c.1478

The Medici family need no explanation – the fifteenth century was the time of their rise to power in Florence.  Giuliano co-ruled with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent.  In the picture, which is a very standard portrait bust,  he is plainly but richly dressed.  His profile is accentuated by the pale square behind it.  He has fashionably curled very dark hair, which suggests youth and beauty, and here is a sign of immaculate grooming.  Then we come to the face.

Male portraits of this period have a strong bias towards what we call branding – recognition and respect are more important than prettiness.  Giuliano carries his chin high and looks, as he was, a distinguished man of about twenty-five.  His distinctive family features are too narrow for the ancient Greek aesthetic; he has a thin face with regular features, a sharp nose, thin lips, and a strong cleft chin.  His eyes are down cast, half-hidden under the lids, his lips are pressed lightly together.  He is oblivious of the viewer, perhaps thinking of some serious subject with calm deliberation.  He is also, as it happens, dead.

Giuliano was killed in 1478 in a botched conspiracy to dislodge the Medicis from power.  This is one of several portraits made posthumously by Botticelli.  Botticelli had painted him living, but some people think this set of portraits show characteristics which come from the use of a death mask – the half-closed eyes, the sunken colourless cheeks and prominence of the nose.

Terracotta bust of Giuliano de’ Medici by Verrocchio, 1475-8

In fact Giuliano looks a good deal healthier in another image from not much earlier.  Here there is a fullness in the face and an alertness about the eyes which balanced the sharp nose.  The contrast is very striking.  In fact we know he was a robust young man who enjoyed sports.

But whether the picture represents a death mask or not, we are also to understand that he is dead from another key feature of the picture – the empty window square.  In North Italian painting of the period, it was common to place subjects in front of open doors or windows.  The view in the background contributed to the meaning and atmosphere of the picture, and might contain local landscapes or significant scenes.  Guiliano’s window contains nothing except strong central light, which illuminates each side of the window equally.  He has no portion in this world anymore, so his lands and his aspirations cannot appear in the window.  He is not, however in heaven.  This is a human portrait not an imagined apotheosis.  Giuliano, with his immaculate hair and rich modern clothing is suddenly and totally dispossessed.  No wonder he looks pensive.

There is a version now in Berlin, which is very similar to the Bergamo one, but the memento mori aspect is even more marked in this version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Giuliano de’ Medici, Washington Portrait, Botticelli c. 1478


Here Botticelli has added extra symbols of liminality and death.  The window now has two shutters, one open and one closed.  This marks a point of transition, as Giuliano, captured in paint, is poised everlastingly  between life and death.  We are now separated from Giuliano by a sill where a bird perches on a dead twig.  The bird is often an emblem of mortality, and the flight of the soul.  Here it is a dove, emblem of fidelity, perhaps to the widowed bride, or the family he represented.  The dead twig, broken off its living tree, is an emblem of premature death.   The sill itself makes no sense in real space.  Similar sills often separate us from the divine in paintings of the period, as in Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Pear in the same gallery.

 Madonna and Child with Pear, Bellini c. 1488

Here a highly artificial screen behind the Madonna and Child separates them from the scenes of Italian life, over which they nonetheless reign. Close in front of them a balustrade separates the viewer from the holy figures, like the altar rail which seals off the holiest ritual area of a liturgical church.  The balustrade forms a sill where the symbolic object is a piece of fruit – emblem of swift decay.  The painter has also stuck his tag in the centre of it.

The same principles are used in the  Washington portrait is the same.  The sill in this case separates the dead from the living and is ornamented with symbols of death.  But Giuliano is not wholly gone or the frame would be empty.  The viewer is holding Giuliano between the two worlds, between life and death.  This isn’t eternal life through art, it is more like eternal non-death.

This is a truly secular Renaissance painting, rooted in Classical not Mediaeval culture, and in the Court not the Church.  There is nothing Christian about this painting – no fears of Judgement or hopes of Heaven.  We have a young and powerful man in the midst of a rich life, about to be married, in fact, suddenly and horribly expelled from his world and offered instead what appears to be nothingness.   Botticelli uses these portraits to confront  human questions about death, which go far beyond the mere fear of dying.   How can our selves, our whole private universe, depend for existence on a body that gives in to 19 stab wounds in a church in Florence.  How can a person suddenly not be?  How does it feel to have your enemies force you out of life?  Can there be justice for that?  Is this all there is?  How do you construct a life which is not dominated by the fear of losing it?

If you think this is a lot for Botticelli to infuse into this painting, then it is worth knowing that the conspirators had misjudged crowd feeling in Florence.  With the encouragement of Lorenzo, the people hunted out and exterminated them and their associates  Few made it to formal execution.  Numerous people – maybe a hundred – met humiliating and agonising ends.  Botticelli was commissioned to paint images of the condemned as hanging corpses on the outside of the Bargello, the public building concerned with administration of justice.  He had a lot of time to reflect on the wreck of human lives.

As for the influence of  Classical philosophy, this was central to the whole Medici Court.  which patronised many artists and scholars, including the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino.  The Platonic tradition fostered very different beliefs about the soul and its immortality than those of the prevailing Catholic orthodoxy.   For a start, Platonists thought reincarnation as a human or animal was a possibility.   But, more importantly, the soul is on a journey.  It is indeed immortal, and survives death, but its goal is to escape the imprisonment of matter.  Our conduct in this life determines whether our next existence will be more or less bound by matter – whether we will be philosophers or pigs, or whether we will escape having a material body altogether.  Christian orthodoxy is more sympathetic to the body – Christians hope for a new Resurrection body, without the defects of the old.  This allows for the idea that the individual will continue as a recognisable individual into everlasting life.  But Platonic after life, stripped of the body is more complicated.  Souls which achieve the happiest outcome will return to the One, the source of all life, free from the taint of a material body.  But in what sense will we still exist as individuals?  The whole point of the One, is that it is whole, complete, and not divided.  Will my soul take my individual consciousness there?  Is this life even ‘my’ life – I may have been a cat, or Plato in a previous existence; after death ‘I’ may have more incarnations.  Who am I, once the body is removed?  Giuliano’s soul has clearly left his body.  Where is he now?