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Brescia, Northern Italy: A city in music

Apollo with cupid. Found in the Collection of Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

SOPHIE DEBOICK on how a city’s legacy of musical manufacturing and industry has been repurposed in the pop era

A city of lakes and mountains at the foot of the Alps and 20 miles from the shores of Lake Garda, Brescia has an affinity with the finer things in life.

The plains around the city are populated with caviar-producing sturgeon farms, while the vineyards of Franciacorta, to the north-west of the city, produce a celebrated sparkling wine. This Lombard city of striking architecture – from some of the finest ancient Roman survivals in northern Italy to fascist-era piazzas in polished granite – is also notably the home of icons, from Beretta, the oldest firearms company in the world, founded in 1526, to troubled footballing genius Mario Balotelli.

Musically too, Brescia has been associated with only the best. From the mid-15th Century, Brescia was one of the cradles of the evolution of the violin and home to a dynasty of famous organ-makers. Today, a plaque at the church of San Giuseppe in the shadow of Brescia’s medieval castle pays tribute to one of the key figures in the city’s instrument-making history – Gasparo da Salò. Born by Lake Garda in 1542, he arrived in Brescia in the 1560s and became the city’s most celebrated violin maker.

Thanks to tax returns filed in the city archives, we know a lot about Gasparo da Salò – the money he borrowed from various local monks when business wasn’t going so well, the godfather he sublet a part of his home to and couldn’t get rid of, his farm in Val Sorda, on the other side of Lake Garda, with its olive groves and vineyards. On his arrival in Brescia, he had set up shop in the Contrada delle Cossere area, a part of the city already populated by master instrument makers and musicians. Florentio Maschera, violinist, composer and organist at Brescia’s remarkable Duomo Vecchio, a Romanesque cathedral of rare round construction dating to the 11th Century, indicates the calibre of Gasparo’s neighbours.

Gasparo made violins of rare beauty, some of which survive to this day. The intricately carved example currently held in the Industrial Museum in Bergen, once owned by the 19th Century Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, gives a sense of his mastery of his craft, a mastery he passed on to his pupil four decades his junior, Giovanni Paolo Maggini.

In 1609, Maggini established his own workshop in the Contrada delle Cossere, but when the plague of 1629 hit Brescia, it decimated the city’s craft industries along with every other strata of society. Maggini himself, then aged about 50, died in the pestilence. His unrivalled expertise died with him.

Another of Gasparo da Salò’s contemporaries and neighbours in the Contrada delle Cossere was Costanzo Antegnati, the fourth generation, and most celebrated member, of the Antegnati family of organ builders. That dynasty had begun with Bartolomeo Antegnati, a lawyer’s son born in Brescia around 1450, who began his trade at a time when Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, starting a family business that would last 200 years.

Bartolomeo built organs for major churches all over Italy, including the Duomo in Milan, as well as taking on the prestigious post of organist at the Duomo Vecchio.

In the 1580s, Costanzo took on that same role once occupied by his great-grandfather, succeeding Florentio Maschera as organist. The several organs of Costanzo’s construction that still survive across Italy, as well as his masses, motets and madrigals, and his seminal work of music theory L’arte organica (1608), are his legacy.

The 1536 organ built by his great-uncle Giovanni Giacomo Antegnati, which Costanzo played during his tenure at the Duomo Vecchio, still stands in the cathedral.

Some 330 years after the plague dealt such a blow to Brescia’s musical industries, Gianfranco Bortolotti was born in the city, going on to give it fresh – and rather different – musical associations. Bortolotti was born at a time when Italian cinema and fashion was the pinnacle of chic and the post-world economic boom was transforming Italian society, with Brescia itself changed profoundly by the country’s rapid industrialisation.

Steel company Lucchini, shotgun manufacturer Perazzi and pioneers of LPG gas Cavagna were all established there in the two decades immediately after the war, and Bortolotti was destined to set up his own industry in the city with similar ambitious of scale and profitability.

It was during the glory days of acid house and following in the footsteps of the earlier Italo-disco that Bortolotti founded Media Records in Brescia and had his first hit with his project Cappella and the single Bauhaus (1987).

Its hypnotic rhythm and madcap samples set a pattern for his work, and two years later, the single Helyom Halib, which took its main vocal line from Chicago house duo Larry Thompson and Rick Lenoir’s Work It To The Bone (1987), further vocals from Propaganda’s Jewel (1985) and drums from The O’Jays’ I Love Music (1975), made UK No.11. The Aretha Franklin-sampling Touch Me by his 49ers was a UK No.1 in January 1990.

Cappella’s UK No. 2, the Hi-NRG U Got 2 Let the Music (1993) was one of four UK Top 10s for the act in 1993 and 1994, and by that time Bortolotti had established an Italo-house empire centred on a major recording complex he had built in Brescia.

Taking the ‘hit factory’ approach of Motown as his template, he co-opted fellow DJs like Pierangelo Feroldi (DJ Pierre) and Simone Pagliari, DJ at Brescia’s Paradiso club and part of the trio DJ Professor, to produce the huge amount of material Media was churning out under names like Fits of Gloom, Fargetta, Antico, Clubhouse and RAF.

Bortolotti was always ahead of the curve, founding the label BXR to focus on DJ-produced tracks in reaction to the rise of the superstar DJ, putting out records by Italian DJs Mauro Picotto, Gigi D’Agostino and Mario Più, as well as international acts like Paul van Dyk, Armin van Buuren and Ferry Corsten.

He launched Media Records on the internet in 1996, telling Billboard magazine of his vision of music ‘sold through the web, with customers paying one or two dollars each time’.

After abandoning music for his real passion, interior design (he told the Financial Times that his minimalist approach was directly inspired by the many Mussolini-era, Italian rationalist buildings in Brescia, ‘a very famous fascist city’), but returned to music in 2015 to ride the wave of 1990s nostalgia.

This week, Italian clubs will reopen as the country ends its lockdown, and the Nostalgia 90s night that was scheduled for early May at the Paradiso may yet happen. Lombardy was ground zero for the devastating coronavirus outbreak in Italy, and Brescia has known disaster throughout its history. The plague hit not only in the 1629 outbreak that killed Giovanni Paolo Maggini, but also in 1478 and 1576. The sack by the French of 1512 weakened the city for centuries, and the monstrous explosion that occurred when lightning ignited 300,000 pounds of gunpowder stored beneath the church of San Nazaire in 1769 blew up a quarter of the city’s buildings.

Cultural excellence does not immunise a city from the punishments of history, but may provide an indestructible constant that allows it to negotiate

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