6. The Early Medieval period in the Bergamo area

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, various peoples of Germanic origin moved and migrated through European territories; some transited and settled in Italy, leaving traces in its social structure, economy and culture. The Bergamo area was affected by the presence of the Ostrogoths, Alemanni and especially the Lombards.

The Ostrogoths originated from the Scandinavian peninsula; after centuries of migration in east-central Europe and the Eastern Roman Empire they came to Italy in AD 489, led by King Theodoric. Their domination ended in 552, after a disastrous war with the Byzantines.

At Stezzano, where there was an earlier Roman settlement strategically placed on the road between Bergamo and Milan, the tomb of a woman of Ostrogothic lineage was found. The grave goods consisted of silver toiletry items and a pair of polyhedral gold earrings; the only surviving object is a gilt silver stirrup brooch.

The Alemanni were a Germanic people who had settled in the 4th century AD in northern Switzerland and south-west Germany; they were defeated by the Franks in the late 5th century AD. In northern Italy small groups of refugees from the rout found haven with the Goths, in whose army they were probably enlisted.

From a female burial discovered in Fornovo San Giovanni, together with other Alemanni tombs, came a stirrup brooch in gilt silver, a pin (probably used by Germanic women to fix their veils) made of silver with an almandine garnet, and two polychrome glass-paste beads. These objects date to the late 5th or first half of the 6th century AD.

The Lombards were also a Germanic people; between the 1st century BC and the 4th century AD they migrated from Scandinavia to the lower Elbe region and occupied ancient Pannonia, now known as Hungary. In AD 568, led by Alboin, they crossed the Carnic Alps and invaded Italy. Paul the Deacon tells of this conquest in his Historia Langobardorum, which also recounts later phases of the Lombards’ presence in the Bergamo area.

Most of the Lombard period finds on display in the museum’s Early Medieval section come from localities in the province of Bergamo.

A burial found in Scanzo contained an object of great value, a parade-shield umbo with a gilt bronze decoration, a three-pronged vortex with ends shaped like raptor heads – a symbolic reference to Odin (or Wotan), the most important god in the Germanic pantheon, lord of warriors, whose protection would have benefited the fighter who owned the shield.

In a tomb in Zanica three gold crosses and a pair of spurs decorated with damascened animal motifs from the late 7th century AD came to light. The embossed, thin gold foil crosses had been sewn to the shroud in which the dead person’s body was wrapped.

The burial ground at Castel Rampino, near Castelli Calepio, was composed of six tombs probably belonging to members of the same family. It yielded numerous interesting objects, notably many damascened plates that decorated belts to which swords and scramasax would have been attached, and a fine silver plaque with horse heads at the end.

In Bergamo’s Upper Town an extensive burial ground in use from Late Roman times to the Lombard epoch has been discovered between Via Porta Dipinta and Via Osmano, near the church of Sant’Andrea. Finds were made in two separate periods: in 1874, when 12 burials were dug, and in 2009, when a further 9 were excavated. Outstanding among these was the tomb of the “Lady of Osmano”, interred in a wooden casket in a simple grave cut, containing abundant funerary objects: a gold cross on her face, a green glass and amber bead necklace, a bronze and gold-foil ring with an engraving, a bone comb and a glass phial. The tomb types and grave goods found indicate that these two burial groups were of high-ranking Lombards.