TRENT must always have had the air of a frontier city. On the left bank of the Adige near the confluence of the Férsina, the city controls the key transalpine route to northern Italy from Innsbruck and central Germany across the Brenner Pass.
The Roman Tridentum was already a place of some consequence. In the early eleventh century, the Holy Roman Emperors granted control of the Trentino to a succession of prince-bishops, who were to rule Trent more or less continuously until the French invasion of 1796. Restored to Austria after the defeat of Bonaparte, the Trentino and the Alto Adige to the north were Italy’s major prizes for her less than glorious intervention in the First World War. A cataclysm of a different kind, the Reformation, had for two decades made Trent the epicentre of the Catholic world: the Council of Trent, which was opened in 1545 and reconvened for the last time in 1562, set the future course of the Roman Church.
At the heart of the city, on the south of the Piazza del Duomo, is the Romanesque cathedral. This was begun to the design drawn up by the Ticinese mason Adamo d’Arogno in 1212 but subsequently modified. The restrained north façade does not prepare one for the rich external decoration of the central apse. The austere interior was the setting for the opening of the Council on 13 December 1545. The piazza itself, with a pretty eighteenth-century fountain, is flanked by a number of fine buildings, including the much-restored Palazzo Pretorio, and, at the corner of the Via Belenzani, the Casa Bella, the façade of which with frescoes of c. 1530 by Marcello Fogolino is a precious survival.
The Via Belenzani, generously wide, is flanked by a sequence of distinguished palazzi, some of which housed those who attended the Council. Ahead is the baroque church of San Francesco Saverio, on the Via Roma. Turn to the right to reach the vast Palazzo Fugger of 1602. Less ambitious but more appealing is the Palazzo Tabarelli, down the Via Mazzurana to the right, with a richly decorated front of 1512–27.
Further east, set against the town wall, is the Castello del Buonconsiglio, which was from the thirteenth century the seat of the prince-bishops. The medieval fortress was extended for Bishop Bernardo Clesio in 1528–36 and now houses a number of museums. The frescoes supplied for Clesio in 1531–2 by the Brescian master Girolamo Romanino are among the signal achievements of decorative painting of their time. The sequence begins on the ground floor and continues up a staircase to the piano nobile, culminating in the loggia opening to the Cortile dei Leoni and in the Audience Chamber reached from the latter. Romanino’s affinity with the north is exemplified in the realism of his portraits of the labourers who attend the slightly sinister official on the staircase and in the lunettes of groups of musicians juxtaposed with Old Testament and mythological scenes in the loggia. He clearly knew how to divert and edify his patron.