Histories Greatest Castles: Italy
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
Today we will be taking a look at some of the greatest castles in Italy, at least in my opinion. There are many more castles than these 7 but these are the ones that I chose.
First off, what exactly is considered a castle?
A castle is a type of fortified structure built during the Middle Ages predominantly by the nobility or royalty and by military orders. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for royalty or nobility; from a pleasance which was a walled-in residence for nobility, but not adequately fortified; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. The use of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses. Over the approximately 900 years that castles were built, they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls, arrow slits, and portcullises, were commonplace.
European-style castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. These nobles built castles to control the area immediately surrounding them and the castles were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as offered protection from enemies. Although their military origins are often emphasised in castle studies, the structures also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local populace and important travel routes, and rural castles were often situated near features that were integral to life in the community, such as mills, fertile land, or a water source.
Many northern European castles were originally built from earth and timber but had their defences replaced later by stone. Early castles often exploited natural defences, lacking features such as towers and arrow slits and relying on a central keep. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. These changes in defence have been attributed to a mixture of castle technology from the Crusades, such as concentric fortification, and inspiration from earlier defences, such as Roman forts. Not all the elements of castle architecture were military in nature, so devices such as moats evolved from their original purpose of defence into symbols of power. Some grand castles had long winding approaches intended to impress and dominate their landscape.
Although gunpowder was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, it did not significantly affect castle building until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break through stone walls. While castles continued to be built well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon fire made them uncomfortable and undesirable places to live. As a result, true castles went into decline and were replaced by artillery forts with no role in civil administration, and country houses that were indefensible. From the 18th century onwards, there was a renewed interest in castles with the construction of mock castles, part of a romantic revival of Gothic architecture, but they had no military purpose.
Historians have interpreted the widespread presence of castles across Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries as evidence that warfare was common, and usually between local lords. Castles were introduced into England shortly before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Before the 12th-century castles were as uncommon in Denmark as they had been in England before the Norman Conquest. The introduction of castles to Denmark was a reaction to attacks from Wendish pirates, and they were usually intended as coastal defences. The motte and bailey remained the dominant form of castle in England, Wales, and Ireland well into the 12th century. At the same time, castle architecture in mainland Europe became more sophisticated. The donjon was at the centre of this change in castle architecture in the 12th century. Central towers proliferated and typically had a square plan, with walls 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. Their decoration emulated Romanesque architecture and sometimes incorporated double windows similar to those found in church bell towers. Donjons, which were the residence of the lord of the castle, evolved to become more spacious. The design emphasis of donjons changed to reflect a shift from functional to decorative requirements, imposing a symbol of lordly power upon the landscape. This sometimes led to compromising defence for the sake of display.
Why is history full of castles? Castles could serve as a centre for local government, administration and justice. They were also used by powerful lords to display their wealth and power through lavish architectural styles and decoration. Castles were not only built and used by the crown. In fact, the majority of castles were granted by the king to his loyal lords and nobles along with large areas of land. In return for these grants, the king expected his nobles to control and administer these lands on his behalf. The castle itself also represented a whole group of people who contributed to its function from constables, masons, blacksmiths and servants to name a few.
So let’s get into the castles!
The Visconti Castle of Pavia (Castello Visconteo di Pavia in Italian) is a medieval castle in Pavia, Lombardy, Northern Italy. It was built after 1360 in a few years by Galeazzo II Visconti, Lord of Milan, and used as a sovereign residence by him and his son Gian Galeazzo, the first duke of Milan. Its wide dimensions induced Petrarch, who visited Pavia in the fall of 1365, to call it "an enormous palace in the citadel, a truly remarkable and costly structure". Adjacent to the castle, the Visconti created a vast walled park that reached the Certosa di Pavia, a Carthusian monastery founded in 1396 by the Visconti as well and located about 7 kilometres to the north. In the 16th century, an artillery attack on Pavia destroyed a wing and two towers of the castle. The frescos that entirely decorated the castle rooms are today almost completely lost. The castle had been the seat of the Visconti Library until its transfer to Paris in 1499.
Visconti Castle Today
Today, the castle hosts the Civic Museums of Pavia (Musei civici di Pavia). They include the Pinacoteca Malaspina, Museo Archeologico and Sala Longobarda, Sezioni Medioevale e Rinascimentale, Quadreria dell’800 (Collezione Morone), Museo del Risorgimento, Museo Robecchi Bricchetti, and the Crypt of Sant’Eusebio. In the western tower, where once stood the Visconti Library, a virtual reconstruction allows the consultation of the books once kept there. The rooms with the survived frescos and decorations can be visited as part of the museums' tour.
Aragonese Castle (Castello Aragonese) is a castle next to Ischia (one of the Phlegraean Islands), at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples, Italy. The castle stands on a volcanic rocky islet that connects to the larger island of Ischia by a causeway. The castle was built by Hiero I of Syracuse in 474 BC. At the same time, two towers were built to control enemy fleets' movements. The rock was then occupied by Parthenopeans (the ancient inhabitants of Naples). In 326 BC the fortress was captured by the Romans, and then again by the Parthenopeans. In 1441 Alfonso V of Aragon connected the rock to the island with a stone bridge instead of the prior wood bridge and fortified the walls in order to defend the inhabitants against the raids of pirates. Around 1700, about 2000 families lived on the islet, including a Poor Clares convent, an abbey of Basilian monks (of the Greek Orthodox Church), the bishop and the seminar, and the prince with a military garrison. There were also thirteen churches. In 1809, the British troops laid siege to the island, then under French command, and shelled it to almost complete destruction. In 1912, the castle was sold to a private owner. Today the castle is the most visited monument of the island. It is accessed through a tunnel with large openings which let the light enter. Along the tunnel, there is a small chapel consecrated to John Joseph of the Cross, the patron saint of the island. Outside the castle are the Church of the Immacolata and the Cathedral of Assunta. The first was built in 1737 on the location of a smaller chapel dedicated to Saint Francis and closed after the suppression of Convents in 1806 as well as the nunnery of the Clarisses.
Aragonese Castle Today
The third generation of the Mattera family today takes care of the Castle, guaranteeing its opening to the public 365 days a year, carrying out the necessary maintenance and restoration works and promoting cultural events that animate its life. In fact, the most important work, beyond the restoration, is to keep the Castle alive: it is not a simple exhibition of historical artifacts but a living being from which pulses energy useful for understanding the past and the future: certainly not there is more the frantic movement of a stronghold that defends itself, there is no longer the tumultuous daily life of 1800 families who work and meet, but an incomparable serenity and peace that surround the Castle today, animated by ancient and contemporary art exhibitions, studied by historians and admired by thousands of tourists who visit it and capture its memory. Art dialogues with the Castle and makes it alive; after having held many roles, the manor resumes that of the privileged interlocutor of all forms of art and once again proposes its presence as indispensable for the balance of the entire surrounding "kingdom". The initial intuition of Avv. Nicola Ernesto Mattera still finds in his heirs the full enthusiasm and confirmation of the rightness of a gesture which, apparently inexplicable at the time, guaranteed the rebirth of a protagonist of the history of the island and of the entire Kingdom of Naples.
Castel dell'Ovo ("Egg Castle") is a seafront castle in Naples, located on the former island of Megaride, now a peninsula, on the Gulf of Naples in Italy. The castle's name comes from a legend about the Roman poet Virgil, who had a reputation in the Middle Ages as a great sorcerer and predictor of the future. In the legend, Virgil put a magical egg into the foundations to support the fortifications. It remains there along with his bones, and had this egg been broken, the castle would have been destroyed and a series of disastrous events for Naples would have followed. The castle is located between the districts of San Ferdinando and Chiaia, facing Mergellina across the sea.
Castel dell'Ovo Today
In the 19th century, a small fishing village called Borgo Marinaro, which is still extant, developed around the castle's eastern wall. It is now known for its marina and restaurants. The castle is rectangular in plan, approximately 200 by 45 metres at its widest, with a high bastion overlooking the causeway that connects it to the shore; the causeway is more than 100 metres long and a popular location for newlyweds to have their wedding photos taken. Several buildings are often used for exhibitions and other special events inside the castle walls. Behind the castle, there is a long promontory once probably used as a docking area. A large round tower stands outside the castle walls to the southeast. Underwater archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a 2500-year-old harbour associated with the origins of the first Greek settlement of Paleopolis (which preceded the ancient city of Neapolis, now Naples) in the sea next to the castle. Four tunnels, a 10-foot-wide street demonstrating furrows consistent with cart traffic, and a trench likely built as a defensive structure for soldiers were submerged immediately adjacent to the castle. The discovery was announced in March 2018, after the September 2017 identification of the original port of Neapolis. All those who want to visit the site can access it freely and for free by going to the entrances from Monday to Saturday from 9.00 to 18.30 and on holidays from 9.00 to 18.00.
La Scarzuola is an architectural complex in Umbria, located in Montegiove hamlet in the comune of Montegabbione, Terni Province. It was originally the site of a 13th Century convent associated with St. Francis of Assisi, but was partially abandoned in the 19th Century. In 1957, the Milanese architect Tomaso Buzzi purchased the convent site and converted it into a multi-faceted architectural complex mainly built with the remains of the convent. Buzzi built the complex as his interpretation of the ideal city. The site was first mentioned in a chronicle of 1218 as the location where St. Francis built a hut and planted a rose and a laurel tree from which water miraculously gushed. In order to commemorate the site, the Counts of Marsciano funded the construction of a Church and Convent at the site, which was entrusted to the Franciscans. The convent was significantly renovated in the 16th century. The church was the site of site of burial for most of the Counts of Marsciano, but the last interment there was recorded in 1820, after which it was partially abandoned.
The convent lay in ruins for most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, when it caught the eye of the already accomplished Tomaso Buzzi. Buzzi had found success as an architect and interior designer in Milan and was enchanted by the partially ruined site. He purchased it in 1957 and, subsequently, dedicated the rest of his life to the construction of his complex there. Buzzi restored what remained of the convent and built a large complex of buildings and theaters behind the convent mainly using stone from the convent ruins. He built seven amphitheaters of varying sizes, which represented what Buzzi thought of as the inherent theatricality of life. He also built several structures and statues depicting different stages of his life, such as a giant stone female torso to represent lust, and a miniature Tower of Babel to represent vanity. Many of these structures have esoteric and alchemical meanings. Perhaps the most striking feature of the complex is the miniature city, which contains representations of buildings including Temple of Vesta, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Torre dell'Orologio in Mantua. All of these elements come together to represent Buzzi's interpretation of the ideal city.
La Scarzuola Today
After dedicating more than two decades of his life to the complex, Buzzi died in 1981, his vision unfinished. However, it was completed by his nephew Marco Solari. Today, La Scarzuola is a tourist site and can be entered for a small fee. The surreal nature of the complex has invited interest, and, in 2020, Gucci chose it as a modeling location for its Bloom campaign.
Built in the latter half of the 14th Century on the southernmost part of Lake Garda in Northern Italy. Construction was initiated on behalf of the Della Scala family of Verona, who are known as the Scaligeri from which it takes its name. The family ruled Verona and a large part of the Venetian area from the years 1259 to 1387. The castle was later controlled by the Republic of Venice from the 15th Century after the Della Scala family submitted to Venice in 1405. It continued to be an important fortification in the area. Its decline in importance began with the completion of the nearby fortress in Perchiera del Garda in the 16th Century. It continued to be used as an armory and fortification until the Unification of Italy when it became the office of the local government of Sirmione. Restoration began after World War I in 1919 when it became a museum and tourist attraction. However, it was not fully restored until 2018 when the internal waters of the castle were cleared. The internal docks are the only surviving example of a 14th Century fortified port.
Scaligero Castle Today
The Scaligero Castle in Sirmione is part of the Garda Museums complex, together with the Grottoes of Catullus and the Roman Villa in Desenzano del Garda. The castle can be visited for a fee and tickets can be purchased at the ticket office at the entrance, which is open during the holidays and throughout the summer.
Castel del Monte
Castel del Monte is situated on a small hill close to the monastery of Santa Maria del Monte, at an altitude of 540 m. When the castle was built, the region was famously fertile with a plentiful supply of water and lush vegetation. It lies in the comune of Andria, province of Barletta-Andria-Trani, occupying the site of an earlier fortress of which no structural remains exist.
The castle's construction is mentioned in only one contemporary source, a document dating to 1240, in which Frederick II ordered the governor of Capitanata to finish some works on it. It was never finished and there is no proof that he used it as a hunting lodge as commonly stated. It was later turned into a prison, used as a refuge during a plague, and finally fell into disrepair. It originally had marble walls and columns, but all were stripped by vandals or re-used in constructions nearby.
Castel del Monte Today
In 1996 Castel del Monte was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, which described it as "a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture". Castel del Monte is depicted on the reverse of the Italian-issue 1 Euro cent coin. The castle has been often mistakenly linked to the Knights Templar and it's been regarded as a "mysterious" construction even by notable historians. Italian historian Raffaele Licinio often condemned those esoteric views and interpretations, stressing that Castel del Monte was just one of the castles of the fortification system developed by Frederick II, and it is not in any way linked to the Templars.
Fénis Castle is an Italian medieval castle located in the town of Fénis. It is one of the most famous castles in Aosta Valley, and for its architecture and its many towers and battlemented walls has become one of the major tourist attractions of the region. The castle first appears in a document in 1242 as a property of the Viscounts of Aosta, the Challant family. At that time it probably was a simple keep surrounded by walls. From 1320 to 1420, under the lordship of Aymon of Challant and of his son Boniface I of Challant, the castle was expanded to its actual appearance. Under Aymon's lordship, the castle got its pentagonal layout, the external boundary wall, and many of the towers. In 1392 Boniface of Challant began a second building campaign to build the staircase and the balconies in the inner courtyard and the prison. He also commissioned Piedmontese painter Giacomo Jaquerio to paint frescoes on the chapel and on the inner courtyard.
Under Boniface I the castle reached its greatest splendor: it was a rich court surrounded by a vegetable plot, a vineyard, and a garden where the lord and his guests could relax. The castle belonged to the lords of Challant until 1716, when Georges-François of Challant had to sell it to Count Baldassarre Castellar of Saluzzo Paesana in order to pay his debts, and for the castle was the beginning of a period of decline. It was turned into a rural dwelling and became a stable and a barn. In 1895 architect Alfredo d'Andrade purchased it and started a restoration campaign to secure the damaged structures. In 1935 a second campaign by De Vecchi and Mesturino completed the restoration and gave the castle its current appearance. The rooms were also provided with wood period furniture.
Fenis Castle Today
The castle is today owned by the Autonomous Region Aosta Valley, which turned it into a museum.
Hope you enjoyed today's post learning about some of the cool castles in Italy.