From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911 ]; pp. 131-148.
FAMOUS CASTLES AND PALACES OF ITALY
THE CASTLES OF THE VALLEY OF AOSTA
TOWARDS the close of the tenth century the noise of the landing of the Saracens on the coast of Provence reached the ears of the hermit Bernard in his hut on the highest Alps. Descending from his solitude, the holy man, like his more famous namesake in after years, proclaimed a crusade against the infidel. From end to end of that long wild valley which reaches from the Po to the glaciers of Mont Blanc, the people took up arms; and led by their sainted leader repulsed the scattered marauding bands of the dark-skinned invaders. Then, apprehensive of more such raids, they hastily built, at commanding points along the valley, strongholds to which they might retreat for refuge at a given signal. The Saracens disappeared; the danger passed for ever; but the castles have remained.
Such seems to have been the origin of the earliest of these structures, which to the number of seventy-two stud the banks of the Dora Baltea from Ivrea to the frontier, a distance of sixty-three miles. Aosta, an outpost of their younger empire, the Romans had fenced in, a thousand years before, with massive walls; Bard, much lower down the stream, had been fortified yet earlier, perhaps by the primitive inhabitants of the valley. Of these works, it must be supposed, the frightened people of the tenth century took advantage. 132 Their own work has not stood the test of time as well as has that of the Roman. Graines, the oldest, it is thought, of their castles, will soon be a mere heap of stones. It stands, remote, wild and solitary, on a rocky promontory overlooking the Evançon. Till ten years ago, a rude square tower had defied the persistent excavations made at its base for enchanted treasure, every Holy Thursday and St John’s Eve; but the spell laid on it has perhaps been removed, for the tower has fallen prone. Around are the ruins of other buildings, among them of the chapel of St Martin de Graine, all once enclosed by a crenellated wall. Probably not much of the ruin dates from the time of St Bernard. Most of the masonry was raised, no doubt, by order of these later lords of Graine, who imposed on their vassals the duty of covering the neighbouring glaciers of the Becca di Torché every year with fresh earth.
For the castles erected as barriers against the Saracens soon became the holds of foes more dangerous to the freedom of the valley folk. The castle built by the lord originally for the protection of his serfs became, too early, the means of oppressing them. In such wild mountainous regions the feudal system took a stronger hold than elsewhere in Italy. There were no thriving communes to keep the barons in check; intercourse between the valleys was difficult; the tyrant, once he had built his eyrie, was as secure in it as the eagle. He preyed, too, not only on his own people but strangers. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the valley of Aosta was much frequented as a way from France into Lombardy. From their towers the chiefs watched for the long line of mules, laden with merchandise, winding 133 slowly down the passes. To waylay them at a ford or a defile was easy; to demand a toll, moderate or preposterous, according to the strength of the party, was profitable. Sometimes there was resistance, sometimes reprisals, sometimes intervention on the part of the liege lord, as when the Count of Savoy delivered the Marquis of Ferrara from the hands of one of his vassals.
On this side of the Alps the count’s authority was delegated to the viscounts of Aosta who, in the middle of the thirteenth century, built on a Roman foundation the massive tower of Bramafam. Built by them, or in their time, were also the Torre del Podesta and the Torre del Lebbroso, which last has become familiar by repute to every schoolboy through the story of Xavier de Maistre. In the year 1200 Bosone II., Viscount of Aosta, was invested by Thomas I. of Savoy with the castle and lordship of Challant, by which name his descendants were henceforward known. Another Bosone became lord of Chatillon; Gottofredo, his son, acquired Graines and Fenis. To him succeeded Ebalo Magno, who added Ussel and Montjovet to his domains, but renounced the viscounty of Aosta. The greatest of the Challants was Ibleto, the friend and captain of the Green and Red counts (Amedeo VI. and Amedeo VII.). Twice he went to the Holy Land, once as a crusader, once as a pilgrim; he was conspicuous on many battlefields; erected the castle of Verrès, and acquired Issogne and Andorno. He defeated the Bishop of Vercelli and kept him for nine months a prisoner at Montjovet. For this he was excommunicated, but from this sentence he was soon relieved and 134 died in the year 1409, leaving behind him the memory of a brave soldier, a good master and a devout Christian.
The Castle of Challant stands high over the littie River Evenon, a few inches above its junction with the Dora Baltea. A castle existed here before 1200, but the name of the founder has not been recorded. It was enlarged in 1295, by Ebalo, who, on abandoning his tower of Bramafam at Aosta made it his principal residence. It may therefore be considered the first castle built by his family. Little of it remains beyond the outer walls, which are in many parts crumbling away, and part of the inner wall which retains traces of plaster. As usual the country folk have used the castle as a quarry and have stripped the doors and windows of their hewn stone. The southern wall is the least injured. It is pierced with windows and loops, and the grooves for the drawbridge may still be traced. In the interior is the cistern, generally, we are told, filled by the jovial lords with wine.
Motjovet, in the main valley, where the bishop was kept a prisoner, is an older and even more picturesque pile, in a not much better plight. From the name it may be supposed that the Romans had a settlement here. In the thirteenth century it was the seat of a troublesome noble baron, one Fagdinus, the terror of all the traders of Savoy and Lombardy. His evil deeds were reported to the count, who seized his castle in 1274. It was restored to him on a promise of good behaviour, but the greater part of his fiefs were allotted to the house of Challant. Another portion was given to the family of Chenal. Ebalo of Challant 135 married the heiress of the latter house, and by the gift of Amedeo V. became possessed of all the original domain of Fagdinus. It remained the property of the Challants till the year 1438, when it was sold to Amedeo VIII., who surrounded it with bastions and armed it with cannon. In 1661, by order of Charles Emanuel II., it was dismantled, and the guns and munitions of war transferred to Fort Bard. The bastions of Amedeo VIII. are still in good preservation, but of the feudal fortress not much else is left than the shattered master-tower and the broken fangs of the outer line of fortifications.
Chatillon, higher upstream, is completely modernised. It has an unexpected interest for English people. In 1173 — before even it had passed into the greedy hands of the Challant — the castle belonged to Humbert II. of Savoy. Wishful to conclude an alliance with Henry II. of England against the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, he proposed a match between his daughter Agnes and our Prince John. Chatillon was to be included in the dowry and the bridegroom was to become viscount of the valley; but fortunately for the valley, and unluckily for us, the match was broken off and Agnes gave her hand to a Genevese count.
The finest monument of the great papal lords of the valley is to-day the imposing Castle of Verrès, on the river, half-way between Ivrea and Aosta. Built in 1390 by Ibleto, it reveals the progress in military architecture made since the foundation of the rude strongholds of Challant and Graines. It stands on a high precipitous rock, to be climbed by the agile in twenty minutes. Reaching the summit we are faced by the stout bastioned 136 enceinte reared in 1556 by Count Renato — defensible by artillery, we observe, on all sides but the north whence an attack was hardly to be apprehended. Over the entrance are an inscription referring to Renato of Challant, and his arms quartered with those of his third wife, Mencia of Portugal. The wall encloses a wide space in the middle of which rises the Castle of Ibleto — a huge square pile, now disfigured by a modern roof. The door is defended by loopholes and a portcullis. It leads into a square vestibule, beyond which is an open court, much smaller than is usual in Italian castles. In the middle is a deep cistern sunk into the solid rock. But the most remarkable feature of the whole castle is the staircase, which winds round the wall of the court to the summit of the building supported only by brackets and unprotected by any balusters or parapet. The steps alternate with landings two metres wide.
The vast empty vaulted chambers on each side of the court are furnished with great hooded fireplaces, and were evidently the quarters of the garrison. High above the floor, a passage excavated in the wall leads to a postern gate and to a newel stair to the upper story. Here were the banqueting hall and the apartments of the lord. There was ample provision for heating, and the kitchen has three fireplaces. The rooms are not all at the same level, and had chambers or lofts above their ceilings. Over the vestibule is the room of the warden, with the usual apertures for discharging missiles, and a speaking tube in the wall communicating with the guard-room below. The second floor was given up to the servants and partly 137 used as storerooms. All traces of decoration have disappeared except an inscription commemorating the foundation of Ibleto, above the entrance to the first floor; but the vaulting, the staircase, and the extraordinary variety in the form of the windows and chimneypieces show that the founder and his successors were assisted by able architects. Built on a rock, there is no crypt or undercroft. The dungeons were situated in the guard-house just outside the door, and seem to be the remains of an earlier building than the castle itself.
Francesco de Challant, the son of Ibleto, died without sons in 1442, and in defiance of the salic law, obtaining in the valley, named as his heiresses his daughters Caterina and Margherita, both widows. The duke declared the will invalid and claimed the fiefs, but all the collateral branches of the family contested his pretensions as well as those of the daughters. The tenants and retainers of the house stood by the ladies, as also did their cousin, Pietro d’ Introd, a shrewd doctor of laws. While the law-suit was pending, Margherita sold her share in the property, except the Castle of Verrès, to her sister, who promptly married her lawyer. They then set to work to fortify the castles of Graines, Challant and Chatillon, and armed the peasantry against the duke’s commissioners. His Highness then induced Margherita to declare the sale of these fiefs to have been extorted from her by force. Caterina was cited to appear before the court. She neither went nor sent representatives. The duke then commanded her to deliver the two sons of her first marriage to their paternal grandfather. By way of 138 answer she removed them to Challant. “And,” exclaimed her new husband, “if I can’t get the county of Challant by law, I will get it by force. A good horse will take the bit in his mouth once in his life at least.”
The vassals crowded into the chapel of the castle and swore to defend their count and countess to the death. The first object of Pietro’s wrath was his wife’s sister. Seeing her one day in the church of Challant, he assailed her with taunts, then he made an unsuccessful attempt to surprise her fortress of Verrès. The feeble duke, Lodovico, instead of vindicating his authority by force of arms ordered fresh inquiries and commissions, till he was spurred at last by Giacomo, another of the claimants, into occupying the valley of Challant with his troops. But this very Giacomo, presently engaged in a conspiracy against the Duchess of Savoy, and the irritated Lodovico made a truce with Caterina. However, in 1456, Giacomo was recognised by judicial decree heir-general of Count Francesco, and an army was sent to put him in possession. Caterina shut herself up in Chatillon, her husband in Verrès. Pietro, attempting to succour his wife, fell into an ambuscade and was killed. Chatillon fell, and Caterina was robbed of her lands, title, children, and even for a year of her liberty.
From Giacomo, who seems to have been an interloper, the lands and honours of Challant descended to Renato, who in 1522, at the age of seventeen, married Bianca Maria, the widow of Ermes Visconti and the daughter of a noble of the Montferrat. The honeymoon was spent at Issogne, where in 1470 Giorgio de 139 Challant had built a manor-house. The bride was two years older than her husband, and vastly his superior in experience and spirit. A year after their marriage he left her, as he put it in his will, “to follow the most serene and most Christian lord king Francis of France, against the illustrious lord duke of Milan.”
Thus abandoned, Bianca Maria went herself to Milan, where her beauty procured her many lovers. The first she favoured was a certain Ardizzino Valperga, who, being presently supplanted by his friend, the Count of Gaiazzo, went about speaking of his faithless mistress in the most contemptuous terms. The indignant lady asked her new lover to kill the old, and, as he would not, she restored Ardizzino to her favour, and besought him to punish the count for having refused to kill him at her bidding. Finding that neither of these lovers would murder the other, she took a third, Don Pietro di Cardona, who, in gratitude for her smiles, assassinated Ardizzino. He was detected and arrested, and confessed at whose instigation he had acted. He escaped from prison through the connivance of the Constable de Bourbon, who was then in the city; but Bianca Maria was seized and sentenced to death. On 20th October 1526 she was led out into the ravelin of the castle weeping piteously, and crying out to see her last lover, of whose escape she was ignorant. She spoke, says the chronicler, to deaf ears; and her head was severed from her body at the age of twenty-four years.
Her lawful husband, on hearing of her death, thought only of securing her lands in Montferrat. 140 Little more than a year after he married Donha Mencia, daughter of the Duke of Bragança. She bore him two daughters. The elder, Filiberta, was sought in marriage by the Marquis of Soriana; but she had already lost her heart to a groom named Lespail. On the walls of Issogne we read the legends in which she expressed her love: “Omnia vincit amor,” “Non est amor imo dolor mulieris amor,” “Vivamus et amemur.” On the morning fixed for the wedding, the bride had disappeared. They sought high and low, but all in vain. Filiberta was well on her way to Venice with her lowly lover — and a plentiful supply of the family jewels. The marquis, not to waste the wedding breakfast, married her sister, Isabella. Her mother, not so easily consoled, died, it is said, of a broken heart. One day the prodigal returned to Issogne. Her lover had been hanged for robbery at Ferrara, and it may be imagined with what reproaches and gibes she was received. Again the poor girl made the walls her confidant. “In me turbatum est cor meum,” she wrote, and “Defecit a dolore vita mea (1564).” Wearied by her harsh treatment, she eloped a second time, on this occasion to an aged aunt at Novara. She quitted her house the wife of count Giuseppe Tornielli, with whom she lived happily ever afterwards, let us hope, far from the scenes of her youthful indiscretions, in the duchy of Lorraine.
The manor, haunted by the ghosts of these women who loved unwisely and too well, has been restored, and is inhabited by the painter Commendatore Vittorio Avondo. The exterior is not interesting, but once in 141 the inner court you might believe yourself to be back in the fifteenth century. The walls are painted chiefly with coats-of-arms belonging to the Challants and the families with which they were allied. Giuseppe Giacosa tells us how he passed several days with the commendatore, clearing away the plaster and varnish from the walls, and bringing to light the inscriptions of which we have spoken. Guests in former times seem to have had the habit of leaving such souvenirs behind. Escobar, a Spaniard, wrote in 1547, ‘No piedo mas fortuna” (No longer will I seek fortune); and lower down, “Palabras de pluma lo viento le leva” (Written words can be carried away by the wind), sentences which seem respectively to express a profound delight or discouragement and a cynical contempt for such fleeing moods. In the manorial hall someone has written “Maledictus homo qui confidat in homine,” and another “Beneficis et injuriæ mæmor (sic). Iuravit et non poenitebit.” Most eloquent of all, after the love messages of Filiberta, is the prayer, “Jolande prie Dieu et la Sainte Vierge pour son enfant.” Not even in the Beauchamp Tower do the very stones bear such eloquent witness to the sorrows and hopes of the long-forgotten dead. The race of Challant itself has faded out. The last representative died in the year 1804.
FENIS, half-way between Chatillon and Aosta, was built in 1330 by order of Aymond de Challant, sometime tutor of the young Amedeo VII. and afterwards captain-general of the army of Savoy. It was enlarged and embellished by successive lords and finally sold by Giorgio Francesco di Challant in 1716 to defray the 142 costs of the suit he had brought against the descendants of that Madrazzo who had married Filiberta’s sister. It is now a national monument. It was obviously built for defensive purposes though by no means in a defensive position. The high outer wall which encircles it is attached on the west side to the keep; on the south it is strengthened by three towers, one square, huge and primitive, the second round, and the third, between them, overhung with machicolations and pierced with the round-arched entrance to the castle.
The buildings form an irregular trapezoid. At the four angles are four turrets or bartizans at the level of the battlements, and from the west side projects the strong square keep. All the towers and walls preserve their merlons and machicolations and pitched roofs. You pass immediately into the inner court, which is almost triangular in plan, and adorned on one side with a huge painting of St Christopher carrying the infant Jesus. Opposite the entrance a staircase in two branches leads to the upper floor. The walls here are adorned with the figures of the sages and heroes of antiquity, with their names written underneath; the chambers are in a miserable ruinous state, but their wooden ceilings, fireplaces and windows are still in good condition. The chapel on the first floor contains some interesting though deteriorated frescoes, and some curious sentences or mottoes written in all the languages spoken in the fifteenth century in Piedmont — Latin, Italian, French, Provençal, Spanish, German, and various dialects of the vernacular. One of these runs thus:143
“Ours, lions, serpens, et chien
Are quatre bestes apres au bien
Mais on ne peut par nul engien
A male femme apprendre bien.”
Were these bitter lines suggested by the misdeeds of Bianca Maria?
Montalto, a picturesque pile near the entrance to the valley, has, like Issogne, been restored and adapted to modern domestic uses. It also has its legend of an unhappy love, which is thus related by Signor Giacosa:
“Emma di Montalto loved Guiscardo di MonTferrato, the scion of a rival house. The two lovers were accustomed to meet at a fountain near Lake Sirio, half-way between Montalto and Ivrea. The pitcher goes often to the well, but is broken at last. One day Guiscardo was obliged to confess his love to his father, and to implore his consent to his marriage.
“ ‘Wretch!’ exclaimed Roberto di Montferrato, ‘wouldst thou wed thy sister?’ And he related to him the story of his secret love for the mother of Emma, in her tomb these many years. Which story, reaching, in some way unknown to us, the ears of the lord of Montalto, was credited by him, and the maiden at once chased from the castle.
“The unhappy Emma took refuge with her nurse in a village on the Serra and Sent word to her lover, expecting help from him; but Guiscardo wrote to her, saying that fate had disunited them and they must meet again only in heaven. Emma implored in vain the pardon of her father, languished and died. Guiscardo fled away to the wars and was slain. The lord 144 of Montalto, at last bestirring himself to avenge his honour, assaulted and burnt the Castle of Montferrato. Wounded to death, Roberto proclaimed the innocence of his wife and furnished him with proofs of it. Too late! The unhappy father fled to seek his daughter, only in time to receive her last sigh.”
“Another story tells of a youth who loved and was loved by the daughter of the castellan, Maria. The affair having been discovered, he went out into the world as a troubadour. One day he returned to the castle and carried off the prize in a singing tourney; recognised, he was ignominiously expelled. Thereupon he took up arms and acquired renown in the wars. Montalto was besieged by enemies; he hastened to its assistance, defeated the enemy, who had already penetrated within the walls, delivered the besieged, and obtained the hand of Maria.”
These things are bound to happen to dwellers in castles in any land.
Giacosa guarantees the truth of the following story about the lord of the Castle of Montmayeur which crowns a seemingly inaccessible peak in the Val Grisanche. In the year 1450 this truculent baron was engaged in a law-suit with a kinsman as to the succession to some lands. Judgment was given against him by the court of Chambery, presided over by Guido de Fessigny. A few months after the decision the lord of Montmayeur waited on the judge, and, telling him that he admitted the justice of the finding, he invited him to dine with him and his late adversary at his castle. (I cannot imagine a place less suitable for a dinner-party.) The judge rode up the steep 145 path on the evening appointed, and was vaguely alarmed to perceive no signs of a festival, no lights in the windows. His host appeared, however, and welcomed him cordially. He apologised for the absence of the other guests, but would not hear of his departing without his dinner. And indeed the lawyer ate a hearty meal. At its conclusion, Montmayeur asked him abruptly if he were a good Christian. Fessigny said he hoped so. “Then look behind you,” said Montmayeur.
The judge glanced over his shoulder. The arras had been drawn aside, and in the room beyond he saw a block, surrounded by twelve monks.
“I have lost one hundred thousand livres, thanks to you,” said the baron grimly. “Commend your soul to God who awaits you.”
The judge thus brought to judgment, pleaded for his life in vain. A few days later the baron entered the court at Chambery, and placed a bag on the table. “Gentlemen,” he said to the judges, “here is a document relating to my case.” He turned, and was heard galloping away. The bag contained the head of the unfortunate judge.
To describe and tell the stories (where there are any) of the seventy-two castles of the valley of Aosta would be a tedious and unprofitable task. It is worth observing that this valley, so well defended, was never violated by an invader till Napoleon was checked for some days by the Austrian garrison in the fort of Bard. This circumstance explains the enormous difference in the proportion of such strongholds between this and other parts of Italy.146
The castle which towers over Ivrea at the mouth of the valley was built by the Green Count in 1358. The three remaining corner towers at a distance rather resemble factory chimneys. The fourth tower collapsed on being struck by lightning in 1676, destroying one hundred and eighty-seven houses. In 1648 the regent, Christine de France, here solemnly resigned the government to her son, Vittorio Emanuele II. The castle was used often in those days as a state prison, and is now a gaol. Outside the town are the ruins of an older castle, once inhabited by the marquises of Ivrea. Giacosa tells us that down to 1848, in memory of the struggles of the town with the neighbouring marquises of Montferrat, every new governor, on taking office, publicly smote a portion of the old fortress with a hammer, solemnly pronouncing the words, “In spretum Marchionis Montis Ferrati.”
THREE CASTLES NEAR FLORENCE