From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 149-166.
FAMOUS CASTLES AND PALACES OF ITALY
THREE CASTLES NEAR FLORENCE
THE feudal system, never very strong in Italy, broke down during the long struggle between Pope and emperor. The towns, one by one, emerged from the strife as free republics, and threatened the very existence of the barons to whom they had lately owed suit and service. The nobles of the peninsula were, in fact, left in a very doubtful position. They no longer had a country, remarks one historian1; their only security was in their own strength, for the emperor, in resigning his authority over the towns, had forgotten in any way to organise the nobles dispersed in castles. All the families of Italian dukes had become extinct; those who remained had lost all jurisdiction over their inferiors; no feudal tenure was respected; no vassal appeared at the baronial court to sit on the tribunal of his lord. The nobles were not united by the hierarchical connection of the feudal system, but grouped themselves into Guelfs and Ghibellines. The most powerful families generally followed the imperial banner. Those nobles, on the contrary, whose castles were few or weak, or situated near powerful cities, frequently enrolled themselves as citizens, and coming to take an active part in the government, attached themselves to the Guelf or papal party. Independent 150 nobles were no more to be found in the plain of Lombardy, but the hills bristled with the strongholds of chiefs owning a nominal fealty to the emperor, and a real obedience to none. Even these, in after years, like the Visconti, allied themselves with some city state, an example the Guelf house of Este and the Ghibelline Eccelinos were in course of time obliged to follow. “In like manner were situated on the northern side of the Apennines the fortresses of the Ghibelline nobles, who excited revolutions in the republics of Piacenza, Parma, Reggio and Modena. On the southern side were the castles of other Ghibellines, in turns citizens and enemies of the republics of Arezzo, Florence, Pistoia and Lucca. Lower in the valley of the Po, or in the upper vale of the Arno, were the castles of the Guelfs who had become decidedly citizens of the same republics.”
Among these last were the two castles of ROMENA and POPPI, which still form the most conspicuous landmarks of the beautiful vale of the Casentino. The shattered towers of Romena, rising from a steep cliff on the right bank of the Arno, summarise the whole tragedy of the expiring feudal system. The roots of the stronghold were planted far back in the Dark Ages. It was dwelt in by the Count Guido Alberto, who in the first years of the eleventh century extended his authority through the length and breadth of the valley. From him was descended Count Guidoguerra IV., who married the good Gualdrada, the daughter of the Florentine citizen, Bellencione, referred to by Dante as a model of primitive simplicity and sobriety. On Guidoguerra’s death, in 1217, his fiefs were divided 151 among his sons. Romena fell to Aghinolfo, from whom were descended the branch of the family surnamed after the castle. In his time Maestro Adamo of Brescia lived at Romena, and was incited by him, as Dante believed, to counterfeit the money of Florence. For this offence the man was barbarously burnt to death a mile or two away from the castle, near to which, it is said, some of the spurious coins made by him were discovered in a cavern; and on your way down to the village you pass the little spring of Fonte Branda, which he remembered, tortured by thirst, in hell.
The stern sombre poet spent a part of his exile at Romena, and was on terms of intimacy with Aghinolfo and his brothers. He was one of the twelve counsellors of Alessandro Guidi, who was the captain of the band called the Taglia, formed by Ghibelline exiles from Florence. Dante is said to have composed the letter which was addressed to the republic of Florence in the count’s name, pleading for the readmission of the exiles to the city; and upon Alessandro’s death he wrote to his nephew, regretting that he could not attend his funeral, for want of arms and horses to traverse the Casentine. These friendly associations did not, however, restrain the bard from immortalising the count as the instigator of the crime. He did not act much more kindly by the beautiful Margherita Malatesta, whom he met at the castle in 1304, and whose father Paolo he consigned to the same region as the luckless counterfeiter.
By the middle of the fourteenth century the counts of Romena found themselves no longer able to hold out 152 against the neighbouring republic. The day of the robber baron had passed, and the lord’s chief means of livelihood was a tax he levied on all merchandise that passed within a mile of his seat. In 1357 Count Bandino was glad enough to sell the stronghold to the Florentines for nine thousand six hundred florins of gold. He became a citizen of the republic, distinguished above the others only by the privilege of being allowed to enter the city with four armed men, whose names he had beforehand to submit to the podestà. Romena thenceforward was garrisoned by the Florentines, from whom it was wrested and held for a short time in the year 1440 by the Visconti. When the city became absorbed in the grand-duchy of Tuscany the fortress was suffered to decay.
It has decayed indeed. Of its fourteen towers and triple walls, that are thought to have suggested to Dante his description of the Castle of Limbo, only three towers and a part of the wall remain. The entrance to the maschio or keep is through a lower tower called the Postierla, corresponding loosely to the English forebuilding. In front of this was the drawbridge, and over it is inscribed the legend, “Here the Counts Guidi entertained Dante Alighieri in the early part of his exile.” Between the inner ward and the outer defences are the ruins of the old Potesteria, the seat of the Florentine governors. Some of their coats-of-arms may still be traced on the crumbling walls. There are remains, too, of the two northern gates, and of a subterranean passage, by which, as at Lucera, the keep seems to have been in communication with the outside. Little else remains. A doom as dreadful as 153 that of the house of Usher seems to have overwhelmed Romena.
THE CASTLE OF POPPI.
FROM A PAINTING BY C. E. DAWSON.
POPPI, the principal seat of the Guidi, still stands upright and threatening, lower down the valley, and lifts its tall straight tower defiantly above the clustering town. The site is well chosen for defence, rising on one side from the Arno, on another from a tributary rivulet. Much younger than Romena, the existing fabric supplants a castle inhabited by that famous Count Guido who married the good Gualdrada, extolled by Dante and Villani. This excellent lady’s example seems to have been wasted on her lord, who persisted in entertaining mummers and courtesans at Poppi, to the annoyance of the monks of Camaldoli. The Pope accordingly told the bishops of Florence and Arezzo to admonish the count, but they hesitated, we read, to do so, in consideration of his rank.
To the time of this jovial baron probably belongs the ruined tower called the Torre de’ Diavoli opposite the castle gate. Hither the likeliest youths of Poppi were lured by a Donna Telda, the beautiful widow of one of the counts, who, as soon as she had tired to them, dropped them into a subterranean chamber, still to be seen. But murder will out, especially when carried on on this wholesale scale, and the people of the town, having seized the countess, starved her to death in her own tower. Her spirit, it was believed, often met with that of some former lover and victim, and their loud-pitched recriminations earned the tower its unenviable name. In the meadow in front you might also expect to meet ghosts; for here gentlemen used to come from far and wide to settle 154 their differences with sword and lance, at the invitation of the lord of Poppi, who thoughtfully provided the combatants with weapons, seconds and freshly dug graves.
The castle, on the death of Gualdrada’s husband, seems, as was then the custom, to have been held in common by his four sons. One of these, Simone da Battifolle, in the year 1261, fortified the town of Poppi, girding it with strong walls and towers and laying the foundations of the residential portion of the castle. Simone it seems was wronged by his brother Guido Novello,2 whom we find a year or two later apparently in exclusive possession of the castle. He fought against the Florentines at Montaperti, and was named podestà of the city by the Ghibelline faction. He enriched himself in the wars and by his office, and the strength and splendour of his castle gave rise to the saying, “More at ease than the lord of Poppi.” Thither he transported all the engines of war he could find in Florence. He showed them one day to his kinsman, the Count of Porciano, who observed dryly that he had heard that the Florentines lent only at very high rates of interest.
Interest and capital were exacted in full when, in 1290, on their return from Arezzo, the victorious citizens dismantled the castle and recovered their engines. Simone, who had attached himself to the Guelf faction, was probably allowed to resume possession of the ancestral stronghold, and a sum of money was granted to his son, Guido da Battifolle, to restore it. He employed as architect Lapo, the master of 155 Arnolfo di Cambio; and the pupil took the castle as a model when he built the Signoria at Florence. The work must have been going on in the year 1300. Sixteen years later we find Guido elected vicar of the people of Florence. The city prospered under his rule, and owed still more to his son, another Simone. It was this noble who in 1343 acted as mediator between Walter de Brienne, Duke of Athens, and the people whose confidence he had abused. After witnessing the duke’s formal abdication of his powers on 1st August, he conducted him with a brilliant escort to Poppi. Seeing that the banished tyrant was loth to leave Florentine territory, Simone addressed him thus: “My lord duke, if you do not with to observe the oath you have sworn to the Florentines, I shall not use you with force or violence, but will reconduct you to Florence, where you can debate the thing with the people as may seem good to you.” The duke took the hint, and there and then confirmed his renunciation of his authority before two notaries. The intervention of these lawyers at such a crisis need surprise no one: it has been remarked that all through the fiercest civil strife, and in the midst of the most violent political and social revolutions, the Italians outwardly affected respect for the forms of law. Tyrants would unhesitatingly seize other men’s lands and castles, but they never failed on such occasions to burn the rightful owner’s title deeds. We are reminded of the reluctance of the French authorities to put a convicted murderer to death till they have been satisfied by the inspection of his birth certificate that he has, legally speaking, been born.156
The last of the Guidi to rule at Poppi proved false to the commonwealth. He allied himself with the Duke of Milan, and presently found himself besieged in his castle by the Florentine troops commanded by Neri Capponi. Starved out, the count held a parley on the bridge over the Arno. “Can it be,” he asked, “that your masters will not leave me my castle which has been ours these nine hundred years? With the rest do what you will.” Neri answered, “Dismiss the hope. You have not been a good neighbour to my lords.” Then the count craved leave to send two ambassadors to Florence to plead his cause. This request was refused. Neri told him that if he did not surrender the castle he would sack it and put all to the sword. Guidi yielded, and left the stronghold, with his family, followed by a train of thirty-four mules carrying what was left of his wealth. They fled away, and the Casentino knew the house of Guidi no more. Thus in 1440 the Castle of Poppi became a fortress of the Florentine republic. As such, it repelled the attacks of the Prince of Orange’s marauders in 1529, though strangely enough the garrison capitulated the next day.
The castle built by Lapo is a solid battlemented pile, with one of its four sides longer than the other. A rectangular tower bisects the west front, projecting from it for about half its width, and soaring above its battlements to a height of four hundred and seventy metres. From its platform you have one of the most glorious views in all Tuscany. At the foot of this tower is a dungeon, dark and noisome enough, but constructed in 1649, as an inscription records, not in the hope that it would be always occupied but out of compassion for any future 157 inmate. Prison reform has always moved slowly. The walls of the castle seem to have been built and restored at widely different periods; the southern side is older than the northern, and the lower part as usual older than the upper. Windows have been pierced at random in all the stages, but those in the second and third storeys appear to be original.
The ditch is now practically filled up. The bridge when drawn up was received at the grooves of a low square tower, in front of and at the foot of the tall tower or keep. To the left of this a round arched entrance, above which a lion was carved by Turriani in 1477, admits to the inner court of the castle. You are reminded of the interior of the palace of the Signoria. The staircase, carried on corbels for half its flight, is a noble work of the sixteenth century. At the foot is the Marzocco, or lion of Florence, carved in stone. The stair masks some fine windows of an earlier date. At the head is the figure of a warrior asserted by some to be the old Count Guidoguerra, and by others, with more show of probability, the son of Count Simone da Battifolle, the real builder of the castle. On the walls round the court are displayed the arms of the successive Florentine vicars and governors, including most of the best-known names in Florence, among them that of the son of Galileo. There are also traces of mural paintings of the fifteenth century. Only once is the escutcheon of the Guidi to be seen — it bears a lion rampant with its tongue out, and is surmounted by a similarly truculent beast apparently trying to writhe its way out of a helmet.
On the upper floor is the old chapel, painted with 158 fast-disappearing frescoes of the Four Evangelists and New Testament scenes. These are variously attributed to Buffalmacco (immortalised in the “Decameron”), to Spinelli, and to Giacopo da Casentino, who, says Vasari, did a great deal of work here. His at any rate are the frescoes representing various knights of the Guidi family kneeling round the Saviour and the Baptist, and the ladies of the house at Herod’s Supper. Dante is said to have been here in the year 1310, and we recognise him in one of the persons standing beneath the figure of Love on a fountain. A dungeon is shown wherein the poet is said to have been confined — why or by whom is not stated. Through the gratings you may drop pebbles into as ugly-looking dungeons and oubliettes as you may see anywhere in Italy. Therein possibly were confined those sentenced by the vicar, who administered law, sometimes tempered with justice, at a great stone table in the courtyard.
The same story of the subjection of an old feudal house to the rising commune can by told by VINCIGLIATA , a castle certainly not famous, but so near to Florence as to become very well known to innumerable travellers. Restored in the ’sixties by the Cavalière Temple Leader, it presents on the whole a very fair picture of the Italian castle of the fourteenth century, and for that reason its history told in detail by Leader Scott may be worth repeating here.
The place is first mentioned in a deed of the year 1031, when there seems to have been a castle there owned by four brothers of the Visdomini family. This house, we are assured, was composed of “most noble 159 and ancient gentlemen of the Guelf factions, who in 1215 lived in San Martino and had possessions and towers; they changed their name and arms several times.” They must have parted with Vincigliata before 1318, in which year the castle was sold by Bocca and Giovanna di Scarlatto to Bartolo Usimbardi, a citizen of Colle in the Val d’Elsa.
Of the daughter of this personage a romantic story is related. On the hill above Vincigliata may be seen the square truncated tower which is all that remains of the Castle of Poggio. This was dwelt in by the family Del Manzecca, who constituted themselves the foes of the occupants of the lower fortress, no matter who they might be. The head of the house, however, met the daughter of Usimbardi in Florence and asked her hand, which was refused him. Both father and rejected suitor were then much disgusted to discover that the lady had been bewitched by the younger of the Manzecca brothers, whom she had seen at the village church. Their meeting place was detected, and they were sternly forbidden to see each other again by the old Usimbardi. Some time after, the old gentleman marched out at the head of a troop of militia to fight for Florence against Castruccio Castracani. Twice he fell, and twice he was saved from death by a strange knight wearing a blue ribbon, who shadowed him that day and shielded him from every blow. Returning together to the city, the old burgher asked his deliverer’s name. the knight raised his visor — it was the younger Manzecca — and, of course, the marriage was agreed to there and then. On the eve of the wedding the maiden waited for 160 her lover on the rampart walk. She waved to him as he rode down the hill; but as he reached her castle gate three men rushed out from the bushes and slew him before her eyes. The doers of the deed were the elder brother and his minions. The girl went mad and presently died, and she has become one of the very select company of Italian ghosts.
The Usimbardi had but a short reign at Vincigliata. On Bartolo’s death, the property had to be divided between his son, Nicolò, and his cousin, Gregorio; and though such a division was effected with considerable ingenuity, by dint of much Latin and more parchment, it was found that the charges on the joint estate were so heavy that it was more profitable to sell the castle outright. This was done, and the purchaser, in his turn, passed the property on to the Buonaccorsi, the famous bankers, in or about 1340. But the Buonaccorsi had lent vast sums to Edward III. of England, and as he proved to be a defaulter they failed and sold Vincigliata for the benefit of their creditors.
The new owners were the Albizzi, who afterwards described themselves as the Alessandri. In the year 1367 they rebuilt the castle, which is believed to have been sacked and partially demolished by Sir John Hawkwood, the famous English condottiere. In the strife between Guelf and Ghibelline the family took opposite sides, the stronghold remaining in possession of the Guelf partisans. During this stormy time, Vincigliata must often have proved a handy refuge for its owners, steeped as they were in the deep waters of Florentine politics. Fortunately for them, Poggio, the stronghold of the Manzeccas, had been 161 utterly destroyed by order of the Signoria in the year 1348.
The Alessandri throve and did good service to the commonwealth. They restored the castle thoroughly at the beginning of the fourteenth century, so that whereas, in 1345, it was described as “a tower, with a low dwelling-house, offices, loggia, garden, and pergola,” in 1429 it is spoken of as “a lordly palace with battlements and subterranean vaults, with an outer wall, enclosing fowl-houses, orchard, and vineyard with the precincts.” There for two hundred years the Alessandri lived a hearty life, dabbling in arts, crafts and politics, feasting, hawking, fighting. But with the fall of the republic the family declined, till in 1637 there remained at Vincigliata only the Lord Francesco, his little son, and an aunt seventy years old. Francesco was a God-fearing man who liked to hear Mass when he returned from the chase. One morning he found that the priest had begun before his arrival, and, enraged at being thus deprived of his spiritual consolation, he shot the unlucky celebrant on the very altar. Perhaps the deed brought a curse on the castle, for it was abandoned in the next generation, and continued so for two centuries. In the parish register for 1751 is written: “No one inhabits the ruined palace of the Alessandri, but holy water is sprinkled over the chambers every Easter.” To keep the ghosts away, no doubt. In the middle of the last century the property was acquired by Mr Temple Leader, and the castle was reconstructed at his expense by Giuseppe Fancelli, the son of his factor or steward.162
Vincigliata occupies a commanding position on a rocky platform, within easy walking distance of Florence. It is now approached through woods of pine and ilex — one of those beautiful clear woods where the trees growing well apart permit of the free play of the sunlight on their bark and foliage. These trees are of modern growth, and bespeak English rather than Italian taste. Mediæval fortresses, of course, were never surrounded by woods. The outer walls are “battered” — that is, incline inwards and upwards from the base. They form an irregular rectangle, the dimensions of which are given at 40 metres on the north, 60 on the south, 120 on the east and 150 on the west. The merlons are rectangular and pierced with loops. At each angle and in the middle of each curtain are placed the turrets springing from the wall itself or supported on brackets which Sir Walter Scott loved to describe as bartizans. The gate-tower at the north-west angle carries a heavy machicolation on five arches. It admits to the outer ward of the castle, which is in some parts extremely narrow. Signor Fancelli’s restoration may on the whole be applauded, but here and there it strikes us that he has built his walls impossibly thin and so conveyed the impression of a mimic rather than a real fortress. On the east side we pass into a lower court, arcaded, and painted with scenes from the history of the castle. There is a double rampart walk, the lower one being carried on the arches. Hence we pass through various apartments, fitted up in mediæval style, to the inner court, which is said to embody a great deal of the old structure and to have been raised on its foundations. 163 Signor Fancelli took care to include every fragment of masonry that he found standing. In his restoration he evidently had the court of the Bargello in his mind’s eye. On one side is a loggia with a terrace above it; on the opposite side rises the master-tower or maschio approached by a flight of steps at the foot of which is seated the Florentine Marzocco. The tower, which is served by a central stair, is hardly worth ascending except for the superb view; the court below offers, in fact, more interest, with its rampart walk carried on stone brackets, its well, and the tablets recording the visits of royal personages, among whom was Amadeo the ex-king of Spain. The castle contains a valuable collection of antiques of all sorts, and the traveller is certainly under great obligations to the proprietor for the permission to visit it so generously given. It leaves in the mind a vivid picture of the life of a Florentine merchant prince when the beautiful city was in its golden prime.
2 Villani, Bk. v. 837.
THREE FAMOUS COMMUNAL PALACES