From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 61-70.


Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a gilt berry with leaves in black around it on a burgundy woven ground.




WHILE Rome itself bristled with the fortified palaces of the great baronial families, these built themselves even surer retreats and strongholds in the dreary castles of the campagna and on the spurs of the Alban Hills. In some cases you find, as in the city itself, old pagan tombs and temples converted into mediæval defences, and still standing erect, if ruined, above the decaying accretions of a later age. Often, you are surprised by a rude mass of crumbling black masonry, uprooted and all but buried by the brushwood on the summit of a rocky hill — all that remains of a once formidable fortress.

The Castle of Bracciano has weathered the storms of four hundred years, and looks down in gloomy majesty on the sombre lake. Beneath the waters, they say, is buried the city of Sabate, with its temples and palaces still standing for the fishes to inhabit. It is nobly placed, this castle, on an isolated volcanic rock, well-nigh a thousand feet high, and in it Sir Walter Scott, in the last year of his life, found all his dreams of feudal grandeur amply realised. To his delight he found there, too, a huge hound “not so big,” he said proudly, “as one he had at home,” but well suited to the place, and an old steward with whom he rambled all over the vast pile.


The castle is not very ancient — younger indeed than any English castle. It was built in the second half of the fifteenth century, but an earlier building is mentioned as far back as 1234. At that time the lords were of the house of Di Vico, hereditary prefects of Rome. Of them we hear little in connection with Bracciano, which they sold in the year 1240 to the powerful Orsini. This famous brood originated at Spoleto. It gave two popes to the Universal Church and a long line of inveterate foes to the rival house of Colonna. Petrarch spoke of the bears (ursi) which unceasingly threatened the base of the young column (colonna). The transfer of an important stronghold was not in those times a matter of merely private treaty, and it was not till the Orsini had been one hundred and twenty-four years in possession of the castle that it was confirmed to them by Martin V. on condition that they should render a vulture yearly.

The old rocca or fortress of those days stands now in the centre of the newer pile. It is four-sided, with half-round towers that were then square at each angle. Above it rose the Torrione Maestro, no doubt with a projecting machicolated gallery and a smaller turret on its summit. This grisly narrow castle was not suited to the taste and dignity of the great prince, Napoleone, who was head of the house of Orsini in the year 1470. He was, says Sansovino, the historian of the family, “a man of great splendour, gracious to everyone and honoured by all. A master of an incomparable fortune, he yielded not a point in grandeur and magnificence to the greatest princes of his day, because by the sumptuous style of his establishments in Rome and Bracciano, and 63 by the gardens, the horses, and other luxuries in which he greatly delighted, he surpassed all the other barons of the Roman nobility.” He was, for all his culture, a baron of the old school, defending the practice of private war, and arguing that men would fight better to possess themselves of others’ property than to defend their own.

It was this great baron who began the erection of the castle we see to-day. From certain points of resemblance with the Palazzo Venezia, built about the same time, it has been conjectured that the same architects were employed; their names were Giacomo da Pietrasanta, Meo del Caprino, and Giovannino de’ Dolci. They made no provision against artillery, strangely enough, for those were warlike times, and the building must have been interrupted several times during the ownership of Napoleone’s son, Gentile Virginio. Against the hereditary foes of his house this baron waged incessant war. In 1475 he attempted to attack them in Rome itself, but was defeated at the gates and forced to flee. The victorious Colonna sacked his castles. The fortunes of the Orsini were only restored by their matrimonial alliances. Gentile Virginio’s sister had married Lorenzo the Magnificent, and their daughter, Maddalena, now became the wife of Franceshetto Cibo, son of Pope Innocent VIII.

A colored plate of a painting by E. Lander, of the Castle of Bracciano, with mountains behind it, and a city before its walls, descending towards a lake.



Work, we may suppose, was then resumed and the Castle of Bracciano loomed out against the lake much as we see it to-day — a vast battlemented pile of tufa and basalt, cemented with lime. The plan is irregular, in conformity with the site. The stout half-round towers flank the curtains, which are pierced by two 64 rows of “guelf” windows. On the south side it was deemed safe to have a third row of narrow windows, with the Orsini arms carved on the lintels. The battlements are of the projecting machicolated type universal in Italy, and the merlons are cut in the graceful folded leaf pattern. The walls rise from a plinth, and the cliff is sharply scarped.

The castle is accessible only on foot. We pass through an outer bastioned enceinte constructed like that of Sant’ Angelo at the close of the fifteenth century to meet the improved means of attack, and crossing the ditch by a permanent stone bridge reach the second or older wall, built by Gentile Virginio by means of contributions levied on Trevignano, another little lake-side town. We pass through a second gate, over which are displayed Orsini roses, and walk along the north front, surveying the wide expanse of lake, with distant glimpses of Soracte and the Sabine hills. The entrance to the main building is at the foot of a fine tower at the north-east angle. Above it we read the words: “Napoleone della gente Orsina mi fondo. Respingo i colpevoli, difendo i buoni.” To the right of the portal is a little chapel; opposite another door leads to a winding stair, admitting to the first floor. This part of the fabric is certainly older than 1470, and no doubt existed in the preceding century. On this side, facing the water, the castle has taken deep root in the rock, and under the curtain wall runs a long series of cellars and vaults used, in all probability, indifferently as storerooms and dungeons. There can, however, be no doubt as to the purpose of one of them: it is a circular cell, entered only through 65 a trap-door above, and with the remains of blades projecting outwards and upwards from its walls.

From near the entrance to these dark cavernous chambers a brick ramp conducts you to the first floor. The rooms are distributed round the inner court, which which forms an irregular triangle. You reach it at the north-west angle by a handsome staircase of the ascending and descending pattern. The capitals of the double gallery surrounding the court are all engraved with the family arms. On the south-east side is all that remains of the old rocca. The master tower was demolished in the seventeenth century, but the lowest storey remains, and is used as a storeroom. On each side of the door is a cell that looks like a dungeon. One of these is called the pozzo or well, and prisoners were forced down into it by a wooden ladder. The halls and smaller chambers of the castle are decorated with reliefs and mural paintings after the Italian style, but of the old Orsini furniture not a specimen is to be seen. It was all carried off by the French during their occupation of the Papal States. One of the apartments having been found walled up, it was at once asserted to have been the spot where an unnamed Pope was starved to death by one of the Orsini.

While Gentile Virginio was at Naples in the year 1494 Charles VIII. of France appeared before the castle, and to his great surprise was received with much honour by Carlo Orsini, whom his lord had left in charge. The enraged Pope promptly excommunicated Gentile Virginio, who was seized by Ferdinand of Naples and thrown into the Castel dell’ Ovo. On the retreat of the French, the papal army besieged Bracciano. The 66 defence was entrusted to Bartolommeo d’Alviano, a kinsman of the lord, who specially threw up the outer line of defence. He proved a capable commandant. The assailants brought a barque across from the Tiber to launch on the lake; it was intercepted by Alviano, captured and burnt. The exasperated army of the Borgia assaulted the castle, and were hurled back with a loss of two hundred killed and wounded, among them being Antonello Savelli, a man of importance on the Pope’s side. When it seemed that Bracciano could not hold out much longer, a force collected by Carlo Orsini was seen advancing across the campagna to its assistance. The pontifical troops gave battle; they were hopelessly defeated, leaving the famous Duke of Urbino a prisoner in the hands of the Orsini. The Duke of Gandia, the Pope’s ill-fated son, was badly wounded. Of this victory, Gentile Virginio never heard. He died in his Neapolitan prison, leaving behind him the reputation of a gracious, splendour-loving noble.

Nearly a hundred years passed. Even Orsini and Colonna felt that the time had come to bury the hatchet. The days when nobles could storm each other’s castles, and fight pitched battles in the Roman streets, had gone for ever. Instead, Paolo Giordano Orsini found himself fighting beside Marcantonio Colonna in the glorious battle of Lepanto. On his return to Italy, he found that his wife, Isabella de Medici, had been unfaithful to him with one of his kinsmen, to whom he had entrusted her. The enraged noble slew them both, even as he slew the husband of Vittoria Accoramboni in after years. When, in 1584, he entertained his old brother-in-arms, Colonna, with 67 four hundred of his followers, at Bracciano, Vittoria, newly released from Sant’ Angelo, was concealed for fear of the Pope’s anger, and watched the festivities through a hole in the wall. Eleven days the visit lasted, and every day seventeen tables were spread for the guests. A few months after Paolo Giordano died suddenly at Salo, and his wife was stabbed by his kinsman at Padua.

For a century longer the Orsini lorded it proudly in their noble towers, overlooking the whelmed city of Sabate. They patronised arts and letters, they feasted and intrigued. But fighting was their trade, and when that declined their fortunes faded. In the year 1696 they sold Bracciano, after an occupation lasting four hundred and six years, to Prince Livio Odescalchi. The stronghold which so successfully withstood the fire of artillery went down always before the power of money. In 1803 the Odescalchi were compelled to sell it to the banker Torlonia, and it was he who entertained Sir Walter Scott. But the property had been sold subject to right of redemption by the original possessor within forty-five years. The fortunes of the Odescalchi continued to wane, and the Torlonias, thinking the place for ever theirs, spent money on improvements and restorations. Almost at the eleventh hour, in 1848, a Polish princess of the impoverished house came forward with seven hundred and seventy-eight thousand six hundred and eighteen scudi, and recovered the castle for the Odescalchi. The good lady, we are told, when she lay at the point of death, was miraculously restored to health by swallowing a tiny cake which had been blessed by Pius IX. To the house of 68 Odescalchi the castle belongs to this day — a noble monument of the power and splendour of the ancient baronial houses of the Roman state.

Following the course of the Tiber upwards, half-way between Rome and Perugia, you see from far off the original home of the Orsini — “l’alta Spoleto,” as Carducci called the city, seated, like all Umbrian towns on the crest of a hill. The beautiful old place takes all the varying tints of the sky and sunset, which seem so near to her, seeming rose-red at one hour of the day, pale gold at another. But her beauty is not seen as you walk up the modern tree-lined avenue from the railway. To see this you must go through the town — through the Porta della Fuga, with its tall tower flanking it, whence the panic hordes of Hannibal, fresh from their victory at Thrasymenus, fled baffled and defeated; through the narrow, overarched lanes and alleys, across the little piazza, past the castle wall, till you see beneath you the noble aqueduct of Theodelap the Lombard spanning the deep narrow gorge. All around rise great yet graceful hills, green with the trees sacred to the Latin race, and between them you descry other white cities crowning distant hill-sides — Assisi, Foligno and Perugia. The woods beyond the aqueduct are very silent; birds and beasts are rare in Italy; and the stillness is broken only by the curious monotonous cry of the woodcutter, driving his heavy-laden ass down the rugged path. Yet sometimes the silence is dispelled by the dull stunning sound of artillery, as the batteries playing at their deadly games send their shells high over the valley at some unseen target on the opposite hill. The old castle — La Rocca — which 69 lords it on the crest of the cliff above the aqueduct made a show of withstanding that fire, not so many years ago, when the gallant Irish garrison kept the papal standard flying before the advancing hosts of Italy. From the first the castle has been a fortress of the popes — built by the formidable Cardinal Albornoz to subject Spoleto and its neighbours even as he had subjected Rome itself. To build it he remorsely demolished the old palace-fortress of the Lombard dukes, which Totila had made out of the Roman amphitheatre. The subprefecture occupies the site of that palace to-day, and there it was that I unsuccessfully sought leave to inspect the interior of the cardinal’s castle. It was an authorisation that could be granted only by the Prefect at Perugia, and to Perugia I could not return. From all accounts, I did not miss much. The stronghold has been for hundreds of years past a common gaol, and the palace annexed to it by the Spanish prelate has long since been demolished. Gattapone of Gubbio was the architect — he who afterwards built the citadel of Perugia. Embellished and enlarged in the time of Nicholas V. by the governor, Cesare dei Conti, the Rocca was the residence in 1477 of Lucrezia Borgia when she was ruler of the province. Here, too, she stopped three years later on her way to marry Alfonso of Este. The castle from the town side appears a solid rectangular mass, fortified with roofed towers at each angle. The ground on this side slopes down from its base to the low outer wall, which is pierced by a fourteenth-century gate bearing the papal arms. Thence the path winds round and upwards to the farther side, more than once interrupted 70 by gates, and, as far as I could see, commanded at every point from the battlements. The entrance to the castle is at the highest point of the site and admits to a narrow court flanked by a loggia of the time of Pope Nicholas. The tower at this angle is called the Torre degli Spiriti, and is supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of Lucrezia’s victims — whoever they may have been. More than this I could not see of the old castle of Spoleto, and was fain to console myself with a glance at the tomb of Lippo Lippi [LIPPO LIPPI] in the cathedral close by.





Decorated Adorment from the spine of the book, of a tree with gilt leaves on a burgundy woven ground.