From Famous Castles & Palaces of Italy, Illustrated in Colour from Paintings, by Edmund B. d’Auvergne, London: T. Werner Laurie, [undated, 1911]; pp. 3-14.


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




THE strength of Rome lay not in forts and battlements but in sword and spear. In her prime legions strode to the attack and waited not behind stone walls to receive the onslaught of a despised adversary. The conquerors of the world filled Europe with temples, theatres and aqueducts; they, the most martial race the earth has known, have left the fewest fortresses. Yet, as their vigour waned, they reared on the utmost confines of their empire formidable bulwarks to keep out savages almost unworthy of their steel; and they looked more and more to the strengthening of those great square camps which were originally rather temporary places of shelter for their troops than seats of their empire.

The need for fortresses came later. The day came when even the works of peace were converted to the uses of war, when tombs, theatres and aqueducts were turned into strongholds. The Romans had built only too well, and the barbarian invaders were quick to recognise the military value of their handiwork. The triumphal arch of Augustus at Ariminum was quickly made into a stronghold, and from the camp or castrum in the sixth century of our era slowly evolved the mediæval castle.

But each successive horde of invaders brought some 4 of its own ideas and genius to the work, and the evolution took various directions. Of the defensive works of those early conquerors of Italy not a specimen remains intact. It has all been overlaid and altered by the work of succeeding generations. The learned have traced Lombard remains in the Palazzo delle Torri at Turin, at Cividale in the Friuli, and in the rugged towers of Monselice. The Castel San Pietro, that sits on a rock above Verona, was built by Theodoric, but you may scan its battered walls, restored and rebuilt so many times, and fail to identify any masonry of that period. Unluckily, too, this, the old palace of Dietrich of Bern, is now a modern fortress.

But through all these changes and vicissitudes and floods of foreign influence, something of the Roman ideas persisted, much of their work remained standing. At Turin the gate of the Roman city with its twin towers, built and rebuilt so often since, was eagerly adapted and made into one side of a square castle — a plan perpetuated in the Palazzo Madama, which to this day occupies the centre of the city. The rectangular castrum survived in the castles of Italy down to the end of the castle-building period. It was never forgotten at Milan; it is so noticeable at Villafranca on the Mincio that you might at a first glance suppose the ruined stronghold to have descended straight to us from classic days. The simplicity of the plan favoured its continued adoption; just as the Roman gate towers in a city wall were obviously well adapted by their position to incorporation in a castle which the lord, as in northern climates, wanted to stand one side in the town, the other in the country.


In England the castles in nearly all cases were originally the work of one race — the Normans — and began as fortified manor-houses. The nucleus was the mound and court, presently supplanted by a tower, and around that the castle slowly grew. Despite the ever-recurring influence of a Roman plan, no such uniformity of evolution could, of course, be looked for in Italy. From the downfall of the empire to within our own times, the peninsula has been swept by invaders — German, French, Normans, Spaniards and Saracens — and has been subjected to an infinite variety of political systems. There is not any national type of military architecture, though here and there strongly local types may be distinguished — themselves in many cases the products of foreign influence.

In the absence of a strong central authority, baronial castles sprang up all over the country towards the end of the ninth century, among them Bardi, Sambonifacio, and (later on) Canossa, Garda and Massa. These were the work of families who, in most instances, prided themselves on their German descent, and were almost unaffected by, or ignorant of, Roman traditions. They built towers of all shapes and sizes on rocks and inaccessible hills, careless how they built so long as they could keep out each other and the angry townsmen below. The large windows, with which the Romans did not fear to pierce their walls, gave place to narrow lights; and the frank, square gate-house was superseded by narrow winding approaches designed by men who were brigands first and soldiers afterwards. The mountains were recognised as the best situation for such gloomy fortresses — as much the abodes of terror 6 as of valour. In the eleventh century frequent mention is made of castles in public documents. Imola, Carpi, Chatillon, Champorcher are a few that were founded about this time.

Then the Normans subdued southern Italy, and we hear vague reference to the mottes or mound and court forts which, as in England and France, they quickly threw up all over their new possessions. Contact with the Saracens and the Byzantines taught them much, and as in the north their rude strongholds were early surmounted by square stone towers and girdled with walls of masonry. At Termoli on the Adriatic and at Lerici on the Riviera are castles still probably keeping the form which these conquerors first gave them. The walls “batter” or incline inwards and upwards boldly — a feature that was soon adopted very generally throughout Italy, especially in the country round Rome, adjacent to the Norman territory. At San Nicandro in Apulia the northerners planned their castle square, and with native military instinct anticipated in the disposition of the towers the flanking arrangements of later days. In Sicily, the earliest settlement of the race in southern Europe, their castles most closely resemble those with which we are familiar in the north.

The keep, the predominant and central feature of the French and English castles, can scarcely be identified with the “master towers” of Italy. With us it was, as we have said, the nucleus in many cases of the whole fortress. The Italians seldom assigned any one tower such overwhelming importance. The principal or tallest tower was often the gate-house, sometimes it stood at 7 the angle, more rarely detached in the inner court. It was called the maschio or he-tower, as one might say, while the lower and less formidable tower, used as a residence or palazzo, would be styled in contrast the “she-tower” or femina. Nor in earlier Italian castles can we clearly distinguish our inner and outer wards or baileys: where the rectangular Roman plan was followed there is always a wide inner court, sometimes divided up, as at Milan and elsewhere, by walls at right angles to each other. In the mountain strongholds hardly any plan is discernible. They became in course of the ages huge amorphous masses of masonry, with towers set at every convenient angle, and courts wherever a space of level ground allowed. The rise of the communes and the weakening of the imperial authority led sooner or later to their ruin or abandonment. The citizens marched out and destroyed them; or the lord, foreseeing such a doom, would make terms with the neighbouring commune and turn his stronghold into a lightly fortified manor-house. It became of more importance to have a tower or fortified house in the town. Edicts, we know, regulated the height of such towers. In Rome, where anarchy so long prevailed, the Coliseum, the Baths of Caracalla, the tomb of Cecilia Metella were converted into baronial holds, even as the mighty Mausoleum of Hadrian had long since been transformed into the Citadel of the Popes and their adherents. In the remote valleys of Piedmont the feudal system lingered longest, but there again the firm rule of the Count of Savoy stripped the castles of much of their military significance.

A new era was inaugurated by the great cosmopolitan 8 emperor, Frederick II. of Hohenstaufen, towards the middle of the thirteenth century. He filled southern Italy with magnificent castles, fortresses without and palaces within. They were designed with mathematical precision. Castel del Monte is in plan a perfect octagon with eight hexagonal towers, Bari and Lagopesole are rectangles with rectangular towers. There seems to be little doubt that they were built by native architects, thoroughly well acquainted with the principles of classical architecture, and assisted certainly by Saracen workmen and artificers. Lucera, the Moslems’ own stronghold, reveals more of their own genius and was, it is reasonable to suppose, built to their own liking by Frederick’s order. Here we find a separate inner tower or keep, which, strangely enough, could only have been entered from without the fortress by means of a subterranean passage. In case of an attack, the governor and his guards would presumably have clambered into it by ladders, and, having failed to dislodge the enemy from the inner court at its base, would have escaped by the passage into the country. Not only in southern Italy is the influence of the great Swabian to be traced. The grim fortezza at Prato close to Florence was built by him, and to him or his generation is ascribed the foundation of Faenza, Cesena and Montecchio Maggiore.

On the extermination of his dynasty by Charles of Anjou, French influence succeeded, and French engineers carried out a restoration of the Hohenstaufen castles in a spirit bitterly hostile to the founder. They effaced, no doubt, many features peculiar to his work which we 9 have not recovered. The Castelnuovo which Charles of Anjou founded at Naples in 1279 was, however, designed by an Italian architect, Giovanni Pisano. The corner towers were not rectangular or hexagonal, after the Swabian fashion, but round. The castles built about the same time in other parts of Italy continued to be built on the old plan. To this period, among innumerable other strongholds, belong the Castel Vecchio built by Scaliger at Verona — now a barrack — and Poppi in the Casentino.

As a castle builder, Frederick was rivalled seventy years after his death by the great Castruccio Castracani — he who so nearly realised the ideal of a united Italy. The remains of his fortresses crown every hillside in the Garfagnana and Lunigiana. The most notable is Sarzanello, which has been sadly transformed in later years. In the sixth decade of the fourteenth century Cardinal Albornoz came to restore the temporal sovereignty of the Pope, made war on the baronial castles and built many fortresses throughout central Italy, such as Spoleto and Forli. Rude, grim citadels they were, constructed without heed to symmetry, and solely with regard to military considerations.

The establishment of their power gave the Visconti, the Gonzaga and the Estensi, and other tyrants of the northern cities, a desire for a castle more of Frederick’s type — which should manifest at once their strength and their splendour. In 1360, Galeazzo Visconti built the castle of Pavia, which with rectangular plan and towers and open court kept closely enough to the old model, but in its wide ornate windows gave evidence of a combination of civil and military purposes. The 10 architect is believed to have been Bartolino da Novara, who, twenty-five years later, designed the castle of the Estensi at Ferrara. This was much more of a stronghold than the former, and one of the corner towers was separated by a moat from the rest of the building so as to form a keep. Elaborate provision was made for flanking defence by towers between as well as at the angles. The Castello di Corte constructed by Bartolino for the Gonzaga at Mantua, ten years later, is on the same plan, but with corner towers only.

In the first half of the fifteenth century lived Roberto Valturio, who systematised the science of fortification and laid down its principles in his book “De Re Militari.” He found an appreciative patron in Sigismondo Malatesta, the soldier lord of Rimini, who carried out the new principles in the castle begun at that town in the year 1437. The feature that most clearly distinguished this citadel from earlier works is the use of bastions in the form of angular towers at salient angles in the wall, and the huge pyramidal bases of the towers. The keep is a detached square tower, standing in the midst of an inner ward. The old castrum plan had been definitely abandoned for something very much akin to the concentric system of northern Europe. Similarly when Francesco Sforza rebuilt the castle at Milan in 1450, though he preserved the old rectangular trace, he divided the space enclosed into three distinct courts or wards, each with its well, ditch and drawbridge. The towers towards the city were round; and the circular form became very general, though by no means universal, in the fortresses constructed or rebuilt about this time, such as Cesena, Imola and Forli.


By this time the Italian castles had nearly all assumed their present form or their highest development, before they became converted into fortresses of the Vauban type. In contrast to northern strongholds, they appear as much designed for active as for passive resistance. A most conspicuous feature is the arched gallery or machicolation projecting just below the summit of the wall, from which missiles of every kind could be discharged on an antagonist. Above these rose the merlons or battlements, often most gracefully shaped after the fashion of two leaves unfolding; and on these rested a pitched roof, making a covered way round the while rampart walk. The approaches are always elaborate and carefully designed. The drawbridges are usually double — a narrow track for foot passengers, a broader track for mounted men and parties — and are drawn up into deep grooves in the gate-house tower. The portcullis (saracinesca) was introduced into Italy at a very early period, but I found few original examples remaining. Half-way across the ditch the bridge often rested on a battiponte or crenellated tower, of one or two storeys. The idea was borrowed at our little woodland castle of Bodiam built in 1386.

No doubt in the vast majority of cases the rectangular pile we now see was surrounded by an outer wall — traces of which do, in fact, remain here and there. In the plains of Lombardy and Venetia, water defences were largely relied upon. In the mountains of Tuscany and Umbria the whole town or village with its stout crenellated walls is itself a huge castle and is called such in popular phraseology (il castello), while the tower and fortified house of the lord forms the keep, or rocca. 12 The boldly “battered” bases of many of these rock-built strongholds are a curiously striking and distinctive feature.

For the most part the castles that have lasted to our own day have been converted into common gaols and barracks. Others continue fortresses and have been adapted to the requirements, if not of modern, of seventeenth and eighteenth century warfare. On the other hand a perfect passion for complete restoration seems within the last forty years or so to have threatened the original fabrics with extinction. The castle of the Sforzas at Milan has been completely “reconstituted” within recent years; so have Soave, an interesting and picturesque pile between Verona and Vicenza, Vincigliata (less successfully) near Florence, San Martino in Soverzano, near Bologna, and a score of others. In an ancient land like Italy you would expect to find castles in good preservation and numerous; till you are reminded by the shattered remains overlooking some fair city that the Italians of old were less tolerant than our own forefathers of the tyranny of kings and the arrogance of feudal lords.






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