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War Architecture: fortresses, towers and city walls
Tuscany is an ancient land, steeped in history that its landscapes preserve with love and passion, from the mountains to the sea, travelling along hilly roads that branch out into extensive vineyards. There is evidence written in the stones of the medieval parish churches, in the small villages and in the fortified walls that surround the cities. One of man's first needs was to defend himself by building walls, watchtowers, entrance gates to the city to channel and control the comings and goings of foreigners, fortresses with military functions and castles to protect the seigneury. The Guelphs and Ghibellines of Tuscany took turns leaving their traces in the buildings: crenelated dovetail towers for the Ghibellines, straight battlements for the Guelphs.
The San Niccolò Tower stands 45 metres high on the banks of the Arno river and is the last evidence of a tower with an entrance gateway to the city of Florence in the 14th century, before they were "lopped off". As many as seventy-five towers were truncated and lowered to discourage struggles between factions, that built higher and higher to demonstrate their power.
The architect Buontalenti was commissioned by Grand Duke Ferdinando I to build a majestic fortress to celebrate his power, to watch over the Oltrarno area from above and to guarantee a safe refuge for the Grand Duke if any riots were to take place in the city. The Fortress was to be the last stage of the Vasari Corridor, the ingenious suspended passageway that linked Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. Forte Belvedere was the place chosen to contain the treasure room: ingenious protection mechanisms were activated; the harquebuses were ready for shooting potential thieves and there was a trap door with sharp blades beneath it.
Although it has never been proven, there are stories about an underground passage that connected Forte Belvedere with the Villa del Poggio Imperiale located on the hill of Arcetri, once called Poggio Baroncelli. It was the residence of Cosimo I's beloved daughter, Isabella dei Medici, and was enlarged and renovated in the 17th century by Maria Maddalena of Austria.
The Medici Fortress of San Martino in San Piero a Sieve is not very well-known, despite its size, which makes it one of the largest fortresses in Europe. It was built by Cosimo I to protect Florence and was equipped with systems to resist potential sieges: windmills, armouries, furnaces for cannons and accommodation for two thousand soldiers. The construction of the city walls is part of a long urbanisation process: like Florence, Siena also grew gradually, incorporating a series of villages and fortresses in the surrounding countryside. The conquest of Siena led to Cosimo I having the Medici Fortress built there, in the precise place that had been the centre of power of Charles V of Spain.
Part of the walls of Florence were lost over the centuries, while we can admire the oldest example of city walls preserved in Pisa. There were two main entrances into the city, the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate) through which the glorious Pisans of the Republic would return from the sea and the Porta del Parlascio, reserved for illustrious characters entering the city.
The expansion of the fortress was carried out by Cosimo I's children: Francesco I had the Medici Villa in Quarrata, La Magia, built. The villa, which was renovated by Cosimo I's trusted architect, Bernardo Buontalenti, was in a very favourable position, bordering with the other Medici villas of Poggio a Caiano, Artimino, Ambrogiana and Montevettolini. In the 17th century, under Ferdinand II, this very vast area became the Barco Reale Mediceo.
Tuscany is not just an immense and beautiful land of villages. Tuscany is also history and legend. From the medieval knights and the sword in the stone located in San Galgano, to San Gimignano that, having had 72 towers in the past, we can consider the New York of the 14th century. San Gimignano is a precious treasure trove of ancient architecture, the brilliant and authentic symbol of urban organisation in the Middle Ages.
As soon as you leave the village, following the via Francigena through a thick forest of oaks and holm oaks, you will find the medieval fortress of Castelvecchio, which strategically overlooked the area, and both San Gimignano and Volterra fought fiercely for its dominance.
Castles and Strongholds stood in dominant positions in the area and the most important were on the Via Francigena, where the landscape of gullies in the Val d'Orcia made the places almost unassailable. The Rocca di Tentennano was a stronghold used as a lookout and a strategic observation point that favoured Sienese dominion. The legend floating in the air around the Rocca tells the story of St Catherine of Siena, who arrived at the stronghold illiterate and, after just three months of solitude, miraculously learned to read and write.
Travelling along the Via Francigena is like reliving a part of the medieval past, with the stones and the architecture telling tales of cities that had to be defended so as not to be conquered by the contenders, at times the Guelphs, at times the Ghibellines. Montalcino, a free municipality under the Guelph Party, became one of the most important towns in the Sienese Republic in the fifteenth century. The Fortezza Castle, which is still intact today, had towers in all of its corners to defend the Ilcinesi, the inhabitants of Montalcino, from being conquered by the Imperial and Medici army. Montalcino resisted until 1559, the year in which it was conquered by Florence and its Grand Duke Cosimo I.
The Fortress of Radicofani has been standing high above the town of the same name for over a thousand years, while the walled village of Monticchiello, near Pienza, was an important Sienese frontier stronghold.
Progetto finanziato a valere sui fondi Legge n. 77 del 20 febbraio 2006 “Misure speciali di tutela e fruizione dei siti italiani di interesse culturale, paesaggistico e ambientale, inseriti nella “lista del patrimonio mondiale”, posti sotto la tutela dell’UNESCO”