The Statue Stele
HISTORY OF THE CASTLE
The Piagnaro Castle , a stonework appendage of the fortified town of Pontremoli pointing towards the Apennines , controlled the routes that winded down into the Magra Valley from the mountain passes . Emperors , kings , leaders of mercenary troops , tried one after the other to get Pontremoli and its Castle in their power . And so since shortly after the beginning of the 11th century the town , built at the confluence of the rivers Verde and Magra was protected by massive fortifications .
The most ancient chronicles , dating back to the XII century , refer that the emperor Henry V had to defeat the town of Pontremoli that refused to let his army pass through on its way to Rome in 1110 . The town was described as follows :
“inde castra movens Appeninium trascendit , oppidumque , quod Pons Tremulus vocatur , natura locorum et altissimis turribus munitum , transitus prohibens , expugnavit et coepit “.
The strategic importance of Pontremoli was underlined by the emperor Frederik II who , in a letter written in 1247 to his son King Enzo then in Sardinia describes the town as the only key and door (“ clavis et ianua”) to Tuscany . A few centuries later the castle and town must have made a similar impression on the troops of Charles VIII of France who passed through Pontremoli destroying it . A chronicler following the king so describes the town :
“ et est a l’entrée des montagnes .La ville et le chateau estoient assez bons et en fort pais. S’il y eust bon et grand nombre de gens , elle n’eust point esté prise “.
Pontremoli originally belonged to the feud of the Obertenghi , and became an independent city in the XII cen. , however under the influence of the Malaspina family and the larger bordering cities of Piacenza and Parma .At the beginning of the XIV century Pontremoli lost its independence and the emperor Henry VII bequeathed the town to the Fieschi family as a feud . From then onwards Pontremoli and its castle were handed from one powerful family to the other and then , for almost a century (1556-1647) the town became a property of the Spanish king , along with other districts in Lunigiana, and was afterward given first to the Republic of Genoa (1647) and then to the Granduke of Toscana (1650) .
The silhouette of the Piagnaro Castle is dominated by a massive keep built on the highest part of the hill that overshadows the whole fortress . The base of this large tower is a composite figure : a four-sided polygon associated to a semicircle . The keep , the curvilinear side of which protrudes through the the outer wall , is about 20 metres high and was originally accessed through a small doorway set in the southern side at about 10 meters from ground level . The door had to be reached climbing up a nowadays absent wooden structure , and was protected by a drawbridge : there are still traces of the stonework lodging of this last . There are reasons to believe that the keep was built between the beginning of the XV century and 1530, when Niccolò Piccinino became lord of Pontremoli .
Antonio Cesena’s Chronicles , written in 1558 , reveal that the building of the keep of Varese Castle , that has a structure similar to that of the Piagnaro Castle , was ordered by Piccinino who summoned to Varese the masons that had built the keep of Pontremoli :
“ il fatto che , ( Niccolò Piccinino) , fece subito venire di val de Taro e Lunesana guastadori e maestri da murare , e fatto fare gran numero di fornaci per calcine , fece fare la torre nostra di Varese a quelli medesimi maestri , che perciò haveva fatti venire , li quali poco inanzi havevano fatto la torre di Piagnaro castello di Pontremoli”.( “ he ( Niccolò Piccinino ) had stone masons and builders come from the Taro valley and Lunesana , and had many lime-kilns made , and had our tower of Varese built by those same masons – this is why he summoned them – that shortly before had made the tower of the Piagnaro Castle of Pontremoli “)
The structure of the two castles , Pontremoli and Vaese , has many points in common to many other European fortresses that date back to the first half of the XV century , especially to the French “beaked” towers of Issoudun (Indre) and Roche-Guyon (Val-d’Oise) .
Below the keep there is a small four-sided bailey , enclosed on the west by the late medieval curtain walls and on the south and east by a large L-shaped building that is the result of different structures added on in very different times . On its west side this building avails itself of the preexisting curtain wall and its cilindrical flanking tower . The inner organization would make one think that originally this large building were used as military barracks , which is precisely what some planimetric drawings of the site dating to the XVIII century state . Perhaps it was in these premises that the castle garrison lived , garrison mentioned in a 1431 document and constituted by 25 men between crossbow archers and buckler bearers .
According to local tradition the lower levels of this building were occupied by the prisons ; and here there still are well preserved “necessaries” , primitive toilets . The structure has evident traces of the last century , especially on the higher floors , when it was used for private housing and schools .
A flagged ramp and a portal , built around the middle of the XVIII century , connect this large building to yet another bailey . On the north side of this there is a chapel , that was altered probably in the eighteenth century ; on its western side the bailey is flanked by a long two storey building , which together with the keep is one of the most ancient structures of the castle and now houses the Stele Statue Museum . The windows and doors opening onto the bailey have been altered and redone and towards the chapel on the first floor there is a walled up gothic arch .
The portal would seem to date to the XIV-XV century . From the castle’s main entrance one can reach this building through a hall , and from it one can access the bailey directly passing along a vaulted corridor . This last is decorated with effective masonry .
The bailey , that has a sandstone well , is enclosed on the south and east by a curtain wall with walkways that has been altered in the eighteenth century . The base of the curtain wall with its stone skirt was built with a particular technique not dissimilar to that used in the building of the keep . This structure too could have had been built by Piccinino , even though on the eastern side there is an addition , probably dating to the XVIII century , comprising a defensive hoarding with a guard-room .
In the XVII and XVIII centuries the castle’s defences were reorganized so as to be able to resist attacks coming from all directions . As in the case of most complex fortified buildings , the fortress was divided into defensive units that , as was quite common , had saint’ names . Eighteen century planimetries mention the “ Opera di San Giuseppe “ to the north , near the keep , whereas the southeastern corner is defended by the “Bastione di San Cosimo “; on the western side there is the “ Opera di San Giovanni Battista “.
The castle that still watches over the town gives an overall impression of greyness : the colour of the stones and the “piagne” , stone flags used to cover the timber roofs and that according to local tradition gave the castle the name of Piagnaro . So far no one has researched the origin of this toponym , but we know that the fortress was recorded in the Annali Ghibellini Piacentini of 1262 as “planele” and in the 1329 entry of the Annali Parmensi as “ fortilitia que dicitur Pianorium” . According to the historian Manfredo Giuliani the origin of the toponym is related to the type of rock used to make the flags covering the roof .
The history of the structure of the castle is obviously intertwined with military events involving it in the course of the centuries , an almost continuous demolishing and rebuilding ; specific research into the matter will perhaps aid our knowledge of the changes the building has undergone in time
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Castelli di Lunigiana, Pontremoli, 1927,pp. 5-8.
Cesena A., Relatione dell'origine et successi delle terra di Varese descritta dal r.p. Antonio Cesena l'anno 1558, in "Studi e Documenti di Lunigiana", VI, Accademia lunigianese di Scienze Giovanni Cappellini, La Spezia, 1982.
Principe I., Fortificazioni e città nella Toscana lorenese, Vibo Valenzia, 1988, p. 67.
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Zucchi Castellini N., Il Castello del Piagnaro a Pontremoli, in "Archivio Storico per le Province Parmensi" quarta serie, vol. XXVIII (1975).
Zucchi Castellini N., Castelli ed armi le Difese Attive e Passive dell'Antico Borgo, in Donini R., …Pontremoli oggi…, Roma, 1991, pp.153-160.
Estratto da 'N. Gallo - Guida storico-architettonica dei castelli della Lunigiana toscana - Istituto Valorizzazione Castelli, Prato 2002.