Walled cities and their castles

almost everywhere since the territory of the country has been for thousands of years a land of conquest by foreign countries, realms, republics and potentates of all sizes. He often finds that some castles are built on the two banks of a narrow valley and belong to enemy powers, as happens in the Finale area (Finale Ligure) where some castles face each other not even a kilometer away. On one side the Marquisate of the Del Carrettos and opposite the power of Spain or France (depending on the period…) Elsewhere entire towns were incorporated into long walls surrounded by large-scale moats and formed walls of a kilometer or more like it happens in Cittadella, Montagnana, Vigoleno, Gradara or Corinaldo, just to name a few.
Many of these “walled” cities are real artistic, historical and tourist masterpieces. One of the most beautiful and interesting that I have visited is Montagnana: whose walls close the city (which has a rectangular shape). In the Middle Ages, Montagnana was surrounded by the Adige River which has since changed course more than once. Then the moat was filled in by a river that had been diverted to fill it. Today the walls are surrounded by a large dry moat, but in the 1100s or perhaps 1200s the Adige made it into a real island!
The walls of Montagnana seen from the outside. 18 meters high with Guelph merlons and 24 towers. At the beginning it had only two entrances: one to the west towards Verona, the other to the east towards Padua. in the following centuries the entrances became four.
One of the entrances to Montagnana for those coming from Padua, with the keep of the castle on the left which overlooks the city
La città vista dall’alto del mastio.
One of the fortified towers to the right of the door of the Mastio near the door that opens in the direction of Padua.

The interior of Montagnana has a huge square overlooked by buildings from various eras and a large cathedral.

The road structure is with parallel streets that cross at 90 degrees, often covered by very beautiful arcades, of which we see an example below.

below you will see some photos of these north-central cities and their castles. They range from the walls of Cittadella in Veneto to very small villages in Emilia such as Vigoleno.


Often the walled cities and their castles were part of potentates who changed owners drastically. Many of these have millenary histories such as the city of Monselice, whose castle is made up of elements that date back to the Roman period and which has a typical history of these structures. Today the castle of Monselice shows in the structure a part of the 10th century, restructured by Ezzelino III da Romano and enlarged by the Carraresi, to then be transformed into a noble residence by the Marcello family.

Castle of Monselice: the ancient part of the tenth century
On the left the Scala family while on the right the Venetian-style wing of the Marcellus. The ancient part can be glimpsed to the right of the Venetian wing
The large hall has been admirably restored by the last owner: Count Vittorio Cini who also took care of the interiors. Here we see the splendid fireplace

                                                                                                                                                                    CASTELLO DI SOAVE

The most incredible story, however, is that of the Castle of Soave, the oldest part of which was built when there were invasions by the Hungarians. In 1226 Ezzelino da Romano took possession of it… in 1269 the exiles from Verona attacked it and killed the commander of the garrison… but just two years later Mastino I della Scala took possession of it and had to repel a tremendous assault by Rolando de’ Rossi da Parma, an ally of Venice and Florence, who kills about 400 soldiers during the recovery by Mastino of the fortress. , .. the castle will be sold to the Greppi family ten years later. Cansignorio della Scala in 1369, restored it and strengthened it with the great wall that surrounds the town. In 1387 the Scaligera lordship falls and the new owner will be Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan. In 1404 the castle passed under the dominion of the da Carraras, lords of Padua who, only a year later, were defeated by the Republic of Venice. In 1509 the castle was occupied by the army of the League of Cambrai under the command of Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg…. for a few years power passed to the Venetians, then again to the Habsburgs and back to the Venetians…. etc. etc. This is to give an idea of how different styles, merlons and completely different architectures can coexist in the same castle.

The inhabited part of the Soave castle is relatively small compared to other castles. The armigers who had to defend the city from the assaults of the enemies were encamped inside the walls…. who were many and fierce!
In the foreground: the inner walls of the castle and one of the large areas where the city’s defense army camped. behind you can see the walls that protected the entire ancient city of Soave
The interior of the keep over 40 meters high. Note the dark bands that identified the various inhabited floors and a trapdoor in the ceiling from which Cansignorio della Scala threw prisoners, enemies, spies… in short, all those who did not suit him. A few years ago, during archaeological excavations, a layer of bones measuring over two and a half meters was found at the base of the keep!
The keep of Soave. At the gray base that I can see a short tunnel was opened for archaeological reasons where a layer of bones of more than two and a half meters of the “enemies” that Cansignorio della Scala threw into the trapdoor in the upper photo was found…

                                                                                                                                                                   VIGOLENO E GRADARA

Let’s move on to two small towns: I would rather call them villages: Vigoleno and Gradara. In Emilia the former and in the Marches the latter. Both have the characteristic of having a castle and a wall that surrounds the town. Vigoleno is little known, probably due to its position slightly away from the busiest communication routes and because it can only be seen at the last moment. There is only one entrance to the walls, protected by a large ravelin which protects the main entrance.

The ravelin that protects the entrance is further protected by the large keep.

As soon as you enter the ravelin you understand the intelligence of this as a protective structure of the village. Loopholes open from every angle that leave any attackers completely unprotected. In fact, if I remember correctly, Vigoleno was never conquered and this fact ensured its perfect conservation.

Inside the ravelin. The ancient drawbridge, of which only the masonry remains, isolated the ravelin from the walls, constituting a trap for anyone who entered uninvited

Inside there is the large square with a fountain in the center behind which a second fortification which today is a hotel with splendid gardens.

The two towers and the structure of the hotel which unfortunately connected some tower rooms with ugly metal bridges
The walkways seen from the top of the keep. on the left the structure of the hotel connected to the tower by two ugly metal bridges
The keep seen from the second square
The ancient church of Vigoleno has interesting medieval frescoes
I found this photo on the web (taken by a drone I guess) which perfectly illustrates the size and structure of the village. If the owner would like to be quoted please let me know.


Gradara is a slightly larger village than Vigoleno and its castle is decidedly more important. From the aerial image taken from a postcard on sale in the village (Shutterstock NY) it is possible to detect the wall that defends the castle and the wider one that surrounds the village.


Gradara seen from the modern outer ring road


The entrance in the external walls with the drawbridge now disappeared

As soon as you pass the tower that defended the entrance to the village, you find yourself in the town where, immediately, you understand that Gradara now lives on weekend tourism. The road leading to the main entrance of the castle is entirely occupied by restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. The fact that the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca took place in this castle means that their images and the statuettes that represent them… together with the figure of Dante who dedicated the fifth canto of hell to them and the various copies of the sword (obviously plastic), with which Francesca’s husband killed the two lovers) fill the shelves of every shop.

In the numerous cellars of the village (an example above) the citizens deposited wines and foods as well as using them from protected places to spin, imprison, hide small treasures, armor, etc.

As in any fortification of the time, the castle had a large keep which was entirely detached from the structure of the castle. As always, access to the keep took place at a height of several meters from the ground by means of a wooden ladder which was withdrawn in case of danger. Many castles were born around their primitive keep and, following the development of the castle and the progressive transformation from a military castle to a residential structure, small drawbridges were created which made it possible to pass from the floor of the entrance of the keep to the first or second floor of the actual castle.

The exit from the keep via the more recent drawbridge. Perhaps this was the primitive entrance to the keep when the castle did not yet exist.
One of the bedrooms where tradition places the place where Paolo and Francesca loved each other and where they were killed..

We leave Gradara with one last image of the entrance with the drawbridge divided into two parts which made the conquest of the gate much more complex than usual, when one thinks that the moat was then full of water and that the armor weighed even 25 kilos !


                                                                                                            Two examples of different fortifications: CITTADELLA in Veneto and CORINALDO in Marche.

The walls of Cittadella with the evident enormous moat today limited in the dimensions of the watery part.

Between Padua and Verona there is Cittadella, a city which hides in its modern center a wall of almost two kilometres, perfectly restored and passable. Along the way there are dozens of towers (32 to be exact) In this image from the Photographic Archive – Directorate of Tourism – Veneto Region it is possible to see in detail the shape of the ancient city wall.

One of the entrances to the Citadel. on the left is one of the entrances to the walkways from which you have a more precise view of the ancient city.
From the 1.5 km walkway towards the inside of the village
one of the two accesses to the walkways. Bottom right, the defense of the entrance door
The tour is quite long and it is preferable to do it with comfortable shoes and maybe a bottle of water.


Hundreds of kilometers further south, after visiting Gradara, you can leave the Adriatic motorway and head towards Corinaldo which has undergone a large-scale restoration plan in recent years. Here we see it in an image taken from the Vivere Seniglaiia website which reports it together with the news of the restoration plan. “The improvement path that the historic center of Corinaldo has been facing for some years, with the progressive reduction of the impact of passing traffic and parked cars together with the rediscovery of new spaces and new functions in the center and in the two city villages, require now a new urban framework on which to base the future of the most important Corinaldo jewel with certainty: its centre.

The Borgo is particular for the presence of a long staircase that crosses it entirely. In the evening, all the structures and walls become magical due to the well-maintained artificial lighting. The entrance protected by a large ravelin is beautiful.

Inside, the very long staircase is crossed by the streets that cross it at right angles.

The stairway seen from the entrance to the ravelin
Here the staircase is seen from the top
Halfway up the staircase is a large, well-lit well.
One of the side gates of the village with the protected area inside the drawbridge.

                                                                                                                                                                                     SAN LEO

The last stop in this series of short trips to discover the walled cities not far from our home is the fortress of San Leo, famous for being the last home of Count Cagliostro. The fortress is not far from the city of San Marino and the arrival under the cliff on which it stands is spectacular. A sheer part of about one hundred meters (Cesare Maestri opened an artificial way) at the top of which a medieval castle modernized several times stands out on the surrounding plain.
In this photo, taken from the Rimini Turismo website, you can see the difference in altitude between the castle and the plain behind it.

The history of San Leo is similar to that of many structures of the period: A first fortification on the top of the mountain was built by the Romans. In the Middle Ages it was bitterly contested by the Byzantines, Goths, Franks and Lombards. In the second half of the fourteenth century the Malatestas managed to conquer the fortress, alternating in the domain of the Montefeltros until the middle of the fifteenth century. In 1441 the very young Federico da Montefeltro was the author of an enterprising climb of the fort…. ( Rimini Turismo)

Various courtyards alternate before the entrance. They probably served to house the garrisons that protected the castle and the lords who lived there
The first entrance to the castle

Inside you can visit the inhabited part which unfortunately has no furniture or paintings of any kind. The use as a prison and military fortress has compromised any possibility of restoration.
The only thing that has remained intact are the two prisons in which Cagliostro was imprisoned of which you can visit the cells of which we see the last one in which he died

Inside you can visit the inhabited part which unfortunately has no furniture or paintings of any kind. The use as a prison and military fortress has compromised any possibility of restoration.
The only thing that has remained intact are the two prisons in which Cagliostro was imprisoned of which you can visit the cells of which we see the last one in which he died

The fortress of San Leo was used as a prison to intern a whole series of characters who were against the politics of the time. Known men who gave their name to many streets and roads of the peninsula died there.
The castle/fortress/prison of San Leo concludes this short journey through some of the walled cities of the central north. The ones you find in this article are just some of the walled cities in Italy: just think of Monteriggioni or Palmanova, Bitonto, Gallipoli… the list could go on for hundreds of names and places (see Italian walled cities on Wikipedia for a more specific list, region by region)
Often famous castles, for example Soncino, are at the center of small walled villages as you have seen in Vigoleno or Gradara. To the north of Cremona there are three walled cities that are very little known because they are outside the traffic routes: Crema, Pizzighettone and Soncino which are a perfect destination for weekend trips.