Monday, April 22, 2013

Fortress of Montecarlo is a memorable and vital part of a visit to this city

Valter Menchini and Elena Benvenuti in front
of the Mastio of Cerruglio, the oldest part of
the Fortress of Montecarlo.

Monday, April 22, 2013
I have been to the hilltop village of Montecarlo many times since I first visited Italy in 1995. Every time I enter the city, I look at the walls of the imposing Rocca di Montecarlo, the old fortress, and wonder about its history and what is inside. All I can find out from the people of the city is that it is privately owned and that the doors are opened to the public only at certain times of the year. Since I am never here during the tourist season, and also because I imagine it may be difficult to find an English-speaking tour guide, I have never been inside—until today.

Elena Benvenuti is friends with the owners, Rosanna Pardocchi and Valter Menchini, and they have agreed to give me a private tour. I tried to read about the history of the fortress before, but I found very little written in English, and the Italian documents take time and mental strain for me to read. Now I have a chance to see the fortress up close, both outside and inside, and Elena is with me to explain the significance of the various pieces and historical aspects. In fact, she has done her thesis on the fortezza to obtain her tour guide accreditation, so I couldn’t have chosen a better source of information.
Below the fortress is the main street of Montecarlo, framed through one of the tower windows.

This door may date back to the days of Cosimo I
de' Medici, when Firenze occupied Montecarlo.
I have heard the fortress referred to as both the Rocca del Cerruglio and the Rocca di Montecarlo, and I also have been given various dates for its construction. Listening to Valter and Elena, the history becomes more clear, and I understand better the meaning of the two names. First of all, rocca can be translated as “hill fortress,” so it is equally correct to call it a rocca or a fortezza. But calling the whole structure the Rocca di Cerruglio is probably not the best idea, because this was an ancient name for only a smaller part of the current fortress.

Different parts of the fortress were built in different eras. The northern-most tower, called a mastio, was likely built in the 11th century. It had a well and four levels of rooms, including living quarters and a bathroom for soldiers. The original entrance was up about 30 feet from the ground, so invaders could not enter without climbing single file up a ladder, where they would have been exposed to the spears and arrows of the tower soldiers. However, during the era of the Florentine occupation of Montecarlo in the 1500s, the level of the ground around the mastio was raised about 20 feet, so the tower does not look as imposing as it once did, and the door can be more easily reached.
The perfect 360-degree view from the Torre di Cosimo is now partially blocked by the Church of Sant'Andrea, but the church was enlarged later. Cosimo would not allow any building to be taller than the mastio.
The view from the wall just below the Torre di Cosimo.
In the 1300s, two additional smaller towers were built, with walls joining all three to create a protected courtyard. This was the Rocca del Cerruglio, with Cerruglio being the ancient name of the hill of Montecarlo. From the fortress, the entire Valdienievole can be seen, and so the fortress served as a vital control center for advance warning of approaching armies and also to direct battles. Firenze, Pisa and Lucca were in frequent struggles to obtain and retain control of the land surrounding their cities, and whoever occupied the fortress held a decided advantage in this region. For many years, under the leadership of Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli, Lucca held the fortress and the valley. He won the Battle of Altopascio in 1325 while directing his armies from the hill of Cerruglio, thus maintaining control against the encroaching armies of Firenze. Signals were sent by smoke in the daylight, and torches were used to communicate by night.

Bohemian King Charles IV—Carlo in Italian—assumed control of the region later in the 1300s, and both the hill and fortress took the name Montecarlo in his honor. Under his direction, the fortress more than doubled in size. In later years, both Pisa and Firenze controlled the hillside and the Valdienievole, and it was in the 1500s that Cosimo I de’ Medici of Firenze built another mastio on the south end. This one has the best 360-degree view of all the towers, and I must say that one cannot truly appreciate both the strategic importance of early Montecarlo or the scenic vistas surrounding it today without standing atop the Torre di Cosimo.

This might look like a storm drain, but actually it is a caditoia,
which could be used to dump scalding hot sand onto anyone
who tried to scale the walls.
But describing the history of the fortress with words cannot be compared to the actual experience of seeing the stones, bricks and weathered wooden doors with one’s own eyes. The city of Montecarlo is indeed charming, but now I know that one should not go there without making an attempt to go inside the fortress. By all means, call ahead to see when it is possible to enter. The easiest way for an English-speaking traveler to arrange a visit would be to work through a guide such as Elena, who speaks Italian, English and German. You’ll have to pay for entrance to the fortress and for guide services, but if you can get a group together, the cost per person will be comparable to what you’ll pay for a good dinner at one of Montecarlo’s great restaurants afterwards—which is another experience I’d highly recommend.
Elena Benvenuti is a tour guide who offers cooking classes and private personal tours of Lucca and the surrounding areas. For more information, see her web site: Discover Lucca with Elena. 

1 comment:

  1. A private tour - how cool is that. I really like the framed window photo.



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