Dwight Peck's personal website

Two weeks in the Lazio region, 2016

Avoiding news of Trump's nightmare "transition team" to the extent possible

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

The plan is to luxuriate for twelve days in Viterbo, with enthusiastic sight-seeing in the region, and a few days tacked onto either side of that for getting there and back.

Sarzana and the outsides of lots of castles

5 December 2016, we're shepherding Juan Carlos along to the rail station in Viterbo for the earliest train.

And now it's time to pack up our goods and cat and hit the road.

Probably everyone leaving Viterbo San Pellegrino thinks that they absolutely need to come back someday.

The Squirrel knows that something's up.

Squirrel is gripping the underside of the mattress.

Some cats require soothing incantations, till all's well.

We're on the autostrada past Orvieto and Arezzo, then Florence, then past Lucca to the Ligurian coast road to Sarzana.


We're staying in the Antico Casale just out of central Sarzana -- that's the antico casale, but . . .

. . . we're in the nuovo casale; that's our balcony on the first floor.

Squirrel's getting oriented. Scoping things out.

Checking that the catbox is easily available

And that there's a convenient place of refuge if required

Ligurian castle-hopping, 6 December 2016

We're mainly here to see castles. Since reading Louis Green's fascinating biography of Castruccio Castracani (1986), about the early 14th century warlord of Lucca, I've yearned to visit the scenes of his attempts to incorporate the region called the Lunigiana into his little Tuscan empire.

The Lunigiana is the mountainous region along the Ligurian and north Tuscan coast that was originally centred on the Roman city of Luni on the Via Aurelia, now in ruins, embracing coastal Massa and Carrara (home of the best marble) along the narrow shore to La Spezia at the southern end of the Cinque Terre. La Spezia and nearby Sarzana on the river Magra lie at the foot of the historically important Cisa Pass over the Apennines up the Val di Magra past the fortress at Pontremoli and northward down to Parma in the region of Emilia-Romagna.

We're in tiny Castelnuovo Magra in the foothills about 5km east of Sarzana, visiting the Palace of the Bishop/Count of Luni, built in the 13th century by the bishop to reinforce his authority in the Diocese of Luni. It was altered by subsequent lords, like the Florentines in the 15th century and the Genovese after 1494, when the round tower was built.

Dante Alighieri was here, serving as an advisor to the Marquis Franceschino Malaspina, and brokered a peace treaty on 6 October 1306 between the Marquis Malaspina and the Archbishop.

We were concerned that the castle might be closed to visitors in winter, but in fact it's open to all, and to the elements. The balloons were meant to frighten away the Saracen raiders, perhaps.

Sarazana in the distance. In the Middle Ages, it's said, there were some 160 castles and fortresses in the Lunigiana, along the coast and in the mountain passes, owned at various times by local warlords, particularly the Malaspina family, and by powerful neighbors like the Genovese, Florentines, Lucchese, Milanese, the Pisans, and eventually the Spanish. About 30 of these are still visitable, so we need to get moving along.

That was quick. What's next?

The Fortezze di Sarzana, or Sarzanello, on the hill overlooking the city, is an imposing fortress with a long history. There must have been earlier strongholds in such a strategic position looming over the narrow coastal strip, but it is attested that in 963 the Emperor Otto I granted the Bishop of Luni custody of a fortified village and tower here, the castrum Sarzanae, and the nearby village of Sarzana grew up below it as its borgo, recognized as such in 1084.

Subsequent Emperors evidently occupied it at various times, like Frederick I Barbarossa thrice in the 1070s and Henry IV in 1191. The Malaspina family of warlords vied with local bishops, imperial representatives, and Tuscan meddlers over the next centuries.

In the early 14th century, Castruccio Castricani wrested control of the fort in the name of Lucca and as Imperial Vicar for Lunigiana on behalf of Emperor Frederick III Habsburg (in 1320). He strengthened the defenses further, but evidently it's not known now exactly what he did to it.

A welcoming sign on the gate. Pisa seems to have built the first really strong fortress in about 1250, but in the 15th century the competition for administration of the Lunigiana, and control of the passes and coast road, was mainly contested by the Malaspinas, Genoa, and Florence of the Medicis. In 1487 (in the 'War of Sarzana', 1487-1492), the Genovese besieged the Sarzanello and began tunneling underneath it, in a rush to get it done before Lorenzo de' Medici arrived with a relieving army; in such a rush that they let the charge off too soon, and the castle was shaken but held. The Florentine forces made their move, defeated the Genovese, relieved the fortress, and besieged and captured Sarzana below.

The sign informs us that the fortress is open every day (tutti i giorni) without fail, but not today.

The Sarzanello is remarkable because about half of it consists a common triangular medieval structure with three round corner towers, with a very Florentine look to them. It would have been extremely effective against a medieval army or angry townspeople, but limited against an early modern army with serious artillery.

Lorenzo de' Medici's new works probably account for the present triangular structure on the left, but when Charles VIII brought his French army through here in 1494, with the artillery that changed the fortifications of all the important Italian cities over the next century, Lorenzo's useless son and successor Piero handed Sarzanello over to him, in the course of trying to avoid the inevitable advent of the Savanarola republic in Florence, so the Medicis' still unfinished fort was not tested at that time.

But the lesson was learnt, and when the bosses of Genoa's Bank of St George bought the fortress soon afterward, they set about adding the detached star-point ravelin as an artillery platform facing the coast, covering the castle entrance, and reworked the hillsides to steepen the approaches.

This stock image of Sarzanello gives the idea.

The ravelin and the medieval fortress, with a high bridge between them. According to C. Duffy in Siege warfare (1979), this ravelin at Sarzanello is "probably the earliest example [of a ravelin] still standing" (p. 35).

It's thought that the ravelin was built over the original tower of the earlier medieval fort.

Closed today! What a nuisance.

Down below, in Sarzana itself, there is the Citadel, to which we will now proceed.

But first, a look-in at the Sarzana Cathedral, officially the Concattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta di Sarzana, now the co-cathedral of the Diocese of La Spezia-Sarzana-Brugnato. The belltower dates from a predecessor Romanesque pieve, and the cathedral itself, with a façade of white marble, was built between 1204 and 1474, begun when the Bishopric of Luni became the Bishopric of Sarzana in 1202.

The interior is a Latin cross with a nave and two aisles, separated by very widely spaced columns; the aisles end in chapels alongside the choir and apse, but the four chapels on either side of the nave were added in the 17th century.

17th century chapel

The choir and high altar. The church has also got the Blood of Christ, some of it anyway, and the oldest known painted Crucifix, the 'Cross of Maestro Guglielmo' from 1138, both of which I missed entirely.

Now, up a side street and literally 500m from the Fortezze on the hill, this is the La Cittadella Fortezza Firmafede or Sarzana Citadel.

The Fortezza di Sarzanello keeping a close eye on the goings-on downtown.

The original stronghold was built by the Pisans but destroyed in Lorenzo de' Medici's siege of the city in 1487, and then rebuilt in the Medici style of round machicolated towers.

An exemplary programme of restoration was undertaken in the 1990s, using original techniques and building materials, and it looks like it's paid off. Let's go see.

Ahhhh. Any day but today. To our amiable "vivitatori" (for which, read "visitatori"), we're closed just for today because the entire staff is off on an updating course. Aaahhhh.

Well, another time perhaps

A look down Sarzana's main drag, the Via Mazzini, from a bridge in the citadel grounds

OMG. What is that?!? (Can we imagine a statue of George Washington or Robert E. Lee in the village square, like that?)

It's Il Genio della Stirpe, the Genius of the Race, by the local sculptor Carlo Fontana in 1907, somewhat blasphemously (in my view) conflating the heroic Giuseppe Garibaldi with his notion of the race of Titans.

Street scene

We're on our way down the road to seaside Lerici, looking for some more closed castles.


In seaside Lerici, we'll be pleased to spend an hour looking for a parking place, ending up in a hillside seven-story parking garage not nearby, murderously pricey.

But the town has its attractions.

The March to the Sea. Lerici had Etruscan origins (of course), but was Pisan and then Genovese during the Middle Ages, sold to Lucca at one point, and after 1479 always in the orbit of Genoa.

The port of Lerici is on the Gulf of Spezia, just downwind 7 or 8km from the city of La Spezia, at the southern end of the Cinque Terre Parco Nazionale.

The castle was built beginning in 1152 and operated by whomever had the front-door keys at any given time to control access to La Spezia Bay.

Alley scene

The central Piazza Garibaldi off the Via Giuseppe Mazzini

Lerici views

Lerici's port is called The Poet's Bay, because Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley lived in an old boathouse just up the coast and kept their sailboat here; Percy died out in the bay in 1822 returning from a sailing expedition to Pisa. Byron apparently visited.

It's time for lunch (huddled under a heater) -- in the Pizzeria Ristorante La Mano di Fatima ("Pizza also for Lunch", but not for us)

Heroic, of course, always, but apparently never having any fun

Time for the castle. There's an elevator inside the cliff.

Local fish sales

The Lerici castle. The Pisans contributed a pentagonal tower in 1152, followed by surrounding structures in 1241; after Lerici was recaptured by the Genovese in 1256, more of the huge curtain walls were added, and the present complex was completed in the 1550s.

Parts of the castle were employed as a youth hostel in the 1970s and '80s, but renovations began in 1997, and it now houses an innovative museum of palaeontology. Which we didn't visit, because it's closed.

Baroness Orczy ("Scarlet Pimpernel") had a villa up on the hillside in the 1930s, before fleeing the fascists.

Looking towards Porto Venere across the Gulf of La Spezia from Lerici

Down from the Lerici castle

The Mano di Fatima restaurant in shadow

The Oratorio di San Rocco in Lerici

Castello Malaspina in Massa

We're making one last try at a castle interior -- just down the coast near Massa, in marble-quarry country, this is a castle documented from 882 and developed by members of the Frankish Obertenghi clan, becoming a permanent residence after 1080.

It was largely destroyed in 1268 but rebuilt by Castruccio Castracanni of Lucca in the early 14th century. In the mid-15th century the city fathers of Massa handed it over to the Malaspina family.

The view out over Massa on the Ligurian coast. During the war, the Castello Malaspina was used by the German SS as a prison for captured resistance fighters, and a number of daring raids were carried out to free them. In their final terrified flight northward, the 16th Panzer-Grenadier Division "Reichsführer SS" murdered all of the prisoners who hadn't already been executed, including monks and civilians, and headed on home.

But let's see what this castle is all about on the inside!

It's closed.

Oh well

Squirrel's been waiting patiently, but looks a little bit resentful.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 26 January 2017, updated 14 April 2021.

Viterbo trip,
Nov-Dec. 2016