The “eminent” castle of Montopoli: a reconstruction from the beginning of the fourteenth century
An “eminent” castle. This is how Boccaccio defined Montopoli in the fourteenth century referring to its mighty fortifications. Located on the hills overlooking the lower Arno Valley, it was a village enclosed by so strong defenses that even skilled military leaders, such as Castruccio Castracani, never managed to take it by force. Starting from the year 1000 the castle had evolved and grown considerably. The first mention in a document, of the village of Montopoli dates back to 1017, while in 1119 we know that it was transformed into a stronghold with defensive elements, perhaps in wood, and with its own land district. Also the domini, or liege lords, who had promoted the fortifications of the village on the hill likely resided there: they were vassals of the bishop of Lucca, who, through his own overlords, maintained control of the place until 1161, when the commune of Pisa took over with the support of Emperor Frederick I. From that point on the castle changed its keeper several times, alternating between the bishop of Lucca and the Pisan commune. In 1274 Giovanni Visconti, a Pisan exile at the head of the Guelph league, became Lord of Montopoli; he further strenghtened the settlement fortification adding masonry elements. It is due partly to the work of the latter, but also to the Republic of Pisa that at the beginning of the fourteenth century the castle had already become an impregnable fortress. One of the most original features of the castle from this period is the tower known as San Martino’s, defended by a fortified enclosure in which two doors opened up, as can still be seen in the north-east of the hill. This was a mighty tower: on the first floors there were narrow loopholes, while at the top it was equipped with galleries and bartizans, or bertesche, with hatches to throw stones and boiling oil on any enemies. In local tradition, the complex is known as the foregate, or antiporta, but in reality it has the function of an outwork, or ravelin: an independent fortification placed to defend the access to a major fortress. The tower and enclosure are not directly connected to a door, but to the walls of the Rocca, through a walkway that goes over an arch above the road accessing the village, known as the Arco di Castruccio, named after the vain attempts by the latter to conquer it.
The stronghold named Rocca, located on the adjacent hill, was surrounded by a high wall with a crenellated walkway, and had two entrances: one for vehicles, located to the north-east, through an arch surmounted by a tower which opened inward, and another facing southwest, overlooking the village.
Conversely the settlement was defended by another wall, which here can be seen in its first extension, since it grew over time following the spread of the houses along the main road. Passing under Castruccio’s arch and skirting the fortress wall, it was reached through the gate of San Martino, with an arched entrance surmounted by a bartizan. From the gate of San Martino one would encounter directly the first square of the castle, overlooked by the most important public buildings, and where the market took place. In the late Middle Ages the houses located to the east, where eventually the seat of the ancient Chancellery was placed, were equipped with a loggia. Facing opposite there were some tower houses and a slightly larger building which later began to host the chief magistrate, or podestà sent by the Florentine government, to which Montopoli submitted starting from 1349. On the other side of the road accessing the square there was the ancient palace of the bishop of Lucca: built with a stone base and brick elevations, it was characterized by a large brickwork arch that opened onto a large wooden gallery. At the rear there was a spacious courtyard. Starting from this focal point, the settlement stretched along the ridge, both to the north-west and to the south. This side was further filled up by more tower houses, a few of which lodging some warehouses and some shops which opened on the ground floor; they stretched up to the gate of the first wall ring of the village, called the al Becco gate, located just before the building that today houses the Civic Museum. At one point, to the east, a small forecourt opened, later called Pucci atrium, which led to the other entrance to the Rocca.
From here one climbed to the top of the hill to find a high bell tower flanked by the chapel of the Rocca, also named after San Martino, patron saint of Lucca. Next to the small church – the foundations of which were unearthed during archaeological excavations – it emerged the remains of a fortification wall, which likely was part of the first stone castle dating back to the 12th century. The bell tower – of a similar workmanship to that of the bell tower of the village parish church – was built sometime between the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The remaining of the Rocca’s Poggio was to house animal shelters and food warehouses, as well as residential premises for the lord of the castle and his soldiers, so that they could withstand a siege – although it is not known exactly how these sites were built. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the “eminent” castle of Montopoli was therefore provided with a ravelin and two walls that protected the fortress and the village below respectively. Moreover, at least two military towers and two high bell towers stood there to monitor accesses from the north-east and north-west, that is the part facing Florence on one side, and Pisa and Lucca on the other, given the strategic position of the place in the Lower Valdarno. It is no coincidence that the parish of SS. Giovanni e Stefano di Montopoli was chosen in 1329 as the seat to seal the peace between Pisa and Florence and put an end to the wars that had plagued this region for decades. Also, it is not accidental that shortly afterwards, the Montopolese castle became embedded in the border between the City of the Lily and the ancient Pisan Republic, the thorn in the latter’s side until its definitive incorporation to the Florentine state in the early sixteenth century.