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Castles and walls

Castelgrande, looking towards the north-west. Nucleus showing the Ridotto, the Torre Bianca (on the right) and the Torre Nera.

 

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Restaurant Castelgrande

Castelgrande

Castelgrande, standing atop its forbidding rocky hill, is the natural centre of the fortifications which together make up Bellinzona's barrage. Until the 13th century, fortifications were built only on this high site, difficult to reach from all sides; therefore, texts dating from the Middle Ages which mention a stronghold on a rock always refer to Castelgrande (also called Old Castle in the 14t,/15th centuries. Un Castle from 1506, and Saint Michael's Castle from 1818).
Archaeological traces of more ancient settlements (prehistoric or Roman) exist only in the underlying earth: what little remains of the high Middle Ages (10th/12th centuries) is to be found in some pieces of wall still standing. The buildings which do not date from the last two centuries, erected mostly between 1250 and 1500, testify to a period of eventful building history, which encompassed not only renovations, extensions and reinforcement work, but also war damage, periods of neglect and demolition.
The vast, flattish peak of the hill, virtually inaccessible from the north because of the steep almost vertical rock formations and slightly more easily accessible from the south by means of steep flights of steps, is about 150-200 m in diameter. Its sloping terrace-like rock formations have meant that, in each era, manmade defence works have followed the natural contours of the rocky spur; most of the still existing late medieval wall stands, therefore, on the same foundations as the Roman walls. The latter, which came to light during archaeological investigation of the south wing in 1967, were built with roughly hewn, irregular shaped stones.
The vast area within the walls appears today as a great empty space.
Many buildings, in fact, must have been demolished in the 15th century; the buildings which housed the arsenal in the 1911 century were almost all puled down during restoration work in the last century. Written sources dating from the 11th––15th centuries and archaeological evidence (remains of foundations) suggest that at the height of the Middle Ages, Castelgrande, which was divided up into several plots of and, must have contained a much greater number of buildings than we can imagine today; apart from one or two which have survived, these buildings were demolished in the 15th century by the Dukes of Milan. Presumably the reason for this was to free the internal area, subsequently divided into 3 large baileys, to accommodate temporary contingents of troops when the need arose. Under Milanese rule, moreover, efforts to improve the defensive capability of the complex were restricted to the outer works: during the 14th and above all in the 15th century, the enclosing walls were raised and reinforced in various stages; extra outer wards and auxiliary towers were added; the western part was quite radically altered and connected to the city walls.
Today, the easiest way to reach the Castle is to take the lift which carries you from the foot of the rock directly up into the castle grounds. In the late Middle Ages, access from the south was through a gateway in the city wall halfway up the hill; after passing the crenellated outer ward to the south of the enclosing wall, about a 100 m further on you reach the main entrance situated in the southeastern stretch of wall Today, steep narrow streets leading up from the old town centre still provide access through this gateway; the gateway with its rounded arch is surmounted by a small brattice.
From the 15th century onwards, as already mentioned, the internal area of Castelgrande has been divided into 3 vast baileys by walls which radiate from the Terre Nera. According to dendrochronological tests, this square lower, situated more or less at the centre of the castle, was built in the early 14th century; it may have been raised in the 15th century. To the east stands the complex of buildings which make up the keep, with the tallest building of Castelgrande standing at its centre: the slim, square Torre Bianca, which probably dates from the 13th century. The squareshaped keep surrounding it, once the palace of the Bishop of Come (documented in the 12th century), is believed to conceal some masonry dating from the 10th/11th centuries; unfortunately there is no existing archaeological documentation on remains of walls found in the interior. A series of rectangular buildings which back onto the inner castle wall mark the southern boundary of the fortress: this is the so-called south wing, built in two stages (between the 13th and 15th centuries) on the foundations of preceding buildings. Successive phases of construction are also visible in the castle wall at this point; two rows of swallowtail merlons can be seen, one dating from the 13th century, the other from the 15th. The adjoining wing to the west, which is angled towards the north, was an arsenal in the 19th century and has been fully renovated along modern architectural lines. Archaeological excavations in the southern bailey have not only revealed traces of a prehistoric settlement, layers containing Roman remains and a medieval well, but also late medieval tomb slabs belonging to the cemetery of the one time parish church of Saint Peter. The remains of the foundations are all that remain of a little chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, which stood between the Torre Nera and the Torre Bianca.
The ruins of another church, possibly dedicated to the Madonna, is still discernible on the perimeter of the western bailey; in this part of the internal area there are no visible traces of other buildings, except for some parts of an earlier castle wall. It seems probable, observing the parts of the castle wall which have survived, that there were also buildings in the north bailey. It would appear that a wall was not deemed necessary in this area, given the natural defence afforded by the sheer rock face, until the 14th/15th centuries, when a parapet was built.
The complete restoration of the castle and its grounds, made possible thanks to the generous donation of Mario della Valle and directed by architect AURELIO GALFETTI during the decade 1982-92, was carried out with due respect to the architectural character acquired by the castle over the centuries.
The south wing houses a museum in which archaeological finds illustrate the building history of the castle; the exhibits also include the decorated ceilings of Casa Ghiringhelli, a former inn, the Albergo della Cervia (1470/80), whilst another room contains exhibits pertaining to Bellinzona's mint (16th century). The block of buildings adjoining the south wing and forming a right angle to the west was added in the late 19th century as an arsenal; completely refurbished round about 1990, it now houses a restaurant.


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