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Montebello Castle, seen from the south-west.

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Montebello Castle

The impressive Castle of Montebello (known as Small, New, or Middle Castle in the 14th/15th, centuries, as Schwyz Castle from 1506, and from 1818 as Saint Martin's Castle) is perched on a rocky hilltop to the east of the town centre. The castle's origins date back to the late 13th century; it is documented for the first time, albeit indirectly, in 1313. The fortress was probably built by the illustrious Rusca family from Como and passed into the hands of the Viscontis at the close of the 14th century. After an initial stage of extensions (in the middle of the l4th century, presumably as part of the work to connect the stronghold to the fortifications in the town) there followed a period of neglect: as can be read in complaints by Milanese officials around 1460, the buildings no longer fulfilled the defensive requirements of the fortifications in Bellinzona, which were being enlarged at that time. Successive extensions and renovations, between 1462 and 1490, transformed the ancient 13th/14th century castle into the complex of fortifications as we see it today. Montebello fell into neglect once again in the 19th century, and around the year 1900 its state of disrepair made it a sorry spectacle; signs of the consolidation and other additional work, carried out from 1903 onwards, can be seen in the brickwork which separates the old parts of the walls from the new.
In contrast to Castelgrande, access to this hilltop castle is relatively easy from all sides, but particularly from the east so that it was necessary to dig deep moats to prevent the enemy from getting too close. The whole complex is roughly rhomboid in shape and connected to the town walls to the south and north at its obtuse angles (see below). The present state of the building clearly shows the three stages of Montebello's development: the original fortified nucleus and the two rows of fortifications built around it in the 14th and 15th centuries respectively.
The innermost complex dates from the foundation (late 13th century): an irregular rectangular enclosure divided into sections by several walls. It is not clear whether the existing buildings on this site correspond to the original plans: windows in the castle wall, which today face towards the interior of one of the two inner baileys, suggest that alterations were made to the architectural plan. It is possible that the battlemented tower with the hipped roof in the north-eastern part of the nucleus is an incorrect reconstruction, carried out during the restoration of 1903: old prints dating from the 17th century only show a four-storey building with a pitched roof sloping towards the interior on this site. Generally speaking, the layout of the complex is reminiscent of an archaeological concept that is often encountered in the southern Alpine valleys: a high, strong outer wall against which living quarters and utility buildings were built on the inner side. The entrance to the nucleus also fits this traditional model, situated as it is high up in the western wall and accessible today by means of an external flight of steps; remains of latrines and fireplaces are evidence that these buildings were used for habitation. The well, situated in the eastern inner bailey, may well be original, at least as far as its position is concerned. A little chapel, dedicated to Saint Michael, leans against the wall of the more recent south-facing section; built around 1600, it is one of the few buildings erected in the castles of Bellinzona under the rule of the three founder cantons.
An irregularly shaped, battlemented wall was built around the fortress, presumably halfway through the 15th century; at a distance of about 715 m from the original complex, it was armoured with the swallowtail merlons directly mounted on the wall. Its remains are visible in the later enclosing wall (15th century) and in a minor building to the west of the nucleus. On the east side, the thus enlarged castle complex is protected by a deep moat crossed by a drawbridge; the gateway a rounded arch in the south-eastern stretch of the castle wall is to be found in a 15th century gate-tower. As the oldest parts of the 15th century wall show, the flattish area to the east of the moat must have been part of the ramparts even at that time. The intensive building work carried out between 1462 and 1490 mainly concerned the periphery of the stronghold: a new, stronger wall was built, making use of the existing 14th century one, giving the castle the appearance it has today. To the east of the moat, stands an arrowhead-shaped barbican with an outer gate protected by another moat and machicolated battlements on its northfacing side. The earlier moat is closed at the northern end by a parapet and at the southern end by a pentagonal auxiliary tower, open on the inner side, where the castle wall adjoins the southern stretch of the city wall. On the site of the gateway in the 14th century castle wall stands a projecting towergate which acts as a support; the drawbridges of both the inner and outer gateway are modern reconstructions. The round towers which stand at the western and southern corners of the wall are open towards the interior and have no gun platforms, unlike the north-eastern tower, which has an emplacement built onto the inner wall.
A gate in the south stretch of the wall, equipped with a murder hole, dates back to the 15th century. Several latrines in the castle walls were installed for the use of the sentinels; the embrasures and machicolations in the walls and towers were for the use of crossbows, muskets and small cannon. A crenellated wall with a semicircular tower marks the boundary of the terrace west of Montebello on the city side. In the 15th century, Montebello was considered the most suitable of the castles for full-scale defence operations in the event of war. The open space between the main fortress and the outer fortification works was ideal for accommodating troops and artillery if a sudden need arose.
Montebello and its castle walls clearly illustrate how the Dukes of Milan, by modifying and adding to the original structure in around 1480, strived to give back to the fortifications of Bellinzona their full defensive potential, hitherto neglected.
Today the Castle houses the Civic Museum with its archaeological collection; the findings, which include some items of considerable interest, come from prehistoric burial sites in Ticino. The transformation of the interior to accommodate the museum was carried out in 1971-74 by the architects M. CAMPI, F. PESSINA, and N. PIAZZOLI the work was executed using modern materials and was based on contemporary architectural principles.


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