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History

 
Montebello castle, seen from the east.

The high Middle Ages

The end of the Carolingian Empire brought uncertain times to northern Italy. During that period, the ancient fortress on Castelgrande fulfilled two purposes: on the one hand, it was a strategic base for the Italian kings and local rulers; on the other, a refuge for the local population when it came under threat from neighbouring marauders. The increasing importance of Bellinzona's stronghold can be seen in the reinforcement work carried out on the masonry which came to light during archaeological excavations in the south wing.
During the restoration of the Empire under the dynasty of Otto the Great in the 10th/11th centuries, the Alpine passes became the factor which most influenced imperial policy regarding Italy. As a consequence of the opening of Lukmanier and St. Bernard Passes by the Ottonians, the Germanic sovereigns also set their sights on Bellinzona, and as becomes apparent from later sources they made a gift of it to the bishops of Como, who supported them. In 1002, Marquis Arduino of Ivrea, who ardently wished to rebuild the Longobard kingdom after the death of Otto III, ratified the bishop's ownership of the fortress at Bellinzona. Subsequently in 1004, Enrico II, who had prevailed over Arduino, renewed the gift, thus ensuring that Bellinzona would remain for a long time the imperial foothold under the power of the bishops of Como. During this period from the 11th to the 12th century, the nobility of Como at the court of the bishop commissioned the construction of towers and stone build ins within the castle walls on Castelgrande. The bishop's ownership was limited to the keep, situated at the heart of the fortification, originally domain of the king and referred to in documents as the bishop's palace.
It is not known whether Bellinzona became the object of dispute in tI decades of conflict over investitures around 1100. There is no doubt, however, that under the Hohenstaufens of Swabia, Bellinona was the scene of open conflict. Under Frederick 1 «Barbarossa» (Redbeard), Bellinzona was in the grip of the Swabian monarchs. In 1180, however, Barbarossa considered it opportune to place the stronghold under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Como. It seems that Emperor Frederick himself passed through Bellinzona making his incursions into Italy.
In the 13th century, the disputes between the papacy and the Empire cscnlnted in northern Italy. In 1239, Como, which had been temdornIIIy favourable towards papal policy, now sided with the CHbe!Iine factions who supported the Emperor; Frederick II was thus able to secure for himself the control of important strategic position guarding the southern outlets of the Alpine passes. He also (L)OI possession of Bellinzona's stronghold and lost no time in inclang a garrison and strengthening the fortifications. However, in 1242, the Guelfs, pro-papacy factions led by their captain, Simone di Orello, succeeded in taking Bellinzona, contributing in no small way to the decline in Frederick's supremacy south of the Alps.
The end of the dominion of the Swabian emperors towards 1250 did not bring an end to the long disputes between Guelfs and Ghibellines, which continued in northern Italy well into the 14th century in the form of conflicts between local and regional rulers. It would appear that this was a period of considerable topographical growth with long-lasting consequences for the fortified town of Bellinzona. It seems clear that, even before 1250, the well-established market and point of transit in the narrow area at the foot of Castelgrande rock had already begun to look like a city within its walls, and towards the end of the 13th century, Montebello Castle was built on a rocky hillside to the east of this urban settlement.
For decades, wars were fought for the possession of Bellinzona. On many occasions, in 1284, 1292 and 1303, the stronghold was besieged and conquered. In Bellinzona, the Rusca family of Como resisted at length against Milan, which was gradually gaining power under the rule of the Visconti family. As a consequence of the occupation of Como by the Milanese in 1335, the Ruscas were left with just Bellinzona. They mounted a vast insurrection against the Milanese which, however, the Viscontis succeeded in turning to their own advantage. After a prolonged siege in 1340, Bellinzona was forced to surrender and fell into the Viscontis' hands. The Ruscas were allowed to keep Montebello Castle. Thus began the Milanese dominion over Bellinzona which would last one and a half centuries


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