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History

 
Bellinzona, around 1630, seen from the south. After Hans Walther Im Hoff.

The late Middle Ages

Milan's victory under the Viscontis in 1340 resulted in the incorporation of Bellinzona into a wealthy, civil and militarily organised state. However, the final and formal transfer of power was only ratified in 1396, when Emperor Wenceslas granted Gian Galeazzo Visconti the title of Duke and feudal rights over Bellinzona and the surrounding area. During the 14th century, the ducal officials enforced the state ordinances of Milanese territorial sovereignty and did everything in their power to guarantee safety on the roads, to maintain the customs laws and to eradicate the well-established habit of private warfare. Thanks to such measures, which greatly reduced the risks that had existed hitherto, commercial traffic over the St. Gotthard Pass increased to an extent that had never been seen before, even after the opening of the Schöllenen Pass in the 13th century.

On the death of Gian Galeazzo Visconti in 1402, however, it seems that this orderly Visconti state began to disintegrate. A feudal lord, Alberto di Sacco, from the Mesolcina valley, took possession of Bellinzona in 1403, but he too found himself in difficulty when the Duchy's fortunes took a turn for the better under the leadership of Giovanni Maria and Filippo Maria Visconti. Finding himself threatened, he turned to Un for support. Together with the Obwaldner, he was admitted to the common law of Uri. In 1419, Uri and Obwalden bought the Bellinzona stronghold from the Sacco barons, but were unable to defend it adequately. When, in 1422, they rejected the Milanese proposal to buy back the fortified town, their troops stationed in Bellinzona were put to rout by the Visconti army under the command of Francesco Bussone, called «Il Carmagnola». An attempt to reconquer the fortified area with the support of other confederates ended at the Battle of Arbedo on 30th June of the same year in a humiliating defeat, which discouraged the expansionist intentions of Uri and its allies towards Lake Maggiore for a long time.
During the whole of the 15th century, all efforts on the part of Uri to repossess Bellinzona, so ignominiously lost in 1422, were to no avail. In 1441, during yet another expedition against Bellinzona, which was brought to a halt within sight of its walls, they only managed to occupy the Leventina Valley down as far as the bridge at Biasca. A further attempt in 1478, which, after an unsuccessful assault on Bellinzona, ended with a victory at the Battle of Giornico, at least restored a little lustre to the honour of the Swiss but did not brirg them any closer to winning the contest for control of the stronghold. At first under the Viscontis, and from 1450 under the Sforzas, Milan had other weapons with which to resist pressure from Uri and its confederate allies on the ducal territories: wealth, diplomatic experience and military power. Having no desire to be at war with the Swiss, it successfully negotiated financial settlements and commercial privileges. In order to protect their territories from the unpredictable actions of the confederates, the dukes ceded the upper valleys of the Ticino and concentrated their military efforts on defending Bellinzona, extending and reinforcing the ancient fortifications throughout the 15th century, transforming them into an impassable barrier. Probably as far back as 1350, Montebello Castle was extended and incorporated into the city walls by means of a connecting wall which ran right down to the town. Shortly after 1400, an isolated tower was built at a high point on the hillside east of the town; the nucleus of the later Castle of Sasso Corbaro. Under Visconti rule, work was begun on a barrage which was to span the River Ticino and meet up with a natural rocky ridge on the western flank of the valley. In the second half of the 15th century, both Castelgrande and Montebello were formidably reinforced. After the Battle of Giornico, no time was lost in improving the defensive structures. The Murata the masonry barrage to the west of Castelgrande was completely rebuilt, an imposing fortress was built on the hill called Sasso Corbaro, the city walls and the outer ramparts of the castles were reinforced and raised. There are records of the names of the architects called upon to direct the work on the fortifications undertaken in the late 1511 century. Some of them came from Italy, such as BENEDETTO DI FIRENZE, FRANCESCO DA MANTOVA or MATTEO DA COMO, or from Ticino, such as GABRIELE GHIRINGHELLI or GIORGIO DA CARONA. Bellinzona's impressive castles, as we see them today, are mainly the result of the building activity undertaken by the Dukes of Milan in the 1511 century.
Rather hasty work by the builders led to the incorporation of older sections to save time and this can be seen particularly in the city walls and in Montebello Castle. Around 1500, when the state under the Sforzas began to disintegrate, the opportunity finally arose for the confederates to get their hands on what was considered to be the impregnable fortress of Bellinzona.


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