The scenes depicted in the lunettes are an artist’s impression based on archaeological digs and surveys of surviving traces of masonry carried out by engineer Giuseppe Weith, and on paintings of the period. They were executed, using the graffito technique, by the painter Baldo Carugo in 1925 when he was commissioned to decorate the arches in the courtyard of the Town Hall. The scenes represented allow us to distance ourselves from the present for a while and let our imaginations take us back to a world that no longer exists but that is evocatively portrayed in the town walls, the secular and religious buildings and the scenes of life as it must have been in the streets of the town.
Medieval Bellinzona was a small town immersed in a sparsely populated landscape and completely surrounded by high walls, with its houses huddled closely together as if jostling for space or seeking protection from the rigours of the cold and gusty winds blowing down from the valleys. The town wall was protected by a moat and access to the town inside the walls was through three gateways, each equipped with a drawbridge. To all intents and purposes, the townspeople lived in a fortress, a complex in which the various quarters were like the rooms of one large dwelling.
Within its walls Bellinzona was a kind of duty-free zone; outside the walls it was considered to be a defensive bastion, a border town and point of transit. Tolls and duties were levied, smuggling was rife and contracts for all kinds of activities related to the transportation of goods were contended. Indeed, there was plenty of full time or temporary work to be had and the town would suddenly fill up with travellers, odd-jobbers and waves of immigrants anxious to make the most of whatever job opportunities were available at any one time.
The lunettes mainly depict scenes from the end of the 15th century, when the town’s fortifications reached the peak of their splendour after the town walls had been enlarged and strengthened by the Duchy of Milan. Some views portray later epochs like this bird’s eye view of Bellinzona at the end of the 1700s, which takes pride of place in the Town Council Chamber.
The Middle Ages revisited – The Town Hall
Walking around the courtyard of the Town Hall, the scenes of life portrayed in the lunettes on the walls take you on a journey back down the centuries. The evocative atmosphere created by these pictures makes it the most appropriate starting point for a tour of Bellinzona; let your imagination carry you back to a world which has gone forever, but which still lives on in the ramparts, in civil and religious buildings and which has even left some traces in the everyday lives of the townspeople.
Leave the present behind for a moment and let us take you on an imaginary trip back in time: imagine that you are encircled by high walls on all sides and tall narrow buildings huddled together, as if sheltering from the bitter cold and blustery winds blowing down from the mountains.
Tall stone buildings, with narrow slits for windows, vie with their neighbours for space and light, their thatched or wooden roofs a constant fire risk.
Some of the houses facing onto the street have arcades supported by stone pillars or, some cases wooden posts; above the arcades, the loggias serve a dual purpose; a place from which to observe wayfarers, but, more often than not, a place from which to throw all manner of domestic waste, an unhygienic habit which, not surprisingly, causes an outcry because of the nauseating smell and the total disregard for public decorum that such behaviour denotes, not to speak of the risk of disease.
Closed in on all sides by the ramparts, equipped with a moat, three gateways and drawbridges, the townspeople have the impression that the various neighbourhoods they inhabit, are really just so many rooms in one huge and overcrowded dwelling. Everybody knows everybody else and their habits, both good and bad. No birth or death, no love affair or infidelity can take place without arousing morbid curiosity and gossip spreads as quickly as disease and fire through the foul smelling lanes.
The arrival of a foreigner speaking an unfamiliar language is at first looked upon as a potential threat, but a hunger for knowledge of the world beyond the walls means that curiosity soon prevails over suspicion, and in no time a group forms around him clamouring for information. Here and there an argument breaks out over a cart left in the middle of the road, or a runaway horse, and easily degenerates into a brawl.
Think then of the cacophony of sounds: the voices, the shouting and cursing, the cries of street vendors; the noise of some activities and the silence of others; the incessant and rhythmic clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil and the silent concentration of the notary public engrossed in drawing up a contract in the dim recesses of his office under the arcade; the apothecary carefully lining up his potions on the shelves; the butcher chopping up the various cuts of meat ready for the day’s business: the baker removing the fragrant loaves from the oven and extolling the virtues and variety of his bread to potential buyers.
On market days, the streets and squares are full of people and resound with the cries of the stallholders and customers; peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside selling vegetables and poultry from their smallholdings, fishmongers, peddlers displaying their household wares, merchants offering fine and colourful cloths, alpine farmers selling cheeses, mascarpone, ricotta and butter. The scene must have been very similar to the one we still see today at the market on Saturdays.
The day ends with a visit to an inn, where the patrons sitting and sipping the rough local wine are mainly foreign merchants speaking unfamiliar languages, soldiers playing dice, guards on the lookout for smugglers or Milanese judges presiding over the local court. The merchants are likely to have weapons hidden under their tunics along with the day’s earnings for, in the silence of night, while the guards on lookout duty patrol the battlements and stand guard in the towers, someone might be tempted to take advantage of an unsuspecting colleague sleeping off a tiring day’s trading in a dormitory or in the stables alongside his horse. The amounts stolen may be large or small, but when the victim awakes to find his money pouch has disappeared overnight, accusations fly and the authorities are called in to break up the scuffles, question the suspects and find the guilty party!
This is just a fleeting glance at what life must have been like in medieval Bellinzona: a town going peacefully about its business within its massive walls but never dropping its guard; a garrison of soldiers keeping constant watch from the fortress for the dreaded appearance of a potential enemy but also for the welcome arrival of foreign merchants, who bring trade and prosperity to the townspeople.