Sarzana’s Stupendous Fortresses

Sarzana is sited in a very strategic position between three regions of Italy: Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Just look at the map.

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The town controls the route across to Parma; it’s a gateway to the Ligurian Sea and is also at the entrance of a pass leading to the Lombardy plain. It’s not surprising then that Sarzana has been fought over by several powers in its one thousand year history.

It was, therefore, with the greatest interest that I decided yesterday to take a train there and visit the town and its fortifications.

Sarzana is an absolute delight. Whether you’re into Medicean fortifications, speciality shopping, gourmet restaurants, or architecture from Romanesque through baroque to art nouveau Sarzana has all these and more to show.

A few facts: Sarzana is a comune in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, and is easily reached from Bagni di Lucca by rail on one of two routes:

Bagni di Lucca-Aulla (change)- Sarzana. This journey has lovely views of the Serchio valley:

Bagni di Lucca – Pisa (change) – Sarzana (Nice views of the Apuans and the coastine)

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Sarzana is first mentioned in 983 but the growth of the town stems from 1202 when the administration moved from Luni (the fabulous abandoned Roman town – have you visited this wonder – a Tuscan Pompeii, almost?) to a new site near the river Magra.

At first part of the Pisan republic, Sarzana was conquered by the Florentines before being annexed by Genoa in 1572.

All these political machinations have resulted in the building of two of the finest fortresses in the area. Note that it’s a fortress, not a castle. What’s the difference? A fortress tends to develop from the sixteenth century onwards, thus rather later than a genuine castle. A fortress is aware of the rise of fire power and, thus, has lower, more slanted, walls. It also has Vauban-style bulwarks, big storage areas for gunpowder, platforms for cannons and complex defence systems for the principal entrance.

Our Lucca is, in a sense, a fully-fledged fortress town while Pisa’s walls still reflect the pre-firepower era with its high walls which were built to withstand nothing more menacing than siege ladders and arrows.

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Sarzana is, indeed, a true fortress town with the actual fortresses only a part of the total fortifications scheme. However, in the nineteenth century the worthy Sarzanesi decided to demolish most of their walls leaving only the turrets at each corner of the town which were then sold to privates to build their own dwellings on. Here are some examples of what they came up with:

Sarzana has, in fact, two fortresses: one in town called ‘Firmafede’ (firm faith) and one on a nearby hill with an extraordinary triangular shape called ‘Sarzanello’. I had only time to visit the town fortress thus giving me a good reason for returning to this delightful town!

The town fortress whose plan is this:

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is particularly interesting for its main features, best described by my photos, which include:

Two large courtyards including a parade ground

Eight turrets including the central one enclosed within one of the courtyards

Complex entrance defences including two barbicans.

Underground passages beneath the towers.

Huge areas for soldiers’ quarters

A (now dry) moat.

(Please note, if you want to see rusty suits of armour or cannons etc. you’ll be disappointed. Firmafede fortress hasn’t got much else to offer except its marvellous architecure and stupendous views).

The fortress was given in 1814 to the kingdom of Sardinia which later that century was the propulsive force behind Italian unification.

Interestingly, for Bonaparte devotees, a branch of the Cardolingi di Borgo Nuovo family acquired the name of Bonaparte and settled in Sarzana in the thirteenth century. In 1512 one of their members moved across to Ajaccio Corsica and…the rest is history.

Indeed, Napoleon had a particular love of Sarzana and stayed there during his Italian campaigns as this plaque on one of Sarzana’s high street palaces proudly proclaims:

Napoleon also made it the capital of one of his Italian cantons. Sarzana continued its defensive importance during WWII when it was the centre of strong anti-fascist partisan activity. Fortunately, it wasn’t devastated like some other towns (e.g. Aulla) and so luckily we have an almost perfectly preserved fortress town for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

There’s a lot more to Sarzana than its two fortresses of course. But you’ll have to wait for my next posts to discover what they are!

In the meanwhile here’s the Sarzanello fortress I’ll be visting next time I’m in the area:

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