Whoever goes to Sarzana, from wherever comes, cannot be attracted by that impressive building that dominates the Magra valley, from the top of Sarzanello hill.
The fortress is the most immediate, representative and dearest image of the town, to witness the past greatness; it is the first and most forceful message of the town of Fiasella, Ivani, Bertoloni and Pope Niccolò V…its truest and most authentic proof of the town successor of Luni.
The fortress as it is now, is the result of historical events that saw Sarzana and its territory continuosly in the centre of fights. This is due to its strategical position. It was, in fact, a road junction crossed, at that time, by roads of great importance of comunication like the Aurelia, the Romea and the one to Parma and Piacenza.
The existence of a first structure is mentioned for the first time in a diploma of Emperor Ottone I, dated 19th May 963, in which it was granted to the Bishop of Luni Adalberto, the possession of six castra, among which there was the one of Sarzana.
Surely, before this date, there had been a fortress or a tower on the hill of Sarzanello, with the function of street protection, the main element of a wider project of fortification at territorial level.
We may suppose that it should take part to that first fortified line, known with the name of byzantine limes, bound to bar the ways that lead to the tyrrhenian naval bases (Luni) of the sea province Italorum, made of castles, towers linked at sight and arranged to contol the most important routes, for example the near Aemilia Scauri, the most important byzantine coast road.
With the passing of the years and the changing of the political-military situations, the place gained more and more importance to settle in it, around the end of the X century, one of the various Bishop’s residences of the valley, a Palatium Episcopi whose existence we have no more traces.
The castle is quoted continuosly in the years 1076, 1078, 1080 as court of Frederick II the Redbeard and in the 1191 as court of Henry VI and in the 1203 as the Bishop’s breadbasket.
The slow, but progressive decay of the near Luni, already started in the VI and V century, brought the people to move to the surrounding hills to look for safety and food, thus improving and giving birth to new villages as Nicola, Ortonovo, Castelnuovo, Ameglia….
The Sarzanello hill populated with exiles, gathered around the Bishop’s residence, who was going to move there from Luni.
Perhaps a small walled village raised, inside of which stood out the squared tower of the bishop’s palace, heart of the village, where the most important acts of the political, military and religious life of the country happened.
Beside it, lower, there was St. Martin church, under whose wide portico gathered the Town council, drawn up the deeds and did the business negotations.
Inside this walled village, in the fortified bishop’s residence, we found, in different periods between 1314 and 1328, Castruccio Castracani of Antelminelli, Lord of Lucca and Vicar of the Emperor.
This great leader and statesman, recognized by Macchiavelli as the “Prince”, was able, in less than 14 years, to construct a domain that went from Pistoia to Lucca, from Pisa to Lunigiana and taking, also, a part of Genoa.
Anyway the only clear evidence of his presence in Sarzana, exept for the documentary sources, is the grave, in St. Francis church, of Guarniero of Antelminelli, his son.
Probably, choosing Sarzanello as his residence, Castruccio introduced same changes to the pre-existing fortress, of which no trace was left, as it had been completely destroyed or incorporated in the fortress we see now.
Therefore the name “Castruccio’s fortress” is wrong as it refers to a building posthumous, of more of one century, to Castruccio’s death.
The continuos use of this name, that hasn’t been lost during the past centuries, comes, probably, from the real importance that Castruccio had in the destiny of Lunigiana and moreover for the prominence that trascends the legendary character of the Antelminelli.
In 1421 the genoan Tommaso of Campofregoso made some works of readjustment of the fortress.
Changes and restorations went on till the Florentines had, again, the domain of Sarzana and Sarzanello (1487).
After having fortified the town, building the fortress, the Medici decided to change the old fortress and to adjust it to the new requirements of the art of the war.
Francesco di Giovanni (called il Francione) and Luca del Caprina had the task of planninig a new structure to substitute completely to the old one.
When in 1494 Pietro de Medici handed over Sarzana and Sarzanello to Charles VIII the fortress was still incompleted.
The work started again when the king came back to France and the two sites passed in the hands of the Genoan Bank of St. George and finished by Pietro Biancardo and Matteo Civitali in 1502.
Caprina and Francione’s plan was faithfully followed, according to the military architecture theories of Giorgio Martini.
When the fortress was finished, with three towers on the top, it started the building of the rivellino that probably incorporated the old tower of the castle.
This new structure was useful both to protect the entrance of the fortress and to avoid that this side could be attacked by the artillery from the southeast hill, where soon it was built a primitive line of defence.
Only in that moment the fortress reached its formal completeness, with an exstraordinary balance of volumes, favoured in its understanding by the isolation it had in respect of the other buildings, a position that still now allows us to admire it.
At the beginning of the XVIII c. the French introduced new changes to the defensive elements following the updating of the milatary tecniques, making the embrasures on the two central towers; at the same time the use of some rooms changed and were designed to the lodgings and quarters.
In 1747, during the Austrian Succession War, Maria Teresa’ s soldiers, under the command of the German General Wocter, tried to take possession of the fortress without being successful.
On this occasion it was clear that the nearby built-up area of Sarzanello made easier the enemy attacks and therefore the Government of Genoa and Richelieu’s duke decided to pull down 120 houses that made the village including the ancient St. Martin church.
The action started very soon and, in 1748, the inhabitants had to move to the area called Pian Paganella, becoming thus, also toponymically, the new Sarzanello.
During the French domination the fortress run the inexplicable risk of being demolished but saved for reasons of time because the action had to be done within three months.
In 1814 when the Genoan Dukedom passed under the Reign of Sardinia, it was decided that, being the fortress in the farthest part of Italy, it had to be restored and this decree was also confimed ,during his visit in 1837, by king Carlo Alberto.
After the restoration of 1963, the Monuments and Fine Arts Office of Regione Liguria resumed the works in 1980, reclaiming some rooms from water infiltrations, cleaning the moat and making the wall filling of the bastions.
These works made the fortress visitable, at least one of its parts, enabling the organizations of shows and exhibitions.
The fortress can be reached through two carriage roads: Fratta road that leads quickly and steeply to the fortress, the other, the panoramic one, moves away from Mazzini st. at almost its end, and goes gently up the hill till Sarzanello.
Anyway we advise the tourist, who isn’t in a hurry, to walk the so called “Mounting of Sarzanello” that from St. Francis leads to the fortress, allowing to descover the view of Sarzana.
In the foreground there is the great medicean fortress called “Cittadella” that with the fortress of Sarzanello gives us a rare example of that military architecture of the period of transition (abandonment of the medieval forms and passing to new ones, due also to the introduction of the gun powder).
Before coming up the hill there are some houses that avoided the distruction of Sarzanello but unfortunately they have quite lost all their medieval structure.
We enter into the Fortress through the small bridge that stands upon the wide and deep ditch; we, immediately, understand the greatness of the building we are going to visit.
The donjon, the bastions, the dungeons, the communication tranches, the view,…. all pleasant emotions one after another.
...l' opera di Sarzanello loro Dio gratia è in tutto finita, ita et taliter che nè dentro nè de fora, nè a li fossi nè terreno di parapetti nè altro VV.SS. no ge han più cagione di splendere uno denaro:
resta dicta fortezza ben livera et in gran fortezza et bellezza,...
Gregorio di Carmendino, settembre 1502