A path that leads to the discovery of the ancient castles of the Pisan hills, ancient fortress fate age Tuscan Renaissance and developed with the advent of the municipalities.
Vicari Castle in Lari
Apart from being in the past the central hub of Tuscan government, Lari Castle is now becoming increasingly important in the life of the surrounding area. In 1991 it began to be re-evaluated as a historical building, thanks to the efforts of the voluntary workers of the cultural association "Il Castello" supported by the Town Council, who opened it to public visits (entries are increasing all the time, showing the Castle is appreciated).
After only a few years, the first restoration work was started to restore the Castle to some of its ancient beauty. The architecture of the Castle remains almost unchanged since it was built as the seat of government. It was built on the top of the hill of Lari, from which vantage point it was possible keep watch over the entire valley of the River Arno. This is why it was so important, and, over the centuries, so disputed over. Inside there was a prison, Chancellery, the residence of the Vicario and the Magistrates´ Court.
The latter remained in use until 1962, and is now mainly used for conferences and civil weddings, for the enjoyment of bridal couples and speakers alike.
The Castle entrance courtyard is available for use either for weddings or conferences and is decorated with 92 coats-of-arms (these are also being restored) bequeathed by the many Vicari who lived in the Castle for over four centuries.
The Castle rooms also play host to various types of exhibitions, from art to poetry and even exhibitions of wartime relics.
And then there is "Magical History", a reconstruction of medieval battles acted by children in the courtyard and on the ramparts.
135 metres above sea level, population 8,092, Tuscany, district of Pisa. The small town of Lari is situated where three ridges of the highest Pisan hills meet and has been inhabited since Etruscan times. The massive Castle is built in the centre of the town; it was recorded in the early Middle Ages although the building we see today dates to the first half of the 17th century. Because of its dominant position of the entire valley of the River Arno (from the Castle walls the view stretches from the Pisan hills to the steep hills of Volterra, from the coast of Leghorn to Peccioli and beyond) the Castle was an important military stronghold of the Pisan Republic until it was conquered by Florence in October 1406. The Castle is defended by an exterior surrounding wall with three gates: `Porta Fiorentina´, `Pisana´ and `Volterrana´. The latter was the main road leading into the town and had a drawbridge, later removed in 1798. Mention must be made of the provost church of `S. Leonardo e S. Maria Assunta´ (St. Leonard and St. Mary of the Assumption) which dates back to the 15th century, with paintings by Melani and two marble statues attributed to Andrea Pisano, as well as the market arcade whose original plans date to the end of the 16th century while its present appearance dates to the mid 19th century when an earthquake caused serious damage to the building. Lari merits a leisurely stroll to gradually discover the myriad of charms hidden in its streets that meander away from the town across the surrounding countryside. "I came to Lari and from its castle saw the countryside spreading out before me, the jewel of Tuscany", as the Great Duke of Tuscany Leopold II said when he visited this small town.
Buti and Tonini Castle
Buti is a small town on the eastern slopes of the Monti Pisani. Its origins go back a very long way, probably to Roman times although very little evidence remains since Buti was razed to the ground or burnt down and built again several times over the centuries during wars among nearby Pisa, Lucca and Florence.
The earliest reliable mention of Buti, in which it is reported to be surrounded by fortifications or ‘castles’ (Castello di Panicale, Castello di Farneta, Castello di S. Stefano in Cintoia, Castel di Nocco, Castel Tonini, Castel S. Giorgio and Castel S. Agata), goes back the year 1000. Some of these castles are now in ruins but others still reveal their Medieval structure.
For example, Castel Tonini still towers over Buti and the surroundings are in fact called “The Castle”. You can still see the gateway, beyond which are several attractive 16th and 17th century houses. One of the most interesting is the Tonini villa, built by the Medicis around 1550 and known as “Villa Medicea”, frescoed inside by Giarré.
If you take the path down from “Castello” you soon reach the centre of Buti and the church of St. John the Baptist. This too has ancient origins but was rebuilt and enlarged at the beginning of this century.
During the 13th century, when Pisa ruled Buti, there were eleven churches. You should visit the Romanesque churches of St Francis in Piazza S. Francesco(town centre) and the Ascension - also known as St. Mary’s of the snow, outside town on the road to Monte Serra. You reach it by following Via dei Molini - its name means ‘Mill Road’ because there are several water mills along it. The Church of the Ascension is on the site of the old Castle of Panicale and was probably built in the 13th century. Flanked by stone houses, it has one nave and a beautiful semicircular apse in the east wall, as well as intricately carved lintel stones over the doors.
Another interesting building in the town centre is the Francesco di Bartolo Theatre . Francesco di Bartolo (1324 - 1406) was the first person to write a comment on Dante’s famous Divine Comedy. The theatre, which is very small, was built in 1842 in the style of early 19th century Academy theatres. An arched foyer leads into an oval pit. with two tiers of boxes overlooking it. There was once also a curtain painted by the celebrated 19th century painter, Annibale Marianini, depicting the deeds of the heroine, Paola da Buti.
Buti today has a population of 5,500. It is made up of two hamlets, Buti and Cascine di Buti, connected by a road running alongside the Rio Magno, through La Croce. If you look up to your right while travelling along this road towards Buti, you will see the Villa of Badia, the name of which reminds us that on this site there once stood a monastery, the Abbey of Cintoia which, in the 12th century, belonged to the Camaldolese friars and was very important. Over the centuries, however, it fell into decadence.
Many of its old traditions are kept alive in modern Buti. One example is the art of extemporising poetry, another the ‘Maggio’ which is folk drama based on stories saints’ lives or melodramatic legends. It is an authentic example of folklore and is still very much alive in Buti today.
Another event which is followed with great enthusiasm is the Saint Anthony Palio, held on the first Sunday following 17 January. The town is decked out in buntings, each quarter displaying its colours; there is a procession, with people wearing their colours and then, in the afternoon, horse racing with the ‘Palio’ as a prize for the winning horse, jockey and quarter.
Another reminder of the past is the traditional Chestnut Fete (Sagra delle Castagne) held every year on the third Sunday in October. The chestnut farming- wood for furniture and , baskets and chestnuts for food - were once a basic ingredient of daily life here, going back to the times when Buti was founded and was particularly florid during the times of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (16th - early 19th centuries). Production of our superb quality extra virgin olive oli is still today an important and thriving resource here in Buti.
Buti, which boasts a wide number of clubs and societies and a whole series of fetes and celebrations all the year round (e.g. the frog eating fete in June at Cascine di Buti), as well as an excellent theatre season and an annual contemporary art exhibition, is an interesting, stimulating place to be; it is also attractive to visit and to live in, surrounded as it is by thick pine and chestnut woodland, ideal for walks along the signposted mountain paths or for bicycle rides along the 25 km bike paths recently laid down by the town council.
The Fortress of Verruca - Calci
The Fortress, or Rocca, della Verruca crowns a rocky spurs at the summit of the homonym mount at a quote of 540 meters. Its origin and history are strictly connected to those of the town of Calci, that rises at the center of the underlying valley. Calci has always been deeply connected to the neighbor and powerful city of Pisa and to all the wars that interested it during the centuries.
The documented history of the settlements of this area starts from the year 780. The territory was defended since that time by a fortress situated in the place of the Rocca, ideal position to control the river Arno and its lowland up to the sea. For this reason the fortress of the Verruca was always an impregnable stronghold for all the armies and the political powers interested to control this lands. Many famous and bloody battles were fought in the 'calcesano' (the name of this territory): in 1288 between Pisane Guelphs and the Lucchese army, in the 1328 there was the German invasion of Ludovico of Bavaria, in the 1363 the Florentine invasion, in the 1369 invasion of the troops of Charles IV of Bohemia and in the 1375 of those of the English commander John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto). In the 1402 Pisa was conquered by the Florentines and the Verruca, last rampart of resistance, was conquered and destroyed to avoid that it will return to be a menace. In the 1503 Pisa rose up and the war interested again the Fortress. The Florentine troops were forced to regain the Verruca, heart of the resistance. The fortress surrendered, after a long and bloody siege, the 18th June of the same year, and it was the end for all the hopes of independence of Pisa that capitulated definitely in Florentine hands six years later.
Nowadays the form of the fortress is the result of the works of strengthening performed after this war. The Verruca is a non homogeneous construction because of the different phases and the different architects that took care of it. The first thing that can be noticed is that its walls are one of the few examples of bastions erected with melted stone instead of the characteristic bricks used at the time for these kind of works. The cut stones are used only for the angles and in reduced quantity. The construction was mainly performed carelessly and without the usual respect of the proportions, with an excessive hurry caused by the necessity of the Florentine to make defensible this strategical site to subjugate definitively Pisa.
A view toward the Arno Valley from the rocky spur, highest popint of the fortification..
The main front has cylindrical shaped towers at the two extremities, attributed at the architect Luca del Caprina, of the school of the master mason Francione. The main and only gate is opened at the extreme left of this front. The bastion of northwest, the worse performed, is instead attributed at Antonio da Sangallo. The most anomalous part is the west angle: it has a polygonal extremity with a scarped wall on the northern side only. In the inner ward come out a crag of stone and a quadrangular shaped palace in state of advanced degrade. It was the ancient core of the fortification and was probably destined in part as chapel. All along the walled circuit are still visible many gun and loop holes.
The low quality of the construction and the centuries of abandonment are the cause of the disastrous condition in which the fortress stands today, invaded by the vegetation and at risk of ulterior structural collapse, but the lovely view on the whole Arno river valley that is possible to have from this height is really unique!
Rocca del Brunelleschi a Vicopisano
Probably there were an Etruscan settlement on the spot where the town of Vicopisano rises our days. Undoubtedly this area went through a period of great growth during the 10th century, and the former 'vicus' (that in ancient Latin means 'undefended place') changed into 'castellus', an inhabited area sheltered by fortifications and center of various activities. In the beginning the town was subjected to the Episcopal authority of Pisa. During the 12th century Vicopisano became an important stronghold of the military defensive organization of the Republic of Pisa. In 1406 the town fell under Florentines rule. Due to its strategic location, Vicopisano was strongly fortified by the Florentines as well, who charged the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi with its taste. As from then, the town became a possession of the domination of Florence, that was aware of its importance and let it become the seat of a vicariate. Afterwards, the changing of the political conditions as well as the removal of the boundary-walls from the river Arno during the 16th century, let Vicopisano slowly change into an agricultural center.
Fortunately, there still are well preserved testimonies of such important past in and about the town, that deserve be visited carefully, especially during the 'Medieval Festival' which take places in summer. Inside the town, a series of lanes thus arousing fine and evocative sights that one may discover simply going for a walk. Besides this minor beauties, the town offers proper rarities to its visitors, such as the mighty fortified complex of the Rocca, crowning the hill on which the town lies, circuit-walls and towers of the XV° century.
The Rocca is linked by a massive wale with the 'Brunelleschi tower' and the town walls that is placed at its foot. This kind of fortification is a rare and one of the best examples of military architecture in the Tuscany of the 1400th. Other towers belonging to various ages still rising all along the town streets, the most famous of those is the 'Four gate tower'. The fortress is a private property open to the public and has been recently restored.
Rocca di Ripafratta di San Giuliano Terme
A legend, supported by historical events, says that the town of Ripafratta was named because a tectonic split in Mount Pisano led to a landslide that diverted the course of the Serchio River farther to the west. Before these events, the Serchio had joined the Arno at Bientina, east of Mount Pisano. 'Ripa' or riva is a bank or shore in English, 'Fratta' in modern Italian is rotta, or broken, in English.
Ripafratta has been a fortified site under the dominion of Pisa. The fortress dominates the river Serchio at its narrowest point in the valley between Pisa and Lucca. The first clash between the Luccan and Pisan forces at the fortress was documented in 1004. Very soon this area was noticed by the Florentines, into whose hands it first fell in 1254. After the battle of Montaperti (1260) Ripafratta was returned to Pisa, only to return again to Florence. In 1314, Uguccione della Faggiola reinforced the fortress returning it to Pisa. The militia of Castruccio Castracani occupied the fortress, then Ripafratta passed definitely to Florence thanks to Captain Guglielmo Altoviti who wiped it out with a hundred soldiers.
All this passing back and forth points out the strategic importance of Ripafratta in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century the famous Florentine architect Giuliano da Sangallo completely rebuilt the fortress to withstand the use of firearms. Thus rendered practically impenetrable the fortress was able to withstand many attempts by the Pisans to recapture it through the 15th and 16th centuries.
One can still recognize the former importance of this fortress as the fulcrum of a complex defense system erected in this contested border zone. On a hill above the village of Ripafratta rise the high thin curtain-like walls of the fortress. The 14th century additions of Sangallo are easily denoted because they are made of clay bricks built upon the darker stone of the earlier walls. The only portal is overhung with the coat-of-arms of various Pisan and Florentine governors.
This gateway leads you to the inner ward where there are scant remains of the keep, a former watchtower, and the oldest beginnings of the castle. Nowadays, these are not visible from outside the circular walls. In the inner courtyard there are ruins of the 'constable's residence', the entrance to the underground passages and the water cisterns. Two angular towers, now tumbled down, protected the east and west defenses.
Square watchtowers are found on the hills surrounding the fortress. The one on the south side toward Mount Pisano and the one on the east side along the river are still in pretty good condition. A third tower is still visible on the hill to the north on the opposite side of the Serchio. A fourth tower at the base of the hill, which controlled the river, has disappeared.
Unfortunately all these fortifications are now in a serious state of disrepair and are at risk of collapse, due to the effects of time and nature. There has also been damage due to the ground sinking in this whole area. This is a continuation of the process which led the town to be called Ripafratta. The road which leads to the fortress has been closed for safety reasons.
Rocca Sillana di Pomarance
The mighty Fortress of Sillano rise on a 530 meters high position to dominate a vast territory that includes the provinces in Siena, Pisa and Grosseto. These position has been always strategically important to check the valley of the river Cecina and the surrounding minor valleys, so much that the legend wants to date the origin of the small fortress in Roman times, on the occasion of the civil war between Mario and Silla, and that from this last derive its name (Silla-Sillano). The historical testimonies came up to us confirms that the Fortress is of a very ancient epoch: The tower and the inside part of the enclosure would have to go back to the 13th century while the external bastionated perimeter, performed to reinforcement of the preexisting wall curtains, can be dated certainty to the second half of 1400th.
The historians attribute without doubts the paternity of the project to the famous architect Giuliano da Sangallo and the fortress is without doubt one of the more ancient and most beautiful examples of the new military architectural conception of the historical period that marked the passage from the crossbow to the fire weapons, with the consequent development of the defense systems.
Before reaching the real fortress we meet the first defenses around thirty meters under the vertex of the hill. They were constituted by a strengthened gate with annexed a tower, both build in bricks, on the road that conducted under the walls of the principal fortress. Today only few traces of both remains. Reached the summit of the hill we find us under the thick bastionated enclosure of the fortress. Particular are the four leaning turrets built on the angles of the quadrilateral and the curvature of the curtain. The lower part of the walls is built in stone, the highest in bricks. The fortification remained abandoned for centuries, nevertheless externally we can see it still under good conditions. Inside the show is unfortunately different: the courtyard is invaded by the vegetation and the plan of stamping results notably anymore high due to the sediment deposits. Only thanks to the recent works of restoration, still today in action, are returning to the light some inside halls, surely destined at the time as stores and barracks for the garrison. Over all soar the ancient nucleus of the fortress: a watch tower in stone of square form with the gate of access at the level of the first floor, now walled but still well visible. Once climbed on the bastions, watching out because the parapet has disappeared and the zone is particularly windy, we can easily understand the strategic importance of the position and enjoy us a splendid sightseeing: in the clear days the look can space up to the sea.