Defensive architecture in the Middle Ages

in this short article on medieval defensive architecture I have collected an interesting chapter from the book “The castles and villas of the ancient countryside and district of the city of Spoleto”.

Architectural solutions adopted in the settlements of the Valnerina following the defensive needs and the characteristics of the territory.

Medieval defensive architecture

Around the year 1000, the Valnerina area was already scattered with fortresses and fortifications. These followed the division into fiefdoms of the countryside. The small portions of territory were called lordships.

In fact they were ruled by a feudal lord or a count, a miles (knight), a rural count or a cattaneo . These authorities derived from the hospites, Lombard, Frank or German owners who occupied these places.

Each fortress and settlement follows different events and stories. However, a general tendency can be identified around the 10th and 11th centuries. to the agreed or forced passage of these fortresses from the feudal lords to the municipalities. In fact in those years the municipal organization takes on greater importance also thanks to the remoteness of the empire which rarely returned to Italy.

With the expansion of the municipalities, new settlements were created in order to occupy the territories. Sometimes, as in the case of Montefranco to the detriment of Arrone, host populations out of power from other neighboring lords or municipalities.

Curious is the fact that still today speaking with the Arronesi, the rivalry with the nearby municipality of Montefranco is still alive and rooted in memory.

panoramic view towards Ferentillo
from the left the fortresses of Gabbio, Mattarella, Precetto and Monterivoso

War and defense systems

Between the year one thousand and the first years of the fifteenth century the battles took place by means of bows, slings, catapults and crossbows or hand-to-hand weapons such as spears, swords or halberds.

In fact, the choice of the place in which to build a settlement was mainly dictated by defensive reasons. A rocky spur or a steep territory was therefore an ideal point to defend against attackers and bands of looters.

The oldest settlements can therefore be identified among the most difficult to reach scattered throughout the mountain territory. The current roads that connect countries such as Polino or Castellonalto may not make us understand how these places are deliberately isolated and inaccessible.

Getting lost in the woods it is still possible to find the original paths to reach them which present a minimum of accommodation impossible to date.

Routes of communication

Dry stone walls, embankments, steps, small bridges or retaining walls to extricate oneself from the territory. These ensured safe passage on one meter wide paths.

Umbriano like Sensati and other villages have never been connected with roads and represent a perfect example of how people moved until a few decades ago.

The settlements on the plains are immediately following the age. These in fact resulted from the progressive organization of the municipalities which limited the struggles. Furthermore, the reclamation of the flat areas allowed the exploitation of new arable land.

The territory therefore determined not only where to build but also how. The walls in fact followed inexorably the course of the land.

The shape of the settlements in medieval defensive architecture:

Defensive architecture of the triangular sloping castle
Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies

Fortifications to defend the slope of Precetto (Ferentillo)

Triangular for the slope castles following the slope of the mountain, with one vertex of the corner at the highest point of the slope where the tower was erected and the opposite side of the triangle in the flatter part towards the valley.

Defensive system in the elliptical castle of Campello Alto

Circular / elliptical for the settlements on the top of knolls or hills that allowed the definition of a flatter path.

Defensive architecture of the elliptical castle on top of a promontory
Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies
Defensive architecture of the square castle in the plain
Map data: Google, Maxar Technologies

Architecture in the square castle of Protte

Square or rectangular in castles on the plain, with towers in the 4 corners and at regular intervals along the sides.

The water

Fundamental for the life of the castle, water was stored in cisterns dug into the rock inside the central core of the castle or in the base of one of the towers, thus exploiting the foundations. In the fortress of Precetto, for example, the cistern is located in a side tower of the plant that is currently visible, but in an area already included by a previous castle marked in blue in this drawing.

Speaking with historians or professionals (people more experienced than me who I just browse), I found conflicting opinions on the use of towers as a means of communication.

Night fires or daytime mirrors were probably not so used, however it remains a very suggestive image to dream.

cistern precept castle
Fortress of Precetto

The cisterns are an element that you can often still find intact in the ruins scattered in the Valnerina, in Moggio for example, they are the only visible element of the ancient castle now covered by the woods in addition to the recently restored tower.

The ancient nucleus of Arrone and Casteldilago occupies a monolithic block of rock, here the cisterns of the various houses are communicating with each other thus creating a sort of second underground city.

Some castles were built near springs such as Castelsantangelo sul nera or Scheggino . Their walls embraced part of the river in order to always have water available in case of siege.

Communication systems

The tower had the function of lookout for the surrounding area but above all it allowed communication with the other surrounding settlements.

In this way, in case of danger, the inhabitants had plenty of time to prepare the defense and repel the assailants. If you find yourself near the tower of Paterno, Civitella or Ancaiano, look up and you will immediately be able to find at least two other towers from other settlements.

Sometimes for the conformation of the territory it was necessary to erect isolated checkpoints that could triangulate the message and get around the obstacle. One of these towers is visible on the right of the road that leads from the Valnerina to Ancaiano.

Above Marmore there is Mount Sant’Angelo with its fortress called La Rocchetta , a border fortress that was disputed for a long time between Ternani and Reatini for the control of the cut of the waterfall. This rocchetta, of which only a part of the tower remains, is one of the most visible and recognizable points of the area, look for it and you will always find it visible.

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