How many of you knew that there is a masterpiece of Florentine architecture only a half-an-hour drive from Lucca? Brunelleschi, famous for designing and building Florence cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore’s cupola, also projected the imposing fortress at Vicopisano just on the other side of the Pisan Mountain. This fortress was built in 1434 after the surrounding Pisan territory had been conquered by the Florentines and has an unique feature – a “rescue” wall descending from the main keep walls down to the river Arno (or where the river used to be as it was diverted to its present course in 1560). This wall enabled the castle to be supplied with food and armaments if besieged or, alternatively provided an escape route for its defenders if the opponents’ siege was successful. The main feature of the fortress is the mastio (or keep) which can be accessed via an aerial staircase – (not suitable for vertigo sufferers!). The views from the top are transcendent.
A band of devoted volunteers presided over by Prof. Giovanni Fascetti allow the castle to be opened to the public (phone 050.796117). Every week-end during summer they gather and spend a convivial day together guiding visitors around this exceptional monument.
Prof. Fascetti has proved that Vicopisano castle is depicted in that well-known painting by Paolo Uccello of St George saving the maiden from the fearsome dragon, now at London’s National Gallery. The painting can also be interpreted as an allegory of the Republic of Florence (maiden) being protected from the Visconti’s northern threat (dragon) by St George (patron saint) I produced an English translation of Fascetti’s book on the subject which was presented to the Director of the National Gallery at a reception in London in 2007. See if you can spot the fortress of Vicopisano here:
Next to the castle is the Palazzo Pretorio with some thought-provoking exhibits and documentation on the area. The whole Borgo shows exceptional defense features and is of great interest to lovers of military architecture and otherwise.
The restoration of its castle has given an impetus to Vicopisano which, after years of neglect, has now become a sparkling centre with much-sought-after property and a lively week-end antiques market. It just shows that Italy has within its confines everything needed to regenerate its present, stagnant economy, first among which are, not so much natural resources as the immense artistic and cultural wealth which just needs to be revalued and presented as it truly deserves.
Vicopisano doesn’t just stop with its castle, however. The parish church of Santa Maria in Romanesque style has a wonderful wooden deposition dating back to 1000 with all the expressiveness more common to northern art and there are two further Romanesque churches in the vicinity (we have sung in a choir in all these places) – quite apart from the wonderful walks you can take on the Pisan Mountain replete with olive groves and verdant woods.