On the crown of a rocky hill to the right of the river Serchio stands the fortified town of Nozzano with its castle’s crenelated towers. The castle was part of the massive system of fortifications which once defended the territory of Lucca against Pisa; on the opposite bank of the river, a few hundred metres as the crow flies, is Pisa’s answer: Ripafratta fortress (which we hope, one day, to enter when we remember to bring a machete with us to chop down the thorns that are strangling it).
Nozzano is famous for its castle – indeed its full name is Nozzano Castello. The castle is made up of an elliptical outer wall to defend the small town, with towers on the side facing the enemy, Pisa, a single gateway on the Lucca side, a semi-triangular shaped building with high walls, battlements and two towers: one square and one at the hill’s summit with the function of a keep, all dating back to the thirteenth century.
After the battle of Monteaperti (1260) Castello Nozzano became well-known for having hosted the Guelphs which were being hunted down in several Tuscan cities. Guelphs (Dante was one of them) supported the Pope and were in acrimonious hostilities for several centuries against the Holy Roman Empire-supporting Ghibellines. Repeatedly attacked and destroyed by the troops of Pisa and always rebuilt, the last time in 1395 with the addition of a bastion beside the gateway, the castle was used until the end of 1500 to control the ships sailing up the Serchio to Lucca. (Indeed, this valley remains of supreme communication importance today – for much of its length, railway, road, Autostrada, river and electric pylons run parallel to each other).
Nozzano’s military and strategic importance ceased after 1500 and it became one of the first centres of printing in Italy. It retains, nevertheless, its spectacular defensive profile even today and is the perfect setting for an annual Festa Mediovale which (after years of thinking about going to it) we attended for the first time last night.
I’d previously suggested a grading system from one to three stars for mediaeval festas. The system needs refining, for Nozzano’s Festa scored very highly on the entertainments front but less so on the food value-for-money (which we avoided, anyway). Interestingly, all Euros are changed into mediaeval currency within the Festa bounds so you have to do some complicated currency conversion to buy things.
The lively puppet show in the keep not only enabled us to enter for the first time into the formidable castle’s heart but confirmed Punch and Judy’s origin in Italy while keeping children of all ages from nine to ninety-nine amused.
The next entertainment was a concert given, in the extraordinarily spacious parish church, by the Medley Quartet – not a quartet in the strict sense of the word since the two fiddles were joined by a cello and double bass instead of the more usual viola and cello. I felt this might announce a program which would include dance music – and it did. The quartet’s versatility displayed itself in a repertoire which included pieces ranging from Handel through Mozart to Viennese waltzes, film themes, tango and ragtime. This was a most enjoyable interlude in our evening at Nozzano and it was only a pity that there was not more audience. But, as they say over here, “pochi ma buoni”, which may roughly, translate as “quality rather than quantity”.
The double act of giocolieri (jesters) was absolutely hilarious with plenty of sketches, audience participation, songs and jokes (alluding largely to lower bodily functions, or politicians, as is so characteristic of Italian comedy).
The evening’s highlight was certainly the illusionist who not, only made his partner disappear, or pierce her with swords, among other spectacular acts, including a levitating table, but who performed with absolute verve and taste transfixing us into a sort of magical spell – a brilliant act, in my opinion.
All this took place in the midst of mediaeval combat, witch burning, lordly costume parades, executions, a stunning drumming troupe and the imposing back-drop of the mighty Nozzano castle itself and made for one of the most memorable mediaeval moments we have experienced in our lives here.