Three castles, defensive wall and ramparts of the market town of Bellinzona (2000)

Castelgrande di Bellinzona
Castelgrande di Bellinzona

The Bellinzona site consists of the three castles of Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello, and Castello di Sasso Corbaro. Linked by part of the town walls and by the 'Murata', forming a real barrier, Castelgrande and Castello di Montebello form an ensemble.

A favoured strategic position that made it possible to control the Alpine routes to Northern Italy determined the construction of Bellinzona. The roads coming down from the Gotthard, San Bernardino, Lukmanier, and Nufenen Passes, along with other historical routes, all converge towards Bellinzona, then split up again as they leave. The topography – a rocky hilltop leaving just a narrow passage on one side, and on the other, marshy areas alongside the River Ticino that in those days were impassable – made it possible to survey the valley and made it easier to build fortifications.

The site was inhabited from Neolithic times; most of the traces of this are to be found on the cliffs of Castelgrande. In the Roman period, shortly before the Christian era, a castle was built on this hill. In the 4th century AD, in a bid to consolidate the northern frontiers of the Empire, a major defence system was built at Castelgrande; archaeological remains of which survive today. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Bellinzona passed first to the Ostrogoths then came under the influence of the Byzantine Empire, before falling into the hands of the Lombards. Around 800 AD, a substantial part of the fortifications was burnt down. In the 10th century, the interior of Castelgrande was built up, and from that time on it resembled a small fortified town. In the 11th and 12th centuries, under the aegis of the Bishops of Como, various official buildings were built. Later, from the 12th century, the town grew around the citadel and constantly expanded, leading to the extension of the fortifications. Castello di Montebello was built in the 13th century and very soon became a key element of the defence system. The construction of Castello di Sasso Corbaro dates from 1480, but does not form part of the main ensemble in terms of architecture.

In the early 15th century, under the Dukes of Milan who were facing attack from the Confederates to the north, Castelgrande was converted and the houses inside demolished. By erecting the great 'Murata' that started from Castelgrande, the Visconti intended to close off the valley completely. Originally a simple citadel, Bellinzona gradually became the centre of a complex system designed to defend the borders. This military function has given the fortifications their present appearance as well as their remarkable character – the Bellinzona site combines a defensive function, an architectural development project, and a bombastic demonstration of strength.

Despite this expansion, in the 16th century Bellinzona came into the hands of the Confederates and the fortifications lost their importance, but were not systematically destroyed. However, around 1515 a large part of the 'Murata' collapsed as the result of a flood.

Castelgrande

Castelgrande is surrounded by a circular enclosure; the space within is divided into courtyards by three radial walls. Most of the buildings here date from the period from 1250–1500, or were built in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Ridotto complex, with the 13th century Torre Bianca, constitute the principal architectural elements. In the 12th century, it was probably surrounded by the Bishop’s Palace, whose oldest preserved traces undoubtedly date back to the 10th century. In the centre stands the square Torre Nera, which dates from the 14th century. The southern part of Castelgrande was built in several stages between the 13th and 15th centuries, and was completed in the 19th century by an arsenal. Through the remains of these military constructions, we can see the threats Castelgrande had to face. For example, the relative lightness of the masonry might seem surprising; but it was ideally suited to the specific nature of the location. Here, the Confederates would never have been able to bring heavy artillery pieces through the Gotthard Pass.

Between 1982 and 1992, Castelgrande was refurbished by the Ticino architect Aurelio Galfetti. The southern quarter now houses the museum, and the arsenal wing has been converted into a restaurant.

Castello di Montebello

Built in the late 13th century, this is the main structure onto which subsequent fortifications were built. Having fallen into decay during the 19th century, the site was restored from 1903 onwards. The courses of red brick show which parts of the wall have been restored. The structure still visible at present comprises on the inside the central part, surrounded by a great wall with swallow-tail battlements and rounded corner towers. To the east is an esplanade, also fortified by a wall topped with a watch-path. Because of the topography of the site, Castello di Montebello, unlike Castelgrande, is also defended by ditches. Today, Castello di Montebello is home to the Museo Civico [Civic Museum]. The conversion into a museum was accomplished between 1971 and 1974 by Mario Campi, Franco Pessina, and Niki Piazzoli.

Castello di Sasso Corbaro

This isolated architectural ensemble is located high on the summit of the rocky hilltop. The spot may already have been fortified in the 13th century; construction of the existing structure began around 1478. The ensemble consists of a main castle, with to the northeast a square, four-storey tower, massive and heavy; and to the southeast, a more slender tower with battlements. In the main castle, within the great walls, there is a dwelling area. In front of the western part, the remains of some walls lead us to suppose that there may have been a jousting area or unfinished esplanade here. Sasso Corbaro was rebuilt in 1900 and today is home to the canton Museum for Regional Culture. The conversion into a museum was accomplished between 1963 and 1964 by Tita Carloni.

Ramparts

The present ramparts appear to follow the same line as when they were erected in the 13th century. In fact there are two lines of walls that join the two castles of Castelgrande and Montebello, both located on rocky promontories, turning them into a single stronghold. They were given their present form by the constructions of the 15th century, when the walls were raised and topped off with swallow-tail battlements; originally, there would have been 18 towers and ditches below the walls.

Murata

Erected by the Visconti circa 1420, the 'Murata' started from the west of Castelgrande and ran as far as the flanks of the mountain opposite, thereby closing off the whole valley. In poor condition, the first 'Murata' was renovated and given a double wall with interior corridor later in the same century. Close to the River Ticino, the 'Murata' was destroyed by a flood in 1515, and other parts of it were knocked down in the 19th century.

Some more important parts of the Bellinzona fortifications were restored, converted, and rebuilt in the 20th century, in accordance with the scientific knowledge of the time. Subsequently, the debate about the authenticity and original substance of the site are certainly justified. But the special value of the place as a whole lies more in the authentic, original structure of this remarkable Late Middle Ages defence system than in the historical substance of this or that specific element. Moreover, the object as rebuilt today can be appreciated as a whole, and we owe this to the reconstruction and consolidation works carried out in the early 20th century. Various recent, high-quality restorations have lent a certain palpable sense of the historical continuity on this site down the millennia, in spite of the varying approaches that have informed all the different restoration works.

Last modification 27.05.2019

Top of page

https://www.bak.admin.ch/content/bak/en/home/cultural-heritage/unesco-world-heritage/world-heritage-sites/three-castles--defensive-wall-and-ramparts-of-the-market-town-of.html