The three towers of Castello San Marino

written by Andrew Hind

Castles of Italy from North to South

The Republic of San Marino is one of the smallest states in the world – but it boasts a grand castle. Designated a World Heritage Site in 2008, the most striking feature of this castello is its titular three torri that guard over the tiny republic.

The Guaita Fortress (pictured here), the oldest of the castle’s three companions, was built in the 11th century and served as a prison. Since the tower was built directly on a mountainside without any footing, its foundation had to be strengthened several times over the years to keep it from crumbling down. Second comes Cesta, once an observation tower that now serves as a Museum of Ancient Arms – perfect for weaponry buffs. Montale is the southernmost tower and the smallest of the three but in days gone by it had the most important role as it was pivotal as a look-out post to spot invaders.

Our enduring fascination with Italian castles

There’s nowhere better to take in a castle than Italy. According to the Italian National Tourist Board, there are 3,177 castles in the country, making it one of the most densely fortified nations in Europe.  “The historic buildings are divided between real castles, noble residences and fortresses, and they cover many different historical periods over the last 2,000 years,” says Crescenzo Sasso of the Naples Tourist Board.

The plethora of castles is the result of Italy’s troubled but rich history. Under the Romans, it was a nation of conquerors, but after the fall of that empire the peninsula was fought over and  conquered many times over – in whole or in part – by barbarian hordes, Normans, Visigoths, North African Moors, Byzantines, Spaniards, Austrians and even the French under Napoleon Bonaparte. Each left behind castles that had been built to safeguard their possessions, adding their respective, unique architectural styles.

At first, these castles were simple, often hastily constructed and commonly built atop Roman ruins. As technology advanced and attackers grew more sophisticated, elaborate stone citadels emerged. The medieval castle provided protection from attackers and a place for the lord and his soldiers to dominate the surrounding countryside. It was the administrative, economic and legal centre of local control.

For much of its history, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, Italy was fragmented into numerous minor states that squabbled between one another. As every lord needed a fortified base from which to defend his holdings, castles sprung up like mushrooms throughout the countryside.

What’s the appeal of castles? For many, it’s the legends that surround them, for it seems as if every castle is home to a restless spirit or a lost treasure from an ancient tale passed down through the ages. For others, it’s their Instagram-worthy beauty; despite their often turbulent history, castles remain picture-perfect. But mostly, the appeal of a castle is its history. Whenever we visit a castle, we walk through the stories of others. Castles provide visitors with an unsurpassed opportunity to step back in time, to encounter the shadows of those who came before us and relive the events that shaped the nation.