Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Staggia Senese Castle - La Rocca di Staggia

A Castle Full of Surprises

The parachutes draped from wall and tower should have alerted us. This promised to be not just another medieval castle. (For a list of all the castles in Tuscany, look here.)

These are just the ones in the province of Siena!

Only 40 minutes' drive from Le Ripe, Staggia Senese was familiar to us as a town on the way to Poggibonsi (yes, it is podgybonzy).  

Note: despite its delightful name, Poggibonsi is not worth visiting unless you need furniture, advice from a thermo-technician, light fixtures or electronic devices. As a local salesman once announced to us: "Poggibonsi has everything".  But it is not beautiful.

a flattering angle on Poggibonsi

Every time we drove through Staggia's narrow main street we were intent on a mission, uninterested in this seemingly dull town

the main route through Staggia towards Poggibonsi: the castle is visible in the distance, but usually one is so intent on getting somewhere else one misses it entirely

But now we are on a castle-spree. We discover that Staggia, a Florentine outpost like Brolio during the Florentine-Sienese struggles, was in fact founded by Longobards in the 10th century, purchased by monks, granted to the Soarzi family in the 12th century, destroyed after Florence's defeat at the battle of Montaperti in 1260, rebuilt by the Franzesi family in the late 13th century and fortified by the Florentines under the guidance of none other than Filippo Brunelleschi in 1431. Hence a medieval structure per eccellenza, untouched since the 15th century but used by local farmers (the towers made excellent granaries), the complex was beautifully restored between 2003 and 2006 to become a cultural and didactic focus for the area.

the castle seen from a private garden: its towers are different from one another, built in different epochs and for different reasons
And as we approached the castle (there is a tiny parking area to the left of a small shrine opposite the pathway to the gates), we noticed the parachutes.

first view of castle; the shrine indicates that we are on one of the branches of the via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome

A slight, narrow-faced man with blue eyes greeted us at the gate and informed us that the guided tour would take 40 minutes. This sounded promising, so we took off with him for the inner ward of the castle. 

current main gateway; in the past others were used
It is large inside, some of the great upper hall is now completely missing, but the towers are intact, the well is still full of water, the curtain walls stand tall and a former farm building sits to one side

view of castle ward from battlements: the white building was built by farmers relatively recently once the castle was abandoned and now houses an art gallery and didactic/activity spaces. High on the righthand wall you can see the remains of a large fireplace indicating where the piano nobile or solar once was.
In the ward we noticed some interesting art work. Installations, our guide told us without elaborating.

entry to ward

Our guide explained how the castle, like all ospizi, hospices or ostelli, hostels (both words stem from the ancient custom of providing accoglienza or welcome/reception to travellers, particularly pilgrims) was obliged to offer 'welcome' to those passing by. In the first instance 'welcome' was synonymous with water. Water was considered a public good and as such any resting-place, as a minimum, had to offer water free of charge. Staggia castle had plenty to offer; apart from its well and cistern, the Staggia river runs alongside.

the door of accoglienza or welcome/reception

Consequently one of the castle gates near the pilgrims' route was used to serve water to those who requested it. In times of war, plague and other troubles this was a dangerous undertaking, so special channels were carved in the walls to avoid physical contact.

water poured through here

would flow out here, beyond the gate

The gate, you will note, is very narrow; all the gates were narrow at one time. In case of attack this slowed down the number of soldiers entering at one time. In the 15th century bombards (early cannons) were placed in the captain's tower opposite, directed at the outer gate; if the enemy entered he would be 'bombarded'. The oldest tower, built by the founders of the castle, is the square one, although the crenellated extension at the top and the fancy gothic windows were added in the castle's last period of use, under the Florentines in the 15th century.

original Longobard tower, dating to 10th century

Our guide led us into this tower and into another dimension, of history naturally, but also of art, culture and a feeling of vitality, after all the ages of decline and stasis. The tower houses temporary art exhibitions throughout the year. This edition reflects aspects of past life in the castle...

installation on ground floor: bosco incartato - 'wrapped-up wood', a play in Italian on bosco incantato, enchanted interactive installation, created together with children and their parents

grape vines and bunches of grapes (represented by capiz shell chimes), a symbol of the road (vines which grow and move) and the castle (grapes which enclose); an analogy for the Via Francigena and its ramifications and the castles/waystations

il nido, on the floor which was the soldiers' dormitory, representing the nest that the castle became for those who lived in it; the nest is made of olive leaves and the papers contain poems

fontana di luce, specchi d'acqua, the fountain of light and water mirrors, representing the importance of water in the castle; apart from the well there was once a cistern for times when there was a risk of the well being poisoned by the enemy

below the channels which once directed rainwater down to the cistern, another installation representing the shelter the tower offered to its inhabitants

The artists are all Tuscan: Francesco Bruni, Gianni Gronchi, Donatella Bagnoli. Their idea is to create a contemporary space in which history and memory are celebrated. But our tour continued and further surprises were in store.

view from castle tower over the countryside towards the Castello Strozzavolpi or 'Throttlefox' Castle: in the past, signalling with flags and mirrors, messages could be transmitted between castle to castle to Florence in a few hours
From the roof of the Longobard tower we could see what cannot be appreciated from ground level: the castle is linked to the town of Staggia by an imposing wall which encircles the town almost uninterrupted. This wall was built by the Franzesi family in the 13th century and made even taller by the Florentines, to resist bombardment, in the 15th.
There are not many towns which can boast such an ancient wall, still standing firm.

On a clear day, Siena's outpost, Monteriggioni, Staggia's arch-enemy, is visible to the top right of the photo, just beyond the two rounded trees. Interestingly, Monteriggioni, more famous now than Staggia, was constructed in response to the threat Staggia posed
Next, on to the first of the two round towers, built under the Franzesi. We entered and found another installation then looked up and found a marvel: a ceiling built in the Moroccan style, a technique no doubt imported by the Franzesi who traded with North Africa.

stunning domed ceiling in round tower with glimpses of installation

Then we visited the last of the surviving towers of the Rocca di Staggia: originally elliptical in shape in the late 15th century it was adapted to be militarily more efficient and became round. Known as the Rondella, it was rebuilt by the great Filippo Brunelleschi, famed for his work on the cupola of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. 

L'impronta, the (Finger)print, a striking installation in the Rondella Brunelleschi
The architect who renovated the castle was able to rely on Brunelleschi's notes for his faithful reproduction. The most striking aspect of the Rondella, the residence of the captain of the castle, was its wooden ceiling, reproduced today exactly as Brunelleschi designed it.

That's the thing about Italy: there are surprises in store everywhere
the captain's stone washbasin

another great buttress or, more strictly, batter, at the foot of the Rondella Brunelleschi (see Brolio Castle)
The guide took us along the metal walkway, once made in wood, which used to lead right around the castle and the town. Then he showed us the former farmhouse where more art awaited us.

walkway and parachute

the wine bottles are covered in words: the top one says pensieri parole in una bottiglia di vino, thoughts words in a bottle of wine
The third and last tower - also circular - awaited us. Inside was another striking domed ceiling and an installation called Family Constellations, made by participants.

almost all the installations included original lighting
family constellations
The steps to this tower were curiously irregular. Italians are always good at designing steps and stairs: our guide explained that this was deliberate, they were intended to slow unwanted visitors down.

We left the castle deeply satisfied: we had never expected to be so stimulated and entertained by the visit. An interesting medieval castle turned into a fascinating journey into the past enhanced by contemporary visions of the world of the castle and its surroundings.

Just to complete our tour, we strolled along one side of the city walls, admiring how locals have constructed homes up against the walls (saving on 25% of their building expenses), and in the watchtowers which still stand at intervals all the way around. The road which follows the west walls has not changed course since the middle ages: it was the one kept clear for the war machines.

city walls to the right with doors to private homes erected on the other side

one of the homes built in the wall's watchtowers

And the parachutes? The parachutes were part of another interactive art performance which took place at the castle a few weeks earlier: the castle was imagined as a sailing ship, the parachutes as sails. In early November a gargantuan spider's web will be woven: participants will throw 500 balls of wool over the castle walls. Nothing if not imaginative...

a hidden treasure of history and creativity

The castle changes its exhibitions through the year; next up is work on Italo Calvino, the author who wrote Il Barone Rampante, or The Baron in the Trees followed in March 2014 by an exhibition related to clothes and living, called Abito, Abitare

The installations are on sale and there are some interesting publications available in the little shop at the entrance. 

The castle is open all day every day from 10 to 19; the guided visit is a must and costs 5 euros. See their site for more details: click on the star for info.

La Rocca di Staggia - via dell'Ospedale, 2
53036 Staggia Senese (Siena) Italia 

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