Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

30 September 2009

Tuscany: Castiglione di Garfagnana

From Castelnuovo di Garfagnana a highway strikes directly north to climb the Apennines, crossing from Tuscany into Emilia Romagna to Modena, where that delicious balsamic vinegar comes from. From the map it’s obvious that in the old days, when life was just one long series of punch-ups between neighbouring tribes, it provided access to coveted territories. It doesn’t take much to imagine the fear and misery that the peasants would have suffered as the ebb and flow of piddling but murderous conflict regularly wrecked their lives. Their crops would have been raided after harvest (bastards who fought mediaeval wars always waited until the harvest was in), their goats and cattle slaughtered to feed mercenary task forces and their daughters - and a few sons no doubt - raped in the name of some scrofulous duke or count bent on adding his coloured pins to the European map.

The fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana lies a few kilometres north of Castelnuovo high on the Modena road which climbs steeply in linen-folds to the walls of the town. It would have been difficult to assail from the south, there’s no cover, attackers would be in view over a long distance and the garrison would have had ample time to brew up vats of boiling oil ready to be poured through the macchicolations - the gaps below the battlements specially built for that purpose. The 12th century pentagon of curtain walls which surrounds the town is remarkably intact. Its longest stretch includes the main gate, the Porta Principale, whose stained tower has a white clock face with delightfully naive Arabic numerals painted on it; they look as if they’ve been lettered by amateurs but fit very nicely into the slender tower which has a strange, pyramidal metal canopy, painted a rusty pink; something from Disneyland or towered Camelot.
In the 15th century Castiglione was capital town of the Garfagnana but none of the meagre histories I’ve checked gives it an origin more precise than as a settlement of the ‘Liguri-Apuan’ folk who, in time, were rolled over by the Romans. The first dated historical documents mention the founding of the church and monastery of San Pietro in 723 AD by Longobard brothers Aurimand and Gudifrid. The Lombards were Germans from over the alps, a bunch of prototypical lager louts who spread themselves around northern Italy putting the boot into what was left of the Roman Empire. They must have started the love affair Italians have with Germans that still goes on to this day…

Aurimund and Gudifrid couldn’t have been that bad because the church of San Pietro is still standing, tucked hard up against - and looking in better shape than - the later fortified wall. After the Lombards (Longobards = ‘long beards’: at least they weren’t skinheads) the town was kicked around by all and sundry - Pisans, Florentines and the Lucchese from down the valley who flattened the place in 1227 and so impressed the townsfolk that it became a devoted outpost of Lucca until, in the 19th century, it passed to the Duchy of Modena.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy


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By Don Donovan