VIGEVANO, Italy - Call me a romantic fool but you gotta love a guy who builds (or rebuilds) himself a castle for his 40th birthday. It just goes to show what money and power can do. In this case, the money and the power was in the hands of the 15th century Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as il Moro, the Moor.
The birthday castle is in Vigevano, a half hour train ride south of Milan. Vigevano is one of Italy’s quiet little cities of art, but today the piazza is buzzing with activity having been taken over by an Italian film crew. Waist high barricades have been set up around one end of the piazza to keep curious locals (and outsiders like me) from tripping over the heavy cables running from the equipment trucks to tall three-legged light poles.
“They’re filming a television commercial for a new Italian travel magazine,” says the woman standing next to me. “It’s about Vigevano.” She points at an old man dressed in a Renaissance costume who looks like he’s waiting to do something.
Ten minutes later the old man in the Renaissance costume is still waiting and so am I and since no one seems to be doing much of anything I walk across the black and white stone piazza and go up the stairs to the castle. At the top of the stairs I pass under a tall clock tower designed by Donato Bramante, architect to the court of il Moro.
After passing under the clock tower, the first thing I see is a wide expanse of grass and across the way is the Duke’s castle, solid and massive and more fort like than fanciful. The castle is a massive structure, twice the size of Buckingham Palace, three times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and six times the size of the Duomo of Milan. From the beginning it was designed as both a military fortification and as a prestigious residence that would represent the power of the Visconti/Sfoza family.
|Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan|
When the Duke summoned Bramante to his court he wanted the architect, who had just finished St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, to bring the 12th century Vigevano castle up to 15th century standards. What we see today is the result of Bramante's genius.
Part of Bramante’s renovation included a separate residence wing behind the main section of the castle for the Duke’s bride-to-be, Beatrice d’Este of Ferrara. Separate living quarters for royals were common in Renaissance Italy as there was no concept of romantic love between husband and wife. Beatrice, like most of the wealthy young women of her time, was considered a marriageable pawn and was used to create an alliance between the powerful Duke of Milan and Beatrice’s father, Ercole d'Este, the Duke of Ferrara.
Beatrice was only five years old when the Duke made the deal to marry her, and her dowry of four hundred thousand gold ducats, (valued at close to $1 million in pre-World War I dollars when the ducat was still a viable currency) no doubt sweetened the pot. Beatrice and the Duke were married in January of 1491. The bride was sixteen, the groom, thirty-nine.
Walking around the main part of the castle I pass through a tall arched door and find myself on a wide covered road that is 164 meters (538 feet) long and 7 meters (22 feet) wide. Above my head, mammoth wooden beams criss-cross the vaulted dome, and the road’s only light comes from the narrow windows placed close to the ceiling.
|Covered Road, Vigevano|
The road leads to what was once the outskirts of Vigevano and originally served as an escape route when the castle was under attack by outside forces, or when the citizens of Vigevano were in revolt. During World War II the Germans commandeered the castle for their headquarters and they used the road to drive their trucks and tanks from the outskirts of the town right into the castle compound. Pretty amazing when you consider the road was built by hand in 1345. It is still used daily by locals as a shortcut to get from one part of town to another.
Across the grassy courtyard from the castle sits a long, low building that once housed the horses for the Duke’s army of 1000 mercenaries. It’s called the scudaria and it was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Inside there are two long rows of evenly spaced marble columns that mark the edge of the stalls and flank a center foot path.
|Leonardo da Vinci's Scudaria|
To this day no one has been able to figure out how Leonardo managed to raise those massive columns all in one piece, something no one had ever been able to do. The only clue we have is the three round indentations, each about the size of a quarter, near the base of the columns. Some experts think they were made by a machine Leonardo invented specifically to raise the columns, but it’s only speculation.
With the Duke in residence Vigevano became a thriving commercial center. Twice a week a general market was held in the main piazza. Local farmers sold fruits and vegetables, poultry and pigs and merchants sold the wool and silk produced in and around Vigevano. Public executions were held there as well.
If you were condemned for sodomy, the most serious crime of the day, you were burned at the stake. The wood for the fire was carried in from the nearby woods by harlots who were then themselves publicly charged with the lesser crime of prostitution, and hanged. And while they waited for the executions to begin the locals shopped, visited with neighbors and caught up on the latest gossip. Locals still shop at the weekly market in the piazza, the hangings however, have been discontinued.
The Duke considered Vigevano an example of Leonardo’s “ideal” city and there are many similarities between the sketches found in Leonardo’s Atlantic Codex and the Vigevano castle and piazza. Apart from the visual perfection of the piazza, there are two things that stand out. The first is the shape of the chimneys you can see on the top of the buildings. Each chimney represents a city conquered by the Visconti/Sforza families. The shapes of the chimneys represent the towers found in those cities, and many of those towers are still standing today. The other thing that stands out are the black and white stones under your feet. They are a local industry.
At one time the stones were carried in hand woven straw baskets tied to the backs of mules through the mountains and valleys of northern Italy. They were used to decorate piazzas in towns as close Genoa and as far away as Venice.
|Aperitivo Time in Vigevano|
In the 14th century a Venetian craftsman discovered that by adding ground up white pebbles from the Ticino River to a soda ash solution he was able to filter out the impurities in Venetian glass. The glassmakers of Murano rejoiced for that breakthrough launched the Venetian glassmaking industry which is still thriving today, more than 500 years later.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Vigevano some warm afternoon this summer, sit back and relax with a leisurely aperitif at one of the cafes that ring the piazza. You won’t feel lonely for you’ll be in the company of generations of Vigevanesi, and along with them you’ll be having a different kind of Italian experience, one not found in any guide book – but the experience of the Italy Italians enjoy.