Gradara village and Castle

Riccardo’s village : GRADARA

Gradara village

Gradara village

Well, it’s about time I tell you about the place where my family and I live.
After all, this village has a long story and deserves some more attention.

Many of you have asked me about it and actually with many of you we drove by it while touring with the Grand Tour of Italy, on our way to San Marino ( the small, independent Republic, do you remember ? ) and Venice.

The name of the village is GRADARA.
It is located in the Italian region of  The Marches, on the Adriatic – East coast, very close to the bigger town of Rimini. Say about 3 hrs drive South of Venice, along the same coast.
It’s situated on a gentle hill, not even 2 mls away from the sea, say 5 mins with “motorino” ( one of these terrible mosquitoes we call scooters !! ).

According to the last check, the actual population is 3,381.
Main business today for the people here is definitely tourism, due to the fact that the village – although small – it’s well known since ancient Roman time and has a long story.

Improved very much in 14th and 15th century with a castle and city walls, the old section offers still today a perfect example of a middle age, fortified town.
This atmosphere attracts hundreds of thousands visitors all year round, especially during Spring and Summer when the close-by Adriatic Riviera beach resorts become busy with tourists coming mainly from Northern Italy and North European countries.

But let’s go in order !!
As we are in the Historical Section, the History of Gradara has to come first !!

Old Gradara

Old Gradara

Above see a drawing of Gradara of 1628, the accuracy is incredible. 
It’s name already witnesses an ancient Roman origin : GRATA AURA = GRADARA.

Probably the actual name comes from the fact that back in 3rdc. bc the Romans had a military base on top of this hill, and along with the usual barracks they had also temples. In one of them, the most important, they worshipped services on its main altar : GRATA AURA ( main altar).
The reason why Romans chose this hill for a military base was definitely due to strategic position: the control of the most important road ( basically the only one until 2 centuries ago ) they built on this side of the Italian peninsula : the FLAMINIA.

Maybe you do not remember, but some of you, the ones on the Grand Tour of Italy, drove for many miles along it and actually for a few miles ON IT.
The day we left Assisi, those first 2 hours drive to the East Coast ( by-passing Gubbio ), practically that is the newest version of the ancient Flaminia Roman Way.

Gubbio amphitheatre

Gubbio amphitheatre

Perhaps you remember we passed by an old Roman bridge built on two arches. Well, that’s it.
Incidentally, the Flaminia road ( ordered to be constructed by the Flaminii family, consuls of the Roman Republic on 3rd c. bc) connected Rome with Rimini, crossing the Apennines all the way to the East Adriatic coast ( see another article in this blog about Gubbio ).
Romans chose Gradara hill among many others because at the foot of the hill there is practically the South-East corner of the large Po River Valley plane. The plane here ends in a bottle neck created by the Apennines from West and the Adriatic Sea from North. All the roads of those days across the large plane converged to this point : no better place to kill several birds with one stone!

We must say, no much is left of the Roman time in Gradara, apart from some material re-used to built the old section of the middle age castle. The identity of Gradara is definitely medieval.

clock tower

clock tower

It was at the end of 1100 that a watch tower was built to show the supremacy of a local family : De Griffo.
Soon, the potential of this tower was noticed by the nearby stronger family of Malatesta from Verucchio – Rimini, which offered to De Griffo a proposal they could not refuse:  “ …size this bunch of money and go, otherwise we simply slain you !!! … “ ).
Actually, it was in the mid 1200 that the family chief MASTINVECCHIO = the OLD MASTIFF (just to picture the type), took over. He was over 100 years old when he died, could you believe it ? in those days, it was probably like living 150 years today !!!

The actual castle started to be built by his son PANDOLFO Malatesta at the beginning of 1300 using the existing Mastio (Watch Tower) as a strong corner.

Other Malatesta members during the years completed his work, just remember they have been the Lords in this area for almost 2 centuries.

It was during the first period of their rule that the famous true love story of Paolo and Francesca took place. We’ll talk about them in a while, they deserve some room on their own.

gradara fortress

Gradara Malatesta’s fortress

As you may recall, allover in Europe in those years, families fought hard against each others for the possession of land. Here it was not different. For several tens of years the Malatesta defended fiercely their properties from the attacks of the SFORZA family ( by the way, a side branch of that family became successful Lords of Milan, Leonardo da Vinci lived by them for quite a while = Last Supper is in Milan ! ).



The Sforza’s rule ( about 3 generations ) has been important for the Fortress of Gradara, because it was one them, JOHANNES ( John ) SFORZA who decided massive works in it towards the end of 1400 : he basically transformed the castle that was a military construction with its typical severe style ( small rooms, very basic services ) into a sumptuous residence, typical of the period: Renaissance.

He had rooms enlarged connecting some of them, he built a nice covered passage in the inner courtyard, but especially he decorated the interiors with beautiful frescoes done by some local artists, some of these frescos still exist today.
He did it for a particular reason : he wanted to offer his second wife ( the first died during delivery, unfortunately very common in those days ) the best reception.

Lucretia Borgia

Lucretia Borgia

This young girl, aged only 13, was destined to become famous : her name was LUCRETIA BORGIA.
Do you remember the “hot blooded “ Pope Alexander the VIth, Rodrigo BORGIA ? Well, she was her daughter!!!

Alexandre 6 Borgia

Alexandre 6 Borgia

I know, it sounds strange to accompany popes and sons, butin those days chastity for clergy was basically an optional. Very frequently popes and cardinals had “accidents
Concerning Alexander VIth , historians say he had 6 accidents, those are the ones we know, and one of them was the beautiful Lucretia.

But Lucretia remained in GRADARA castle very, very short. Can you imagine, she was used to the colorful life of Rome, the beautiful parties his father became famous for ( chronicles describe some of them, worth of the best XXX PRIVE’ Clubs today !!! ), she just got quickly fed up and ran back to the capital.
Due to this and even more to the fact that Alexander 6th didn’t like anymore the Sforza family for political reasons, he annulled the marriage after 4 years on the fact that John Sforza was impotent. Mind you, with the wife 200 miles away, it’s a bit hard to get descendants !!!!
Anyhow, the poor John got stuck, Alexander was far too strong to fight.

He reclined on another wedding with a Tiepolo girl, who gave him – finally !!! – a son :Costanzo.
Unfortunately, the young kid died at the early age of 2, don’t forget in those days the infant mortality was extremely high.
Costanzo dead , an already aged John could not extend the family any longer : with his death, this SFORZA family branch died out.

At that time, another Pope followed Alexander Vith: JULIUS 2nd ( by the way, you must remember him : he was the pope-general, he was the one who spent more time in the battle fields guiding his troops rather than in churches saying mass, he was the one quarrelling with Michelangelo during the Sistine Chapel’s works ).
Julius 2nd belonged to the DELLA ROVERE family, and guess what ? As soon as the lordship of Gradara and surroundings became vacant, he gave it to its family members, just to play in the safe side.

So, the DELLA ROVERE took possession of this area, but they didn’t particularly love Gradara, they preferred to live in the nearby Pesaro and Urbino cities, bigger and more important.
Let’s say, with Della Rovere, a slow decline for Gradara and its castle began.

Several other local families occupied it during the last centuries, none of them worth mention, as they did nothing for it, actually they left it eventually at the end of 1800 in a very poor state.
We all must thank a generous man from Belluno ( Dolomites area ), a rich engineer who fell in love for the fortress and bought it in 1923.
His large financial possibilities plus an extremely convenient friendship with the political Italian chief of the time ( DUCE ! , DUCE ! ) enabled Umberto ZANVETTORI to proceed with heavy restoration in the castle.

At his death, he left in the will that he wished to leave the whole property to Riccardo PANAREO, but this will was argued by the Italian State. Whishing to spare the Italian State a long, exhausting and eventually losing battle, Riccardo decided to drop the litigation, at the sole condition of turning the fortress into a museum : to share its beauty with the rest of humanity.

And so it is. Today the Malatesta Fortress is a State Museum with a nice collection of furniture, paintings and frescoes, although the real masterpiece is the castle itself.
If you pass by, give me a call.
After a nice glass of sangiovese wine, I’ll take you there : you’ll love it.
The castle, let the wine alone !!!!

Gradara at sunset

Gradara at sunset

The love story of Paolo and Francesca

Back in 1295…
…..Giangiotto MALATESTA, was pacing through his empty council room in the castle of Gradara, with his head full of whirling thoughts….
Servants shuddered when they heard his steps. The awkward rhythm was unfortunately familiar to them. Giangiotto was severely limited on one leg since birth. And hunchback. And almost blind in one eye. Let’s say, Mother Nature was extremely busy somewhere else the day he was born.
But he was the Lord, nevertheless. He was a MALATESTA !!

If his body had limits, his smart brain and his ambition had none.
He already conquered vast land around Rimini on the North side of his domain, and Pesaro on the South. But it wasn’t enough.
He smiled when he heard the final report of his ambassador on his return from Ravenna.

The mission was to convince the DA POLENTA family, Lords of Ravenna, to give one of her daughters – FRANCESCA ( Francis ) – as Giangiotto’s spouse.
Weddings were very much used in those days to establish political and military alliances between important families and … “…once married Francesca, who knows !!! Maybe some mysterious accidents may happen to the Da Polenta, getting them out of the way …. “ Giangiotto’s eye (one !!) sparkled at this thought.

My Lord “ – the chief ambassador, Federico, said – “ the  DA POLENTA will be honored to welcome you as a part of the family. They recognize your valor, honesty and generosity. Actually, they count very much in this last of your virtues : they require a substantial donation for the wedding. But this will not be a problem for you, Sir, as you know how profitable this marriage will be. The problem is another : Francesca. Will you permit me to speak frankly, Sir ? As these my words may offend you … “ the ambassador bowed his head and waited for his lord’s response.
Go ahead ! “ was the sharp answer.
Well, Francesca is a girl of some character. She is already well known about choosing her male companies, and apparently has a very refined taste ….” Federico dropped slowly these last word down, so were his eyes, expecting the reaction of his Lord.
And so what, Federico …“ shouted Giangiotto, already close to rage.
Well, my Lord, this girl appreciates some virtues that are not among the many you have….” Federico knelt down, aware that in no other times in his life he was so close to death !!
YOU BASTARD !! ! How do you dare ……

Giangiotto hit with his sword the set of candles on the table and with unthinkable agility for a man with his problems, turned sharply towards Federico.
The blade of his sword stopped an inch from Federico’s neck. And remained there, trembling, for few, endless moments.
No, it’s not with the rage I will accomplish my plan ….” and slowly Giangiotto lowered his sword.
Federico finally swallowed, he never sweated that much. And it was February.
The girl wants to play games ?? Well, she will soon learn from his future master !!! Federico leave now, call my brother Paolo ( Paul ) to reach me here immediately. MOVE !!
No other order was obeyed by Federico with such relief. He left the room as he was flying.

The story tells us how Giangiotto, in order to prevent a probable refuse of Francesca once she had noticed the few similarities between him and George Clooney, instructed his younger brother Paolo to seduce the future wife.

Paolo and Francesca

Paolo and Francesca

In those days, due to the large distances and the difficulties of traveling, the practice of  marrying by proxy was not rare. Especially among royal families, living in cities thousands miles apart, wedding were celebrated not necessarily with the actual brides. What was important was the families agreement. For the rest, there was plenty of time.

In the Malatesta case, they played with the proxy – with the silent approval of the Da Polenta family – till the last moment.
After having seduced the unaware Francesca, it was only on the altar that Paolo revealed the plot : the real husband had to be Giangiotto.
At that point, Francesca, alone, knew she had no chance and with death in her heart moved to Gradara.
Incidentally, historical evidence report that Francesca and Giangiotto had even a baby, Concordia, of whom traces were soon lost.

Giangiotto, as every other lord of that time, spent no much time in Gradara itself. He was always busy in military campaigns or long hunts.
We know that Francesca passed most of her long days reading books, trying to forget Paolo.
By the way, what happened to him ?
We know by historians that he actually had a brilliant career as Podestà ( Police chief ) in the important city of  Florence, but he neither forgot Francesca.
In his frequent returns to Rimini, in no time he covered the short distance to the castle of Gradara to see her.



Even the greatest Italian poetDante Alighieri reports in his Divine Comedy the sad love story of  Paolo and Francesca. Keep into consideration Dante was their contemporary : he also lived between 1200 and 1300, so he knew things first hand. 

According to his words, Paolo declared his true love to Francesca while they were reading together a book about another sad love story : Geneva and Lancelot.

Obviously they were too much taken by the passion not to notice the hidden teaching that Geneva and Lancelot’s love reveals.

It’s interesting to know that Dante places the souls of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno ( hell ), which is understandable, after all they were sinners, but he concedes them a favourable condition : first of all they are together, meaning Dante was aware of their true love, second their souls are like birds in a gloomy, stormy sky of the hell. Considering the great pain all souls suffer in the various circles, Paolo and Francesca were not that bad, after all !!

Paolo and Francesca in Hell's sky

Paolo and Francesca in Hell’s sky

Returning to our story, Giangiotto had only one eye, but evidently the one he had was pretty good.
He realized that something was going on between his wife and his brother.
Probably, he wasn’t caring that much for the personal implications, but it was his public reputation that was at stake.
So, one day, he left for one of his numerous war campaigns in great pomp, but after a few hours, secretly, he returned to the castle and through one of the usual hidden passages, he popped up in Francesca’s bedroom.
And he found out that Paolo was showing his butterfly collection to Francesca.
And it was not on a book.
Blinded by rage and jealousy, he brandished his sword and killed them right there.

Giangiotto double murder

Giangiotto double murder

Interesting is a further interpretation given by another great Italian poet : Boccaccio ( famous for Decameron, so he was pretty knowledgeable about love matters !!! ). According to him, when Giangiotto appeared to the stunned couple, he wanted to kill his brother first, but Francesca – what a heroin ! – threw herself in between hoping to give his beloved the chance to escape.

While she was hit first, a frantic Paolo tried to run away through the same passage used by Giangiotto but a nasty nail trapped his cloak blocking his run. Those few moments were fatal to him as Giangiotto turned back and completed his murder.

And all this is true and documented.
By the way, the locals of Gradara never forget the great teaching of this story.
You will never see long cloaks or loose garments around here !!!

According to local tradition, in Summer time, in the nights of full moon, if you browse around the Gradara castle, you’ll hear the voices of Paolo and Francesca.
I can personally add, after the second bottle of good sangiovese, you can hear them any other night !!!

Hope to see you here !!!

Gradara's Summer fireworks

Gradara’s Summer fireworks

Posted under: History bites

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