The Castle of Gradara

Gradara Castle
Photo by Harley Brown

By Jacki Miller

During your stay in Urbino, Gradara is an easy commute for a day trip. The ancient town of Gradara is about an hour trip by bus and is home of the medieval Castle of Gradara, one of the best preserved in Italy. The castle is famous for the tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, described by poet and scholar Dante Alighieri in the V Canto of his Inferno from his masterpiece The Divine Comedy.

Marco Bartolucci, an Italian tour guide who led a group of study-abroad students around the castle, mentioned that the name Gradara is derived from “grande ara” that means “big altar.” It is an illusion to sacrifices during a Roman celebration. Bartolucci explained, “the fortress of Gradara was particularly important because it was the center of the reign of the Malatesta family and is one of the best examples of the medieval defensive architecture of the Italian Middle Ages.” The town is enclosed by walls that were built as a defense system to protect the castle from intruders.

The castle walls provide safety to citizens.
The castle walls provide safety to citizens.

The final time the castle was restored was in 1921 by engineer Umberto Zanvettori. In 1983 he donated the fortress to the Italian state.

While at the castle, the modern system of fortification is evident, with three levels of defense artillery. Bartolucci explained that the lower level was for high artillery such as bombs, mostly because it was very heavy and difficult to carry these things to the highest level. The highest level was for the light artillery, which was easiest to carry to the top of the fortress.

The last defensive system is called rocca and was surrounded by a moat. Rocca is an Italian word that translates to “rock.” According to Babylon Dictionary, the word means fortifiable stronghold. There was only one time that an army conquered the castle of Gradara and that was by an army led by Federico da Montefeltro of Urbino.

Walking across the castle courtyard brings one to a room known as the “torture chamber,” which is merely an assumption because there was a skeleton with an armor suit found in it when the fortress was restored in the 19th century. A staircase that starts halfway up the wall and leads to the ceiling is said to be where the judge came down and determined the prisoner’s fate. This room is the only part of the fortress that existed in 1150 and was where soldiers stayed because they were to be on the ground floor, ready to defend the castle. Located in the torture chamber is the original water tank. The tank is a deep rectangular cutout in the ground that was used to collect rainwater and was very important if the castle was ever under attack.

Gradara CastleThe Castle of Gradara is said to be where the murder of Paolo and Francesca was committed by Gianciotto, Paolo’s brother. Although the people are real, the story has changed over the years. Bartolucci explained that the disastrous fairytale started with Francesca being tricked into marrying Gianciotto, a disfigured and unsophisticated man. Gianciotto sent his elegant and handsome brother, Paolo, to form the marital contract.

Francesca soon found out whom she had really married and was infuriated. She didn’t hold back any feelings she had for Paolo and eventually they became lovers. Paolo would sneak in one of the rooms of the castle through a trapdoor to be with Francesca. But one day Gianciotto caught the two lovers reading the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere and kissing and he lashed out. He tried to kill Paolo, but he accidentally killed both of them,since they were sitting together. No one knows where the two were buried, Bartolucci said, but the couple became immortalized by Dante and their story still attracts visitors to the castle. Gift shops along the steep street that leads to the castle sell curios depicting the romance of Paolo and Francesca, one of the great love stories of all time.

Gradara Castle View

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