Montelupo Fiorentino

The castle of Montelupo that Leonardo depicted in his different maps of the Arno Valley was born as a Florentine stronghold on the borderline formed by the River Arno. At the beginning of the 13th century, Florence, intending to expand its territory beyond that boundary, set out to build a castle ex novo on the left bank of the Arno, the Florentine shore, right in front of the fortress of Capraia, an ancient castle of the noble Alberti family, which was on the opposite bank, in the territory of Pistoia. The history of Montelupo is thus closely linked to that of Capraia, which was, by this time, at the beginning of the 13th century, part of the districtus of Pistoia, and functioned as a stronghold for this city on the border with Florence.

At that point, the Arno is rather narrow, and at that time it was crossed by a bridge allowing the road coming from the Val di Pesa to continue toward the Montalbano ridge. At the beginning of the 13th century, the river constituted the natural border between the Florentine contado and the territories controlled by neighboring cities, but for Florence, at that time planning the expansion of its territory, Capraia represented an obstacle. The Florentine response was to unfold a series of actions aimed at neutralizing that important stronghold. First, Florence succeeded in gaining control of Capraia’s fortifications by undermining the collaborative relationship between the consuls of Pistoia and the branch of the Counts Alberti who still held its garrison. At the same time, it projected and constructed a new strong point on the left of the Arno, the castle of Montelupo. This was the name of the new Florentine fortress that, in 1204, was already under construction on the hill in front of Capraia, as we read in the document ratifying the truce between the parties. In the text, the Pistoiesi, together with Count Guido Borgognone, swore to the Florentines not to permit cavalcades (raids) ubi est Montelupus, a Florentini noviter hedificatus. In 1206, programming began for populating the new settlement that, by the early decades of the 13th century, must already have been inhabited. We do know that in the middle of the century, the destruction of two towers, probably the residential buildings of the new inhabitants of Montelupo, was noted among the damage caused by the Ghibellines in the Florentine contado. The castle must then have included the upper part of the hill, which is referred to in later written sources as Castello (castle), as opposed to the lower part of the town, the Borgo (village). The castle and the village were enclosed within a single circuit of walls in 1336. It is in this form that Leonardo depicted Montelupo in the early 16th century.
The threat of the transit through the Lower Valdarno of the army of Emperor Henry VII forced Florence to face, at the beginning of the 14th century, the problem of defending its territory. In 1312 Montelupo was also among the castles claimed by the Empire, and Florence was preparing to update the defensive structures of some villages in order to reactivate their function, if necessary. In this phase of imminent danger, the municipality of Florence decided upon some actions for Montelupo, aimed at preventing the houses of the village from being used by the besiegers as points of support against the fortified upper part, the castle. The prescription required removal of all projecting parts of the roofs of the village houses, and even the destruction of those houses that had been built too close to, or leaning against, the castle walls. At the beginning of the 14th century, therefore, the only part of Montelupo still defended was the upper part, the castle. When this area was affected by the warring episodes, around 1325, that saw Florence violently opposed by Lucca, the village of Montelupo must still have had no defenses, and was probably damaged by the incursions of Castruccio. So the Arno flood of 1333, which seriously damaged the walls of Empoli and Pontorme, probably touched the village of Montelupo, but not the walls of the castle, which was situated at a sufficiently high elevation to avoid this danger. In 1336 Florence organized an important revision of the fortifications of some of the castles of its contado. The resolution, for Montelupo, required not the re-construction of pre-existing walls, but the completion of the walls of the village. Therefore, at this date, the walls planned for enclosing the village were already at an advanced stage of construction. The new walls, some pieces of which we can still see preserved in Via Giro delle Mura, enclosed the old castrum and the village within a single defensive line, damaged only a few years earlier by the armed forces of Castruccio.
The castle of Montelupo is represented by Leonardo on various maps. In the large bird's eye view RLW 12278, which shows a vast portion of Tuscany, several tributaries on the left of the Arno are drawn, including the Pesa. At the confluence of the Pesa into the Arno, we read the toponym montelupo, indicating the drawing of a village surrounded by turreted walls. More details can be seen in the map RLW 12685, which shows a series of fortified villages of the Valdarno, including Montelupo, located in the spur advanced at the confluence of the River Pesa with the Arno. The fortified village is singularly rich in morphological details: the wall circuit, equipped with wall towers, delimits a space articulated over two elevations, that is, a lower part, on the left, and a higher one, on the right. This was still the form of Montelupo at the beginning of the 16th century, consisting of the upper part, the Florentine castrum of 1204, and the village below, which was surrounded by walls around 1336. The castle corresponds to the upper part of Montelupo, where today the bell tower of the priory of San Lorenzo is visible, while the walls of the village ran between the current streets of Via Roma, Via Giro delle Mura, Via del Castello, and Via XX Settembre. Five gates opened there. In the eastern part of the village, from the Porta al Fico, or Porta Romana, started the road to the Val di Pesa, while from the Porta dell'Ulivo, or Porta Fiorentina, one took the Via Vecchia Pisana that arrived in Florence, passing through Malmantile. On the axis of the current Via Garibaldi, there opened two doors, one on the northern side of the walls, called Porta San Piero and one on the southern side, the Porta sulla Pesa, from which the Via Pisana toward Empoli started. On the eastern side was the fifth gate, the Porta al Pelacane, from the name of a mill on the Pesa. This was the gate that led to the Arno crossing, opposite Capraia. In Leonardo’s map, the Via Pisana is clearly recognizable, starting off, with a straight line, from the porta sulla Pesa, crossing the watercourse, and arriving to Pontorme, then continuing on for Empoli.

Leonardo had the opportunity to observe the different geological formations that characterized the hills overlooking the Arno. His reflections revolved around the idea that they were formed by the retreating waters of the sea that, in ancient times, reached La Golfolina, where it received the waters of the Arno. According to Leonardo, the movement of the sea waters modeled the lithic material, which the rivers discharged into the ancient sea, giving rise to geological layers of different composition, from coarsest to finest, namely, ghiara minuta (minute gravel), rena (sand), and lastly, fango (mud). The retreat of the waters of the Pliocene sea must have left the coarser and heavier deposits along the ancient shores situated farther upstream, and the finer and lighter, along the banks farther downstream. Leonardo observed, and explained in this way, the presence of "very large stones" and "gravel" around Montelupo and Capraia, the rena (sand), even finer, toward Castelfiorentino, and lastly, finally the fango (mud), the thinnest and lightest, at Collegonzi (Codex Leicester, f. 6A-31v; 8B-8v).

Texts by
Silvia Leporatti / English translation by John Venerella
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