Traveling may very well be something of a voyeuristic exercise. Of course there are the valued works of art, the architectural gems and the flow of history into which one can immerse. But in experiences in new places there can also be a fascination in deciphering how other people live both now and in the past. So, in that sense, perhaps we really are voyeurs.
Around us here, the world of medieval Europe is evident in so many places. With America being such a young country, there is nothing to directly connect us with reminders of that very turbulent era. Over time, America’s cultural mix has been enriched through increased diversity but in our case, we happen to look to our cultural roots in Europe. It is perhaps for that reason the remnants of medieval life here can hold such a fascination for some us from the ‘new world.’
European medieval history is marked by constant rivalries and outright war by various power bases seeking domination and conquest in the power vacuum left after the fall of the Roman Empire. Powerful families came to dominate independent power centers in what is now Italy in places such as Milan, Florence, Pisa, Naples, Venice and the Rome of the Papacy. The Papacy controlled vast areas of territory and was a major military power dominated by families such as the Medici and the Borgia.
In July of this year, having already experienced some of the pageantry of Renaissance re-enactments here in Ascoli, we visited a promising one at a site a little over 120 kilometers north and easily reachable by train. The place is the medieval fortress town of Gradara.
The hilltop at Gradara is situated in the eastern foothills of the Apennine Mountains just south of the Po River valley in a position to dominate the narrow coastal plain of the Adriatic Sea. Given the attraction of this advantageous strategic location, construction was begun on a fortification in the XII century. Over succeeding centuries, the fortification was strengthened as changes of control by powerful families occurred. Among the changes in control was a series of sieges in 1446 and 1463 supported by the powerful Sforza family whose power base was Milan. The first siege failed but the second succeeded in making the Gradara fortress the property of Giovanni Sforza. The Sforza power base had a contentious alliance-to-conflict relationship with Pope Alexander VI otherwise known to history as Roderico Borgia of the Showtime series fame.
To seal an alliance between the Borgia Papacy and the powerful Sforza family, Pope Alexander VI married his acknowledged thirteen-year-old daughter, Lucrezia Borgia, to Giovanni Sforza. The Showtime series depicts much of that turbulent history but borrows from other history of the Gradara fortress such as the portrayal of a romance between stable hand Paola and Lucrezia Borgia, that never really took place, but was actually adapted from an earlier infidelity involving the wife of a previous lord of the fortress and his own brother. That did not end well but was ‘borrowed and modified’ by the Showtime writers for effect.
In most years, Gradara presents a reenactment of the siege of 1446. But this year, the reenactment was staged on life in 1445. The emphasis was on everyday life. The Gradara fortress is a series of walls, barriers, a moat and a tower to form a final defensive retreat. An outer wall system afforded security for tradespeople and others upon whom the fortress depended. Within another, more major wall and moat system, a drawbridge affords access into the central ‘keep’ of the fortification which then leads to a series of rooms forming the private quarters, a chapel and of course the ever necessary dungeon complete with torture chamber.
Fortunately for history buffs, the fortification has undergone very careful and faithful renovation over the years. There is none of the ‘theme park’ kitsch that has ruined so many important places. As you wander through the fortress, one senses what life was probably like. And then, you turn a corner and find yourself actually staring into the bedchamber used by Lucrezia Borgia. There is nothing like seemingly remote history coming tangibly alive in front of your eyes.
We were very impressed by the broad participation of what seemed like the entire town in becoming a 1445 experience of daily living. There were authentic costumes, demonstrations and, to our delight, stands of crafts people working using items and in methods which appeared to reflect 1445. Most were in wonderfully good taste. There were buskers providing entertainment, the guard troop periodically marched through town with period weapons and there were the sbandietarei, the flag throwers, complete with drum and clarion trumpet accompaniment and even three lepers warning of their approach by bells attached to their walking staffs.
Although the Gradara reenactment was very well attended over this one weekend event in July, so much of our enjoyment with being east of the Apennines is that, the event was not the armpit-to-armpit experience so much of Italy can be in high tourist season at the major sites. We could easily stroll and absorb without feeling we were in rush hour traffic.
In the portfolio section, there are some images of this experience. We hope they give you a sense of what our wonderful weekend was like.