Key to Umbria: Assisi

Fortresses of Assisi (1362-5)

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Rocca Maggiore (ca. 1362-5)

This fortress stands at the highest point in the city.  The scant archeological evidence that has been found here suggests that it was the acropolis of the ancient city, just inside the Roman walls.  

The first castle of the site seems to have been built by Charlemagne after he sacked the city in 773.  However, the earliest surviving documentary reference to a fortress here dates to 1174, when Christian of Mainz subdued Assisi on behalf of the Emperor Frederick I.  In the period 1177-98, this fortress was the main residence Conrad of Urslingen, whom Frederick I appointed as Duke of Spoleto and Count of Assisi.  The citizens of Assisi tore it down when they declared a free commune in 1198.  The site was probably fortified again in the early 14th century, but any such fortifications would have been destroyed in 1321 when Perugia finally subjugated the city.

Cardinal Albornoz arrived in Perugia in 1354, and this marked the start of a period of increasing independence for Assisi.  The city authorities resolved to restore the Rocca and the city walls, although opposition from Perugia delayed the work.  Ugolino di Montemarte, who was sent to Assisi in 1361 to collect taxes on behalf of Cardinal Albornoz, may also have played a part in designing the fortifications, which were finally rebuilt in 1362-5.   A castellan was documented in 1365, which suggests that much of the rebuilding was complete by that time.  After the mercenary army of Cardinal Albornoz definitively defeated the Perugians in 1367, the citizens of Assisi enthusiastically welcomed him into the city and made a formal submission.  Ugolino di Montemarte was appointed Lieutenant of Assisi in 1368.

The fortress at the heart of the new defences, which was known as Rocca Maggiore, was central to the control of the city below.  It formed part of the medieval walls of the city, between Porta San Giacomo and Porta Perlici.  The additions made to it during the subsequent period are described below.   The last of these was the circular bastion, which Pope Paul III built in 1535 to underline his control of the city.  However, the fortress was no longer strategically important by this time, and fact underlined when he transferred its cannons to the Rocca Paolina, Perugia in 1543.   Rocca Maggiore was then used as a prison until ca. 1600, when it was abandoned. 

The Commune acquired the building in 1883 and restored it as a tourist attraction in ca. 1891-1900.  It was extensively restored in 2002.

Tour of Rocca Maggiore


The oldest part of the castle is the central core, which is made up of the keep and associated buildings arranged around the central courtyard.  This is surrounded by an outer barbican that encloses an open area to the north and east.  As described below:

  1. the polygonal tower to the north west was built in 1458-60; and

  2. the circular bastion was added in 1535-8.

The entrance, which is to the right of the bastion, leads into an open space that was used as a parade ground.  The entrance tower in the barbican (on the left) has five coats of arms in a row, which were vandalised during the anti-papal riots of 1848.  From left to right, these belonged to:
  1. Pope Urban V;

  2. the Church;

  3. Cardinal Anglic de Grimoard, the younger brother of Urban V, was papal vicar in temporalibus in Italy from March 1368 until July 1371;

  4. Cardinal Albornoz; and

  5. the Boncompagni family of Assisi [who presumably provided the first castellan ?].

This entrance leads to the space between the inner core and the barbican, with the east wall of the keep ahead.  Biordo Michelotti, built the upper part of the keep in 1394-8.  The reliefs on the wall to the right of it (visible in the photograph above, to the right of the window) depict:
  1. the arms of Bargiano d’ Andrea, the castellan at that time: and

  2. the griffin of Perugia.

Walk clockwise around the keep.  The arms high up on its south side (i.e. facing to the right in the photograph above) belong to:
  1. Biordo Michelotti;

  2. Bargiano d’ Andrea; and

  3. Nicolò di Giovanni Andreuzio, the Capitano del Popolo [of Assisi or Perugia ?].

The entrance beyond the south side of the keep (to the left of it in the photograph above), which was originally protected by a portcullis, leads into the inner courtyard, which is paved in terracotta.  A square stone at the base of the keep (to the right of this photograph) provided access to the subterranean cistern.

The door ahead (part of which is visible on the left in the photograph above) leads to a room that once housed the kitchen and dining room.

Its ceiling collapsed in ca. 1520, destroying the chapel above.  Two objects that survived this mishap are now kept in this room (in the corner behind and on the left in the photograph above):
  1. the sculpted arms of Pope Sixtus IV; and

  2. the altar table from the altar that was inscribed with the name of his relation, the castellan Urbano Vegerio di Savona and the date 1482.

The room to the right as you leave the kitchen, which was also originally divided horizontally, was similarly used for residential purposes.

The steps to the left of the exit lead to what was once a drawbridge in front of the entrance to the keep.  The keep itself comprises five rooms, one above the other, connected by a spiral staircase which has 106 solid stone steps. The narrow room near the 12th step probably served as a prison. 

The other rooms were used as the residence of the castellan, and provided an almost impregnable  refuge even if the outer fortifications were taken.  The arms of Biordo Michelotti can still be seen on a wash basin on the 4th floor.  The original floors have collapsed and been replaced by modern structures.  The ceiling of the top room has also disappeared, so it is now possible to enjoy the the surrounding countryside from a viewing platform here.

Leave the central core and continue around it in a clockwise direction.

The remains of the earlier fortress can be seen in front of the west wall of the barbican.  

The tower at the north west corner contains the entrances to two passages to the polygonal tower (see below):

  1. the lower passage, inside the connecting walls; and

  1. the upper passage, which no longer allows access to the tower, but allows the visitor to appreciate its strategic importance as a defended look-out tower.

Leave the fortress and turn right past the circular bastion (see below) and follow the outer walls to the foot of the polygonal tower:
  1. Giacomo Piccinino began this tower at the junction with the wall that leads towards Porta San Giacomo in 1458.

  2. The inscription commemorates Pope Pius II, who completed the tower and built the corridor that links it to the main fortifications in 1460.

Pope Paul III and the papal governor, Marino Grimani, built the circular bastion in 1535-8, an event commemorated by an inscription and a series of coats of arms.

Rocca Minore (1365)

Rocca Minore also seems to have existed by 1174, and to have fallen into ruin by the early 14th century.  Cardinal Gil Albornoz built this castle and the walls that connect it to Rocca Maggiore (via Porta Perlici, illustrated above) and to Porta Sant’ Antonio (to the right).


[The fresco (15th century) on the altar wall, which depicts the Crucifixion with the Virgin ad St John the Evangelist, is attributed to Matteo da Gualdo]

The Rocca Minore is still in restoration (at July 2009) after the earthquake of 1997.

Read more:

E. Sciamanna, “Rocca Maggiore”, (2008) Assisi, a booklet in Italian and English that is available at the ticket office.

There is a more detailed account of the history of the Rocca by Daniele Amone in the website Castelli dell' Umbria.

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