The Fortress of Ripafratta

The Fortress of San Paolino is part of the historical-architectural heritage with medieval origins located in the community of Ripafratta, in the municipality of San Giuliano Terme (province of Pisa). It’s been many years now that the site is left in a grave state of abandon, subtending risks of collapse and the consequential loss of an inestimable historical heritage.

The early history and the building steps

The Vergario hill has always been base of human activities as much as main centre of housing clusters, since the Iron Age. During an intense campaign of excavations in the 80’s of 1900, archaeologists found artifacts attributable to the pre-historical roman and Etruscan-Ligurian era.

The whole area between Lucca and Pisa, in particular the territory known as “lungomonte sangiuliese” (literally “the road who runs along the hills of San Giuliano”), became during the Dark Ages a prosperous territory, well-stocked in civil, military and religious premises typical of the Romanic territories. The zone boasted Romanesque churches, sighting and guard towers, villages, various water mills, monasteries and hermitages, located on the overlooking hills. A well organized feudal system in which the two city-states of Lucca and Pisa contended the supremacy with wars or deals, suffering and indulging the influence of the corresponding bishops and emperor supremacies.

The stronghold of Ripafratta was buildt within this historical frame. The original tower on the Vergario hill (which is still at the heart of the castle) is mentioned for the first time in an official document in 970 a.D., but the presence of a building of that type (probably a wooden one) dates back to an earlier period, with the Langobards.

The name Ripafratta probably comes from the latin "Ripa Fracta" which literally means "the broken river bank". As a matter of fact, the village arose along the Serchio river, in a place where the river course has with all the evidence been diverted by natural or human factors.  

The "Consorteria of the Da Ripafratta" (lit. the Cotery of the Da Ripafratta), a family of local lords, built the actual fortress and dedicated it to San Paolino (Saint Paolino), protector of Lucca. In fact, these local nobles, were feudatories of Lucca's bishopric. With the building of a proper castellan structure the family intended to strength and extend its control over the strategical territory of Ripafratca, located in a very strategic place for both land and river trade routes.

It was precisely the imposition of taxes on trade routes by the Da Ripafratta lords that caused the first fights with the city of Lucca, who declared war on its unreliable vassals of Ripafratta in 1104 and conquered the fortress. The lords of Ripafratta, who did not have any possibility of a military reaction, called for the help of the nearby Republic of Pisa, a rising power in central Italy and on the Mediterranean sea, who had just come back from fighting in its Sardinia territory; Pisa's army fought Lucca back and took the fortress of Ripafratta. Lucca tried once more one year after, in 1105, but it was defeated yet again. The peace was obtained thanks to the imperial authority; it was fixed the legitimacy of the taxed imposed by the lords of Ripafratta and it was decided that the place was under the influence of Pisa.

In 1109 Ripafratta's approach to Pisa put the basis to a further step: the Da Ripafratta family gave as donation to the Bishop of Pisa a part of the castle. With this act the nobles formally recognised the authority of Pisa over their territory. Coherently to this, they solemnly promised they would never elect the castellan of the fortress without the approval of the bishop of Pisa nor they would made deal with the municipality or the Church of Lucca.

The frequent conflicts between the two adjacent cities brought the Republic of Pisa to reinforce even more the fortress and the bourg and to build a solid defence system spread all along the surrounding hills: this included many towers of sighting (the remained ones on the Ripafratta side are called Niccolai and Centino) and a tower-door which blocked the piedmont road (that endured until the Second World War).

Between 1162 and 1164 the stronghold got bigger and turned into a real castle. At about this same period a further building entourage was built; the walls protected the small burg that represented the ancient core of the modern Ripafratta. Nowadays we can only see poor reminders of this wall entourage, and the houses of the village that were closer to the fortress have disappeared.

Wars among municipalities

The conflicts between the two cities involved Ripafratta more and more with military defence and conquer operations. The castle was often given or occupied following deals, or taken as a war prize. The castle, after the war between Florence and Pisa that finished in 1254 with the defeat of the latter, was given as spoils of war to Florence. The Da Ripafratta had furthermore to sadly witness their fortress given away to the inhabitants of Lucca, Florentines allies. On September 24th of 1261 the Republic of Pisa declared again war on Lucca and took the fortress back; once in its hands again, it doubled the number of soldiers inside the building, in order to keep it safe.

The 1314 recapture by Pisa was really famous too: Ripafratta was back on Lucca’s hands, but Pisa's army led by notorious leader Uggione della Faggiola reconquered the fortress - and many others castles - for Pisa in a spectacular cavalcade.

Florentine domain and enlargement

The castle was disputed between Lucca and Pisa throughout the centuries with wars and sieges before eventually ending - like the rest of the territory of Pisa - in the hands of Florence, who unified the whole tuscan region under its dominion. With the introduction of the gunpowder, the Florentine leaders, the Medici family, deeply renovated the castle in order to have a new structure, ready for the modern war exigencies.

In 1504 the great military architect Giuliano da Sangallo, in collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci, developed a renovating and adapting project for Ripafratta. The medieval towers inside the walls were reduced in height, and deep structure modifications were started (such as the scarp walls and the counterpoised firing positions meant to defend the only entrance to the fortress).

Decadency

With the changing of the political situations and thanks to the peace imposed by the domain of Florence on the whole Tuscany, the fortress gradually lost its importance. Throughout centuries, its duty was to overlook a border that now didn’t need any defence: Lucca was the only independent state left in Tuscany, but its dimension was no worry for the powerful Grand Duchy of Tuscany installed by the Medici in the whole region. So, in 1670 the castle od Ripafratta resulted already abandoned.

On 1628 it was given by the Grand Duke to a private citizen “ad uso d’orto con piantarci de’ frutti e viti” (lit. “to be used as an orchard for fruits and grapevines”); on 1845 it was bought by the Roncioni, a local noble family which is still the owner at the present days.

All along the following years the conditions of the fortress got worse and worse. But alongside with decadence, its charm grew, to the point that it got visited by notorious romantic intellectuals, architects and poets, especially during the 19th century (even P.B. Shelley spent a long time in the territory and wrote some verses for Ripafratta).

Until the second post-war of the 20th Century it has always been used as a cultivated orchard. When this use finished and the vegetation grew, the fortress began to disappear from the landscape too.

The castle got back its visibility and fame thanks to the intensive campaign of archaeological excavations that started during the 80s of the 20th century; this action allowed to bring back to life the underlying structures, forgotten for longtime, and to rebuild the history, habits and architectures of the whole premises. But once the excavations finished, the fortress got forgotten again.

Current conditions

Nowadays, the historical complex is still a private property, submerged in vegetation and in real need of security policies and conservation plans. The archaeological evidences that emerged during the excavations got deeply damaged by the negligence.
A series of cracks opened in the perimeter walls, and the side along the river is submit to a landslide phenomenon that can in a long run represent a risk for the integrity of the whole premises.

An important plan of recovery and tourist exploitation made by the municipality of San Giuliano Terme and the "Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa" bank foundation, signed in 2008, failed before even arriving to the project phase because of problems with the private properties surrounding the fortress.

The association "Let's Save Ripafratta"

The movement “Let’s save Ripafratta” was founded as a cultural association in 2012 by the inhabitants of Ripafratta.

The association promotes the restoration of the fortress, collaborating with local and regional instistutions, private citizens and sponsors. It organizes meetings, visits and excursions to get to know the fortress and its territory. Every year, on June, it organizes the Festival of the Fortress.

To contact us (infos, suggestions or guided tours) please write to info[at]salviamolarocca.it.

You can also help us by signing our petition on Change.org (english text inside, at the bottom).