The Fortress of San Paolino is part of the historic-architectural heritage of San Giuliano Terme (province of Pisa). Originating in medieval times, it is located in the community of Ripafratta. It has for many years now been left abandoned and decaying. There is now a very real risk that it will collapse and the consequential loss of immeasurable historical heritage.
The early history and the building steps
The Vergario hill has been a base for human activities since the Iron Age. During an intense campaign of excavations in the 1980’s, archaeologists found artefacts attributable to the pre-historical, Etruscan-Ligurian and Roman ages.
The whole area between Lucca and Pisa, in particular, the territory known as “Lungomonte Sangiuliese” (literally “the road which runs along the hills of San Giuliano”), became during the Dark Ages a prosperous territory, well-stocked in civil, military and religious buildings. The zone boasted Romanesque churches, guard towers, villages, various water mills, monasteries and hermitages that were located on the overlooking hills. It was a well-organised 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 built 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, during the Langobards domain.
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.
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 subordinate to Lucca's bishops. With the building of a real castle-like structure, the family intended to strengthen and extend its control over the territory of Ripafracta, 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 conflicts 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 fixed the legitimacy of the taxes imposed by the lords of Ripafratta and it posed the place under the influence of Pisa.
At least, for the moment.
Under the Republic of Pisa
In 1109 Ripafratta's ties with Pisa made a further step: the Da Ripafratta family donated part of the castle to the Bishop of Pisa. With this act, the nobles formally recognised the authority of Pisa over their territory. Coherently to this, they solemnly promised they would never appoint the castellan of the fortress without the approval of the bishop of Pisa nor they would make any deal with the Republic of Lucca.
The frequent conflicts between the two nearby cities brought the Republic of Pisa to reinforce even more the fortress and the village and to build a solid defence system spread all over the surrounding hills: this included many towers (the remaining ones on the Ripafratta side are called Niccolai and Centìno) and a gate-tower over the main road (that survived until World War II).
Between 1162 and 1164 the fortress got bigger and turned into a real castle. At about this same time, further walls were buildt to protected the village that represented the ancient core of the modern Ripafratta. Nowadays we can only see poor remains of this walls, and the houses of the village which were closer to the fortress have disappeared.
Wars among cities
The conflicts between the two cities of Pisa and Lucca involved Ripafratta more and more, with military defence and attack operations. The castle was often the subject of paths and deals, or taken as a prize of war. The Rocca, after the war between Florence and Pisa that ended in 1254 with the defeat of the latter, was given as spoil of war to Florence. Furthermore, the Da Ripafratta had to sadly witness their fortress being given back to the city of Lucca, who was allied with Florence. On September 24th 1261 the Republic of Pisa declared again war on Lucca and took the fortress back; once in their hands again, they doubled the number of soldiers inside the building, in order to keep it safe.
The 1314 recapture by Pisa was very famous too: Ripafratta was back in Lucca’s hands, but Pisa's army led by notorious leader Uggione della Faggiola reconquered the fortress for Pisa - along with many others castles - in a spectacular cavalcade.
Florentine domain and renovation
The castle was disputed between Lucca and Pisa throughout the centuries before eventually ending - like the rest of the tuscan territory except for Lucca - in the hands of Florence, who unified the whole Tuscany under its dominion.
With the introduction of gunpowder, the Florentine leaders, the Medici family, deeply renovated the castle in order to have a new structure, ready for the demands of modern warfare. So in late XV century the great military architect Antonio da Sangallo, in collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci, developed a plan for renovation and adaptation of the fortress of Ripafratta. The medieval towers inside the walls, and the walls themselves, were reduced in height, and deep structural modifications were started (such as the scarp walls and the counterpoised firing positions, meant to defend the only entrance to the castle).
With the changing of the political situation in Tuscany and thanks to the peace imposed by the domain of Florence on the whole region, the fortress gradually lost its importance. Throughout the previous centuries, its duty was to overlook a border that didn’t need attention anymore: Lucca was the only independent state left in Tuscany, but its dimensions were no worry for the powerful Grand Duchy of Tuscany installed by the Medici in the region. So, in XVII century the castle of Ripafratta was 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.
During the following years the condition of the fortress deteriorated more and more. But alongside with decadence, its charm grew: it was visited by foreign romantic intellectuals, architects and poets, especially during the XIX century (even Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley spent a long time in the territory, both of them writing verses for Ripafratta or setting parts of their novels here).
Up until World War II, the castle was used as an orchard. When this use finished and the vegetation grew, the fortress began to disappear from the landscape.
The castle got back its visibility and fame thanks to a campaign of archaeological excavations that started in the 1980s and lasted until the 90's; this action brought back to life the underlying structures long forgotten, that were useful to understand the way of life of its inhabitants and the initial architecture of the whole site. But once the excavations suddenly stopped because of security problems of the site, the fortress was once again forgotten. Until now.
Nowadays, the historical site is still a private property, submerged in vegetation and in real need for structural safety interventions and conservation plans. The archaeological evidences that emerged during the excavations have been damaged by atmospheric events and invasive vegetation. The perimeter walls are experiencing stability problems: a real threaten to the integrity of the whole site.
An important plan about the recovery and tourist exploitation of the Rocca, made by the municipality of San Giuliano Terme and the "Cassa di Risparmio di Pisa" bank foundation, signed in 2008, failed before the project phase could even start because of problems with private properties surrounding the fortress.
Let's save Ripafratta
“Let’s save Ripafratta” movement was founded as a nonprofit organization in 2012 by the citizens of Ripafratta.
The association, that now counts about 200 members from all over Tuscany, promotes the restoration of the fortress and acts in collaboration with local and regional institutions, private citizens and sponsors. It organizes meetings, visits and excursions to get visitors to know the fortress and its territory. The central event of the year takes place on the second weekend of June: the Festival of the Fortress and its territory, dedicated to local traditions, historical heritage, food and open-air sports, with guided tours all day long, rafting in the Serchio river, orienteering activities, excursions in the Monte Pisano natural and historical sites, medieval re-enactment.
To contact the association (info, suggestions or guided tours), to help the organization as a volunteer or a donor, or to become a member, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.