Rocca di Ripafratta

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The Rocca di Ripafratta in the province of Pisa

The Rocca di Ripafratta, or Rocca di San Paolino, is located on a hill overlooking the village of Ripafratta, not far from San Giuliano Terme. The castle stands in a strategic position that allowed it to control the roads and rivers of an area, the one on the border between Pisa and Lucca, which already around the year 1000 was well guarded and rich in both civil and religious settlements.

The strategic importance of the place is also testified by the fact that, well before the construction of the castle, there was a watchtower here. This tower is documented since the year 970, but probably dates back to an even earlier period.

The actual castle was built by the local nobles, the Consorteria dei Da Ripafratta, who at the time were feudal lords of the bishop of Lucca. Soon, however, a strong contrast arose between the Ripafrattas and the Lucchesi for the collection of tolls. Thus, in 1104 Lucca attacked and conquered the fortress, taking it away from the Da Ripafratta. For this reason the local nobles were forced to ask the Pisans for help to regain possession of the castle. After the Lucchesi were driven out, the following years saw the consolidation of the position of Pisa which also took care of reinforcing and enlarging the castle.

It is important to underline that the Ripafratta Castle was the fulcrum of a wider defensive system, which also included various towers and other fortifications, designed to guard the border line between Pisa and Lucca.

The restructuring of Giuliano da San Gallo

For three centuries the fortress was at the center of the wars between Pisa and Lucca first and then between Pisa and Florence, changing hands in several circumstances, until it was definitively conquered by the Florentines. These in 1504 commissioned the great architect Giuliano da Sangallo to modernize the fortress to adapt it to the new firearms. Sangallo, who together with his brother Antonio was one of the great masters of bastion fort (or trace italienne), lowered the towers of the fortress, equipped its walls with wide escarpment that made them much more solid, and built opposing rivellines to reinforce the defense of the gateway. The fifteenth-century additions are still clearly visible even to a less experienced eye, because, unlike the medieval construction, all in stone, these were made of bricks.

These are typical interventions of the renovations of the castles carried out at that time. Before the advent of firearms, it was essential to have walls and towers as high as possible, difficult to climb and easy to defend against traditional weapons. With the arrival of the cannons, however, these walls were found to be fragile and easy to break down. The solution adopted by the architects of the time was to create lower but thicker walls and towers, able to withstand the impact of cannon fire much better.

After this intervention, the fortress became almost impenetrable, thus managing to resist all attempts at Pisan reconquest between the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th century.

Rocca di Ripafratta
Rocca di Ripafratta (Photo by salviamolarocca / CC BY)

Decay and abandonment of the fortress

Over time, unfortunately, the fortress has undergone a long and inexorable decline, the result of many years of neglect. Since 2000 there have been numerous attempts to rescue the castle which unfortunately is in really bad condition. Fortunately, in 2021 the Municipality of San Giuliano Terme managed to purchase the complex, also thanks to the contribution of the Regione Toscana. We hope this can be a new beginning for Rocca di Ripafratta.

The fortress today

Unfortunately, the fortress is still awaiting the necessary safety measures. In any case, the complex is truly impressive, with mighty walls that protect the heart of the fortification. In the center we find the parade ground with the remains of the keep and the constable’s residence as well as the cisterns and accesses to the basement. Of the defenses remain part of the additions made by Sangallo and a couple of corner towers to which are added other lookout towers that rise around the fortress.

How to visit the Rocca di Ripafratta

If you want to visit the Rocca di Ripafratta, you must consider that it has not yet been secured and therefore you will not be able to access it freely. The only way to visit it is with the guided tours organized by the Pro Loco Ripafratta “Salviamo La Rocca” association. These visits usually take place on the second weekend of September, on the occasion of the “Festa della Rocca“, but also and on other dates during the year, which are however made known from time to time.

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