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1385 - 1450

From the stronghold to the castello di San Michele


For the design of the castle, architect Bartolino da Novara built upon the existing Rocca dei Leoni (Lions' Fortress) and joined it to three new towers. They were laid out to form the corners of a four-sided figure whose sides consisted of lower buildings enclosing a courtyard. Jacopo da Marano tells us that the castle was crowned by crenellations resting on corbels and that the roof was of sloping tiles. Work began on 29 September 1385, Saint Michael's Day, the archangel who expelled the rebels from heaven.
Bartolino built four entrances to the castle, one on each side, squat avant-corps as tall as the curtain walls standing between the towers. Connection with the outside was provided by drawbridges and gatehouses. When the first stringcourse had been completed, the citizens could see that the Estense artillery was also aimed against the city.
With respect to the rest of the building, the Torre dei Leoni (Lions' Tower) maintained its pre-eminent defensive character, rising amidst the mighty architectural mass of the castle and still surrounded by its own moat.
The castle base was splayed out from the level of the deepest foundation more than 5 metres below the level of the moat to the ground floor where it was framed by a stringcourse in spiralled patterned stone. The stringcourse, some bas-reliefs on the towers and simple paintings on the plastered walls, architectural bands or partitions, votive images under the arches of the corbels were the only decorative features of this late 14th-century military building.
The new building had very small, two-paned windows and on the lower floors there were narrow slits for military defence.
The fortress never had to withstand enemies from without.
An idea of the appearance of the Castello di San Michele before the ducal era can be gained by taking a look at the Castello di San Giorgio at Mantua, built by the same architect Bartolino, ten years later in 1395.
For around seventy years the appearance of the castle remained unchanged, as did its function; strictly military, home to the Estense militia and of damp, dark dungeons: "solitary, closed within itself, as massive and compact as a cliff, all sharp corners and crooked spurs, with lots of clean cut, sharp angles with its bulwarks and advanced defences under the guise of gatehouses".


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