17 January 2010

On The Road - Vigevano

This post is the beginning of a series of monthly travel articles inspired by a recent New York Times article on 31 places to see in 2010. Most of the towns are small, all are rich in history and art and for the most part they are off the beaten track which, for me, makes them all the more interesting.

VIGEVANO, Italy - Call me a romantic fool but you gotta love a guy who builds (or rebuilds) himself a castle for his 40th birthday. It just goes to show what money and power can do. In this case the money and the power was in the hands of the 15th century Duke of Milan, Ludovico Maria Sforza, known as il Moro, the Moor.

The birthday castle is in Vigevano, a half hour train ride from Milan. The town is usually quiet but today the main piazza is buzzing with activity having been taken over by an Italian film crew.

“They’re filming a television commercial for a new Italian travel magazine,” says the woman standing next to me. “It’s about Vigevano,” she says pointing to an old man dressed in a Renaissance costume.

Ten minutes later nothing much is happening so I walk across the black and white stone piazza and go up the stairs that are under a tall clock tower designed by Donato Bramante. At the top there is a wide expanse of grass and across the way is the brick castle, solid and massive and more fort like than fanciful. The Duke hired Bramante, who had just finished St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, to bring the 12th century Vigevano castle up to 15th century standards. What you see today is the result of Bramante's genius.

Part of the renovation included a separate residence wing behind the main section of the castle for the Duke’s bride-to-be, Beatrice d’Este of Ferrara. Separate quarters were normal as there was no concept of romantic love between husband and wife during the Renaissance. Beatrice, like most wealthy young women of her time, was no more than a marriageable pawn used to create alliances between powerful families.

She was only five years old when the Duke made the deal to marry her, and her dowry of four hundred thousand gold ducats, (valued at close to $1 million in pre-World War I dollars when the ducat was still a viable currency) no doubt sweetened the pot. Beatrice and the Duke were married in January of 1491. The bride was sixteen, the groom, thirty-nine.

Walking around the main part of the castle I go through a tall arched door and find myself on a wide covered road. Above my head, mammoth wooden beams criss-cross the vaulted dome, and the only light comes from the narrow windows placed close to the ceiling.

During World War II when the Germans commandeered the castle to use as their headquarters, they used this road to drive their trucks and tanks right into the castle compound. Pretty amazing when you consider the road was built by hand in 1345. It is still used daily by locals as a shortcut through town.

Across the grassy courtyard from the castle sits a long, low building that once housed the horses for the Duke’s army of 1000 mercenaries. It was designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Inside, there are two long rows of evenly spaced marble columns that mark the edge of the stalls and flank a center foot path.

To this day no one has been able to figure out how Leonardo managed to raise those massive columns all in one piece. It had never been done before. The only clue is the three round indentations, each about the size of a quarter, near the base of the columns. Some experts think they were made by a machine Leonardo invented specifically for the task. But it’s only speculation.

With the Duke in residence Vigevano became a thriving commercial center. Twice a week a general market was held in the main piazza. Local farmers sold fruits and vegetables, poultry and pigs and merchants sold the wool and silk produced in and around Vigevano. Public executions were held there as well.

If you were condemned for sodomy, the most serious crime of the day, you were burned at the stake. The wood for the fire was carried in from the nearby woods by harlots who were then publicly charged with the lesser crime of prostitution, and hanged. And while they waited for the executions to begin the locals shopped, visited with neighbors and caught up on the latest gossip. Locals still shop at the weekly market, the hangings however, have been discontinued.

The Duke considered Vigevano an example of Leonard’s “ideal” city and there are many similarities between the sketches found in Leonardo’s Atlantic Codex and the Vigevano castle and piazza. Apart from the visual perfection of the piazza, two things that stand out are the oddly shaped chimneys, which are merely decorative, and the black and white stones under your feet, which are a local industry.

The stones come from the nearby Ticino River where stone collectors, wearing thigh high rubber boots, wade into the water and scan the bottom for stones of a certain size and color. They put the best ones into a small boat they pull along behind them as they work.

The stones were once carried in hand woven straw baskets tied to the backs of mules through the mountains and valleys of northern Italy to decorate piazzas in towns as close Genoa and as far away as Venice. In the 14th century, a Venetian craftsman discovered that by adding ground up white pebbles from the Ticino River to a soda ash solution he was able to filter out the impurities in Venetian glass. The glassmakers of Murano rejoiced for that breakthrough launched the Venetian glassmaking industry.

An afternoon visit to the castle, a leisurely aperitif under the porticos that ring the piazza, will put you in the company of generations of Vigevanesi. It’s a different kind of Italian experience not found in any guide book. It’s the quiet discovery of the Italy Italians enjoy.

Photos: (1) A corner of Vigevano's Main Piazza; (2) Bramante’s Tower; (3)Leonardo da Vinci's Stable; (4) Collecting Stones One by One

p.s. At the Vigevano Castle: Leonardo da Vinci's output during his time in Lombardy; 'virtual codex' on flying, botany, mathematics, weaponry, astronomy, engineering and architecture; until April 5.


  1. For anyone interested to come to visit the exhibition check out the website: www.leoanardoevigevano.it

  2. happy to read such a good rewiew of my town.....Pround to be Vigevanese....
    thanks a lots
    Luigia B