The city of Pontremoli occupies the northernmost part of the Tuscany region and owes its name to the “Ponte tremulus”, a bridge that spanned the River Magra at the time of Henry VI of Swabia (1165-1197). Located in the northern end of the Lunigiana, it was one of the obligatory stops for those traveling along the old Via Francigena.
It is thought that the first settlements in the area date back to a thousand years before Christ and in Roman times it was known as Apua. Modern Pontremoli developed from a medieval village that began to grow at the time of the Lombard kings of Pavia, probably thanks to the increase in traffic on the Cisa Pass road.
The nucleus of the inhabited center, also known as the Sommoborgo, formed around the Piagnaro Castle and was defended by three fortresses: Piagnaro, Cacciaguerra and Castelnuovo. There were seven access gates in all, although only four have survived today: Porta Parma, Porta Verde, Porta Castelnuovo and Porta di Imoborgo.
Never dominated by the Malaspina family, the territory became an independent, free municipality in 1226 thanks to a charter issued by Frederick II. The reasons for this privilege are obscure but could be related to the relatively inhospitable, inaccessible mountainous terrain.
In the fourteenth century, the deep struggles between the Guelphs and Ghibellines forced Castruccio Castracani (the Lord of the city at that time) to divide the city into two parts: one for the Guelphs who lived in the Sommoborgo and were loyal to the Pope, and one for the Ghibellines who lived in the Imoborgo (lower village) and were supporters of the Emperor and the Malaspina. The dividing line between the Sommoborgo and Imoborgo was marked by a wall and three towers. The Western (Fiume Verde) tower no longer exists but the central tower (the Torre Cacciaguerra) still stands guard over the Northern end of the Piazza della Repubblica. The smaller Eastern tower is at the South East corner of the Duomo. Little trace of the dividing wall now remains.
Internal struggles, added to the attacks of the neighbouring states, forced the town to surrender and to submit to a long series of Italian and foreign lordships; in 1650 Pontremoli finally became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, which marked the beginning of a period of considerable political stability and economic prosperity.
History in detail
The first mention of Pontremoli can be found in the itinerary of the English Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric (950 ca-994) who in 990 made a pilgrimmage from England to Rome to obtain his seals of office.
The presence of fortified works is mentioned in the twelfth century: in 1110 the Roman king Henry V of Franconia (1081-1125) besieged and conquered the town.
Initially subject to the Obertenghi family followed the Malaspinas, the town managed to become a free municipality between the 12th and 13th centuries, placing the surrounding territory under its control and competing for the area between the Taro and the Magra valleys in competition with Parma, Piacenza and the various Malaspinian fiefdoms.
The position and layout of Pontremoli was advantageous for transport and commerce but vulnerable to the predations of militias and bands of marauders passing through. Emperor Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) considered it to be the “key to the door of Tuscany”.
In 1320 the anti-emperor Frederick of Habsburg (1289-1330) appointed the lord of Lucca, Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli (1281-1328), as imperial vicar of the Lunigiana and Pontremoli, formerly a fief of the Ligurian family of the Fieschi, fell under his dominion.
After the death of Castruccio (1328) the town passed into the lordship of John I of Boemia (1296-1346), who in 1331 sold it to the lord of Verona, Mastino II Della Scala (1308-1351).
Eight years later the Pontremolesi placed themselves under the auspices of Luchino Visconti (1287-1349), ruler of Milan as well as of Bergamo, Borgo San Donnino, Brescia, Como, Crema, Cremona, Lecco, Lodi, Novara, Piacenza and Vercelli .
Even the Visconti family, established in the Valpadana, actively participated in the political race in the Val di Magra. Pontremoli was one of the cities of the domain that the King of the Romans, Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia (1361-1419), granted to Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402) to raise to a Duchy (1395-6).
Detached from the Visconti territories in 1404 after the death of Gian Galeazzo, Pontremoli returned to the fiefdoms controlled first by Antonio Fieschi (before 1366-1412) and then by his children. In 1431 Duke Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447, son of Gian Galeazzo) managed to bring Pontremoli back into the orbit of the Milanese state thanks to a military expedition led by the commander Niccolò Piccinino (1386-1444).
The position of Pontremoli, geographically isolated from Milan and threatened by rival powers on its doorstep necessitated the construction of fortified structures to demonstrate Milanese control and deflect aggressive intent.
Between the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 16th century the Pontremoli fortifications underwent extensive development. Ultimately there were four fortresses entrusted to ducal castellans and permanently garrisoned (the Piagnaro Castle, Rocchetta di Cacciaguerra, Castelnuovo and Grondola Castle).
Marrying Bianca Maria Visconti (1425-1468, daughter of Duke Filippo Maria), in 1441 the leader Francesco Sforza Visconti (1401-1466) obtained control of Pontremoli, assigned as a dowry to his wife together with the Cremonese in place of the Lombard strongholds of Pizzighettone and Castelleone.
Duke Filippo Maria’s sale, although made reluctantly for political advantage and favouring the wishes of the Florentines who were eager to remove the Visconti influence from Tuscany broke the territorial integrity of the new Sforza domain, which had its center in Cremona. The two Cremonese localities exchanged with Pontremoli allowed the Duke to closely monitor (and threaten) the heart of the new Sforza territory, whose lord was anything but benevolent towards the Milanese sovereign.
Filippo Maria Visconti died in 1447 and three years later Francesco Sforza Visconti became the new Duke of Milan. Pontremoli returned to the Milanese orbit and for the rest of the fifteenth century confirmed itself as a cornerstone of Sforza politics confronting: the Republic of Genoa, the Florentine Republic (headed by the Medici family) and the Duchy of Modena and Reggio (under the Estense dominion).
Pontremoli witnessed the passage of the troops of the French king Charles VIII of Valois (1470-1498) in the two-year period 1494-1495, sent to conquer the Kingdom of Naples. The second transit was disastrous for the town as it was sacked and burned by Swiss mercenaries in the pay of the French sovereign.
In the years 1499-1500 a subsequent expedition, led this time by Louis XII d’Orléans (1462-1515), led the expedition to expel Duke Ludovico il Moro (1452-1508, son of Francesco Sforza Visconti) from the Milanese throne and to occupy the Duchy of Milan and Pontremoli.
Rejected in 1512 by an anti-French coalition (which brought the territories of Piacenza and Parma under the dominion of the Pope) and returned in 1515 thanks to the military campaign led by Francesco I of Valois-Angoulême (1494-1547), French control over the Lombard state lasted until 1521, when Francesco II Sforza (1492-1535, son of Ludovico il Moro) managed to recover much of the family dominion, thanks to the support of the King of the Romans and sovereign of Spain, Carlo d’Asburgo (1500-1558) .
Francesco II died without heirs in 1535 and the Duchy of Milan devolved to the Spanish king (in the meantime crowned emperor). Already in the hands of the Habsburgs from 1526, Pontremoli is also transferred even though it was no longer contiguous with the other dominions of Charles V in Northern Italy.
In 1540 Philip of Habsburg (1527-1598) was invested as the new Duke of Milan and fifteen years later he also inherited the Spanish Crown from his father, under whose control Pontremoli exclave fell.
Also between 1540s and 50s, the Farnese family secured dominion over the territories of Piacenza and Parma, which were specially constituted as a Duchy by Pope Paul III (1468-1549, aka Alessandro Farnese).
Due to its isolation from the rest of the State of Milan, in the second half of the sixteenth century the Pontremoli garrison experienced a reduction in military importance. Previously strategic strongholds such as, for example, the nearby Castle of Grondola (defined as a “desert in 1558) fell into ruin. Later on Castelnuovo was adapted as a residence and in 1578 the Rocchetta di Cacciaguerra was transformed into a bell tower.
In 1647 the Habsburg Crown sold Pontremoli and its territory to the Republic of Genoa, which three years later ceded it to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, under the control of the Medici family.
The Medicis controlled Pontremoli until 1737. Then in 1778, under the dynasty that followed (the Habsburg-Lorraines), Pontremoli was elevated to the status of a city by Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (1747-1792). Nineteen years later it became a bishopric.
Source: Davide Tansini