The late Middle Ages in northern and central Italy witnessed the rise of powerful city-states which had grown wealthy off of European and Mediterranean trade and support for the Crusades in the east. More than a dozen major city-states and scores of lesser ones emerged in the 12th century, each vying for its share of wealth and power in the Italian peninsula. These rivalries led to a nearly constant series of feuds and petty wars that in some cases continued right up to the unification of Italy in the 1800s. The legacy of these wars is the highest surviving concentration of major walled cities in the world. Virtually every city and large town in northern and central Italy was fortified with walls, and in some cases these have survived to the present day. Among the finest, are those of Lucca, Montagnana and San Gimignano.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire in the west, the cities of Northern Italy were at first absorbed into a series of Germanic empires, then eventually left to their own devices for the better part of four centuries. The rise of the region truly began in the 12th century, when vast amounts of wealth began flowing into Northern Italy from trade in the east. The region also rose military at this time in response to the threat of invasion from the Holy Roman Empire. By 1300, many of Italy’s cities were wealthy, well-armed, and eager to expand their territory.
The greatest power to emerge from this era was Venice. Thanks to its excellent position at the head of the Adriatic, Venice and its territories offered the best access to the Holy Land. During the 14th century Venice muscled its way into control of most of the Venetto region, which included some of Italy’s finest walls cities such as Verona, Padua and Montagnana. All three boast excellent surviving walls to the present day.
Further south, Italy’s other great Renaissance superpower, Florence, was building an empire of its own. Under the Medicis, Florence expanded throughout central Italy in every direction. Surprisingly, this was made easier by the Black Plague in 1348. Somehow, despite being weakened itself, Florence managed to take advantage of the similar weakness of its rivals and annex many of them to their realm. Among those walled cities taken were Pisa and San Gimignano.
The most unlikely of Italy’s Renaissance city states was Lucca. One of the only states that was truly a republic, Lucca was only forty miles away from the powerful Duchy of Florence. Despite this proximity to the Florentine superpower, it miraculously managed to stay an independent political entity throughout the Renaissance, and remained so until the arrival of the French Revolution in the 18th century. This independence was maintained in no small part due to the city’s magnificent wall, which was among the most advanced and regularly updated in Italy.
The Walls of Montagnana are among the best preserved in Italy and possibly the most distinctive visually. While not particularly tall, the city walls are remarkably even, with unusually large and distinctive crenelated battlements. The very evenly spaced square towers are also unusually tall, more than double the height of the wall. The fortifications are surrounded by ditches, and access to the city is by scenic bridge and gatehouse structures that look far more Roman than they do Medieval or Renaissance.
The Walls of San Gimignano are more demonstrably medieval in character. Consisting of high thick walls guarded by formidable looking round towers, San Gimignano’s fortifications incorporate steep hills and rugged terrain, and are hemmed in by thick foliage in many places. Ivy and other scrub plants growing on and over the walls adds a considerable romantic element, and many consider the walls of San Gimignano to be the most beautiful in Italy.
The Walls of Lucca are a magnificent, no-nonsense legacy of the gunpowder age. Unlike many of its contemporaries, which generally remained unchanged after the Renaissance, Lucca’s fortifications were updated on a regular basis, right up until the 18th century. As a result the existing walls are a labyrinth of sloped masonry backed by packed earth designed to absorb cannon fire and defend the fortifications from many angles. Nowhere else in Italy are their gunpowder age walls in such excellent condition.
All three sites are located close to major tourist destination cities, and are all reasonably easy to access. Montagnana is forty miles west of Venice, about half-way between Padua and Verona. San Gimignano is about twenty miles south of Florence, while Lucca is forty miles to the west of that same city. All three city walls are open sites. Web: www.padovamedievale.it/montagnana (official website of Montagnana); www.sangimignano.com (official website of San Gimignano); www.luccatourist.it (official website of Lucca).
Northern and Central Italy have no shortage of excellent walled cities worth visiting. In addition to the above, the next best are arguably the Walls of Perugia. Also worthwhile are the Walls of Padua and the Walls of Verona, both just outside of Venice and close to Montagnana; and the Walls of Pisa, right next door to Lucca.