Between the 9th and 10th centuries, the new invasions that were threatening Europe, led the powerful feudal lords to build castles and fortresses on inaccessible heights, at the borders of their territories, along the main roads and rivers’ fords, or above narrow valleys or near bridges.
The defense of property and of the rural populations from marauding invaders, however, was not the only need during those times: the widespread banditry, the local guerrillas between towns and villages that were disputing territories and powers, and the general political crisis, that invested the unguided Italian kingdom, have forced people to seek safety and security near the forts. Fortified villages, that could accommodate many families, were therefore built around castles. Those people were offered shelter in exchange of labor in the owner’s lands. Castles eventually were turned into fortified villages, with the lord's residence, the peasants homes and all the necessary to the community life. When the many threats gradually ceased, castles were built in less endangered places to bear witness to the authority of the local lords who wanted to brand the territory with their power, which was represented by the security offered by the fortress and garrisons. Over the centuries, the castles have combined several functions: territory’s fortress and garrison against invaders and internal uprisings; warehouse to gather and protect the crops; the place where the feudal lord administered justice and where horsemen and troops lived. They were utilised, finally, as the lord’s and his family residence, apartments, which were gradually enriched , both to live with more ease, and to make a good impression with friends and distinguished guests who often stayed there. Their size varied according to the importance of the castle, the lord’s wealth and the number of servants and soldiers who were housed.
The first castles consisted mainly of a vaguely circular ditch, that enclosed a small hillock on which the excavation soil was accumulated. This terrain was reinforced with stones and timber and formed a hillock, from 5 to 20 m high, on which a wooden tower (the keep) was built. The moat whose walls were often covered with timber, to prevent landslides , could be made more dangerous by planting sharp-pointed poles on the bottom. A wooden bridge which could be removed or lifted , secured the passage between the inside and the outside. Close to the inner ditch’s bank, it was eventually began to raise a logs palisade, often reinforced by higher corner towers, from which the archers could target the attackers. If the latter were able to cross the ditch and break down or climb over the fence, the besieged could still seek refuge in the tall and strong tower as extreme defense. The keep was equipped with slits to throw darts and well supplied with food and water to resist for long periods of time. Over time, castles’ structure evolved; the wooden constructions were replaced by massive stone walls and the moat, if it existed, was widened and the drawbridge appeared. High and mighty towers defended the access, which was already protected by sturdy doors and iron gates. Around castles, just beyond their walls, developed villages. They were inhabited by servants’ families and the many artisans who worked at the manor: carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, locksmiths , armors and weapons manufacturers, tailors, potters, wagon wheels makers, barrels, crockery, but also clerics for the liturgical services, pages, wool spinners, staplers, allotment farmers and help cooks, dishwashers, maids etc. The village also hosted a small local market, and, a little further, just beyond the fields, there could be other buildings such as folds, mills, sheds and farm implements and wagons. Over the two hundred years since their first appearance, castles changed profoundly. They became bigger and stronger and often had a tower complex, with round corner towers (which ensured a better view of the defenders), up to 30-35 meters high and three or four floors. The keep was often surrounded by a second internal moat, while a second drawbridge could isolate it from the rest of the castle. To make it simple, if attackers were able to penetrate into the castle, they would have found inside a second keep: higher, stronger and practically impregnable . The outer circle’s walls could be 4 meters thick (six feet for the keep’s wall) and be formed by two walls of large hewn stone, with a space between the walls filled with rubble and concrete, and reinforced by piece iron chains. It should be noted that the term "castle", in Friuli, do not indicate a village defended by walls in which only a small portion is paid to the mansion with an exclusively military structures (formwork), but it refers to a fortified complex inhabited by a noble family whose features are distinctly military and defensive.
The mighty and complex Friulian defensive system, was aimed to defend the outlets of the Tagliamento, the Natisone, the Soca, against the dangers from the east and the north-south. They also controlled communications, as well as defending Friuli from the dangers coming from the sea. They were spread all over the plain as to defend the inner streets and fords, which were of major strategic and commercial importance.
Each complex is an original unique and unrepeatable building. The castles were not the result of a predetermined project, carried out within a few years, but the result of a secular growth. Each fort was built, modified and, if damaged or destroyed, rebuilt in a different period and, sometimes, transformed, especially in the plains and on the hills, into villas, mansions or offices or farms. The castles that were built on the mountains instead, with the advent of the Venetian’s supremacy and the increased use of artillery, lost many defensive functions, and were often abandoned, especially if located in inaccessible positions.
Many of those castles are still privately owned, and others, especially the most important are property of the State, the Region or of Commons. Some retain certain residential functions or are uninhabited, others are reduced to fascinating ruins, still capable of evoking the echoes of a glorious past, despite the sense of deep melancholy that remains. Others have been converted into restaurants, hotels, wineries, museums. Each one is worth visiting, even only from the outside, to appreciate the architectural features and ideally relive the complex historical events.
Testi di Enza Chiara Lai
G.V. CUSTOZA - M. GRATTONI D’ARCANO (a cura di), Castella, Udine 1996
AA.VV, I castelli abbandonati, Mariano del Friuli 1994
G. VIRGILIO, Andar per castelli. Itinerari in Friuli Venezia Giulia, Tavagnacco 2003, 3 volumi.
G. VIRGILIO, Castles senza confini, Udine 2009
N.V. RODARO, Castles del Friuli e della Venezia Giulia, Milano 2000