Steamy scenes of sex and violence in Italy’s Gradara Castle

In one of last week’s blogs I wrote about my holiday staying in the small village of Gabicce Monte over-looking the Adriatic Riviera on the border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche in Eastern Italy. It was tempting just to stay there, like an eagle perched high above the interesting places visible from this vantage point. – especially if it could be accompanied by splendid Italian coffee.

It was possible, quite easy in fact, to go  the mile and a half down the hillside to the seaside resort of Gabicce Mare to the sandy beach where there were sunbeds and umbrellas as well as bars and restaurants. Gabicce Mare is a small town, originally a fishing village that has expanded into a town with the  building of holiday hotels and apartments. Seaside holidays are big business here and so there is no shortage of small shops selling buckets and spades or sun cream. It has the rather gentle atmosphere of a small English resort from the 1950s and I have no problem with that.

In the spirit of toy town too, is the little motorised train, the trenino,  that travels between Gabicce Mare and, up the hill, to Gabicce Monte.

The trenino’s unselfconscious silliness endeared it to me and I soon learnt to accept it as the principal form of public transport especially as the drivers were always friendly, extremely talkative if unconcerned about precise timetables.

Sitting in the trenino, I soon abandoned any attempt at looking cool but it was a useful way of getting around especially as  I am currently unable to drive because of an irritating legacy from my brain haemorrhage.

So I was pleased, and somewhat surprized to find that the little trenino also went cross country to the castle that I could see from my roof garden. Gradara Castle, a medieval fortress, had been beckoning me since my first view of it so it was not long before I went to get a closer look.

My first impression of Gradara Castle was that it was in remarkably good condition considering the main tower was constructed in 1150. Maybe too good perhaps since the major restoration that followed the severe damage done by the 1919 earthquake but, snooty antiquarian thoughts put aside, I decided to go with the experience convincing myself that, in their heyday, medieval fortresses did actually look newly-built.

And anyway, Italian architecture always looks great against Italian blue skies when only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun..

The castle hosts a small village with restaurants and shops, up-dated from medieval times, of course, but then 21st Century human tourists have different needs to Gradara’s 13th Century citizens  who  would’ve found little need for children’s plastic suits or armour or Gradara t-shirts.

It is a fine space and worth the visit even if you only want to go up onto the parapets for the views.

The soldiers in armour, steel rather than plastic, who defended this part of Italy in medieval times  had a very good look-out position. The fortress is half-way between Rimini and Pesaro  and I remembered the story about the great Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca (c.1415-1492) who is  reputed to have walked over this hills to the castle from his home in Rimini when he was working for the region’s powerful bosses, the Malatesta family.

There are no Piero della Francesca paintings at Gradara but, if you can’t visit Italy without visiting its churches and restaurants, and I plead guilty to both of these sins, there is a powerful and grisly 15th Century wooden crucifix in San Giovanni Battista, the castle’s church. Looked at from three different positions, Christ appears to change from agony to death. There’s lots of blood too to  appeal to lovers of horror movies and to fascinate children who like plastic suits of armour.

There are rather more secular horrors inside the main castle itself where you can visit a dank room supposedly, well, let’s not argue about this,  used as a torture chamber. It certainly has an uncomfortable-looking subterranean grilled pit so I can only imagine what horrible things went on here on olden days. When I was there, I too committed a wicked act of mischief when I was joined by four annoyingly talkative English tourists who were joking about being locked in here. As I left them to their mirth, I noticed that the large reinforced door to the torture chamber was easily closed so, without actually locking it, I pushed it shut with a loud bang.

 Was it laughter or screaming I heard as I climbed back to the daylight? A mixture of both I think.

The restoration of the Gradara Castle during the 1920s has given the place more than a touch of Hollywood but, once that is excepted, it should be embraced, just as those English tourists were doing down in the torture chamber. The castle is rich in stories of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer extravagance.  I was now on my way to see where one of the castle’s most notorious residents was supposed to have lived. The building’s restorers have been charmingly shameless in milking the place’s legends but why not. even if this wasn’t actually her private room, there is a thrill to think that it might have been Lucrezia Borgia’s bedroom.

Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), she who was supposed to have murdered her husbands and to have lived a breathlessly lascivious life, is reputed to have lived here at Gradara when married to her first husband, Giovanni Sforza, the Duke of Pesaro in 1491. She was the illegitimate daughter of the  infamous Borgia pope Alexander VI and sister to the equally notorious Cesare Borgia but she may well have been just a nice girl living in difficult times. The marriage was arranged for dynastic reasons but ended in an equally arranged divorce when the pope decided that the Sforza family was a spent force. Poor Giovanni Sforza was paid off but not poisoned by Lucrezia who might even have liked being married to him. Giovanni though took the dollar and stopped telling everyone that his wife committed incest with her father and her brother. Whatever the truth, there was a steamy atmosphere in that little fresco ornamented chamber. No wonder someone had opened the window.

A portrait that may or may not be Lucrezia Borgia 

Down the corridor from Lucrezia Borgia’s chamber was an even more talked about room, the place, or so they say,  where Francesca da Rimini (1255-1285) fell in love with her husband, Giovanni “Giancotto” Malatesta’s  brother, the handsome Paolo da Verrucchio Malatesta (c.1246-1285). Yes, it’s that Malatesta family again. This was another dynastic marriage that went tragically wrong and became a cause célèbre at the end of the 13th Century.

Gianciotto discovers Francesca and Paolo, 1819, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780 -1867) Musée des beaux-arts d’Angers

This is the very room, well, don’t spoil the story, beautifully furnished in the 1920’s in antique style,  and with the bed neatly remade, where Francesca and Paolo sat reading a book about Sir Lancelot’s love for Queen Guinevere when passion overtook them leading to their eventual discovery by Giancotto, the jealous husband who dispatched them both with his sword. This would be just another tale of love and murder if a certain poet called Dante (c1265 – 1321) hadn’t written it up in Inferno the first book of his Divine Comedy. In Dante’s Inferno, poor Francesca and Paolo are condemned for their uncontrollable passion by being swept around the second circle of Hell in each others’ arms in a perpetual whirlwind.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta with Dante and Virgil, 1854, by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) Hamburger Kunsthalle

Dante, who is being guided around Hell by the Roman poet, Virgil (70BC – 19BC), is far from disapproving of the young couple, in fact, he may have even known Paolo and met him in Florence. This was a hot story when he wrote his great epic. In the Fifth Canto of Inferno,  he meets the couple and when Francesca tells him her tragic story of uncontrolled passion, he is so upset that he falls to the floor in a faint. Dante, after all, was no stranger to passion:

“We were reading one day, for delight, of Lancelot, how love constrained him. We were alone and without any suspicion. Many times that reading made us lift our eyes, and took the color from our faces, but only one point was that which overcame us. When we read of the longed-for smile being kissed by such a lover, this one, who never from me shall be divided, kissed my mouth all trembling. Galahaut was the book, and he who wrote it. That day we read in it no farther.”

In the Romance, it was Galahaut that prevailed on Guinevere to give a kiss to Lancelot.

While one spirit said this the other was weeping so that through pity I swooned, as if I had been dying, and fell as a dead body falls.”

At Gradara, if you can’t get enough of Francesca and Paolo you can even have lunch at their restaurant or maybe that’s not authentic either. I didn’t go there but opted instead for the splendid osteria, La Botte, in the town square …

…where I was joined under the umbrellas by a fearless flock of swallows.

Exhausted by all that crime and passion, I opted for a sensible Italian rustic lunch with a carafe of local wine…

..a very special platter of porchetta…

…served with a cabbage salad. Just the thing to dissipate thoughts of steamy love stories.

I can’t imagine what Tchaikovsky was thinking about when he wrote his extraordinarily dramatic and, yes, romantic, symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini (1876),  but he wasn’t just writing about whirlwinds. When he composed it he was struggling with his own uncontrollable romantic urges. I’m glad this Venezuelan youth orchestra didn’t control its passion though under the baton of the exciting young conductor Manuel Lopez-Gomez because this performance is terrific:

Meanly this cuts off before Tchaikovsky gets to his big romantic tune. If you’re still here, then, go on, indulge yourself and find the rest on Utube or elsewhere. If you get to the end, you might get some idea about what being damned for uncontrolled passion might actually feel like.

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