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A Virtual Tour of Castelseprio and Its Churches

Check out this guided tour at the Unesco World Heritage site of Castelseprio.
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Castelseprio is mentioned for the first time in the seventh century by geographers from Ravenna, who describe it, like many other castles, as a civitas. Archaeological investigations have made it possible to date the fortifications at Castelseprio between the end of the fourth and the fifth century, possibly indicating that they were part of the defensive line in the Alps, known in the written sources as the Tractus Italiae Circa Alpes. Its location was central to the connections between Milan and the Alps and also between other important centers such as Novara and Como.
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It is no coincidence that the defensive walls both delimited the hilltop and then descended to the river at Torba. Like many other castles of this period, Castelseprio consisted of a fortification with many towers enclosing a large area.
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The entrance was located at the higher point of the castrum and was accessed through a monumental bridge. Inside the fortifications, a series of buildings were constructed, including the church known as San Giovanni and its baptistery. There was a cistern attached and some residential buildings, growing in number over the following centuries as the population expanded. At some point outside the castle, another church was built, Santa Maria foris portas, in an area that late medieval sources call “Il Borgo” a sort of village resulting from the expansion of the original castle. During the Lombard period. armed knights lived in this castle. We know this from the grave goods found in tombs excavated in and around the Church of San Giovanni.
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On the plateau, at the southeastern limit of the walls is the tower house, a structure with a rectangular plan originally with two floors, with thick stone walls preserved. From its dominant position near the walls in the stretch overlooking the valley, it has been identified as the guard post or the residence of the authority that governed the castrum. I am Marina de Marchi, medieval archaeologist, and I had the good fortune to to be the director of this site at the moment in which it became recognized, alongside others in Central and Southern Central Italy, a “World Heritage Site,” a UNESCO recognition. We are in an area among the most beautiful in the castle, outside the walls.
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The Church of Santa Maria foris portas is internationally known for the frescoes behind me. These frescoes reveal the adoption of oriental elements with a style that is particularly fluid and rich in strokes, extremely elegant. Its precise date of creation is still at the center of debate between numerous art historians throughout decades, an issue that has not yet been resolved. The subjects illustrated in the apses have been selected from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James and Gospel narratives. The apocryphal scenes include the episode of the trial of the Virgin’s virginity by water, and possibly other scenes from the early history of the Virgin.
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The canonical Gospels scenes include the Annunciation, Visitation, Journey to Bethlehem, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. There has been an enduring tendency to see the paintings at Santa Maria foris portas as standing alone in the artistic landscape of Italy and indeed of Western Europe. New combined C14 and dendrochronological dating for the roof beam of the apse, seem to date these paintings to the mid 10 century. At this date, they stand very much alone in relationship to contemporary practice of Western Europe. Instead, they make sense as the work of artists newly arrived from the Eastern Mediterranean, trained in a sophisticated and classicized pictorial idiom characterized by
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striking references to Roman paintings of the early imperial period. Another building at Castelseprio which at some point received a painted wall decoration, is the Tower of Torba. The tower was originally built as a part of the late Roman fortification and was later used perhaps at the beginning of the eighth century as part of a monastery. There were two separate chambers for burial and for prayer. The lower chamber contains commemorative images of the prominent deceased members of this monastic community, identified by their names. For example, here, Aliberga. In another wall, the lower half of a large cross surrounded by an elaborate inscription is preserved. The cross was accompanied by the letters Alpha and Omega, suspended by triple chains.
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The inscription is much faded, vestigial, and in some places even lost. So the meaning cannot be certain. However, it seems to be the epitaph of a female ecclesiastic whose name was Alexandria. In the upper floor the original painted scheme of a chapel is miraculously preserved. In the east wall of the room between two windows,
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Christ is represented: enthroned, frontal, beardless, with one hand holding a book, with the other gesturing in speech. He is flanked by two angels and accompanied by John the Baptist, St. Peter, and two other apostles.
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Below each of these saints, you can see eight female monastics dressed in dark habits drawn up over their heads, with one hand raised in a gesture of intercession, the other one holding a cross, maybe representing the monastic community living at that time in the monastery. The lower chamber functions as a place of individual commemoration, perhaps as the place of burial of prominent members of the monastery. The upper storey, instead, was used as a chapel for memorial masses, for remembering and praying for the deceased sisters and benefactors of this monastery. The end of the fortification is linked to the urban renewal that characterized many cities of Italy in the 13th century, and which led to the disappearance of many fortresses.
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In 1287, after having conquered and destroyed the site, the municipality of Milan ruled that destruction should be permanent. Because of this, Castelseprio has survived until today. The story of Castelseprio demonstrates how castles flourished in an historical time of crisis. And at the same time, they reveal their weakness in relationship to ancient cities that were destined to prevail.

To finish our course, we are going on a guided tour through the site of Castelseprio.

This site is a late Roman, Early Medieval fortification located north of Milan, in the Lombardy region. Today, it has been transformed into an archaeological park and is the object of investigations by the University of Padua.

In 2011, the park was inscribed to the list of World Heritage Sites as part of a series of sites relating to Lombards in Italy.

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Enlightening the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Archaeology in Italy

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