Like a diadem, nature and history adorn the Casentino. We are in one of the four valleys of the province of Arezzo, which holds glimpses of a fabulous atmosphere in which man lives for centuries in perfect harmony with the environment.
There are a thousand reasons to fall in love with this corner of Tuscany, a destination that brings together food and wine tourists, pilgrims and motorcyclists, hikers and history enthusiasts – especially about the Middle Ages.
More than “dark centuries”
In addition to its beautiful forests, the Casentino is famous for the traces that, from the Etruscans onwards, several peoples have left. In your holiday here, you will wander within a unique historical heritage that has fortunately been preserved intact until today.
This area of the province of Arezzo is full of abbeys, hermitages, parish churches and monasteries. Many were built during the Middle Ages. Think that if you had lived then you would have spotted a castle on top of every hill.
Some of these have gone down in history for hosting none other than Dante Alighieri. You got it right, the very author of the Divine Comedy.
The Casentino and Dante
Banished from his Florence, the Supreme Poet took refuge in Casentino and was a guest of Conti Guidi. From now on, you will often hear the name of the noble family that maintained for a long time the political and administrative control over the Casentino.
Speaking of the Guidi, there is a stone giant that dominates the whole valley. It is one of the symbols of Casentino and cannot be missed in your itinerary in the province of Arezzo. You are about to meet a colossus which in this valley is a bit of a star: His Majesty: the Castle of Poppi.
Around the Village
Poppi is a typical Medieval village, situated on top of a hill and surrounded by ancient crenellated walls. You can reach it from viale Vittorio Veneto, passing by the War Memorial of 1936. You will understand that you have arrived in the old city centre because of the unmistakable arcades along Via Cavour, the main road.
At one of its ends there is the Oratory of the Madonna del Morbo, a pretty Seventeenth-century church in baroque style with the hexagon-shaped plan. Take a walk in this small urban jewel that is included in the list of the most beautiful villages in Italy looking for alleys and buildings to photograph. From Via Cavour a climb separates you from Piazza della Repubblica, in front of the fortress.
The Arno and the plain of Campaldino
What strikes the most about the Castle of Conti Guidi at first glance? Certainly part of the charm of this imposing and elegant building depends on its strategic location, right on top of the hill of Poppi.
Downstream, towards Ponte a Poppi, flows the Arno. Also below there is the plain where on June 11th, 1289 in the Battle of Campaldino, the Florentine Guelphs defeated the Ghibellines of Arezzo. Among the ranks of the Guelphs there was also Dante, as a horse-drawn feditore. Later, in his otherworldly journey recounted in the Comedy, the poet mentions this bloody fight
The Castle of Poppi, from the outside
You have not yet entered, yet history and literature are already intertwined around the fortress. Think that it took at least one hundred years to build it and it is the most recent residence among those that belonged to the Conti Guidi in Casentino.
It is indisputable that the figure of Dante contributes to the charm of the manor. In the square in front of the Castle of Poppi to the left of the entrance, there is a bust of the “ghibellin fuggiasco“, in memory of his stay in Casentino.
A dose of literature for you: it seems that, during his stay at the Guidi, Alighieri wrote the song XXXIII of Hell. It is time to take out the smartphone and read aloud some lines of the Divine Comedy in front of the bronze face of Dante. It would be an exceptional tribute to the work and life of the most famous Florentine exile in the world.
The Outside, everything you need to know
Now concentrate on the structure of the manor house. Above the enormous parallelepiped, the bell tower rises upwards, as if it wanted to pierce the sky. On cloudy days it is worth taking a few minutes to simply observe the contours blurred by the fog. With good weather the prospect that soars towards the blue is a different show, but equally impressive.
The castle has remained very similar to what it was in the Middle Ages except for the tower, 50 meters high. And think that at the end of the Nineteenth century it was also shortened, after a lightning strike. Where you see the belfry, before there was a crown of blackbirds.
Two architects, Lapo and Arnolfo di Cambio worked at the fortress. The latter was also the designer of Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and it is said that the Castle of Poppi (especially its tower) was for him a model and a source of inspiration.
The facade, yesterday and today
Approach the entrance to the fortress. Cross a small bridge – below there is a moat, but no water or crocodiles and access to the ammunition. It is a fortified square that served as the armed guard of the manor. Originally there was a drawbridge here, just like in fairy tales.
Past this kind of antechamber you will find yourself in the outer courtyard, a stretch of lawn around the building. Did you notice the stone well on your left?
There are many interesting curiosities about the Castle of Poppi. For example, you probably do not know that in the past it had two doors. The largest one was facing the valley and you could reach it climbing up a steep ramp. The other was facing the square of arms.
Today you enter the Lion’s Gate. A somewhat threatening name, which comes from the fair depicted in the bas-relief above the portal. You will have to look even higher to count the mullioned windows which open countless views on the facade.
The Castle of Poppi, from inside
Do not be intimidated by the ferocious sculpted feline guarding the entrance and advance towards the inner courtyard of the castle. You will probably feel like you are on a movie set or inside a historical novel.
In addition to the refined wooden balconies, this room has walls decorated with noble coats of arms. Those on the ground floor are made with the technique of glazed terracotta and signed by the workshop of Della Robbia, illustrious Florentine master potters.
Pages and pages of treasures
The manor is entirely open to visitors. You can start at this level by exploring the prison and the staples of the Guidi. There is another architectural detail which will capture your attention, namely the splendid Fifteenth-century staircase designed by the architect Jacopo di Baldassarre Turriani.
Climb its stairs and after a few steps you will reach the entrance of the Rilliana Library, the jewel of this village in the province of Arezzo. You are in a special place, the result of the donation to Poppi citizens of the whole collection of Count Fabrizio Rilli Orsini.
About 25,000 ancient volumes and pamphlets, including more than 700 incunabula and 800 manuscripts from the 11th century, complete with miniatures and ornate letters are part of the library heritage. Real works of art to travel back in time.
Two Floors of Wonders
On the first floor of the castle admire the Salone delle Feste, theatre – at the time of the Guidi – of sumptuous banquets and entertainment shows. Among the decorations stands out the ceiling trusses. It is the room where the last regent of the family, Francesco, officially surrendered to the rule of the Republic of Florence in 1440.
Then venture to the so-called main floor of the fortress (the second) and cross the frescoed rooms, once inhabited by powerful tenants. At this level a model of the Battle of Campaldino with thousands of soldiers of lead (there are more than 6,400!), positioned according to the information collected in the context of historical research, is displayed.
Always on this floor you can enjoy a treasure that makes the Casentino citizens proud. It is the Chapel of the Guidi. On the walls and vaults you will see a cycle of frescoes from the first half of the Fourteenth century attributed to Taddeo Gaddi, a pupil of Giotto.
And as a memento, an extraordinary view
Now we need an ending with a bang. The Castle of Poppi can give you the ideal goodbye, but you still have to climb “a few” steps. To be exact, another 104: those of a wooden staircase that is taken from the balcony (be careful, it is steep!).
Rest assured that the view from the top of the tower is worth the effort of this climb. A panorama that perhaps even Dante had the opportunity to contemplate and a precious memory of this gem in the province of Arezzo.