Rocca Calascio: the highest castle in Italy
Rocca Calascio is considered one of the most fascinating places In the world and is immersed in an unique landscape telling the tale of a territory that is still largely to be discovered. Its story starts in the Middle Ages near the Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in central Italy. The castle is located in the municipality of Calascio, in the province of L’Aquila and lies within the National Park of the Gran Sasso and Mountains of the Laga. Perched atop a rocky peak 1,460 meters above sea level, Rocca Calascio is the highest fortress in the Apennine Mountains (the mountain range that runs the length of the Italian peninsula), the highest in Italy and one of the highest in all of Europe. A very important military observation point, the imposing structure stands out above the old picturesque medieval hamlet just below, which has been recently restructured and valorized.
National Geographic included Rocca Calascio among the “15 most beautiful castles in the world” and the castle offers some of the most suggestive views in Abruzzo: of the main mountain groups of the Abruzzo Apennine chain, from the Gran Sasso in the north to the Maiella and Marsicani Mountains, and from the Tirino valley below to the Navelli Plateau and the Conca Peligna in the distance. The castle, dates back to the 11th century and underwent various restructuring works commissioned by bishop Antonio Piccolomini in 1480. One century later, records show the presence of a large tower surrounded by walls and a wooden bridge (a typical structure in medieval architecture, called “rocca” in Italian).
This stronghold lies in a very favourable defensive position and was used as a military watchtower in communication with other towers and castles nearby and up to the Adriatic sea.
The structure started as a single watchtower built in the 10th century, and was gradually built upon and expanded over the following centuries to include four corner towers connected by walls enclosing the original tower in an interior courtyard. In the 16th century, it came under the control of the powerful Medici family, who were interested in controlling Abruzzo’s mountain roads to ensure the flow of wool to the Florentine cloth industry.
Access is through an opening on the eastern side, at about five metres from the ground, and is by means of a wooden ramp, originally a drawbridge, resting on stone brackets.
The fortress itself was built only to be a military facility, and included no accommodations for a civilian population. Nevertheless, a small village sprung up nestled close to the footings of the walls and supported a small community of soldiers, servants, shepherds, and iron forgers which, with their families, moved their homes nearby, to be close to the fortress and have the protection of its defensive walls. Until an earthquake in 1703 destroyed the houses and the fortress. The villagers moved to the lower, safer town of Calascio. The fortress, being severely damaged and, by that point, of questionable use, was abandoned. Rocca Calascio has been an empty ruin ever since. Luckily, after archeological excavations and architectonical research were conducted by professor Fabio Redi of the University of L’Aquila and his team, the castle and the surrounding town have become one of the most important tourist destinations in Abruzzo. A series of conservation works between 1986 and 1989 were made, in order to restore its architectural and functional characteristics.
Nearby is the characteristic Church of the Madonna of Mercy, a splendid piace of worship placed within a surrealistic landscape that seems straight out of a fairytale or fantasy novel.
The church is thought to have been built between the end of the 16th century and the early 17th century as a sign of thanks to the Heavenly Mother for the local inhabitants’ victory over a large band of brigands who had crossed the border from the Papal State, moving from Campo Imperatore towards the estates of the Piccolomini family.
It lies in an isolated position not far from castle, about 1,432 metres above sea level, and It is dedicated to the Madonna of Graces, a new cult introduced by the Franciscans and dedicated to the Heavenly Mother who had to protect the faithful from earthquakes, plagues, wars and famines. The building we see today is probably the result of very basic restoration work conducted in the 19th century. The inside is rather bare consisting of a single nave with five lesenes per side, brickwork pavling and a barrel-vault ceiling. The paintings adorning the ceiling represent a fake cupola with little angels and evangelical symbols on the four sides. Another fresco depicts the Madonna Protecting the Rock, made by “S. Cavaliere”, an artist who was active in the area between the late 19th century and early 20th century. Worthy of note is also the showcase containing the statue of the Madonna of Graces (the one which was borne during processions) and two large stone stoups.
Today, Rocca Calascio is an important tourist destination and has been a film set for national and international movies such as Ladyhawke (1985), The Name of the Rose (1986) in which Sean Connery plays a crime-solving medieval monk, The Bride’s Journey (1997), L’orizzonte degli eventi (Italy, 2005), the RAI TV Serie Padre Pio – Tra Cielo e Terra (ltaly, 2006).
Moreover, during Expo 2015 in Milan, it was portrayed in an exhibition in the Coldiretti pavilion in order to promote the quality of agricultural products and the uniqueness of the landscapes in the Abruzzo region.
In fact the castle looks like it was made in the same limestone rock of the Apennine, as if its incredible architecture was the mountain’s natural creation.