[Emilia Romagna Villages] Castell’Arquato: Middle Ages among the vineyards
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Driving along the rural roads of Piacenza countryside, between hills and vineyards, the profile of a village made of towers and merlons suddenly emerges: it is the medieval village of Castell’Arquato, that rises impressive on a hill of Val d’Arda, the most eastern valley of Piacenza (from which the village is about 30 km far).
Getting closer to the village and walking through the narrow cobbled alleys, between vaults and low terraced houses, we can note that it is composed of two parts, divided and yet harmonious: a first part at the foot of the hill formed by the medieval neighborhoods of Borghetto and Monteguzzo, and a second part on the top around the monumental square, with the Podestà Palace, the Collegiata and the Visconti Fortress.
The village is one of the Most Beautiful Villages in Italy and is TouringClub’s Orange Flag; let’s go discover its history and typicality with our guide to places, events and products not to be missed.
According to some, the name of Castell’Arquato comes from Caio Torquato, the Roman patrician who founded the first castrum; according to others more simply from castrum quadratum, to indicate its quadrangular shape.
Founded in the 2nd century BC as Roman defensive structure, the village survived the barbarian invasions, but around mid-500 was struck by a terrible plague.
The first official news of Castell’Arquato as an organized court dates back to 756, during the rule of Charlemagne; to his death the village passed to the Bishop of Piacenza, who kept it until 1200.
From 1220 to 1223 the village lived a short period as a free commune, then passed to the Podestà appointed by the municipality of Piacenza among the most distinguished families, such as the Scotti and the Visconti; the two families collided for long time for the domination of the place, and the competition was finally gained by the Visconti family. It has been Luchino Visconti in 1342 to build the fortress that we can still admire.
In 1450 the village passed to the Sforza dynasty, whose government ended in 1707 when the Castell’Arquato territory became part of the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza; the new lords, the Farnese and the Borboni, kept the power until the advent of Napoleon and later of Marie Louise. In 1860 the dominion passed finally to the Savoia family and then to the Italian state.
In the upper part of the village, the Visconti Fortress, erected by Luchino Visconti between 1342 and 1349, has a L-shaped double-walled plant. Of the four defensive towers, just the eastern one has remained intact until today. The whole complex is dominated by the Mole del Dongione, which is worth the climb for the splendid view above Val d’Arda and for the Medieval Life Museum that it hosts.
Next to the Fortress, the Collegiata Complex is one of the oldest churches in the area: the first informations about it dates back to 756 when it has function of baptismal church; rebuilt after the earthquake of 1117, it has been consecrated in 1122. On the left side of the church we find the fifteenth-century portico called “Heavenly” because it houses the tombs of illustrious figures.
On the north side of the square we find the Podestà Palace, built in 1292. The oldest part of the building is the rectangular keep, to which during the fifteenth century have been added other sections, such as the Loggetta dei Notari, now office of the Tourist Information Bureau. The facade is harmonized by an outside staircase.
Ph. Carlo Grifone
Ph. Massimo Tel
To find out the best of local culture, we recommend a visit to the local museums:
the Medieval Life Museum located in Visconti Fortress, to discover the history of the village and enjoy the breathtaking panorama over Val d’Arda;
the Collegiata Museum, which conserves archaeological finds, liturgical objects, sculptures and paintings;
the Luigi Illica Museum, right next to the birthplace of the famous librettist, which collects music sheets, manuscripts, sculptures, letters and testimonies;
the G. Cortesi Geological Museum, housed in the former Hospital of Santo Spirito, which collects fossils and finds dating back to geological times, when the hill on which the village rises was submerged by waters.
For those who enjoy nature and hikes, the area offers many possibilities, from the Piacenziano Geological Reserve to the Santa Franca Forest. The territory of the Val d’Arda is covered by woods in the upper part and by vineyards going downhill.
Other nice excursions are the neighboring castles of Gropparello and Vigoleno, that along with Castell’Arquato are part of the Castelli del Ducato di Parma e Piacenza circuit.
Finally, a stop at the Municipal Wine Cellar is the best way to discover and taste the rich local wine production (info and timetables).
Castell’Arquato is a lively village, rich in initiatives and events, including:
Monterosso Festival | In mid-April, the festival dedicated to the white wine of the Val d’Arda, which can be tasted in the stands along the streets of the village.
Silver Flag | In mid-June the vintage car race on the Castell’Arquato – Vernasca route, dedicated every year to a different car company.
Rivivi il Medioevo | In the first weekend of September a costume tournament and medieval fighting, themed market and food stalls along the streets and squares of the country.
Besides, we recommend to consult the full calendar for other ideas and initiatives.
Food and wine
Among the typical first courses of the village there are the traditional pisarei e fasò (flour gnocchi with a bean sauce) and tortelli “with the tail”, but also the anolini with broth which are filled with grana padano cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs.
On the table of Castell’Arquato you should not miss the DOP cured meat, such as coppa, pancetta and salame piacentino, along with the typical chisolini or the delicious burtleina, greedy substitutes for bread.
As regards the wines, Monterosso Valdarda Doc (from which the Festival takes name) is produced only in the surrounding valleys, so it is the local wine by definition: yellow colored, it is a delicate and dry wine, ideal with cured meat and risotto. Among the other great Doc wines of the area you can’t miss Ortrugo, Malvasia & Sauvignon among the whites, Gutturnio and Bonarda among the reds.
Luigi Illica was born in Castell’Arquato on May 9th, 1857; journalist and playwright he was one of the most important librettists of the post-Verdian era. He worked for Giacomo Puccini, Alfredo Catalani, Umberto Giordano and Pietro Mascagni.