Assisi: Rocca Maggiore

The Rocca Maggiore.

The Rocca Maggiore is the former citadel of Assisi, the eagle’s nest towering high above the town. It is a stiff but rewarding climb to get there: the Rocca offers a panoramic view of Assisi itself, the valley down below, the Umbrian countryside and the imposing Monte Subasio. From the Rocca, visitors can admire some of Assisi’s most famous landmarks, for instance the cathedral of San Rufino, the basilica of Santa Chiara and of course the basilica of San Francesco, the most important church in all of Assisi. The Rocca is also the best spot to see the remaining city walls of Assisi, including the smaller citadel, the Rocca Minore. The history of the citadel goes back almost 850 years, so let us look into it in some detail.

First version

The first version of the Rocca was constructed around the year 1174. At the time, the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1155-1190) was embroiled in a conflict with both Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) and the so-called Lombard League. The emperor campaigned in Italy and was accompanied by archbishop Christian of Mainz (1130-1183), who was not only a man of the cloth, but also a gifted diplomat and general. The archbishop captured Assisi for Frederick and had a citadel built there to keep the town in imperial hands. Its principal inhabitant for the next two decades or so would be Conrad of Urslingen (died 1202). A German by birth, he had been appointed Count of Assisi and – more importantly – Duke of Spoleto by Frederick. His main job was to ensure that the local nobility continued to support the emperor. An information panel in the Rocca claims that the citizens of Assisi nicknamed Conrad mosca in cervello, ‘fly on the brains’, because of his erratic behaviour.

View of Assisi from the valley, with the Rocca Maggiore towering over the town.

Armour on display at the Rocca.

It is quite possible that Frederick Barbarossa’s grandson lived at the Rocca for a while, as Conrad of Urslingen was his tutor. This Frederick II of Hohenstaufen may very well have been baptised at the cathedral of San Rufino too. But surely the claim that this second Frederick had actually been born in Assisi instead of the town of Jesi in the Marche, and that a copyist confused ASIS (i.e. Assisi) and AESIS (i.e. Jesi) simply sounds too good to be true. This theory has apparently been advanced by the Italian historian Arnaldo Fortini (1889-1970), but it seems to have few supporters outside Assisi itself nowadays. In any case, it was soon game over for Conrad and the young Frederick. In 1198, a new pope ascended the throne of Saint Peter, the formidable Innocentius III (1198-1216).

Innocentius was rather young for a pope, perhaps just 37 or 38 years old, but he proved to be extremely competent. He almost instantly ordered Conrad to cede the Duchy of Spoleto, including Assisi, to the Papal States. Since both Frederick Barbarossa and his son and successor Henry VI (1190-1197) were dead, and Frederick II was a four-year-old boy, Conrad had no scruples about abandoning his loyalty to the Empire. He surrendered Spoleto and Assisi to Innocentius, who later became the guardian of young Frederick. One Cencio Savelli – the future Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) – became the boy’s new tutor. Meanwhile, the citizens of Assisi had risen up in revolt and had declared a commune, a community in which the citizens of the town governed themselves and rejected both papal and imperial authority. The nobles that had supported the emperor were murdered, and those who managed to escape fled to Perugia. The Rocca Maggiore, that hated symbol of imperial authority, was torn down. The citizens of Assisi vowed that their town would never again be dominated by a citadel.

Second version

However, as we can tell by simply looking at the skyline of Assisi, this was not to be so. The man chiefly responsible for the second version of the Rocca Maggiore was a Spanish cardinal named Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz (1310-1367). Even though he was a man of the Church, he was also the war-horse employed by two popes, Pope Innocentius VI (1352-1362) and Pope Urbanus V (1362-1370). Both were so-called Avignon popes, the papacy having been moved to this city by Pope Clemens V (1305-1314) – a Frenchman – in 1309. Innocentius VI desired to move it back to Rome, but the problem was that much of Italy, including the Eternal City, was no longer under papal control. If Innocentius wanted to reforge the Papal States, he needed supporters who could win back much of the territories that had been lost during the “Babylonian Captivity” in Avignon.

View of the east side of Assisi, with the Rocca Minore (top left) and cathedral of San Rufino (bottom right).

Medieval clothes and armour.

One of the Pope’s supporters was the self-declared ‘tribune’ Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354). Innocentius sent him to Rome as a senator to pave the way for his own return, but Cola was lynched on the steps of the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli and his body was hung for three days at the church of San Marcello al Corso. Cardinal Albornoz fared a lot better. In 1353 he had been appointed ‘ambassador to Italy’, although the term is a bit of a misnomer for a violent man such as the cardinal. But in all honesty, Albornoz proved to be a competent general and diplomat, who combined brute force with clever diplomacy and occasional bribery. During the remainder of Innocentius’ pontificate and the first years of that of his successor, Urbanus V, the cardinal reclaimed cities and towns such as Viterbo, Orvieto, Spoleto, Rimini, Ancona, Narni and Assisi. His most important trophy was probably the city of Bologna.

Already in 1366, Pope Urbanus V had publicly expressed his desire to return the papacy to Rome. In spring of the next year, he began the journey back to the Eternal City, arriving at the port of Corneto (Tarquinia) in June of 1367. On 16 October of the same year, he entered Rome at the head of his troops. By that time, his trusted servant cardinal Albornoz was already dead. The Pope energetically began restoring the cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano and the Lateran Palace, both victims of a horrible fire in 1308. But with his military man Albornoz gone, Italian cities began to rebel against papal rule. The Pope was urgently needed in France because of developments in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Perhaps more importantly, the move back to Rome had been very unpopular with the French cardinals, who by now dominated the College. There was probably a sigh of relief when, on 4 September 1370, Urbanus V moved back to Avignon. By the end of the year he was dead. It was not until 1377 that the papacy was returned to the Eternal City for good.

View of the east side of Assisi, with the cathedral of San Rufino (left) and basilica of Santa Chiara (right).

View of the Basilica of San Francesco.

Cardinal Albornoz must have ordered a rebuilding of the Rocca Maggiore somewhere between 1353 and 1367, the year of his death. The citadel was later enlarged and provided with quarters for the soldiers, service rooms and prison cells. In 1394, the complex was restored by Biordo Michelotti (1352-1398), a condottiero who ruled over Assisi because of the simple fact that the town had placed itself under his protection. The polygonal tower of the complex (which was unfortunately inaccessible when I visited the Rocca in August 2018) was added in 1458-1459 by Jacopo Piccinino (1423-1465), a condottiero himself and the son of another condottiero, Niccolò Piccinino (1386-1444). The round bastion in the south-eastern corner of the Rocca was added during the pontificate of Pope Paulus III (1534-1549). With this addition, the Rocca Maggiore was complete.

By the end of the sixteenth century, the citadel had become obsolete. In 1600, it was abandoned and sacked. In 1883 it was acquired by the municipality of Assisi and restoration work began in 1891. It continues until the present day. Although the panoramic view is the Rocca’s unique selling point, the staff have done their best to provide visitors with a lot of information about life in the Middle Ages. On display are medieval clothes, musical instruments, weapons and armour (see the pictures above). This will no doubt ensure that kids will enjoy a visit to the Rocca Maggiore as well.

Sources for this post include Donald Spoto, ‘Reluctant Saint’, and John Julius Norwich, ‘The Popes’, Chapter XV. Additional information came from my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides. The information panels at the Rocca were helpful as well.


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