If you visit Sirmione, the pearl of Lake Garda, it is certainly hard to miss the castle of the town, the Rocca Scaligera. Sirmione is situated on a promontory which extends into the lake and which is, from north to south, about four kilometres long. The last kilometre or so is dominated by the castle, which was built at the narrowest point of the promontory. If you want to go on into town, you will have to cross a bridge here and pass through a gate (see the image on the right). A second bridge then gives access to the castle, which is completely surrounded by water. Sirmione has always been important because of its strategic location on the shores of the lake, but the castle was built as late as the thirteenth century (although it is possible that there had been a fortified guard post at this spot). As the name of the building indicates, the history of the castle is intertwined with that of the Della Scala family from Verona, also known as the Scaligeri. It was probably Leonardino della Scala, nicknamed Mastino (and murdered in 1277), who commenced construction of the castle. In those days, Sirmione had two little ports. Mastino had the eastern port converted into a keep with its own harbour, while the western port was turned into a square, the current Piazza Giosuè Carducci.
The harbour of the Rocca Scaligera is called the Darsena, which is the Italian word for a dock. This dock provided the Della Scala fleet with a safe shelter. From here it could dominate the entire Lake Garda and win fame and glory for the Ghibelline party. The crenellations of the castle give a clue that the Della Scalas supported this pro-imperial party in Italy: they have the shape of a swallow’s tail (those of their pro-papal adversaries the Guelphs were rectangular). Della Scala rule in Sirmione lasted little more than a century. In 1378 Verona found an enemy in the notorious Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), Lord of Milan. Visconti took the city in 1387 and presumably not much later added Sirmione to his territories as well. He also happened to be the archenemy of Florence, which is why he was depicted as the bad guy (i.e. the prefect of Antiochia) in one of the frescoes in the famous Brancacci Chapel in that city. Fortunately for the Florentines, Gian Galeazzo Visconti died suddenly in September of 1402 and was succeeded by his son Gian Maria Visconti, who just a few days later celebrated his fourteenth birthday.
The son did not hold a candle to his father and under Gian Maria the Duchy of Milaan soon crumbled. Already in 1405, the Venetians took Sirmione. Their rule did not end until 1797, and as a result the appearance of the Rocca Scaligera is largely their work. This is especially true for the Darsena. The dock built by the Della Scalas was probably made of wood, but the Venetian dock is completely built in stone (see the image on the right). The castle retained its strategic importance until the end of the sixteenth century, but then lost its position to the much more modern fortress at Peschiera del Garda, just southeast of Sirmione. The Venetian Republic was dissolved in 1797 and Sirmione subsequently came under French and then Austrian rule. During the Austrian era the castle served as a depot for supplies and weapons. In 1861 Sirmione became part of the Kingdom of Italy. The Rocca Scaligera has been a national monument since 1917.
The unique selling point of the castle is the view it has in store for visitors. The view from the walls is nice, but the view from the keep (mastio), which is 47 metres high, is truly magnificent, especially on a clear day. If you look south from this tower, you will see how the promontory is connected to the mainland. In some places it is less than 100 metres wide. In the west one can see the left shore of Lake Garda in the distance and the east offers a good view of the Darsena down below. However, the view to the north is by far the most interesting. To the right of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore one can see a piece of wall and a tower, a clear indication that the defences surrounding the castle were once much more elaborate. In fact, the current campanile of the church was once part of these defences, and that explains why it is now freestanding.
Behind the Santa Maria Maggiore is a hill and this is where the green part of Sirmione begins. In this part of town we may visit the church of San Pietro in Mavino, while at the far end of the promontory we find the ruins of a Roman villa, the so-called Grotte di Catullo. Although these attractions cannot be seen from the keep, this high tower is still the best place to get a better grasp of the geography of Sirmione.