The Swiss in front of Bellinzona and its castles, 1422.
The Swiss in front of Bellinzona and its castles, 1422. Tschachtlan, Berner Chronik, 1470

Bellinzona’s Castles

The Castles of Bellinzona – Castelgrande, Montebello, and Sasso Corbaro – count among the most outstanding examples of heavy military architecture in the Alpine region. Because they safeguarded access to the Alpine passes, these late-medieval castles were of considerable value to the Duchy of Milan and coveted by the Old Swiss Confederation. As a result of Swiss participation in the Italian Wars, they were seized by the Swiss in 1500 CE, and they have remained under Swiss control ever since.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist, trained world historian and a Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia.

Positioned at the southern entrance to the Alpine passes of St. Gotthard, San Bernardino, Nufenen, and Lukmanier, the area around Bellinzona has been recognized for thousands of years as strategically important. Humans occupied the site where Castelgrande now stands as early as the Neolithic era (c. 5500-5000 BCE). After Augustus Caesar (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) incorporated Ticino into the Roman Empire, the Romans constructed a basecamp on what is now Castelgrande around 1 CE. Through the centuries, this encampment transformed into an inviolable fortress. The Ostrogoths and then the Lombards reinforced older, defensive structures in Late Antiquity, which allowed them to oversee traffic over the Alps and military control over the region. Around the time Otto the Great (r. 962-973 CE) opened the San Bernardino and Lukmanier Passes as part of his imperial policies in Italy, Bellinzona is mentioned for the first time in documents as an administrative district.
View of the city of Bellinzona, popularly known at the time as "Bellentz", around 1642.
View of the city of Bellinzona, popularly known at the time as "Bellentz", around 1642. Swiss National Museum
The Investiture Conflict made Bellinzona and its castles highly desirable to both the Guelph and Ghibelline factions. This conflict, which continued well into the 14th century CE as a set of protracted political conflicts between local elites, transregional rulers, and religious prelates, created tensions amongst the nobility of northern Italy. When the Rusca family of Como took up arms against the Visconti family of Milan (1277-1447 CE), successive armies besieged Bellinzona in 1284 CE, 1292 CE, and 1303 CE. The construction of Montebello likely began during this epoch of internecine warfare. The Rusca ultimately lost control of Como in 1335 CE, and they surrendered Castelgrande to the Visconti in 1340 CE. The Visconti, impressed by the tenacity of the Rusca, permitted the family to retain Montebello, which lies on a hill 90 m above Bellinzona and within close proximity of Castlegrande.
As the name suggests, the largest of the three castles in Bellinzona: Castelgrande.
As the name suggests, the largest of the three castles in Bellinzona: Castelgrande. Wikimedia / Eduardo Manchon
Montebello Castle.
Montebello Castle. Wikimedia / Claudio Vosti
Sasso Corbaro Castle.
Sasso Corbaro Castle. Wikimedia / Clemensfranz

Milanese Heyday

Bellinzona flourished under the Milanese. Interalpine traffic increased, enriching Lombardy, as well as the central Swiss Cantons of Uri, Unterwalden, and Schwyz. Envious of the wealth of their Italian neighbors, the Swiss looked for opportunities to seize control of Bellinzona. Following the death of Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti of Milan (r. 1395-1402 CE), the Swiss found their chance. The noble House of Sax and the Cantons of Uri and Unterwalden took Bellinzona with ease, but they would control the city and its castles for only two decades. The Milanese won the Battle of Arbedo in 1422 CE, and they retook Bellinzona from the Swiss. Curiously, it was the Swiss who initiated the construction of a third castle: Sasso Corbaro. Situated on a hillside 230 m above the city with stunning views of both the Castlegrande and Montebello, Sasso Corbaro is the smallest of the three castles. The Milanese completed this castle’s construction in only six months’ time in 1479 CE.
Battle of Arbedo in 1422, in which the Milanese took back Bellinzona from the Old Swiss Confederation.
Battle of Arbedo in 1422, in which the Milanese took back Bellinzona from the Old Swiss Confederation. On the right the three castles can be seen, on the left the coats of arms of the Swiss and in the middle and on the tents those of the Milanese. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 75
Milanese architects and soldiers under the command of the Visconti and later the Sforza dynasty (1450-1535 CE) augmented and buttressed Castlegrande and Montebello throughout the 1400s CE. They also rebuilt the Murata – the walls located along the western flank of Castelgrande – in addition to Bellinzona’s city walls. Bellinzona was more secure than ever. Although the Milanese fought the Swiss again in 1449 CE (Battle of Castione), 1478 CE (Battle of Giornico), and 1487 CE (Battle of Crevola), they were unable to take Bellinzona as a result of superior Milanese engineering and military prowess.

Swiss Patrimony

The Italian Wars (1494-1559 CE) embroiled the Duchy of Milan, Swiss Confederation, and much of Europe. King Louis XII of France (r.1498-1515 CE) claimed the duchy of Milan by virtue of his descent from the old Visconti dynasty, and he seized Bellinzona along with Milan in 1499 CE. While he promised the Bellinzona as a concession for the services rendered by Swiss mercenaries in the French army, this promise was not kept. French forces occupied the castles in the winter of 1499-1500 CE, angering the citizens of Bellinzona and the Swiss alike. In 1500 CE, the citizens of Bellinzona requested aid from Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden to rid themselves of the despised French. Their appeal was answered, and the Swiss removed the French army from Bellinzona without bloodshed. Successive treaties between the French and the Old Swiss Confederation in 1503 and 1516 CE affirmed Swiss claims to Bellinzona and Ticino; the city and its castles have remained under Swiss control ever since.
The Swiss enter Bellinzona, 1509.
The Swiss enter Bellinzona, 1509. Luzerner Schilling, S 23 fol., p. 632
Facsimile of the Peace Treaty of Fribourg of 1516 between France and the Old Swiss Confederation.
Facsimile of the Peace Treaty of Fribourg of 1516 between France and the Old Swiss Confederation. The contract brought the city of Bellinzona and its defenses into the possession of the Swiss. Swiss National Museum
Each of the three castles was occupied by the three victorious Swiss cantons, and the Swiss maintained garrisons of roughly 80 men at each castle. The Swiss Confederation followed a policy of armed neutrality after their defeat by the French at the Battle of Marignano in 1515 CE, and Bellinzona’s castles gradually lost their former importance over the centuries. A devastating flood of the Ticino River – called the “Buzza di Biasca” – destroyed part of Castlegrande’s Murata in 1515 CE, but this was quickly repaired. However, by the mid-19th century CE, all three castles were dilapidated and in ruins. The situation became so dire that the Canton of Ticino attempted to sell Castlegrande in 1881 CE. The first of a series of ongoing restorations commenced after 1900 CE, while more intensive renovations and restorations continued through 1920-1955 CE. Archaeological and preservational work continues today at the castles, and UNESCO listed the three castles and their respective defensive walls as a single World Heritage Site in 2000 CE. So the castles present themselves as imposing today as described in John Murray’s travel guide from 1852:

The distant aspect of Bellinzona, surrounded by battlemented walls, which once stretched quite across the valley, and overhung by no less than three feudal castles, is exceedingly imposing and picturesque. It looks as though it still commanded, as it once did, the passage of the valley. The luxuriance of vegetation, and the magnificent forms of the mountains around, complete the grandeur of the picture.

"A Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland". London: John Murray, 1852
The Murata, the defensive wall which was to block the valley floor between the castle and the Ticino river, before restoration, 1904.
The Murata, the defensive wall which was to block the valley floor between the castle and the Ticino river, before restoration, 1904. Swiss National Library

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