All roads heading north from Riva del Garda take you into a new region of Italy, Trentino. Our main destination for the afternoon was Castel Beseno but we were booked in for dinner at Castel Toblino and finishing the evening with a visit to the Campana dei Caduti (Bell of the Fallen) in Rovereto. From here it would be a sleepy drive home to our hotel in Malcesine.
Castle Beseno is the largest castle in the small province of Trentino, Northern Italy. Getting the gong for being the largest castle in a region is probably not immediately obvious as an impressive statistic but when you consider that there are at least another 28 castles in the region, you start to get a sense of its eminence in the castle category. The immediate thought is to ask the question, “Why the need for so many castles?” Perhaps the best answer is that if you have a lot of belligerent neighbours and they insist on crossing your territory in order to fight people on the other side, the need for protective fortresses to keep such wolves at bay appears fairly necessary. Northern Italy is neighboured by France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. If you can consider Slovenia just a transition area for the ambitious Ottoman Empire to the south, you get a sense of how important castles would be for the locals. If you consider that surely France is too far to the west to be bothered with Castle Beseno in Trentino, you would be wrong. Napoleonic troops sacked this castle in 1796, presumably on the way to do likewise to the city of Rome. By the 19th century, Beseno Castle was no longer of any use in protecting the local population and so was handed over to the state in 1973. It was substantially renovated and is now a branch museum of the province.
The castle is an impressive sight on its mountain overlooking the valley below. The first fortress built here was in the 12th century and had a turbulent military history for many centuries. Our journey through the castle started at the outer wall where the gate allowed us entry into what was originally a tournament field, an enclosed area where on Summer weekends tents and displays are set up and historical enactments of life in the 16th century castle are provided.
The open section of the castle that can be seen in the image below (the ‘Grande Piazza’) left leads the visitor up into the museum where displays of weaponry and protective equipment of Middle Ages warfare are to be found. We were allowed to try on the helmets and various pieces of armour to get a sense of what life might have been like if the enemy appeared at the castle gates. Beseno Castle is an early Medieval fortress that was built to keep out armed warriors in armour with swords and long pikes; luckily in those years they didn’t have to dodge cannon balls coming over or through their stone wall defences. This at times one on one fighting sounds like the soldiers could base their survival on their skill with weapons and their own agility. This would have been needed in the major battle of the 15th century which is briefly described here from the Castle’s website.
“On the 10th August 1487, in fact, the plain below the castle was the scene of the confrontation between the Tyroleans and the Venetians who were moving towards Trento in an attempt to expand their hegemony over that territory. The republic of Venice suffered an unexpected and resounding defeat and the famous leader Roberto da Sanseverino lost his life during the battle.”
The overhead shot of the castle below illustrates the journey the soldiers would have had to have made their way down to the valley below to confront their 15th century enemies.
The illustration below of such a battlefield shows that in battles of the time, the pike was king, even getting a sword out in such a melee meant that you were opening yourself up to all sorts of workplace health and safety disasters. Survival on the battlefields of the 15th century looked to be based on luck, not personal skill and agility.
While I enjoyed checking out the Museum of armaments in the castle, it reminded me that I was lucky to have lived my life free of having been called up to defend my castle against any form of armoured attack, whether it be the close contact of medieval warfare in the Trentino mountain valleys or the machine gun battles of the jungles of Vietnam.
APPENDIX 1: How many castles are there in Trentino Italy?