During the early Rena-issance, the noble Malaspina family became so powerful that it managed to rule over the border region between Tuscany, Liguria, and Emilia for several centuries. Instrumental to this success was their control over the Apuan Alps surrounding the city of Carrara, which allowed them to make great profits by quarrying and trading the worldwide-known local white marble. Nowadays the whole area – the historical region called Lunigiana – abounds in castles and fortresses once belonging to this rich family of dukes and marquises.
One of the most important and best-preserved Malaspina castles, to be found in the little hamlet of Fosdinovo, still belongs to their current descendants. Let's take a trip northwest of Carrara and visit this rocky fortress! Together, we will unveil how the dark intrigues of this medieval family still haunt Fosdinovo, and we will even track Dante's presence inside the castle.
Built in the second half of the 12th century on sandstone rock, this castle is of great historical and architectural importance. It is remarkable, in particular, because of its towering position, now offering breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains on one side and the Tyrrhenian Sea on the horizon, while in the Middle Ages it served as a fundamental military outpost. But in fact, this role was served once again in recent times, during the last years of the Second World War, when the place became part of the Gothic Line and the fortress was occupied by Nazi troops for a few months, during which it was severely damaged by air raids.
Dante – at the centre – during the signing of the Treaty of Castelnuovo. Fresco at Malaspina (Fosdinovo) Castle
With its high towers and ramparts, however, the shape and structure of this building can only bring us back to the times of the Malaspina. The family took full possession of the castle in the first decades of the 14th century, when the great condottiero Spinetta Malaspina “il Grande” (the Great) managed to reconquer these territories – once belonging to the Bishops-Counts of Luni – from the hands of Castruccio Castracani, Duke of Lucca: thus, Spinetta became Lord of Fosdinovo and progenitor of the Malaspina marquises that followed him, while also enlarging the castle and making it his main residence.
The legendary origins of the Malaspina are explained by a painting to be found in one of the first halls of the fortress. According to it, their surname and family motto go back to the year 548, when a noble ancestor called Accino Marzio – in revenge for the murder of his father – killed Theudebert I, King of the Franks, by cutting his throat with a thorn as he slept. Thus, the enemy king's last words (“Ah! Mala spina!”, that is “bad thorn”) were adopted as the family name, while the Latin wordplay “Sum bona spina malis Sum mala spina bonis” (I am a good thorn for the evil, I am a bad thorn for the good) became their official slogan.
During its long history, Fosdinovo became the setting for several political and family intrigues. For example, the lustful marchioness Cristina Pallavicino, widow of Ippolito Malaspina, had a few deadly traps installed in her castle in order to get rid of her thorniest lovers. Alternatively, you can visit the room where one of the marquises was poisoned by his own son: some say that you can still feel his dying breath and weakening heartbeat by touching his bed or listening to the sound of the wooden bedknobs. Needless to say, the castle also has more traditional features, such as its creepy prison and torture chamber.
One of the most famous legends concerning the Malaspina Castle of Fosdinovo is that the place is haunted by a ghost: that of Bianca Maria Aloisia, the albino daughter of Marquis James II. At a young age, Bianca fell in love with a servant whom she wanted to marry despite her parents' fervent opposition to that “shame”: eventually, to put an end to the dispute, the girl's father decided to have her walled up alive in a cell with a dog and a wild boar, symbols of fidelity and rebellion. Some recent excavations have in fact confirmed the presence of a girl's bones and two animals' remains inside the fortress.
Fosdinovo, however, is not known just for these gruesome episodes. According to the tradition, the room located in the most ancient tower of the building was once inhabited by none other than Dante Alighieri during his exile from Florence. As a matter of fact, the Sommo Poeta's friendship with the Malaspina – who suggested him to continue to work on his Divine Comedy – is immortalized by the 18th century frescoes in the main hall of the castle.
All in all, it is no wonder that today the peaceful Malaspina Castle is a Cultural Center and an artists and writers' residence, as well as a museum, and a B&B – if you are willing to spend a night here, surrounded by all these mysteries.