THE ROCCA DI ARONA
As early as the Longobard period, the fortresses of Arona and Angera (one located on the western bank of Lago Maggiore, the other on the eastern one) probably provided the elements for a single defence system that enabled the southern basin of the lake, through which most of the traffic from across the Alps moved towards Milan and Pavia, to be controlled.
The Borromaic period of the history of Arona and its fortress began in 1439, with its enfeoffment by Filippo Maria Visconti to Vitaliano I Borromeo.
Immediately after his investiture, Vitaliano began work on the restoration and expansion of the fortress and on the construction of the military port, connected to the fortress by a “secret road”.
On Vitaliano’s death, the work continued with his son Filippo I, who erected other towers and a further circle of walls around the fortress.
The fortress was the object of disputes and was temporarily removed from the Borromeos in 1495-1499 and in 1500, being returned to Federico I in 1512. During its history it underwent famous sieges, becoming a theatre of episodes of war.
On 2 October 1538 the Rocca di Arona was the birthplace of San Carlo Borromeo, who was born in the “Room of the Three Lakes”, so called on account of the presence of three windows from which it was possible to have three different view of the lake.
As early as the 17th century, the room became the destination for a large number of pilgrims, so it was reconstructed in the apse area of the church of San Carlo, built on the rocky protrusion above the town in the area of the Holy Mountain dedicated to the Saint.
The Rocca fully exploited the physical characteristics of the spur on which it stood and the system of three sets of walls completely surrounded it, with the sole exception of the side of sheer cliffs dropping into the lake.
The complex had an irregular altimetry, which was obviated by a system of flights of steps; differences in height also separated the “piazze d’armi” [parade squares] and the courtyards. The highest wall (five metres high) was the oldest part of the fortress, probably together with the Tower of Santa Maria.
Stretching out at the centre was the Piazza d’Armi, flanked by the soldiers’ Barracks, the Armoury and the little church of Sant’Ambrogio; behind the soldiers’ Barracks were the Stanza dei Molini [Room of the Mills], Saint Charles’ Room and, behind the latter, a building that had a residential function, connected to the other constructions via underground passages and secret pathways.
The pathway, which can still be walked today, solved the problem of a difference in level of 60 metres. The third wall, with four towers, was connected by a steep road running along the inside of it to the Porta del Secondo Recinto [Gate of the Second Wall], where the Main Gatehouse was housed, where today the remains of the old farm are visible.
The enormous complex remained intact until 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte, having defeated the Austrians in Marengo (14 June), ordered it to be dismantled.