The history of an ancient site through the centuries and a series of illustrious visitors.
Legends recount that Dante Alighieri took refuge in Montecatini Alto in the early fourteenth century during the bloody Guelph-Ghibelline wars. Just outside the castle, the great poet was approached by a few strangers who asked him a question: “We’re looking for a certain Dante Alighieri. Have you ever met him in this castle?”. It seemed that this was the answer Dante gave: “He was there when I was”.
The Montecatini Alto story is effectively closely bound to historic events and great figures from the past. Celebrated doctor and hydrologist Ugolino Caccini, called Ugolino da Montecatini (1345-1425) was born in the castle. Its military architecture reverberates with a warlike past which saw the total destruction of the castle in 1554 on the orders of Cosimo I of the Medici family. Of the 25 imposing towers which made up the castle’s sophisticated defensive system, very little is recognisable in the current settlement plan. The unusual shape of the hill led to the development of two forts, the old and new fortresses, the latter of which is also called Carmine and has now disappeared. You can admire medieval ruins and towers here such as the famous clock tower with six hour quadrants and Roman numerals. Verdant leaves have now cloaked these important traces of the past right to the top and much has survived in the vicinity of the Carmine Church (XIIIth century) and the former church of Santo Stefano.
The original clock, similar to the one in the castle in Montevettolini, is in visual contact with the oldest nucleus of the medieval settlement – the old fortress. Its imposing bell tower, once defensive in purpose, dominates the entrance to the San Pietro Apostolo parish church. Romanesque architectural elements have survived inside the church – the column capitals – despite later Baroque additions in the eighteenth century. In addition to the many works of art present there are many notable artistic finds in the Sacred Art Museum the most important of which is the Santa Barbara reliquary, Montecatini’s patron saint (XVth century).
The evocative pentagonal fortress is just a short distance from the church and was built after the castle was taken by Florence (XIVth century). One of the the oldest towers is to be found inside this defensive building and archaeological excavations have brought to light traces of private homes dating to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The stone seat used by Giuseppe Giusti – well-known Italian Risorgimento poet who loved to spend long periods of time in the castle at his father’s house in the vicinity of the San Pietro Apostolo church – is set into a niche in the fortress walls.
Montecatini Alto’s well deserved fame, however, is not bound solely to the visits – variously documented – of poets such as Dante and Giusti but also to its important tourist status. The castle’s most illustrious guest was Giuseppe Verdi who considered Montecatini Alto’s panoramas to be some of the most magnificent he had ever seen. The castle benefited from far-sighted hotel and restaurant investments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries linked to convenient accessibility guaranteed by its funicular railway which was opened in 1898. The medieval castle managed to modernise its image without damaging its original identity and became a summer health resort and tourist magnet capable of offering a valid alternative to the spa baths’ many visitors. Central Piazza Giusti is home to very old buildings modernised with taste and style into tourist facilities. The historic Parlascio building – once public assembly hall and now Teatro dei Risorti – is a case in point. The eclecticism of its architectural language dates to modernisation work in the early twentieth century whose colours and original façade are still worthy of note today. The many restaurants and cafés on the square highlight Montecatini Alto’s happy dialogue between tradition and modernity which makes it one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Tuscany and thus in the world.