The first human settlement on San Michele hill dates back to 5500/5000 B.C., in the Neolithic period. The first archaeologically confirmed fortification was constructed in the fourth century A.D. The presence of a fort is also recalled in a number of documents dating back to the sixth century. It was in the fourteenth century that the castle was first called Castrum Magnum, or “Castel Grande”. This is its name today as well. However, during the Swiss occupation it was called Uri (1630) or Altdorf Castle, and in 1818 the Castle of San Michele.
The castle complex that is currently visible dates back to a range of periods: the earliest construction from the thirteenth century was built upon during a “Milanese” phase (1473-1486), which was followed by a restoration in the early 1600s and considerable overhauls in the 1800s. Its current appearance is the result of the most recent restorations (1984-1991) directed by architect Aurelio Galfetti.
The castellated wall is divided into 3 segments. From one of these, 2 branches of walls spread all the way to the city, and at one time linked up with those coming down from Montebello Castle. It was these walls that protected the hamlet long ago.
On the other side is the defensive wall, which at the time of the Visconti, the Dukes of Milan, reached all the way to the banks of the Ticino River. Built towards the end of the fourteenth century, it was reinforced by the Sforzas between 1486 and 1489 with a bridge over the river and a turret against the mountain, which were destroyed in part by the “buzza di Biasca” landslide in 1515.
The Castle of Montebello
Bellinzona’s second castle dominates Castelgrande from above on Montebello hill, perched ninety metres above the city.
This is the starting point of the walls that once encircled the ancient hamlet until they encounter those descending San Michele hill. Two sections of these walls, which protected the flanks of the formidable fort, are still standing.
The oldest section dates back to the thirteenth/fourteenth century and is believed to have been erected by the Ruscas, a wealthy family of merchants from Como, who kept it even under the rule of the Visconti. The external courtyards with their towers and the triangular fortress were built between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with their current appearance the result of Sforza construction work during the second half of the fifteenth century.
The castle was previously known as Castel Piccolo (“small castle”) (1457-1472), or Montebello Castle. During the Swiss occupation it was renamed Svitto Castle and after 1818 San Martino Castle.
The Ghiringhelli family acquired it towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was later acquired by the Canton in 1903 for the centennial of Ticino independence and restored.
Inside the Castle, the new Archeologia Montebello exhibition itinerary retraces the history of the medieval manor and the restoration works that characterized it, as well as the main stages that have marked the history of mankind reconstructed thanks to the archaeological finds brought to light in our territory.
The Castle of Sasso Corbaro
Named for its location on a rock that is as dark as a crow’s feathers (from dialect “corbatt”), this is a typical Sforza fortress built in a basic geometrical shape. The dungeon and lookout tower are nestled in a square courtyard surrounded by high walls.
Of the three castles, it is the only one with a precise date of construction: 1479. It was built in just over six months by Sforza architect Benedetto Ferrini to complete the defensive barrier meant to prevent the Confederates from reaching Milan.
During the Swiss occupation it was called Unterwalden Castle and in 1818 it was called Santa Barbara Castle.
Sold to a company that wanted to turn it into a hotel in 1870, later on it was rented out to local families as a summer residence.
The restoration works (2004-2006) directed by architect Paola Piffaretti helped to fully realise the castle’s potential, making it a more attractive tourist destination and reinstating the surrounding network of paths.