From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 24
Why Bother with Castruccio?
(14th Century A.D.)

I keep asking myself why I have been struggling for over a year with the dilemma of how to deal with Castruccio Castracani degli Antiminelli, when I could much more easily leave him out of this book, and 99.9% of the readers would be just as happy or happier that I didn’t force them to endure my struggle.

If I were Castruccio’s worst Florentine enemy and had captured him alive, it would be easier to throw him into a cauldron of boiling oil and render him down to a tub of lard and a few bones, than to do justice to him in a mini-chapter. However, he has played an important role in that part of my life spent peering out over the Serchio Valley and the mountains beyond.

So, it is incumbent upon me to at least give him a page or two even if it bores you to tears. Machiavelli considered Castruccio to be one of his “ideal governors” and also one of the greatest historical figures of his era. Why, the great Machiavelli even took the time to write an entire book about Castruccio in 1520 is a good question.

Two prominent features that greet my eyes when I peer out from my window or from the Palazzo loggias, are the towns of Ghivizzano and Coreglia degli Antiminelli. The histories of both towns are inexorably woven into the life and times of Castruccio, who captured Coreglia in 1316 after a 58-day siege, having been appointed Captain General of Pisa. And, it was Castruccio who enlarged the Castello of Ghivizzano so that his entire Court could meet there after Ludovico of Bavaria named Castruccio the Vicar of Pisa, and the Duke of Lucca, Pistoia, Volterra and Luni.

Just imagine! One of the most important and powerful men in the history of Europe chose Ghivizzano as a place to hold his Court. It is certain that the citizens of Gioviano would be involved, cutting firewood and helping to cook in order to feed the hundreds of soldiers that would accompany the Court. Last rites would be said over hogs, goats, and chickens that would be slaughtered and sold to the Luccans.

There would certainly not be enough places to sleep in Ghivizzano alone, so it is inevitable that members of the Court and military leaders would have been invited to stay in the palazzi of the more noble of the Gioviano families. The soldiers of lesser rank would have bedded down in the homes of the more humble citizens.

Now you are probably just a little curious about this fellow – Castruccio Castracani degli Antiminelli - and you would like just a short synopsis of his life, which did indeed have an impact not only on Gioviano, but on most of Europe as well. Had he not died at age 47 after the siege of Pistoia in which Florence had been soundly defeated, Lucca would have inevitably been the birthplace of the Renaissance rather than Florence. There are dozens of scholars who spent their entire lives attempting to sort out all of the political intrigue, wars, sieges, plagues, and chaos that was taking place in Europe in the Middle Ages and who went to their graves never having figured it all out. I have spent enough of the last 25 years attempting to learn just a fraction of what the scholars did learn, and I am still confused, so I have decided to move on with my life after I attempt to paint a miniature portrait of Castruccio.

He was born in Lucca in 1281. His family was of the emerging middle class of merchants whose rise in wealth and influence was threatening the power of the nobility and the aristocratic merchant and banking families.

There were basically two political parties at that time, the Guelphs who supported the Pope and the Ghibellines who allied themselves with the Emperor and were nearly always at odds with the Pope. You will see castles and towers of these two factions scattered all about. The Pope-loving Guelphs topped their towers with simple square teeth with gaps in them from which to shoot at the enemy, while the Emperor-loving Ghibellines topped their towers with fancier battlements resembling fish tails.

Complications in this rather simple sounding political divide set in when the Guelphs broke into two factions. The Black Guelphs were made up of the noble and ruling class, and the White Guelphs were made up of the emerging middle class of craftsmen and merchants. To add to the confusion, the White Guelphs often allied themselves with the Ghibellines. It sort of reminds me of Texas politics today with the Democrats and the Republicans at constant odds, and then the Democrats split up into factions with the more fascist, Bible-thumping faction siding with or becoming Republicans.

The Castracanis, being amongst those of the rising middle class, became White Guelphs. The Blacks, fearing the Whites, exiled the Whites from Lucca in 1300. Castruccio, who was only 19 years old at the time, wandered over to Pisa for awhile, then up to northern Europe and eventually he found his way to England. There, his uncle was a physician to King Edward II, which gave Castruccio great advantage in terms of upward mobility.

The young man was extremely bright and learned English right away, probably with one of those sexy Italian accents. He was soon a favorite of the Royal Court and learned the art of war amongst other skills. He was accused of murder and had to flee England but was vindicated by the King.

When the Emperor, King Henry VIII, decided to journey to Italy in an attempt to bring peace between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in 1313, Castruccio accompanied him as part of his entourage and as one of his military leaders. Henry was unsuccessful in calming the rancor between the two sides; and so in 1314, Castruccio decided to join the Ghibelline Army in Pisa. The Pisans, with Castruccio’s military acumen, captured and sacked Lucca. Two years later, he was elected to the position of Captain General of the Pisan Army.

Thus from 1314 until his death in 1328, Castruccio played a central historic role on the grand stage where a never-ending drama continues to be played out just below my Tuscan window. Hold your horses, you can’t let out a sigh of relief just yet. The death of Castruccio is not quite the end of the story of the Castracani family, members of whom would still be staring at Gioviano from their castle in Ghivizzano for at least another 37 years, with the Giovianini staring back at the forestieri.

Castruccio’s uncle, Francesco, attempted to fill his nephew’s shoes but that was not to be. Francesco degli Antelminelli and the rest of the family were forced out of Lucca and moved to their castle in Ghivizzano, where Francesco lived until 1365. Castruccio’s sons decided that they should inherit their father’s position and powers. By 1330, they felt that they were powerful enough to enter Lucca and take the city.

The two young men and their German mercenary army, breached the walls of Lucca but ironically were not able to breach and defeat the Augusta fortress that their father had built within Lucca’s walls to withstand any enemy. The Castracani boys were once again driven out of Lucca. Castruccio’s empire, that at its height included much of central Italy, was reduced to a single stage in Ghivizzano where the last act was played out just below my Tuscan window.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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