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The winery that produces the wine Chianti Classico operates within the walls of the Castello di Volpaia, a fortified village of medieval origin. The first document in which the village was clearly mentioned was written at Cintoia, another small village about 12 miles (19 kilometres) south of Florence, on April 21, 1172. It notes that the brothers Franculus and Galfredus da Cintoia, after having obtained the consent of their father and of "Liquiritia, uxor Franculi" (wife of Franculus), have obtained a loan of 28 silver pounds from Spinello da Montegrossoli. Their possessions, situated in the "court and castle of Vulpaio," were offered as security for repayment of the loan. The document was published by L. Pagliai in che Regesta Chartarum Italiae (page 217).
The castle was probably constructed in the 10th century, when others were being built in the upper valley of the Pesa River. It perches on the ridge of one of a series of hills stretching from the Badia (Abbey) of Montemuro toward Radda. Posted on the very spine of the hill separating two small valleys formed by tributaries of the Pesa, it could be defended easily. The choice of site is evidence of the basic insecurity of feudal society.
In Volpaia's case, the siting of the castle had a more specific significance, for it was constructed in a frontier area between Florentine and Sienese territories. From the political point of view, the fortified village, along with the nearby Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, was considered by the end of the 11th century to be within the jurisdiction of Florence. Any uncertainties on that point were dissipated early in the second half of the following century when the district became a dependent territory of Florence. It was at that time that the Republics of Florence and Siena first marked out their common border.
When Florence in 1250 organized its possessions, creating the autonomous jurisdictions of the "Leghe", Volpaia was placed within the district of the Lega del Chianti among the people of the "Terzo" of Radda in Chianti. The political arrangement, in turn, determined the territorial organization of the Church and the layout of the region's network of roads. Volpaia was incorporated in the diocese of Fiesole and the village-castle's church, dedicated to St. Lawrence the Martyr, was dependent on the Chapel of Santa Maria Novella. The chapel was an important hub in the Chianti highway system. A road that began at the little community clustered around the walls of the chapel and passed by the Castello di Volpaia connected the upper valleys of the Pesa and Arno. That route was responsible for the construction at Volpaia in the 15th century of a hospice where pilgrims could find shelter. The road descended to the floor of the Val di Pesa, where some traces of its path are still visible today. The route then climbed the mountains again in the direction of Albola. From that point, it was an easy climb to the ridge of the mountains separating Chianti from the upper Valdarno.
The battles of the 15th century.
Situated along the "spinal cord" of Chianti, Volpaia repeatedly had to suffer the consequences of the ancient rivalry of the Republics of Florence and Siena. The borders of the two states touched in the immediate vicinity of the castle. Each state found the other an obstacle to its territorial expansion and there was never any lack of pretexts for armed forays and clashes as each sought to improve its position at the other's expense. The most devastating raids were those led by the mercenary captain Alberico da Barbiano during the war between Florence and the Visconti. And there were two disastrous invasions by the Aragonese army in 1452 and 1478. Twice, the Castello di Volpaia found itself on the front line in the Florentine Republic's defense of its possessions in the Terzo di Radda. It was in the course of the second Aragonese invasion that the castle and its inhabitants gave the greatest proofs of their loyalty to Florence.
On December 24, 1477, Siena and Ferdinand II of Aragon (better known as Ferrante), King of Naples, signed an alliance directed against Florence. The following year, that military combination was reinforced when Pope Sixtus IV brought the Holy See into the alliance. Sixtus was angry with the Medici because the Florentines had accused the pontiff's grandson, Raffaele Sansoni, Cardinal of San Giorgio, of involvement in the Pazzi conspiracy. The plotters succeeded in wounding Lorenzo the Magnificent and killing his brother, Giuliano. The assassins attacked the two Medici as they attended mass in the cathedral of Florence. It was generally believed at the time (and is now regarded as certain) that Sixtus IV was behind the conspiracy.
In July, 1478, the combined armies of Siena ad Naples attacked the Florentine state, advancing along the valley of the Staggia River. They besieged and captured the castle of Rencine. In August, the allied armies took possession of the principal fortifications of the Chianti region, one of which was Volpaia. Articles three and six of the alliance stipulated that all the lands and castles conquered by the allies within a radius of 15 miles (24 kilometres) of Siena would become that city's property. It appeared, therefore, that Volpaia would henceforth adhere to the Sienese cause and join in the war against Florence. Things turned out otherwise, for later in August Volpaia rebelled against the Sienese, who had only just taken possession. The garrison that had been stationed in the village was driven out and the Sienese commissioner, whose name was Cipriano, was taken prisoner and sent to Florence.
As soon as they learned of the revolt, the allied armies returned under the leadership of Federigo, the son of the King of Naples. On September 2, they overcame the defenders' resistance and the castle at Volpaia was again devastated. However, Sienese control was not fated to endure. On October 7 of the same year, the Florentines recaptured the fortifications, along with the great majority of the Chianti castles. The war had spread beyond the territory of Chianti and there were numerous shifts of fortune. But armies and battles were not decisive, for neither side was able to achieve a complete victory. Finally, a truce was arranged in Rome in 1479 and it was transformed into a peace treaty in March, 1480.
The testimony of art
Despite repeated devastation and reconstruction, the Castello di Volpaia still preserves many traces of its past as a Florentine outpost in the territory of Chianti. The fortress, which consisted of a belt of walls, was mainly elliptical in plan. Incorporated in the ramparts was a series of defense towers. Most of them, posted at the side of the entrance gate, were intended as final refuges in the event that the outer defenses fell to an enemy. All that remains today of those fortifications, beyond a few stretches of the original walls, is the ponderous principal tower of the fortress, built on a rectangular plan, as well as one of the subordinate towers. It is obvious that a cylindrical tower on the north side of the castle was added at a later date, since the stonework is different. The tower is built of carefully trimmed, squared stone, while the remaining stretches of walls and towers are much more roughly assembled. It is most probable that the cylindrical tower was erected after the destructive Aragonese invasion of 1478.
A lane cuts across the castle's inner precincts along its major axis, dividing the interior into two nearly equal parts. That lane begins at the castle's principal gateway. All trace of that entrance has vanished, for the whole southwestern section of the walls underwent many extensive alterations over the centuries. However, that stretch of wall appeared in a print produced in the 18th century. There are numerous vestiges of medieval construction in that sector for parts of the ancient defense walls were incorporated in later structures erected for habitation.
Within the chain of walls was the ancient church of Volpaia. Its façade still retains a rose window, although its opening has been sealed with stone. Above the relatively simple portal an archivolt or ornamental band encircles the ogival or pointed Gothic arch. The church is more or less rectangular in plan with a single nave roofed over by simple beams that were left unconcealed. The roughness of the construction would suggest a 14th-century origin. However, it is also possible that the church was built into the ruins of a Romanesque chapel in the last half of the 15th century when damage caused by the Aragonese invasion was being repaired. One of the surviving defense towers was retained as a bell tower for the church, which was de-consecrated in the 19th century following the construction of the new church of Volpaia.
The total lack of architectural elaboration and the absence of sculpted decorative elements frustrate all attempts to establish an exact date for the construction of the Castello di Volpaia. The oldest part of the walls, where the courses of stone are perfectly dressed, could go back to the first half of the 13th century. Because there was a quarry nearby, which was exploited until fairly recently, the walls of the Volpaia castle are built primarily of sandstone. The stone's darkness gives the castle a somewhat gloomy aspect, which is rather unusual in Chianti. In that area, the sunny brilliance of limestone usually prevails even in structures intended solely for defense.
Dating the castle's most remarkable structure, the tower-church dedicated to St. Eufrosino, the evangelist of the Chianti district, poses no serious problems. The church, which is the castle's proudest monument and its symbol, was built between 1443 and 1460 and it is generally known as "La Commenda", since it was founded as a commenda, a benefice or "living", in 1443 by Ser Piero della Volpaia. The first priest appointed to the benefice was Fra Bartolomeo Canigiani, a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.
The design and the structure of the Commenda di Sant'Eufrosino, the façade of which is reproduced on the label of the Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico, are of the 15th century. And both were obviously based on the architectural conceptions of Michelozzo Michelozzi, a student of Donatello, whose principal surviving monument is the Medici Palace in Florence. However, certain elements of the Volpaia church indicate that the basic Michelozzo pattern was adapted to the style of another 15th-century architect, Giuliano da Maiano.
One of the most important works (1480) of Cosimo Rosselli, a great altarpiece with a finely carved and painted frame, was preserved in the church until 1932. It is now in the Centro Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento (National Center for Renaissance Studies) at Florence. A major turning point on the architectural as well as historical level occurred in the 16th century when Sienese power began to decline, an irreversible process that ended with the fall of the republic in 1555. Siena's eclipse inaugurated a long period of peace for Chianti in which the Castello di Volpaia's original defensive role steadily declined in significance and the buildings slowly lost their warlike aspect. Some late Renaissance portals opened up in the structures inside the castle are evidence of that change-over, during which large segments of the walls vanished and buildings intended solely for habitation were erected.
Within the precincts of the castle, several oratories or small churches appeared, especially during the Counter-Reformation period. Two of those minor structures, which date to the 17th century, have survived. One is the chapel known as the Ceppeto, which is extremely simple and lacks any artistic pretense. The second is the Chapel of the Madonna del Fossato, a gracious structure built on a rectangular plan. It is preceded by a portico, supported by pillars of gray stone, that is reached by a short, steep flight of steps. A fresco of the second half of the 15th century, depicting a Madonna and Child, has been preserved in the second chapel.
The name of the Castello di Volpaia was adopted by a Florentine family, which originated in that locality and which in the 15th and 16th centuries produced a series of scholars, artists and makers of clocks, armillary spheres, compasses and other highly intricate instruments. This special branch of precision engineering and mechanics was studiously cultivated in the period before Galileo revolutionized science. The considerable development of the art or science at Florence was due primarily to the Volpaias. The first members of the family to establish enduring reputations were Benvenuto and Lorenzo, who lived in the 15th century. Lorenzo was a friend of Leonardo da Vinci and often gave him advice on technical problems. Lorenzo constructed for the Medicis a planetary clock that is now exhibited in the Palazzo Vecchio. In addition to Benvenuto, he had two other brothers, Eufrosino and Cammillo. A large number of instruments made or used by Camillo's son, Girolamo, have survived.
The Science History Museum at Florence possesses numerous products of the Volpaias and especially instruments created by Girolamo. Among the most interesting are a nocturnal and solar clock, which is signed and dated 1568, and an armillary sphere, which also bears the maker's signature and the date 1564. Other instruments can be found in the Science Museum at London, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and at other museums throughout the world that are devoted to the history of science. Of special interest, too, are the three codices produced by the Volpaias (Codex Marciano No. 5363, Codex Magliabechi Vol. XIX, No. 90, and Codex Antinori No. 17), all of which are typical examples of the manuals of a secret and highly personal nature drawn up by the artisans of the Renaissance. Other illustrious members of the family were Ser Piero della Volpaia, who founded and endowed the Commenda di Sant'Eufrosino; Lorenzo di Frosino della Volpaia, prior of the Spedale degli Innocenti at Florence between 1456 and 1458, and Francesco di Frosino della Volpaia, who was elected podestà (chief executive officer) of Radda in 1633.
The vitivinicultural vocation
Throughout the numerous vicissitudes of the Castello di Volpaia, both the estate and the various families that successively owned it have always been closely involved in the viticultural development of the Chiantidistrict. The estate, in any case, is located in the historic area where the tradition of Chiantiwine originated. The development of that winemaking tradition was closely linked to the mezzadria (Sharecropping) system, which has left its imprint on the countryside–the scattered farmhouses that still exist and were inhabited by the sharecropping families.
That Volpaia was a vitivinicultural center of special importance is confirmed by the fact that, unlike Brolio, Meleto and other Chianti-area castles, Volpaia is a terra murata, a walled village. There is considerable evidence that the decision to fortify Volpaia was due not only to military reasons but also and above all to the necessity of protecting the rural economy of the area, which was already devoted in the main to the growing of grapes and making of wines.
The fortunes of the vitivinicultural economy of Volpaia improved markedly beginning in the 16th century as a result of the long period of peace that military stalemate imposed on Florence and Siena. In those happier times, the wines of the Chianti district were able to establish a reputation for goodness and quality not only in Italy but also throughout a vast swatch of Europe. The Volpaia area came to be known as the "viniferous well", a term cited by Emanuele Repetti in his Dizionario Storico Geografico della Toscana (Historical-Geographical Dictionary of Tuscany), which appeared in 1841.
Fine wine is still produced on those hills, the Chianti Classico of the Castello di Volpaia. It is made in an area that has preserved intact its medieval and 15th century character, thanks to the restrictions on construction in the countryside imposed by the National Superintendency of Monuments. The winery is established in the underground vaults of the castle and of the Commenda. The bottling operation functions in a hall of a small patrician palace. The residential quarters in rustic medieval houses form an urban complex amid the vines, olives and forests of Chianti . Altogether, they constitute a monument, whether from an architectural or artistic point of view, to a remote culture. And the life and prosperity of that culture were based, as is still the case today, on the vines and wines of Chianti Classico.
- Stopani, R and Moretti, I (1972). "Volpaia", Fattoria Castello di Volpaia.
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