Pereta, a castled village with the tallest medieval tower in Maremma at its very centre. Oh, if only its walls could talk.
From a tiny "borgo" that cultivated pears to a castled military stronghold that all wanted to own. Invaded, re-invaded, brought, sold and ping-ponged between the church and Maremma's nobility. To a miserable existence from mercury mining and raids, year after year, by brigades of outlaws. Sacked, burnt and left in ruins. Then re-built and adorned with frescoes. This now sleepy hill top village has seen it all and some.
Home now to just over a hundred people, the only things to stir on a Saturday afternoon when you walk through its stone-paved streets and alleyways are large black rooks. Fat ones, happy in "their" tower.
The late winter afternoon sun on one of the towers in those walls, now a home with a gorgeous garden where once troops patrolled.
When you walk into Pereta you do so through the "Porta di Ponente" gateway, part of its 14th century city walls.
But even with its Gothic-style battlements, it isn't the oldest or most fascinating part of the village by any means. To see that, small as it is and four centuries older, you need to head up the street that you can see through the gateway on the left, up towards Pereta's tower.
The Porta di Ponente is a piece of military architecture, built between the end of the 14th century and the first ten years of the 15th, during the Republic of Siena's rule over the village and this part of Maremma.
It was restored in 1546 by the Siena architect Piero Cataneo, when Pereta had a military need once again of strong entrance to its fortification. Again in 1880 and, more recently, between 1958 and 1959.
The stone plaque on the gate reads, "PERETA Altitudine M283" - altitude 283 metres.
Looking back out from the inside.
The street up into the heart of the village and its highest point.
The castle and its "borgo" was built by the Aldobrandeschi lords in Maremma between the tenth and eleventh centuries. Underneath it lie Etruscan and Roman remains that date back to the fourth and fifth centuries BC.
Before the Aldobrandeschi, the hill was invaded by Ostrogoths and Lombards in the fifth and sixth centuries. Conquered by the French in the seventh and inhabited and owned by the Carolingians in the year 800.
In the year 805, the Emperor Charlemagne gave his lands to the Pope who, in turn divided them between various monasteries. "Perita" as it was then known, was given to the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo (the Monastery of Sant Antimo) in Montalcino.
The borgo became the property of the Aldobrandeschi family in 862. But why did they fortify it with a castle?
Well, because the road that passes Pereta was the only route in these parts from inland Maremma to her ports and coastline. And it lies on a hill top alongside a nearly ninety degree turn in that road with a drop down into a river valley on one side and a high bank on the other. A strategic military position not to be missed, mid-way between Scansano and Magliano in Toscano.
From that point in time until two centuries later, the village's fortunes and misfortunes were all entangled in that military advantage.
And, although the castle was a key component of the political and military strength of the Aldobrandeschi family, their swings in fortune meant that maintaining their ownership and control of it was never a straightforward affair. Built it they may have, but owning it outright they rarely did.
Nor did they choose for the most part to live in it. As with a lot of their other castled properties and forts in Maremma, they let their share of Pereta to their vassals. Maremma nobility with less power (although they wanted more); the Pannocchieschi di Pietra family.
A little note. "Village" is the translation into English of "borgo", but for me doesn't give the sense of a "borgo" here in Tuscany. They are clusters of medieval houses and stables, workshops and cellars, nearly always isolated on a hill top days and days walk from the nearest other borgo.
One of the earliest documentary records of life in the borgo is a deed of 8 August 1032, that tells of the sale by one Albizio, son of Pietro, of a plot in the village with all of its houses, vineyards and lands, to a young son of the late Otto. For twenty silver coins.
In the year 1203, the village was controlled by a certain Mr Francesco. Although Count VIII Ildebrandino Aldobrandeschi claimed possession.
In a Papal Bull issued by Pope Honorius III in 1216, he reconfirmed an earlier Bull of 1110, giving Pereta along with the church of San Bruzio in Magliano in Toscana, and olive grove and a farmhouse along the Osa river, to the Abbey of Sant'Antimo of Montalcino.
Sixteen years later in 1238 - as part of the centuries long war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines in Tuscany - and the Republic of Siena's (Ghibelline) military advance on Sovana and the (Guelf) Aldobrandeschi counts, Pereta castle was stormed by Sienese troops. And taken, along with the castles of Collecchio, Magliano in Toscana, and Montiano. From here they launched their decisive attack on Sovana.
In 1240, the skilled Lord Pandolfo of Fasanella, "Capitano Generale della Toscana", launched a Tuscany-wide attack against the Aldobrandeschi and Imperial Ghibelline troops once again invaded Pereta. But this time, the Pannocchieschi family were allowed to stay under Sienese control.
In 1251, the Aldobrandeschi regained the castle and restored the already resident Pannocchieschi as their vassals.
After the bloodiest battle in the history of medieval history in Italy let alone in Tuscany - the Battle of Montaperti on the 4th of September - and the Republic of Siena's victory, the lands of the Aldobrandeschi family were seized.
But the men and women of Pereta refused to submit.
Pereta was a mining village. The hill on which it sits and its surroundings are rich in sulphur, cinnabar and stibnite, from which mercury and antimony were, respectively, extracted. "Cinabro" was extracted until 1971, and "antimonio" until the late 1980's when all of Maremma's last mines also closed.
The abandoned mine shafts of the two mines are well known amongst mineralogists for the very beautiful antimonite and sulphur examples that have been found there, as well as the very rare klebelsbergite, minyulite and peretaite minerals. (I cannot believe that they are open to the public, so I wouldn't recommend contemplating going hunting whilst on holiday!)
But its name doesn't come from its rich source of minerals, but rather from the once widespread cultivation of "peri", pear trees, around the village.
In the end, in 1262, the Republic sent in cavalry to siege the castle and, in the end, an agreement was reached. But not without Siena demanding and taking hostages, whom they incarcerated in the castle prison. Including Lord Inghiramo Pannocchieschi's son, thirteen year old Paganello.
Five years pass before help comes in the form of a command from the Pope Clement IV, who commands Siena to release all of its political prisoners from the castle. And seven years after that, he strongly "suggests" to the Republic that they return to Pannocchieschi his castles in Pereta and Pietra. Which it does.
The beginning of the fourteenth century saw the decline that had already started of the Aldobrandeschi family's power throughout Maremma increase at a heady pace. Although the family still owned many castles, in practice they were occupied and governed by others. And the Castello di Pereta was no exception.
It was now owned by both the church and the Aldobrandeschi family.
In 1330, Pope John XXII gave his share of the rights to the castle and its lands to Count Bonifazio Novello della Gherardesca, son of Count Gherardo of Donoratico. (Donoratico is a coastal town to the north of Maremma that was at that time controlled by the City of Pisa. Fazio as he was known, held the important military positions in Pisa of Captain General, Captain of War and the Guardia di Pisa, and during his rule over the City managed to return to it a period of peace and freedom. But not without incident; for one November he had to crack and squash a rebellion by members of some of Pisa's most powerful families and nobility to keep it.)
In 1340 Fazio dies and the castle returns to the church, but remains under the governance of his son, Count Ranieri. Who gives it to Count Guido Orsini of Pitigliano.
There is a rather gruesome piece of documentary evidence of the story of the castle that tells of a judgment dated the 20th of March 1344: in that year, the Priore di Naddo of Cetona, in the castle of Pereta of the Count of Donoratico, condemned Andreoccio of Guidone to be beheaded for having murdered by knife one Andrea of Bucetto of Pereta, both citizens of this castle.
In 1345, the Aldobrandeschi Counts finally submit to the control of Siena, including their castle and lands at Pereta.
By 1377, the Donoratico share in the castle and its lands returned to the church. By force. The Pope sent in military troops to take it back from Guido Orsini. Who then also looses two other castles and dies of the plague.
But then a year later, the Western Schism split within the Roman Catholic Church took hold and Pereta didn't feature on any Pope's - antipope or not - agenda.
And it's ruin began.
With no one governing it, robbers and bandits repeatedly ran rife through the borgo. Robbing the poorest of what meager supplies they had. And meagre they were, for the woods, lands and allotments provided a pityful existence, less than half of what a man, woman or child needed to survive on. But Pereta wasn't alone. Such extreme poverty was replicated across Maremma.
Local gentry squabbled and clashed with no one to hold them to count.
And then, as if it couldn't get worse, the apocalype came. For the castle became the property of one Papalini. A man who kept a large troop of Bretons. Bretons who roamed and plundered Maremma. Sacking and burning Pereta and leaving it in ruins. Those left standing were left with nothing and now no roofs over their heads.
Pereta was brought six years later, in 1383, by one Giovanni Minucci, a citizen of Siena and a valet to Pope Urban V. Who then sold it to his brother, Francesco, known as "Fonda".
But Fonda's rule was a particularly cruel one and local "peretani" (th ename given to residents of Pereta) secretly tried to rally the support of the Aldobrandeschi counts in a revolt. Fonda got wind of the plot and called in the help of one Count Tancredo of Modigliana. The rebels were held-up in afortress at Fabia. Together with Sienese troops, Fonda re-took it and then easily the lands around the village.
An agreement was reached between all parties that the Republic of Siena would govern until the divisions were resolved. At which point control and ownership would be returned to the church. But the City reneged on its promise and on the 21 February 1474, took full possession.
And Pereta flourished again.
The rule of the Republic of Siena brought an end to the cycle of occupation by one militia after another which had left the borgo and its castle broken and in ruin. And the city invested in restoring and rebuilding it from the bottom-up: new public buildings and private residences were built, Sienese artists painted frescoes in the churches and in the new private homes.
Just inside the original gateway into the castle you will find a plaque in memory of Giovanni Morandini, a railway engineer and senator of the Kingdom if Italy, born in the house behind that red door on the 6th of January 1816.
Morandini wasn't just any railway engineer. He was involved in the project and realisation of the railway line that connected Firenze and Roma.
And nor was he just any Senator. He spoke publicly in parliament in 1848 inviting the First Italian War of Independence, fought, was wounded and taken prisoner.
He paid for the repair of the road that connected the village with Magliano in Toscana and the restoration of the Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista and the entrance "Porta trecentesca" to the village.
And between 1481 and 1487, the new city wall was finished, encircling all of the buildings that had grown-up outside of the original castle. Enlarging and protecting once again the original "Castrum Aldobrandesco".
Until the 19th century, when Leopold II of Lorena, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, started "la bonifica della Maremma", a 150 year long wholescale programme of drainage and land reclamation, Maremma was rife with malaria that killed relentlessly. If you survived into your early twenties you were lucky. The warmer months of the spring, but especially the summer, saw mass migrations of Maremma's city Grosseto - leaving behind just a caretaker or two - and whole towns and villages in the coastal plains and lower lying hills, deep inland to avoid the rampant mosquito.
But, despite all of the other problems and troubles it had had to bear over the centuries, Pereta didn't have that one. Maremma's mosquitoes didn't venture that far.
And, for reasons I haven't yet been able to ascertain, the cholera epidemic that swept across Tuscany and the whole of Maremma in 1855, killing twenty-seven thousand people, didn't reach the village either.
The "Torre di Pereta", or "la Torre dell'Orologio", clock tower, as it is also known, sits at its highest point in the village.
Built between the end of the 14th century and the beginning of 15th, probably on the site/on top of a pre-existing "cassero" (fort), it has remained unchanged - apart from the addition of the village clock - since the last stones were placed upon its once turreted top. A rare find indeed.
And, at around 29 metres tall, it happens to be the tallest medieval tower in the Province of Grosseto.
It is currently being repaired, which is why there are the two sets of scaffolding - although I have to say from walking around its entrance and the condition of the materials left lying around there, it doesn't look like anyone has been working on it for a long time. I'll let you know when it is open again and how to visit and climb it if that is possible.
Scaffolding and workmen or not, neither have disturbed the pairs of nesting rooks in each one of the holes up one side of the "Torre dell'Orologio" - hole that once would have held timbers connecting the tower to another building in the Aldobrandeschi castle.
Leaving the castle: peak traffic time in Pereta on a Saturday afternoon! The low arch is known as "la Voltina".
Back outside the 10th and 11th century castle, the first thing you see when you leave the castle in front of you is the Chiesina di Santa Maria.
And, often as not, you will find, as I did, an old lady washing its floor, steps and the street outside, before saying grace and leaving for the day. She tells me that no one else does it, so she does.
Built during the first half of the fifteenth century by local, skilled workers in the Renaissance style with Romanesque elements, its external walls are faced and enhanced with the multi-coloured local sandstone called, "conci di arenaria".
During the 1600's it was used as a place of shelter for pilgrims and the poor.
Its bell tower was added when the church was restructured in the 19th century.
From the street down the side of the Chiesina di Santa Maria looking back up to the Porta entrance into the Aldobrandesca castle.
Pereta's homes were without electricity until 1920.
The next street down to outside the walls is similarly narrow and steep.
Looking up at the walls from the outside along Via Roma. Unlike its tower, Pereta's castle walls have changed with the times and windows now open out from it with a view over the valley below.
The Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista was first built in the same local stone as the much smaller church of Santa Maria, around the year 1200. But has been restored many times over the centuries.
Located on the edge of a cliff it has a tiny piazza in front of its doors that looks down on a terraced garden with palm and lemon trees, and a view into the distance.
Those wrought-iron doors in more detail. Behind them are heavy long deep red curtains: a wonderful and especially dramatic combination for a tiny hill-top town in Maremma.
Inside you'll find the "Madonna del Rosario con i santi Domenico, Caterina da Siena, Carlo Borromeo" - the Madonna of the Rosary with saints surrounded the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. Apparently, its border and soft pictorial treatment leave little doubt that it is a work of one Astolfo Petrazzi, a prolific Sienese Baroque painter of the first half of the 17th century.
If like me, you like to go a wandering where most others don't down pretty and not so pretty streets, just be aware that the narrow street that runs alongside and down to the back of the church of San Giovanni Battista is subject to falling masonry from the fabric of the church. Just keep an eye and ear out if you venture down.
I love the gateways through Maremma's medieval city walls. They are such atmospheric places and feed the imagination with the details of life centuries ago that virtually remain untouched, cobwebs and all.
I can't help it, but I always look up when I'm walking through them. I put it down to being a structural engineer's daughter.
And this time I spotted that the original wooden beam holding-up the house above this arch is completely "marcio" (rotten); hollow in fact! One touch and I suspect it would crumble as fine dust.
Next time you are out in Maremma, crook your neck up and see what is holding up the building above your head! An iron bar has been added here, but many are still supported only by the original, centuries old, beams and nothing else!
Saturday afternoon down the main street in Pereta looks like this.
Hardly a soul about. After all of those troubled years, occupied by one military force after another, it is now a very quiet village home to just over a hundred people. And a lot of happy rooks.
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