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Castelgrande - Bellinzona
Well Preserved Medieval Keep Castle in Switzerland

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Castelgrande is one of the the three castles in Bellinzona, Switzerland.

The site of the Castelgrande has been fortified since at least the late 1st Century BC and until the 13th Century it was the only fortification in Bellinzona. The walls that separate the three baileys all radiate from the 14th Century Terre Nera, which is located in the center of the castle.

To the east is a complex of buildings which were part of the old keep in the castle. In the center of the keep is the tallest tower of the Castelgrande, the Torre Bianca or White Tower, which dates from the 13th Century.




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Small scale map showing the location of
Castelgrande - Bellinzona

Google map showing the location of
Castelgrande - Bellinzona

Large scale map showing
Castelgrande - Bellinzona


During its history the castle has been known as the stronghold (before the 13th Century), the Old Castle in the 14–15th Centuries, Un Castle after 1506 and Saint Michael's Castle from 1818.

The Castelgrande hill includes a nearly vertical side on the north and a steep southern side, but is nearly flat and 150–200 metres (490–660 ft) in diameter. The natural shape of the hill has encouraged every man-made fortification to follow the same contours. While the Roman fort is not visible the Roman foundations were used by the High Middle Ages castle which followed. Of the High Middle Ages castle the only visible parts are a few pieces of wall that are still standing. Much of the visible castle dates from 1250–1500 with extensive renovations and some expansion in the last two centuries. Most of the area inside the castle walls is now flat, open space.

Records from the 11th to 15th Centuries as well as archeological evidence indicate that the castle grounds were once full of buildings. However most of these were pulled down by the Dukes of Milan to free up interior space. The open space was divided into 3 large baileys which served to provide temporary housing for troops that could be stationed in Bellinzona. Under the Dukes of Milan the outer fortifications were extended and strengthened. The walls were raised, extended and towers were added. The western walls were totally rebuilt and connected to the city walls.

The walls that separate the three baileys all radiate from the 14th Century Terre Nera, which is located in the center of the castle. To the east is a complex of buildings which were part of the old keep in the castle. In the center of the keep is the tallest tower of the Castelgrande, the Torre Bianca or White Tower, which dates from the 13th Century. Surrounding the Torre Bianca is the palace of the Bishop of Como (mentioned in the 12th Century), which may contain masonry from an earlier 10th or 11th Century structure. The nearby South Wing, which marks the southern boundary of the castle, was built in two stages during the 13th and 15th Centuries on the foundations of an earlier building. To the west of the South Wing is a building that was built as an arsenal during the 19th Century, and was fully renovated in the 20th Century. Archeological research has revealed that there were two chapels located in this bailey, though only the foundations have been discovered. In the western bailey the ruins of a church, possibly dedicated to the Madonna, can still be seen along the wall. The rest of the buildings that once occupied this bailey have all been destroyed. In the north bailey there were certainly buildings, though they have been destroyed. The sheer cliff face was not fortified with a wall until the 14th or 15th Century.

The castle can be reached by taking an elevator from the foot of the rock to the castle grounds or by climbing steep, narrow streets from the city center through the city wall onto the castle grounds. The south wing houses a museum that contains "6500 years of human presence on the hill ... and covers the period from the first Neolithic village to the 20th century". The museum also includes the decorated ceilings of Casa Ghiringhelli and from a former inn, the Albergo della Cervia as well as a collection from Bellinzona's mint. The museum is open throughout the year.

To the west of the museum is the 19th Century arsenal, which now houses a restaurant.





Bellinzona is the capital city of the canton Ticino in Switzerland. The city is famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, Sasso Corbaro) that have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2000.

The city lies east of the Ticino River, at the foot of the Alps. It stretches along the river valley, surrounded by the Saint-Gotthard Massif.

French Bellinzone, local German: Bellenz

Bellinzona has always occupied an important geographic location in the Alps. Several key alpine passes meet in the area around Bellinzona, making it a key trading center.

In the late 1st Century BC a fort was built in the area during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The fort fell into disrepair in the following centuries. It was rebuilt and expanded in the 4th Century AD. During the reign of Diocletian and Constantin Bellinzona's location was recognized as a key point in the defences and a large castle was built to protect the walls. This chain of castles and watchtowers protected northern Italy from invasion.

The town that grew up around the fortifications was known as Bilitio.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the successor states, which included the Ostrogoths around 500 AD, the eastern Byzantine Empire towards the middle of the 6th Century, and the Longobards from 568, all took control of Bellinzona and used the castle to assert control of the surrounding passes.

Under the Longobards, Bellinzona became the site of a permanent garrison to protect the region from raids by the neighbouring Frankish and Alemannic tribes. The Longobards controlled the traffic on the important trade routes from Bellinzona.

At around 774 the Frankish Kingdom (later to become the Carolingian Empire) gained control of Bellinzona and the Ticino valley.

Two centuries later the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, seeking to restore the glory of ancient Rome, opened the Lukmanier and St. Bernard passes. Control of Bellinzona was a key part of this expansion. The city was taken from Milan and given as a gift to the Bishop of Como, who supported Otto's dynasty.

In 1002, following the death of Otto III, Marquis Arduino of Ivrea declared himself King of Italy and ratified the bishop's ownership of the Castelgrande and the city. Two years later, after Arduino had been defeated by Henry II the King of Germany, Henry II's man Enrico II reratified the gift of the Castlegrande to the Bishop of Como.

During the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th Century the city of Bellinzona with its castle came under the control of the Hohenstaufens of Swabia. In 1180, Frederick I (Barbarossa) placed the city under the jurisdiction of the city of Como.

In the following years Como supported the Pope in his conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor. However in 1239, Como sided with the Emperor Frederick II who quickly moved forces into Bellinzona and strengthened the Castelgrande. In 1242 Milan sent Guelph (pro-papacy) forces to take Bellinzona. The city and castle were taken, weakening the Emperor south of the Alps.

The town was back under the jurisdiction of Como in 1249 and conflicts in northern Italy continued. Castelgrande was besieged in 1284, 1292 and 1303.

Around the end of the 13th Century the Rusca family built another castle, Montebello, in Bellinzona, which they then controlled. By 1335 the Rusca family had been driven out of Como and had to retreat to Bellinzona. Five years later, in 1340, Milan besieged Bellinzona. Following a lengthy siege, the city fell to Milan but the Ruscas were allowed to keep Montebello.

Pro-papacy Milan would dominate Bellinzona for the next century and a half, though the pro-Imperial Rusca would also occupy part of the city.

Under the control of the Visconti, trade flourished and the city of Bellinzona grew. During the second half of the 14th Century a long wall, known as the Murata, was built across the entire Tessin valley. This wall allowed Milan to protect and tax the trade route over the St. Gotthard Pass.

The city was controlled by Milan through the Visconti family after 1340, although the Visconti did not have a formal title and feudal rights until 1396 when they were granted by King Wenceslaus.

The orderly growth of Bellinzona was threatened in 1402 when Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti died. The following year Bellinzona was taken under the control of Alberto di Sacco of Val Mesolcina. During the period of unrest following Gian Galeazzo Visconti's death, a tower which would become the nucleus of the third castle, Sasso Corbaro, was built outside the city.

Alberto held Bellinzonauntil 1419 when it was taken over by Uri and Obwalden, states that had expanded into the Leventina Valley. Milan attacked the city three years later in 1422 after an offer to buy the city was rejected by the Swiss Confederation. Troops from Uri and Obwalden were driven from the city and later defeated at the Battle of Arbed. This defeat discouraged the expansionist intentions of Uri and its allies towards Lake Maggiore for the time being.

The border between Uri and Milan was fixed in the peace treaty of 1426, but in 1439 Uri invaded again. While they were unable to take Bellinzona. Victories of the Swiss troops led to Milan granting all of the Leventina Valley to Pollegio to Uri in 1441.

Following the death of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447, Bellinzona was in the middle of the succession crisis between Franchino Rusca of Locarno and Heinrich of Val Mesolcina, who were allied with Uri and the Ambrosian Republic in Milan. The war following the succession crisis lasted nearly three years until Francesco I Sforza seized power in Milan. Bellinzona quickly accepted the new Sforza dynasty and the peace and stability that followed.

Peace was broken again in 1478 when the Swiss once again attacked Bellinzona unsuccessfully. Swiss pride was restored by the Battle of Giornico which followed, when a force of 600 Swiss soldiers defeated 10,000 Milanese troops. Following the attack, Milan built the Sasso Corbaro either on the site of a tower which had been built nearly a century before. The other two castles were strengthened and the Murata wall across the valley was rebuilt. Much of the modern castles and fortifications date from this period of construction in the late 15th Century.

In 1499 nearly one and a half centuries of Milanese rule ended with the invasion of Milan by Louis XII of France. He captured Bellinzona and fearing an attack by the Swiss, fortified the Castelgrande with 1000 troops. Throughout the winter of 1499/1500 unrest in Bellinzona grew. In January an armed revolt of the citizens of Bellinzona drove the French troops from the city. Seeking protection from France, Bellinzona joined the Swiss Confederation on April 14, 1500. Bellinzona would remain under the joint administration of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden until the creation of the Helvetic Republic after the Napoleonic invasion of Switzerland in 1798. From 1798 to 1803, under the Helvetic Republic, Bellinzona was the capital of the canton of Bellinzona.

Following the Act of Mediation in 1803 Bellinzona became part of the independent canton of Ticino, and the capital of the new canton from 1803 to 1814. From that date until 1878, Bellinzona, Lugano, and Locarno, took turns being capital every six years.

The city includes the village of Artore and, since the incorporation in 1907, the former municipalities of Carasso , Daro, and Ravecchia.

The city is known for its carnival Rabadan, which has taken place for over 150 years.

The Three Castles, officially listed as the Three Castles, Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzone, have been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The group is composed of Castelgrande, castle Montebello, castle Sasso Corbaro and fortified walls.

Castelgrande is located on a rocky peak overlooking the valley, with a series of fortified walls that protect the old city and connect to the Montebello. The third castle (Sasso Corbaro) is located on a isolated rocky promontory south-east of the other two.

Print of Belinzona


Walls at Belinzona


Arms of Belinzona


Battle re-enactment at Belinzona


Belinzona at Night


June, 30 1422: The Battle of Arbedo (canton of Ticino, Switzerland), fought between the Duchy of Milan and the Old Swiss Confederacy, occurs. A Milanese Army of 11,000 foot, 5,000 horse, under Francesco Bussone, defeated a Swiss army of some 2,500 foot. The defeat at Arbedo persuaded the Swiss to increase the number of pikemen.


Castelgrande at Belinzona



Unesco World Heritage Site

Unesco name of World Heritage site: Three Castles - Defensive Wall and Ramparts of the Market-Town of Bellinzona (added in 2000)

Justification for Inscription: Criterion iv The fortified ensemble of Bellinzona is an outstanding example of a late medieval defensive structure guarding a key strategic Alpine pass.

Click here for more UNESCO World Heritage Castles


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