Villafranca in Lunigiana and surroundings
The territory of the Municipality of Villafranca Lunigiana is placed in the middle of a valley formed by the Magra River and called Lunigiana, just on the northern corner of Tuscany. It is divided into two zones . A vast plain area lies along the Magra River and includes the alluvial cone of its tributary : the smaller Bagnone River ; all around are gentle hills covered mainly by chestnut-trees, oaks and ash-trees.
The economy, once mostly agricultural, has undergone deep changes starting from the end of the 19th century and especially during the post-second World War period. In Villafranca there are nowadays some important industrial plants dealing with the wood industry and handicraft activities. The services sector has also a remarkable importance; in fact, Villafranca , thanks to its central position, has become a busy commercial centre, attracting people from all the surrounding villages.
During the prehistorical period the territory of Villafranca was inhabited by a Ligurian tribe, the Apuani. They left a large quantity of anthropomorfic menhirs called “statue-stele”. Quite a lot of them were and are still found, from time to time, near the villages of Filetto, Malgrate and Mocrone. During Middle Ages the district was under the feudal rule of the Obertenghi family from whom the famous Malaspina family descended. The Marquises Malaspina were to rule the territory until the end of the18th century.
Some time around the 11th century a fortress was built on the rock situated where the Magra and Bagnone rivers flow together. This fortress was to become, later on, the Malnido Castle. It had an important strategic function to keep under control the so-called Via Francigena , or Romea, the main road coming from North Europe and leading to Rome.
The first nucleus of Villafranca developed in the vicinity of Malnido Castle; then it grew and became important during the 12th and 13th centuries thanks to the significance of the Via Francigena.
In 1221 the Malaspinas, who were the feudal lords of the Lunigiana region, decided to split their estate into two parts allotting the various feuds to the two branches of the family called the “Spino Secco” (“Dry Thorn”) and the “Spino Fiorito” (“Blossomed Thorn”). The feud of Villafranca was assigned to the “Spino Secco” branch. One of the outstanding Marquises of the “Spino Secco” was Corrado l’Antico that, together with his grandson of the same name, is mentioned by Dante Alighieri in his masterpiece : the “Divina Commedia”. Later on, in 1266, Villafranca became the administrative seat of the Marquisate.
The rule of the Marquises Malaspina lasted until 1797, when Napoleon abolished the feudal system and created the modern administrative system of the municipalities. After the fall of Napoleon , the Congress of Vienna included the territory of Villafranca in the Duchy of Modena . Villafranca was then appointed chief town of the municipality that, since then, has been existing unchanged. Later on, in 1848, the territory of Villafranca was switched to the Duchy of Parma and finally it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.
Villafranca Lunigiana: the town centre
During the second World War , Villafranca was heavily bombed but, that notwithstanding ,the old centre still retains some of the Middle Ages features. If you walk down the “Borgo”, the narrow alley that, once upon a time , was the medieval main street, you can see handmade sandstone portals, thresholds, lintels, window sills . Moreover the old stone vaults are still testimonial of the medieval architectonic structure of the “Borgo”. At the end of the ancient street the ruins of Malnido Castle stand on a massive rock. Nearby a lonely clock tower reminds us of the ancient St.Nicholas’ church, the oldest in Villafranca, now disappeared to make room for the railway.
On the other side of the “Borgo”, you can visit St.John’s church, dating back to the 14th century, but refurbished later on. The imposing arch joining St.John’s is the ancient gate that , during Middle Ages, gave access to the town. Many historical characters and many pilgrims from every part of Europe passed under that arch and on the nearby bridge on their way to Rome, along the “Via Francigena.
The 15th century water-mill at the southern end of the bridge houses the Lunigiana Ethnographic Museum. A visit to the old implements and utensils shown inside will give you an idea of the life in the region as it was centuries ago.
St. Francis’ church is another place to visit. It is on the other side of the river, outside the walls and gates of the old centre. The Marquis Bartolomeo Malaspina had it built in the 16th century: Unfortunately the church and the adjoining cloister were bombed during the second World War, but they were restored and , inside, you can see two precious terra-cottas by the Della Robbia’s school.
Last, but not the least, when in Villafranca, don’t forget to visit the several antique shops along the main street. They offer a wide choice of ancient furniture, prints, old books and ornaments of all kinds.
The walled village of Filetto lies where the narrow valley formed by the river Bagnone widens to form the alluvial plain of Villafranca. The first nucleus of the village, the so-called “Piazza di Sopra” (“Upper Square”), was built during the 6th and 7th century A.D. as part of a Byzantine line of defence to protect the sea port of Luni from the hordes of the invading Longobards. This is the reason why Filetto had been built in an “anomalous “ position (in a plain, when all the surrounding villages are on hilltops) and it has such an original quadrilateral fortress-like structure.
The original nucleus attained the present structure by means of other quadrilateral modules being added during Middle Ages, until the two gates, that can be seen nowadays, were finished in 1568.
Besides the walls, the towers and the gates, Middle Age masonry and craftsmanship can be seen also in the stone vaults, the narrow alleys, the stone thresholds and sills and the elegant balcony right in the middle of the village main street.
In the main square, the “Piazza di Sotto” (the “Lower Square”, nowadays renamed “Piazza Fatebenefratelli”), you will find the St.Philip and St.James’ Church, built in 1563, the Marquises Ariberti’s Palace, on the right of the church, and the former hospital and convent of the Fatebenefratelli Friars (“Brothers Hospitallers”) facing the Marquises’ Palace. This latter has been recently taken into possession by the Council and is currently being restored.
On the western outskirts of the village lies the millenary “Selva di San Genesio” (“St. Genesio’s Wood”), where a small church dedicated to the saint stands. It is the most ancient chestnut wood in the region and, being much larger and wilder during the past centuries, it is said to have served as inspiration for the very first opening lines of Dante Alighieri’s “Divina Commedia”.
Presently, the “Selva” is a public green and, on 24th and 25th August of every year, the place of the most important fair in Lunigiana, with hundreds of stalls and thousands of visiting people.
The medieval village of Malgrate with its outstanding castle is placed on a hill north of Filetto. There are no documents available regarding the building of the castle of Malgrate, but, according to some historical facts it seems that it was built approximately during the first half of the 14th century. In fact, according to the historians, the Marquis Niccolò Malaspina of Filattiera decided to build the castle of Malgrate during the last years of its life., to control the road from Bagnone to Villafranca. As he died in 1330, we can suppose that the building of the castle started around 1320.
The original nucleus of the castle is the 25 metre-high Tower with a small chamber adjoining to it. This simple structure had only a defensive purpose. The Palace and the Walls were built later on during the 16th and 17th centuries. After the Malaspina rule came to an end in 1610, the Ducal Chamber of Milan allotted the feud of Malgrate and Filetto to a noble family from Cremona, in the north of Italy, the Marquises Ariberti. This family ruled the feud until the abolition of the feudal system in 1797.
Was there a village before the castle? The answer is no. There was no village where the castle was built , but there was indeed a village about a mile on the north, called Gragnana, of which nothing is left now , except a church (St. Lawrence’s) and a small cemetery.
After the castle was built , some houses started to appear around it, already in the 14th century. The village , as we see now, was completed during the first half of the 18th century, as there is an old engraving , dating back to 1767, representing the village of Malgrate very similar to the present day village. (The engraving is kept in the Library of Castiglione del Terziere castle, a private property).
Among the famous inhabitants of Malgrate there were: Giovanni Antonio da Faye, a 15th century grocer and chemist who was also the first and most important chronicler of his time, Bonaventura Pistofilo, a Renaissance humanist writer and Father Silvestro Landini, a Jesuit and one of the most important associates of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This means that the village was very small but culturally important.
The Malgrate castle is a Public Heritage property under the Ministry of Culture and is currently under restoration.
Mocrone is a typical rural village not far from Malgrate. On an overlooking hill you will find the medieval St. Maurice’s church, dating back to the 12th and 13th century.
In the main square, when you enter the village, you’ll find a bronze statue of an old eminent gentleman accompanied by a dog. It is a monument to Professor Alberico Benedicenti (1866-1961) an internationally well known biologist and pharmacologist, who chose to live in the village for the most part of his life.
Virgoletta is indeed a small scale fortress that still preserves signs of towers, walls and fortified posts all around. You will enter the village through a medieval gate and the only pedestrian street existing will lead you to the square , where the church is, and then to the castle at the other end of the village. The oldest part of the castle is the strong quadrangular 11th century keep . In the inner bailey a double stairway leads to an elegant arcade. The building is a private property.
In the village church there is an artistic Renaissance marble altar containing some relics of local saints. The wooden and silver reliquaries are carried around the village in a procession on the second Sunday in May, during the local religious festival.
A small agricultural village located in the middle of a fertile hilly area and with a very few medieval remains. Not far from the village, on the left bank of the Magra River, in a place called Groppofosco, there is one of the most interesting early medieval churches of the whole Lunigiana district: Our Lady of the Assumption. The church was part of a very ancient hostel that used to give shelter to the medieval pilgrims bound to Rome.
This very small and secluded rural village was the place where the first Socialist Club of the Lunigianese area was opened as early as the first years of the 20th century. During the Second World War this was the place where the Resistance movement against fascism and nazism first started, thanks to Edoardo Bassignani (Ebio), a lifelong anti-fascist. The place where he was born has been restored and now houses a museum and a library.
This village is placed on a hill in the most mountainous part of the territory of Villafranca. Its most outstanding feature is a characteristic dwelling called “Tower-house”. Tower-houses were , at the same time, houses, agricultural storerooms and small fortresses and were very widespread in the northern Lunigianese area during the period of the barbarian invasions and early Middle Ages when the local rural economy was completely based on autarchy and barter.