Castelseprio, fortified house: the centre of power

The historical importance of the castle between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The late antique and medieval castrum of Castelseprio is located in the pre-alpine belt behind Milan, at the crossroads of important land and river routes. In late Roman times it must have been part of the system of fortifications for the defence of the peninsula against barbarian invasions (the tractus Italiae circa Alpes).

Reoccupied by the Goths, with the Lombards it became the seat of an iudiciaria, an autonomous administrative district dependent from the sovereign. At this time, the Anonimo Ravennate defines it as a civitas, underlining the multiple religious, administrative and legal functions acquired by the large castle in the Lombard age; King Desiderius minted coins with the legend Flavia Sibrium.

The seat of a count in the Carolingian period, the castle remained an important reference point for power and the rural population until 1287, when the Visconti of Milan took it and destroyed it, respecting only the ecclesiastical buildings (“Castrum Seprium destruator et perpetue destructum teneatur et nullum audeat vel presumat in ipso monte abitare”).

The rediscovery of the castle, now a UNESCO site

The most recent reappraisal of the castle took place in the 1940s, with the discovery of the famous frescoes in the church of Santa Maria foris portas: due to their extraordinary pictorial quality, an effect of oriental influences, they remain an essential reference point for early medieval European painting, so poorly represented.

The artistic interest of the monument led to its insertion in the UNESCO World Heritage List ‘The Lombards in Italy. Places of power (568-774 AD)’.

An inter-university project of excavations and research

In 2021, an inter-university research project began focusing on the seats of power in the castrum, with unified coordination and synergies in research activities. The team from the Catholic University of Milan investigates the tower-house, traditionally considered the seat of civil and military power. The University of Padua and the University of Chieti excavate at other nodal areas for the civil and ecclesiastical life of the castle.

The school on site welcomes and trains students of all university and post-graduate levels, also from abroad.

The excavations

The mighty rectangular building must have been a multi-storey tower-house, with no openings at the bottom, to ensure ultimate defence in case of danger. The investigations aim to verify the origins and developments of the complex, the internal layout and functions, the surrounding context, with possible service structures. The investigations have so far exhausted the entire internal area and initiated a large sector outside of the tower-house; for the completion of the research in this neuralgic sector, it is planned to open up other sectors also to the north, towards the presumed moat that was supposed to isolate it and make it a useful reduction for maximum defence.

Laboratory analyses

The investigations and inspections currently taking place are concerned with

  • Wall structures: stratigraphic survey and periodisation, mortar sampling and compositional analysis using thin sections;
  • Eco-factors: archaeobotanical analyses of charcoal and carpological remains to determine tree extracts, seeds and fruits, useful for gaining an understanding of the environment and resource situation
  • Ceramics: mineropetrographic analyses to determine the workmanship and origin of amphorae and domestic vessels;
  • Dating: radiocarbon analysis of charcoal and mortar lumps as well as plant remains in the utilisation layers of the different epochs; thermoluminescence of ceramics.

Appreciation and mediation

With the recent discoveries, the Archaeological Park and Antiquarium of Castelseprio (Regional Directorate of Museums – Lombardy) will be enriched with an important new visiting area and previously unpublished content. The realisation of computer material that can be used in a Metaverse will not only contribute to the technical documentation, but will also provide an attractive medium for the broad public. There are numerous opportunities for public communication during the excavations and throughout the rest of the year, as there are constant updates to the scientific world.