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THE POLESINE IN THE MIDDLE AGES

Abbazia della VangadizzaThe territory crossed by rivers and canals, was covered by woods and marshes. Present day place names such as Selva, Bosco di Mezzo, Bosco del Monaco, Capobosco, Loreo, Frassinelle recall the widespread presence of trees and plants in the territory north of the Po. In the Middle Ages, forests were of essential importance for food and for the economy. In addition to providing fruit of many qualities the woods were home to different types of game, allowed bee keeping and pig rearing and offered lumber for buildings, navigation and for agriculture.
It is thought that despite the difficulties of the environment, the breaches of rivers and military occupations, social life around the year 1000 was quite significant, favoured by religious centres such as the abbeys of Vangadizza, Santa Maria di Gavello and San Pietro in Maone (the latter two, located in mid Polesine), which were reference points for many aspects of the local economy.
Thanks to the three Benedictine abbeys, the Polesine played an active part in the great monastic movement that occurred in Italy during the VIII-XI centuries.
Gavello was the oldest centre and its origin dates back prior to the tenth century. In the tenth and eleventh centuries the Gavello Abbey extended its influence even in nearby locations like Ceregnano, Adria, Cartirago and perhaps Borsea and San Cassiano, where it formed small religious communities and churches were erected. After the hydraulic vicissitudes of the XII-XIII centuries we find the site of the abbey of Gavello at Canalnovo, near the Po, a location which opened up possibilities of communication and trade.
While Gavello, after the breach of Ficarolo in the twelfth century, headed towards its downfall, the importance of another Benedictine centre, the Abbazia della Vangadizza of Badia Polesine, continues to increase. Founded in the middle of the tenth century thanks to substantial donations of two great lords of the time, Almerico and Franca, the monastery flourished in the following centuries due to other donations of land and the acknowledgement of the Pope and the emperor. The third abbey we meet around the year 1000 is that of San Pietro in Maone, near San Apollinare. This monastery was governed by the Archbishop of Ravenna with assets in various parts of the Polesine and Paduan territories and housed a good number of religious folk who, like in all Benedictine monasteries, were dedicated to reclamation and agriculture as well as to prayer. The abbey of San Pietro in Maone was to be almost completely destroyed by the breach of Ficarolo.
Beside the woods and the Benedictine monasteries the first villages gradually arise, along the rivers and commercial routes. The importance of Adria continues to increase and develop thanks to the presence of the Bishop who combines religious and political power. Rovigo is indicated in a document of the year 834, as a "villa" i.e. a small group of dwellings in the territory of Gavello. The hamlet was situated at the intersection of ancient bank side roads, old courses of rivers and the branch of the Adige (which is to be named Adigetto in the 500s) which from Badia detached itself from the main course and flowed southbound. The strategic location favoured the growth of the town and attracted the attention of those who were interested in controlling the territory of the Polesine and its communication routes.
In 920 the bishop of Adria initiated the construction of the castle, the ruins of which may be seen even today, in 964 the existence of the Church of Santo Stefano is documented a temple which would be rebuilt in 1050; in the second half of the 11th century the Estensi would promote the construction of the casa dominicata (landlord’s residence), in the centre of the village, a sign of their constant and growing attention towards Rovigo and the Polesine.
The course of the River Adige, which favoured Rovigo, also enabled the development of other localities of the Polesine: Badia, Lendinara, Costa, Rasa situated near the river.
In the X-XII centuries records report a dense network of towns and villages in mid Polesine such as San Apollinare, Guarda, Borsea, Arquà, Pontecchio, Villamarzana, Frassinelle, Grignano and in upper Polesine Ferrara: Bagnolo, Bariano, Melara, Bergantino, Ficarolo, Trecenta, San Donato, Castelguglielmo, while military episodes in the first few years after 1000 occurring at Loreo, indicate the presence of a castle and therefore of civil and economic life also in lower Polesine.


FROM THE BREACH OF FICAROLO TO THE END OF THE 14TH CENTURY
Comune di Rovigo - Veduta aerea In the first half of the 12th century a number of breaches radically changed the course of the Po.
Much of the overflowing of the river took place at Ficarolo, where the river turns a great bend. The waters, besides submerging the countryside, created new river branches. One of these, which collected a considerable quantity of water, was named Breach of Ficarolo and subsequently became known as the Po di Venezia.
The chroniclers and historians of Ferrara wanted to fix 1152 as the date of the decisive breach of the river, called the Siccarda breach, attributing the event to a break made in the banks by a certain Siccardo affecting the inhabitants of Ficarolo. The breach caused extensive changes to the territory between Ficarolo and the sea: the waters remained in this area for decades, the agrarian economy and sheep farming were badly damaged, and the event caused the permanent decline of villages such as Litiga, San Donato and monasteries such as San Pietro in Maone and Gavello.
The crenelated towers, which denote the towns, remind us of the considerable presence of castles and fortifications in the Polesine during the XI-XIV centuries, when the territory was contended by the Estensi, the Scaligeri and the Paduans. There was certainly a castle at Ficarolo from the time of Countess Matilde (1122); rebuilt and destroyed several times it was gradually submerged by the waters of the river Po. The castle of Loreo existed since the 11th century; not far away, in the twelfth century, stood the castle of Ariano. Also renowned in mid Polesine are the Castle of Maneggio on a site later called Castelguglielmo, that of Villanova del Ghebbo, beside the Adigetto, built in the XII century by the Veronese, the Castle of Rovigo, surrounded by walls with towers, still partly visible, the Castle of Lendinara, built in the XIII century by the Cattaneo family and of which remains only a tower in the town square, that of Arquà believed to have been erected by Guglielma Marchesella before the 13th century and rebuilt by the Estensi, in the first decades of the 15th century, the Castle of Pontecchio still visible in 1484 at the time of the itinerary of Marin Sanudo, the castle of Fratta built in 1104 by lsacco, the Bishop of Adria.
In upper Polesine almost all the centres along the Po were fortified. In addition to the one in Ficarolo, there was also a castle at Bergantino, surrounded by deep moats, with strong bastions and towers, at Sariano, built by Countess Matilde in 1090, donated to the Bishop of Ferrara and destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was an imposing building demolished, unfortunately, in the last century. Also demolished, in the 1800s, the Castle of Melara belonging to the Estensi and the objective of long sieges, quoted by Sanudo.
The thirteenth century sees the progressive strengthening of the Estensi domination in the Polesine, not without uncertainties and difficulties: in 1246 Lendinara would be destroyed by the troops of Ezzelino da Romano and a few decades later, in 1283, would experience the Paduan domination.
Padova was to always dominate Rovigo, Lendinara and Badia in the early years of the 14th century, following the quarrels between several members of the House of Este.
By 1322 however, the Lords of Ferrara had gained significant control over the territory between the Adige and the Po, with the exception of the Delta area where Venice, strong with Loreo, sought to extend its control and its sphere of influence.
The Republic, after the breach of Ficarolo and particularly in the 14th century, looked with increasing interest to the passages consisting of watercourses in the Polesine and operated with diplomatic, military and economic means in order to penetrate the territory. It was to succeed in 1395 by granting a loan of 50,000 ducats to Nicolò of Este receiving in return, the territory of the Polesine as a pledge.
In the civilian life of the thirteenth century one may glimpse the signs of a desire for organized growth.
Rovigo, that in the second half of the 13th century was equipped with new walls, renewed its Statutes in 1264. City life was thus to be governed by a board of 50 people, which would include among its tasks, the maintenance of watercourses and the control of rivers through the embankment systems (cavarzerani), the imposition of taxes and the appointment of officials for hygiene and public utility services.
In Rovigo, also in the second half of the 13th century, the board of the Notari (1286) was established to bring together those who were deemed suitable for their culture and after an appropriate training course, to draw up public and private acts; the entire civil and economic life of the town refers to those contracts that each notary was required to keep safely and deposit, on retirement from the post, to the board. The notarial documents of the province of Rovigo allow an effective reconstruction of the real situation in the territory in different eras and are a source of information which is perhaps often undervalued.
In the 14th century, in line with growing urban development the city's public school is founded, even if not in a completely organized manner.
Its existence was certainly documented in 1370. Then it could offer, in addition to basic language skills, tuition in writing as well as global cultural formation.
In Rovigo during the thirteenth century the minor conventual church settled. Thanks to legacies and the deep bond with the city in the century that followed it would initiate the construction of the Church of San Francesco, repeatedly enlarged and restored in later years. Traces of 14th century church are still to be found today outside the present day building.
Another important settlement of the thirteenth century is that of the humiliated friars in San Bartolomeo, immediately after the middle of the century. In addition to the foundation of convents, the fourteenth century religious fervor is expressed in the new construction and expansion of churches that were to accommodate the growing number of churchgoers. Dating back to this century is the baptistery of the Cathedral of Santo Stefano (it was located in present day piazza Duomo), the construction of Palazzo Vescovile and perhaps the restructuring of the Cathedral itself. Popular religiosity in the wake of the spiritual movements of centuries XII-XIII, became externally manifested in processions and pilgrimages. The people of the Middle Ages used to travel much more than we might imagine, considering the difficulties and the slowness of means of transport. To host pilgrims and wayfarers almost every parish or brotherhood had "hospitals", small rooms or oratories located along the pilgrims’ way, on the outskirts of urban centres, where travellers could take refuge at night or in bad weather. Gradually some of these refuges were used by civil communities to care for the sick, the poor and the abandoned.
This is in fact, the case of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Misericordia of Rovigo, located at Porta Arquà, which was to become from the beginning of the XV century, the preferred place for the assistance of the citizens.


THE FOUR HUNDRED
Palazzo Roverella The fifteenth century was for the Polesine of Rovigo, a period of political uncertainty and transition. In fact, conditions for the inclusion of the territory in the Venetian sphere of influence were in place, thanks to the military power and diplomacy of the rulers of the Serenissima.
Although the Estensi, following the temporary handover in 1395 of Polesine to Republic, were to maintain a set of rights; the presence of armies and military forces of the Venetians were felt significantly and caused very heavy taxation for the population already weighed down by "obligations" for the maintenance of the riverbanks and frequent "catching" of breaches.
Rovigo and other towns would be returned to Ferrara in 1438 and remain under the domination of the Estensi for four decades.
In this period the presence of the Marquis of Este in the border town and their intervention to improve the conditions of the territory was substantial and gave rise to a reasonable level of well-being despite the recurring natural disasters.
In the 15th century the first experiments in reclamation were initiated
Thanks to the enhancement of the landscape and the presence of the armies of the powers contending the Polesine there was significant immigration of families from the mountain areas of Bergamo and Brescia or from the craft and trade centres of the plain such as Milan, Verona, Mantua, Cremona and Lodi.
As well as in military and civil administration these people fit in firmly into the local economic life, particularly at Lendinara, Costa, Rovigo, Fratta, Polesella. To be of particular importance in the settlements is the Roncale family from the Imagna valley, in the territory of Bergamo.
In the second half of the 15th century, exponents of this family had reached Lendinara and Costa, at the end of century arriving in Rovigo where they purchased a workshop. Their business and procurement continued to expand and a few decades later, Giovanni Roncale was admitted to the City Council, and commissioned construction of the impressive palazzo attributed to Sanmicheli.
In 1440 Rovigo publishes new Statutes providing for a better articulation of civil life and a closer connection with the territory.
With its square, the towers and prestigious buildings the town centre was starting to present the face of a city similarly to what had happened in Adria and Lendinara.
Other towns of the Polesine also underwent construction and carried out hydraulic engineering interventions. For instance, the work performed by the Ferrara architect Biagio Rossetti to support the Fossa Polesella by way of closures to control and regulate the flow of water in the Po.
In the 15th century, religious life passes through a phase of adjustment, after the foundations set in previous centuries. Several monasteries (San Pietro in Maone, Gavello, San Bartolomeo) are found to be almost devoid of religious occupants.
In 1482-84, thanks to the involvement of Cardinal Bartolomeo Roverella, the monks of Monte Oliveto arrive at Rovigo settling in the buildings of San Bartolomeo, formerly occupied by the Humiliated friars. The city would be enriched by this new qualified religious presence that was to manage the lands of the ancient abbey of San Pietro in Maone and the sacred building of the Madonna de ' Sabbioni, in addition to the assets of the Humiliated confraternity. In the rest of the Polesine several interventions of restoration or new construction of churches, chapels and works of art were carried out.
Already in the early 1400s, Rovigo saw an increase in private housing, which continued to grow according to city planning partly determined by the presence of the Adigetto. The city began, at least within its walls, to fill up with masonry houses with tiled roofs, sometimes complete with decorations and ornamentation always however, of extreme simplicity and functionality. Very little of the private buildings of that time remains today although their construction must have been particularly intense in order to satisfy the richest families who had settled in the city: the Silvestri, the Calcagnini, the Casilini, the Roverella, the Foligno, the Nicolini and the Manfredini all closely tied to Ferrara and the House of Este.


CASTLES AND FORTIFICATIONS
Castello EstenseIn its slow emergence from that long and tragic period of decadence, during which turbulent struggles, continuing raids and devastating floods had upset the ancient Roman structure and led to the extreme impoverishment of the territory, the Polesine found its first identity in agglomerations of small rural towns and villages scattered in uncultivated and swampy countryside which were then covered in dense scrub. Here, the small feudatories, the surviving ancient families and the ecclesiastics had begun to erect approximate fortifications. These constructions had grown over the years, in those sites of strategic importance in order to defend their privileges of passage along the rivers, canals and edges of marshes and to guard the uncertain boundaries of their properties.

It is a restless history of war, usurpation and oppression, endless contentions and betrayal whose protagonists were the energetic counts and bishops and the early Estensi, the Venetians, the Scaligeri and the Carraresi, ever driven by greed through the alternating luck of weapons and the frequent reversals of fortune, while the ferocious soldiery marched up and down the land endangered by the fury of the waters.

Of the castles, fortresses and towers which used to be strewn across the territory, almost everything has disappeared; they were, however, almost always fortifications on the lower plains, simple and functional, reduced to a basic quadrangular design (which often did allow for some measure of eccentricity), with walls and towers, but also with open sides where the rivers and fields proved to be impenetrable swamps.
It is to this generic model which many castles of great strategic importance, conformed. The castles of Ficarolo, Bergantino, Castelnovo Bariano and Melara, raised towers and sturdy ramparts along ancient routes, as well as the three Marchesane Fortresses on the Adige at Badia: all fortifications which repeatedly changed hands, re-stabilized and reconstructed by the Estensi around the fifteenth century and then left to ruin, they lost their original defensive function during Venetian domination, until their inevitable demolition or crumbling. To Guglielmo III Adelardi Marchesella, eminent personage of Ferrara, tradition attributes the construction and restructuring of several castles in the Polesine. Above all, that of Maneggio (the locality was later renamed Castelguglielmo after him), mentioned by Boccaccio in the Decameron (Second novella, Second day) and fallen into ruin until it crumbled finally in the XVIII century.
A single weak wall remains today of another castle in Pontecchio, a land in those times of dense forests, while the castle of Fratta became the residence of the Pepoli and local nobilities, later to leave no trace at all.

Torre maistraOn the contrary, the castle of Arquà may still be admired today, rebuilt by the Estensi and transformed further and refined to become a stately home.

No trace, apart from in the name of a town square and a bridge, has remained of the castle of Adria.

Arisen alongside small towns or sometimes to actually defend them, the castles sometimes began to surround them, little by little, with a circle of walls, as is the case of Castel Trivellin of Lendinara later replaced by an Extense fortress in the town centre, of which remains a massive Tower, and also the castle of Rovigo.

The latter, indeed, was enriched over the years, by formidable boundary walls, behind which the high towers stood out (two of which have remained to this day). Doors and drawbridges opened within the ramparts, which were surrounded by a deep moat.