The place name appears to come from the Latin cretaria which means “clay”, of which much of the geological formation of the territory is made. Gradara and its Fortress are one and the same. At the beginning it was simply a watch tower built by the Griffo family in the second half of the 12th century. Its basic structure dates back to interventions by the Malatesti family which can be traced back between the years 1293 and 1324. The most important parts remain the keep, the “old castle” (the first lordly residence, in the wing of the fortress considered, together with the keep, to be the oldest part) and an arcaded wing of the courtyard. Between 1442 and 1462 Sigismondo Pandolfo Matatesti made basically military type enlargements, such as the angular, polygonal tower. Giovanni Sforza, on the occasion of his marriage to Lucrezia Borgia, added two wings to the inner courtyard and a grand staircase leading up to the rooms on the “piano nobile” which were frescoed and furnished with precious furniture.
Other constructions were added in 1726 by Cardinal Annibale Albani, nephew of Pope Clemens 11th. After passing into private hands in the second half of the nineteenth century, the fortress underwent disastrous modifications. The last private owner endeavoured to reproduce the original structure damaged by too many interventions over the centuries and furnished it, as we see it today, with furniture and paintings from the antique market according to the taste of d’Annunzio of the time. Like the fortress itself, the walls were also built originally by the Malatesti family. The first enclosure with its flat-topped Ghibelline battlements lies close to the fortress. The second ring is larger and encloses not only the fortress, but also the historic town centre of Gradara.Fourteen towers and a fortified gate with the insignia and coats of arms of the Sforza, Della Rovere and Farnese families are spaced out along the walled curtain. The patrol walks, the watch towers, the underground tunnels and the strong walls enlivened by a multitude of slits complete the impressive picture for us to imagine the Middle Ages.
Legend has it that the castle was the scene of the famous and tragic love story of Paolo and Francesca, caught in each other’s arms and killed by Gianciotto, Francesca’s husband. This love story was immortalized by Dante in his Divine Comedy. “Love, that allows no loved one to be excused from loving…” whispers Francesca seduced by the beautiful aspect of Paolo and abandoning herself to the love passion that will lead her to a tragic end. Around the end of 1200 the Old Mastin, lord of Romagna reinforced his political alliance with Guido Minore da Polenta, lord of Ravenna with the marriage of their respective children, Francesca da Polenta and Giovanni Malatesta, said “The Lame”. Giovanni was then lord of Pesaro, Gradara was therefore the closest and most secure place to host the young bride. Francesca often alone in her castle must have with no doubt enjoyed the visits of the handsome Paolo, whom she falls hopelessly in love with. “But one day we read, to our delight, of Lancelot and how love constrained him… That book was a Galeotto, a pandar and he who wrote it, that day we read no more”. A story that Dante told first and which has also inspired various poets and artists of all times.
“ Amor, ch’al cor gentile ratto s’apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona
che mi fu tolta; e l’modo ancor m’offende.
Amor, ch’ha nullo amato amar perdona,
mi prese del costui piacer si forte,
che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
Caina attende chi a vita ci spense.”
Queste parole da lor ci fuor porte.”
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, vv. 100-108