Siena and Southern Chianti - from the Castle of Montalto to the Castle of Brolio and on to the Castle of Meleto
The Chianti has always been considered the heart of Tuscany and runs between the region’s two main cities: Florence and Siena. Divided into two areas known as Chianti Fiorentino and Chianti Senese, its excellent wines and fine olive oil are renowned throughout the world. The long history of this region dates back to well before 2000BC, as testified by an abundance of Etruscan archaeological sites, Medieval castles, chapels, hamlets, farms and country villas.
The Chianti Senese extends for almost 386 square kilometres and includes a number of towns around Siena such as Castellina in Chianti, a small town founded by the Etruscans; Castelnuovo Berardenga, the southernmost town in Chianti; Gaiole in Chianti, known for its excellent Chianti Classico; and Radda in Chianti, also founded by the Etruscans. The area lies to the north east of Siena and borders with the Valdarno to the north, the Crete Senesi to the south, Valdambra to the east and Val d’Elsa to the west. The countryside varies from plains to the soft hills of Castellina in Chianti and the middle hills of Castelnuovo Berardenga, right to higher ground to the west of Radda and Gaiole in Chianti. The main rivers that run through the area are the Ombrone and the torrents of Ambra, Arbia, Bozzone, Elsa, Gena, Malena and Pesa.
Along the SS540 road towards the Monastery of Ombrone, immersed in one of the loveliest sections of the Chianti Senese countryside, stands the Castle of Montalto. The original nucleus of the castle was built by the Counts of Berardenga and probably existed as early as the 9th century. The castle stands at a strategic point along the Roman road that ran through the whole of the Valdambra towards Valdarno.
In 1208 the castle was seriously damaged during the Battle of Montalto. Siena later fortified it with an additional circle of walls. The castle remained in the hands of the Counts of Berardenga until the 15th century, however, when it became part of the Republic of Siena and in 1456 was granted as a feud to Giovanni Palmieri, whose family retained it until 1572. After undergoing restoration works at the end of the 19th century, today the castle has been converted into an elegant holiday home for tourists, who can stay in part of the castle itself and in the surrounding Medieval houses. There is also a swimming pool and tennis courts. The surrounding countryside is ideal for walking and there is a well-equipped riding school nearby.
The Castle of Brolio, which dates back to the late Middle Ages, is right in the centre of the Chianti Senese area, on the border between the towns of Gaiole in Chianti and Castelnuovo Berardenga. The castle is still in the hands of the Ricasoli family and its name derives from the Longobard word brolo, meaning an enclosed green area. Under the Medicis in 1450 the castle was transformed into an irregular pentagon-shaped fortress by Giuliano da Sangallo, who also designed the watch tower and five bastions – the first of their kind to appear in Italy. In 1835 the castle’s owner, Baron Bettino Ricasoli – a well known politician known as the barone di ferro, or iron baron – commissioned the architect Piero Marchetti to transform the castle into a neo-gothic redbrick mansion. Of the building’s original structure only the perimeter walls, keep and Romanesque church remain. The gardens were laid out by the botanist Simone Ricasoli and consist of a 16th century formal garden with hedges and paths in the inside, and a 19th century green area planted with herbs that surrounds the exterior of the castle.
Although still in private hands, the castle is open to the public, which has access to everything but the mansion. Visitors can tour the bastions that command magnificent views over the surrounding vineyards, also owned by the Ricasoli family, that have been producing wine famed throughout the world for centuries.
The Castle of Meleto is near the small town of Gaiole in Chianti, founded originally by the Etruscans, along the road that runs from Valdarno to Siena. The castle dates from the 11th century, when it was part of the properties of the monks of Vallombrosa. The first lord of the castle is recorded as having been a certain Guardellotto, but after he fell from grace the castle passed into the hands of the Firidolfi family.
Meleto was one of the main fortresses of the Chianti League of towns and, despite the continued clashes between Siena and Florence, escaped virtually unscathed. The original walled fortress structure of the castle, designed as an irregular square with a central keep, is still clearly visible today.
Following a brief two-year occupation by Aragonese forces, who were allies of Siena against Florence, in 1480 Florentine troops recaptured the castle and strengthened its defences with two large cylindrical bastion towers, brick galleries, curtain walls and arrow slits.
In the 18th century the castle was altered into a patrician residence. As with many other places in the Chianti area, the castle is a fantastic location, ideal as a venue for a variety of events and in particular for weddings. Today the castle is part of a farming business.