The castle of metamorphoses

The Castle

The rather extraordinary Castle of Rocca Sinibalda is a thousand years old fortress and seigneurial palace which was classified as a national monument in 1928. With no match in Europe, this castle is both metaphysical and animal, cubist and zoomorphic, «an abstract geometric construction that seems to have been cut with a sword» (Zander, 1955). It is also the architectural representation of a powerful eagle with folded wings for some, or a sinister and weird scorpion for the more imaginative.


The identity of the Castle lies in paradox and contradiction. While intensely medieval, it is also a great Renaissance architecture. It is Gothic and yet rational. Gloomy yet bright. It is a powerful instrument of war, but also a princely mansion. It is austere, stern, sometimes harsh, yet decorated with 16th-century Mannerist frescoes imbued with classical culture, and with whimsical grotesques radiating unrestrained imagination.

A castle of metamorphoses, where the shapes, the volumes, the interior and exterior spaces, the images and lights, the unique collections, the diverse and unusual internal paths compel the visitor to give up simplicity and straightforwardness, and elicit his/her desire for change.


Very little accurate historical information is available, there are century-long voids, doubtful sources, and fluctuating ownerships. The names of the families linked to the castle intertwine and seem to alternate over the centuries,  while in fact the castle and the marquisate basically remained in the same hands. This apparent disorder hides a relative continuity that has gone on from one century to the next until today.

The castle was erected as a military stronghold around the tenth century. It owes its name to Sinibaldo, Count and rector of Sabina between 1058 and 1065. Little is known of the events that affected the castle over the ensuing centuries. It belonged to the Benedictine monks of Farfa, but was liquidated with the depletion of the Abbey’s assets. Between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries it came in the fiefdoms of the Buzzi and Brancaleone Romancia families, soon extinguished. Some scant historical evidence survives in the Statutes of Tivoli and the Archives of the Cathedral of Rieti. During those centuries, the building was established as a medieval castle and fortress.

Only the sixteenth century  provides slightly more precise details. The Mareri counts appear as proprietors of the castle. They, however, suffered the wrath of the Medici, who came into conflict with the Mareris because they impeded their expansion in Abruzzo, in particular the area of L’Aquila. Leo X de’ Medici had already appointed Alessandro Cesarini Cardinal in 1517. Taking advantage of a quarrel between two Mareris, Clement VII de’ Medici assigned half of the castle to Cardinal Cesarini, who at a later uncertain date completed the acquisition of the rest of it. This happened no later than 1539. Documents recently discovered seem to tell a much more complex story, but do not affect its outcome, i.e. the transfer of the castle to the Cesarini. It was rumoured at the time that in fact Cesarini and his family had been granted by the Medici the tenure of the castle, and not it ownership, with the obligation to provide for its maintenance and strengthening of its strategic role on the border between the Papal State and the Kingdom of Naples .

La svolta: il Sacco di Roma del 1527

La svolta: il Sacco di Roma del 1527

Il Cardinale Alessandro Cesarini

Il Cardinale Alessandro Cesarini

The turning point came with Alessandro Cesarini. Due to the recent sack of Rome in 1527, he increasingly focused his attention on this feudal area and castle not too far from Rome, protected by its distance, its rugged terrain, its ease of defence, its pivotal strategic location between Rome and Rieti, and the capacity to control the entire military quadrant between Lazio and L’Aquila.

At the same time the Cardinal did not want to give up his lavish lifestyle, and the pleasures of stately life. Hence came the idea of transforming the mighty but stern medieval fortress into a hybrid structure, a fortified Renaissance palace.

To achieve this architectural feat, Cesarini turned to Baldassarre Peruzzi, who was in Rome as the appointed architect for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1530. The request to Peruzzi was probably made ​​on the occasion of the staging of The Bacchides by Plautus, commissioned by the Cesarini family for the wedding of Giuliano Cesarini and Giulia Colonna on May 28, 1531.

Peruzzi was chosen since he was perhaps best suited to satisfy the cardinal’s contradictory demands. He was one of the greatest military architects of the European Renaissance. However he was also a civil architect of extraordinary finesse, as is demonstrated by the Palazzo Massimo alle Colonne in Rome. Peruzzi had also overcome in some key projects the strict distinction between mansions and fortresses, dear to  military architects like Francesco di Giorgio, the Sangallo brothers and Leonardo da Vinci. He theorized that it was possible to combine a military function and a pleasurable lifestyle in the same building, while elevating both of them to their greatest pinnacle.

The outcome is the plan for the castle of Rocca Sinibalda. Three drawings in the Uffizi in Florence sketch it as having: an ‘front spur’ and a ‘tail’, dedicated to the defence of the two area where the castle was assailable, and a large central body – the ‘palace’- perched on a ridge of rock. It is a brilliant configuration which blends the building and its standing ground in a consistent  manner. The unusual configuration was promptly described by contemporaries as zoomorphic because it might appear as: an eagle with its wings spread, a tribute to the military function of the castle, and to the imperial eagle that the Habsburg Charles V had quartered in the arms of the Cesarini for their loyal support to the his cause; or as a scorpion, the sinister symbol supported by a widespread anti-Renaissance iconography.

Baldassarre Peruzzi nelle Vite del Vasari

Baldassarre Peruzzi nelle Vite del Vasari

The reconstruction of the old medieval structure began in 1532, and Peruzzi passed away in1536. He died in poverty while pursuing new endeavours that brought him throughout Lazio, Tuscany, and Umbria, therefore he was not very involved in the completion of the Rocca sinibalda project. A comparison between the drawings and the final structure shows that several changes had to be made as the task proceeded.

Alessandro Cesarini and his cousin, Giuliano Cesarini, commenced the wall decorations; inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and mixed with scenes and events that included several important narratives about the Cesarini family. The participating artists displayed very diverse styles, and amongst them were Girolamo Muziano, some artists that hailed from the workshops of Roman Mannerism, and others yet to be identified. They all participated in the production of the powerful and visionary narrative cycles. The restoration of the remaining frescoes throughout the structure has been postponed due to its exorbitant price tag.

In the decades following its restoration, the castle suffered the vicissitudes of the ongoing feud between the Cesarini and the Carafa, then – from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries- there were sieges, an explosion of the powder magazine  (1710), fires, abandonments, decay, and an alternating of families such as: the Mattei, the Lante della Rovere, the Multi-Bussi, the Lepri. A roundabout of names that lasted up to very recent times, in an inextricable tangle of legal rights and timed tenures enacted as ownerships, the former being  much more stable than they appear on paper. Overall, we are left with long stretches of time without any reliable information or documentation regarding this monument.

Ovidio, Metamorfosi, 1582

Ovidio, Metamorfosi, 1582

The history of Castello di Rocca Sinibalda is as elusive as its identity. The castle is patiently waiting for someone who will rewrite it, liberating it from all the errors, inventions and inaccuracies that have surrounded it, and which are found even on serious texts and sites. The beauty of this castle deserves it.


A challenging project that has lasted seven years.

The artistic project has been supervised by the architect Claudio Silvestrin and his studio, which was chosen following a selection process that involved several top candidates like Gae Aulenti, Michele De Lucchi and others of equal renown. Claudio Silvestrin’s passionate commitment can only be described as an act of love.

Due to its status of National Monument, the castle is a Grade I listed building. All construction or restoration activities must happen under the previous authorization and close scrutiny of several public agencies in charge with the artistic and architectural National Heritage. The works have been supervised by architect Caterina Nucci, and Drs.  Dora Catalano and Benvenuto Pietrucci. Architect Nucci was given the more complex task, which she carried out with great zeal and dedication.

GPL Costruzioni has performed the challenging overall operations. The restorers Silvia Balena and Alessandra Morelli undertook the cleaning and restoration of the frescoes and the wooden ceilings. Ms. Morelli has handled the colouring in the restoration of the mortar of the external walls (Great courtyard, surrounding walls). Mr Cisbani and the Petres Company have recovered some exceptionally difficult old travertine floors and staircases.

The objective set by the owners was: a thorough yet inconspicuous restoration.  The most appropriate final comment came from Architect Silvestrin: «It seems like nothing has been done».

Problems and Findings

The restoration of the castle ran into all kinds of problems. Some had been predicted, while others were not.

The most serious problem was the inaccessibility of the location. A 30 meter crane had to be brought in by helicopter and assembled on-site. The narrow streets surrounding the castle are impassable for even medium-to-small machinery. The erection of scaffolding on the rock ridge and non-vertical walls turned into a difficult challenge for the engineers.

Another challenge was finding the sand that matched the materials used in the past for the mortar on the walls. It was even more difficult to restore pieces like the centuries-old marble steps, old gates and thick solid doors, some beautiful but worn bricks, without exceeding the already stratospheric cost.

The most serious problems the restoration team had to face were due to the mediocre and sloppy quality of the previous restorations. The Grand Courtyard had been paved with tawdry cobblestones. There had been a liberal use of cement – grey cement! – applied in a thoughtless manner, and nearly impossible to remove. Iron spikes had been planted in the frescoes. Generous layers of plain paint spread on the wooden floors and on the old bricks. The replacement of damaged wood ceiling sections had been done with heterogeneous material. Holes and openings in the roofs and fixtures had been left unsealed, resulting in dampness stains and serious damage to the Renaissance frescoes. The paintings had undergone totally inept restoration, often done with acrylic paints! And the list could go on for pages, therefore explaining those 7 years of labour!

Fortunately there were some pleasant discoveries.

For example a “snow cellar” seven meters deep, which had been filled over the years with all types of debris, and then completely forgotten. It has been emptied, and it shows how, hundreds of years ago, the lords of the castle guaranteed themselves snow and ice during the hottest summer months.

A tub-pool, small but stunningly positioned among the cypresses in the overhanging garden. It had been used by Caresse Crosby, Peggy Guggenheim, Gregory Corso and other poets of the “Beat Generation”, the Living Theater: all guests of the owners. Filled with earth and some ridiculous shrubs in the 70s, it has now been returned to what it was 50 years ago.

The mini-amphitheatre past the so-called Cellars: a perfect little stage in a setting of great beauty.

The jagged rock spurs upon which the castle is built have been freed from all the shrubs and debris. Naked, they exhibit their stern power, consistent with the building.

The ivy that covered much of the perimeter has been eradicated, exposing at last the pure geometry and cubist quality of the walls.

Much remains to be discovered.