The castle and fortified town of Gradara represent one of the best preserved medieval towns in Italy. Of the two walls that protect the castle, the outer wall runs for almost 800 metres, making the site particularly imposing.
The castle stands on a hill 142 metres above seal level and the keep or main tower, rises 30 metres to dominate the entire valley.
Ever since ancient times, Gradara’s fortunate location has made it a crossroads for trade and travel. During the middle ages the castle was one of the main theatres of battle between the forces of the Vatican and the turbulent dukes of Marche and Romagna. Gradara’s is quite near the sea and today stands just inland of one of Italy’s major tourist areas on the Marche-Romagna riviera.
The keep was built around 1150 by the powerful De Griffo family, but it was the Malatestas who built the rest of the castle and the two walls around the town in the 13th and 14th centuries, giving Gradara the appearance it maintains today. The dominion of the Malatesta family over Gradara ended in 1463 when Federico of Montefeltro seized the castle from the control of the papal forces. The Pope subsequently granted power over Gradara to the forces of Pesaro, who remained faithful to the church.
Giangiotto Malatesta, one of the protagonists in the story of Paolo and Francesca, met his tragic end in the castle of Gradara in 1289.
After 1464, Gradara was held by the Sforza family, who again had to defend it against the Malatestas. To Giovanni Sforza, the unfortunate husband of Lucretia Borgia, fell the task of competing with Valentino (1499).
From 1513 to 1641 the Della Rovere family were lords of Gradara. After their time, Gradara became the unquestioned property of the Vatican and saw a long period of tranquillity under the control of the pontifical legates.
While the Austrian war of succession (1743-45) touched Gradara only marginally, the town was devastated and ransacked by Napoleon’s troops in 1797. Gradara’s territories subsequently became part of the Cisalpine Republic, and then part of the Kingdom of Italy, returning under Vatican control in 1815 on the fall of Napoleon.