Bellinzona ( BEL-in-ZOH-nə, Italian: [bellinˈtsoːna], Ticinese Lombard: [belĩˈtsɔna]; French: Bellinzone [bɛlɛ̃zon]; German: Bellenz [ˈbɛlɛnts]; Romansh: Blizuna [bliˈtsuːnə] (listen...Read more

Bellinzona ( BEL-in-ZOH-nə, Italian: [bellinˈtsoːna], Ticinese Lombard: [belĩˈtsɔna]; French: Bellinzone [bɛlɛ̃zon]; German: Bellenz [ˈbɛlɛnts]; Romansh: Blizuna [bliˈtsuːnə] (listen))is a municipality, a historic Swiss town, and the capital of the canton of Ticino in Switzerland. The town is famous for its three castles (Castelgrande, Montebello, Sasso Corbaro) that have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2000.

The town lies east of the river Ticino, at the foot of the Alps. It stretches along the river valley, surrounded by the southern ranges of the Lepontine Alps to the east and west, and by the Lugano Prealps to the south.

Pre-History and Roman era

Bellinzona has always occupied an important geographic location in the Alps. To the south, the Po Valley is accessible by a lowland route down the valley of the river Ticino and by Lake Maggiore. To the north, the valley of the Ticino leads to the high alpine passes of Nufenen, St. Gotthard, Lukmanier and San Bernardino. Although now little used, the San Jorio Pass to the east was also important in Bellinzona's past.[1]

While the region has been occupied since the early Neolithic age[1][2] it wasn't until the late 1st century BC that a fort was built in the area during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. While the fort fell into disrepair in the following centuries, it was rebuilt and greatly expanded in the 4th century AD. During the reign of Diocletian and Constantin a chain of castles and watchtowers were built to protect northern Italy from invasion. Bellinzona's location was recognized as a key point in the defenses and a large castle was built to protect the walls. The town that grew up around the fortifications was known as Bilitio.

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the successor states, which included the Ostrogoths around 500 AD, the eastern Byzantine Empire towards the middle of the 6th century, and the Longobards from 568/70, all took control of Bellinzona and used the castle to assert control of the surrounding passes. Under the Longobards, Bellinzona became the site of a permanent garrison to protect the region from raids by the neighboring Frankish and Alemannic tribes.[3] From Bellinzona the Longobards controlled the traffic on the important trade route from Varese over Ponte Tresa, the Monte Ceneri Pass, Biasca and finally over the Lukmanier Pass into Chur. Some researchers believe that Bellinzona may have been the capital of a county that included most of the valleys in Ticino.[3]

Early Middle Ages

At around 774 the Frankish Kingdom (that would become the Carolingian Empire) gained control of the Ticino valley including Bellinzona.

About two centuries later the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, seeking to restore the power of glory of ancient Rome and expand into Italy, opened the Lukmanier and St. Bernard passes. Control of Bellinzona was a key part of this expansion. The town was taken from Milan and given as a gift to the Bishop of Como, who supported the Ottonian dynasty. In 1002, following the death of Otto III, Marquis Arduino of Ivrea declared himself King of Italy and ratified the bishop's ownership of the Castelgrande and the town. Two years later, after Arduino had been defeated by Henry II the King of Germany, Henry II's man Enrico II reratified the gift of the Castelgrande on the Bishop of Como.[4] The town is mentioned in medieval sources in 1218 as Bilizione.

Conflicts between the Pope and the Emperor
Coat of arms of the House of Visconti. Under the Visconti, Bellinzona flourished and the town was expanded.

During the Investiture Controversy of the late 11th century the town of Bellinzona with its castle came under the control of the Hohenstaufens of Swabia. However, in 1180, Frederick I (Barbarossa) placed the town under the jurisdiction of the town of Como.[4] In the following years Como tended to support the Pope in his conflicts with the Holy Roman Emperor. However, in 1239, Como sided with the Emperor Frederick II who quickly moved forces into Bellinzona and strengthened the Castelgrande. In 1242 Milan sent Guelph (or pro-papacy) forces under the command of Simone di Orello to take Bellinzona.[4] The town and castle were taken which weakened the Emperor south of the Alps. However the town was back under the jurisdiction of Como in 1249.[3] Conflicts in northern Italy continued, the Castelgrande was besieged several times in 1284, 1292 and 1303. During this time the Rusca family in Como, a Ghibelline or pro-Imperial family, fought the growing power of Milan under the pro-papacy House of Visconti with limited success. Around the end of the 13th century the Rusca family built another castle, Montebello, in Bellinzona, which they controlled. This was fortunate because by 1335 the Rusca family had been driven out of Como and had to retreat to Bellinzona. Five years later, in 1340, Milan besieged Bellinzona. Following a lengthy siege, the town fell to Milan but the Ruscas were allowed to keep Montebello.[4] Pro-papacy Milan would dominate Bellinzona for the next one and a half centuries, though the pro-Imperial Rusca would also occupy part of the town.

Expansion of Bellinzona under Milan
The Murata or town wall of Bellinzona

Under the control of the Visconti, trade flourished and Bellinzona grew. When an alternative route over the Alps, the Schöllenen bridge opened, traffic in the St. Gotthard increased to the highest levels ever.[5] During the second half of the 14th century a long wall, the Murata, was built across the Tessin valley, allowing Milan to protect and tax the trade route over the St. Gotthard Pass.[3] While the town was controlled by Milan through the Visconti after 1340, the Visconti did not have a formal title and feudal rights until 1396 when they were granted by King Wenceslaus. However, the orderly growth of Bellinzona was threatened in 1402 when Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti died. In 1403 Bellinzona came under the control of Alberto di Sacco of Val Mesolcina, who held it until 1419 before it was taken over by Uri and Obwalden, which expanded into the Leventina Valley. Milan attacked the town three years later in 1422 after an offer to buy the town was rejected by the Swiss Confederation. The troops from Uri and Obwalden were quickly driven from the town and later defeated at the Battle of Arbedo on 30 June 1422. This defeat discouraged the expansionist intentions of Uri and its allies towards Lake Maggiore for a time.

During the period of unrest following Gian Galeazzo Visconti's death, a tower which would become the nucleus of the third castle, Sasso Corbaro, was built outside the town.

While the border between Uri and Milan was fixed in the peace treaty of 1426, in 1439 Uri invaded again. While they were unable to take Bellinzona, the victories of the Swiss troops led to Milan granting all of the Leventina Valley to Pollegio to Uri in 1441. Following the death of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti in 1447, Bellinzona was in the middle of the succession crisis between Franchino Rusca of Locarno and Heinrich of Val Mesolcina, who were allied with Uri and the Ambrosian Republic in Milan. The war following the succession crisis lasted nearly three years until Francesco I Sforza seized power in Milan. Bellinzona quickly accepted the new Sforza dynasty and the peace and stability that followed.[3]

The peace was broken again in 1478 when the Swiss once again attacked Bellinzona unsuccessfully. However Swiss pride was restored by the Battle of Giornico which followed, where a force of 600 Swiss soldiers defeated 10,000 Milanese troops. Following the attack, Milan built the Sasso Corbaro either on the site of a tower which had been built nearly a century before.[3] The other two castles were strengthened and the Murata wall across the valley was rebuilt. Much of the modern castles and fortifications date from this period of construction in the late 15th century.

An associate of the Swiss Confederation
Castles of Bellinzona

In 1499 nearly one and a half centuries of Milanese rule ended with the invasion of Milan by Louis XII of France. He captured Bellinzona and fearing an attack by the Swiss, fortified the Castelgrande with 1000 troops.[6] Throughout the winter of 1499/1500 unrest in Bellinzona grew, until January when an armed revolt of the citizens of Bellinzona drove the French troops from the town. Following the capture and execution of Ludovico Sforza in April 1500 and seeking protection from France, Bellinzona joined the Swiss Confederation on 14 April 1500, as a condominium under the joint administration of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden. Following the Napoleonic invasion of Switzerland in 1798, Bellinzona was the capital of the canton of Bellinzona within the Helvetic Republic (1798–1803).

Bellinzona since 1803
Train disaster in Bellinzona, May 1924

Following the Act of Mediation in 1803 Bellinzona became part of the independent canton of Ticino, and the capital of the new canton from 1803 to 1814. From that date until 1878, Bellinzona, Lugano, and Locarno, took turns being capital every six years. In 1878 Bellinzona became the capital of the canton.

The town includes the village of Artore and, since the incorporation in 1907, the former municipalities of Carasso, Daro, and Ravecchia.

In 1874, the first sections of the Gotthard railway opened, linking Bellinzona to Biasca and Locarno. By 1882, the whole line was open, extending northwards to northern Switzerland via the Gotthard Tunnel, southwards to Lugano and Milan via the Monte Ceneri Pass, and down the east shore of Lake Maggiore to Luino. Between 1907 and 1972, Bellinzona was also linked to Mesocco and other Val Mesolcina communities by the Bellinzona–Mesocco railway.

^ a b Bellinzona-Ancient and early history in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. ^ Official Website-Prehistoric Settlement Archived 1 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine accessed 7 July 2008 ^ a b c d e f Bellinzona-The Middle Ages in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. ^ a b c d "Official Website-High Middle Ages". Archived from the original on 2 January 2014. Retrieved 4 July 2013. ^ Official Site-Late Middle Ages Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine accessed 17 July 2008 ^ Official Site-Bellinzona joins the Confederation Archived 1 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine accessed 17 July 2008
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