In the middle of XV Century, the city of Cesena reached its peak under the Signoria of the powerful Malatesta family, especially because of the famous Malatestan Library.
After the Malatesta decline, however, the city faced a peculiar yet very brief period of great political importance: Cesena became the capital of the Dukedom of Romagna, under the rule of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, son of Alexander the sixth, Pope of Rome.
In 1502, upon the request of Cesare Borgia, Leonardo Da Vinci came to the Romagna region – and therefore to the city of Cesena – as an Architect and General Engineer: the genius from Tuscany was charged with drawing updated maps of the cities and towns, and to modernize the ancient fortifications in light of the latest military innovations of those days.
So, in addition to describing everyday and farmers’ items, Leonardo devoted himself to defensive reliefs. He completely drew with remarkable accuracy the city and Fortress walls, designing improvements of southern Fortress walls, the so called “French style walls”.
Nowadays, walking along the city walls is very interesting: they are still well preserved today and correspond to Leonardo’s drawing. The distinctive scorpion-shaped wall perimeter, dating back to the Malatestan age, is like a time travel, amidst medieval towers and gates.
Three ancient city gates still remain today: porta Montanara, near the Fortress, provided an access to the inner walls citadel; Porta Santi (also called Rome Gate), which corresponds to the “scorpion’s tail”; and Porta Fiume (River or Bridge Gate) was the main access to the city back in the old days. Another gate, Porta Cervese (named after the sea town of Cervia, which in fact is in that direction), was replaced by the “Cavour” Barrier in the nineteenth century. There is no trace left of Porta Figarola and Porta Trova.
Our stroll starts from Porta Fiume: this Western access was already recorded in the 12th century, while the current appearance dates back to 1491. It’s the only surviving tower of the two watchtowers placed at the sides of San Martino’s Bridge, which formerly crossed the river Savio. The Ghibelline battlement, the slits and the chimneys for the ancient cannons can still be seen today.
From Porta Fiume we walk north following the perimeter in via Porta Fiume, and we proceed to via Mura Federico Comandini, on the walls alongside the Serravalle Gardens: some towers still have the remains of arches and overhead walkaways. In 1502 this section was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci along with the rest of the fortified perimeter, in order to adapt the defense system to heavy artillery.
We are now arriving in the Porta Trova area, of which nothing is left today, and we proceed to Barriera Cavour, the former Porta Cervese, with the remains of the Eastern fortifications.
Heading East, we meet Savelli Gardens and Beluxorum Tower, a polygonal corner element built in 1452 by Novello Malatesta.
Soon we arrive at Porta Santi, also known as Porta Romana, because it’s on the way to Rome: mentioned as early as the 14th Century, it was restored in the first half of fifteenth century and monumentalized in 1819 to a design by architect Curzio Brunelli, in honour of Pope Pio VII, as evidenced in the inscription and crests.
In the southern walls section, after the Public Gardens, we meet the Portaccia, a fluvial gate to protect the city from the Cesuola stream. The traces of battlements can still be seen in the two buildings, connected by a barrel vault from which a barrage grating would be dropped. Crossing it, we can imagine Leonardo Da Vinci in the early 15th century, carrying out surveys in order to determine the exact sizes.
From the Portaccia we can go into the old town, reaching the marvellous piazza del Popolo. Albornoz Palace (the Town Hall) and the Masini Fountain (late Mannerist / proto-Baroque jewel) overlook the piazza, along with the Rocchetta di Piazza.
A defensive element of the citadel, known as “Murata”, its structure consists of the Loggetta Veneziana, a polygonal tower designed by the famous architect Matteo Nuti, and by the upper walkway, which would connect the tower to the upper fortess.
Passing through the arch – formerly known as Porta dei Leoni – we walk up a street of stairs which leads to Piazza dei Cesenati del 1377 and continues to via Malatesta Novello. From this uphill street we reach Porta Montanara (immortalized by a great intellectual, Renato Serra, in words now engraved in a marble plaque on one side of the gate) and the ruins of the old fortress, known as Frederick I Barbarossa’s Fortess.
Now we can walk down via Cia degli Ordelaffi, alongside the Sferisterio, arriving at the gate of the great Rocca Malatestiana (Malatestan Fortress) which is worth a visit.
To complete our visit we should go to Villa Silvia-Carducci – by car, motorcycle or even bicycle – located in Lizzano, on the hills between Cesena and Bertinoro. The villa hosts Musicalia, a very peculiar museum, entirely dedicated to mechanical music, in which we can admire one of the very first mechanical instruments ever designed: Leonardo’s mechanical drum. Conceived for practical military purposes, this device was mounted on big wheels and operated by a handle. It was used to provide a beat in order to keep the pace of the troops, therefore replacing living tambourine players. This specimen was built scrupulously following Leonardo’s original design.