The town of Sarzana is famous for its charming and lively historic center, conveniently positioned in Liguria’s eastern border next to Tuscany and Emilia Romagna. It is located in the Magra Valley within the Regional Nature Park of Montemarcello Magra. It is about 30 km away from Portovenere (40 minutes by car).
A bit of history
Local archaeologic ruins – especially the standing stones known as statue menhir – suggest that the area was already inhabited during Neolithic times.
It became an important agricultural, commercial and strategic center for its position in the Lunigiana, a historical territory of Italy that today falls within the provinces of La Spezia and Massa Carrara. It also became a relevant religious center when Pope Innocent III transferred the see of the Diocese of Luni in Sarzana (1202).
Throughout history, the town was ruled by various powers, including Pisa, Florence, Genoa and the Kingdom of Sardinia.
What to see in Sarzana
Among the religious buildings, you cannot miss the beautiful white-marble cathedral in a Gothic style completed in 1474, called Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. The building contains a famous relic of the Blood of Christ, which is preserved in the Chapel of the Most Precious Blood (Cappella del Preziosissimo Sangue).
The oldest building in town is the Pieve di Sant’Andrea, a church dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. Inside its ancient walls, you will find marble statues from the 15th century, a painting by Domenico Fiasella and a marble dodecagonal baptismal font by Giovanni Morelli of Carrara.
According to local legend, St. Francis of Assisi himself founded the Church of San Francesco, although the first document on the building dates to the year 1238. Located just outside the city walls, it features a frescoed lunette attributed to Priamo della Quercia, a funerary monument by Giovanni di Balduccio and the tomb of Bishop Bernabò Malaspina.
The beautiful Palazzo Roderio was built between 1466 and 1554, and is currently the seat of the local municipality. Another noteworthy building is Sarzana’s only theater, Teatro Impavidi, which was constructed in the early 1800s on top of an abandoned Dominican convent. It has the second largest capacity in the province of La Spezia.
The former citadel – called Fortezza Firmafede – was built by the Pisans in 1249, then was demolished and re-erected by Lorenzo de’ Medici in the late 1490s. A quadrilateral building is at the heart of this fortress, which is surrounded by imposing walls and a deep trench. A stone bridge allows you to reach the main gate of the fort and enter its large courtyard.
Not far from the historic center of Sarzana, the hill of Sarzanello is home to Fortezza di Sarzanello. From up here you can enjoy a lovely panorama of the surrounding Magra Valley. In the 1320s, Italian condottiero and duke of Lucca Castruccio Castracani modified and enlarged the building, which was located on the site of a fortress existing here from as early as the reign of emperor Otto the Great.
When entering Sarzana, you will notice the torrioni (defensive towers) that gave access to the historic center, namely Torrione Testaforte (south west), Torrione Genovese and Torrione Stella (north) and Torrione San Francesco (north east). Torrione Testaforte features a beautiful villa, called Villa Carpena. There are also two doors that allow you into the hamlet: Porta Romana and Porta Parma.
Sarzana hosts a great number of events, especially during the spring and summer months. Here is a review of the main ones:
- Acoustic Guitar International Meeting: a must for acoustic music and guitar lovers. It takes place in Fortezza Firmafede, usually in May. www.acousticguitarmeeting.net
- Festa del Preziosissimo Sangue: religious procession to celebrate the Holy Blood preserved in the Cathedral. Held on 31 May.
- Premio Spiros Argiris: international competition for young opera singers. Usually held in June. www.sarzanaoperafestival.com
- Arte Aperta: a celebration of art. Typically held in July.
- Soffitta nella strada: lovely open-air market with antiques and modern art collections, including a national exhibition on period items. Traditionally held in August. www.leviedisarzana.it
- Calandriniana: an exhibition during which about 15 painters complete their work of art on a white canvas in front of the public in piazza Calandrini, working from 6PM to late night for 2 weeks. Traditionally held in August.
- Festival della Mente: Europe’s first festival dedicated to the mind, to creativity and the development of ideas. Italian and international scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, literati and artists reach Sarzana on this occasion. Typically held in late August/early September. www.festivaldellamente.it
- Napoleon Festival: a remembrance involving soldiers in Napoleonic costumes and events tied to this historic figure. Traditionally held in September.
Photo credit: main image above – Piazza Matteotti, Sarzana, Liguria – photo by Davide Papalini [CC BY-SA 3.0]