14th Century Italian Castles

In the era before gunpowder, star-forts, and sloped walls, your mental image of a "D&D castle" probably resembles the Château de Coucy.
A rough rectangle with four round towers and a central keep. A mountain of stone, built by a military commander aware of the latest trends in warfare.

But different rules applied in 14th century Italy. Small cannons fired wildly inaccurate stone projectiles. Towers were designed to thwart infantry with ladders. Slab-sided, made of brick or small stones, and taller than anyone wold expect, the strategic Italian castle sat on a rocky hill and dominated the local landscape.

If you want to look at a map of all (or very nearly all) castles in Italy, check out the instructions in this post.

The Tower of Frederick II
Doesn't look too imposing up close, but from a distance...
The Castle of Montecchio
Look at that enormous central tower!
The Castle of Zarfa
Ok, this one is cheating because it's in Spain, but still!
This location was used as the Tower of Joy in Game of Thrones. The location is very typical of Italian castles; a prominent rock in the middle of a plain or valley, with clear lines of sight in all directions.
The Towers of San Gimignano
Many italian cities had privately owned towers. Neighbors vied to build the tallest and most defensible towers. There's still some debate on their military usefulness, but from some accounts, a noble family could hide inside to wait out a 3-day sack of a town. What soldier would risk fighting their way up a narrow (potentially booby-trapped) staircase when plenty of families without towers were hiding at ground level?

I have more notes on the towers of Genoa, Pisa, and Lucca in this post.
The "Torre D'acuto", the Tower of Sir John Hawkwood, in Cotignola.
The tower incorporates a few defensive features Hawkwood probably requested personally, given his experience with field artillery.

Other castles, like the Castle of Monteliscai, were squat manor houses fortified and improved over the centuries.
Rocca d'Orcia
It's hard to find good creative commons photos of this imposing castle. The wiki article is well worth reading.
The Castle of Trezzo
The remains of the castle show off peak 13th-14th century choices: a tall square tower, use of terrain (cliffs along the river), brickwork, and flat walls.
Rocca Malatestiana
And finally, a late 14th-mid 15th century fortress. While walls and towers are still square, other innovations (flared tower bases, overhangs, reinforced regions) show the fortress was clearly rebuilt with artillery in mind.

General Rules

-walls are square
-some "castles" are just lone towers. Some are fortified manor houses.
-some castles are made of brick, some of courses of small stones.
-as artillery grows in power, castles become rounded, walls become thicker, and overhangs become common.
-castle technology lagged behind other technolgy for an obvious reason: it's slow and expensive to build a castle.

-it's cheaper and faster to build a tower or convert an old manor house into a fortress than to build a new fortress.

If you want D&D-type rules for building a castle, check out this post.


  1. What about hoardings? I bet it is more common than it seems.

    1. Oh absolutely! Castles didn't look like their ruins.
      I'd be interested to hear from a military historian how hoardings and wooden platforms were used in the 14th century, when small cannon could turn them into deadly splinters, greek fire was commonly used, and no one was sure when the next war was going to start.

    2. Hoardings were all the rage in the 13th and 14th centuries and continued to see use into the 18th century.

    3. Oh of course but the specifics (for say, the 1380s in Italy) are tricky to find.

    4. They sure are tricky to find. There weren't a whole lot of good siege cannons yet in the 14th century so hoardings likely wouldn't be much more at risk than they were from catapults and such. I pitty the fpoor souls that would be manning them in the next century or two.

      Is your setting stil gonna have fire spitting lizards and wizards able to throw fireballs? Hoardings might be unpopular due to that risk and the use of gunpowder overall might be checked by the existence of the fire-spitters.