History of the Rio Pusteria Close


The Rio Pusteria Close is on the shore at Rienza, near a valley fort at the western mouth of the Pusteria Valley. Since 1271, this was the border between the counties of Gorizia (which included the Pusteria Valley) and Tyrol; for this reason, Mainardo II of Tyrol had an initial close built, as well as a border fortress (“the ancient close”) on the western bank of the Aiterbach, one kilometre east of the fortified market village of Rio Pusteria.

The “ancient close”
The ancient close, which dates from the time of Mainardo II (XIII century) is about 600 metres west of the Rio Pusteria Close, which is still extant today. The structure consisted of a long fort wall, which ran along the northern side of the valley, with two towers. The lower tower (turris inferiora) near the Rienza, acted as a gate for transit, with customs offices. Little remains of the upper tower (turris superiora), which permitted researchers to find this ancient dam. The accounting books of the time also speak of a wooden bridge, which could very well have been in the vicinity of the lower tower gate.

Aslago Close. Proposed reconstruction for the fortifications of the late XIII century, almost completely fallen in decay (drawing by Larcher)

The consolidation of the northern side of the valley with a wall was supposed to make it impossible to go around the customs station (Isarco customs) and had already been built as early as the Seventies of the XIII century. Additionally, the fortification served military purposes, within the ambit of the development and consolidation of the county of Tyrol. In this context, during the course of the XIV century, the structure was involved in political and wartime events on several occasions.

From the point of view of fortification technology, the ancient close conformed to the models of medieval forts in the Alpine regions. The massive high towers could have been placed within the line of the close wall, which was very probably equipped with a walkway for the guards. What little remains is made up of a few bits and pieces of the upper tower walls, which have been conserved, whose height today does not exceed nine levels of lain stone. The wall, whose length can be estimated to be between five and six metres, reflects the Romanic architectural tradition. As construction material, rocks from the riverbed were used, which had more or less identical dimensions; the stones were worked only minimally and were laid on regular levels. The corner joints were built of somewhat larger rocks, which were also spared any extensive trimming.

Both towers of the ancient close were guarded by the same party, who was also responsible for management of the customs station. Clearance of transported goods through customs took place in the fort. The goods were sometimes inspected in the so-called Ballhaus (ball house) of Rio Pusteria. The customs levied had to be paid immediately, in the form of cash or goods (the pepper duty of Rio Pusteria).
A similar job was performed by the close of Lienz, built at around the same time, at the eastern mouth of Val Pusteria, in today’s eastern Tyrol.
Starting from 1340, there are no further written records on the erstwhile destiny of the ancient, or Aslago close. The structure could have been abandoned following completion of the construction by Sigismondo during the second half of the XV century.

The “new close”

The new close, which is still extant today, was built under commission by the Duke Sigismondo “il Danaroso” [“the Wealthy”]. The job was entrusted to the builder in 1458/59. It could have been finished in the Eighties of the XV century. The first documentary records of the customs activity conducted in the new structure refer to the Seventies, however. The consecration of the chapel of the Holy Trinity, built in the area of the close, took place, according to tradition, in the year 1472; the presence of a bell has been documented since 1484.

Sigismondo’s close starts from the bottom of Rienza Valley, which was narrow but quite flat, and climbs up the mountainside. The plan of the structure shows an irregular four-sided close, with circular towers at the corners. From the northeastern tower, which partially crumbled in 1870/71, a fortified wall with integrated semi-ramparts climbs up the wooded crest of the mountain.

The inside of the fort is divided into two parts. In the middle, the road crossed the two tower gates, the Vintler gate to the east and the chapel gate to the west. The passage was limited by the wall on both sides. The castle, with a residential building of several storeys, is located on the side that goes down the valley; the ground floor of the building houses four rooms, which can be accessed from a central corridor. An administration wing was once annexed to the residential building, which was destroyed in the XVIII century, however, by a serious flood. The nobility very probably resided in the so-called Emperor’s Tower, which stood above the defensive wall in the southwestern corner of the structure. On the side that climbs up the mountain, there was at least one other large building, whose remains were brought to light thanks to archaeological research. The structure was held firm at the corners by two imposing circular towers, only one of which survives.

The Close of Rio Pusteria was conceived as a multi-functional structure, which not only housed the customs, but was also used for residential purposes and acted as a defensive bulwark. The architecture effectively reflects the idea of a modern fortification of the type that was dominant in the XV century. The walls of the building were built of perfectly trimmed and squared stones, almost devoid of joints, which visually mark the defensive nature of the structure. There are key-shaped embrasures in the surrounding walls and towers, suitable for the use of portable firearms of the kind developed at that time. The most recent wartime involvement of the close dates from the so-called Franzosenkriege (the wars of the French) at the beginning of the XIX century, when Napoleon’s troops were faced by the Tyrolese militia.

Acciaio Arte Architettura N.4 - 9/2000