Vicopisano lies on a hill at the eastern foot of the Pisan Mountains. The castle was certainly erected in the early decades of the 10th century with the aim of making the most of a strategic location that commanded a view of the Arno River Valley from San Miniato to the coast. Being located on the border between the rivals Pisa and Lucca, Vicopisano has always been a frontier station, which led over the centuries to the continual reinforcement of its fortifications. In time the castle came to be surrounded by a large number of buildings, including many towers, with stone being the predominant material used in both public and private building.
At the end of the 13th century Pisa’s decline and the pressure exerted at sea by Genoa and on land by Florence and Lucca caused Vicopisano to be further fortified and a fortress to be erected (1330) in the area corresponding to the present-day Town Hall. In 1406 Vico fell to Florence for the first time. The Florentines turned Vico’s favourable location to their advantage, strengthening its fortifications to a design by Filippo Brunelleschi, who left an indelible mark by erecting the Rocca Nuova (New Fortress) from 1434 to 1440. Under Florentine rule Vicopisano became the seat of the Vicariate for the Lower Arno Valley. The changed political situation (the formation of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany), but most of all the diversion of the River Arno, carried out in 1560 with the aim of improving the local situation, radically altered the environment, changing the old fortress into an agricultural centre.
The town wall was built in different periods datable from the 13th to the 15th century. Part of the wall has retained the older embattlements, blocked at a later period. Near the Torre delle Quattro Porte is a fairly long stretch of wall, reinforced by two cylindrical towers used to keep the whole stretch under artillery fire. Two identical towers are located on the opposite side of the wall.
Via Lante is one of the main streets in Vicopisano and has always been one of the most populous neighbourhoods in the Borgo (village). As recently as a few decades ago the street was still lined with groceries and other shops alternating with dwellings, then the inevitable march of progress has driven these activities to the verge of extinction. Shops had been present here ever since the Middle Ages, a time when the street, called ‘Borgo Maggiore’, was one of the most lively parts of the village, an area of smaller and simpler shops and dwellings than, for example, the Palazzo Pretorio and the Vecchia Posta.
All buildings were nonetheless characterized by tasteful details and by recurring architectural features such as verrucano pillars and large stringcourses. Borgo Maggiore started from the Porta Costantina, a gate which overlooked the present-day Piazza Cavalca, right at the entrance to the Via Lante, and then skirted the base of the hill and continued to the Porta ad Arno, where the activities connected with the river port are believed to have been located. Being located halfway between the market (situated near the Porta Costantina) and the river port, the street soon became a major centre of urban development, which was also facilitated by the flat conformation of the area. Initially, the houses and palaces are believed to have been located outside the wall (hence the name ‘Borgo’); later on, possibly in the 13th century, the area was enclosed within the ramparts, thus becoming part of Vico Castle. Halfway down the street is the Torre dell’Orologio, which has been dealt with at length in the section dedicated to Vicopisano towers. The tower also serves as a divide between two areas which probably developed in different periods. the area between the Porta Costantina and the Tower on the one hand, and the section that from the Tower extends as far as the present-day Viale Brunelleschi. The first area is characterized by older constructions whose 12th-century structures are still visible under the plaster despite heavy alterations. The medieval buildings in this area are comparable to the edifice located in the Viale Brunelleschi. There were apparently no towers in this area, all medieval buildings being mostly of the domus type. In the second part of the street, despite the presence of 12th-century buildings, there is a majority of brick houses, a building solution which began to spread in the 13th century. The horizontal verrucano brackets were gradually replaced by round brick arches. The arch bricks are characterized by geometric decorations. The same type of bricks can be found in cities such as Pisa and Lucca, which attests to the vitality of Vicopisano in that period. The towers in this part of the Via Lante are also built in part of verrucano (generally at the base) and in part of bricks, especially at the top (see for instance the Torre Malanima). The street is also the point of arrival of numerous ‘chiassi’, the steep stone-paved alleys which connected the Borgo Maggiore to the top of the castle. Some of these alleys come out between the houses; others pass under the houses, forming barrel vaults and offering charming glimpses of the village. Many of these spots have recently been restored and paved with verrucana stone.
Particularly beautiful is the ‘Torre d’Oro’ (Gold Tower), a recently restored tower house owing its name to the warm colour of its stones. Nearby are the remains of the ‘Torre d’Argento’ (Silver Tower), built of silvery schistose stone.