Standing on a rocky outcrop near the confluence of the Magra and Bagnone rivers, on the route of the Francigena, the origins of Malnido Castle in Villafranca in Lunigiana can be traced back to the the early 12th century. Guarding the route to the Cisa Pass and the coast, it started out as a fortified structure that grew in size over the years.
It was in the 1500s that the castle was transformed from a fort into a residential palazzo following rebuilding to repair the damage caused by a Genoese raid the previous century. It was at a time when Villafranca had become prosperous – the Convent of St. Francis had been built, businesses were flourishing and the town expanding. The castle became the regional seat of government and a symbol of the increased power of the Marquis of Villafranca. It had luxurious staterooms on its upper floors and numerous vaulted warehouses and storerooms on its lower floors.
The glory days of Malnido Castle slowly declined in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the importance of the Marquis of Villafranca diminished and the revenues needed to maintain the castle dried up. In the early 19th century, when other castles in Lunigiana were being abandoned due to lack of funds, the last feudal lord, the Marquis Tommaso Malaspina, attempted to slow the castle’s decline by selling off apartments to wealthy local families, by turning some of its rooms in offices for the local government and the military, and by promoting the castle as a centre of entertainment. His efforts were in vain as, at the end of the 19th century, the new railway line between Parma and La Spezia was routed through the small space that separated the castle from the Church of San Nicolò and the Via Francigena. The site of the castle was damaged and the castle itself was cut off from the town of Villafranca.
The castle’s decline continued when it suffered extensive damage in the earthquake of 1920. Renovations that would once more alter the structure of the castle were never completed due to the outbreak of World War II. During the third of the four air raids on Villafranca in the summer of 1944, the castle was targeted and suffered irreparable damage. Although war reparations were paid, the owners of the castle decided to sell off whatever could be salvaged to be used to repair or build new residences, rather than attempting to rebuild the castle, the remains of which today lie abandoned and covered in ivy.