Prisoner Art of Guaita Tower - Atlas Obscura

Prisoner Art of Guaita Tower

High in the clouds of San Marino sits an ancient tower with some curious prisoner graffiti. 


Rocca Guaita is one of three castle peaks in the city of San Marino, capital of the tiny republic of the same name. Entirely encircled by Italy, this little country historically protected itself from invasion, siege and attack by retreating inside these walls, which include an old prison with some 19th century “outsider art.”

Some of the castle structures at Guaita date as far back as the 10th and 11th centuries, but the prison isn’t quite that old. The tower is open to visitors, and here you can see recently discovered prisoner graffiti that had been hidden under layers and layers of whitewash for the past 200 or more years.

The work ranges from scribbles to soldiers, with some geometric patterns and fair maidens popping up too. And there are some far more expressive – and sometimes bizarre – figures that may have been inspired by the less-than-homey conditions.

Of all the images, one man in particular gets a good deal of wall space, but it’s a mystery who the man is. He’s bearded with curly hair and small mustache, always in profile, and looks alternately like Abe Lincoln or Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Whether he was a prisoner or a guard, or just someone famous in the day, that one face got a lot of attention.

The prison was closed in 1970, and it has a long and dark history going back to the late middle ages. The graffiti, on the other hand, looks positively modern when compared to those old medieval walls.

Know Before You Go

San Marino is what they call a "microstate", a small republic surrounded by Italy. It's about 15 miles in from the coast of the Adriatic Sea, and has some very steep hills and mountains. Rocca Guaita is one of the three peaks of Mount Titano in the capital city, also called San Marino. Admission is €3 for just Rocca Guaita (the First Tower), or €4,50 for both Rocca Guaita and Cesta Castle (the Second Tower). Hours are 9am to 5pm (closed certain holidays), and during the summer season (June 7 through Sept. 14) from 8am to 8pm. Best always to call ahead – there is always the possibility that hours and prices may change.

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