Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews   entry Aug. 2010

Capaccio, the Castle & the Barons Who Couldn't Shoot Straight
  The ruins of the Capaccio castle             

From a vantage point at Capaccio, you can see the entire gulf of Salerno spread out before you all the way to the Amalfi coast and the Isle of Capri out at the end, marking the entrance to the next gulf up the coast, that of Naples. If you had been up on that point a few thousand years ago and started one of those neat time-lapse films going—maybe a frame every couple of years—you could watch prehistoric tribes give way to the city builders of Magna Grecia, the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Gothic Wars, the violence of the Middle Ages, the drudgery of feudalism, the coming of the Spanish, the Bourbons, the unification of Italy, and the WWII Allied invasion of the gulf. (All of this, of course, much too quickly in that ant-like time-lapse scurrying to and fro. I figured it out: at one frame every two years and a standard projection rate, the film would last about 25 minutes. Yes, jerky but entertaining—like most films with Time Machine in the title! You'd have to be patient; they didn't start making popcorn around here until around 1700.)

The modern town of Capaccio is 50 km (30 miles) south of Salerno at the beginning of the mountains at the northern end of the Vallo di Diano national park in the Cilento area of the Campania region of Italy. The town sits at 440 meters (1440 feet) above sea level on a spur of Mt. Calpazio (Calpatium to the Romans). The name Capaccio is either derived from the name of that mountain or from the Latin, Caput aquae, meaning "head of the waters," in reference to the aqueduct that supplied the ancient city of Paestum.

Indeed, the history of Capaccio, its very existence, is connected with that nearby Roman coastal city of Paestum (built by the earlier Greeks as "Poseidonia"), for Capaccio grew up as a haven for refugees from the perilous ups and downs of coastal living after the Roman Empire. These vicissitudes included the Gothic Wars, malaria (from the swamping up of the Paestum plain) and, later, Saracen invasions; thus, the people fled to the hills. In the course of the early Middle Ages, Capaccio became a walled town and assumed a certain political importance with the presence of families of the nearby dynasty in Salerno, which was itself an independent Duchy before the formation of the Kingdom of Sicily (which then became the Kingdom of Naples).


Historically, there is an Old Capaccio and a New Capaccio. One of the only reminders of Old Capaccio is the rebuilt version (from 1710) of the sanctuary of the Madonna del Granato (photo, right), built on the original site, perched on a promontory of Mt. Calpazio, well above the Sele river with a view of the entire Gulf of Salerno. The church was originally the cathedral of the ancient diocese of "Caputaquis" and was first mentioned in a papal bull from 967 as S. Maria Maggiore sul Calpazio. It was built by those fleeing the Saracens, and it contains an interesting display of syncretism—that is, a mixture of traditions from different religions—that has led to the more interesting newer name, Madonna del Granato [pomegranate]. There is an ancient Greek temple of Hera down on the plain, not far from Paestum. The site of the temple was not rediscovered by archaeologists until the 1930s. If you like mythological derring-doers, at least one ancient source (Strabo, Geography, book 6) tells us that the temple was built by Jason and his heroic band of Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Representations of Hera often show her holding a pomegranate, a fruit symbolic in many ancient cultures of fruitfulness and righteousness. When the inhabitants of Paestum became Christians, they incorporated the icon of that fruit, and when they moved into the hills, they took that bit of ancient Greece with them; indeed, within the church, the 14th-century wooden sculpture of the Madonna holds a pomegranate (photo, left).



New Capaccio is higher up but just a short distance away; the reason there is no longer an Old Capaccio has to do with the nearby castle (photo, top of page), situated a few hundred feet above the church. All old castles have a tale to tell—some feature a lovely princess and a very lucky frog, but some tales are ferocious. [Spoiler alert: the tale of the castle at Old Capaccio will curdle your blood or make it run cold, whichever comes first. Your mileage may vary. Turn away now if you are faint of heart.]


  Statue of Frederick II,
   Royal Palace, Naples.

The castle was the last stronghold of the plotters involved in what is called the Capaccio Conspiracy or Barons' Revolt,*note an organized move by feudal lords in 1245 against Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. As background, it is important to realize the enmity between the Guelphs and Ghibellines of those days, and specifically between the Papacy and Frederick (the most powerful of all medieval emperors). (For some of that background, see The Empire Strikes Back and The Constitution of Melfi.) Briefly, Frederick had reorganized the kingdom in 1230, (1) creating the forerunner of the modern European nation state, and (2) making a lot of enemies of old feudal kingpins who saw their power greatly reduced. Frederick also made enemies of a few Popes since his new constitution (see link, above) placed clerics under civil law.

The plot was hatched by Bernardo Orlando Rossi, brother-in-law of Pope Innocent IV. In scope, the plot involved the participation of what was essentially a Who's Who of Feudalism in Southern Italy; it aimed at (1) either deposing the emperor or (2) even better, killing him. Supposedly, that would be brought about by a general uprising throughout the south of all feudal lords with loyal troops at their command. At its most conspiratorial (though historians are divided on this) the plot was really cooked up by the Pope, himself, who was, as were his predecessors, bitter enemies of Frederick. Some sources say that perhaps the Pope saw the plot as a trial run for what was to be a grand anti-Ghibelline invasion of the Kingdom of Sicily (Southern Italy) by the forces of the Papal States. The most generous (to the Pope) interpretation is that the Pope was not an instigator of a plan to kill Frederick but that he knew about it. Indeed, he later wrote letters to a few of the conspirators who had managed to flee the grisly aftermath of the failed conspiracy, congratulating them on having escaped. Frederick, of course, was convinced that the Pope had been behind it all along; after all, the conspirators, themselves, later admitted to Frederick that they had acted to protect the Church and the Faith.

The plot itself was half-baked and too ambitious. Frederick may have been off hunting while the rebellion was brewing, but he was still the Holy Roman Emperor, powerful and larger-than-life to his followers, of whom there were a great many. When the news leaked, as it usually does, that rebellion was in the wind, he returned from his Tuscan holiday and rounded up an army, which was more than the rebels could do. With no uprising to support them, they retreated to the hills above Paestum, specifically to Sala Consilina, Altavilla Silentina, and Capaccio, all within the mountains of the Cilento region.

Frederick's army destroyed the first two towns, killed or captured the conspirators, and then turned on Capaccio, where the rebels had taken refuge in the "impregnable" castle in the above photo an immovable object. The irresistible force, Fredrick, lay siege to it for three months. Very little combat took place; Frederick sabotaged the castle cistern and waited. Without water in the heat of August, 1246, the 150 rebels came out. That was a mistake; they should have drunk the Masada Kool-Aid. Who knows what they thinking:

Baron Vinnie: C'mon, he'll understand. He's the Stupor Mundi—the Wonder of the World. He founded the University of Naples...he wrote an entire constitution by himself...he speaks five languages...he writes books about birds, for Pete's sake!

Baron Guido: He doesn't write about tweety-birds. He's an expert on falcons. You know, that rapacious thing that claws your eyes out. That gets my attention. Maybe he's trying to tell us something.

Baron Vinnie: OK, but he's a man of reason. It's all a misunderstanding! Whaddya think?

Baron Guido: Well, staying with the bird metaphor—or is it a simile? I think our goose is cooked. You go first. Here's the white flag, and don't forget to give him this list of our grievances. Does He know how hard it is to find good serfs these days?!

The aftermath was short and gruesome. As they used to say in the 13th century, Etiam stupor mundi perversus filius meretricis esse potest, si eum prodis. ("Even a Wonder of the World can be a nasty sonuvabitch if you cross him.") (If that's not quite correct, remember, this is corrupted feudal Latin of the 1200s.) Some of the conspirators were punished by being blinded and then mutilated, others were hanged, burned alive, dragged to death behind horses, drowned, or sewn up in sacks full of poisonous vipers. The 20 or so women that had been in the castle were apparently spared all of that, but they were sold into slavery. To Turkish pirates.

It is not clear if the castle and town of Capaccio were then destroyed by Frederick or if that happened somewhat later in the century during the Angevin power crisis known as the The Sicilian Vespers. In retrospect, the effect of the rebellion on Frederick was substantial. After 20 years of nation building, he wound up knowing he couldn't trust those around him. Many of the conspirators had been those he had installed in powerful positions in his kingdom.

You can see all that from Capaccio.


As an afterthought, I am amazed at how alive the Middle Ages still are in the minds of some people. Not university profs —just plain people. Once upon a time, a simple coachman trotting me around Pisa referred to "that Dantaccio" (the pejorative suffix on the name of the author of the Divine Comedy turns the expression, roughly, into "that bastard, Dante") for having dared to defame Pisa in the year 1300 as "...vituperio delle genti..." ["...shame of all peoples..."]. In that same sense, the proprietor of a pharmacy in Capaccio followed me out of his shop after I had suggested that Fred had been less than conciliatory with the rebel barons, to remind me that "those bastards got just what they deserved!"

And as an after-afterthought, Frederick may have killed a few feudal lords, but he didn't kill feudalism. At his death in 1252, southern Italy was thrown into a vicious struggle between his heirs and armies of Angevin France trying to take the kingdom, which they eventually did. The barons naturally sided with the anti-Frederick forces and to a large extent returned to their positions of power once the Angevins were victorious. Many of the feudal castles and fortresses that one sees in the hills of southern Italy, indeed, stem from the early years of Angevin rule (that is, the late 1200s).


*note: Barons' revolt. The term is also used for other episodes in Neapolitan history, principally the revolt against Ferrante of Aragon in the late 1400s. (See that link.)

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[See also: The Hill Towns of Cilento.]

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