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The Angevin Fortress (Maschio Angioino)

I finally got to take a tour of the Maschio Angioino, the great Angevin Fortress, down at the port of Naples. It's the first time that I have actually been in, around and over the premises and allowed to indulge my inner twelve-year-old—that is, to get up there on the ramparts behind the battlement where they keep the merlons, crenels, ballistrarias and bartizan turrets. For those of you who know less about medieval fortress architecture than you should, that is the place you stood to pour the boiling oil on the invaders. 

The fortress is also called the Castelnuovo (New Castle) to distinguish it from the older Castel dell'Ovo. It was built by the Angevin King, Charles I, as the new royal palace when he moved the capital of the kingdom from Palermo to Naples in the 13th century. Only a few bits of the original structure have remained over the centuries, such as the Palatina Chapel. The original structure was built in only four years and was finished in 1282. It then fell into disrepair, accelerated by an earthquake; thus, the structure you see today is a makeover started by the Aragonese in the 1450s and completed by the Spanish in the mid-1500s.

The castle has seen a number of events highly significant in the history of the city. In 1294, the castle was the scene of the abdication of Pope Celestine V. At least in Dante's version of the afterlife, Celestine resides in Hell. The Divine Comedy places him just past the gates of Hell among the Opportunists—(in John Ciardi's translation)—"...the nearly soulless whose lives concluded neither blame nor praise...[and in reference to Celestine]...I recognized the shadow of that soul who, in his cowardice, made the Grand Denial...". (To play the Pope's advocate, I remind you that Dante was really upset at the fact that Celestine, by quitting, left the door open to the subsequent Pope, Boniface VIII, corrupt and, in Dante's view, responsible for much of the evils that then befell Dante's city of Florence.) 

Here, too, in 1486, the infamous Baron's Plot against the king was brought to a conclusion with the arrest of the conspirators. Also, in the 1300s, during the great flowering of Italian medieval literature, King Robert of Anjou received such eminent poets as Petrarch and Boccaccio. Inside the castle is a vast courtyard, a 14th century portico, and the elegant facade of the Palatina Chapel. Although Giotto and his pupils did the original frescoes inside the chapel, very little of their work remains today. Much of the sculpture seen on the grounds is from the Aragonese period (the mid-1400s) and is the work of disciples of Donatello. 

Popular legend says that a crocodile used to prowl the dungeon; it feasted on upstart barons who incurred the wrath of the Aragonese king. Accepting the idea of a renegade Egyptian crocodile jumping ship in the port of Naples in the Middle Ages and settling down in the castle requires some suspension of disbelief, admittedly. Yet, it's a good story and no doubt served to keep potential trouble makers in line. The moat that surrounds the building was, apparently, just a defensive ditch and was never filled with water. 

Very recent archaeology has laid bare the structures that were on the site before the Angevins moved in to build their castle: (1) the foundations of a Franciscan convent that was torn down (the residents were given property for a new convent that still stands, the Church of Santa Maria La Nova); (2) Roman baths. The site was part of a vast complex running along the shore to the height of Pizzofalcone and around to the small isle of Megaride, site of the Egg Castle and presumed site of the villa of Licinius Lucullus, the Roman consul whose festive life-style has given us the expression, "Lucullan splendor".

As of this writing, considerable work has gone to opening the fortress to the public and to push the structure back into the historical consciousness of Neapolitans. It is, after all, the first royal residence in the city, even though it was overshadowed by later Spanish palaces and, then, the great Royal Palace of the Bourbons. At present, The Palatina Chapel is open, as is the Civic museum, which houses an art collection. Also, a part of the collection of the Filangieri Museum from downtown Naples has been set up on the premises while that museum is closed for repairs. The castle hosts periodic conventions, and the Naples City Council convenes there.

[See also: Angevin Naples (1) and (2)]

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