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 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. (For more on the crocodile story, this link, item 3.)
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,
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.
[Also see a discussion of the book Scythia to Camelot: Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail, by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor at this entry. They try to convince you that all things Arthurian are really from Naples.]The main Timeline tours started last weekend, 15 April. On Sat and Sun [from their publicity]...
...visitors descend into the underground chambers of the Angevin Fortress for a journey that starts with the vestiges of ancient Rome. They will pass along the area directly below the halls of the Aragonese armory and then into the Renaissance Naples of Alphonse I, so-called “The Magnanimous,” and of his son and heir, Ferrante of Aragon...the hope is to let visitors come into contact with this important part of the archeological heritage of the city of Naples and to enjoy the thrill of a hands-on experience—to touch history physically... It is a museum within a museum, displaying the first plant of this structure built at the behest of Charles I of Anjou beginning in 1279. The leitmotiv of the tour is, indeed, a trip through time...a chance to watch the unrolling of one century after another in the same place
the Book of Light,
and the Original Hot Seat
For some wonderful reason, the astronomical beginning of summer, the summer solstice, is called Mid-Summer in English. There are reasons for this, but I don't know what they are* except perhaps that ritualizing the day on which there is the greatest amount of sunlight and building stone monuments for your rituals was all invented by people who thought the sun moved around the earth. You are free to believe in the more recent alternative fact that the movement of the sun is only apparent and that the earth moves around the sun, and that the extra daylight is when the northern hemisphere of the Earth is most inclined towards the sun, that is, when the sun is at it greatest angular distance north of the celestial equator (23½°—give or take, all due to the tilt of the earth on its axis, commonly known in the Stone Age as the "obliquity of the ecliptic.") (If you live in Australia, read that sentence backwards. Sorry.) It makes no difference because either way the Bay of Naples is a good place to watch, as the Germans say, the Sonnenstillstand and then Sonnenwende—to watch the sun stand still and then change directions. All you need is a clear eastern horizon. Actually, go up to the top of Mt. Epomeo on the island of Ischia and you have a 360° view of the bay. That's the best place to reinvent astronomy after civilization collapses. (Spoiler alert: civilization has already collapsed.) In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice takes place between June 20 and 22. This year it's on Wednesday, June 21, and in Naples, precisely at 06:24 (CESTLE) Central European Summer Time & the Livin' is Easy.
*Maybe I do. While Middle English sumer is obviously related to Modern English "summer", various sources claim that sumer, as in the well-known Medieval round, Sumer is icumen in really meant more like "the beginning of warm weather" a longer period than our modern usage of "summer". This Mid-Summer really meant at the middle of the warm period of the year.
The 2017 summer solstice will play an integral part of further exploration of legends involving the Holy Grail, Naples, King Alfonso of Aragon (alias Alfonso I and Alfonso the Magnanimous) and the Maschio Angioino (alias Castelnuovo) / the Angevin Fortress. The city will open to the public for the first time ever in the 600-year history of the structure, on occasion of the solstice, a gate of the fortress for a “live” presentation, performance, apparition, etc. of the mysterious “Book of Light”—that is, the appearance of a patch of light (due to the unique position of the sun at the solstice) on the wall of the Hall of Barons. The light appears first as an indistinct patch of light and then, as it moves, becomes distinct and rectangular and takes on the form of an open book.
Sir Galahad taking his place at Siege Perilous,The symbol of the open book appears elsewhere within the fortress and has esoteric meaning for those who interest themselves in the various legends surrounding Naples in general and King Alfonso, in particular. It appears in paintings and even on some Aragonese coinage. You can almost fill in the blanks, yourselves, as various books of something or other occur to you from historical, mythological, and religious sources: “The Book of ------”. Local mythologists cite various symbols within the fortress, including the opened Book of Light, an image of a cup (the Holy Grail, see entry 2, above), an image of a throne touched by flames (in Arthurian legend, the Siege Perilous (alias the Perilous Seat), a vacant seat at the Round Table reserved by Merlin for the knight who would one day be successful in the quest for the Holy Grail. These scholars tell us that Alfonso the Magnanimous, indeed, not only built the fortress, but dedicated it to the Holy Grail and felt himself to be in possession of the Grail. Further, he was a student of medieval French and, particularly, Arthurian legends and viewed himself as the rightful successor to Sir Galahad, the only knight who could sit at the Siege Perilous. Alfonso was the new Galahad, and his Aragonese court was to be the new court of Arthur.
the original Hot Seat, in a French manuscript
from the 1400s.
(added June 21, 2017)
A dear friend, Laura, read the foregoing and said she liked it and added "I realize it's mostly mumbo jumbo but it's a relief from real life." It occurs to me to add this: Mumbo Jumbo or not, it all makes a certain kind of sense when you consider that Alfonso was not that far removed in time from the origins of popular Arthurian literature and legends. Geoffrey of Monmouth (The History of the Kings of Britain) wrote in the early 1100s; Chrétien de Troyes (originator of the character Lancelot) wrote in the late 1100s; and, in at least one case, Alfonso was an exact contemporary of one of the authors who helped make tales of the Knights of the Round Table so popular (Alfonso entered and took Naples in 1443, probably slightly before (!) Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthur). Since they all believed in magick, anyway, maybe it was "real life" for them: maybe there was nothing unbelievable at all about seeing "...Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake…".*
[Also see the entry on King Arthur] *the quote is from Glory Road, R. Heinlein, 1963)
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