War Museums in the Boot: A Traveler’s Guide to the Military History of Italy – Part 2
The original bronze door from the Castel Nuovo, complete with the embedded cannonball, which likely struck the door after it was plundered by the French King Charles VIII while in route to France. The door was returned by the Genoese to Naples, with the ball still lodged in the door!
(Editor’s Note: This is the second part of author Peter Suciu’s three-part series. Please check back next month for Part 3 – Rome.)
Fortresses of Historic Naples
The southern Italian city of Naples is one known for its shopping, its food (it was the birth place of pizza after all) and its culture. The city has many fine museums, including the Museo Archelogico Nazionale, the national archeological museum, which is home to many Greek and Roman artifacts. But it is also another Italian city worth visiting for its military history. While many visitors likely head to Pompeii to see the Roman city destroyed by the nearby Mount Vesuvius, Naples is unique in that the city has three distinct castles all within a two-mile radius.
Known as the "Egg Castle" in Italian, this is the oldest of Naples three impressive fortifications. Built on the small island of Megaride, the original foundation dates to the 6th century BCE. It was vastly fortified by the Roman patrician Lucius Licinius Lucullus and was long known as the Castellum Lucullanum, where it served as an outpost for the Romans. It was further enhanced by Valentinian II in the 5th century, and was likely the final home of the last Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus, who was exiled to it in 476.
Sadly, much of the Roman-era structures were destroyed in the 9th century so as to prevent its use by Muslim raiders. The castle was rebuilt by Normans in the 12th century, and while it was overshadowed by the city’s later fortified bastions, it saw use in the Italian Wars at the end of the 15th century, and again by the Neapolitian Republic during its conflict against rebel forces in 1799. While largely empty of permanent exhibits, the castle offers excellent views of the Naples waterfront and serves as an excellent reminder of the region’s past. Today a narrow causeway connects the Megaride island to the mainland, and entrance to the museum is free.
Easily the most impressive of the city’s three castles, Castel Nuovo stands today like a guardian over the city’s harbor district. With its massive towers and seemingly impenetrable walls, Castel Nuovo dates back to the 13th century when Charles of Anjou ordered its construction to replace the aging Castel dell’Ovo. The castle served as the main royal residence, and over the following centuries the castle was renovated and greatly fortified.
The Castel Nuovo (New Castle in English) has had a long and colorful history. It is where Pope Celestine V resigned as pope in 1294, and where Boniface VII was subsequently elected papal leader. The fortress was sacked in the 14th century by the army of Louis I of Hungary, but later updated to resist artillery. The castle is today known for its triumphal arch, which was added during a restoration in the 15th century. Inside, the main centerpiece is the Baron’s Hall, which features a massive dome vault that rises some 28 meters.
The other notable attraction is the Bronze Door, which was originally located at the entrance and is displayed on the second floor. Built in 1475, it features six bas-reliefs, framed by decorations with famous Renaissance motifs that commemorate Ferrante d’Aragona’s victory over Giovanni of Anjou. The door also has an iron cannonball embedded in the ripped plate in the bottom left hand panel. It is believed that the door, which was later plundered by Charles VIII of France, was loaded on a ship that came under attack by Genoese and might have been hit by a cannonball. The door was returned by the Genoese to Naples, with the ball still lodged in the door!
The final must-see sight for military history buffs is up on one of the many hills overlooking Naples. The Sant’Elmo is both the name of the hill and the fortress, and this offers simply one of the most scenic views of the city and surrounding region. Originally named for an old 10th century church, Robert of Anjou chose the site for the location of a fortress that was built in the middle of the 14th century. It was subsequently rebuilt in the 16th century in a star-shaped castle with six ramparts, and it became the symbol of the short-lived Neapolitan Republic in 1799. Today, within the fortresses walls are the "Bruno Molajoli" Art History Museum.
Please click the link to view War Museums in the Boot: A Traveler’s Guide to the Military History of Italy – Part 1 (Venice).