Castel dell'Ovo: the oldest castle in Naples

by Claudia Grillo

Naples is the city of churches par excellence, but let's not forget that it is also the city of castles! Among the seven castles enclosed within the city perimeter, Castel dell'Ovo stands out for being not only the more ancient castle of Naples, but also one of the very few testimonies ofRomanesque architecture Neapolitan. And then, let's face it all, whether you are a Neapolitan or a tourist, whether you see it for the first time or for the thousandth, whether you see it up close, from Via Partenope, or far from some blue glimpse between the buildings, Castel dell 'Ovo, being born so majestic from the sea, has such a charm that it is impossible not to stop and admire it.

The islet of Megaride

Castel dell'Ovo rises onislet of Megaride, the small tuff extension of Mount Echia, linked to the mainland thanks only to a thin strip of land. Such a small island, yet so important for the history and sacred traditions of the city.

Castel dell'Ovo Pitloo
Castel dell'Ovo from the beach, AS van Pitloo

The Greek city of Partenope was, in fact, founded by the Cumans in about 680 BC. on the nearby hill of Pizzofalcone and, according to the famous legend, it is on the island of Megaride that he arrived there Parthenope siren, the mythological being half woman and half bird already mentioned inOdyssey, after being rejected by Odysseus. According to some traditions (the debate among scholars is still open), in Megaride stood the sepulcher of the siren to which a real cult and torch racing competitions were dedicated, called Chandeliers. The Partenope siren can therefore be considered the first patroness of Naples.

The villa of Lucullus

The islet of Megaride remained uncontaminated by constructions until the 1st century BC when Lucio Licinio Lucullo, a Roman politician and man of arms near Silla, bought a rather large piece of land that extended from the current Piazza Municipio to Pizzofalcone, also including the island of Megaride. Here, regardless of expense (he had, in fact, greatly enriched himself thanks to the war in the East against Mithridates) he had a majestic villa with gardens where exotic plants and trees were grown, with artificial water channels and tanks where moray eels were raised, with luxury swimming pools and spas and with a renowned library.

The glitz exaggerated of the Villa of Lucullus is remembered by Plutarch (Plutarch, Life of Lucullus, 39.3) which tells that Tuber, a Stoic philosopher, as soon as he saw the villa defined Lucullus "a Xerxes in toga", referring to king of Persia, the luxury model par excellence.

On the death of Lucullus, the villa became imperial property and underwent several fortification works. However, the name of the old owner was not forgotten and even in the following centuries the sources will speak of Castrum Lucullanum. The rocks of the ancient villa can still be admired today columns which in the Middle Ages were reused by the monks who settled in Megaride for the refectory of a convent, called, in fact, "Hall of columns".

The Castrum Lucullanum in the Middle Ages

In 476 AD (historical date with which the Western Roman Empire is considered definitively fallen) the last emperor From Rome, Romolo Augustolo, was deposed by general Odoacer and lived until his death in Castrum Lucullanum.

In the early Middle Ages the Castrum it underwent several modifications. We are now far from the sumptuous gardens and the pools of Lucullus and we must imagine, instead, afortified area even larger than the one now occupied by Castel dell'Ovo, in which they mostly settled monks which over time they built churches and monasteries. For this reason the island of Megaride was called in those years "Island of the Savior" and became a pilgrimage destination when, at the end of the 5th century AD, the remains of San Severino they were transferred here, to the convent founded by his disciple Eugippio.

Christianity also left its footprints on the mythical tradition of the islet. The pagan cult of Partenope was, in fact, now completely overcome and the patron mermaid of Naples was replaced by a new protector, who also came from the sea: Saint Patricia. Patrizia of Constantinople was a descendant of the emperor Constantine. Christian and very devout, she left to reach the Holy Land but, according to the legend, one storm he wrecked his ship and pushed the young woman, just like Partenope, to the shores of Megaride, where she founded her own small religious community and he continued to live until his death at the age of only 21 in 685 AD

The Normans and the Castel dell'Ovo

We now come to the 10th century, when the Mediterranean coasts were continually attacked by the Saracen piracy. In 902 the Duchy of Naples decided to do break down the Castrum Lucullanum poiché difficile da difendere. Si temeva che i Saraceni riuscissero ad occuparlo e attaccassero la città direttamente dall’area fortificata.

Castel dell'Ovo: il castello più antico di Napoli
Ruggero II, mosaic of the Church of Martorana

When in 1139 Roger the Norman conquered the Duchy of Naples, finally started the construction of the castle. The latter was a residence for the new sovereigns, but it was also a fortress for defensive purposes. It was built, in fact, in a strategic place, so that through the towers you could have absolute control of the surrounding area, of the sea in particular. It was William the Bad in 1154 to have the first tower called, not surprisingly, “Normandy Tower”. 

Virgil's egg

Important renovations were then carried out with Charles I of Anjou nel corso degli anni ’70 del ‘200. In questo periodo si attesta, inoltre, il passage from the name Castrum Salvatoris ad mare in Castel dell'Ovo or, in Latin, Castrum Ovi enchanted. In fact, the legend had spread that a magic egg belonged to the great Virgil, poet-magician according to the Neapolitan tradition. Virgil's egg he had to defend not only the castle, but the entire city. In short, a sort of blood of San Gennaro.

The egg was so important to the Neapolitans that in 1370 one storm it collapsed part of the castle and the Queen Joan I, to reassure the population convinced that the egg had broken and that the worst misfortunes would hit Naples, he had to publicly ensure that he had replaced the precious artifact.

Ironically, if the egg's Virgil managed to protect the castle and the city, it did not have the same effect on the fate of the queen Giovanna which, after being defeated by his nephew Carlo di Durazzo, was imprisoned with the deception right in one cell of Castel dell'Ovo, to then be transferred first to the castle of Nocera and, then, to the castle of Muro Lucano where she was assassinated by Carlo's assassins in 1382.

From Tavola Strozzi to today

Castel dell'Ovo: il castello più antico di Napoli
Strozzi Plate, detail from Castel dell'Ovo

However, the aspect of Castel dell'Ovo was not yet what we can admire today. In fact, if we look at our castle on the Strozzi table (portrait of Naples by Alfonso d'Aragona after the victory of 1465 against Giovanni d'Angiò) we realize the differences.

Soltanto nel corso del ‘500 Castel dell’Ovo assunse l’aspetto che possiamo ammirare oggi e perse il suo ruolo di residenza reale, restando, invece, soltanto avamposto militare e prigione.

Claudia Grillo

Read also: "We must demolish the Castel dell'Ovo"

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