The ancient Castle of the Nocera Park: theater of excommunications, furious popes, sieges and tortured cardinals

by Roberto Iossa

Once upon a time there was a Pope with a bad temper, indeed there were two! And together with them numerous powerful ones cardinals who were plotting top secret plots. It's a Queen who feared losing power to the detriment of his nephew. And then again very long sieges, terrible torture e excommunications rain. One of the main settings of these incredible events is the city of Nocera Inferiore and more precisely a portion of it that houses the convent of S. Antonio and the ancient one Park Castle.

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Urban VI and Carlo Durazzo

The main protagonists of this story are the Pope Urban VI e Charles of Anjou-Durazzo. Their partnership begins with the best of auspices but falls ruinously. And the Castle of the Nocera Inferiore Park it represents the exact point where the relationship breaks down beyond repair. But let's proceed in order.

In 1378 begins it Western Schism of the Catholic Church. On the one hand theantipope Clement VII, supported by some dissident cardinals and the Queen of Naples Joan of Anjou. On the other Urban VI (in the century Bartolomeo Prignano), legitimately elected and with a rather tenacious character, supported by Carlo, Giovanna's nephew and eager to dominate on Naples.

Castello del Parco nocera inferiore carlo durazzo
Master of Charles of Durazzo, The conquest of Naples by Carlo di Durazzo, decorated front of a caisson, 1381-2, MET, New York.

Charles got rid of Queen Giovanna and Louis of Anjou, another pretender to the throne of Naples, and was crowned in 1382 assuming the name of Charles III. Important had been the support of Pope Urban VI, who in turn had benefited from the support of the new king. At the base of their partnership there was a agreement for the sharing of power, estates and wealth. And this very agreement was a cause of discord between the two powerful ones.

It seems that Charles III had broken one of the promises made to the pope: that is, that of assuring the pontiff's nephew, Francesco Prignano known as Butillo, possession of the city of Nocera, including the Park Castle. This was not the only reason. The sources also tell of a condemnation that the king uttered precisely to Butillo, guilty of having kidnapped a nun belonging to a noble Neapolitan family. The fact is that Urban VI, indignant, took the field in person first by going to Aversa, then residing for a while a Castelnuovo and finally, not feeling safe in Naples, camping in 1384 right in the Castle of the Park of Nocera, owned by the grandson.

castello del parco nocera inferiore foto di Giò Passero
The hill in Nocera Inferiore where the ancient Castle of the Park stood. To the right of the more recent construction the ruins of the building are still visible. Photo by Giò Passero

The conspiracy of the cardinals

Relations between Urban VI and Charles III were definitively broken. But the problems for the pontiff did not end there. In Naples some cardinals began to plot one conspiracy against him, convinced by now of his unreliability and instability. Bartolino of Piacenza, jurist of the pontifical court, justified everything with these words:

"If a pope were too negligent, that is, incapable of governing, or if, too tenacious of his own opinion, he wanted his whim to prevail, without the advice of the cardinals, and that therefore the universal Church reduced him to grave danger, it would be permitted to give him one or more curators, chosen from among the cardinals, without whom he could not carry out business?

The plan was ready! The six conspiring cardinals would have gone to the Castle of the Nocera Park, where Urban VI lived, in the company of armed men. From there they would have led the pope by force to the Church of San Francesco (the current convent of Sant'Antonio which is located right on the slopes of the hill dominated by the Castle of the Park). There they would declare it heretic and immediately condemned to the stake.

Too bad, however, that Urban VI was warned of all this promptly by Cardinal Orsini. With a counter move he therefore succeeded in imprisoning the traitorous cardinals in the dungeons of the Castle of the Park, subjecting them to unspeakable torture and very heavy interrogations. The sources then tell of a pope literally enraged that one day, the population of Nocera gathered in the Castle of the Park on a cold day, he climbed the tower and from there, surrounded by crosses and lighted candles, excommunicated King Charles III, Queen Giovanna, the antipope Clement VII and all the conspiring cardinals, inciting the crowd to protect his legitimate pope.

convento sant antonio museo archeologico provinciale nocera inferiore castello del parco
The convent of Sant'Antonio, former church of San Francesco, where the conspiracy against Urban VI should have been consummated

Stories of a siege

The troops of King Charles III, led by the Count Alberico da Barbiano, they came to Nocera e they besieged the Castle of the Park. The attack lasted seven months, during which Urban VI he continued to issue excommunications to all his enemies looking out from the windows of the fort. And although his court begged him to find an agreement, the fatal and undaunted pontiff he continued to torture the cardinals mercilessly prisoners in an attempt to extort some confession, even defying the hunger that the lack of supplies entailed.

L'antico Castello del Parco di Nocera: teatro di scomuniche, papi furiosi, assedi e cardinali torturati
G. Sercambi, Siege of Pope Urban VI in the castle of Nocera, in Chronic

In short, the Castle Park became the scene of a story to say the least surreal e legendary. In support of Urban VI came the armies of Republic of Genoa, of the leader Raimondello Orsini and of Tommaso Sanseverino. L'8 August 1385 Charles III's army was taken from behind. The pope took advantage of the moment to run away taking away the treasures and the cardinals prisoners. Finally it reached the coasts of Paestum from where he left with the help of Genoese ships.

The Parco del Castello di Nocera Inferiore: a place that exudes history

A truly compelling story, full of characters and intrigues. An irascible pope, a proud king, traitorous cardinals, sieges, excommunications and armies. It seems that nothing is missing!. And it is amazing to think that all these events have their fulcrum in the Castle of the Nocera Inferiore Park, a small town in the current Agro Nocerino-Sarnese.

Today little of that castle remains of the original. Refurbishments, restorations and neglect have deeply affected the territory which, despite everything, still exudes today, centuries later, history and culture!

Cover photo by Ciro Paolillo.

Sources

  • G. Orlando, History of Nocera de 'Pagani, Editrice Gaia, 2018.
  • S. Somma - C. Zarra (edited by), Giuseppe Messina. History Nocerina Sagra, Printart Editions, 2018.
  • G. Salierno - V. Piccolo, The picture gallery (and other preserved works) in the convent of S. Antonio, Nocera Inferiore, MediaCom, 1997.
  • S. Bongi (edited by) - The chronicles of Giovanni Sercambi, Lucca 1892.

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