Postcard from Naples, Italy: The Egg and the New Castle

Castel dell’Ovo

Castel dell’Ovo stands astride the small island of Megaride that originally was settled by Greek colonists in the 6th century B.C. Five centuries later, a Roman patrician built his villa on the site, now attached to the mainland. Its name, the Egg Castle, arises from a legend that the poet and magician Virgil (70-19 B.C.) placed an egg into the foundation of the fortress to support it. If the magical egg were ever to be broken, disaster would befall Naples.

Appointed Roman Emperor in 475, Flavius Romulus Augustus ruled for but a year before being overthrown and imprisoned in the castle, possibly until the end of his life. A monastery was founded on the castle site shortly before the year 500. Emperor Valentinian III (419-455) added fortifications to the site toward the end of his reign, but those fortifications were of little help to the crumbling Roman Empire. Valentinian III was assassinated in Rome, and Rome was soon sacked by the Vandals, whose destructive invasion contributed the word vandalism to our vocabulary.

Most of the early fortifications were demolished to prevent use by invading forces. Perhaps the magical egg was broken, because the piece of prime real estate on the bay captured the attention of Roger the Norman (1095-1154) who conquered Naples in 1140. He set up his headquarters there in a new castle.

But this Egg Castle was relegated to the role of an old one, one well-suited to serve as a prison. Normanesque was not the style of Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), King of Sicily, and a son of King Louis VIII of France (1187-1226). A little farther around the Bay of Naples, Castel Nuovo, or Maschio Angioino, was designed as a more palatial fortification. It served as the royal seat for rulers from off and on 1279 until 1815. The most notorious of, and the end of, the line of Anjou royals there was Queen Joanna II (1371-1435). During her tumultuous reign she was known for her several marriages and numerous lovers. Rumors swirled that she disposed of her lovers by unceremoniously dumping them via a secret trap door into a well in the castle’s dungeons where they were consumed by a resident crocodile.

King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396-1458) remodeled the palace in a Catalan-Majorcan-Gothic style. The impressive marble entryway added in 1470 commemorates his entry into Naples in 1442. The royals associated with the House of Bourbon found the New Castle not sumptuous enough for their tastes and added several luxurious new palaces in and around Naples beginning in the mid-1700s.

Unfortunately, the Palatine Chapel with its Giotto frescoes and several other portions of the Castel Nuovo were closed off during our visit, but the Civic Museum was open.

Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Contemporary art transforms former convent

Soon after King James I of Aragon secured Valencia from Moorish rule in the 1200s, work began on the Royal Convent of Our Lady of Carmen. It and the adjacent Church of the Holy Cross are at the heart of the neighborhood referred to as Carmen, but, no matter that we frequently crossed the plaza in front of them, we never found the church doors unlocked.

Today, contemporary art exhibitions fill the interior of the former convent, with spacious galleries surrounding two large open-air patios of the Carmen Cultural Center.

Characterized by its explosive fireworks and papier-mache figures set ablaze at the end of the festival, Valencia’s Las Fallas seems a natural partner to get into the spirit of the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. In 2016, artists from Burning Man visited Valencia in the spring, and artist representatives of Las Fallas visited and contributed a major art installation to Burning Man in the summer. Instead of burning it, though, the Valencians returned with their “Renaissance” piece, and the openwork one-room “building” was displayed in the middle of one of the courtyards of the Carmen Cultural Center.

The cardboard structure of “Renaissance” echoes the architectural details of the windows of Valencia’s Silk Exchange, and the outer skin was decorated with faces made from molds of masks created years ago for Las Fallas. The mosaic flooring was composed of 25,000 pieces assembled by volunteers from the Torrent neighborhood in Valencia. The photos above of “Renaissance” in the desert setting of Burning Man are photos of photos from the exhibit. To see better and more interesting images from the cultural interchange, visit Pink Intruder.

While visiting the Carmen Cultural Center, the Mister spotted the clever W.C. sign for me. It was quite a welcome sighting, as the cross-legged figures captured my feelings perfectly.

Postcard from Toledo, Spain: San Juan de los Reyes remains, but the royal remains were no-shows

While legions of tourists line up for the Cathedral in Toledo, you can wander a few blocks away and they almost vanish. Only a handful appeared as we peacefully explored San Juan de los Reyes Monastery.

A battle between the Juanistas and the Isabelists led to the construction of the monastery, and I’ll try to explain why. Life among the Iberian royals was complicated. Sometimes they fought their way to power, and other times they married to merge kingdoms.

Henry IV of Castile (1425-1474) had no heirs and wanted to peacefully sidle up to Portugal, so he talked the Pope into annulling his first marriage to free him to marry the sister of King Alfonso V (1432-1481) of Portugal. Things were going along fine for a while, but an heir didn’t appear for more than six years. Royal gossips believed the king impotent, but then Juana (1462-1530) was born. The snickering about her paternity never ceased.

In the meantime, Henry’s younger half-sister Isabel (1451-1504) snubbed proposals from Alfonso. Instead of the King of Portugal, she married her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516).

Well, when Henry up and died in 1474, many in Spain viewed young Juana’s pedigree as questionable. Isabel and Ferdinand’s marriage, on the other hand, conveniently unified the kingdom of Castile and Aragon.

The rejected suitor Alfonso did not like this turn of events. What better way to get control of his neighbor then to promote Juana as Henry’s heir to the throne and marry her, his 14-year-old niece?

So then the whole peninsula was conflicted between the Juanistas and the Isabelists, which, of course, convinced King Alfonso and King Ferdinand to pull out their armor and lead their followers into a big battle at Toro on the Duero River in 1476. Militarily, the outcome was questionable. The flanks were divided geographically, and the troops of one king were victorious on the right flank and the other on the left. Nightfall and fog created chaos, and everybody not killed went home declaring victory.

Which leads us to the monastery.

In a masterful public relations move, Isabel commissioned the monastery In Toledo as a monument to “victory” at the Battle of Toro, a victory securing her crown as Queen of Castile. Merging Flamboyant Gothic with Mudejar styles, this place needed to be nice because the queen announced it would be the final resting place of the royal couple.

By the time San Juan de los Reyes was finished, Ferdinand and Isabel had acquired a lot more land and wealth. The Cathedral in Granada seductively offered appropriately sumptuous quarters for permanent royal rest; San Juan appeared modest in comparison. So the Catholic monarchs presented the monastery to Franciscan monks.

Aside from a major fire during the French invasion in 1808, the monks were good stewards of their monastery. But the property was seized by the government in the 19th century.

The Monument Commission carried out what the monastery’s literature calls “a subjective Neo-Gothic restoration project, with traces of historicist Romanticism” at the end of the 19th century. And then, miraculously, the government returned San Juan de los Reyes to the Franciscans in 1954.