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 Ravenna, Italy: A sleeping beauty awakened

Honorius (384-423) was only ten years old when his father died. Sad fact on its own, but his father was Theodosius the Great (347-395), Emperor of the Roman Empire. With big shoes to fill, he needed to grow up quickly. The rule of the empire was divided, with his older brother reigning over the eastern half and Honorius presiding over the western half.

Pesky barbarians kept trying to wrest control of his empire, and Honorius decided to move his capital to Ravenna in 402. The new capital was viewed as easy to defend, surrounded by fortifications built by earlier emperors and marshland. While the capital could be defended, its location left much of the rest of Italy vulnerable.

In 408, the Roman Senate bought their way out of danger by paying the Visigoths 4,000 pounds of gold to leave Italy alone. But having run through that the Goths returned to sack Rome itself in 410. Britain and much of the rest of the Roman Empire were left without Roman protection. And, although Rome was regained in 414, Honorius is remembered for the defeats suffered and the unraveling of the empire during his reign.

Perhaps tired of being cold, the Goths returned with a vengeance under the leadership of the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great (454-526). Theodoric made Ravenna the base for his new Arian kingdom, welcoming more than 200,000 of his followers to settle in Italy. While this was bad for much of Italy, Ravenna flourished under the attention.

Two decades after Theodoric’s death, Justinian I (483-565), the Byzantine Emperor, was able to wrest control of Ravenna and much of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Ravenna continued to benefit from royal attention.

After the 8th century, Ravenna was no longer a star. This lack of attention and imperialistic investment turned her into somewhat of a sleeping beauty, extremely beneficial for preserving the city’s early Christian monuments. Eight of its 5th and 6th century buildings are recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as demonstrating “great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.”

The mosaics inside these monuments are Ravenna’s main attractions, but we are going to ease into those. This first postcard from Ravenna is simply a random combination of photos of the city to whet your appetite.

Threw in a little bit of food from lunch to make you hungrier for Ravenna. We stumbled across a nice restaurant with street-side seating, La Gardela. As ridiculous as this sounds, the zucchini fries alone were worth the train ride from Bologna.

Okay, it’s not fair to totally hold out on the mosaics. Peek if you must at this UNESCO preview.