[The following posting is a journal item developed while on a Mediterranean cruise some years back. Though I’m not much of a journal-keeper, from time to time something satisfying emerges from the occasional effort.]
THE NEW CASTLE OF THE NEW CITY
This morning, while most of my fellow passengers are on excursions that take them from the ship to sites beyond the heat, exhaust fumes, and pickpockets of Naples, I stroll through the nearly empty Castel Nuovo, which now holds the Civic Museum of the city. Even though construction began in 1279, the Maschio Angioino castle was called “new” to distinguish it from even older castles in the vicinity. It is an immense structure, at once fortification and royal residence, filled with reminders of incarceration and artistic excellence. In one room, a glass floor allows visitors a glimpse of a dungeon, a glimpse that includes the remains of many whose last breaths were drawn on the very sport where their bones now lie. Almost all of the artworks on display are of religious subjects commissioned by the church or by royal personages. During the reign of Robert of Anjou, Castel Nuovo became a cultural center, temporary residence to such visitors as Giotto, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Now a lesser American poet, from an American town that has planted the ancient “new” city’s name along the Gulf of Mexico, is kicking the stones, his admission ticket in hand.
The area is heavily guarded, though far less so than it was in centuries past, and, since it is barely opening time, women are swabbing down the stone stairs and walkways. In such a huge place, just across from the port, I find it strange to see so few tourists. Only a handful of Neapolitans stroll through their city’s museum, a major treasure in which no signs except “emergency exit” carry English translations. However, an English pamphlet is available for a self-guided tour, and I enjoy my isolation from the cruise crowds who have left for a few hours in fashionable Capri or Sorrento or to explore the excavations of majestic Pompeii.
Alphonse I of Aragon rebuilt the original castle along more modern lines, and his reconstruction represents a transition from the medieval castle/palace to a fortress suitable for newer military needs of the early renaissance. The Hall of Barons, a renovation project of the mid-15th century, is so named for the barons who plotted against Ferrante I of Aragon and were initially imprisoned in this glorious room during the celebration of a royal marriage. The sculptures it once held were destroyed by fire in 1919. Cycles of ambition and collapse, vanity and humiliation, are written in the volcanic stone, the glazed majolica, the gilt stucco, and finally in the guidebook. All such places – and Europe is filled with them – are lessons in human greatness and human frailty.
Like many of the lesser European museums, or even a major one such as the impoverished Hermitage in St. Petersburg, these galleries have no climate control to aid in the preservation of the paintings and the comfort of the visitors. The oppressive heat is an unintended bow to authenticity.
The main courtyard is populated not only by police, museum attendants, and custodial workers, but also by dozens of half-starved cats and a smaller number of stray dogs, looking lean and wolfish in the shadowed stone. These forlorn animals seem most at home here, as if they are the inheritors of Europe’s abysmal centuries of bravado and bloodshed, pomp and punishment. The swill from the washerwomen’s mops intrudes, and a few of the courtyard’s denizens patiently relocate.
Along the walkways that ring the castle below street level, where a moat once circled the structure, one can see clusters of potted shrubs set out for watering, no doubt to be distributed through the display rooms and in the many halls and entranceways. The fresh, vibrant greenery smiles in sharp contrast to the solemn stone walls that protect and confine.
Below the art-filled Palatine Chapel (Chapel of Saint Barbara) are two rooms, one of which is called alternately the millet pit and the crocodile pit. The other is the prison of the Barons’ plot. The millet pit, a corn warehouse of the Aragonese court, served also as a prison, and it is rumored that many of its inmates vanished mysteriously from this place. Investigation discovered that a crocodile regularly entered the prison through a hole and dragged prisoners into the sea. After this discovery, jailors fed prisoners directly to the croc, who had traveled from Egypt (so goes the legend) in a ship’s wake. The beast was eventually killed after being baited with a huge horse leg. Stuffed with straw, the crocodile hung for many years at the entrance to the castle. If you believe that tale, you believe all such stories of devouring monsters. These stories are the currency of all places with turrets and towers, guardhouses and murky moats.
These stories are the other side of the saints’ legends traced in the frescoes of castle chapels, here and elsewhere. There are all kinds of deaths.
Leaving the castle and retracing my steps to the ship, I wander through what is now a busier port with snack bars and souvenir stands inviting passers-by while ferries and hydrofoils await business and pleasure travelers headed for Palermo and other destinations. Traffic is nonstop as I scurry across a few intersections and approach the port terminal and then the splendid, almost deserted ship. As the air conditioning restores me, its steady whoosh slowly closes over the imagined gasps of suffocating prisoners, the jubilant greetings of royalty at play, the explosions of cannon, the prayers of saints and sinners, the smacking sounds of a well-fed crocodile.
I will not return to this place. I have learned its lessons.
July 14, 2001 (and occasionally revised thereafter)