Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Nov 2014

This is a translation of a page on the history of the Sant'Elmo castle/fortress published by the
Superintendancy of Culture of the City of Naples. There is an earlier entry at this link


In 1329 Robert of Anjou ordered the construction of a military complex on the hill of St. Erasmus (now St. Martin) in order, first, to control the roads leading into the city from the hills surrounding it and, second, to keep an eye on the urban area below. In the strategic plan the Angevin king was preceded by the Normans, who, in 1170, had erected on the same hill an observation tower, which over time became more spacious. Little is  known of that structure except that it was called Belforte and was surrounded by lush vegetation. We know more about the castle built by Robert of Anjou, even the names of the architects: Francesco Vito, Tino Camaino and Atanasio Primario.

In 1348 the newly-finished castle had to endure its first siege, this by the King of Hungary, Louis, who had organized an expedition against the kingdom of Naples to avenge his brother Andrew, whose murder was attributed by the people to his wife, Queen Joanna of Anjou. King Ludwig did not stay long; the outbreak of a deadly plague forced him to leave. A second expedition took place in 1350 and ended with peace followed by frantic negotiations. There was a struggle between the branches of Anjou and Durazzo, and the other Queen Joanna —of Durazzo
sold the castle to one of her lovers for 2500 ducats.

The fortress again became a coveted military objective when France and Spain later fought for possession of the kingdom of Naples. The King of Spain, Charles V decided to rebuild the castle from scratch; that task fell to Don Pedro de Toledo, the Spanish viceroy who, when he decided to do something, did it with seriousness and unquestionable efficiency. He left an indelible mark in Naples, creating urban features in the historical center that still characterize it. The architect was the Spanish military engineer, Pietro Luigi Scribà (Pirro Louis Escriva) of Valencia, who in 1537 began construction to make a general fortification of the entire hill of St. Martin. Scribà designed a unique layout and type of construction: a star-shaped fortress with six points covering the areas to be defended, a large powder magazine, accommodations for the castellano (the nobleman in charge of the fortress) and garrison, large courtyards, underground spaces for prisoners, vast warehouses, a church and a huge cistern to provide an abundant water supply. It was all built by slicing into
—terracing the tuff hill, on the summit of which had stood the Belforte Castle or St. Erasmus, the fortified residence that Robert of Anjou had Tino Camaino build in 1329.  It was a mammoth structure with stone walls so thick and strong as to be virtually unassailable.

The Spanish Castle retained on the broad parade ground the remains of the Anjou fort, but it was destroyed by an explosion in 1582. The imposing fortress was designed by Escrivà according to a "double pincer" layout, with projections and recesses for the symmetrical arrangement of the artillery
—twelve open recesses for cannon
high walls and a deep moat. The six-pointed star design allowed the use of  fewer men and arms for the defense of the fortress; documentation from those years call the fortress San Telmo, named after a Spanish Dominican saint.

Castel Sant 'Elmo was one of the most important fortresses in the Kingdom of Naples and was the center of the compact defensive system of the city carried out by Pedro de Toledo. In 1538, when the inscription was placed on the monumental gateway, surmounted by the coat of arms of Charles V with the Habsburg double-headed eagle, the work was only partially completed.

The fort was organized like a real town; it could hold up to 3,000 soldiers, with the castellano having both civil and military jurisdiction; everything was centered around the parade ground the castle rooms, the officers' and garrison quarters, and the church.

In 1587 lightning struck the powder magazine; blew up part of the building, destroyed part of the parade ground and buildings, and showered debris on the city below causing considerable damage to many monuments and churches. The fortress was rebuilt by the architect Domenico Fontana in 1610. Because of the way in which Castel Sant 'Elmo and the adjacent Certosa di San Martino dominate the city, the two are, together, almost a single monument and are often depicted in "portraits" of the city.

History and legends weave long stories of the terrible prisons in the "heart" of the fortress at the entrance to the church. Among those imprisoned: Joan of Capua, princess of Conca, whose erotic frenzies led to her crimes; also, the philosopher Tommaso Campanella, accused of heresy in 1604, is said to have written his City of the Sun in prison here; and Angel Carasale, the architect who designed and built the San Carlo theater, was accused of having profited from the funds of the work, and he died in this prison of a broken heart;  the Mario Pagano, Domenico Cirillo, Gennaro Serra di Cassano, Count Ettore Carafa, Francesco Pignatelli, John Bausan; Louise Sanfelice, Pietro Colletta, Carlo Poerio, Silvio Scare etc.

After the unification of Italy, the castle was used as a military prison, and after World War II it was a communications station. Documents that chronicle restorations since the sixteenth century indicate that the fortress has never changed its the original form. The last massive restoration, by the Superintendency of Public Works of Campania returned the castle to the city in 1980, allowing the promotion of various cultural and convention events on the premises. The Superintendency for the Historical and Artistic Heritage of Naples, which has taken over the parade ground, has allocated the first floor of the old upper prison to the "Bruno Molajoli" Library of the Art History;  the ground floor houses the Museum of 20th-century Neapolitan Art, and a smaller building is a Documentation Center for Studies of the Territory. It is all adjacent to the Certosa of San Martino; together (image, left) they are a multifunctional citadel of culture to represent the city.

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