Tuesday, July 5, 2011


We are lucky here in Agropoli to have a real, honest-to-goodness castle. Yesterday Sandy and I were out having a piccolo paseggiato (short stroll) through the centro of the town and made our way to Il Castello and found it open to visitors. Last year we managed to come once when it was open, but large portions were closed to public viewing, under restoration, so this was a real treat for us. And we were not disappointed.

First of all, the views are spectacular from the castle, as you might expect, since castles were sited to provide a lookout over as much territory as possible. It was easy to see why Agropoli was an almost inevitable spot for settlement; the Bay of Salerno spreads out in a semicircle below you, providing shelter and calm waters for marine vessels. But the rock on which the Castle sits, along with a small point at Trentova further south, creates a smaller bay within the bay and a perfect harbor. Today these waters are some of the cleanest and most crystalline in all of Italy, consistently earning the Blue Flag with which Europe’s best beaches are graded. There were beachgoers as far as the eye could see.

The Castle itself is a beauty, though one showing the ravages of time. I’m cribbing here from the tourist brochure that a lovely and very helpful signorina provided us. The first castle here was built in the fourth century CE by Byzantine Greeks. You’ll remember from that Western Civ class that Constantine, first Christian emperor of Rome, had founded a new capitol for the eastern part of the Empire on the site of the small commercial town of Byzantium, located strategically on the Bosporus between the Dardanelles and the Black Sea. And modestly renamed the town Constantinople after guess who? And the center of power shifted eastward. Even as early as the fourth century the Western Empire was crumbling inland under the ravages of Vandals, Goths, Lombards, and others, but the Byzantines were able to control much of the coastline of southern Italy and large parts of the Adriatic because the barbarian invaders had no navy. It was these Byzantine ‘Greeks’ (who, by the way, thought of themselves as Romans) who gave the town its modern name, Acropolis/Agropoli, ‘High City’.

The real threat during this Byzantine phase and for many centuries thereafter were Saracen pirates, fearsome Islamic raiders, based primarily in Spain, who ravaged the Mediterranean coasts from France to Macedonia. It was natural that Christian abbeys, strongly built and often in inaccessible places, would become redoubts for the Christian populace of the West. In 599, under the pontificate of Gregory the Great, one of the greatest of the early popes, the diocesan seat was transferred from Paestum to Agropoli, so much more defensible. Later the Castle was transferred to the bishop of Capaccio, the town on the flank of the mountain which overlooks Paestum, another defensible site.

In 882 the Saracens successfully besieged the Castle and it was in their hands until 915, when it was retaken, first by the Normans, then by the Swabians, then the Angevin French. In 1110 a treaty was signed in the Castle which formalized the parts of the territory of the Cilento which would belong to the Benedictine monks of Cava dei Tirenni (northeast of Salerno) and which to the Bishop of Paestum. In 1116, during the reign of King Manfred of Sicily (this whole area was part of the Kingdom of Sicily off and on, right up until the time of the creation of modern Italy), the Castle was taken into lay jurisdiction and an indemnity paid to the Bishop. Later the Castle fell to the Bishop of Capaccio again.

By now the Angevin French and the Spanish Aragonese were fighting for supremacy of the west, and the Castle was rebuilt in Aragonese style. A new technology had forced the change: gunpowder. The Castle in its current form is basically triangular, with three towers at the angles. Today these towers have the classic conical bastions at their bases which we associate in our minds with castles. But these are actually later additions. Stone balls shot from catapults and trebuchets, some of which have been used to decorate the sides of the Corso in Agropoli, will not penetrate a cylindrical wall, but an iron cannonball will. The conical profile of the towers deflects a cannonball, sending it ricocheting over the ramparts.

In 1443 King Ladislav of Durazzo, who had bought the Castle from Pope Gregory XII at a knock-down price (partial settlement of war debts), ceded it to the powerful Sanseverino family, who owned it for the next hundred years.

By now the piratical threat was from Turks based in North Africa, as interested in human booty (slaves) as gold. Their last raid occurred in 1630, when a large contingent of the locals managed to defeat the Turks decisively. After a short occupation by the French, the Castle at last was left in peace.

Today it is a delight to visit. Two of the towers are almost completely accessible, and you can make your way down the ‘escape route’ from the ramparts of the castle to ground level, climb the spiral stairs to the three levels of gun ports in each tower, peer out the gun ports, on hands and knees, over the Bay or the mountains to the south of Agropoli, and make your way up to the crenelated top of the tower for an especially spectacular view. A cylindrical hole in the middle of the tower reaches all the way to the ground, providing air and light and an easy way to hoist arms and ammunition to its upper levels. Stroll along the northern rampart and look along the coast to the west to see the Torre del San Francesco and to the east the Torre San Marco, watchtowers from which the alarm could be raised that attack was imminent. In the Castle’s keep you will now find beautiful gardens, a large salon which is rented out for wedding receptions and was being fitted out when we were there for a showing of some impressive modern art. Along the northwestern rampart, tiers of seating have been created for a small amphitheater for lectures and concerts.

Unfortunately, the crowning glory of the Castle’s retirement years, the Palazzo of the Sanfelice family, a Renaissance gem lavishly decorated and furnished, is now in a state of complete disrepair. Abuse by soldiers and scavenging by local farmers for building materials have left the old palace gutted. But the walls are still there, as solid as ever. And in my imagination I see it restored and reused as a civic center for the citizens of our little town. It seems only appropriate that this architectural gem which owes its birth and life to centuries of human suffering should reinvent itself as a bastion of culture.

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