Castel Sant'Elmo

Naples, Italy

Castel Sant'Elmo is a medieval fortress located on a hilltop near the Certosa di San Martino, overlooking Naples. Documents date a structure at the site from 1275, from the era of Charles d'Anjou. Known originally as Belforte, it was likely a fortified residence, surrounded by walls, its entrance gate marked by two turrets. In 1329, using designs by the Sienese architect Tino da Camaino, king Robert of Naples enlarged the fortress.

The Angevin fortress was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1456, which demolished the external walls and the towers. The Aragonese rulers of Naples, and notably Don Pedro de Toledo, the first governor and cousin of the Viceroy, included it in a comprehensive scheme designed to fortify the land perimeter of the city, based on four separate strongholds. Castel Sant'Erasmo acquired its hexagonal star shape between 1537 and 1547 under the designs of Pedro Luis Escrivafrom Valencia, a military architect. The daring hexagonal shape drew fierce criticism from his contemporaries, to such an extent that in 1538 Escriva defended his design in a published Apologia.

The castle served as an autonomous military outpost, with a governor who had absolute authority over both military and civilian matters. Around the parade grounds were situated the officers' quarters, chaplain's house, a church (1547) designed by the Spanish architect Pietro Prato, and the surviving buildings from the Angevin Belforte. Don Pedro de Toledo's funerary monument (1588) is found in the sacristy of the church.

In 1587 the munitions depot of the castle was struck by lightning, and exploded, destroying the church, the chaplain's house and the officers' quarters. Reconstruction was carried out between 1599 and 1601 under the architect Domenico Fontana. Despite successive rebuildings over the centuries, the castle conserves its original structure. Built of volcanic tufa, it overlords over Naples, and ever since the famous Tavola Strozzi incident (late 15th century), for centuries it was a symbol and bastion of government oppression. In 1604 it was used to imprison Tommaso Campanella, branded as a heretic, and in 1799 the patriots of the Neapolitan Revolution, including Gennaro Serra, Mario Pagano and Luigia Sanfelice. With the departure of the Bourbon garrison in 1860, it remained a military prison until 1952, when the prison was transferred to Gaeta.

Today there are several permanent art exhibits in the castle. One of the most unique is the railing featuring an inscription in braille which was installed in 2015. The railing, which is more than 30 feet long and dotted with braille letters, is above the drill grounds on the northernmost wall of the castle near the west corner.

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Founded: 13th century
Category: Castles and fortifications in Italy

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Porta Nigra

The Porta Nigra (Latin for black gate) is the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. It is designated as part of the Roman Monuments, Cathedral of St. Peter and Church of Our Lady in Trier UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Porta Nigra originated in the Middle Ages due to the darkened colour of its stone; the original Roman name has not been preserved. Locals commonly refer to the Porta Nigra simply as Porta.

The Porta Nigra was built in grey sandstone between 186 and 200 AD. The original gate consisted of two four-storied towers, projecting as near semicircles on the outer side. A narrow courtyard separated the two gate openings on either side. For unknown reasons, however, the construction of the gate remained unfinished. For example, the stones at the northern (outer) side of the gate were never abraded, and the protruding stones would have made it impossible to install movable gates. Nonetheless, the gate was used for several centuries until the end of the Roman era in Trier.

In Roman times, the Porta Nigra was part of a system of four city gates, one of which stood at each side of the roughly rectangular Roman city. The Porta Nigra guarded the northern entry to the Roman city, while the Porta Alba (White Gate) was built in the east, the Porta Media (Middle Gate) in the south, and the Porta Inclyta (Famous Gate) in the west, next to the Roman bridge across the Moselle. The gates stood at the ends of the two main streets of the Roman Trier, one of which led north-south and the other east-west. Of these gates, only the Porta Nigra still exists today.

In the early Middle Ages the Roman city gates were no longer used for their original function and their stones were taken and reused for other buildings. Also iron and lead braces were broken out of the walls of the Porta Nigra for reuse. Traces of this destruction are still clearly visible on the north side of the gate.

After 1028, the Greek monk Simeon lived as a hermit in the ruins of the Porta Nigra. After his death (1035) and sanctification, the Simeonstift monastery was built next to the Porta Nigra to honor him. Saving it from further destruction, the Porta Nigra was transformed into a church: The inner court of the gate was roofed and intermediate ceilings were inserted. The two middle storeys of the former gate were converted into church naves: the upper storey being for the monks and the lower storey for the general public. The ground floor with the large gates was sealed, and a large outside staircase was constructed alongside the south side (the town side) of the gate, up to the lower storey of the church. A small staircase led further up to the upper storey. The church rooms were accessible through former windows of the western tower of the Porta Nigra that were enlarged to become entrance doors (still visible today). The top floor of the western tower was used as church tower, the eastern tower was leveled, and an apse added at its east side. An additional gate - the much smaller Simeon Gate - was built adjacent to the East side of the Porta Nigra and served as a city gate in medieval times.

In 1802 Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the church in the Porta Nigra and the monastery beside it, along with the vast majority of Trier"s numerous churches and monasteries. On his visit to Trier in 1804, Napoleon ordered that the Porta Nigra be converted back to its Roman form. Only the apse was kept; but the eastern tower was not rebuilt to its original height. Local legend has it that Napoleon originally wanted to completely tear down the church, but locals convinced him that the church had actually been a Gaulish festival hall before being turned into a church. Another version of the story is that they told him about its Roman origins, persuading him to convert the gate back to its original form.

In 1986 the Porta Nigra was designated a World Heritage Site, along with other Roman monuments in Trier and its surroundings. The modern appearance of the Porta Nigra goes back almost unchanged to the reconstruction ordered by Napoleon. At the south side of the Porta Nigra, remains of Roman columns line the last 100 m of the street leading to the gate. Positioned where they had stood in Roman times, they give a slight impression of the aspect of the original Roman street that was lined with colonnades. The Porta Nigra, including the upper floors, is open to visitors.