Published February 22nd, 2016
Castel dell’Ovo stretches out upon a tiny island once called Megaride. Known today as Borgo Marinari for the fishermen who once plied their trade here, in recent decades this tiny village has transformed itself into a treasured spot that is popular for its seafront bars and restaurants, spectacular vistas and isolation from the din of the city. It was the famous Roman poet Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC) and the legend of his magical, mythical egg that gave the oldest castle in the city its name. The legend goes that Virgil placed an egg into a glass jar, the jar into a metal cage and hid all three beneath the castle. As long as the egg remained intact, the city would too. One of the many flaws with this myth, of course, is that Virgil lived long before Castel dell’Ovo was actually a castle.
What stood on Megaride during Virgil’s time was Castellum Lucullanum, a substantial villa built by the Roman knight and patrician Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118 – 57/56 BC). It was lavishly appointed and stretched from Megaride all the way to the top of nearby Monte Echia. Recent discoveries made during the metro project suggest the villa reached as far east as Piazza Municipio. Monte Echia is also known as Monte di Dio — “God’s Mountain” — and Pizzofalcone. Erri de Luca immortalised this neighbourhood in his novel Montedidio and Mariano Vasi tells us:
“This hill was formerly called Echia, perhaps from the name Hercules, and was afterwards denominated Lucullana, because it was partly occupied by the gardens and palace of Lucullus, a Roman consul; this was formerly united to the Castello dell’Uovo, but the separation of the ground was caused by an earthquake. […] on the top of the hill, there was in Charles of Anjou’s time a Royal chase of Falcons, and from this circumstance the hill derived its present name of Pizzo Falcone. The chase was afterwards cut down, and an edifice was constructed on its site for the detention of convicts, but in more recent times it was converted into military barracks…” –Guida di Napoli, Dei Contorni di Procida, Ischia e Capri, 1826, A New Guide of Naples, Its Environs, Procida, Ischia and Capri, p.184.
According to myth, Naples traces its origins back to this hill and a siren named Parthenope who washed up on the shores of Megaride. Though this colourful bit of lore has not been borne out by either the archaeological or historical record, Strabo (63/64 BC – 24 AD), the travelling Greek historian and geographer, did mention in his Geography (trans. H.L. Jones, 1991) that the tomb of Parthenope existed near Neapolis and that a torch race was held every year in her honour. The most plausible scenario is that Greek sailors, most likely the Euboeans who had landed first at Cuma and who were extending their settlements around the Gulf of Naples, made their way to Megaride sometime between the 9th and 8th century BC. They formed a small settlement and installed commercial and military ports near Parthenope’s supposed burial place at Megaride, naming it in her honour. Eventually, they expanded inland and built a walled settlement on the hilltop that corresponds to the promontory of Pizzofalcone. By the 6th century BC, Parthenope was thriving, yet just a century later, the Greeks built a new city a short distance away, named aptly enough, “new city” or Neapolis. Parthenope became known as Paleopolis, or the old city, eventually lost its importance and faded away. It was lost but not forgotten; even today you will hear Neapolitans refer to themselves as Parthenopeans.
Nothing of Parthenope remains at Megaride and the few modest ruins extant on the promontory of Pizzofalcone are not those of Parthenope, but those of Villa Lucullus. Evidence of the Parthenopean necropolis on Pizzofalcone, however, was found in 1949 at number 10, Via Giovanni Nicotera during the renovation of a building damaged during WWII. The artefacts found there at long last confirmed both the existence of Parthenope and its Cumaen origins. They were moved to the National Archaeological Museum and the site was covered over. By the mid-5th century Villa Lucullus had lost its allure and the structure on Megaride was converted to a fort. It was here that the so called last Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was exiled and lived until his death. It later found use as a monastery until the Normans turned it into a proper castle in the 12th century.
Castel dell’Ovo is open to visitors and is definitely worth a visit. You can wander through some of its echoing halls and admire the views of Vesuvius and the bay from the top. Hold your hand out over the western edge at the top (taking care not to lean out too far); there’s an exhilarating rapid uprush of wind up the face of the castle. Nearby temporary art exhibits by local artists are often on display; the castle hosts the Vitigno Italia wine trade fair every spring, and on New Year’s Eve it is illuminated by the city’s fireworks display.
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