A Stormy, Very Long History
The island of Ischia is to be found just 30 miles off the coast of Naples. Go there on a boat, and the first thing you will see is the Aragonese Castle, apparently rising up out of the sea itself.
Dating from 474 BC, the primary structure of the castle was built by Hiero I of Syracuse. A decided tyrant and conqueror of peoples near and far, Hiero built the imposing towers to scan the seas for potential invaders. It wasn’t until 1441 that Alfonso V of Aragon connected the isolated rock to the actual island of Ischia by way of a stone bridge, allowing the culture of the castle to blend with that of the island, then only sparsely settled.
In that thousand-year period, alone, a social and political history far more complex than even the structures themselves, unfolded within the castle’s outer walls.
Until 1552, which marked a peaceful end to yet another era of pirate invasions on the island, the castle itself was Ischia.
The town had not yet spread much beyond the protected walls of the fortress, rendering court and political life rather intense. The castello moves beyond the theatrical to near satire with its historical role in protecting an ever-changing population of “Ischians”.
Invasion after invasion altered the heterogeneity, character, and culture of the island of Ischia. At any given time, the near constant condition of war and rebellion threatened to make the little island and its marvellous fortress British, French, Spanish, Roman, Pirate, Saracen, or any other than Greek, Etruscan, or Phoenician, as comprised the early ethnic configuration of the region.
It’s any wonder that Verdi or Donizetti didn’t seize upon any one of the dozens of incursions or consequent “vespers” (uprisings) as fodder to generate the narrative of a moody, dramatic opera set in the castle itself.
If the castle is imposing from outside, it is more surprising to behold from within. Behind its massive walls, one discovers a citadel covered with sunny gardens, vistas, olive groves, and small vineyards. Abbeys and monasteries, prisons and frescoed catacombs, tiny chapels and impressive churches (13, to be precise!), are all contained in the vast fortress.
1509 saw the wedding of the poetess Vittoria Colonna to Fernando Francesco D’Avalos in the castle’s cathedral. This heralded an epoch of cultural richness when the poet Ariosto and artist Michelangelo, among countless other literati, were honoured guests of the castle.
If opera composers missed the mark, cinema directors have not.
Numerous films were situated here, numerous artists captured the spirit of the ancient castle in their poems, paintings, and symphonic suites. Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, Pascal Quignard’s Villa Amalia were all composed, filmed, or staged within fortress walls.
Perched on its own isolated rock just off the coast of Ischia proper, the Castello Aragonese makes a stark impression.
The volcanic eruption that occurred some 300,000 years ago producing the rock upon which the castle is perched lends yet another layer of mystique to an already ponderous structure. Rumours of a nearby, sunken Atlantis push the castle back further still into the depths of history and myth to the very origins of our modern civilization. Finally, the castle must be accessed in dramatic fashion through a tunnel connecting to Aragon’s bridge.* Stone cut-outs provide the only source of light of the eerie tunnel, providing tourists a befittingly atmospheric entryway.
*Or more recently, a lift run on electricity can get you inside just the same. And lightbulbs have been added to light the tunnel. But we thought we’d spare you the modern intrusions in the body of the article!Any suggestions?
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