Castro, the Renaissance Pompeii

Piazza Maggiore
Castro the Renaissance Pompeii
Castro - the Renaissance Pompeii
Castro, the ruins of San Sovino. The toppled masonry is the mint
If there were a prize for the most mournful place in Tuscia it would go to Castro. In the woods on the borders of Tuscany and Latium lie hidden the ruins of a city that was once the pride of the region and the seat of a Duchy. It was destroyed neither by natural calamity nor a foreign invader but on the orders of a Pope in 1649, more Carthage than Pompeii.
Dennis describes it thus in 1847: Castro lies in a wilderness – it is a city of desolation. You mount from the ravine to the plain, and see before you a dense wood, covering a narrow ridge between steep precipices. You enter the wood, not to thread your way over smooth turf or fallen leaves, but to scramble over heaps of ruins, broken columns, capitals, and rich cornices, mingled with coarser débris; through all which vegetation has forced its way, and is striving in turn to conceal the wrecks of art which had displaced it. 
Castro 17th century engraving
Castro as it was in 1649
Farnese is one of the most frequently occurring names  in the art and history of Italy. There are Farnese palaces, Farnese rooms, gardens, villas and castles the length of the peninsular. The most important Farnese was Alessandro, Pope Paul III,  who had four  ‘legitimised’ children. He decided on election to beautify the miserably reduced town of Castro which had been sacked by his cousin ten  years earlier and debased to little more than a gypsy camp. He was a renaiissnace prince of refined taste and to a certain extent a liberal in that he called on the abolishment of slavery in the Americas and made some effort to reform the church to face the Protestant threat.  However he was a merciless collector of taxes to pay for his cultural hobbies. In 1537 he called upon his favourite architect Antonio Sangallo to design a new town, a renaissance jewel fit for the most powerful family in Italy, the seat of the Duchy that was carved out of the papal territories: a usurpation that was to store up trouble with future popes.
A cellar in Castro
The cellars are often complex and as many as three stories deep

Magnificent palaces were built to house the nobility that was attracted to the papal court, a new well was dug along the lines of Sangallo’s well in Orvieto and even a mint was set up in the principal square Piazza Maggiore. The streets were paved – an unusually progressive piece of  city planning for the time anywhere – London’s streets would not be paved for another two hundred years. Jews were imported from Rome to oil the wheels of commerce. All these embellishments were paid for principally by the local population.

Four generations later the Farnese family were more interested in their newly acquired estates in the north of Italy than the Duchy of Castro. Pope Doria Pamphilii who rather hostaged his destiny by choosing the appellation Innocent X, was entirely under the influence of his sister-in-law Donna Olimpia; she was quite possibly his mistress.
She was of a particularly venal and vicious nature – and she detested the Farnese. She had the Pope appoint a new bishop of Castro which flew in the face of feudal custom and the Farnese reacted by doing what any normal seigniorial family would have done, they had him bumped off on his way. Olimpia now had her cause de guerre.

ducal Palace
Ducal Palace by Sangallo, the sumptuous residence of PierLuigi Farnese

The papal army of German mercenaries besieged Castro from September to December. When it fell the entire city and all its bastions were reduced to rubble, nothing was allowed to remain above knee height. The proud buildings and churches in the piazza were blown up, the stones rolled into the ravine. All paid for by the luckless inhabitants whose grandparents had paid for its construction a hundred years before. The survivors were dispersed, the Jews to Pitigliano12 miles away across the border in the Duchy of Tuscany.

Ducal Palace Castro
Ducal Palace by Sangallo

The bells from the cathedral were hauled off to Rome and may now be heard peeling from the Borromini church, Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona. A stone was placed in the remains of the Piazza, engraved with the chilling words, “Qui fu Castro”, Here was Castro.The forest grew up around the ruins.

Pope Innocent died 6 years later, aged 83. He was a cultured man, a patron of the arts who indubitably left Rome a more beautiful city than he found it. During his papacy 200,000 Jews were murdered in Poland; thousands of witches were burnt mainly in catholic Germany. He had outlawed the smoking of tobacco in the Vatican. On his death Donna Olimpia, who had refused to pay for his funeral pleading that she was a penniless widow so that his body had to lie in a storeroom for three days, managed to escape to Orvieto with two chests of gold that Innocent kept under his bed. She died of plague in 1657. She left a fortune of  2 million gold coin. “Innocent X was a lover of justice and his life was blameless“.  The  Catholic Encyclopedia
Abandoned excavations at Castro
The sorry state after excavation.

Dennis again: Castro is a most gloomy site – one of the gloomiest I remember in Etruria. It is not its desolation alone, it is not its overgrowth of wood, it is its general aspect. Nowhere is the wood more dark and dense – nowhere are the cliffs blacker and more frowning – nowhere are the ravines more solemn and apparently endless, more impressively lonesome and silent – nowhere is there a more utter absence of habitation within ken-on no site does nature Nature more completely regain her dominion over Art – or the Past becloud the spirits with a deeper awe.

Camera Etrusca photographic holidays and workshops in Italy

Monastery crypt in Castro
Monastery crypt in Castro

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