Sant'Elmo is the name of both a hill and a fortress in Naples, located near the Certosa di San Martino
Certosa di San Martino
The Certosa di San Martino is a former monastery complex, now a museum, in Naples, southern Italy. It is the most visible landmark of the city, perched atop the Vomero hill that commands the gulf. A Carthusian monastery, it was finished and inaugurated under the rule of Queen Joan I in 1368. It...

. Together, the structures overlook Naples and are the most visible landmarks in the city. The name "Sant'Elmo" is from an old 10th-century church, Sant'Erasmo, that name being shortened to "Ermo" and, finally, "Elmo".

The first information we have concerning the majestic fortress that presides over the city of Naples dates from 1275, when some relatives of Charles d'Anjou are known to have been living there. Known originally as Belforte, it must have been merely a fortified residence, foursquare and surrounded by walls, its entrance gate marked by two turrets. Robert d'Anjou decided to enlarge what was described as the palatium in summitatae montanae Sancti Erasmi, and in 1329 he entrusted the work to the Sienese architect Tino da Camaino, who at that time was overseeing the building of the adjacent Carthusain monastery of San Martino. The work went on until 1343, and already in 1336 it was referred to as a castrum or castle rather than a palace. In that year Tino da Camaino died and he was succeeded by Attanasio Primario and Francesco di Vico.

By 1348 documents refer to the building as 'castrum Sancti Erasmi", probably because there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Erasmus on the site. The Angevin fortress was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1456, which brought down the external walls and the towers. The Argonese rulers of Naples, and notably Don Pedro de Toledo, included it in a comprehensive scheme designed to fortify the whole perimeter of the city, based on four separate strongholds. Now known as Sant'Erasmo, it was given its definitive six-pointed star shape between 1537 and 1547 by Pedro Luis Escriva from Valencia, one of the most renowned military architects of the age. The daring hexagonal shape drew fierce criticism from his contemporaries, to such an extent that in 1538 Escriva published an Apologia in which he justified his design.

In fact, with its double tenaille, numerous embrasures in the bastions and high walls surrounded by a moat, the castle was admirably suited to the morphology of the site and the strategic and defensive functions it was required to fulfill. In 1538 a commemorative inscription was placed above the entrance gate, surmounted by Charles V's coat of arms and the two headed eagle of the House of Hapsburg.

Life inside the castle was organized along the lines of an autonomous military outpost, with a governor who had absolute authority over both military and civilian matters. Round the parade grounds were situated the officers' quarters, the chaplain's house, the church designed by the Spanish architect Pietro Prato in 1547 and the surviving buildings from the Angevin structure of Belforte. The first governor was Don Pedro de Toledo, cousin of the Viceroy, who died in 1558 and whose funerary monument still stands in the sacristy of the church.

In 1587 the munitions depot of the castle was struck by lightning, destroying the church, the chaplain's house and the officers' quarters. Rebuilding work was carried out between 1599 and 1601 under the direction of Domenico Fontana. It is quite remarkable that, in spite of successive rebuilding projects over the centuries, the castle has conserved its original structure virtually unaltered.

With its characteristic outline and color, due to the use of volcanic tuff, it has occupied a preeminent place in views of Naples ever since the famous Tavola Strozzi (late 15th century), although its role int eh life of the city has always been more of repression than defense.

From 1604 it was used to imprison such illustrious undesirables as Tommaso Campanella, branded as a heretic, and in 1799 the patriots of the Neapolitan Revolution, including Gennaro Serra, Mario Pagano and Luigia Sanfelice. From 1860 onwards, with the departure of the last Bourbon garrison, it was designated a military prison until 1952, when this institution was transferred to Gaeta.

It continued to be military property until 1976, when an enormous restoration project was undertaken by the Proveditorato alle Opere Pubbliche of the Regione Campania. In seven years the original structure was freed of super-structures and made structurally sound, recuperating the original galleries, parapet walkways and underground chambers, where an auditorium seating 700 has been created. In 1982 the site was handed over to the Soprintendenza per i Beni Artistici e Storici in Naples, and the Bruno Molajoli Art History Library has been installed in an upper story of the old prison block.

The former Marine headquarters now houses the castle administration and some offices with responsibility for the territory, including the Catalogue Office, Photographic Archives and the Thefts Office. The intention is to make Castle Sant'Elmo a polyfunctional center for activities including contemporary art, the performing arts and congresses.

(From:Spinosa, Nocola ed. "Castel Sant'Elmo," Katia Fiorentino. (Napoli: Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali, 2000)
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