Castel dell’Ovo, Naples

The legend of the magic egg

written by Andrew Hind

“Castel dell’Ovo has become a symbol of Naples, not only as seen on millions of postcards and photos, but also for its history and legend,” says Valerio Ceva Grimaldi, author of Secret Naples.

The castle and its namesake legend, he points out, remain one of the most historic symbols of Naples and a reflection of its unique culture. “It was very important in the past for its military function, protecting the port of Naples from seaborne attack by enemy countries and North African pirates,” says Crescenzo Sasso of the Naples Tourist Board. “But today it’s a tourist attraction where you can enjoy a great view of Naples and also temporary art exhibitions.”

A series of legends cling to the fortress’s ancient walls like vines to mortar, legends that explain its unusual name – ‘Castle of the Egg’.

The egg, symbolizing life, is a recurring theme throughout Naples. Its round shape represents the universe: the yoke is yellow like the sun and the egg white is like the moon. These two celestial bodies personify male and female respectively. According to Greek myth, the siren Parthenope supposedly laid a sacred egg at the spot where, upon her death, her tomb was built – the site of the Castel dell’Ovo. It was said that if this egg was stolen or broken, ruin would befall the city.

Later, the poet Virgil (70-19 BC) spent much of his life in Naples, where he set several episodes of The Aeneid. “Credited with saintly abilities, he is supposed to have placed an egg in a locked cage hung from the roof of the basement [of Castel dell’Ovo] – its location kept hidden,” explains Grimaldi. “From that moment, the destiny of the castle and its egg have been linked to the fate of the entire city of Naples.” As long as the egg remained untouched and undamaged, Naples would prosper. Should it be damaged or moved, however, tragedy would befall the city.

It was around the time of Virgil that a Roman general, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, built a palatial villa that stretched from the island to the hill of Pizzofalcone, complete with pools for breeding moray and peach trees imported from Persia (Lucullus was known to love gastronomy; the word “Lucullan” now means lavish or gourmet). Later, perhaps inspired by the legend of the mystical egg, Byzantine monks built a monastery on the site, which thrived for almost seven decades.

In the 12th century, Normans conquered southern Italy and built a castle on the remains of the monastery and overtop the tunnel where Virgil had hidden his egg. As a result, the expansive and imposing fortress became known as Castel dell’Ovo.

The legend of the egg persisted until the 14th century, a time when the Catholic Church was making strenuous efforts to eradicate ancient pagan cults. But they weren’t completely successful, thanks in part to Queen Joan I of Anjou.

After Castel dell’Ovo was badly ravaged by a tidal wave that swept across Naples (a disaster folklore attributes to Catholic priests removing the protective egg in their fight against pagan beliefs), the young queen had the fortress rebuilt. “She replaced the egg to prevent panic from spreading through the city as people worried about a new and more serious disaster,” explains Grimaldi.

Set on protecting the city and its castle from further harm, and inspired by the ancient Neapolitan legends, the queen hung a cage containing an egg in the fortress’s subterranean reaches. In order to keep the Catholic hierarchy from objecting, Queen Joan had a chapel dedicated to the Madonna dell’Uovo (Our Lady of the Egg) added to the castle. At the same time, the island itself was renamed Il Salvatore (The Saviour), hinting at the egg’s protective presence.

While no trace of this chapel remains today, and despite no one ever finding any of the three eggs said to rest in the tunnels beneath it, the legend of the egg remains inextricably tied to the castle and the city it was built to protect.

Today, parts of Castel dell’Ovo are open to the public and are well worth the visit. In one wing, traces of the ancient Byzantine church of San Salvatore, in the form of a stone arch and two pillars, are still visible, as are columns that date back to the Roman period.

Elsewhere within the castle is the Museo Di Etnopreistoria (The Ethno Prehistory Museum), dedicated to the prehistory of the region. Run by the Neapolitan Speleological Association since 1972, the displays include artifacts from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age, such as fossilized animals and many ceramics left behind by the Villanovan culture (900-700 BC), the earliest Iron Age culture in Italy. Admission is free by appointment.