May 10, 2011

The Crocodile of Castelnuovo

Sewer Alligator by Tom Otterness
While on my way to Metrotech Center today I came across a quirky little statue of a crocodile dragging a man down a manhole. It appears to be a spoof of the popular urban legend about a predatory reptile stalking New York City's serpentine sewer system.

Peaking my interest, I discovered that the work is called Sewer Alligator. It was crafted by Tom Otterness as part of his Life Underground installation, a series of sculptures designed for public display in the NYC subway system. I'm not sure what the bag of money is in reference to, but I like to think it represents the fat cat globalists who sacrifice traditional cultures for the global economy.
Maschio Angioino or Angevin Keep
Anyway, the statue reminded me of my visit to the Maschio Angioino (also called Castel Nuovo, or New Castle) in Naples, where I first heard the ancient folk tale about the Coccodrillo di Castelnuovo.

Legend has it that a crocodile mysteriously made its way from the Nile delta to the bowels of the Castel Nuovo. Through a hidden hole in the castle's moat the ravenous reptile would prey on helpless captives, dragging their mangled corpses back to its lair. Concerned about the number of prisoners "escaping," the guards tried to figure out how they were getting away in order to better secure the dungeon, a former granary beneath the Palatine Chapel called the Mile Pit.

Coccodrillo di Castelnuovo by unknown artist 
Courtesy of Comune di Napoli
One day, to their surprise, they discovered the creature feeding on one of its victims. Instead of getting rid of the crocodile, the jailers decided to put the animal to
good use. "From that day on," wrote Benedetto Croce in his Storie e leggende napoletane, "the crocodile...was used as a means and executor of justice; prisoners sentenced to death were sent down to the moats and were regularly swallowed by the crocodile." *

Other versions of the story include the notorious Queen Joan II of Naples (1371-1435), who, it's said, delighted in feeding her spent lovers alive to the beast. The insatiable Queen allegedly discarded her playthings, one after another, into the creature's gaping maw. Her reputation, it is said, was so bad that no infamy was beyond her, including (unfounded) rumors that she had sex with a horse. Such accusations were not unknown against female monarchs. I remember reading nearly identical calumny spewed by the enemies of Catherine the Great.

Eventually the crocodile was killed; a horse leg was used as bait. Its body was stuffed and mounted over the castle's gateway as a warning. The legend doesn't state which stallion the murderess used to snare her prey; one can only guess.

Construction of the Maschio Angioino began in 1279 under Charles I of Anjou. It was used as a royal residency when he moved the capital of the Regno from Palermo to Naples. Despite its age, the castle is still called "new" because the city's other imposing fortresses, Castel dell'Ovo and Castel Capuano, are much older. The Aragonese triumphal arch and cenotaph, added in the fifteenth century by Alfonso I, is considered one of the great architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance. In 1503 the kingdom was annexed to Spain and the castle was used to garrison its forces. Today the landmark houses the Museo Civico and is a popular tourist destination.

~ Giovanni di Napoli

(*) Quoted from Legends and ghost stories in Naples between two centuries: Matilde Serao, Roberto Bracco and Benedetto Croce by Armando Rotondi.