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Taranto Castle
Photo: Livioandronico2013

Castello Aragonese - Taranto

The Castello Aragonese, is a fortification in Taranto, Puglia. It is located on the island of the Old Town. Courtesy of its architecture, historical findings, and unique low ground by the mouth of the sea, the castle is one of Taranto's main attractions. It also marks the boundary between the old and the new part of the town.

In 1481 the very low ground in front of where the castle now sits was excavated to allow for the passage of small boats, as well as a moated position. The canal was also shortened as a defence technique. In 1492 the castle, at this point within the Kingdom of Naples, was inaugurated for the King, Ferdinand II of Aragon. The project was headed by renowned Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio, who added seven towers to the structure.

The castle was built to provide a defensive guard over the city’s canal, but also to provide a link between the old town of Taranto (which is on a peninsula) and the mainland. The site was built on a Norman structure, itself based on a Byzantine stronghold designed to protect the site from the Saracens. The castle’s unique short, wide towers reinforce its creation as a defensive construction. The idea was that the short, wide and circular towers would cushion the impact of cannonballs.

The castle resisted an Ottoman attack in the late 16th century, but soon after lost its military significance. Thus, it was used as artillery storage for over a century. In the early 18th century, the Habsburg dynasty converted it into a prison. Its most famous incarceration was author Alexandre Dumas. However, in Napoleonic times it reverted back to a military fortress.

Inside, there is a Renaissance tabernacle called St. Leonardo, built in the 16th century. When the fortress was a prison, this was used as a guardhouse and stable. The fortress consists of a mixture of short and wide halls, which is indicative of its Norman past. The unusual structure also sees spherically-shaped halls and internal walkways. The castle walls feature Medieval and Byzantine stonework.

The fortress is shaped like a quadrangle and also features a large central courtyard. Nowadays, it has four towers which are individually named (St. Cristoforo, St. Lorenzo, dell’Annunziata and della Bandiera). Until 1883, there were seven towers. One tower was demolished to allow for the construction of the Ponte Girevole, a swing bridge which connects the old and new town. Two towers were later removed to allow for the widening of the canal.

Today, it houses a base for the Italian Navy, which has occupied the building since 1883. They are behind recent architectural digs and reconstruction work, looking to delve deeper into its history but also preserve its future. The public can sometimes visit on private tours or to visit exhibitions and events.

Many nods to its varied history remain, including coats of arms and the prison’s former torture room.