Gaeta in South Lazio Italy

Gaeta in South Lazio

Gaeta is a picturesque, coastal city in South Lazio in Central Italy. It is surrounded by the Aurunci Mountains and the deep blue sparkling sea, situated near to the southern border of Lazio and the Campania region.  Gaeta is built on a peninsula which reaches out into the Tyrrhenian Sea, on the one side it encloses the spectacular Gulf of Gaeta, a broad sweep of bay which stretches down towards Naples, on the other is the wide expanse of golden sand, Serapo Beach.  The city has had an interesting and eventful history.

Gaeta in Mythology

Gaeta has had a long and colourful history.  It is believed that Gaeta was first colonised by the people of the Ionic island of Samos. However the town also has mythical origins relating to the Greek hero of Ulysses (in Homer's Greek work "The Odyssey")  or Aeneas (in Virgil's Roman version "The Aeneid"). Following the fall of Troy, Ulysses/Aeneas and his men are said to have set sail through the Aegean and Ionic seas, travelling around the island of Sicily before landing in Carthage in North Africa. From here he, and his survivors, sailed on up the west coast of Italy through the Tyrrhenian Sea and are said to have eventually landed on these Italian shores.  

There are two possibilites as to the origin of the town’s name.  One theory is that Aeneas travelled with his so called wet-nurse, who was named “Caieta“. She is said to have died and been buried in this area. The name was later modified to that of Gaeta. Another possibility is that Gaeta takes its name from the ancient Greek word “Kaiḗtē” meaning cave, which could refer to the number of caves or harbours that can be found in this vicinity.

Roman Gaeta

Bust of Emperor Antoninus Pius

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Gaeta benefited from a good deep water harbour and during Roman times was renowned for its beautiful coastline. Several wealthy and influential Romans owned luxurious summer villas in this area.  The remains of villa thought to belong to the Roman polititian, and supporter of Mark Antony, Gaius Fonteius Capito, has been found on the limestone headland of Monte Orlando, together with another villa of the military general Lucius Munatius Plancus. His mausoleum can still be found near Gaeta’s lighthouse. Further Roman villas were found in the Porto Salvo district of Gaeta. One was owned by Antoninus Pius, Roman emperor from 138 AD to 161 AD. Another is thought to have been the villa of Lucius Marcius Philippus, patron of the Emperor Augustus. A third belonged to Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, who was born  in 73 BC. He was an illustrious speaker in Rome and commander of the fleet of Mark Antony between 38 and 34 BC. He was elected as a Roman consul in 34 BC. The remains of his mausoleum can still be seen today.

Gaeta During the Middle Ages

The rocky promontory of Gaeta, being almost completely surrounded by sea, provided a natural defence against attack. Yet with the fall of the Roman empire, the town was subjected to invasions by the Goths in the 6th century and by the Lombards in the 7th century. At the beginning of the Middle Ages Gaeta was ruled by the Byzantine empire. Gaeta formed alliances with other maritime states in the south of Italy to combat the continuous incursions by the Saracens. The League of Campagna was formed at the behest of Pope Leo IV who was anxious to defend Rome.  In 849 this league took part in the Battle of Ostia in which a fleet of maritime republics, which included Gaeta, blocked the Saracens who were attempting to land at Ostia with the aim of invading Rome.  

In 915 John I of Gaeta and his son Docibilis took part in the Battle of the Garigliano, where the Christian League of Pope John X attacked a Saracen fortress that had been built on the Garigliano River. Here the Saracens were defeated and driven out of central Italy.  Consequently John I was permitted to expand his territory to the Garigliano and was awarded the title of Patricius from Byzantium which allowed the Docibile family to call themselves Dukes.  Thus Gaeta evolved into an autonomous maritime duchy. A castrum with strong walls and towers was built to fortify Gaeta.

From 114o Gaeta was conquered by King Roger II of Sicily and the town’s defences were further developed.

Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples, built a fine castle that was square in shape with four large towers.

In 1387 the young ten year old Ladislaus di Durazzo King of Naples, and his mother Margaret, were forced to take refuge in the fortress at Gaeta when Pope VI refused to recognize him as king and summoned a crusade against him. In 1389 the new Pope Boniface IX finally recognised him as king and on the 21 September 1389 he married the 12 year old Costanza Chiaramonte, daughter of the Conte di Modica e Vicario del Regno di Sicilia, Manfredi III Chiaramonte. Yet marriage was brief as it was annulled by decree of the pope in 1392.

Roger II of Sicily

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From 1435 to 1442 Alfonso V of Aragon, known as Alfonso the Magnanamous, made Gaeta his base for the conquest of the throne of Naples. A new rectangular fortress was built on a higher level of the promontory, which adjoined the earlier Angevin construction. The structure is rectangular in shape and has four formidable cylindrical towers of varing height. It is sometimes referred to as the Alfonsino

The 1500’s Onwards

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor ordered futher fortifications to make the complex into a formidable fortress which included a ring of  mightly walls to protect the town. The main entrance was the Porta San Carlo also known as La Cittadella.

Alfonso V The Magnanamous of Aragon

*  Alfonso V

Charles V Holy Roman Emperor

*  Charles V

Marcantonio Colonna

    *  Marcantonio Colonna

The Banner of Lepanto in Gaeta's Museo Diocesana in Italy

              *  Banner of Lepanto

In 1571 the fleet of Marcantonio Colonna ships sailed from Gaeta to form a part of the Papal fleet of the Holy League. His flagship was the Capitano. The allied Christian fleet headed for the Gulf of Patras in the Ionian Sea. On the 7th October 1571, following the famous naval Battle of Lepanto, the Ottomans were finally defeated and prevented from further expanding into their empire. The naval engagement involved over 400 galleys and lasted five hours.

Over the years Gaeta was subjected to more attacks which resulted in lengthy seiges:

In 1707 the city was held siege for three months before being taken by the Austrians under the Viceroy of Naples during the War of the Spanish Succession.

 In 1734 the Habsburgs were held seige at Gaeta for a four month period, before yielding to Spanish forces under the command of the Duke of Parma (the future King Charles III of Spain). Gaeta became part of the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples.

Between the 26th Febuary and the 18 July 1806 the fortress and its Neapolitan garrison were held seige by Napoleon’s troops lead by André Masséna. The French created the city of Gaeta into a duchy, giving it the French name of Gaete. In 1815 Gaete yielded to Austrian and Anglo-Sicilian forces at the end of a three month seige and Gaeta was then returned to Bourbon rule. 

When Garibaldi siezed possession of city of Naples and the army of the Bourbon King Francesco II were defeated near the River Volturno, Francesco fled to the fortress of Gaeta with his family and his remaining 1200 men. Gaeta was the most northerly post of the Kingdom of Naples and The Two Sicilies. They withstood a lengthy seige and heavy bombardments by the troops of General Cialdini and the fleet of admiral Persano. However, they were finally forced to surrender on the 13th  February 1861. Consequently this led to the formation of the new unified Republic of Italy.

When Garibaldi siezed possession of city of Naples and the army of the Bourbon King Francesco II were defeated near the River Volturno, Francesco fled to the fortress of Gaeta with his family and his remaining 1200 men. They withstood a lengthy seige and heavy bombardments by the troops of General Cialdini and the fleet of admiral Persano. However, they were finally forced to surrender on the 13th  February 1861. Consequently this led to the formation of the new unified Republic of Italy.

In more recent times the Angevine wing of the castle was used as a military prison, up until 1980.  When Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, was deposed and arrested in June 1943 he was briefly held in the Gaeta’s castle before being transferred to the prison on the Island of Ponza.

King Francis II of Naples and Queen Maria Sofia leave Gaeta 1861

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In more recent times the Angevine wing of the castle was used as a military prison, up until 1980.  When Mussolini, the Fascist dictator, was deposed and arrested in June 1943 he was briefly held in the Gaeta’s castle before being transferred to the prison on the Island of Ponza.

 

Today the imposing castle still dominates the entrance of the harbour. Portions of the castle are used as venues for conferences and exhibitions.

 

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

photo © Patrick Abbott

Medieval Quarter of Gaeta

The centre of the medieval quarter is steeped in history and rich in ancient monuments. There is the Cathedral of Sant’Erasmo, numerous old churches, palaces and mansions.  It is a fascinating labyrinth of narrow winding streets, alleys and stairways.

This website and text  ©  LM Shapcott  Photos © LM Shapcott *  All rights Reserved.

* except where photos have been rightfully accredited to the photographer / owner.
Photos marked with * are in the Public Domain.

Last Updated : June 2017