The Berkeley and the Goddess: A Day Trip to Castro
Many Salentine cities, towns and villages have remarkable histories. We are fortunate to be able not only to read about them but also visit and learn about them from experts. Among the most fascinating is Castro, one of Salento’s “pearls.” On May 20, 2023, a cheerful group of Berkeley Circle members and friends enjoyed a group visit to Castro where we learned more about its history, explored its most significant archaeological sites, and, later, sat down to a splendid lunch. Over two dozen participants signed up for the excursion. Many were longstanding Berkeley Circle members. For others, it was their “first meeting.”
Our adventure began late morning when we headed up the promontory to the entrance of the impressive Aragonese Castle. Inside the grounds, we explored its battlements and took in the spectacular view. Then, while members chatted, the intrepid Berkeley Circle organizing committee checked to be sure everything was in place for our private tour of the archaeological museum. We climbed the steps to the museum, where we were warmly greeted by dott. Emanuele Ciullo and other staff. Dott. Ciullo, a respected archaeologist and celebrated expert in Messapian Studies, has long been involved with scientific excavations in Salento. He also had a key role in arranging for recovered artifacts to remain accessible to the community. We were lucky indeed to have dott. Ciullo as our docent.
Dott. Ciullo began with a brief overview of Castro’s history. He reminded the group that Castro was very likely the city that the poet Virgil had in mind when he described, in The Aeneid, where it was that the legendary Trojan Prince Aeneas made landfall in Italy after the destruction of Troy. Dott. Ciullo clarified that, although the city been founded by Greeks, Romans had later named it Castrum Minervae -- Minerva’s Castle -- when they took charge of the area around 120 BCE. That name, of course, recalls the important fact that a Greek temple to the goddess Athena/Minerva had been located there.
The group visited each part of the museum. The first exhibit focused on Castro’s prehistory and featured paleolithic and bronze age artifacts. A diorama gave us a sense of what Castro might have looked like in ancient times. While dott. Ciullo reviewed key points in Castro’s amazing history, which was characterized by periods of peaceful co-existence by peoples of different ethnicities and religions, brutal invasions and destruction, and an eventual renaissance, we admired the displays. Contents included an inscribed Messapian stone tablet, glasswork, pottery, and porcelains (some made locally and others imported), and a superb stone balustrade decorated with naturalistic carvings.
The museum’s most breathtaking treasures came into view near the end of our tour. The first was the midsection of an ancient cult statue of the goddess Athena/Minerva made from Lecce stone. Dott. Ciullo shared the story of how the statue had been unearthed in 2015, and noted that it had originally been given a ritual burial when Christianity was elevated to the status of state religion. Dott. Ciullo called our attention to still-visible traces of colored paint on the torso, including on the upper part where one can make out, on the goddess’ shoulders, the ends of her curly tresses. This Minerva, he explained, had been a blond. The final exhibit was a bronze statuette dating from the fourth century BCE. It represented the goddess Athena wearing a Phrygian helmet, her body posed in precisely the same manner as the cult statue. The remarkable helmet allows archaeologists to identify “our” Athena as one with historical ties to the allies of Troy. The original statuette is now housed in the National Archeological Museum in Taranto.
Dott. Ciullo then led us along a stone walkway above the excavation sites where, perhaps, the goddess’s head may eventually be discovered. After, he took us to Castro’s lovely byzantine cathedral, where he pointed out the remains of a partially-preserved fresco. We were able to see traces of an image of the Madonna and Child. Some of us were surprised to see that the Infant Jesus had wrinkles and a receding hairline. Our guide explained that Byzantine images of the Baby Jesus depicted him as a wise old man, one example being the work of the long-ago artist who had created this hauntingly lovely representation.
Our tour completed, we piled back into our cars and headed to lunch at La Grotta del Conte Restaurant where a beautifully appointed table awaited. We enjoyed a delicious seafood lunch and lively conversation. Members then headed home, but not before thanking the Berkeley Circle’s officers, David, Nicky, Patrizia, and Claudia, for having arranged such a wonderful excursion.
Cover photo by Claudia Mazzei