Prints of Castel Nuovo up to the mid 19th century show a stuffed crocodile hanging above the main doorway. No historian has been able to provide a rational explanation of what this exotic animal was doing or when it was put there.
A symbolic act, some say. But to symbolise what? It is true that in the castle’s underground passages a trapdoor leads to a well of some kind which is connected with the sea, and this place, from an unspecified period, was known as the ‘crocodile pit’.
Chroniclers of different eras [including Alexandre Dumas pére in his history of the Bourbons of Naples] reported that Queen Joan II of Anjou cast the lovers she tired of into the pit. The unfortunate suitors were then devoured by a huge crocodile which, after being imported by traders in exotic animals, had escaped and hidden in a cave on the shore next to the castle.
This very reptile would probably have dealt with any number of prisoners who needed to be ‘disappeared’ with no fuss. Later – exactly when is no known – it was decided to kill the animal using a horse’s thigh as bait. Might the mummified remains of the beast then have been placed at this strategic spot to feed the legend and discourage enemies of the kingdom? The mystery remains, and still haunts Neapolitans to such an extent that, on 21 March 2004, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that evidence had been found of the famous crocodile’s existence when the skeleton of a large animal was discovered during excavations for the construction of a metro station in Piazza Municipio. The daily II Corriere della Sera, which heralded the sensational discovery, pubished a retraction the next day, as soon as it was clear that this was simply a mammal whose bones happened to be there.
A curious and haunting story…. but it does make Castel Nuovo even more interesting to visit, if that can be possible????