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Gesualdo is a wonderful village in Irpinia located on a hill at almost 700 meters high characterized by a majestic castle which dominates the valley of the Fredane river and the valley of the Ufita river.

From Gesualdo you immediately arrive in Puglia through the Apennines and for years the onyx was sought in the mountains. Also mined was a stone used in many prestigious churches such as the Cathedral of Avellino and by the great architect Vanvitelli in the Royal Palace of Caserta.

This geographical conformation makes the valley particularly fertile. Perhaps this is why it has been inhabited since prehistoric times and a Neolithic necropolis was found.

Its fate then followed Roman history, first with the construction of Roman villa-farms in the flat area and then it was conquered by the barbarians. For a period it belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire, so much so that Justinian defined it as one of the most fertile valleys.

But the rebirth occured with the arrival of the Lombards who created the Duchy of Benevento and began the construction of the first centre of the castle and the village on the current hill, in a place where they could control the valley and protect the people.

A legend says that the name Gesualdo is that of a knight who had fought bravely against the Byzantines finding death for his travails. In gratitude, the Duke of Benevento Romualdo allegedly gave the castle to his heirs in the 6th century AD.

The history of the Lombards ended with the arrival of the Normans who reinforced the castle around which the current village was built. The Normans were a people of warriors very close to the church and participated in the crusades to the Holy Land.

Under their control, Gesualdo became a castle in the centre of a large barony, that is, the feudal division of the territory, and was entrusted to the natural son of Ruggero who called himself Gesualdo in honour of the history of the place.

In the meantime, the church had also completed its territorial organization with the assignment of the episcopal dioceses and Gesualdo became part of the diocese of Frigento, eventually incorporated into that of Avellino in 1818.

After the Normans, all this part of Italy fell under the domination of the Swabians of Frederick II who strenuously opposed the church. Around 1200, German barons then arrived and the following years were dominated by intense wars between the papacy and the empire, with the local lords now fighting for one side and now for the other.

In 1265, the popes called the Angevins of Charles of Anjou to fight for them and these annihilated the Swabians in the famous battle of Tagliacozzo and Charles became king of Sicily ruling these territories for a few centuries.

The Angevins put Elijah II Gesualdo at the head of the barony and the family proved faithful to the king by fighting alongside him and holding roles in the court. In this period the castle was fortified with the 4 towers, the central courtyard, the moat and the drawbridge.

Around the fifteenth century the Aragonese of Spain arrived in southern Italy and a period of conflict began with the Angevins which led to numerous battles. Gesualdo Castle was besieged and bombarded in 1461 and then rebuilt.

In 1504 the Aragonese declared Naples a province of Spain and once again assigned the castle to the Gesualdo family. A more peaceful period began in which the castle lost its purely defensive role and became increasingly a stately home.

The last lord of the Gesualdo family to govern the territory was Prince Carlo Gesualdo who, in his 17 years of reign, was first blackened by a double murder and then created one of the liveliest courts in the south frequented by artists and writers , among which was the famous poet Torquato Tasso.

Carlo was a refined musician of madrigals and an innovator in the field of music so much to be appreciated by many composers of the twentieth century. His music was taken up by Pergolesi and Stravinsky and Franco Battiato dedicated a song to him.

For his first wedding, Carlo married Maria d’Avalos in 1586 but, shortly after the birth of his son Emanuele, the woman fell madly in love with the knight Fabrizio Carafa of Naples. Encouraged by his uncle, who acted like Iago in Othello, Carlo surprised and stabbed the two lovers with a knife and then hung their bodies at the entrance of the palace in Naples.

Chased by the families of the two lovers for the ferocity of the crime, Carlo returned to Gesualdo and started building religious buildings, specificately three churches and two convents, one for the Dominicans and one for the Capuchins, and he began composing poignant madrigals.

Maria’s ghost is said to still wander around the castle rooms in search of peace.

After more than three years, in a second wedding, Carlo married Eleonora d’Este from Ferrara and sought to transform his court of Gesualdo according to the Ferrarese Renaissance model. Carlo’s sumptuous armour is exhibited in the Konopiste museum near Prague, and their court was a model for southern Italy.

With Carlo Gesualdo the house died out and Niccolò I Ludovisi arrived who continued the enrichment of the town with palaces for the courtyard, churches and an interesting urban development with the creation of a citadel.

He also built aqueducts, fountains for distributing public water, a snow tower for collecting snow and storing ice for the summer and he widened the access gates to the city.

In 1688, the Ludovisi sold the castle to another branch of the Gesualdo family, who thus returned to the city government, and Domenico Gesualdo obtained the title of Prince from Philip V of Spain.

With the arrival of the Bourbons, Gesualdo was awarded the title of City with a Royal Diploma.

In 1753, the principality was sold to the Caracciolos for 40,000 ducats who were to keep it until 1806 when the feudal rights were abolished by Napoleon. But the arrival of Napoleon’s army was not painless and the castle was sacked with all the furnishings and works of art collected over the centuries stolen.

In 1855 the castle was purchased by the Caccese family who transformed it considerably and today it is owned by the municipality.

After the unification of Italy, poverty led to numerous brigandage phenomena and a strong emigration to the Americas. A second major wave of migration took place after the Second World War.

The terrible earthquake of 1980 hit Gesualdo which was subsequently rebuilt in all its overwhelming beauty.

The Flight of the Angel, needs a mention as it is a tradition that has been perpetuated since the early 1800s in honour of the patron Saint Vincenzo Ferreri.



Traveller's Guide to Italy