You may wish to see a page on the town of Gregoriopolis first.
Castello di Giulio II
The modern fort or castle of Ostia, consists of three or more lofty and ruinous brick towers, united by a curtain and surrounded by a ditch. Anciently the bed of the river, as appearances evidently indicate, was nearer the site of this modern castle than at present.
Sir William Gell - The topography of Rome and its vicinity - 1834
At length, on mounting a slight hill, we come upon a wide view over the pale-blue death-bearing marshes of the Maremma to the dazzling sea, and almost immediately enter a forest of brushwood, chiefly myrtle and phillyrea, from which we only emerge as we reach the narrow singular causeway leading to Ostia itself. It is a strange scene. (..) On either side stretch the still waters of the pestiferous lagoon, called the Stagno, waving with tall reeds which rustle mournfully in the wind, and white with floating ranunculus. To the left, a serrated outline of huge pine-tops marks the forest of Fusano; to the right we see the grey towers of Porto, the cathedral of Hippolytus, and the tall campanile which watches over the Isola Sacra. (..) Large sea-birds swoop over the reedy expanse. In front the mediaeval castle rises massive and grey against the sky-line. As we approach, it increases in grandeur, and its huge machicolations and massive bastions become visible.
Augustus J. C. Hare - Days near Rome - 1873
View of the castle, lithograph by Edward Lear (ca 1840)
Artists will all regret the destruction of the tall pine, so well known till lately in pictures of Ostia, which stood beside the tower (see a modern image of the pines surrounding the castle), till it died in 1870. Hare
(left to right) Ravelin and tower; coat of arms of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere; embrasure
The fortress is made up of three parts: a large tower (in part built by Pope Martin V who built also a tower on the site of a Roman lighthouse), the castle itself and a little ravelin (outwork of fortifications protecting a gate). Several fine coats of arms of Cardinal della Rovere decorate the outer walls of the castle (the image used as background for this page is based on one of them). The
name of the cardinal as well as the name of Pope Sixtus IV, his uncle, can be read also on the embrasures.
In 1503 Cardinal della Rovere was elected pope and he chose the name of Julius II; for this reason the castle he built in Gregoriopolis when he was a cardinal became known as the Castle of Julius II.
The outer walls are so covered with the escutcheons of their different papal owners as to form a veritable chapter of pontifical heraldry. Conspicuous amongst these grand coats of arms are the oak-tree (Robur) of the Della Rovere, and the wreathed column of the Colonna. Hare
A large inscription over the main tower celebrates the completion of the castle which occurred in 1486 after the death of Sixtus IV and during the papacy of Innocent VIII to whom Cardinal della Rovere was a very influential advisor. The year of the completion is written both with reference to the Christian era (1486) and to the foundation of Ostia (2015) by Ancus Martius, fourth king of Rome, a sign of how the men of the Renaissance (e.g. Lorenzo Manilio) were tracing back their roots in the history of Rome. Most likely at the beginning there were only two coats of arms above the inscription, but when Cardinal della Rovere became pope he added his own coat of arms to those of Sixtus IV (left) and Innocent VIII (right). The little coat of arms to the far right belongs to Martin V, a Colonna. The coat of arms to the far left belongs to Paul III.
(left) The ravelin; (right) gate of the castle which was accessed via a drawbridge
The construction of this and many other castles and fortresses in coastal towns of Italy was a consequence of the Ottoman conquests of Constantinople in 1453, of Negroponte (Euboea) in 1470 and of Otranto in Apulia in 1480. The latter, a fortified town at the narrowest point of the channel which divides Italy from Albania, should have been the starting point of an outright invasion of Italy, but Sultan Mehmet II died in the following year and Otranto was retaken by the King of Naples a few months later.
Inscriptions: (above) at the ravelin; (below) at the gate of the castle
Cardinal Guillaume d'Estouteville, Bishop of Ostia and Velletri passed away in January 1483 and a few days later Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere was assigned the see by his uncle; this notwithstanding the fact that the see was proper of the Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals since 1150, who, after d'Estouteville's death, was Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, Bishop of Porto e Santa Rufina. The decision by the Pope increased the enmity between the two cardinals who both vied for hegemony over the Papal Court.
The fortress of Ostia is the work of Giuliano da Sangallo, as we read in Vasari, and sustained several sieges.
Rev. Jeremiah Donovan - Rome, ancient and modern: and its environs - 1842
Today the design of the fortress is partly attributed to Baccio Pontelli, whom Vasari mentioned as the architect of S. Aurea, the Cathedral of Gregoriopolis, with the likely involvement of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder and Francesco di Giorgio Martini, both military architects (see the fortresses of Nettuno and of Sassocorvaro).
Inner entrance with ancient marbles from nearby Ostia bearing a large inscription
The upper inscription celebrates Pope Sixtus IV and Cardinal Giuliano whereas the lower one consists of two sentences:
(left) (HO)SPES IN ARCE SOLVITO METUM (Guest, inside the castle you will not have fear)
(right) CUSTOS FIDE CAVETO DOLIS (Faithful custodian, beware of deceits).
Inscriptions addressing a guest were popular during the Renaissance and they became more elaborate over time, as those dictated by Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici at the gate of Villa Medici.
Courtyard retaining its Renaissance windows
The Castle had to fit within the limited space existing between Gregoriopolis and the river. That's why it has a triangular shape which is uncommon for such a fortification. During the XVIth century Italian military architects developed an optimal design which resembled a star with a number of pointed bastions which varied from five (e.g. at Castel Sant'Angelo) to eleven (e.g. at Nicosia). See a summary page on papal fortresses.
During that time, however, the Cardinal fell into disgrace with the Pope, and departed from Rome, in order not to be taken prisoner, and Sangallo, as before, went in his company. (..) But the threats of the Pope against the Cardinal becoming every day louder, it was not long before he made his way to Avignon. From there he sent as a present to the King of France a model for a palace (the Petit Palais) that Sangallo had made for him, which was marvellous, very rich in ornament, and spacious enough for the accommodation of his whole Court.
Giorgio Vasari - Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects - transl. by G. Du C. De Vere
Here he took refuge for two years from the persecution of Alexander VI. Hare
Pope Sixtus IV died on August 12, 1484. His nephew participated in the conclave of 1484 and he used his influence to help the election of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Cibo, who became Pope Innocent VIII. In the conclave of 1492 he was the candidate of Genoa and France. He became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals after the election of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy as Alexander VI. The new pope named him legate in Avignon; in disagreement with the Pope, he retired to Ostia and fell ill at the end of the year. In April 1494, he embarked for Genoa, reached Avignon and united with the king of France against Pope Alexander VI. See Hotel du Roure aka Hotel de Baroncelli-Javon, a palace of Avignon which was decorated with the della Rovere heraldic symbol.
(left) Staircase leading to the Papal apartment; (right) coat of arms of Pope Paul III
Nothing remains of the internal decorations but some mouldering frescoes executed by Baldassare Peruzzi and Cesare da Sesto for Cardinal della Rovere. Hare
Cardinal della Rovere's sojourn at Ostia was not an uncomfortable one because the castle housed an apartment suitable to his rank. After the death of Pope Alexander VI, he arrived in Rome on the evening of September 3, 1503, after ten years of exile. He participated in the first conclave of 1503, which elected Pope Pius III. As Bishop of Ostia, he consecrated the new Pope. He participated in the second conclave of 1503 and was elected pope.
Frescoes of the staircase depicting events of the life of Hercules framed by a grotesque decoration
During the 1530s the threat of an invasion of Italy from the south-east was supplemented by that of Ottoman corsairs who from their base at Algiers raided the coasts of Italy and Spain. In 1534 Hayruddin Barbarossa, their leader, sacked Terracina and for some days he moored his fleet at the mouth of Tiber. Pope Paul III was very worried about this threat and he repaired the castle of Ostia and improved the facilities of its apartment, similar to what he did at Castel Sant'Angelo.
The coats of arms celebrate improvements and restorations. The inscription below the coat of arms of Pius IV expands on the
works he did in 1561 to rebuild a wall damaged by the war (the so called Guerra di Campagna) waged by his predecessor Pope Paul IV; it is phrased in a way which sounds very critical about that decision. As a matter of fact in Autumn 1556 the castle was sieged, not by Muslims, but by the army of Philip II of Spain, the Most Catholic King.
Later on Pope Pius IV built Tor San Michele, a tower at the mouth of the River Tiber to early detect the arrival of corsairs (or other enemies) and to fire at their ships.
XVIth century earthenware with coats of arms of the Piccolomini (left) and the Medici (right): Cardinal Giovanni Piccolomini, nephew of Pope Pius III was bishop of Ostia in 1535-1537 and Cardinal Carlo di Ferdinando de' Medici in 1652-1666
The Bishops of Ostia and Velletri rarely visited Gregoriopolis and they usually stayed at the small episcopal palace next to the Cathedral. In 1855 Pope Pius IX turned the ruining castle into a prison for convicts who worked at the excavations of ancient Ostia. Between 1878 and 1933 the castle housed some of the antiquities which had not been moved to the museums of Rome.
(left) Tunnel on the ground floor with a closable door; (right) spiral staircase the design of which is attributed to Baccio Pontelli
In the 1960s a lengthy process of restoration of the XVIth century aspect of the castle began, including its military facilities. For many years it was closed to the public. In 2016 it was included in the monuments of the Archaeological Park of Ostia and visits were allowed.
Terrace of the castle which is home to a relative of Roman cats
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