A Visit to Castello di Giove

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The Autostrada del Sole, the A1, which runs from Milan to Naples, was begun in 1956 and inaugurated in 1964 by Aldo Moro. It created fast motor links among Italy’s major cities and helped to revive Italy’s postwar economy. The Umbrian town of Giove is an hour north of Rome and reachable from the A1’s Attigliano exit. (In Italy exits aren’t numbered, but kilometers from Milan and Naples are: thus Attigliano is 479 kilometers from Milan and 274 kilometers from Naples.) Giove is visible from the highway, just to the east. Looking west are the towns of Mugano and Bomarzo. At this point the autostrada, and also the railway line, follow the course of the Tiber, and it is the Tiber that roughly divides the regions of Umbria and Lazio.

Castello di Giove

Castello di Giove

The road up from Attigliano to Giove is about six kilometers, but its steep and sweeping zigzags lengthen the drive. The distant views across and up and down the wide Tiber Valley make an ideal spot for a castle and the Castello di Giove commands the area. Several kilometers separate these old hill towns. That has to do with the amount of land each town needed for agricultural production to feed its citizens.

Like so many of the palaces and castles in the area, the Castello di Giove uses the natural rock cliffs for its foundations, and more of the rock is cut into blocks and mortared together to form the walls. The walls give the impression of a rich weaving, with volcanic rock, bricks for later repairs, plants—including capers and fig trees—growing in crevices, and wonderfully overwhelming ivy.

Ivy at Giove, photo Lucy Vivante

Ivy at Giove, photo Lucy Vivante

Peperino is the name of the volcanic stone, named because it is the color of pepper. Its properties are very like cement: strong and relatively light.

The castle, dating back to at least 1191, when it was first mentioned in documents, is privately owned and access is limited. Occasionally the townspeople are given permission to use the castle for festivities by the owner, who is an American film producer. There are indications that the property is for sale–all 169 rooms and 365 windows of it! Enzo D’Angelis, the charming caretaker, says that he has not counted the windows, but this number is cited in tourist guides. The castle is most beautiful from the exterior and a walk around it and the borgo are highly recommended.

Manner of Caravaggio, Portrait of Asdrubale Mattei

Manner of Caravaggio, Portrait of Asdrubale Mattei

The castle was fought over by the nearby cities of Todi, Amelia, and Narni, sometimes on the side of the popes and sometimes against. As with many castles, there is a prison, and local people say with a sigh that many people died there. That was in the early centuries directly following its construction. The Mattei family owned the castle for the longest period, from 1597 to 1909. Asdrubale and Ciriaco Mattei paid 65,000 scudi for the castle. As a comparison, Caravaggio’s recently rediscovered Taking of Christ, now in Ireland’s National Gallery, cost the Mattei 125 scudi in 1602. When the Mattei bought the castle they bought it not for a defensive fortress, but for a country house. And for the name “Giove.”

There are two explanations for the origins of the town’s name. Some say that “Giove,” the Italian name for Jupiter/Jove (Zeus in Greek mythology) is named for a temple to that God. Others believe the less glamorous story–that it is derived from the Latin word “jugum” or ridge, describing the topography. Certainly the Jove story had its appeal for Ciriaco and Asdrubale Mattei. Asdrubale immediately included the eagle, Jove’s symbol, in his coat of arms, and changed his name from Mattei to Mattei di Giove. He also received the title of Marchese. In 1600 Ciriaco and Asdrubale’s fortunes enjoyed a great boost through a grant of primogeniture by their brother, Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. After the the granting of primogeniture the image of Jove’s eagle assumed additional meaning from the tradition that the eagle only brings up one of its young.

The Mattei di Giove palace in Rome, one of five connected palaces known as the Isola dei Mattei, was built for Asdrubale by architect Carlo Maderno between 1598 and 1626. The palace is well known because of Asdrubale’s many antiquities, mostly reliefs, that are incorporated into the courtyard walls and stairwell.

There are a few Mattei antiquities left at the Castello di Giove, the finest is a sarcophagus with battling Amazons.

There are a few Mattei antiquities left at the Castello di Giove, the finest is a sarcophagus with battling Amazons.

Its remarkable frescoes by Pietro da Cortona, Francesco Albani and other seicento painters are well worth seeing. The palace now belongs to the Italian government and the piano nobile, where the frescoes are to be found, houses an institute of American studies. The kind people at the reception desk will sometimes give a very brief tour of the floor. For a longer visit you have to call the Sopprintendenza to schedule an appointment (tel. +39 06 5889 5202).

To underscore the association with Giove, there are eagles everywhere, both carved and painted. The gallery, the palace’s grandest room, connects this palace to another Mattei palace, and in this room there are lunettes by Paul Bril (Antwerp 1554 – Rome 1626) showing the various Mattei castles and palaces, including the Castello di Giove.

From the Renaissance forward it has been common for rich proprietors to have decorative paintings of their various estates. Bril also painted an easel picture of the Castle which is now in the reserves of the Galleria d’Arte Antica and not on view. The paintings are very similar, and from the same vantage point, meaning the patron was happy with the result and asked for a replica.


The vaulting of the piano nobile ceilings take the same form as the Palazzo Mattei di Giove. Unfortunately, the frescoes Asdrubale Mattei commissioned for the castle’s ceilings have mostly been painted over. The two remaining rooms with frescoes (attributed to the school of Domenichino) depict stories from the life of Jupiter, as well as the Old Testament subject of David and Goliath. (Asdrubale’s interest in Old Testament subjects appeared in his choice of Solomon for the two main panels of the gallery ceiling in his Roman palace.) Jove is white-haired, but still fit, and is engaged in birthing Minerva from his head, watching Saturn devour his children, talking with Juno, chasing a Muse, and other episodes.


The choice of the subject of David and Goliath seems odd since Asdrubale (or Hasdrubal, a Carthaginian general and Hannibal’s brother) was beheaded not so far away in the Marches and his head was tossed into Hannibal’s tent. Maybe Asdrubale Mattei identified with Goliath.


This past year part of the castle’s ground floor was being used as a restaurant. If it should reopen, visitors could catch a look at the interior spiraling ramp. It is very broad, broader than Wright’s Guggenheim but without the central airspace, and was constructed to allow for heavy armament to be brought into the castle. Later it was used for carriages so that passengers could step out directly at the piano nobile. An upper section of the ramp collapsed during the Second World War from a huge explosion created by the English aerial bombing of a German train carrying explosives. The train was in the regional train depot at Bassano, a few kilometers away, but the force was immense. (NB – Bassano itself is worth a look: the crumbled houses have been restored and gentrified for Roman weekenders.)

From Giove one can travel on 12 km. to Amelia, a beautiful and larger town with several interesting pictures in its Duomo and the church of S. Agostino by local artists like Il Pomarancio and Livio Agresti, who worked either for the Mattei or around their “Isola” in Rome, or backtrack to Attigliano and the A1. Attigliano is a truck stop town, and there are few hotels and restaurants. Il Roscio is considered the best of the restaurants there. The dining room is large and lacks charm, and what’s more, there’s usually a tv going, but the food is good. I especially recommend the sformato (or soufflé) of vegetables.

About the author

Lucy Vivante

Lucy Vivante is an art dealer, translator, travel writer, and food expert who lives in Italy. She writes on old master drawings in her blog, Vivante Drawings.

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