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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

p384 Gaeta

Gaeta (anc. Caietae Portus), a seaport and episcopal see of Campania, Italy, in the province of Caserta, from which it is 53 m. WNW by rail via Sparanise. Pop. (1901) 5528.a It occupies a lower projecting point of the promontory which forms the SW extremity of the Bay of Gaeta. The tomb of Munatius Plancus, on the summit of the promontory (see Caietae Portus), is now a naval signal station, and lies in the centre of the extensive earthworks of the modern fortifications. The harbour is well sheltered except on the E, but has little commercial importance, being mainly a naval station. To the NW is the suburb of Elena (formerly Borgo di Gaeta). Pop. (1901) 10,369. Above the town is a castle erected by the Angevin kings, and strengthened at various periods. The cathedral of St. Erasmus (S. Elmo), consecrated in 1106, has a fine campanile begun in p385860 and completed in 1279, and a nave and four aisles; the interior has, however, been modernized. Opposite the door of the cathedral is a candelabrum with interesting sculptures of the end of the 13th century, consisting of 48 panels in bas-relief, with 24 representations from the life of Christ, and 24 of the life of St. Erasmus (A. Venturi, Storia dell' arte Italiana, iii. Milan, 1904, 642 seq.). The cathedral possesses three fine Exultet rolls, with miniatures dating from the 11th to the beginning of the 13th century. Behind the high altar is the banner sent by Pope Pius V to Don John of Austria, the victor of Lepanto. The constable of Bourbon, who fell in the sack of Rome of 1527, is buried here. The other churches are of minor interest; close to that of La Trinitຠis the Montagna Spaccata, where a vertical fissure from 6 to 15 ft. wide runs right down to the sea-level. Over the chasm is a chapel del Crocefisso, the mountain having split, it is said, at the death of Christ.

During the break-up of the Roman empire, Gaeta, like Amalfi and Naples, would seem to have established itself as a practically independent port and to have carried on a thriving trade with the Levant. Its history, however, is obscure until, in 823, it appears as a lordship ruled by hereditary hypati or consuls. In 844 the town fell into the hands of the Arabs, but four years later they were driven out with help supplied by Pope Leo IV. In 875 the town was in the hands of Pope John VIII, who gave it to the count of Capua as a fief of the Holy See, which had long claimed jurisdiction over it. In 877, however, the hypatus John (Ioannes) II succeeded in recovering the lordship, which he established as a duchy under the suzerainty of the East Roman emperors. In the 11th century the duchy fell into the hands of the Norman counts of Aversa, afterwards princes of Capua, and in 1135 it was definitively annexed to his kingdom by Roger of Sicily. The town, however, had its own coinage as late as 1229.

In military history the town has played a conspicuous part. Its fortifications were strengthened in the 15th century. On the 30th of September 1707 it was stormed, after a three months' siege, by the Austrians under Daun; and on the 6th of August 1734 it was taken, after a siege of four months, by French, Spanish and Sardinian troops under the future King Charles of Naples. The fortifications were again strengthened; and in 1799 it was temporarily occupied by the French. On the 18th of July 1806 it was captured, after an heroic defence, by the French under Masséna; and on the 18th of July 1815 it capitulated, after a three months' siege, to the Austrians. In November 1848 Pope Pius IX, after his flight in disguise from Rome, found a refuge at Gaeta, where he remained till the 4th of September 1849. Finally, in 1860, it was the scene of the last stand of Francis II of Naples against the forces of United Italy. Shut up in the fortress with 12,000 men after Garibaldi's occupation of Naples, the king, inspired by the heroic example of Queen Maria, offered a stubborn resistance, and it was not till the 13th of February 1861 that, the withdrawal of the French fleet having made bombardment from the sea possible, he was forced to capitulate.

See G. B. Federici, Degli antichi duchi, consoli o ipati della città di Gaeta (Naples, 1791); Onorato Gaetani d' Aragona, Mem. stor. della città di Gaeta (Milan, 1879); C. Ravizza, Il Golfo di Gaeta (Novara, 1876).

[T. As.]


Thayer's Notes:

a a town of Campania, in the province of Caserta: No longer. Gaeta is now part of the neighboring province of Latina, which is not in Campania, but in the Lazio. In 2000, the official census figures gave Gaeta 22,687 inhabitants — a fourfold rise in population in a century, very likely due to continued drainage of the marshes between Gaeta and Rome and the town's higher profile as a beach resort.


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