The Inexplicable Castel del Monte

MYSTERIOUS AND FASCINATING

Castel del Monte is a “Fortress” of the XIII century built by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Federico II, in the plateau of the western “Murge” in Puglia, near the town of Santa Maria del Monte, in the province of Adria Trani, on the top of a hill.

It was included in the list of Italian national monuments in 1936 and in that of the UNESCO heritages of 1996. In 2014 it was the 30th most visited Italian state site, with more than 200K visitors.

The origin of the building dates back to January 29,1240, and probably at the death of Frederick II (in 1250) the building was not yet finished.

NOT A FORTRESS, BUT NOT A CASTLE EITHER

It was rarely used for parties; the only notable event was 1246 for the marriage of Violante, daughter of Frederick II  and Bianca Lancia with the Count of Caserta Riccardo Sanseverino. But, it is clearly not an armored military fortress either. There is absolutely nothing reminiscent of arms and defense.

Frederick II was an exceptional guy, and his life deserves much more space to describe him. Named “Stupor Mundi” (Wonder of the World), he was the son of emperor Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty and of Constance, heiress to the Norman Kings of Sicily.  Like his most famous grandfather—Frederick I, Barbarossa (the Red-Bearded), Holy Roman Emperor—our Frederick was also red-haired and not much to look at.

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Orphaned of both parents at an early age Pope Innocent III was Frederick’s tutor. Fedrick was very well taught, spoke several languages and surrounded himself with scholars, mathematicians, as well as astrologers and astronomers. He was precocious and had a great thirst for knowledge and learning. Frederick employed Jews from Sicily, who had immigrated there from the Holy Land, at his court to translate Greek and Arabic works. He was a religious skeptic to an extent quite unusual for his era, but very tolerant towards all religious creeds.

He married the first time as still a teenager. He then married three times and had many (way too many) children and more illegitimate children with lovers. Yet the love of his life was Bianca Lancia, whom he always refused to marry because she was of minor nobility. Frederick was always seeking in increasing his reign with his marriages.

Eventually, he marries Bianca Lancia when she was on her death bed. She asked him to do so for the children. Constance, Manfred King of Sicily—his favorite—and Violante.

A BUILDING FOR THE LOVERS OF MATH

It is out of that tumultuous personality that we inherited this incredible building. In 1996 UNESCO included it in the list of  World Heritage Sites for the mathematical and astronomical rigor of its forms and for the harmonious union of the cultural elements of [northern Europe, of the Islamic world and of classical antiquity a typical example of the architecture of Middle Ages.

The communication between the lower and upper floors is ensured by the presence, not in all eight towers, of the spiral stairs architecture. The stairs develop according to a counterclockwise sense and consist of 44 trapezoidal steps that branch off, each into a single stone boulder, from a central column of about 22 centimeters in diameter.

The main entrance portal opens on the wall of the octagonal structure-oriented approximately to the east, that is to say in front of the point where the sun rises in coincidence with the equinoxes of spring and autumn. It is accessed through two flights of symmetrical stairs, “pinched” on the sides of the entrance.

A REASON FOR EVERYTHING

Below the trampling floor of the courtyard, there is a large cistern for collecting rainwater, an aspect that is highly valued in this building so much so that there were five other collection tanks inside the towers; the one below the inner courtyard is the only one still functioning.

Water was precious back then in Puglia, and the castle has a series of “channels” sculpted in the marble in every room that collects and conveys the water and moisture to the main cistern.

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PERHAPS A UNIVERSITY

The building, besides being an example of precise construction, is full of symbolism that fascinated numerous scholars. The octagon on which the plan of the complex and its elements is based is a strongly symbolic geometric form: it is the intermediate figure between the square, symbol of the earth, and the circle, which represents the infinity of the sky, and therefore it would mark the passage of one to the other.

This and the fact that the second-floor rooms have marble seats along the outer wall, and leave ample space in front for someone giving lectures, or an orator, led me to think that this building was dedicated to teachings and to further knowledge. In fact, Frederick II in 1224 founded the University of Naples Federico II, the oldest public non-sectarian university in the world, and is now organized into 13 faculties. It was Europe’s first university dedicated to training secular administrative staff, and one of the oldest academic institutions in continuous operation.

RESTORATION

Starting from XVII century followed a long period of abandonment, during which the castle was stripped of the furnishings and wall decorations of marble whose traces remain visible only behind the “capitelli” and became beyond that prison also a shelter for shepherds, “briganti” (robbers, brigands), and political refugees. In 1876 the castle, in extremely precarious conservation conditions, was finally purchased by the Italian State and then restored.

HOW TO GET TO CASTEL DEL MONTE

The fortress of Castel del Monte is located in the homonymous hamlet in the municipality of Andria, in Puglia. The nearest city is Bari, reachable by plane through Bari Palese airport, by train or by car. Once in Bari you can reach Castel del Monte with a train trip to Andria and then take a bus that will take you directly to the building: however, the service is active only from the beginning of April to the end of October.

If you travel by car, take the A16 highway to the Andria-Barletta exit and then take the state highway 170. Just follow the signs for Castel del Monte for about 18 kilometers.

VISITS TO CASTEL DEL MONTE

The castle is open to the public throughout the year: from October to the end of March it can be visited from 9 to 18.30, while from April to the end of September the opening times are 10.45-19.45.

The ticket gives access to the visit of the whole castle and can be purchased directly at the ticket office or online for a small fee. The ticket price is 10 euros and the reduced fare is 3.50 euros. Guided tours or audio guides are also available.

Tel. 388/3026000
E-mail: casteldelmonte@novaapulia.it
Sito web:
 www.novaapulia.it

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