CASTLE ON A HILL
Long before you reach the majestic Castel Del Monte castle, it appears before you, rising on the only hill on the dry Apulian Plain of Murgia, near the town of Andria. From a distance, it looks like a crown. As you get closer, its unusual octagonal shape makes it decidedly different from the vast network of defensive castles that dot the landscape of Puglia. Built by Emperor Frederick II of Swabia in the 13th century, there is an air of mystery about it, especially since it does not appear to have a real purpose.
But who exactly was Frederick II? In a nutshell, he is one of Italy’s most impressive characters, a multifaceted and versatile statesman, diplomat, scientist, and founder of universities.
The son of Henry VI of Hohenstaufen and Constance of Altavilla, he inherited the Kingdom of Sicily (of which Apulia was a part) from his mother. He was also King of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Jerusalem (through marriage and the Sixth Crusade).
His nickname “Stupor Mundi” (Wonder of the World) refers to his love of peace and justice, learning and culture, his knowledge of seven languages, his founding of the University of Naples, and his scientific contributions on a variety of subjects from astronomy to falconry.
To protect this part of his kingdom along the Adriatic Coast from invasions by the Saracens, Frederick ordered the construction or reconstruction of a number of castles and fortresses. Included among these is the Castel Del Monte.
THE CASTEL DEL MONTE
Frederick ordered the construction of the castle in 1237, drawing on the expertise of mathematicians, architects, and astronomers. It took ten years to complete. Unlike other fortresses, there are no defensive elements – no drawbridge or moat, no trapdoors through which to throw boiling oil onto the enemy, no storehouses or dormitories for the troops. It is unusual enough to warrant taking a guided tour so that you don’t miss all the details.
Our guide explains that the Gothic castle is imbued with symbolic significance as reflected in its location and the precision of its design. It uses many medieval architectural features from classical antiquity, the Middle East, and Europe. Most mysterious is a repeating pattern involving the number eight: an octagonal structure with 85-foot high limestone walls and eight octagonal towers, one at each angle; the two floors each consist of eight interconnected trapezoidal chambers that overlook an octagonal internal courtyard. You proceed from one room to the next, circling the courtyard. Two counterclockwise spiral staircases inside the towers link the two floors. (The staircases in most castles go clockwise, as this is the preferred direction for drawing your sword.)
Our guide also explains that
Today, the interior of the castle is empty, the result of centuries of looting and neglect. In days gone by, polychrome marble, tapestries, and paintings decorated the barrel-vaulted rooms, some with mullioned windows overlooking the plain. Amazingly, there is indoor plumbing, built by Muslim architects. Rainwater was collected for use in the bathrooms.
We will probably never know the real significance of the Castel del Monte. However, this iconic structure is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you happen to come across a one-cent euro, one euro coin in Italy, turn it over. On the back, you might find an image of the Castel del Monte.
IF YOU GO
Castel del Monte sits about 37 miles west of Bari in Italy’s southern province of Puglia (or Apuglia). Take Highway A16 – Bari to Canosa – exiting at Andria/Barletta. Follow the SP170 for about 11 miles. There is a parking lot on the left at the bottom of the hill (5 euros fee) from where a shuttle bus (1 euro) takes you up the short, steep third of a mile to the castle. You can also walk.
For more images of Puglia see Allegria Photos.