The Costitutions of Melfi

cost regni siciliarum Among the various testimonies of culture at the court of Frederick II, the Constitutions, which the emperor promulgated in the Bowls Hall of the castle of Melfi in August 1231, surely occupy a prominent place, as they represent the first legislation with a modern state constitutional imprinting and the largest secular legislative monument of the Middle Ages. Also called Augustali Laws, they might as well be considered the first “agreement” in the history of the state and the Church, as there is an attempt to define the border between the two supreme powers. The framers of the Augustali Laws In 40 were called to put hands on this project to unify all the laws enacted in 1220: certainly there was a great movement to the castle of the most famous personalities of the time, including the notary Pier delle Vigne, taken to court in charge of the royal Chancellery, who was the main drafter of the Constitutions. An important role was also played by Roffredo Beneventano, famous jurist of the time, the archbishop of Capua, Giacomo Amalfitano, the shadow-man of king, Berardo di Castacca, Michele Scoto, esteemed Scottish philosopher, mathematician and astrologer, and finally Ermanno di Salsa, the only German emperor brought with him by the emperor from Germany. Probably participated in the writing of the Constitutions also the father and uncle of St. Thomas Aquinas. The law of the man who abolished the divine judgment It’s a misconception that this legislation – 255 titles, divided into three books: public law, judicial law and feudal, private and criminal law – only contains rules issued by Frederick II. In fact, in the Constitutions of Melfi were kept some of the laws of the Norman kings, and in general of all predecessors, except those promulgated by his father, Henry VI. That said, it must be recognized that Frederick’s code introduced important innovations: the royal power was enlarged, so barons and cities were deprived of the rights and privileges that were granted illegally. The feuds became state property and were forbidden to be sold, in order to reduce the fragmentation of feudal organization. The clergy were subject to the ordinary courts, and they lost the prerogative to judge heretics. More generally, the administration of justice was entrusted exclusively to the state apparatus, enshrining the equality of citizens before the law and abolishing the divine judgment. Especially the Constitutions hit directly and profoundly the lives and prospects of free towns, eliminating all their autonomy. Frederick II also legislated on the ecological matters, establishing penalties for those who had polluted and regulating the cutting of forests and hunting. Among the more unpredictable laws we find those on the location and maintenance of cemeteries, and among the most curious is that forbidding clerics from becoming actors. The pillars of modern law The code had great resonance and diffusion in the kingdom, as it was translated into Greek to be better understood and applied by the majority of the people who spoke this language. It was largely kept in the south of Italy and various rules remained unchanged over the centuries. Of its inspiring principles always remained track in the legislation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until the unification of Italy. Frederick II fell: he lost the Kingdom of Sicily and the imperial crown but the Constitutions of Melfi have found a place in the history of civilization and the law of nations. Source: Federico Messana, “Liber Augustalis o Costituzioni melfitane (1231)”, Copyright  ©2002 Federico Messana, from


The Castle

The treasure of Frederick The castle of Melfi was the symbol of imperial power and the cultural wealth of Frederick II. Within its walls, in 1231, were drawn up the Constitutions Melfi. Frederick used the castle also as royal treasury, as a deposit of sums collected in Basilicata, and also as a prison, where the Saracen Othman di Lucera was imprisoned. In 1232 Frederick II hosted the Marquis of Monferrato and his niece Bianca Lancia, the only woman he had ever loved. In 1241, two cardinals and many French and German bishops were detained in the fortress, who were to participate in the Council banned by Pope Gregory IX to depose the Swabian. In Melfi, finally, part of the history of the emperor’s heirs was fulfilled in the few years of survival of the dynasty.

Temporal and spiritual power The castle was built thanks to Guglielmo D’Altavilla in 1042, when Melfi was chosen by the Normans as a political and administrative centre. Here occurred six Papal councils between 1059 and 1221 and in 1089 the first crusade towards Jerusalem was proclaimed.   Weighting down with its bulk on the village below, the castle was an effective instrument of coercion, also psychological, on the local population, clearly marking the opposition to the remaining urban core, in turn pivoted on the cathedral, symbol of ecclesiastical power. Later, with the establishment of the Regnum Siciliae by Ruggero II, the castle became the instrument to ensure the monarchy not only an efficient and organic military, but also political control of the internal centrifugal forces, as well as on the wealth-maker sectors and social classes. A similar role was played by the fortress of Melfi with the Swabians: in the “Statutum de reparatione castrorum” of 1241-1246, the Lucanian castle is counted among Frederick’s castra (and not among the domus). The feoffment With the downfall of the Swabians and the arrival of the new Angevins rulers, the castle of Melfi underwent massive expansions and renovations, as well as being elected by Charles II of Anjou official residence of his wife, Mary of Hungary. It was still subject to change in the sixteenth century under the rule of Aragon and became the property of the Acciaiuolis first, then the Marzanos, Caracciolos and finally the Dorias until 1950, the latter changing the central body to make it a stately palace. The inviolable towers Currently the castle has a perimeter wall fence with eight towers called: the Entrance Tower, or the Banner Tower or Cypress Tower, The Secretaria Tower or The Terrace Tower, The Lion Bastion Tower, The Emperor Tower or The Seven Winds Tower, the Unnamed Tower, of which only ruins remain, The North-East Tower or Torrita Parvula, the Prisons Tower or Marcangione’s, the Church Tower, the Clock Tower. The building immediately appears as a homogeneous style building, the result of numerous architectural interventions carried out by its royal inhabitants over the centuries. On the northern side, its dark mass formed by local volcanic rock exudes a strong sense of inviolability; the castle presents itself as an immense and powerful city ramparts and towers, the result of centuries stratification changing its primitive Norman installation – rectangular in plan with four square towers – into a powerful defense system, consisting of a rampart, a moat on three sides and a fortified wall of ten square and polygonal towers. 

The guardian of Rapolla’s Sarcophagus Owned by the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, some of its rooms now house the National Museum of Melfi, which exhibits numerous archaeological finds from the surrounding areas. In the Clock Tower is preserved the famous Sarcophagus of Rapolla (named after the location where it was found in 1856), one of the most important examples of Asian art school of the second century AD. Source: S. Mola, Il Castello di Melfi Copyright ©2002 Stefania Mola , from


The Venosina Door

Among the six doors one time opened in the city walls of Melfi, the Venosina Door – so called because from it an arterial road, leading through the Appia road to Venosa, departed – it is the street from which Fredrick II entered the city. Fredrick’s signature Of Norman origin, it was restored in the XIII century by Fredrick II, who placed upon it the following inscription:   “L’antichità mi ha distrutta, Federico mi ha riparata Melfi, nobile città della Puglia circonvallata da mura di pietra, celebre per salubrità dell’aria, per affluenza di popolazioni per fertilità dei suoi campi, ha un castello costruito su una rupe ripidissima opera mirabile dei Normanni“. This headstone celebrating the ancient glory and greatness of the city was later replaced by Giovanni Caracciolo with another one, still now visible. In gothic style, the Venosina Door has a pointed vault entrance with a fluted bullnose archivolt, supported by overturned trunk-pyramidal capitals, and it is supported by two cylindrical bastions of 1400 in reinforcement of the defensive ability. The door is flanked by two bas-reliefs of which one portrays the basilisk, city emblem.



  A significant past Residence often attended by Frederick II, Melfi, before the arrival of the emperor, had an important past: in 1041, in fact, the city was chosen by the Normans as the capital of the Kingdom of Apulia for its strategic location as a point of passage between Campania, Apulia and Calabria. Four years earlier it had become a bishopric and, from 1059 until 1221, six councils were summoned here; of particular importance was the third, which was proclaimed in 1089, during which the pontiff, in addition to establishing the obligation of celibacy for religious, proclaimed the first Crusade to the Holy Land. During the Fifth Council, convened by the anti-Pope Anacleto, Ruggero II was crowned King of the Kingdom of Sicily, the oldest in pre-Unification Italy. Uncertain origins but prideful The origin of Melfi is of unknown date. According to Lombard reporter, the city was founded by some Roman knights who, on a trip toward Byzantium, were forced to lend in Ragusa for a storm, they were driven away and, back on the Apulian coasts, they stopped on the hill where they founded Melfi. Another version has it that the city was built by the Greeks, and still another one dates the foundation back to the Middle Ages, a period in which Melfi was surely contended for its strategic position, knowing his heyday. Often besieged and sacked in the course of its history, in 1199 it was conquered by the German Marcovaldo on behalf of the underage King Frederick II of Swabia. Melfi Urbs legis The emperor chose the city as a summer residence and here he spent his leisure time, as he preferred the woods of Mount Vulture to practice falconry, his favorite hobby. In May 1231 Frederick returned to Basilicata with Pier della Vigna, his close collaborator, and the Archbishop of Capua, who had been entrusted with the task of collecting, in a single body of law, the regulations issued in 1220, the year of his Coronation. In August of the same year, before the solemn Diet of Melfi, the Constitutiones Regni Siciliae were promulgated, commonly known as the Constitutions of Melfi or Augustali Laws, legislative instrument of primary importance in the panorama of medieval Europe. In June of 1241, the king decided that in the castle the centre of collection of the imperial treasury and one of the three schools of logic of the Kingdom of Sicily were to be established. The departure of the Swabian dynasty In 1254, Melfi inhabitants rebelled against King Manfred, natural son and heir of Frederick II, died four years before, but the city was soon resumed and was possession of the Swabians until 1266 when Manfred was defeated by the Angevins who killed him and took over the kingdom. When the habitants of Melfi learned that Conradin, grandson of Frederick II, had gathered an army to take back the reign of his great uncle, they rose against the new rulers but also the last heir Swabian Emperor was defeated and the city suffered severe oppression by the Angevins. The calm before the storm With the end of the Swabians, Melfi assumed the role of a mere spectator in the affairs of the kingdom. In the following centuries it was subject to important and noble families such as the Acciaiuolis, the Caracciolos and finally the Dorias. Until the eighteenth century, the city had a fairly quiet period, although the peasantry was always in conditions of extreme poverty. At the end of the nineteenth century, the city was a very lively centre for the first movement of historical socialism. Today Melfi is one of the most productive areas of Basilicata and one of the largest industrial centres in the South. Source:“Notizie storiche della città di Melfi” by Gennaro Araneo


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