The Castle

World Heritage Great piece of architecture, a combination of sophisticated mathematical and astronomical knowledge, recorded in 1996 on the list of World Heritage Sites for the perfection of its forms and the harmonious union of cultural elements from northern Europe, the Islamic world and the classical antiquity, its true function is still unknown. Fortress? Hunting lodge? Lacking, from an architectural point of view, typically military elements and ditches, placed in a non-strategic position, probably the building was not a fortress. Some elements of the building, in addition, make us definitely rule out this hypothesis: the spiral stairs in the towers are arranged in a counterclockwise direction, a situation that put at a disadvantage the occupants of the castle against possible attackers because they would be forced to hold the weapon with the left hand. The crenels are also too narrow to assume arrow shots. The hypothesis that it was a hunting lodge, activity very much loved by the king, is also challenged by the presence of fine decorations and the absence of stables or other spaces typical of hunting lodges.

Castrum Sanctae Mariae The birth of the building stands officially on January 29th, 1240, when Frederick II Hohenstaufen ordered to Riccardo da Montefuscolo, Executioner of Capitanata, to prepare the materials and everything necessary in order to build a castle near the church of Sancta Maria de Monte, from which it initially took the name (Castrum Sanctae Mariae) changed into Castrum Montis in the fourteenth century.

The symbol-castle Frederick II spared no expense to ensure that the building was magnificent: it had to be his symbol-castle, the celebration of imperial power. According to Kantorowicz here he “received embassies with the rarest and most precious gifts: a robe of asbestos, a filter of youth, a ring that made him invisible, the Philosopher’s Stone.” Limestone, white marble and coral breach Made by local craftsmen, but also by Saracen and Nordic stonemasons and craftsmen, it was probably built on the ruins of an earlier fortress, first Lombard and then Norman. The structure is composed mainly of three different materials, whose arrangement is not random but is designed for the chromatic effect on the observer. The limestone is definitely the predominant material and gives the building a color ranging from white to pink depending on the time of day you look at it and the white marble or light grain is present only in rare decorations in the rooms, but in the past all the furniture and decorations of the building were made of this material, and finally the coral breach, touch of color used in the decoration of the rooms on the ground floor and in the finishes of doors and windows, interior and exterior, as well as on the main portal.

A white octagon on a lonely hill Set on a lonely hill in the Murgia near Andria, the castle is an octagon in ivory white limestone yellowed over time. The octagon on which the plan of the complex and its components is articulated is a highly symbolic geometric shape: it is the intermediate figure between the square, symbol of the earth, and the circle, which represents the infinity of the sky, and so it would mark the passage from one to the other.

The number eight The number eight is used in various elements of this construction: the octagonal shape of the inner courtyard and of the eight towers at the top, the eight inner rooms in the shape of an isosceles trapezoid, eight clover flowers on the left frame of the entrance gate, other eights on the lower frame, eight leaves on the capitals of the columns in the rooms, eight leaves on the keystone, eight vine leaves on the keystone of the first room on the ground floor, eight sunflower leaves on the keystone of another room, eight leaves and eight petals on that of the fifth room, eight acanthus leaves on the keystone of the eighth room, eight fig leaves on that of the eighth room upstairs. The octagonal basin of the Holy Grail It is thought that at the centre of the courtyard there was previously a basin, also octagonal, made from a single block of marble, which, according to legend, was supposed to represent the Holy Grail which was for a period of time within the walls of this castle. The high walls, which form the courtyard, give the feeling of being inside a well that, in medieval symbolism, represented knowledge. Once there were also antique sculptures, of which only the plate depicting the Procession of knights and a Fragment of an anthropomorphic figure remain.

Traces of the significant sculptural set The sculptural set, although strongly depleted, is of great interest: there are still present two anthropomorphic shelves in the Tower of the falconer, the telamons supporting the umbrella vault of one of the scalar towers and a piece of the mosaic floor in the eighth room on the ground floor. In the Provincial Art Gallery of Bari were temporarily stored, however, two important sculpture fragments, depicting a head and a headless bust, found during the extensive renovation. On the two columns flanking the entrance portal are sitting two lions, the one on the right looking to the left and vice versa, facing points on the horizon where the sun rises in both summer and winter solstices.

The care for the body in the bathrooms of the towers Each of the two floors of the building consists of eight trapezoidal rooms of similar size, but characterized by a subtle hierarchy depending on the way they communicate with each other or the inner courtyard. Generally, there can be identified the junction halls and more “comfortable rooms”, with some accessories, such as tall chimneys and bathrooms located in the towers. The presence of the bathrooms – equipped with toilet and sink and all accompanied by a small room, probably used as a dressing room or perhaps intended to tanks for ablution – is evidence of how the care of the body was widely practiced by Frederick II and his court, according to a typical custom of the Arab world so loved by the king.

Frederick in the Throne Room A special mention should be made of what is traditionally referred to as the Throne Room, located on the east side of the building: vast literature places here Frederick absorbed, contemplative engaged in consultations with experts of his court.

A slightly festive castle Castel del Monte was rarely used for parties: among them, we can mention the wedding celebrated here in 1246 between Violante, daughter of Frederick and Bianca Lancia, and the Count of Caserta Riccardo San Severino, that between Beatrice d’Anjou and Bertrand del Balzo in 1308, and between Humbert de la Tour, Dauphin of France, and Maria del Balzo in 1326.

The prison of the Emperor’s grandchildren After 1268, at the fall of the Hohenstaufen, Charles I of Anjou would have imprisoned Enrico and Enzo, sons of Manfred and Helen of Epirus. In addition, with his promoted interventions since 1277, the function of spotting and control of the territory, already held by the castle in the Swabian period, was reinforced, and also in later years the castle was mostly used as a prison. In 1495 Ferdinand of Aragon stayed there before being crowned King of the Two Sicilies in Barletta.

A centuries-long devastation Annexed to the Duchy of Andria, it belonged to Consalvo da Cordova and, since 1552, to the Carafa counts of Ruvo. It was a refuge for many noble Andria families during the plague of 1656. Since the eighteenth century, left unattended, it was systematically devastated, stripped of its marble and furniture, and became a shelter for shepherds, bandits and political refugees.

Decades of restoration In 1876, before the ultimate ruin came, the castle was bought in extremely precarious conditions of preservation, by the Italian State in 1879, which started the restoration entrusted to engineer Sarlo. The restoration works were resumed with continuity and scientific caution from 1928 onwards, up to the latest interventions in the eighties. Symbol of Italian excellence The sight of this quaint castle probably will not be news to anyone: on May 2nd, 1977, a 200 L stamp carried a perspective view of it. We find it again, this time in the issuance of the ordinary series, depicted on the 20 L value, issued three years later. In the new century, moreover, the shape of Castel del Monte was chosen for the coin of 1 euro cent minted in Italy. The building was also chosen to represent the University of Bari. Copyright ©2002 Stefania Mola