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Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte is the best known of the many castles built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Frederick was responsible for fortifying the Adriatic coast against Saracen incursion, a project he started in 1223 in Foggia after returning to the kingdom of Sicily from a stay in Germany. (Note that Frederick was shoring up the northern coastal reaches of his kingdom of Sicily; thus, not only the Adriatic, but the Ionian coast—i.e., the “sole” of the boot—and the Tyrrhenean coast as far north as Naples were built up, as well). In Puglia he built from scratch or rebuilt fortresses on the Gargano spur (most important of which is the castle at Monte Sant’Angelo) and in Lucera, Melfi, Bari, Barletta, Gioia del Colle and many other locations. Some of these were on sites fortified earlier by the Norman founders of the kingdom of Sicily. All in all, counting the island of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia, Frederick built or rebuilt about two dozen fortresses during his reign.

The Castel del Monte is located inland from Andria, near Bari, on a prominent height of the western Murge (a local geographical designation) in Puglia. The complete name of the site is Santa Maria del Monte, named for an earlier church (which no longer exists) on or near the site.

The Castle del Monte was started around 1240 and finished in 1249. It  apparently was not intended to be a true fortress; at least there are no typical defensive structures such as a moat, drawbridge or underground passageways that would indicate such. Frederick may have simply wanted it as a residence and hunting/falconry lodge (although those who read magic and symbolism into the architecture—see below—resist that prosaic view). The walls of both outer and inner perimeters, however, are substantial—each about 2.50 meters thick. There is some evidence that the castle was built on the site of an earlier Norman fortress. In any event, its location on a height near the ancient Roman via Trajana, which leads from Benevento to Brindisi, filled a gap in the extensive chain of castles and forts built by Frederick.

Frederick II
(statue at Naples royal palace)

The architecture is among the first examples of the Gothic style in Puglia. It is, however, a special Gothic. The entire structure is octagonal. There are eight towers, and there are eight rooms each on both floors. The internal courtyard is also an octagon. There is a splendid arched portal as an entrance and there are windows between all towers, one window for the upper floor and one for the lower.

There is an entire literature dedicated to the possible symbolism of the octagonal design. The number 8 has secular, religious and mythological meaning; for example, the figure 8or "lazy eight" (since it is rotated 90 degrees into a "prone" position) is used in mathematics to represent infinity; there are eight compass points; eight is the union of divine infinity and human finiteness; there are would-be links between the eight sides of Castel del Monte to the Holy Grail, the Pyramids, the Fibonacci number series, ratios of musical intervals, the temple of Solomon, the queen of Sheba, the traditional image of Jerusalem as an octagonal city and even an astrological interpretation (“…All the different sections in the castle…are marked by real and imaginary shadows cast by the sun as it enters certain zodiacal constellations…”in Astronomia e geometria nell’architettura di Castel del Monte by Aldo Tavolaro, Bari 1991). There is also a lengthy tribute—replete with even more numerology and magico-mystical symbolism—to Castel del Monte in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which contains a description of Eco’s mysterious library, the octagonal building that “…made on me the same impression as Castel Orsino or Castel del Monte I was later to see in the south of the Italian peninsula.” (It may be that Castel del Monte was built on earlier models such as the Egisheim castle in the Alsace, the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna, or the Palatine Chapel in Aachen; that does, of course, not exclude esoteric interpretation of the architecture—it just pushes it back in time a bit to other locations.) As far as I know, no one has read into the architecture anything to do with alien abductions—but that is only as far as I know. (And there is that crop circle in the adjacent field!)

With the fall of the house of Hohenstaufen (1268, the date of the execution in Piazza Mercato in Naples of Conradin, the last Hohenstaufen pretender to the throne of the Kingdom of Naples, at the hands of Charles I of Anjou), the Castel del Monte became an Angevin prison and went into a long period of decline and decay that lasted centuries. The new Italian government bought the premises in 1876 and started the process of restoration, a process that is now complete or near complete and one that has given us the splendid structure we see today. In 1996, the Castel del Monte was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List: “…The site represents an extraordinary value for the whole world, expressed through formal perfection and the harmonious blending of cultural elements derived from Central Europe, the Orient and the classical world of antiquity…”

(Also see this excerpt about the Castel del Monte from Janet Ross' 1889 book, The Land of Manfred.)


Mola, Stefania. (2002)  Castel del Monte, n. 4 in the series Puglia in Tasca. Mario Adda editore, Bari. ISBN 88-8082-465-1, which contains an extensive bibliography.

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