Castel del Monte, fortress of mysteries

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Castel del Monte lies in Apulia, Puglia. In 1996 Castel del Monte was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as “a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture”.

Castel del Monte, the Fortress of Mysteries Weird Italy


The castle was built directly on a rocky bank, in some places cropping out, and is well known for its octagonal shape.

Eight octagonal towers are inserted on each of the eight corners.

The wall curtains, built in the local calcareous stone, are marked by a string-course molding.

Eight windows with one light open on the lower floor, seven mullioned windows, and only one three mullioned windows, facing the city of Andria, on the upper one.

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Castel del Monte

The octagonal-shaped, courtyard is characterized, as the whole building, by the chromatic contrast between the colors of the utilized materials: coral crushed stone, limestone, and marbles.

The slab representing a parade of knights and a fragment of an anthropomorphous figure are the only remains of the sculptures once making a fine show there.

Castel del Monte

On the first floor three French windows open, under which some jutting out elements and some holes utilized, maybe, to hold up a wooden gallery. Very likely it rendered independent the halls, otherwise all communicating in a ring route except the first and the eighth one, separated by a wall in which a small round window was probably used to communicate.

The 16 halls, eight on each floor, have a trapezoidal shape and have been tiled with an ingenious technical solution.

Space has been divided into a square central span, covered by a ribbed cross vault held up by semi-columns in coral crushed stone on the ground floor and trilobite marble pillars on the first floor,  while the remaining triangular spaces are covered by pointed barrel vaults. The different keystones of the crosses are decorated by anthropomorphous, and zoomorphic elements.

Castel del Monte

The two floors are linked up by three winding staircases inserted in as many towers. Some of the towers contain tanks for collecting the rainwater partly conveyed to the large tank sunk in the rock, under the central courtyard. The toilets are situated in other towers.

They are furnished with lavatory and washbasin and placed side by side by little rooms probably used as changing rooms or appointed for housing bathtubs for the ablutions.

Castel del Monte

Frederick II and his court used to have great care for their body according to the typical custom of the Arab culture, so beloved by the King.

Although nowadays impoverished, the sculpture set is of very great interest and gives significant evidence of the former decorative body, once characterized also by a wide chromatic range of the used materials: mosaic tesserae, glazed majolica tiles, glassy paste, and wall paintings.

At the end of the 1700 and in the first decades of 1800 some local writers and historiographers could admire and describe the traces of some of them.

Castel del Monte

Nowadays the two anthropomorphic brackets in the Falconer tower, the Telamones holding up the umbrella-shaped vault in one of the stepped towers, and a fragment of the mosaic floor in the 8th hall on the ground floor can still be seen there. Two important sculpture fragments are temporarily deposited in the Picture Gallery in Bari. They are ahead and an acephalous bust found during the long-lasting restoration work (which didn’t give back any traces of the octagonal basin in the middle of the courtyard, mentioned by some local history writers in the past century.

Castel del Monte


…”Castel del Monte is of outstanding universal value in its formal perfection and its harmonious blending of cultural elements from Northern Europe, the Muslim world and classical antiquity. It is a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture reflecting the humanism of its founder: Frederick II of Hoenstaufen”.

Castel del Monte

With these words, in 1966, the UNESCO Committee for the World Patrimony included the castle, built about 1240 by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, in the World Heritage List. In a letter written on the 29th of January 1240 to Riccardo di Montefuscolo, his judge and officer in Capitanata, the Sovereign ordered him to buy lime, stones, and all that would be useful and necessary “…pro castro quod apud Sanctam Mariam de Monte fieri volumus” (for the castle we want to be erected near St Mary’s on the mountain).

And this is the only document about the Castle we have of those times and moreover susceptible of different interpretations because of the word actractum used in it. In  Latin, it means pavement or flattening out of the ground, or roof covering, till a more generic meaning of building materials. Then the only thing we have for sure is that in 1240 there were works in progress in the site, on the state of which Frederick II asked to be frequently informed. The experts don’t agree on the nature of these works if they were of foundation or of completion.

Castel del Monte

Some notes seem to strengthen the second supposition. The castle was built directly on the rocky bank and no preliminary work of leveling the ground before starting to build can be seen.

It seems more reasonable that here the Latin word actractum had the meaning of “roofing”. In the Statutum de reparatione castrorum (the regulations for repairing the castles), a list of the castle structures needing repairs, written in 1241-46, Castel del Monte is mentioned moreover as a finished construction, which is justified only by bringing backward its foundation as to 1240.

Castel del Monte

Seemingly isolated and peripherical, as a matter of fact, the castle stood not far from the road connecting Andria  to  Garagnone, two important settlements of the period; on a hill 540 metres high on the sea level and well apparent in the distance, Castel del Monte was a fundamental component in the communication system among the defensive constructions, although  great number of experts have excluded the military function of the castle as it had no moat, nor machicolations and drawbridge.

Castel del Monte

Anything but casual, and not only with respect to strategy, is the choice of the place: a hill overflowed by the sun in every hour of the day, with which the monument seems to have a continuous relationship.

The sunlight and the deriving shadows magnify and outline the forms of the monument, regular and yet finely different, and give value to the colors, uniform and changeable at the same time.

A relationship with the sun that in the Middle Ages conditioned the orientation of the sacred buildings and appears more than obvious in the case of Frederick II, deeply interested in astronomy and compared or even identified with our star. In this way, his son Manfred announced his death: “The sun of justice has waned, the defender of peace is dead”.

Castel del Monte

In the Swabian world the word castrum refers to mainly defensive structures, even not excluding other kinds of exploitation; in this case, the presence of baths and fireplaces on both floors of the castle, the luxurious fittings, the refined set of sculptures make it reasonable to think it was used as a residence or a state residence, probably reserved to a narrow circle of privileged people, very close to the king.

Castel del Monte

It is also undeniable that owing to its high position and to its particular form Castel del Monte, still able to charm our contemporaries, excited enormous amazement and admiration in subjects, allies, and enemies. It was, then, one of the most effective means Frederick II had imagined impressing on them the feeling of his greatness. In this respect, it was the most representative product of his conception of “art serving power”. Then a  plurality of functions characterized this exceptional monument, emblematic expression of the many-sided personality of its client, a man of the Middle Ages who united in himself great qualities such as a vast culture, varied interests, intelligence, tolerance, love for peace and justice to a great pride and ambition.    (M.T.)

Castel del Monte

The Swabian castles net

Frederick II’s fame is bound above all to the construction of castles, dislocated according to a rational program of military defense and of administration of the territory and in functional relation with the pre-existing road network of the Roman age. Although in great part of the cases it was not a matter of ex-novo foundations but of restoration of Norman settlements, the exactitude of the location plan and the strong connotation of the figurative aspects have impressed such a marked stamp on the pre-existing structures as to wipe them out almost completely.

Castles and palaces, although conceived by the Sovereign as a visible sign of his “sacred” royal power, according to a strongly symbolical and propagandistic idea of the architecture, always succeeded in combining the need for showing off and functionality. In fact, they were structures combining different purposes: defensive, residential, and administrative. Castel del Monte is the most emblematic demonstration of these various functions.

Castel del Monte

Frederick’s  caste system consisted of a tight net of settlements, in which the castles were integrated with other kinds of structures, in order to assure widespread control, both military and administrative, on the whole territory from the coast to the inside regions of Basilicata.

In the Statutum de reparatione castrorum (Regulations for the repairing of the fortresses), a precious document relating to the years 1241-1246, we read that 111 castle structures existed in Apulia and Basilicata distributed in a not homogeneous way and not only related to military needs. In this respect, the presence in Capitanata (one of the four districts in which Frederick had divided all the region) of 23 castra (fortified castles) and 28 domus (houses) against the 13 castra and the 3 domus in Terra di Bari, attests to the preference of the Sovereign for this area of Apulia in which he liked applying himself to his favorite entertainments.

Frederick II

Related: What is everybody’s natural language? The cruel experiment in language deprivation of Frederick II

Frederick was born on the 26th of December 1194 in Jesi. He was the son of Henry of Hoenstaufen and of Constance of Altavilla, the last descendant of the Norman dynasty. When only four years old, Frederick was left an orphan by both his parents with whom he inherited the Empire and the Kingdom of Sicily.

Frederick II

The years of his childhood and adolescence were decisive in forming the complex and extraordinary personality of the young Swabian prince. Frederick passed them in Palermo, the capital of the Norman Kingdom, once the seat of an Arab Emirate. A capital in which very different races, religions, and costumes had grown intertwined and had coexisted. In 1209 Frederick became out of age and, free at last from the custody of Pope  Innocent III,  married Constance of  Aragon, who brought him a dowry of 300 knights thanks to whom he succeeded in stating again his rights on Germany. He defeated the encroacher Otto IV of Brunswick, and restored peace and order through measures aiming at reforming and reorganizing the state. Then he returned to his beloved Kingdom of Sicily. In March 1221 for the first time, Frederick visited Apulia, a land rich in forests, rivers, art witnesses, of which his successors will be very fond too.

In the following 30 years Frederick built there castra, palatia, domus solaciorum (fortresses, palaces, places of pleasure) which still impress a unique character on the rural landscape and on the town layout, and constitute a significant part of the region artistic heritage.

In 1223 the capital of the kingdom was moved from Palermo to Foggia because the geographic position gave to Apulia a vantage role, with regard to the territories of the Empire, too. Divided into four not homogeneous districts: Capitanata, Terra di Bari, Terra d’Otranto, and Basilicata, Apulia was particularly involved in the plan of reorganization of the state, carried out by means of a close net of control, consisting on the castle system and on the net of towns and villages even repopulated, if necessary, as in the case of Altamura and Lucera.

The king’s massariae, agro-pastoral productive structures, and the forestae (forests) from which the timber used in building castles was drawn, carried out a fundamental role in the administration of the enormous state latifundia.

A not lesser care was devoted to the coasts, inserted in a plan of commercial revision that reserved a great attention to some cities, among which Brindisi, the seat of an important royal shipyard and a mint.

By tradition open to commercial and cultural exchange with the opposite side of the Adriatic Sea and with the Eastern ports, in Frederick’s age Apulia acquired a greater importance. The fusion of its rich classical and Byzantine heritage with the Romanic production and the influence of modern Gothic style became deeper and found its interpreters in the protomagistri  (master masons) at work in the Swabian yards.

After the death of Constance, who had given him Henry, the son destined to be his successor and to inherit the imperial crown, Frederick married the daughter of the King of Jerusalem Jolanda of Brienne, who gave him another son, Conrad, who had to inherit the Kingdom of Sicily. His third wife  too, Isabel of Aragon, died very young and, as Jolanda, was buried in the crypt of the Cathedral in Andria. However the only woman Frederick probably loved was Bianca Lancia who gave him other sons. Manfred, her illegitimate son, more than the other sons being like his father, desperately tried to put obstacles in the way of the Angevins who could rely on the help and protection of the Pope. In the end he lost the Kingdom of Sicily and his life in the battle near Benevento.

A lot of disciplines, both artistic and scientific, and activities were cultivated and practised at court. Among them music and poetry of course, up to falconry, Frederick’s favourite sport, but also a means of studying nature, as the treatise he wrote De arte venandi cum avibus (about the art of hunting by birds of prey), complete with excellent miniatures, testifies. Caring for one’s body health (cura corporis) was very important as well as a daily personal cleanliness according to the dictates of the Salerno School of Medicine.

As he had a series of interests, from mathematics to astronomy, from natural science to poetry and music, in 1224 Frederick II founded the University of Naples and reorganized the Salerno School of Medicine, where he instituted the first professorship of anatomy.
Together with his son Enzo he gathered the Sicilian School poets around the Magna Curia (the Great Court) in Palermo. And this was the origin of the Italian literature in vulgar language, as both Dante and Petrarca acknowledged.

At the end of the forties Frederick had suffered heavy defeats by the Communes League, and his health too was fading. In November 1250, regardless of his physical troubles, he wanted to take part in a hunt in the area between Foggia and Lucera. On the 1st of December he was suddenly taken ill and carried to Castel Fiorentino where he died on the 13th of the same month: a prediction had foretold “you will die near the iron door, in a place bringing the name flower”, which had made him always avoiding Florence.

Pope Innocent IV, referring to Frederick II, had declared: “Heaven help those who will leave to this man and to his descent the crown by which he dominated the Christ’s people”. The reins of the kingdom of Southern Italy were held by his son Manfred, but the support offered to the Angevins by the Pope was decisive in the fight for the power and in 1266 the young Swabian prince was defeated and died in the battle near Benevento. Pope Clement IV crowned King of Sicily Charles the Angevin, the brother of the King of France Louis IX .Two years later another descendant, just 16 years old, of Frederick II, Corradino, Conrad’s son, desperately tried to defend the Southern kingdom against the Angevins, but he was defeated at Tagliacozzo and handed to Charles Angevin who, after summary proceedings, had him to be executed in Naples, in Market Square, on the 29th of October 1268. The dream of a lasting Swabian kingdom in the beloved  lands of Southern Italy, already cherished by Frederick the Red Beard, Frederick II’s grand-father, had come to an end.


AA.VV., Castel del Monte – Un castello medioevale, a cura di R. Licinio, Adda Editore, Bari, 2002.
AA.VV., Castel del Monte, Adda Editore, Bari, 1981.
M.S. Calò Mariani e R. Cassano (a cura di), Federico II. Immagine e potere,  Venezia , 1995.
H. Gotze, Castel del Monte, ed. Hoepli, Milano, 1988.
R. Licinio, Castelli medievali di Puglia e Basilicata: dai Normanni a Federico II e Carlo d’Angiò, con presentazione di G. Musca, Bari 1994.
E. Kantorowicz, Federico II imperatore, Garzanti, Milano, 1988.
G. Masson, Federico II di Svevia, Milano, 1976.
W. Schirmer, Castel del Monte, Verlag Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein, 2000.
A. Tavolaro, Astronomia e architettura di Castel del Monte, in Castellum, XVIII, II semestre, Istituto Italiano dei Castelli, Roma, 1973.

In collaboration with Castel del Monte Tourism Office
Pictures: Castel del Monte Tourism Office , Wikipedia

Last Updated on 2022/10/24


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