Castel del Monte
Castel Del Monte
Cultural Italy Europe And North America Communes Of Andria And Corato, Province Of Bari, Puglia Region

In its formal perfection and its harmonious blending of cultural elements from northern Europe, the Muslim world, and classical antiquity, Castel del Monte is a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture, reflecting the humanism of its founder, Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.

Frederick succeeded his father, Emperor Henry VI, in 1197 at the age of three. During his reign, which lasted until 1250, he brought order to his unruly kingdom of Sicily, which included much of southern Italy and introduced a period of intense cultural activity known as the 'Southern Renaissance'. He was a man of great culture, at home in several languages, with high attainments in mathematics, astronomy and natural sciences;he brought scholars and artists from the Arab lands, Greece, and elsewhere to his court, had the works of Aristotle, Averroës, Ptolemy and Galen translated into Latin, and founded the University of Naples. His many talents earned him the title of Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World).

He was also an able ruler, who bought social and economic stability to his people. However, his policy in Italy, unlike that in Germany, where he encouraged the feudal system, was that of an absolute monarch. For this reason, and also for defensive purposes, he built a number of strong castles in his lands of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, the largest and most influential of which was Castel del Monte. It was finished in 1240 and became the permanent seat of his court. With his death in 1250 the Hohenstaufen hold over the kingdom was weakened, and the Angevin dynasty ruled until the mid-15th century. Castel del Monte, no longer the seat of power, like most castles from this period, served as a stronghold and then a barracks until the 19th century, and slowly losing its resplendent decoration through pillage, vandalism and neglect.

The castle is sited 29 km south of Barletta in the Commune of Andria on a rocky peak that dominates the surrounding countryside. Its plan is in the form of a regular octagon surrounding a courtyard and with a tower, also octagonal, at each angle. The walls are built from huge dressed blocks of a brilliant quartz-bearing limestone. There is a cornice at mid-height which encircles the walls, separating the two internal storeys. Each of the storeys has eight chambers of equal size, corresponding with the eight sides of the structure. The trapezoidal rooms on the lower storey have prominently ribbed ogival vaulting, supported on embedded columns. Those on the upper storey correspond exactly with those below but are more elaborately ornamented, the vaulting being supported on caryatid capitals in the Burgundian or Champagne style which surmount triple columns in Greek marble;the apex of the vaulting is decorated with a unique capital, also in Burgundian style. Each of the rooms has a marble bench at the base of the columns and a decorative marble cornice. Of special interest is the unique hydraulic installation for bath and toilet facilities, clearly oriental in origin.

Each of the facades is pierced by two windows, those on the lower level being single-arched openings (except on those sides with the front and rear entrances) and those on the upper level being twin ogival openings. The octagonal towers have only narrow arrow slits, arranged so as to command the best field of view. Internally they contain service rooms and staircases. The main entrance, in coralline breccia, reproduces the form of a classical triumphal arch framing a pointed arch, described by one eminent scholar as being 'a sort of prelude to the Renaissance'. Elements such as these are blended with complete success throughout the building with features that owe their origins to the east, such as the use of marble and mosaic, much of which have disappeared over centuries of neglect and vandalism.

Castel del Monte is of special interest because of the absence of features that are common to the overwhelming majority of military monuments of this period (outer bailey, moat, stables, kitchen, storerooms, chapel), the mathematical and astronomical rigour of its plan and form, and the eclecticism of its cultural elements, deriving from antiquity, the Cistercian tradition of northern Europe, and the Ummayyad 'desert castles' and fortified monasteries in the Near East and North Africa.