King of Sicily, King of Jerusalem, King of the Romans, King of Italy, Holy Roman Emperor… Frederick II, Stupor Mundi, was a busy man indeed!
As a patron of the arts, poetry and science, he was not only one of the most important rulers of the middle ages but also a learned, tolerant humanist whose passion for building provides us with a real cause for wonder today.
Frederick II bequeathed an enormous architectural patrimony to the world, much of which is scattered across southern Italy. Wherever he went, Frederick left a trail of castles, palaces and the occasional cathedral and some of the best examples are to be found in Puglia.
His Puglian masterpiece is, without doubt, Castel del Monte, built between 1229 and 1249. Thanks to its “formal perfection and its harmonious blending of cultural elements from northern Europe, the Muslim world, and classical antiquity”, Castel del Monte became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Sitting on a wooded hill outside the town of Andria, about 50km north of Bari, Castel del Monte is an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Frederick’s passion for astronomy and geometry is evident: the castle is octagonal in shape with each angle protected by an octagonal tower. The internal courtyard is also octagonal in form and on each of the two floors, there are eight rooms. This geometric uniformity can also be seen in the windows, which have single openings on the lower floor and double ogival arches on the upper.
...Castel del Monte is an awe-inspiring sight to behold. Frederick’s passion for astronomy and geometry is evident...
Castel del Monte is equally impressive inside, with its high vaulted ceilings, sumptuously sculpted columns and capitals and ornate windows. These features, along with the lack of moat, hint at the castle's real function which was that of a private hunting lodge for the Emperor, rather than a true defensive bastion.
If, after visiting Castel del Monte, you would like to explore some more of Frederick’s castles in Puglia, we would recommend the following:
Trani (on the coast just north of Bari) - built between 1233 and 1249, is one of our favourites! Right on the sea, the castle once had a moat that filled up with sea water.
Barletta (just north of Trani on the coast) - originally a Norman fortress complete with moat, Frederick transformed it into a royal palace with more grand, sophisticated architectural features.
Bari – originally built by King Roger II of Sicily, Frederick rebuilt it virtually from scratch after it was destroyed in 1156.
Lucera (just north of Foggia) - built in 1233 on the foundations of a pre-existing cathedral. The Angevin King Charles I later made significant changes, but the two cylindrical towers of Frederick’s original design remain.
Gravina in Puglia (near Altamura) - built around 1231 as a lodge for Frederick’s favourite pastime of hunting with birds. Frederick particularly liked the area, defining it as a “garden of delights”. There is not a lot left to see now, however.
Oria (right in the centre of Puglia between Taranto and Brindisi) – Frederick enlarged the already existing fortress between 1227 and 1233, accentuating its triangular form and making it fit for a Holy Roman Emperor’s wedding party.
Brindisi - built in 1227 and later modified and expanded by Ferdinand I of Aragon and Charles V. Brindisi was one of the main departure points for the Crusades, and so the castle had a special importance.
Gioia del Colle (in the centre of Puglia between Taranto and Bari) - built in about 1100 by Richard Seneschal, but later significantly modified by Frederick. It was here that he kept his mistress Bianca Lancia locked up… but that’s another story!
Otranto - although very little remains of Frederick's reinforcements of these impressive fortifications, any excuse to go to Otranto is a good excuse!