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Castel del Monte, the Citadel of Mysteries


A crown of rock resting on a hill at 540 metres above sea level, overlooking the western Murge plateau in Puglia. This is Castel del Monte, fortress commissioned by Frederick II around 1240 and included by UNESCO in the World Heritage List in 1996.

Considered universally a genius example of medieval architecture, the castle unites different style elements, from the Romanesque cut of the lions at the entrance to the Gothic cornice of the towers, to the classic art of the interior decorations to the defensive structure of architecture to the delicate Islamic refinements of its mosaics.

The fortress was created according to an extreme geometric and mathematical rigour. The octagonal plan design and the number eight recur almost in an obsessive manner: there are eight rooms on the ground floor and first floor and there are eight imposing towers, the plan is obviously in an octagonal shape, distributed over each of the eight corners. It is believed that in the interior courtyard there was a pool also in an octagonal shape.

The position of the castle was studied in such a way as to create particular light and shadow effects during specific times of the year, as on the days of the solstice and of the equinox. Everything, basically, seems to be made precisely to suggest symbolisms which have been fascinating researchers for centuries, leaving visitors with a sensation of pleasant mystery.

The main gate shows, from the bottom towards the top, an arch in Arab style, a gable in Grecian-Roman style, double-arched windows in Gothic style. The solid compactness of the limestone mixed with the quartz of the façade is tarnished on each side by single windows on the first floor and double-arched windows on the second with the exception of a single three-part window.  The interior, with its high cross or barrel vaults, now seems bare of the decorations which embellished it in the past, as shown by the marble and mosaic remains which in great part have disappeared over centuries of neglect and vandalism.

The two floors of the castle are connected internally in the towers by spiral staircases in a counter-clockwise sense, contrary to the other defensive constructions of the era. Given the lack of halls, several scholars believe that in the past, on the first floor, there was an internal gallery which provide independent access to the rooms. Particularly interesting is the plumbing system for collecting and distributing rain water, of Oriental origins.

Lacking surrounding walls, moats and stables –  elements which characterised most medieval military buildings –  Castel del Monte has seen researchers attribute it with the most diverse functions: temple, secluded location where to immerse oneself in study, even a place for relaxation on the model of the Arab hammam. Its rooms, some have observed, seem to be designed as if to have to use a mandatory itinerary in order to move from one to the other, a connection to astronomical symbolisms. The octagonal shape, according to others, calls to mind the geometry of a crown, to represent the imperial power with which Frederick II was appointed.

On thing which is certain is that the ruler, nicknamed “Stupor Mundi” for the eclecticism and the depth of his culture, left as a legacy to Castel del Monte all the mystery surrounding his person.

 

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