Discovering Basilicata’s Medieval Landmarks

2017/07/09 - Written by Biancamaria Grasso
Photography by Alfio Giannotti
Photography by Alfio Giannotti
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The Vulture-Melfese area, located in the northern part of the Basilicata, is characterized by the strong presence of Norman, Swabian and Angevin civilizations, all of which left their influence in the region.

In fact, the Swabian emperor Frederick II decided to build several castles as holiday hunting grounds in the pristine lands of Basilicata, which are still around today.

Potenza, the capital city, is renowned for its historic centre, located in the narrow and cozy street of Via Pretoria – once leading to the 16th century castle, of which only a tower remains today. On either side of the street, alleyways and winding passages lead to picturesque corners from which you can still experience the flavours, shapes and colours of antiquity.

Via Pretoria, which cuts the town centre in half, is lined with an array of palaces that give the street a distinctive elegance. The ancient history of Basilicata can be better understood thanks to the artefacts from the the Paleolithic and the Roman eras that are housed in in the Provincial Archeological Museum of Potenza. 

Moving towards Melfi, you will come across the Castello di Lagopesole, described as one of the most beautiful castles in Southern Italy. Built between 1242 and 1250, the castle is impressive and strategically placed, and was designed as a hunting lodge for Emperor Federick II. It has a rectangular shape and looks over the homes of the parish in the town of Avigliano. The Castello was owned by different historical dynasties until the 1980 earthquake, when it was finally transformed into a museum of Lucanian history.

 Photography by Alfio Giannotti

Once in Melfi, you can admire the impressive 11th century castle built by Guglielmo d’Altavilla on the ruins of a pre-existent castle. Undoubtedly the most famous castle in the region, its size dominates the view of the city to this day.

It is here that during a council meeting summoned by Pope Urban II in 1089, the Pontiff announced the First Crusade in the Holy Land against the Infidels, establishing the obligation of celibacy to the religious. In the following years, the castle was remodeled and expanded by Frederick II, who in 1231 declared the “Costitutiones Augustales” from there – the first comprehensive text of penal and civil laws in the Middle Ages. 

Originally made up of a central part surrounded by a ring of fortified walls, today visitors will see a pentagonal structure with no less than eight towers. The western tower, known as the “baluardo del lione” (“the lion’s bastion”), has a protrusion in the shape of a nest, which according to legend, belonged to the imperial eagle of Frederick II of Swabia.

 Photography by Alfio Giannotti

From the 16th century, the Castle became the home of the Doria family. The castle today houses the National Museum of Melfese, which preserves many archaeological artifacts relating to indigenous populations of prehistoric, Roman, Byzantine and Norman times, such a the “Sarcophagus of Rapolla,” a wonderful work created by artists from Asia Minor. 

Continuing about 25km east, you will come across the Aragonese Castle of Venosa, built by the House of Aragon in 1470. It is square-shaped with cylindrical, angular towers and is surrounded by a wide moat. The characteristic angular towers, which have traditional upper battlements, guard the armories, while the basement houses the prisons.

Photography by Alfio Giannotti, National Museum of Melfese

The last stage of your journey ends in Acerenza, a small medieval village perched on a hill. The symbol of the town is the Roman-Norman style cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta and Santo Canio. The cathedral dates back to 1000 A.D. and replaces an old, Christian church. The stone façade is linear and majestic and contains a portal with two columns complete with capitals.

Within the tower you can admire the remains of two Roman Sarcophaguses depicting the faces of the dead, as well as fragments of a sacrificial altar with the head of an ox. Also in the crypt are pillars and sidewalls adorned with zoomorphic and floral sculptured motifs, with a mysterious symbolic meaning. 

Photography by Alfio Giannotti

While in the area, make sure to visit a winery where you can try Lucanian culinary specialties paired with a glass of Aglianico del Vulture DOC wine, considered one of the most delicious reds in Italy.

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