The mysterious Castel Del Monte

by Maureen Littlejohn

The many theories behind this unusual 13th century monument

One of the Middle Ages’ most mysterious monuments can be found in the bucolic heart of Puglia in southeast Italy. Built on top of a 540-metre hill in the municipality of Andria, Castel del Monte is the legacy of Frederick II, Holy Emperor of Rome, and was completed in 1240. The mystery lies in the castle’s octagonal design, which many experts speculate was linked to the emperor’s fascination with astrology, physics and mathematics.

Frederick II was born in 1194, son of Henry of Hoenstaufen and Constance of Altavilla, the last descendant of the Norman dynasty. He grew up in Palermo – capital of the Norman Kingdom – and married Constance of Aragon, who brought him a dowry of 300 knights. They insured the defeat of Otto IV of Brunswick, and Frederick II was able to reinstate his rights in Germany. Returning to Sicily, he moved the capital to Foggia in Apulia. “The castle is one of the historical icons of Puglia because it is an example of the heritage of Germanic occupation of the land,” explains Cristiano Sassetti, who has travelled and worked in the area as contracting manager and custom tours supervisor with Globus Family of Brands.

The castle has eight towers that sit on the octagonal floor plan’s eight corners. There are eight rooms on each of the castle’s two floors, and in the centre is an eight-sided courtyard that once held an octagonal fountain. Spiral staircases link the two floors, and nearly all 16 rooms have interconnecting doorways. Lavatories with wash basins can be found in some of the towers, reflecting Frederick II’s Arabic bathing habits. Originally, fine sculptures were scattered throughout the property, but today there are only fragments.

In other castles you’d find traces of a kitchen, moat or drawbridge, but not here. It does not seem to have been a residence or military fortification. Was it a secular temple? A hunting lodge? An astronomical observatory?

“Many books have been written about Castel del Monte, and there are many theories about what the building really was. The truth is, no one knows with certainty,” notes Gennaro Pignataro, who has given tours of the castle for the past 10 years. He is co-founder of the Trani, Puliga-based association Le Terre di Federico that specializes in educating visitors about central and southern Italy.

Some experts believe it was built for birds. Frederick II had a passion for falconry after taking part in a crusade to the Middle East. In 1248 he wrote a guide to the sport and introduced the falcon’s leather hood to Europe. Historians have identified a “falconer’s staircase” that leads to the roof where birds could be kept. But why such an imposing structure for a hunting lodge? One of the biggest mysteries is the use of the number eight – a symbol of infinity and resurrection. Was there an esoteric reason?

Some people speculate Frederick II had a connection to the Knights Templar, a Christian military order rumoured to have mystical ties. The order did not assist him when he and his troops reclaimed Jerusalem in the Sixth Crusade of 1244. However, it seems Frederick II was against the church’s aim to punish the order for getting too powerful. “The desire to make peace with the order was expressed in his will. He said that all the Templar goods, as well as those of the other orders, which the Imperial Curia held, should have been returned to their rightful owners,” explains Pignataro. After the emperor died in 1250, the castle became a prison, a refuge during a plague and a shelter for shepherds. During the Second World War, the allied forces used it as a hideout. The Italian government now owns it, and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1996. Today, Castel del Monte stands proudly in Puglia, still guarding her secrets.