Italy Stories and Tips

Castel del Monte

Apulia is not as well known outside Italy among foreign tourists as, for example, Tuscany or Sicily, so I’d like to begin with telling you where this region is located.

Please put the map of Italy in front of your inner eye. You know where Rome is, don‘t you? Good, now farther down to Naples and from there straight to the east across the mountain ridge which is the ‘spine‘ of Italy and when we hit the other side of the peninsula, we‘re right in the middle of Apulia. In the north it borders the region Molise, in the south it covers the whole heel of the Italian boot.

To be precise we reach the coast near Bari, the capital of the region. Greek migrant workers who work in central Europe and Graecophile Germans know this city, because they take the ferries to Greece from the port of Bari. You might have heard or read about this stretch of the Adriatic coast in the news, because it is there that the refugees from Albania, Kurdish territories and even Asian countries land or are set ashore by smugglers.

The history and culture of Apulia bear profound marks of the Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Franks, Spanish and other populations which left indelible traces of their presence. Tourists who are interested in archaeological finds, like castles, towers, cathedrals and monuments which the different ethnic groups have left through the millennia can visit and study them in the ever present sunshine, and when they‘ve seen enough, dive into the limpid sea and afterwards relax with the excellent local cuisine and exquisite wines.

We‘re going to visit the Castel del Monte today. We‘ve slept in Foggia (about 150.000 inhabitants), known to the rest of the country only for its pasta variety ‘orecchiette‘ (small ears), its football team and the fact that there‘s nothing much to see when it comes to historical buildings, (Scusatemi, Foggiani! [Excuse me, people of Foggia!]) due to an earthquake in 1731 and a bombardment by the Allied Forces during World War II, but known to ME to have very friendly people. It sports one superlative, though: it‘s the third quietest city in Italy after Livorno in Tuscany and Bolzano in the very north, just south of the border with Austria. If you‘ve never been to Southern Italy, you can‘t understand that this is surprising news indeed!

We go by car along country roads, the castle is about 120 km away (the nearest town is Andria, which is 18 km away), and pass vineyards which stretch up to the horizon; the Apulian wine is so strong that it is used to cut the Chianti from Tuscany which would be even weaker without that addition. It‘s true, believe ME and not the next best dealer of Chianti who doesn‘t want to hear of that and denies it. You know better now! We pass fields, plantations really, of olive and almond trees, tomatoes, and grain, a green sea, rippled by the gentle breezes from the Mediterranean, which is never far away, with many red spots - poppies! We used to have them in Germany, too, but then the farmers discovered weed killers and so I have to go to southern Italy now to see them.

We‘re in the heart of pasta land. Foggia is the leading wheat market in Southern Italy; for centuries it has been customary to store the wheat in vaults beneath the city square. Today the principal industries are flour milling and the manufacture of pasta. So if you‘re a noodle, you should feel in heaven; I‘m a potato myself, so my heaven lies elsewhere.

We‘re still about 20 km away when we suddenly we see it: the Castel del Monte, literally: the castle on the mountain. Mountain? It depends on where you come from, it‘s a hill really, 540 m (1772 ft) high, but as most of Apulia is a plain, every mound is called a mountain. The slopes are bare, only some trees stand at the foot of the castle. Learned people have argued if the mountain had trees on it when the castle was built or not. The leading opinion today is that it has always been bare.

Is that so important? Yes, because the bare mountain emphasizes the function the castle must have had. It was built to be seen! For the Emperor Frederic II it was a representative stately building, the most impressive among the 50 castles or so which were erected in Apulia during his reign (1194-1250).

Frederic II was the most powerful member of the Staufer dynasty or Hohenstaufen (both terms are used in English). The origin of this dynasty lies in Germany, near the mountain Hohenstaufen in Swabia, a region in the South West, near the city of Stuttgart. Frederic II was born in Germany, but lived his whole adult life in Italy. He was the most learned ruler of his time, he knew Arabic as well as Latin, went on a crusade, founded the university of Naples, was a friend of the great mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, who introduced the Arabic representation for zero and ten into European calculation and wrote a book about falcons and falconry which still today, 800 years later, is considered the ultimate word on the subject.

As the castle lacks all characteristics of a fortress, it is supposed to have been a hunting lodge and the Emperor (it‘s not proven that he actually stayed there, but let‘s assume that he did), did there what emperors used to do in the 13th century: hunting with trained leopards and falcons. The game was roasted on skewers over open fires, and fiery-eyed, black-haired maidens served white bread with olives baked in and the strong Apulian red wine (you already know about) while dark skinned young adonises (Is that the correct plural form?) were playing the flute, the fiddle and the drums in the background and singing oriental melodies. I insist on that and won‘t listen to spoilsports pointing out that obviously no room in the castle was designed as a kitchen. If so indeed, then they put up a tent in the yard for their festivities, where‘s the problem?

Frederic II was also a wise and clever statesman. Again and again he had problems with the Saracens from North Africa, so, after a decisive battle, he made 20.000 Saracens settle in Apulia to have them under his direct control. The Pope didn‘t favour the idea of having so many non believers on Christian soil, but the Emperor didn‘t care. Even today one can see the Saracen ancestors in many Apulian faces.

The castle was constructed around 1240, it combines Muslim and Gothic elements. It‘s a perfect octagon, with an octagonal open inner courtyard and octagonal towers on each corner. The towers and the walls are 25 m high and are made of grey granite. It is not the shape that is singular, many octagonal buildings date from late Roman times, but the fact that the number ‘8‘ keeps cropping up throughout the building down to the floor tiles. A scientist put it that way, ‘The form is so purely mathematical as to be beautiful.’ The symbolic meaning of the octagon corresponded with Frederic II‘s self-assessment: The circle symbolizes the Infinite, God, and the square the Finite, the World - the octagon is the ideal combination between circle and square, the mediation between the Here and the Hereafter, in other words: ‘Less than God, more than Man‘.

The castle is also a gigantic calendar and sundial. If a pole were put in the middle of the courtyard, its shadow would outline precise sections of the building whenever the sun entered the successive star-sign zones. Esoterically minded people might be intrigued by the idea that the castle lies on an imaginary axis between Jerusalem and Chartres in France, someone even put forward the hypothesis that the castle constitutes a medieval re-interpretation of the numerical relationships present in the pyramid of Cheops. Who knows?

I‘ve been in the castle and have tried to imagine what it was like when people lived there. It must have been a good life. The building offered extreme luxury for the Middle Ages: a heating system with chimneys (the winters can be cold even there), toilets and washrooms for which water was stored in cisterns. But I won‘t enter the building any more, I‘ve seen what I wanted to, for me the castle is more impressive from the outside, no, it‘s overwhelming!

I‘ve been there four times already as my school has an exchange programme with an Italian secondary grammar school in Foggia, and a visit to the site is obligatory. Up to now I haven‘t been bored, and I already look forward to my fifth visit. Unfortunately I have to stay with the students, I‘d prefer to get out of the coach approximately 5 km away from the castle, sit on a field, with a bottle of Apulian red wine beside me and just LOOK!

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