Castel del Monte: a dialogue between ancient architecture and hints of the contemporary

There are certain places and historical figures which pique our curiosity, but which our daily routine never lets us get round to exploring. They linger for years in the recesses of our minds, until one day we feel the urgency and the need to visit them; so last summer I decided to go to Puglia to visit Castel del Monte, where Frederick II left probably his most significant mark, which still intrigues and amazes us today.

Castel del Monte

Frederick II belonged to the noble Swabian family of the Hohenstaufen, a direct nephew of Frederick Barbarossa. He was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Apart from his titles, however, he was the most enlightened and refined of emperors that Italy and Italian culture could hope to have. At his court in Palermo, he brought together a group of poets, the Sicilian School or “The Sicilians”, as Dante Alighieri called them in his essay De Vulgari Eloquentia, which prompted the development of our splendid Italian language.

Among the masterpieces that Frederick II left us, Castel del Monte stands out for various reasons: it was most likely “the Swabian” who had the idea for the castle, envisaged it, designed it and did so at the most advanced stage of his life, so much so that he never saw the completion of the work. It is precisely for this reason that it is an incomplete work, “unfinished”, one of those works that represent a legacy, in which a truth sought all one’s life and perhaps eventually found is enshrined.

Frederick is considered a precursor of Humanism, his passion for science, poetry, philosophy and astronomy earning him the title of stupor mundi. His intellectual rigour is reflected in the precise astronomical orientation of the architecture, in the figure of the octagon reproduced in the layout, in the eight corner towers and in the inner courtyard. There is such a meticulous balance of proportions as to suggest that the intention was to create an artistic or scientific project rather than a functional design for military or other purposes.

Even today the true function of this building is far from clear and over the centuries it has been used intermittently and for various purposes, but fortunately its form has never been altered or overlaid with other structures. Even the restorations and reconstructions that have become essential have fully respected the original layout. The internal decorations are all but lost, but as happens with ancient temples or sculptures, losing the original colour does not detract from the beauty of the work – on the contrary, it enhances it.

Castel del Monte

For those who are well acquainted with modern and contemporary art, entering cannot but prompt the impression (albeit without any scientific basis) that this place has affinities with many contemporary artists: the clear-cut shape of the octagonal perimeter of the inner courtyard framing the blue sky cannot but recall James Turrell. And who knows how many artists would have loved to engage with this space by creating “site-specific” works – I am thinking of the masters of Arte Povera, such as Jannis Kounellis, Giovanni Anselmo or Gilberto Zorio. Indeed, the list would be endless, because Castel del Monte continues to intrigue and fascinate us today, buzzing with the same energy with which Frederick II enthralled and amazed the world eight centuries ago.

Find out other tips they talk about