Medieval Castles > Castles Italy > Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte

Castel del MonteLocation: Apulia region, south-eastern Italy.

Built in: Between 1240 and 1250 by Roman Emperor Frederick II.

The barren stony hill from which you behold all this extraordinary outspread of plain, has upon it one solitary and remarkable building, the great hunting palace, called Castel del Monte, erected in the Twelfth Century by the Emperor Barbarossa, or Frederick II. Its attractions at first sight are those of position and singularity of form, which is that of an octagon, with a tower on each of the eight corners.

But to an architect, the beautiful masonry and exquisite detail of the edifice (although it was never completed, and has been robbed of its fine carved-work for the purpose of ornamenting churches on the plain), render it an object of the highest curiosity and interest.

Castle del Monte is a landmark, and stands on the brow of a very high hill, - the extremity of a ridge that branches out from the Apennine. The ascent to it is near half a mile long, and very steep; the view from its terrace most extensive. A vast reach of sea and plain on one side, and mountains on the other; not a city in the province but is distinguishable; yet the barrenness of the foreground takes off a great deal of the beauty of the picture.

The building is octangular, in a plain solid style; the walls are raised with reddish and white stones, ten feet six inches thick; the great gate is of marble, cut into very intricate ornaments, after the manner of the Arabians; on the balustrade of the steps lie two enormous lions of marble, their bushy manes nicely, though barbarously, expressed; the court, which is in the centre of the edifice, contains an octangular marble bason of a surprising diameter.

To carry it to the summit of such a hill must have cost an infinite deal of labour. Two hundred steps lead up to the top of the castle, which consists of two stories. In each of them are fifteen saloons of great dimensions, cased throughout with various and valuable marbles; the ceilings are supported by triple clustered columns of a single block of white marble, the capitals extremely simple. Various have been the opinions concerning the founder of this castle; but the best grounded ascribe it to Frederick of Swabia.

The interior of this ancient building is also extremely striking; the inner court-yard and great Gothic Hall, invested with the sombre mystery of partial decay, the eight rooms above, the numerous windows, all would repay a long visit from any one to whom the details of such architecture are desiderata.

Confining myself to making drawings of the general appearance of this celebrated castle, I had hardly time to complete two careful sketches of it, when the day was so far advanced that my guardiano recommended a speedy return, and by the time I had overcome the five hours of stony "murgie" I confess to having thought that any thing less interesting than Castel del Monte would hardly have compensated for the day's labour.

While riding over the Murgie, slowly pacing over those stony hills, my guide indulged me with a legend of the old castle, which is worth recording, be it authentic or imaginary. The Emperor Frederick II, having resolved to build the magnificent residence on the site it now occupies, employed one of the first architects of the day to erect it; and during its progress despatched one of his courtiers to inspect the work, and to bring him a report of its character and appearance. The courtier set out; but on passing through Melfi, halted to rest at the house of a friend, where he became enamoured of a beautiful damesel, whose eyes caused him to forget Castel del Monte and his sovereign, and induced him to linger in the Norman city until a messenger arrived there charged by the Emperor to bring him immediately to the Court, then at Naples.

At that period it was by no means probable that Barbarossa, engaged in different warlike schemes, would ever have leisure to visit his new castle, and the courtier, fearful of delay, resolved to hurry into the presence and risk a description of the building which he had not seen, rather than confess his neglect of duty. Accordingly he denounced the commencement of the Castel del Monte as a total failure, both as to beauty and utility, and the architect as an impostor; on hearing which the Emperor sent immediately to the unfortunate builder, the messenger carrying an order for his disgrace, and a requisition for his instant appearance in the capital. "Suffer me to take leave of my wife and children," said the despairing architect, and shutting himself in one of the upper rooms, he forthwith destroyed his whole family and himself, rather than fall into the hands of a monarch notorious for his severity.

The tidings of this event was, however, brought to the Emperor's ears, and with characteristic impetuosity, he set off for Apulia directly, taking with him the first courtier­messenger, doubtless sufficiently ill at ease, from anticipations of the results about to follow his duplicity. What was Barbarossa's indignation at beholding one of the most beautiful buildings doomed, through the falsehood of his messenger, to remain incomplete, and polluted by the blood of his most skilful subject, and that of his innocent family!

Foaming with rage, he dragged the offender by the hair of his head to the top of the highest tower, and with his own hands threw him down as a sacrifice to the memory of the architect and his family, so cruelly and wantonly destroyed.