Castel del Monte is an unusual castle located about 11 km southwest of the city of Andria in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy. High on a hill with no other structures around it, this structure can be seen for miles, even from the Adriatic Sea some 50 km to the east. The photo above was taken in the late afternoon as the shadows began to lengthen.
The castle was built in the 13th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. When it was named a World Heritage Site in 1996, UNESCO described it as a unique piece of medieval architecture that has exceptional value because of its perfect shape and blending of cultural elements from northern Europe, classical antiquity and the Islamic world. What makes Castel del Monte so unusual is the fact that it is an architectural tribute to the number eight. Like a gigantic baptismal font, the structure was built in the shape of an octagon. The castle’s two floors have eight rooms built around an eight-sided courtyard, and there are eight octagonal towers.
The octagonal nature of the structure is obvious when you lie on your back in the center of the courtyard and look up at the sky. (My wife pretended she didn’t know me when I took this shot.) As can be seen in my photo below, the number eight theme is also evident in a prominent double window on the second floor that has an ocellus with eight circles.
In the 18th century, looters helped themselves to the castle’s marble columns, ornamentation and even the window frames. After centuries of neglect, the castle was purchased in 1876 by the Italian government and a long process of restoration was begun. During World War II, it was used as a storage site for art treasures from the nearby city of Barletta.
UNESCO called the castle “a unique masterpiece of medieval military architecture”, but since it has no moat, no drawbridge, and no stables for horses, it appears that it was not built as a defensive fortress. So what was its purpose? It no doubt served as a prominent symbol of Frederick’s power, but perhaps it was also intended as some kind of temple.
Frederick II grew up in Palermo, a town characterized by the co-existence of people of different religions and cultures. He was a Christian, but he freely embraced both Jewish and Islamic traditions, and he spoke many different languages. His court was a gathering place for the leading minds of the day – architects, musicians, astrologers and mathematicians, including Fabonicci, the Italian mathematician who introduced Arabic numerals to the West. Fabonicci’s influence may explain why the building has “divine” proportions based on the so-called “golden number” (1.618), a mystical ratio found in other famous structures, for example, the Great Pyramid of Egypt.
Some say that Frederick II was an egomaniac who thought he was the reincarnated Christ. The octagon is regarded as an intermediate symbol between a square (representing the earth) and a circle (representing the sky), and as a religious symbol it represents ascension, rebirth and resurrection. Perhaps Frederick built Castle del Monte simply as a hilltop retreat where he could feel closer to God.