Federician castles Tour

ITINERARY in the “castellated system” of Puglia that, wanted by the Norman king Roger II, was then perfected and strengthened by Frederick II of Swabia and Charles I of Anjou: a fascinating journey through the functions, real and symbolic, of the millennial constructions.

The Normans (men of the North) were a Germanic population originating from Scandinavia and Denmark. In the first decades of the eleventh century, their bold expedition left the territories of Northern Europe and went through the seas, in southern Italy, under the command of Roberto and Ruggero d’Hauteville (in Italian, then, d’Altavilla) , succeeding in defeating the Byzantine troops and taking possession of Puglia (1035). Thus the Normans began the settlement and the wars of conquest throughout the South. After a thirty-year war against the Arabs they completed their conquest in 1092 with the conquest of Sicily. All of southern Italy was thus unified under the power of Roger II, the first king of Sicily. It is important to remember that his daughter and heir Constance of Altavilla will marry the son of Frederick Barbarossa and will be the mother of the great Frederick II of Swabia.
The fortification by the Normans mainly responded to the need of the individual leaders to make stable and guarantee the personal dominion over the places conquered. Thus the conquerors strengthened the military and control function of the main preexisting castra, choosing them as administrative and residential headquarters, encircling them with very solid walls.
In the original nucleus of the castles of Bari, Barletta, Trani as well as in the fortified buildings of Rutigliano, Noicattaro, Bisceglie the signs of the Norman castle system are still recognizable today.
The Norman dynasty left positive and singularly lit tracks in our south for those times. The merit of having been able to organize in a single state entity and to pacifically coexist populations very different from one another in history, religion, nationality, legislation, must be recognized to his kings. Customs and traditions of all the governed peoples were respected, in a spirit of great tolerance, even religious. At the Norman court “everyone could freely pray and invoke the god he believed in”.

At the end of the 12th century, the German dynasty of Swabia succeeded the Norman dynasty.
The reign of Federico II gave further confirmation of the important role of the capital of the city of Bari and the entire region of Puglia.
It is in Puglia, in fact, that Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), king of Sicily and Jerusalem, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but without an official residence for himself and his itinerant court, wished to return to the rare moments of rest. A man of German and Norman blood, born in Jesi, he considered Italy his whole homeland throughout his life.
Officially crowned emperor on November 22nd 1220, he worked to be fair with all his subjects and to promote their well-being with appropriate measures.
Through the legislation of Capua reorganized the State inherited from the Normans, strengthening the elements of centralism and control over the autonomist forces.
History recalls it as the Puer Apuliae for the assiduous attendance of our region that it had during its tormented and enlightened reign: linked to it by the mild climate, the warmth of the people and the habits of life.
In Puglia he had a series of residences of varying size, style and destination, often in the same places already chosen by his Norman ancestors.
He believed, in fact, that the last word on the castellar structures was, always and in any case, the sovereign.
The realization of this vast building plan, intensified on his return from the Crusade in the Holy Land in 1229, will transform Apulia into a land of castles in a few years, reaching a total of 39 manors and imperial residences. Many, even if only one fifth of the more than 200 castles he had built throughout Italy. This irrepressible passion, which earned him even the critique of one of his most faithful – Tommaso – Giustiziere di Gaeta, who was convinced that there was “only one truly impregnable fortress: the love of the subjects”, wrote to him “It would have been much more worthy of Your Majesty if the first works erected by you had been a tribute to the One to whom you owe your very existence “.
The castles, in the Federician conception, were not thought of only as a defensive function. In fact, the emperor always preferred to erect or rebuild palaces, purely secular or of warlike interest, with greater sense of art than his forefathers’ Normans did: so, the castles of Gioia del Colle, Brindisi, Oria arose , of Lucera and Castel del Monte.
They guaranteed above all the hierarchical maintenance between cives and potestas, that is the royal power over subjects, exercising rather the instruments of control than of consent. And Frederick had identified in the castle the main instrument capable of expressing the strength of the state and its ability to impose it on the citizens. But not only: it was in these castles that the culture of the Federic entourage developed. In fact, they hosted the court and gathered the masters and scientists with whom the emperor lingered in learned conversations. Vulgar verses flourished here, splendid parties were held, receiving illustrious guests, ambassadors and great dignitaries. To organize the construction activity within the kingdom, the emperor had the “Statutum De Reparatione Castrorum” drawn up, reached through Angevin sources, whose redaction dates back to the years 1241-1246.
The whole region is still affected by the culture of Federica, open and tolerant, rich in spirituality and cordiality: an unmistakable spirit that is felt especially in castles, in the mansions, in the fortresses, in the cathedrals built or re-adapted by Frederick II for a thousand purposes: from meditation hunting, government meetings, scientific dissertations, libations.

Norman-Swabian Castle of Bari

The Norman-Swabian Castle of Bari was built, in its original structure, during the Norman period, on a portion of a Byzantine settlement as revealed by some excavations carried out under the west wing and the north wing, which have brought to light remains of ancient houses and the perimeter walls of a church as well as furnishings and some burials.
The first nucleus was, therefore, wanted by the Normans in 1131, as a sign of conquest and dominion over the city.
The Castle was built with a square plan, maintained over the centuries as an impregnable fortress from the sea and from the ground, with the role of defending and dominating.
Frederick II, between 1233 and 1240, restored it: developing it, decorating it and giving it a more representative function than military.
The Swabian intervention is recognizable in the portal, which leads into the courtyard, characterized by a carved archway where there is the eagle motif that clutches a hare (recurring motif in the Swabian iconographic repertoire), the vestibule covered by vaults cruise with carved capitals and corbels, the portico overlooking the inner courtyard.
The entrance hall that leads into the courtyard is really beautiful, supported by columns whose capitals are one of the highest examples of that moment of transition between Romanesque and Gothic, which characterizes the Swabian architecture.
The Angevins also left their mark, making the Castle more comfortable and enriching it with a splendid internal portico, even if with its dynasty begins a long period of decadence of the city of Bari that lasted until the Aragonese age and it was only briefly interrupted by the illuminated kingdom of Isabella d’Aragona.
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Castle was adapted not only to residential but also military requirements, obtaining an original fusion between the Middle Ages and modernity: the bastional wall, which is inserted on the Federician structures, has the thickness and slope typical of a structure destined to defend yourself from firearms.
Age of splendor and building fervor, for the City of Bari, was that of Bona Sforza, daughter of Isabella and wife of King Sigismund of Poland and feudal of Bari, which made the modernization of the city more coherent, transforming it into an active and fervid center of cultural initiatives.
During the domination of the Aragoneses, the Castle was also equipped with the walled rampart on three sides to the ground, incorporating the pre-existing structures.
Damaged by an accidental explosion in the 17th century, it was unfortunately removed from the fortresses of the kingdom in 1831.
The Castle has thus reached the complex and articulated appearance that centuries of events have given it, perfectly blending it as in a history book made of stone.
Today, after a long period of decadence during which it was also a prison and barracks, the Castle is home to the Superintendence of Monuments of the Region while on the left side is the Provincial Gipsoteca, which collects casts of sculptures and architectural fragments of ancient monuments. Furthermore, it is home to permanent and itinerant exhibitions.

Castle of Conversano

The castle complex rises majestically along the northern edge of the historic center of Conversano, where the degradation of the land towards the sea has natural defensive characteristics. Founded by the Normans, around 1054, on pre-existing structures, saw its construction continue until 1187.
It was a feudal castle and the seat of the rich County of Conversano in the possession of the powerful family of Del Balzo Orsini. The Acquaviva acquired it as dowry and retained its property until 1847.
Today, it is largely privately owned, except the main tower and can be admired externally, where the characters are best understood.
The castle has a trapezoidal plan, the long side is facing the sea and is enclosed between a cylindrical tower and a tower with an original and suggestive dodecagonal plan (XV century), with evident defensive functions: its facets were destined to divert the shots of the Weapons. Adjacent to this stands a quadrangular tower, while on the opposite corner the Maestra Tower is a direct testimony of the Norman phase. It is the most certain testimony of the ancient structure, probably with a square plan. In the courtyard it is possible to observe how this tower rests on very ancient structures, perhaps dating back to the VI century AD. and to the Greek-Lombard Wars. There are numerous traces of ancient sculptural and pictorial decorations: ogival windows, carved crests and paintings. The atrium has a typically medieval character and there are clearly traces of the walls dating back to antiquity and the early Middle Ages. The transformation into a noble residence regarding the rooms on the main floor overlooking the courtyard, and partly towards the outside, with an elegant arcade with round arches on columns, built in 1710.
The Castle currently has a museum destination.

Castle of Sannicandro di Bari

The Castle of Sannicandro di Bari, recently subject to a careful restoration, was founded in the tenth century and completely renovated by the Normans who provided it with eight towers, six of which still survive. In 1242, Frederick II gave it a residential function through the expansion and transformation of the existing buildings, which ended up making him assume the same external architectural features of the castles of Bitritto and Gioia del Colle.

Castle of Gravina

The Castle of Gravina was built between 1224 and 1231 by the Florentine architect Fuccio, commissioned by Federico II as a hunting lodge, a great passion of the emperor. He even made an artificial lake to ensure easy prey for his falcons.
It is, together with Castel del Monte, the castles of Foggia, Lucera and Trani, one of the Federician buildings erected ex-novo.
The castle, after the fall of the Swabian dynasty, was systematically stripped of its architectural friezes and of all the stone elements that adorned it, falling into a progressive degradation. An earthquake in 1456 severely damaged it and from the seventeenth century it was abandoned to a slow and progressive decline so much to be used as a quarry. The almost complete destruction was probably due to a violent storm of 1687. The castle, which recently restored some of its ancient splendor, is part of the recently established Gravina Archaeological Park.

Castle of Gioia del Colle

Halfway between the Adriatic and the Ionian, the city of Gioia del Colle has always been strategically important.
The construction of its castle, in fact, has Byzantine origins. It was modified in the twelfth century by the Norman Riccardo Siniscalco, brother of Roberto il Guiscardo. But, castle and city came, together with Bari, destroyed by William II “the Malo”. It was then refounded by Frederick II in 1230 on his return from the Crusade in the Holy Land.
The mighty volumes of the castle date back to the Swabian age. In addition, the Swabian emperor is responsible for the arrangement of the courtyard and the related buildings in addition to the famous Tower of the Empress, with which the popular tradition recalls the compassionate story of Bianca Lancia, the only woman who managed to conquer the difficult heart of Federico. The two, unable to marry, maintained a clandestine relationship during which two or maybe three children were born: Costanza, Manfredi and some say Violante. Legend has it that during the pregnancy of Manfred, Federico, for suspicion of infidelity, locked his beloved in the tower of the castle of Gioia del Colle. The princess could not bear such humiliation, overcome by pain, she cut her breasts and sent them to Frederick on a tray together with the newly born baby, dying shortly thereafter. It is important to remember that even though Manfred was an illegitimate son, he was the emperor’s favorite and became his successor as ruler of southern Italy, becoming the last Swabian king of the South.
According to some historians, in fact, Federico, widower of the third wife Isabella of England, from Foggia moved to Gioia del Colle where he found the lover, who agonizing, asked him to legitimize the three children born from their union, joining her with a regular marriage. What happened and allowed Bianca Lancia to be, even for a few days, empress.
The Castle has a quadrangular plan: at the end of the southern front there are two mighty towers built in several phases. The walls are characterized by a strongly rusticated face: there are many single-lancet windows, oculi and loopholes, whose not precise layout highlights the different construction phases. The building has two entrances: one to the west, the other to the center of the south side. Both are characterized by a crown of rusticated radial elements. The main door leads to a large entrance hall covered by an ogival vault resting on capitals of splendid workmanship. The vast courtyard has a trapezoidal shape and elegant single-lancet windows, mullioned windows and triple-lancet windows open up; very suggestive is the staircase leading to the rooms on the upper floor: the throne room, Bianca Lancia’s prison.

The castle was limited in the Angevin and Aragonese age, with the opening of some windows.
Progressively the military complex lost importance and a slow decline followed.
Of the Federician castles, this is the smallest but one of the most modern and refined, anticipating the Renaissance taste, for the wealth of structural and architectural ornamental motifs that embellish it.
Today, it is partially restored to its former glory, and the Town Library houses precious archaeological finds from the surrounding excavation areas.
Puglia Region, Province of Bari

Address: Piazza dei Martiri
Property: State
Usual visits: open every day at 9-13.30 / 16-19.30;
guided tours on reservation tel / fax 080 3481305