TEMPLAR, CYSTERCENSES AND ARAB INFLUENCES IN THE CASTLES OF FREDERIC II: THE EXAMPLES OF URSINO CASTLE IN CATANIA AND CASTEL DEL MONTE IN PUGLIA, ITALY
of Ignazio Burgio.
The Sicilian castles built by Frederic II of Svevia, like the castle of Catania, show many similarity with the classical Arab forts. Nevertheless blend in their architecture typical Gotic features, because their builders were the same Cistercenses workmen that in the continental Europe built the magnificent French cathedrals. A different style have the contemporary sveve castles arose in the Southern Italy and more connected to the Romanesque tradition although they show in the same way Arab and Gotic elements. The military forts of Frederic II, in short, show themselves witnesses of that blending of artistic and cultural currents that along the Middle Age crossed the Southern Italy and the Sicily with the most varied results.
Between the springtime of the 1228 and the May 1 of 1229, the emperor Frederic II
was in the Middle East, in Cyprus, Acri and Jerusalem, to participate – under the restless pressure of the Pope Gregorius IX
that had already excommunicated him - at the Sixth Crusade, but in his way: the “Stupor mundi”, by his diplomatic capability and his admiration for the Arab world, of which he spoke also the language, got with no one fight the Holy City in change of his political support to the Egyptian Sultan Al-Kamil
against the other near sultans.
To that journey, even if was short, some researchers, like Kronig
, connect a change in the design and in the style of the Frederic's castles in Italy, that they would have blend, from that time, typical elements and features of the templar forts in the Middle East, like the famous Krak of the Knives
or the Pilgrim's Castles
in Atlith (so called because was built also with the help of many pilgrims that were going to Jerusalem). Other researchers, like Bottari
, connect those architectonic changes to the adoption of Arab plans especially in the castles built in Sicily by Cistercenses
workers imported from the Borgogna. The most clear example is the Ursino Castle
, in the town of Catania
, that is the copy of the Arab fort of Susa
, in Tunisia. The question – that is not a simple academic matter – point out, also for the architectural, the numerous cultural influences to which the society and the Sveve court were submitted in every area in Southern Italy and in Sicily.
Architecture and design of the typical medieval castles begin with the same Middle Age. To the IV – V century belong in fact the square plan byzantine forts that repeat ancient roman style (“castellum-castle” derives from “castrum”, the roman fortified encampment). They certainly already blended in themselves the early examples of cylindric towers. These were improved by the Arab architects, on suggestion of the Persian style, like in the castles of Qal'at Djabar
e Qasr el Heir
, a byzantine fort to east of Palmyra restored in the year 728 by the caliph Hisham.
Therefore in that time the Arab oriental castles show architectonic, military and aesthetic features qualitatively superior than the contemporary European examples based on the more simple and spartan Romanesque style with its right lines. The workers utilized by the Arabs was not only locals (Greeks and Syrians ) but also Armenians, more skilled to build forts. These same local and Armenian workers were utilized at the time of the Crusades by the Templars
and by the other monk warriors (Hospitals
) to build their castles in the main ways of the Holy Land.
All this work of building ended in the beginning of the XIII century, so that Frederic II when arrived in Palestine had a chance to admire them and to appreciate the defensive features of them: the round towers, the impressive bastions, the polygonal geometries, - like the pentagonal Arab tower of the Kerak's Castle
, the angles of which form a spur – and the anterooms of the slits obtained from the thick walls of the “Must”, the main building of the castle, very efficacious to bomb from above the assailants with rows or other things. Because in the Southern Italy the new castles built after the return of the sveve emperor begin to blend some typical features of the Templar castles in Holy Land – especially the round towers – the researchers of the medieval architecture, as the mentioned Kronig and Samonà, deduce that was the same Frederic II to change the plans of them. Samonà however is forced to notice that the castles of the “new time” remain tied to a more linear style, that do not move far away from the Byzantine and Romanesque tradition of the early middle age, even if blend to themselves the new Gotic elements, first of all the acute arch of the portals. The essential reason might be that in Puglia, and exactly in Foggia, there was an important school of architecture to that belonged experts “protomagistri” (=architects). However they were Pugliesi and so were connected for the style to the Italian and Romanesque tradition. The researchers find a significant exception to that rule only in a pugliese castle, different from the every other: Castel del Monte. It shows instead more Gotic and Borgognon features, close to the Sicilian castles.
An other reasoning we have to do about the Sicilian castles. The plans, the architecture and the defensive solutions of the Maniace Castle
in Siracusa, of the Castle in Augusta
, and of the Ursino Castle in Catania, for mentioning the clearest examples, are more close to the contemporary templar forts in Palestine, expecially for their cylindric towers and the inner Gotic architectures. For Bottari the reason of this stylistic closeness, however, was not – like for the pugliese castles – the influences of the Holy Land, or the will of Frederic II, but the Arab tradition still very strong in Sicily that resumed plans and architectonic styles typical of the Muslim forts in Middle East and in Africa (of course with the addition of the Gotic elements). The demonstration of this, for Bottary, is the Ursino Castle in Catania, that he compare, in addition, with Castel del Monte
From three letters sent by the emperor between the november of the 1239 and the march of the next year to the supervisor Riccardo da Lentini
- “prepositus hedificorum novorum” - we know that the catanese castle was begun just in the november of the 1239, by two hundred golden onzes payed out from the citizens of Catania on exhortation of the emperor, plus other one hundred and sixty onzes advanced from the building of the Castle of Augusta. Very little of other we know from the remained documents, but many other things have been deduced by the analysis of the same castle.
The main characteristic of the Ursino Castle is the massive staticity of the his walls, the continuity of those is not stopped either from the entrance: the portal in fact is so simple that gives also to that side a feeling and a function of solidity. As observe Bottari, in fact, were not economic reasons to determine the simplicity of the architecture of this castle, and first of his portal, but precises architectonic choices, that corresponded to the style of the Arab forts (“castra”) that in Sicily was never vanished, neither after the Norman conquest.
On the same principle, also the four round towers in the angles of the catanese castle, together to the other four hemispheric towers in the middle of every side
(only two of these remain now), in addition to the defensive function, give more emphasis to the stateliness of the structure and to the feeling of solidity: “...Pensiamo per un momento al Castello Ursino con le sue quattro torri cilindriche, poste agli spigoli e quasi staccate dal muro, e pensiamo alle quattro minori interposte e compenetrate nella cortina. L'equilibrio di questa mole è indicato decisamente dalla simmetria assoluta di ogni parte con un segno di distinzione che è cesura incolmabile con lo spazio intorno. L'opera nel suo equilibrio la sentiamo distaccata e distante; un senso quasi astratto della forma è nelle torri angolari, rappresentati come staccati cilindri esaltanti questa idea precisa di volume puro; in esse si condensa gran parte dell'espressione potentissima e pur contenuta in uno stato di equilibrata tensione...” (“...Let's think for a moment to the Ursino Castle with its four cylindric towers, situated in the angles almost separated from the wall, and let's think to the four smaller towers placed in the middle and pervaded in the curtain. The balance of this massive shape is resolutely shown by the absolute symmetry of every side with a sign of distinction that is unfillable breaking with the surrounding space. We feel the work, in its balance, separated and distant; a nearly abstract feeling of the form is in the angular towers, represented like separated cylinders that exalt this precise idea of pure volume; a large part of very forceful but contained expression in a condition of balanced tension, is condensed in them...”)
(Giuseppe Samonà, I castelli di Federico II in Sicilia e nell'Italia meridionale, Palermo 1952, p. 517).
Even if the architectonic plane copied the Arabic style, the workers that built it were certaily cistercenses that came from the Borgogna (country that belonged to Frederic) but in that time lastingly residents in Sicily: the unfinished Basilica of the Murgo
near Lentini (Siracusa) with the outbuilding monastery, and the other forts of the same period – the Maniace Castle in Siracusa, the Frederic's Tower
in Enna, ecc. - full of Gotic elements inside and outside, testify the unmistakable style of those workers that in all Europe built cathedrals, castles and buildings in accordance with the most famous medieval style.
The cistercenses hand on the castles in object is showed manly from the geometric and mathematic severity of the different elements that compose the buildings, in close proportional connection each other. In the Ursino Castle the width of the square courtyard, for example, is three times as large than the big rooms at its sides (and in the castle of Augusta is five times). Similar geometric solutions in other parts of the same castle, like in the octagonal rooms perfectly inscribed inside the angular cylindric towers, recall a mathematic perfection that in the French cathedrals seems to go beyond the simple architectonic requirements and certainly assumes mystic and spiritual purposes. On the other hand Frederic II often made use of the Cistercenses, even to colonize depopulated lands in the Kingdom of Sicily and in Germany. One month after his coronation, in the 1215, he asked to that Order to accept him as lay member. This was a custom followed by his ancestors, yes, but testify also the close connection between the Sveve Court and the Cistercenses, included their architects and their workers.
On order of the same sveve emperor the Ursino Castle must to remain the highest building in Catania, and prohibited to build in the city buildings or churches higher than the fort's walls. Because Catania had been rebel even the well visible castle's image had to serve like deterrent. In fact the castle, built on a land's strip that continued on the sea, at the time of Frederic II was encircled from three sides by the water, and it controlled the city with its position and its height, until the huge eruption of the Mount Etna in 1669 closed it with its magma, moved forever the sea away from it, and filled a share of its height from the ground.
Unlike the Ursino Castle, the architecture of the most famous castle of Frederic – the works of which began just some months after those of the castle of Catania, in the January 1240 – search the dynamism and the harmony of the moving light, exalted even from the clear color of its covering. “...Castel del Monte non mostra questa contenuta tensione, questo equilibrio, poichè la sua potenza espressiva consiste nella forza erompente dalle torri poste a serrare il centro e a plasmare l'organismo come un gigantesco pilastro polistile di sentimento gotico...” (...Castel del Monte don't show this moderate tension, this balance, because its expressive powerful consists in the strength that bursts from its towers placed to close the center and to mould the organism like a polystyle gigantic pillar of Gotic feeling...)
(Giuseppe Samonà, op. cit. p. 517). In fact Castel del Monte was not destined to military functions, but symbolics. Both the monuments however blend in their architecture a feeling of symmetry that is common also to the other Sicilian castles, but unknown to those of Puglia and of Lucania. In the case of Ursino Castle this is explained – as already we said – either by the plan copied from the classical Arabic forts, like the “castrum” of Susa in Tunisia, either by the nationality of its workers, the cistercenses. About Castel del Monte instead this represents one of its many mysteries: it seems little probable that its designers were the puglieses architects because the style is absolutely different than the others forts of the country. On the contrary for its similarities with the Ursino Castle and with the other Sicilian castles in harmony and symmetry certainly it was built by cistercenses workers, traditionally experts to provide of inside and outside Gotic features. But some researchers don't rule out even the presence of Arab experts, called for tricky works like the plumbings, and the spiral staircase (very similar to those of the Ursino Castle and of the Maniace Castle in Siracusa). Moreover a riddle is represented by the letter that Frederic II sent in the 28 march 1240 to Riccardo da Lentini – busy to control the building of the catanese castle – through that take him away from his important work and recall him to Foggia. In that time the building of Castel del Monte was just began from two months: may be that the emperor think more important that he guided the works of the pugliese castle ?
However a demonstration of that “coming and going” of architects, experts and workers of different extraction for all over the Southern Italy, might be represented – in the opinion of the same Bottari – from the portal of the Maniace Castle in Siracusa e from its window on the sea, that break the continuity – structural and aesthetic – of the walls. Because the portal's decorations have pugliese features, the researcher don't excludes that this significant exception to the original Arab plan of the castle is an evidence of the presence of workers of the “School of Foggia” to the building of the Siracusan fort. It might be, in short, an other significant example of the usual and continual cultural influences in the our island since the Norman conquest, and don't break off either after the election of Frederic II, son of the Enrich VI of Svevia, but Norman by his mother Costanza of Hauteville.
Other articles in English: click here
Stefano Bottari – La cultura figurativa in Sicilia – Casa editrice G. D'Anna.
Stefano Bottari – Ancora sulle origini dei castelli svevi in Sicilia – in: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Federiciani, Palermo 1952.
Giuseppe Samonà – I castelli di Federico II in Sicilia e nell'Italia Meridionale – in: Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Federiciani, Palermo 1952.
Alba Drago Beltrandi – Castelli di Sicilia – Brancato Editore.
Giuseppe Ganci Battaglia, Giovanni Vaccaro – Aquile sulle rocce – Edizioni Mori.
Ebherard Horst – Federico II di Svevia – Rizzoli.
Marisa Uberti – L'architettura cistercense – in: www.duepassinelmistero.com
Note. The photo of the Ursino Castle in Catania come from the Free Encyclopaedia www.Wikipedia.org.