Updated: Mar 6, 2021
By Jennifer Williams
I come home from every international trip wondering why my purse is so heavy. Then I dump out a collection of various and assorted coins that find their way into side pockets, crevices, and the three coin purses I somehow end up with. I love foreign coins! Not only are they each a tangible reminder of the memories of a trip taken, but they enchant us by showing us what each country chooses to place on its coins. Coins tell a story. Here’s one about Castel del Monte.
If you have been to Italy in the last few years, you may have come back with a few of the one or two cent coins which have been slowly disappearing in Italy. The reason they are disappearing? Simple, they cost more to mint than the coin is worth so Italy quit minting them in 2018 and is slowly rounding prices up or down to take them out of circulation. But for Italy’s south, the “mezzogiorno” (mid-day in English), so named because of the prevailing winds from the south, the loss is symbolic. The one cent coin is the only Italian coin representing a distinctly southern symbol: Castel del Monte.
People who talk about Castel del Monte (Castle of the Mountain) often use words such as “mysterious,” “magical,” “harmony,” “perfection,” or “masterpiece.” My words are beautiful, unique, and not-to-be-missed. Located about 37 miles from Bari in Puglia on a rocky peak in the Murgia region, it was built by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, in the 13th century, renowned for his learning and culture. January 29th, 1240 is the Castle’s official birthday.
Frederick may have actually been its architect. He built a string of castles in Puglia but none like Castel del Monte, and in fact no building in the world is quite like Castel del Monte. What makes it so unique and mysterious? First, it is perfectly octagonal. It is made up of eight octagonal towers at each corner, forming an eight-sided courtyard in the center of the castle. There are two floors and they each include eight rooms but, where usually a door leads from one room to the other, on the second floor there is a doorless wall which means you must retrace your steps and you cannot complete the circuit.
Second, there is no trace of a kitchen, or a moat or a drawbridge, for that matter. It isn’t a very big castle and, if meant for defensive purposes, there doesn’t seem to be anything nearby worth defending. If meant as a residence, where is the kitchen?
So what is it? This is part of Castel de Monte’s charm and mystery. You get to decide! Was it a hunting lodge? Manfred of Sicily used it as such. Was it a residence? It has fairly ornate bathrooms and rooms. A prison? Frederick’s heirs were imprisoned there. A defensive structure? The Castle’s name in Latin implies a defensive structure. An astronomical center? There is a theory that the octagon was the symbol representing the union of earth and sky (a square representing earth and a circle representing sky). The mathematical and astronomical precision of its layout lends credence to this theory. Then there are the two lions at the entrance, one of which is facing towards sunrise (winter solstice) and one facing towards sunset (summer solstice), which gave rise to the theory that the castle had occult influences. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of hidden meanings for the most ardent conspiracy theorist!
In 1996 Castel del Monte became a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “outstanding universal value” and remains under UNESCO’s protection.
Visiting by car is the simplest way to arrive at Castel del Monte, but you can get there by public transport if you are willing to spend a little time chasing down bus or train schedules. The visit to the castle itself doesn’t take long, about an hour, so plan to have a picnic at the nearby park or visit one of the surrounding towns and drink Rosso Barletta, the DOC wine of the region.