Italy Trip

Puglia’s Most Mythical Destination, Castel del Monte

Perfectly octagonal with an astronomically precise location, Castel del Monte is Puglia's most mythical UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Andria, Puglia stands a mysterious beauty. A perfectly octagonal castle of gleaming coral crushed stone, limestone, and marble built in 1240. From a distance it appears to float in the clouds. There’s nothing else around for miles. The closer one gets, the clearer it becomes Castel del Monte rests on a 1,771 foot tall hill.

To visit is to wonder. Why is this seemingly perfect castle here? What would it watch over, defend? Those eight octagonal towers, what mysteries do they keep?

  • Castel del Monte 13th-century
  • Castel del Monte Tower
  • Castel del Monte hilltop
  • Castle del Monte Vista

During our trip to Puglia Paolo and I stopped to see Castel del Monte because of it’s legendary beauty and the mystery surrounding it. At the time we had no real idea why it was built. Imagine our surprise to find out what comes next!

Castel del Monte

Castel del Monte is reknown for the perfection of its layout, the balanced mix of cultural elements from Northern Europe, the Muslim world and classical antiquity. Yet the mysteries behind the perfect octagonal shape, precise mathematic and astronomically aligned location have drawn speculation about the origins of Castel del Monte for centuries. Was it a hunting retreat, a citadel, a symbolic structure shaped to represent a connection between heaven and earth? A defensive fort?

If Castel del Monte was once a hunting retreat, there would be hints of the lush accommodations deserving of it’s founder Emperor Frederick II who inherited the land from his Mother Constance the Queen of Sicily (1194–98). Yet, Castel del Monte lacks a moat, a kitchen, or any signs of stables outside.

Castel del Monte has an octagonal courtyard surrounded by eight trapezoidal rooms that together form a near perfect octagonal fortress wall. On each corner stands one of eight towers. So it’s not surprising that another theory originates from the symbolism of the number eight.

The number eight has symbolic value in many cultures. In Islam, eight is the number of angels carrying the throne of Allah. Eight is also thought to be the number of gates of heaven. In China the number eight is considered the luckiest of numbers. The more eights the better. Numerologists believe the number eight is associated with compassion, freedom, and self-reliance material freedom, and affluence. Yet this Castel del Monte resides in Italy, in the countryside? So what does the number eight mean for it?

Are we all over thinking it and Castel del Monte was simply a stunning defensive fortress? While the eight octagonal towers have slits, they are too narrow and not angled for arches and bows. Plus, a defensive fortress wouldn’t have two opposing doors as Castel del Monte does.

Despite the mystery, or perhaps because of it Castel del Monte was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. At the time it was noted as “a successful blend of elements from classical antiquity, the Islamic Orient and north European Cistercian Gothic.” Yet even then, various hypotheses regarding the original use and purpose of Castel del Monte remained conflicting.

It wasn’t until 2011 that scholars from the University of Bari presented compelling evidence that the Castel del Monte was inspired by visitors during the Crusades.

Their hypothesis? Castel del Monte was most likely created as a spa modeled after the Arabian hammams aka a Turkish Bath. A type of steam bath or a place of public bathing associated with the Islamic world.

The following curated video explains their hypothesis that Castel del Monte was built as a bathhouse. While it’s in Italian, the images and footage from inside Castel del Monte translate to any language.

Video: Scholars Explain the Original Purpose of Castel del Monte UNESCO World Heritage site in Puglia, Italy

This UNESCO World Heritage sight stands out for its mystery and intrigue but most of all it’s beauty. When in Puglia, if you have a car and the time, we recommend checking out Castel del Monte. During our visit I never would have guessed it was a bathhouse! Yet now, knowing more, I look forward to returning to seek out all the hints hidden within those eight towers.

References

Castel del Monte official site

Elle Decor Best of Puglia, Castel del Monte

5 comments

  1. I know people say Italy is so different from city to city, but my adventures in North Italy have not really convinced me otherwise (except Venice?)

    Haha anyways I think I have to go to the south to really appreciate the nuances in architecture and design. I’m going to Cagliari next weekend!

    1. Hi Pree! The further you go the more obvious the changes get. Trieste is the biggest architectural and cultural difference in the North (to me anyway). I look forward to hearing about your time in Calgliari! Haven’t seen it yet myself. Sardinia and Sicily are amazing to see unique areas. Puglia is too. Oh Puglia! Sending hugs and wishes for an amazing trip!!!

    1. Me too! My brain has trouble with so many quickly build modern structures. I’m grateful for architects like Calatrava taking risks in modern buildings. Do you have a favorite style of architecture Carol?

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