The Castles of Frederick II in Sicily

Across the Blue Line
Januari 26, 2023
Langhe Monferrato Roero
Januari 26, 2023

The Castles of Frederick II in Sicily

Augusta – Syracuse – Milazzo – Catania – Enna – Terranova (Gela) – Scaletta Zanclea (Messina)

Of all the castles built in Sicily, the fortified constructions of Frederick II constitute the most homogeneous and representative series of such buildings, whose original purposes were strategic and defensive yet reflect the life of a society and an age which in addition to military considerations was also inspired by the rich and fertile culture which Ferdinand promoted throughout his intense reign.

Absolute monarch of his empire, Frederick dispossessed the feudal lords of their fortified dwellings, which, having become crown property, were enlarged and altered by his engineers and transformed into impregnable fortresses for the exercise of local power. A number of imposing castles were thus built which reflected not only defensive needs but also the spiritual inspira-tion of the principles of Cistercian monasticism, the order founded by Bernardo of Chiaravalle and dear to the king.

Through this rigorous school, which excluded all vanity in art for the greater benefit of the spreading of knowledge that might help to explain the mysteries of the universe, the castles of King Frederick, externally fortified citadels on the outside but spacious and bright inside, are the symbolic image of the will and the principles of absolute power which marked the Emperor’s spirit and characterized his reign.
In 1229, on his return from a Crusade in the east, the Emperor initiated his vast program of defensive architecture, creating in eastern Sicily the most homogeneous group of “castri regia”, constructed ex nihilo by the “protomagistri regi”, of whom the most celebrated was Richard of Lentini.

The castles of AugustaSyracuse and Milazzo were quickly built, together with the Castello Ursino in Catania. The castles of EnnaTerranova (Gela) and Scaletta Zanclea (Messina) rose in central and western Sicily. These have in common the feature of extreme regularity in their square design, similar to fortified architecture of the same period in northern Tunisia and Persia, which Frederick and his architects never actually saw.

The similarity would seem to be due to the common model of the Roman castrum. The design of the interior spaces is however completely new, though to a large extent inspired by Cistercian monastery architecture. The castles on the coast present some variations from these models: at Augusta and Milazzo the towers are quadrilateral towers, while at Catania and Syracuse they are circular.

The Castel Maniace in Syracuse is the only one to have an inner courtyard, in which sixteen cross-ribbed pillars create an atmosphere of unreality, augmented by the light falling from above and through the windows. Enna Castle, known as Castello di Lombardia (Lombardy Castle) because it stood near the site of a colony of Lombards, was entirely restructured by the Emperor.

It towers above the surrounding buildings and looks towards Frederick’s Tower a mile away. This building, a hunting lodge for the frequent hunting expeditions in the forests of the hinterland, is the finest example of an octagonal tower, surrounded by a wall of similar geometrical design.

Frederick II

Frederick II of Swabia, 1194–1250, Holy Roman emperor (1220–50) and German king (1212–20), king of Sicily (1197–1250, and king of Jerusalem (1229–50), son of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and of Constance, heiress of Sicily. Frederick II was educated in Palermo and his magnificently hegemonic multi-shaped and eminent personality in the 13th century stood out, in the culture and troubled political life of the time. De Stefano, the historian, considers him bold, clever, medieval, modern; certainly he is the most dramatic personage of the 13th century. The Kingdom of Sicily with Palermo its prestigious capital, became a hub of organisation, science and the arts that was, for many years to illuminate the consciousness of the European peoples. This great king’s death marked the beginning of the end of Swabian rule.

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