Sunday, October 17, 2010

Castel Del Monte

An Enigma of Apulia

    My first impression of Castel Del Monte, the eight-sided citadel  surrounded by eight octagonal towers, was one of familiarity. In some form genetic memory does exist. We are not completely new creations in every generation. Just as instinctive behavior can be observed in the animal kingdom, the human animal, though more than just an animal, is also a product of his ancestry. Having deep genetic roots in Apulia the impression made by Castel Del Monte was experienced on an intuitive level. It was recognized.
    This book by Heinz Goetze suggests an explanation for this phenomenon of recognition, albeit in a cultural sense involving our perception of beauty. But is our perception of beauty innate or is it learned? 

   Along with a very technical analysis of the design geometry, he traces the history and progression of Hohenstaufen architecture of Frederick II, it's firm grounding in the European Cistercian tradition and the influence of Greek geometry via the Islamic contacts of Frederick. The many photos and illustrations avoid showing anything of the modern world, adding to the effect of peering into the past. 

La Spia delle Puglie
There are few historical references to Castel Del Monte and very little is known about the details of its construction. The first mention is a command of Frederick II on January 29, 1240 to a certain R. de Montefusculo to prepare a floor at the former site known at the time as Santa Maria Del Monte. In 1246 a Hohenstaufen statute obligated the residents of Bitonto, Bitetto (a town next to my ancestral town of Palo Del Colle), and Monopoli to carry out repair work on the site.

   The name of the architect is not known but it is thought that Frederick II took an active interest in its design. All of the imperial structures of his reign were built in a short span of time suggesting that one person must have been the driving force behind their conception. Heinz Goetze points out that Frederick II was directly involved with the design of his buildings and cites a text by a person named Ricardo San Germano that shows the “active participation” of the emperor in the design of his bridge citadel at Capua.

  The Castel Del Monte is an iconic image of Apulia. Located on a natural rise in an otherwise flat terrain once surrounded by a dense forest about eight miles from the town of Andria.

From a distance it appears to be a crown
There are no other buildings surrounding it. From this vantage point can be seen the coast line from the Gargano spur to the city of Monopoli. To the local contadini Castel del Monte was known as "La Spia delle Puglie", the "Spyhole of Apulia". Peering up from the inner courtyard one is also reminded of the view from a telescope or observatory.

  How it was used is not known. Many believe it to have served as a hunting lodge because of its isolated location. It is not technically a castle but could be easily defended, having only one entrance. The lack of a chapel points to a secular use. To see it is to be impressed by a symmetrical beauty and an image of crystalline strength.

   Heinz Goetze offers the first systematic analysis using exact dimensional measurements. He traces the influence on the architectural design and the natural progression of its form from preceding works during the reign of Frederick II Hohenstaufen.

   His analysis of the geometric beauty wonders why those who view it are intuitively impressed:

  “We know from various  examples that symmetry is not shaped by man alone, But is also characteristic of nature, both animate and inanimate. In its different forms and variations in nature, as in art, symmetry is a structural element that can be defined  mathematically. The relationship of ordered, structured nature with art is not surprising because art has always been at once the imitation and exaggeration of nature. With the entire spectrum of its forms, symmetry has repeatedly been employed as a means of style in art-- this is particularly evident in architecture. Did the artist then discover the aesthetic quality of symmetry in nature, or is there even a common source of symmetry’s aesthetic quality in nature and art?

   What enables man to intuitively grasp the basic mathematical structure of the world and reconstruct and experience it seems to me aptly expressed in the lines from Plotin, translated by Goethe:

If the eyes were not like the sun
The sun it could not see;
If God’s own power were not within us
How could the divine enrapture us?”  
   "There appears to be a process of recognition, an anagnorisis , corresponding to Plato's anamnesis, the recollection of the world of ideas, to which he also assigns mathematics. Why else is an exactly defined proportion such as the golden section or the five platonic bodies....spontaneously perceived as beautiful-even by people who are unaware of the underlying mathematical principles? Castel del Monte thus appears to us as a living witness to the mathematical nature of aesthetics. pp204,205
A contadino's rendition
Castel Del Monte is symmetrical in a way that shows  the designer had at least an “intuitive grasp” of the concept of the fractal. A fractal is a part of a whole which when  broken off is still a copy of the whole. Discovered in the 1970’s by a man named Mandelbrot it has implications in many fields of knowledge.

   Mr Goetze reports that a formula was determined for the basic floor plan which when extrapolated by a computer program reproduced the building in it’s three dimensional form. When the pattern was extended to infinity it was shown to replicate a fractal.

The building plan is based on the octagon, an eight sided figure formed by a square with another square superimposed at a 45 degree angle to it. The square with it’s four equal sides is connected in esoteric literature with the earth and the points of the compass. The octagon is a transitional figure between the square and the circle. The circle in esoteric symbolism represents heaven and immortality. Visualize the night sky as you view it from a wide flat area. Turning 360 degrees you experience a circle.

   “The square interested mathematicians and philosophers because of the impossibility, discovered in the period of Greek pre-classicism, of finding a rational number proportion between the length of the diagonal and the length of the side of a square…With the Neoplatonists and Neopythagoreans, who had a strong influence on Islam, irrational quantities acquired a symbolic meaning” pg.116

The octagon is a universal esoteric symbol also found in China, Japan, as well as in Islamic art. In Christian symbolism the octagon is used in baptismal fountains as a symbol of the hope of salvation.

Painting from 1890 before restoration work
  A number of possible sources can be found  for Frederick II, and the designer of Castel Del Monte’s use of the octagonal form. The Pfalzkapelle in Aachen, where he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, is octagonal shaped as is the Carolingian crown. Barbarossa, his grandfather, donated the octagonal chandelier which is contained here.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as well as the Dome of the Rock where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac, are laid out in the form of the octagon. During the crusade of 1228/1229 Frederick visited the Dome of the Rock and had the construction plan explained to him.

   As the only Holy Roman Emperor to have the crown of Jerusalem placed on his head, he saw himself and his reign to be in a direct line from King David of Israel.There were many reasons for Frederick II to be engrossed by the significance of the octagon.

   These influences aside, Mr. Goetze spends much time tracing the octagonal design in Islamic art and architecture and comes to the conclusion that Islamic designers played a major role.

It is true that Frederick II, although of German and Norman descent, grew up as an orphan in Palermo. Islamic rule had ended by the time of his youth but Islamic influence was still to be found by the boy who was nevertheless culturally a Sicilian. One of his tutors was said to have been an Islamic judge to the remnant Muslim population. Frederick was known for his understanding of Arabic and Arab culture.

   The southern Italy and Sicily of this era was on the borderland of Islamic expansion so Frederick’s use of Islamic designers is conceivable. Architectural design books from the Muslim world of this time contain many octagonal forms. Islamic use of the octagon as a ground up motif is however:

 “…limited in the Islamic world primarily to mausoleum. Palaces and mosques generally have square plans…” p125

   “Thus we come across a peculiarity of Arabic architecture and the mentality on which it is based; It is not spatially or plastically, but rather two-dimensionally oriented, as evidenced in such varied ways by the splendid and ingenious Islamic ornamental art.” p126

   The edifice of Castel Del Monte is designed to be viewed and comprehended three dimensionally as was Greek sculpture.

   “The road that leads up to Castel Del Monte describes a circle around the building, thus cultivating the impression of three dimensionality…” p111
 Mr. Goetze carries the Greek influence further:

   “…With this sense of three dimensionality, Hohenstaufen architecture is closest to the art and architecture of the Greeks. This makes particularly understandable the fondness of Frederick II for classical sculpture with which he surrounded himself and which he spared no effort to display in his castles. He recommended that the school of sculpture he had founded orient itself according to classical models…” p112

   Castle Del Monte is unique to all European buildings of the time in it’s dimensional accuracy. It measures 167 feet at the widest point, is 95 feet high, and the inner courtyard is 57 feet in diameter. Nowhere in the elements of the structure, which can be seen, is a measurement off by more than 2cm or about half an inch!

   " These are dimensional accuracies that seem unbelievable for a medieval European building. The exactness of the measurements is prerequisite to the unrestrained effect of the building, which presents itself symmetrically on all sides...This precision-which has hardly been affected at all, even by the restoration work carried out on the citadel during past decades- certainly could not have been achieved without the use of precise technical methods of measurement..." pp 191,192
The floor plan
The ground plan alignment is also significant. The north/south axis meets the spiral of the cathedral at Andria, an  important town to him because it remained loyal . Both of his wives were also buried there.The main and only entrance way faces east, above which a stone head brought from an ancient ruin near Andria bears an inscription in Greek:

"...on the calends of May at sunrise I shall  have a head of gold."

"...On the first day of may, the rays of the sun gilded this Imperial diadem, in the same way that the heads of Roman emperors had been wreathed in sun rays on their gold coins."  "Old Puglia", p58,59

   The roof is designed to funnel all available rainwater, a necessity in Apulia which has low rainfall, a porous surface topography, and thus very little surface water. The castle contained indoor running water and at one time an octagon fountain at the inner courtyard, made from a single piece of marble.The towers on each floor are vaulted in the Gothic style. 
The third tower contains an artificial eyrie . After more than 750 years it is reported that birds of prey still nest here. Frederick II as a man with a love of falconry would be pleased to see this. De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus, “The Art of Hunting with Birds “ is his famous treatise written towards the end of his life.

Federico Secundo
    Northern Apulia was Fredericks self chosen home. Nicknamed the "Puer Apuliae" (the boy from Apulia) he spent much time between Foggia and his  favorite hunting "parks" in the mountains nearby. What better location to build an outward expression of his imperial crown,the symbol of his ranking in the divine hierarchy, in the forests that he loved ,visible from the coastline and for miles around.
John A Stavola

Unless otherwise noted all quotes are from:
Heinz Goetze, Castel Del Monte: Geometric Marvel of the Middle Ages; Prestel-Verlag, Munich, New York, 1998

 Additional source:
Desmond Seward and Susan Mountgarret: Old Puglia: A Portrait of South Eastern Italy; House Publishing, London 2009

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