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Frederick II and his castles: the Castle of Trani

After Andria and Barletta it’s the turn of Trani. Here too, there’s a castle made built by Frederick II, perhaps one of the most relevant, seen its importance from a strategic point of view, but also because you can appreciate its original structure.

This time I’ve not been guided, but I showed the beauties of Trani to an American friend, a monk (you’ll understand later why this detail is necessary) who was in Apulia for a wedding. You know, we seized the moment.

Unlike the castle of Barletta, which has been built on a Norman building, that one of Trani was thought and made built by Frederick II. It’s located in the roadstead of Trani, that is to say, in a lower area compared to street level, on a bedrock directly over the sea. It may seem strange, but this position was optimal to protect the castle, if you consider that the seabed is also quite low, and it could become a danger for ships, which risked to run ashore. Practically, the environment naturally protected the building.

Looking at it from a distance, it seems that the castle greetings the Cathedral, with which it shares the view on the sea of Trani. As you approach, along the promenade that separates the two buildings, you start having the doubt to still be in Apulia, as oriental the image in front of you is. Besides, we’re talking about a castle of Frederick II, and don’t forget that the emperor had a weakness for Arab culture. Then, add the sea that skims the walls and we can say that we are in a landscape worthy of "One Thousand and One Nights".

I wonder how this vision could be originally, because also the castle of Trani withstood some changes along the centuries, similar to those of Barletta from a certain point of view. After all, the power passed to the Angious, then to the Aragons and eventually to Charles V of Hapsburg here, too.

ph. Tommytrani - Creative Commons
You cross the bridge over that once was the moat, full of sea water; nowadays it’s decorated with palm trees. You enter and find a wall in front of you. It may be destabilizing to see a wall just crossed the threshold, but, in reality, it was the first defense of the fortress: if, unfortunately, some enemies had managed to enter, they would have be like me, disoriented in front of a wall, surrounded from above by a troop of archers. 

My visit started from the museum, where there is a wooden model of the castle. Looking at it, it’s easier to understand the changes made in the course of time. At first, it was built with a square body, four high towers at the corners and a central court. We’re talking about Middle Ages, so the higher the towers were, the bigger the advantage on enemies was. No longer true in 1533, when Charles V made cut lower two towers and made of them two bastions, a square one, where nowadays there’s the museum, and a “spearhead- shaped” one, more functional in a period in which gunpowder was taking hold. Here there are embrasures.

One of the high towers

The thought of this bastion makes me smile. No, it’s nothing to do with the art of war, or better, not directly. The area protected by this structure was the landside. Obviously, it was necessary to evacuate everything that was in the line of fire of cannons, among which there was a convent of Franciscan monks. “And those poor monks?”, asked our American friend with a touch of anxiety mixed with curiosity and sarcasm. Ah, solidarity between brothers lasts in centuries!

Now in this bastion you can visit solitary confinements. Actually from 1831 to 1974 the castle became a jail and was properly transformed. A restoration work finished in 1998 brought back its original structure.

Despite of the works to adapt it during the centuries, the castle represents Frederick and his power in each part. You can find it in the conical-shaped Oculuses, an element imported from Arab architecture, in the decorations of the windows, which are a square and two circles, symbols of God and mankind: Frederick was an emperor, halfway between mankind and God. It represents his impartiality in the three little consoles that, likely, were part of an eave: they represent Adam and Eve, the Virgin and Archangel Gabriel. They are three symbols that refer to the Old Testament, and, so, to Hebraism, and to the New one, with  Christianity. In Apulia coexisted both believes and in this way Frederick asserted that his judgment wouldn’t have been influenced by the professed religion. And then eagles, peacocks, a symbol of immortality, which decorate rooms, some emblems in which Frederick identified himself. Even the “Torre Maestra” is linked to a historical event that puts in evidence the power of the Stupor Mundi. It’s not a case that it’s also called Tiepolo’s Tower, where Pietro Tiepolo, the son of the doge of Venice, was hung, caught during the battle of Cortenova in 1237. Apulia has always been an aspired territory for Venetians. Hanging Tiepolo on the Torre Maestra, visible from Venetian ships, Frederick made it clear who commanded. 

If in the previous blog posts (Castel del Monte and the castle of Barletta) I’ve seen an educated, curious and open Frederick II, this time I’ve seen the emperor, the man of power, with the whole burden that this charge leads to manage, even with acts that to our eyes, used to other kinds of government, may appear brutal, but, on a second thought,  they fit a period that is completely different from ours, with ideas of right and wrong which are difficult for us to be understood … perhaps even with a time travel.

For information about visits: the castle of Trani


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