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Castello Maniace

Piazza Duomo, Ortigia
March 27, 2021
Park of Villa Landolina
March 29, 2021
Ph. © Eliseo Lupo

Castello Maniace

On the extreme tip of the island of Ortigia stands a monument that extends the horizon of the city towards the sea of the Orient. This is the castle commissioned by the Emperor Frederick II and built on the rocks; a Gothic building of a clean, geometric form, with a square plan, each side measuring 51 metres, and four round towers at each corner. This castle, known as Castello Maniace, doesn’t seem to have preserved the memory of its royal patron in its name, a name that is also given to quarter in which it stands. “Maniace” in fact is a name which recalls a Byzantine admiral who between 1038 and 1040 reconquered the city of Siracusa for the Byzantine Empire, taking it back from Arab domination. Although the building has undergone many structural changes over time, the castle - which was created more as an Imperial residence - characterises the skyline of Ortigia with a strong medieval flavour.
Construction began in 1232 and took almost ten years, when Frederick II wrote a letter to Riccardo of Lentini “Praepositum aedificiorum”, asking him to complete the building. Frederick never saw it finished, and in 1240 the construction site was dismantled, the numerous workers who had been employed on the site were sent home, and the troubled history of the monument began.
Ph. Credits - Vittoria Gallo
Il castello dal mare con le mura spagnole
The fascinating stonemasons’ marks on the blocks of the building give us an estimate of about one thousand people, including specialised and non-specialised workers, who contributed to the construction. This number tells us clearly what an important role it was intended to have. The castle is in fact one of the most representative of all of Frederick’s commissions in southern Italy in the decades between 1230 and 1250. If we take a look at the other frederician buildings of the same period, the castles in Augusta (1232) and Catania (1239), these together with Castello Maniace illustrate an extraordinary evolution of castle architecture. They speak with a new, elegant artistic language, where the typical irregularity of the Byzantine fortress or the Norman motte and bailey is abandoned in favour of revolutionary forms. The harmony of volumes at Castello Maniace is nonetheless one of a kind; the scheme found at Augusta and Catania with buildings arranged around a central courtyard, was replaced with a single, elegant hypostyle hall with 16 free-standing columns, 4 semi-columns at the corners and 16 semi-columns around the four walls, which supported the 25 ribbed and vaulted bays of the roof. This was a Palacium or residence not a Castrum, and its elegance, hinted at in the decorated gateway and the innovative building solutions found inside, link it to the octagonal design of Castel Del Monte, built for Frederick in Apulia. These two residences in two parts of his kingdom that Frederick particularly loved, share a similar function as a places of Imperial representation.
Ph. credits - Eliseo Lupo

The history of Castello Maniace is marked by continual structural modifications from the Swabian period to today, and these transformations give it the appearance of a building site in constant evolution. After the explosion of munitions stored in one of the towers in 1704, which left two-fifths of the original hall standing, another important date is 1972 when it was no longer considered a military structure. As it passed into the hands of the cultural heritage office, a period of restoration projects began (1994, 2001 and 2013) accompanied by studies which have revealed many details about the building. Freed in the Nineties of many of the additions which had divided the internal space, new readings of the building have concentrated on many fascinating aspects, from its archeology, art and architecture, to its role in the city. These recent studies have painted a picture of a Gothic site which intertwines complex architectural relations with lessons learned from the East by the crusaders, with Islamic, Byzantine and late Roman castle architecture, and also with the new artistic developments of the Cistercencian tradition.

Any visit to the castle should also include the Antiquarium created in the buildings of the 15th and 17th centuries on the esplanade in front of the castle. Finds from on-site excavations and a series of maps and drawings illustrate the many phases of the castle and give us an image to take away, of the north-eastern facade and the evocative idea of an imagined second level that should have risen high over the blue waters of the great harbour of Siracusa.
Gennaio 2021

Insegna Storia dell’Arte, è Presidente dell’Associazione SiciliAntica per la provincia di Siracusa. Si è occupata di formazione e di didattica applicata ai beni culturali, ha lavorato in un Museo Etnografico a Noto, è stata cultore della materia nella Facoltà di Architettura, ha curato diverse pubblicazioni sul tema dell’innovazione tecnologica applicata ai beni culturali. Non poteva che scrivere per SiracusaCulture.