There’s no shortage of magnificent castles in Italy. Why? Well, Italy is a country of conquerors and also the conquered.
As well as being the birthplace of the breathtaking Roman Empire, Italy was conquered by the Normans, the Spanish, and also became a brief part of the French Empire, too.
The amazing castles in Italy have grown from this rich history. Medieval castles were built on the remains of old Roman fortresses, and the Normans imported their amazing skills in castle construction from their conquered lands in England, Wales and France.
The mighty Castel dell’Ovo owes its strength, oddly enough, to the Normans and the Spanish. Alternatively, the octagonal Castel del Monte is an amazing mix of mathematics and architectural influence from North Africa and the Islamic East.
Castel del Monte: So Famous, it’s Featured on Italian Currency
Castel del Monte, in Puglia, is undoubtedly the most recognisable of all castles in Italy – it’s featured on the reverse of the Italian 1 Euro Cent piece!
This dramatic, octagonal masterpiece is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and draws huge crowds of tourists every year.
Although the interior of the castle is extremely sparse, the exterior of the castle, with the backdrop of sun-drenched, sleepy Italian countryside, makes any visit breathtaking.
This spectacular Italian castle was completed in 1240 by Fredrick II of Hohenstaufen. Fredrick was a hugely successful ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and his influence spanned across parts of Italy, Sicily, Germany and Jerusalem.
Often referred to as “the first modern ruler”, Fredrick II was a scholar and a humanist, and the perfect symmetry of the castle represents his quest for perfection and for unity. The castle was also clearly intended for peaceful use – it’s poorly defended, without a moat or strong fortifications.
Castel del Monte’s geometric form also echoes Fredrick’s passions for science and astronomy.
The castle was the seat of Fredrick’s court, and would have echoed with the sounds of poetry and music, of which Fredrick was so fond.
Although Fredrick had already built other castles in Italy before this one, the intricate details of Castel del Monte mark it out as a favourite.
The castle has an octagonal shape which is capped with an octagonal tower at each point; is built from decadent quartz-bearing limestone, and its layout and internal vaulted ceilings evoke grand building traditions from Spain, North Africa, and also the Islamic East.
Despite such grand pretensions, the grandeur of Castel del Monte was temporary. Tragically, after Fredrick’s death in 1250, Castle del Monte fell into terrible disrepair.
This was because his death marked the decline of Hohenstaufen rule in Italy – passing to the Angevins, and thus to a dynasty much less sympathetic to his work.
The castle quickly became, ironically enough, a military barracks, and was extensively looted.
Originally, the innards would have been decked in resplendent marble and ornate carvings, but these have been plundered. Resultantly, nowadays, the inside of the castle remains terribly bare, but the external areas are still outstandingly beautiful and more than worthy of a visit – and, happily, the UNESCO protection will safeguard this beautiful Italian castle for many years to come.
Castello Sforzesco: Milan’s Star Attraction, and a Castle That’s Been Transformed Over the Years
Situated at the heart of Milan, Castle Sforzesco (commonly Anglicised to Sforza Castle) is one of the most popular castles in Italy, as it hosts seven different museums about art and history inside its twisting and maze-like passages.
The first foundations of the castle were laid in around 1360 by the Visconti family – who were widely detested.
When the last of the family, Fillipo Maria, died in 1447, locals ripped down the castle in an act of defiance. The Sforza family rebuilt the castle from 1450 onwards, creating a luxurious and defensive residence. But this wasn’t to last for long.
In 1499, the French invaded Milan – and the Spanish soon followed. Rather than use the castle as a luxurious residence, the Spanish chose to make it into a supremely fortified military garrison.
They built huge fortifications around the town – ‘tendrils’ of sloping defensive walls – and strengthened the castle further, creating its distinctive star-shape.
This was the most dramatic addition to the castle – but other changes were still to come. Napoleon used the castle as a military base in the late c18th, and, when the Spanish rule collapsed, the old town walls were destroyed.
The castle survived other renovations and disasters, including significant bombing in the Second World War.
If you’re visiting the castle today, and absolute must-do is to tour the secret passages (or, in more romantic Italian, the Percorsi Segreti) beneath the castle.
Parts of these passages were originally built in the late c14th, and other labyrinthine segments were added by the Spanish in the c16th. The passages are huge, winding, and exceptionally atmospheric, and give an amazing taste of Medieval architecture and early-modern warfare.
Castel dell’Ovo: A Mighty, Sea-Beaten Fortress on the Coast of Naples
The huge, salt-stained bulk of the Castel dell’Ovo, on the gulf of Naples, stands upon a persistent (if fanciful!) legend. It’s said that the ancient poet Virgil placed an egg in an iron cage, and hung this mystical item deep within the old foundations of the fortress.
As long as the egg remains unbroken, so the legend goes, Naples will survive; but should the egg crack, the castle – and the city – will fall.
It appears, then, that the egg has remained intact for more than 2,000 years – and has given the fortress its name, which literally means ‘Egg Castle’.
There have been grand fortifications on the spot of Castel dell’Ovo since Roman times, but it was the Normans (those castle-building experts!) who, in the 1100s, built high towers and fortifications to secure their hold of Naples.
The ‘Norman Ramp’ still exists, as the raised causeway to the castle. However, when the Normans fell, so did their towers – and the fortifications were rebuilt by the Angevin dynasty.
However, the 1503 French and Spanish invasion of Italy entirely transformed Castel dell’Ovo. The castle was almost entirely rebuilt in a Spanish style, to maximise its defensive potential – accentuating its wide, square base and bulky fortifications.
Nowadays, compared to other castles in Italy, the innards of Castel dell’Ovo aren’t particularly interesting – there’s little to see except some small art museums and tourist-shops.
However, the ramparts offer a breath-taking view of Naples, and the old cannons and fortifications give some idea of the might of Medieval warfare.
Some rooms and halls are presently being restored, and it’s hoped that much more of the castle will be opened to visitors in the forthcoming years.