Castello Maniace (Maniace Castle)

Panoramica del Castello Maniace di Siracusa
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Castello Maniace is one of the most important Frederician buildings in Sicily. The original building, a castle with a square base and four corner towers, dates back to 1240. Over the years, however, numerous modifications and additions were made to the structure. The castle’s history is intertwined with that of a bronze statue of a ram, now housed in the Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo. However, this is only one of the fascinating stories and interesting facts connected with this extraordinary building.

History of Castello Maniace

The name Castello Maniace refers to the Byzantine commander, Giorgio Maniace, who probably built an early military building in the 11th century, of which there is now no trace. The current layout is made up of a central core dating back to the Swabian period, to which new structures were added over the centuries. The Swabian castle was built between 1232 and 1240 on the orders of Frederick II. Various modifications were carried out during the 16th century to insert cannon batteries and connect the castle to the rest of the fortifications ordered by Charles V. In the 17th century, the military architect, Carlos de Grunembergh, had the diamond-pointed fortification at the end of the promontory, the so-called Forte della Vignazza, added. In 1704, lightning caused one of the towers serving as a powder magazine to explode, completely destroying the north-eastern wing of Castello Maniace. 

Interesting fact: In 2018, a Staufer Stele was placed to the left of the entrance. This is a commemorative memorial erected at symbolic sites for the Hohenstaufen, the dynasty of Frederick II.

The bronze rams of Castello Maniace

La riproduzione in bronzo di uno dei due arieti del Castello Maniace di Siracusa

Castello Maniace has been the scene of several historical events over the centuries. In 1300, for example, Robert of Anjou and Frederick of Aragon signed a truce in this castle. The building has also hosted Queens Constance, Mary of Sicily and Blanche of Evreux. However, a very important event that took place in 1448 links the manor to two bronze statues of rams from the Greek era.

Giovanni da Ventimiglia and the Massacre of the Barons

When Castello Maniace was completed in 1240, there were two bronze rams on either side of the entrance gate. One of these statues has been lost, while the other is now on display in the Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo. The statues that can be seen today are instead reproductions donated by the Rotary Club of Syracuse. The two rams date back to the 3rd century BC and their history is closely linked to that of the castle. In 1448, King Alfonso the Magnanimous sent the commander Giovanni da Ventimiglia to Syracuse with the aim of putting down revolts organised by certain Syracusan barons. The commander organised a banquet and invited the nobles he considered to be the main culprits, then had them beheaded. For his loyalty to the crown, Giovanni da Ventimiglia received the two rams as a gift and had them taken to his castle in Castelbuono.

The journey of the bronze rams from Syracuse to Palermo 

In 1485, the Ventimiglia family rebelled against the king and were, therefore, exiled. The rams were confiscated and taken to Palermo, first to Palazzo Steri and then to the Castello a Mare. In 1735, the statues were transferred to Naples, but returned to the Palazzo Reale in Palermo soon afterwards. Their presence has been documented both by Goethe, who described them in one of his letters, and by the French painter, Jean-Pierre Houël. The statues are, in fact, depicted in one of the engravings in his Voyage pittoresque. During the uprisings of 1848, a cannonball destroyed one of the two statues, which was then melted down, while the other was only partially damaged. After its restoration, King Vittorio Emanuele II decided to donate the statue to the Royal Archaeological Museum of Palermo (now the Salinas Archaeological Museum).

Architecture and exterior of Castello Maniace

A visit to Castello Maniace in Syracuse begins in an open space that was the courtyard of the former military garrison, Caserma Abela. This leads to a stone bridge built at the beginning of the 20th century to replace the original Spanish drawbridge. The castle entrance portal is made of marble and is richly decorated. It has an oval shape with small columns, capitals and animal figures. Charles V’s coat of arms was added above the arch in 1614. On either side of the portal are the brackets where the bronze rams were placed. The original Swabian building consists of a square with 58-metre sides. At the four corners are four circular towers, each with a spiral staircase. The Vignazza fort, the structure added in 1850 on the extreme tip of the promontory, has two floors and a diamond-shaped layout. 

Interior of Castello Maniace

Vista del grande salone interno del Castello Maniace di Siracusa

Before the powder magazine exploded, the interior of Castello Maniace consisted of one large room. The great hall had sixteen free-standing columns, four corner half-columns and sixteen perimeter half-columns, supporting twenty-five bays covered by ribbed cross vaults. At the corners, there were four large fireplaces. The columns were made of limestone with a crochet pattern on the capitals, typical of Swabian architecture.

Interesting fact: A number of initials can be seen on the blocks forming the walls of the west side and on the inner walls of Castello Maniace. These are the ‘stone cutters’ signs. These were the craftsmen who worked the boulders extracted from the quarries, transforming them into parallelepipeds with predetermined measurements. The sign was used to identify the work so as to get paid for it. 

Possible symbolic meaning of the castle’s interior

Sicilian scholar, Giuseppe Agnello, has proposed a link between the 25-arched structure of the great hall of Castello Maniace and a miniature in Pietro da Eboli’s Liber ad honorem Augusti, preserved in the Bern Library. The 24 crosses represent the fiefdoms and territories of the Holy Roman Empire, while the central area, the twenty-fifth partition, in which the Arethusa spring is depicted, indicates the Regnum Siciliae (or the Kingdom of Sicily). Art historian, Guglielmo De Angelis d’Ossat, on the other hand, highlighted the influence of Islamic styles. Certain characteristics of fortified mosques seem to be present, to which is added the fact that the axis of the castle is oriented towards Mecca. It is possible that Frederick II acquired this kind of influence during his crusade between 1228 and 1229.

The Bagno della Regina

In the south-west wall of Castello Maniace’s great hall is a vaulted staircase leading up to the so-called ‘Bagno della Regina’ or ‘Queen’s Bathroom’. The 41 surviving steps lead to a small room with a basin, probably fed by the same fissure from which the Fonte Aretusa and the fountain in the hypogeum of the Church of San Filippo originate. Along the walls there are some Hebrew characters engraved. For this reason, some scholars think that this area of the castle was linked to Jewish purification rites.

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