Frederick II, universally referred to as “Stupor Mundi” -the Wonder of the World- , was born in Jesi from Henry VI Hohenstaufen of Swabia and Constance of Hauteville.
He was crowned king of Sicily in 1198, he was enlightened, a scientist, a poet, a philosopher and a despotic prince as well. Wherever he would go to, he enjoyed being surrounded by an amazing court of elephants, Arabian camels, lynx, and several other exotic animals.
He died in 1250 and was buried in the Cathedral of Palermo, in “his Sicily”, up to his own express desire. By his death the sicilian imperial dream came to an end.
According to Frederick II’s plans, castles were built all over his kingdom, particularly interesting indeed for their strictly geometrical shapes that the king himself had wanted.
In Sicily they constitute an homogeneous and representative group of buildings designed for strategical and defensive purposes, as a reflection of the society of that time, they were centres of military as well as cultural life, the latter being so rich and active during Frederick’s times.
Frederick II’s castles were born as citadels fortified on the outside but bright with natural light inside. In Sicily the most famous ones are: the castles of Augusta and Milazzo with square towers and the castles in Catania and Siracusa featuring circular towers.
The Ursino Castle
The name of the castle seems coming from “Castrum Sinus”, that is “Castle of the Gulf”, as it was originally located on the cliff by the sea. In 1669 the lava stream from Mt.Etna eruption separated it from the coastline covering both the moat that surrounded it and Saint George’s bastion.
The Ursino Castle is located in the centre of a big square named after Frederick II. Built between 1239 and 1250 the emperor appointed its construction to the architect Riccardo da Lentini, as it is written in a letter dated november 24th 1239 by which the emperor invited the citizens of Catania to pay two hundred ounces of gold, as a contribution to the castle construction. The Catanese people did not like this taxation therefore threatened rebellion.
The Emperor never lived in the castle. Yet, between the end of the XIV century and the beginning of the XV century it became official residence of various kings and their courts, under both the Anjou’s and the Aragonese families. There, Pietro of Aragon held the meeting of the members of the first Sicilian Parliament.
The building is a large complex with a central court, each side of which is about 50 meters long, its walls are made of lava stone and are 2,50 meters thick.
The emperor loved geometrical shapes indeed, being the square castle plan featured by four corner towers and four central semi-towers two of which are still visible.
On the front, the entrance opens by a Gothic arch, towered by the Swabian coat of arms picturing an eagle with a hare in its claws.
Throughout the centuries the castle was transformed and restructured, during the XVI century it was surrounded with city walls and it was further fortified in the XVII century.
In 1837 it was used as a prison, therefore in the courtyard are still visible some prisoners’ graffiti.
The restauration works which started in 1932, plans put in motion by the “Società di Storia Patria”(Homehistory Society) and by the great novelist Federico De Roberto, completely changed the use of the castle which was handed over to the city of Catania as Civic Museum in 1934.
In the last twenty years, the building was furthermore restored and enriched with an external lighting that enhances its splendour.
Inside, it hosts the Biscari’s, Asmundo’s and Benedictines’ collections, besides a rich picture-gallery where most of the artworks are donations from private collectors from Catania.