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The renaissance of Murum by Frederick II

In 1232 the emperor Frederick II, king of the Reign of Sicily, decided moving into a little Apulia village, called Murum [1]. There, across the uncertain highlands of the Murgie, the Stupor Mundi ordered to settle for some days. The area seemed uninhabited, almost desolate. The same toponym Murum seemed to refer to the remains of a wall, partly in disuse, now embedded in the civil buildings. Certainly it didn’t seem a suitable place to host the court of an emperor! However, Frederick II imagined in that town, shrouded in the oblivion of the time, a great military and political potential. The decision was taken: by the will of the king, there the village of Altamura arose.


At the entrance of the historical center of Altamura a modern plate remembers the Frederick II reconstruction of Murum



Murum, a village of ancient origins

The city of Altamura has ancient and noble origins. Frederick II could observe the remains of a glorious city, which had its maximum splendor in ancient times.

The place had been inhabited since the Middle Paleolithic. The famous Altamura Man, a skeleton of the Homo neanderthalensis, was found inside the Lamalunga cave, near the village.


An image of the Altamura Man


However, the Peucezi established a first housing nucleus in Altamura (6th-7th century BC). After the conquest by the Romans, the city experimented a period of expansion and richness. It is also cited in the Tavola Peutingeriana, with the debated toponym of Sublupatia. 


The Tavola Peutingeriana with Murum, here called as Sublupatia


A new Murum by Frederick II 

When Frederick II arrived in the city, aware of a memorable past, decided to make it big. Firstly, he ordered the resettlement of the village, taking to Murum people from the nearest villages. The urban fabric started its changes; it partially corresponded to the current historical center. Quickly the residential areas and the commercial activities developed, the village expanded and the wall was repaired and reinforced.


A detail of Altamura


The core of this makeover process was the construction of its iconic village, the Cathedral. Frederick II spared no expense and ordered the construction of a Gothic-Romanesque building, which had the role of manifesting the power of the Emperor over the entire region. The name of the Cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta, expresses the importance that the king attributed to the entire village of Altamura. It wasn’t a simple religious construction, but an articulated building site for the city cathedral. Altamura was a bishopric and a Palatine Chapel, and it was considered so important to be subjected under the only jurisdiction of Frederick.  In fact, a papal bull by Innocent IV had approved the privileges given by the Emperor and the appointment of the first archpriest, Riccardo da Brindisi.


The cathedral of Altamura


Unfortunately the Emperor couldn’t see the Cathedral completion. Frederick II died the 13th of December 1250, and only four years later the building was completed.


The current cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is currently different from the Frederick construction. Unfortunately the building collapsed, as attested by an inscription in one of the side doors – known as Anjou door – probably due to an earthquake. The wall tombstone shows the date of 1316 and then it probably is the year of a stylistical change.

“Annus millenus sextus denusque trigenus currebat certus regit et rex regna robertus lux non sorte bona iani vigesima nona o scellus o quantum templum ruit hoc fleo sanctum consilii nati reparaverunt arte probati urbe bitontina vivat gens altamurina”

 Several decorative works related to the stylistic features of the Bitonto workers belong to this reconstruction of the 14th century [2].


The translation and the reconstruction of the facade 

It is ascertained that the facade of the Frederik cathedral had a different orientation and likely another structure. Today it faces east, whilst originally it wasn’t. In 1485, the date of the elevation to a collegiate church, it was decided to extend the building, particularly for obtaining a largest choir. This was realized by a surprising trick: the orientation of the church was reversed, building a new facade in the ancient apse area. The new and iconic prospectus, now the symbol of the city of Altamura, was obtained reusing the architectural elements of the original church.


The portal 

Among them, the beautiful portal is enriched with friezes and sculptures, dating back to the Anjou period (1356-1374). It is embedded inside an elegant prothyrum which bases on two stone lions of the 16th century. The prothyrum ends with a tympanum, where the coat of arms of Luis of Anjou and his wife, Giovanna I, are placed. Above, the statue of the Blessing Christ is seated on a stone throne. The portal is a Bible of stone, rich of sculptures from the Bible. The Last Supper in the architrave is in opposite to the Virgin enthroned in the portal lunette. Other 22 scenes from the Gospels are sculpted over the arches of the splay.


The main portal


The rose window and the bell towers 

A rose window with fifteen rays and the central bas relief of the Agnus Dei probably pertains to the original Frederick facade. Nonetheless, it can also date to the 17th century. Instead, the two bell towers are different, although they seem similar. In fact, one dates back to the Frederick period, whereas the other (left side) was built between 1551 and 1555. Moreover, the towers originally had only two orders: the bottom one is Romanesque and the upper one is characterized by Gothic bifora. Only in the 18th century the archbishop Antonio de Rinaldis (1727-1746) ordered the insertion of a third level with a dome in both the bell towers. In this period the loggia of the facade, with the statues of the Virgin of the Assumption, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, was inserted.


A view from below


Interior of the Altamura cathedral 

The visitor who passes through the Gothic-Romanesque portal can be seized by a profound wonder. The simple forms of the exterior are counterbalanced by the gorgeous interior, realized in the 19th century.


Interior of the cathedral


A painted stucco and the coloured marbles fill the space aggressively. If the simplicity of the exterior is revealing of the man heart, each element of the interior is magnificently filler.


The details of the matronei well describe the contrast between the ancient and the new



Hypothesis and symbologies

A famous hypothesis of the previous century affirmed that the Altamura cathedral was built on a preexisting temple of the Great Greece period. Firstly a building dedicated to Castor and Pollux was proposed, as sustained by Domenico Santoro. The historian of the 17th century argued that some friezes with the sculptures of the Dioscuri were present in the capitals of the choir.

Recently Vitangelo Frizzale (half of the 18th century) has speculated that the presence of a statue of a two-faced Janus was near the original facade and it would demonstrate that the ancient temple was dedicated to the god. However, it was discovered that the statue represented a Saracen. This is a basic symbology with an apotropaic function. The head of the Saracen had the role of exorcise the danger coming from the enemy invasion. Further, the sculpture was an idealized figure of the devil: located outside the building, it couldn’t enter the church of God.


The Medieval bestiary 

The Agnus Dei opposed the figure of the Saracen. It is located at the center of the rose window. It is by the sacrifice of Christ, led like a lamb to the slaughter of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53,7) that the eternal enemy is defeated forever. The simbology of Christ is also recalled by the stone lions of the prothyrum, which ideally watch over the Church.


A stone lyon at the entrance portyrum


On the main prospect a nice statue of elephant faces; in the exegesis of the Medieval bestiary it is image of purity and temperance.


The eight-petal flower

Finally, on the left jamb of the central portal there is an eight-petal flower.


The eight-petal flower on the jamp of the main portal


It is not a randomness, since the number eight represents the totality of the cosmos: the seven days of the creation, to which the eternal day adds. Moreover, eight is a recurring number in the Frederick architecture. An example is the redundant numerology of the fortress so loved by Frederick II, Castel del Monte in Andria.



Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)



[1] Notizie storiche della città di Gravina, Domenico Nardone.

[2] Storie inedite della città di Altamura, Tommaso Berloco, Associazione Turistica Altamurana Pro Loco, 1985.




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