Transformation in Trani – Bringing the Past to Life

Returning to Trani early in January on a storm-clouded but pleasant winter day we took the opportunity to divert to visit Castel del Monte.

From your first view of the pale limestone edifice coming up the road from 10 km away towards the ‘massive’ atop the low mountain, Castel del Monte is there to be seen. It is a lighthouse for wanderers, crusaders, and even sailors out to sea 20 km away, for seekers and searchers. As we get closer the octagonal architecture of the ‘castle’ and the pale limestone construction become apparent and it is obvious that Frederick II had this constructed as a mathematical exercise. We read that the golden ratio is a basis for the construction.

Walking around the castle exposes the eight octagonal towers connecting the central octagon. Entering the edifice the geometry is overpowering, an octagonal courtyard, pentagonal rooms. The only splash of colour is on the window and door frames produced in ‘breccia corallina’, a composite of magenta red corallite and limestone cement. Why use this erodible material, what other purpose did it fulfil? This is not a hunting lodge. This is not a Turkish Bath or a defensive castle. There are no elements to support those theories.

It seems that this castle was designed by Frederick II and his sages for an esoteric purpose (possibly related to the crusades), and with his death just one year after its completion, its design role in his kingdom may never have been fulfilled. It seems that similar errors of assumption were made by Evans with his attribution of the Mycenaean mausoleum of Knossos in Crete to be a palace of the kings – which in effect it was, but not one for the king’s lifetime.

In Castel del Monte, it is the ‘water’ troughs at (medieval man) waist height around each room and the dam-like steps between each pentagonal room that are so convincing that this is a building for meditation or esoteric/religious ceremony not war. The ultimate purpose of the transition from room to room may not be known unless historians can decipher the mission for his life that Frederick assumed after the 4th crusade. Whatever else its purpose seems to have been translation and transformation.

About a half hour drive away we reconnect with Frederick II in the castle of Trani, nestled at the shore of the Adriatic Sea. This castle of Trani has been transformed several times over the nearly 800 years since its commencement in 1230, and it was not a regular haunt of Frederick but of his favourite (illegitimate) son Manfred.

Frederick was a wandering king, over all of Apulia and south through Sicily to his now final resting place in the cathedral of Palermo where he cohabited with a young woman for the past 765 years. Why he travelled so continuously, whether it was in pursuit of or to escape his many ladies, or in search of the miraculous, we have to ask him in our dreams. His life, though, had many condensations in stone – castles, and Trani is one of the most continually useful. At this time it holds a wonderful exhibition of Archimedean history, mathematics and physics, sufficient to enthral and challenge all old enough to read and not too old to forget.

Just a few minutes across the piazza along the sea wall stands the Cathedral of Trani. It is a curious yet magnificent construction, a transformation of the need to have a cathedral to compete with other religions in the locality? Why else do we find the cathedral of Trani dedicated to a Greek pilgrim who just happened to expire in Trani? So keen were the local populace and the Vatican for a grand site of worship that the structure was consecrated before being completed. The style is of a basilica and is bereft of any stained glass windows, or in effect of any decoration but an occasional icon and relic, plus a pair of magnificent bronze doors preserved to the side of the basilica.

This cathedral emanates peace, it does not express any conflict, its wooden beams and roof stand high above the worshippers. Visitors all appear to be affected by the quiet grace of the building.

Also in the piazza, across towards the old city from the entrance to the cathedral is the Museum of Trani, a Diocesan and Synagogic museum transformed and expanded by a ‘private counsellor’ of the city, Natale Pagano. This Trani native, a man of great enthusiasm and energy, contrived a transformation to add the history of typewriters donated from his private collection to SECA Foundation.

For us, the history of the typewriter is the story of transformation, not just of the evolution of the mechanically marvellous typewriter to the electronic keyboard, but of the transformation role of the typewriter in transmission of knowledge and stories.

As I wandered around admiring the hundreds of typewriters and typing devices, I was drawn to consider the role of these devices as transforms of the voice, of stenographers notes and of the written word. Devices of enormous complexity, first realised by Sholes in 1873 in USA, typewriters have revolutionised communication as much as Marconi did with telecommunications, and as much as the automobile has for transport.

The typed word, sentence, paragraph and story – outcome of digitisation of keys by hand, seem so much more than a Fourier transform of sound. Consequently, I was amused to find a keyboard with a wooden box where the keys represented notes and a tune could be composed from words of a sentence. The song of communication can be found in Trani.

Each time we visit Trani we find more places of wonder among the pale limestone blocks, sites and collections celebtrating transformation and renaissance. Yet it maintains images of the past. The story of its fishermen in maintaining its history as an Adriatic city is still to come.