Syracuse was a fortified Greek city, but little of this remains, other than Eurialus Castle on the hill at Belvedete to the west.  The first known castle was built by the Byzantine commander, George Maniakes (d.1042) who captured Syracuse from the Arabs for Emperor Michael IV of Byzantium (d.1041) in 1038.  One of the bronze rams he placed by the castle gate still exists in the city museum and 2 replicas exist in the castle museum. 

Maniakes had the moat dug to cut the promontory off from the city.  Presumably it was behind this that the Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) built the current castle between 1232 and 1240 on the site of its predecessor which had been destroyed in the earthquake of February 1169.  This was later called Maniace in honour of Maniakes.  A letter of Frederick sent on 17 November 1239 from Lodi in Lombardy concerned the castle's construction.  In it the emperor welcomed the diligence with which Richard Lentini, the guardian of the building works, gave for our castle of Syracusie and reassured him that his request for the munitioning of Syracuse and Lentini castles for the protection of Syracuse and our Saracens and workforce would be done with the supply of corn, barley, wine, cheese as well as other foodstuffs and clothes.  This was presumably done and by 1240 Syracuse castle was recorded as a functioning imperial castle. 

On 13 August l263, King Manfred (d.1266) wrote to two Swabian lords of Syracuse, Riccardo Vetrani and Giovanni Piedilepre.  After Manfred's death the castle passed to the Angevins and in May 1272 the fortress was recorded as the palace of Syracuse (palazzo Siracusa) when King Charles' chancellor set its garrison as either one knight or a squire.  At the same time Ortigia, the main island of Syracuse, was garrisoned with 12 knights.

In 1273 the palace was recorded as Siragusie castle.  The expulsion of King Charles (d.1285) during the Sicilian Vespers of 1282 led to King Peter III of Aragon (d.1285) and his wife, Constance of Sicily (d.1302), residing at the castle in their newly acquired kingdom.  In 1300 a truce was signed here between Frederick III of Sicily (d.1337) and King Robert Anjou of Naples (d.1343).  In 1302 Maniace castle became the seat of the Royal Chamber, a feudal domain given by Frederick III to his wife Eleanor Naples (d.1341) as a royal dowry.  In 1302 Maniace castle became the seat of the Royal Chamber, a feudal domain given by Frederick III to his wife Eleanor Naples (d.1341) as a royal dowry together with Francavilla, Lentini, Mineo and Vizzini.  It is presumed that the castle fell to the Angevins in 1325/6 in their seizure of much of the south coast of Sicily.

In 1448, after a splendid banquet held in the halls of the castle, Captain Giovanni Ventimiglia, had all the Sicilian guests accused of treason and killed.  For this he obtained from King Alfonso II (d.1495) the gift of the two Byzantine bronze rams, the niches for which still exist on either side of the main castle gate.  The fortress then remained a hereditary holding of the queens of Sicily until 1537.  At the end of century the city was refortified and Castello Maniace became a nodal point in the walls designed by the Spanish military engineer Ferramolino.  To this end the towers were cut down and the whole reinforced to take artillery, a new gun battery being built on the point.  A century later on 5 November 1704, the castle was ruined by an explosion in the powder magazine.  Yet another century on the castle, after having passed through Lord Nelson's hands, was again refortified for more modern cannons.  After the wars in 1838 a blockhouse was built which remained in use until the Second World War.

It seems possible that the Swabian castles of Augusta and Maniace were designed as signs of Imperial power to those entering the European territories of the emperor.  Certainly the great hall of Maniace is the greatest hall of its time in Europe.

The castle as built by Frederick II between 1232 and 1240 formed a square 167' long with 4 boldly projecting round towers at the corners, all the enceinte being a massive 12' thick.  This was all set on a 3 stepped plinth, which was octagonal underneath the towers.  The whole is built in a fine ashlar.

The 4 castle towers faced the four points of the compass, with the main entrance being to the northwest.  This was an ogival hole in the wall style affair and had a beautiful ogival arch surmounted by the Habsburg coat of arms - a double-headed eagle - put there in 1618.  The decorative nature of the gateway is striking compared with the bare ashlar walls around it.  On either side above the capitals are the remains of animal carvings.  Flanking the gate are the niches for the bronze rams.  The portal has 3 columns on either side, the wooden portcullis lying behind the first.  Before it was a drawbridge, filled in probably in the seventeenth century when an insignificant barbican, long since destroyed, was added.  Flanking the gate were two impressive Romanesque windows.  At each end of the walls were once tall towers which have now been cut down to only 2 floors.  The northeast front is similar to the northwest, except for there is no gate and 5 first floor Romanesque windows.  The southwest front is similar apart from there is a small, blocked door, similar in some respects to the gate to the northeast, but without a portcullis.  In this wall, near the west tower, is a staircase that goes down through the rock to a 3' square water source, known as the bath of the queen. The southeast front has just 3 windows and a ground floor entrance.  The corner towers all appear pretty similar, although old prints show that the south tower was a floor or two higher and housed a lighthouse.  Whether this was part of the original design or a later addition is unknown. 

Within the defensive enceinte there was one great hall, with the roof held up by 16 decorative columns and as many semi and quarter columns along the walls as well as 24 square-shaped ribbed crosses (32'x32' by 34' high).  Within the hall were 2 sets of fireplaces opposing each other.  Presumably these would have supplied some light to the rather dark interior due to the few and small Romanesque windows.  After the hall's collapse other buildings were built in the courtyard.  Recently restoration work has rebuilt much of the roof.

Surrounding the inner castle was an outer ward of various dates.  The earliest part seems to have been a mantlet which surrounded the ward, skirting around the towers in a similar manner to the middle ward at Harlech in Wales.  The Maniace mantlet appears to have been destroyed apart from the southwest side.  To east and west the mantlet has been grafted onto the later walls of the outer ward.  The bulk of the outer ward now lies to the northwest of the castle and appears to be late medieval at the earliest.  To the southeast is the nineteenth century gun fort, while to the north is the great ditch that is crossed by a Romanesque looking bridge, right down to the tiles used in its construction.

Why not join me here and at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry