The Ursino Castle (Castello Ursino) of Catania was built by Frederick II of Swabia in the 13th century. The manor had a certain visibility in the course of the Sicilian Vespers, as the seat of the parliament and, later, residence of the Aragonese sovereigns including Frederick III. Today it is the seat of the civic museum of the Etna city, formed mainly by the Biscari and Benedictine collections.
History of Ursino Castle
On the site where the current building stands, one of the most ancient parts of the Catanese settlement is witnessed, dating back to the first housing phase of the Greek Katane polis. Although in the past the presence of a Norman tower – the Tower of Don Lorenzo – has been hypothesized here, not only is there no trace of it, but scholars tend to consider the hypothesis of a Norman pre-existence on the site of the Ursino priva castle of scientific foundations and tend to seek it on another site in the historic city center. On the origins of the building, although there is no concrete evidence to associate it with Frederick II, scholars tend to identify it with the castrum mentioned in the letter addressed to its architect, Riccardo da Lentini, whose building site was still to start in 1239.
Federiciana Age of Ursino Castle
The Ursino Castle was probably built by Frederick II of Swabia and built not before 1239. The emperor had probably thought of the manor inside a more complex coastal defensive system of eastern Sicily (among others also the Maniace castle in Syracuse and that of Augusta can be traced back to the same project) and as a symbol of Swabian imperial authority and power in a city often hostile and rebellious to Frederick. The project and the direction of the works were entrusted to the military architect Riccardo da Lentini. In the early 15th century, the building is surrounded by the city and several huts sit alongside it. King Martino I of Sicily in 1405 cleared the space around the manor, to obtain a square of arms, demolishing among others the convent of San Domenico, located there since 1313. It was probably also equipped with a drawbridge. According to Correnti it was built on the seashore by Frederick II and the name “Ursino” given to the castle derives from Castrum Sinus or the “castle of the gulf”
Inside the castle some of the most important moments of the Vespers war were lived. In 1295 the Sicilian Parliament met there, which declared Giacomo II to have fallen and elected Federico III as king of Sicily. During 1296 the castle was taken by Robert of Anjou and subsequently conquered again by the Aragonese. King Frederick inhabited the manor from 1296, making it the Aragonese court and so did his successors Pietro, of Ludovico, Federico IV and Maria. In addition, the Parliament room was also the burial chamber for the body of King Frederick III in 1337. In 1347 the so-called Peace of Catania was signed inside the castle between Giovanni di Randazzo and Giovanna d’Angiò.
Graffiti of Prisoners of Ursino Castle
The long period during which the castle was used as a prison involved considerable structural changes, since the Frederick’s castle, despite its size, did not have a sufficient number of rooms that could be used as a prison. Thus the great halls of the ground floor were subdivided by new walls and floors, which created smaller rooms where prisoners were like the damned souls in the so-called “dammusi”, that is, small cells, obscure and infested with mice, scorpions and tarantulas. A trace of this page of the castle’s history can be found in the hundreds of graffiti that fill the walls and door and window jambs of all the rooms on the ground floor (except those on the north side) and also the inner courtyard.
These are coats of arms, but also of heads and faces generally drawn in elevation, sometimes with a caricature intent. Among the figurative representations, those of greatest interest are found in the courtyard. It is a crenellated tower and four three-masted boats, types of galleons in vogue between five and seven hundred, described with great precision. The symbols of a religious nature are also very frequent, in particular the Cross and the instruments of the Passion, in whose representation the prisoner brought his suffering closer to that of Christ. The most interesting example is found in the courtyard, a large cross with Solomon’s knots at the top, with the ladder, the sponge, the pincers and the hammer.
Often it is just a name, a date (the oldest shows 1526) and the phrase “Vinni carceratu”. But the repertoire is vast and includes references to the guilt attributed to the prisoner, with respect to which he declares himself innocent, victim of conspiracies or betrayals, and then sentences or reflections dictated by the harshness of life in prison. Among these a certain Don Rocco Gangemi, who wrote: Miseru whose troppu ama and troppu cridi. Particularly interesting, on the portal on the south side of the courtyard, are two long sentences that show precise and precise references to the contemporary production of the poets Antonio Veneziano and Antonio Maura, and a lapidary engraving on the meaning of life: Mundus rota est. The language of these inscriptions is mostly Sicilian, but it also uses Latin, Spanish and a mixture of Sicilian and Latin.