Crowded, swarming, animated, lively: Barletta has preserved, visibly and vividly, the distinctive characteristics of the important commercial marketplace that it was in antiquity. A city where it seems the sea is never seen, and yet, suddenly it appears, in an unusually free and vast panorama. A middle class, mercantile city with an ancient appearance and complex structure, more than a simple “maritime” city.
On the sea, the Federician Castle, symbol of Swabian power and of all the powers that followed through the centuries is today also the cardinal place of the city's institutions and culture. It recalls the historical privileged and crucial position of Barletta: place of incoronations, of the promulgation of laws, of parades, point of departure for the Crusades and ideal bridge to the Holy Land, customs headquarters, strategic outpost for Federico II and then undisputed kingdom for Manfredi . . . a junction of extreme importance for the whole territory.
Starting at the Castle and following the layout of the ancient, extensive and mighty walling, time and again consolidated and rebuilt and, finally, progressively destroyed, the original Norman layout of the city can be distinguished. However, upon entering the centre of the city, a surprisingly rich and complex stratification is evident. It is soon clear that the dense residential fabric of the old centre is organised according to various and highly codified criteria (the neighbourhood of the “seven rues,” for example, is organised on the model of the French bastides); that it is cut and delineated by deep and intentional visual perspectives; that the buildings, often imposing and valuable, are located within true “urban scenographies”; and that it has, in every epoch of its history, been a rich, carefully thought out, densely planned city with ambitious perspectives.
The important Medieval churches are evidence of a constant religious presence (during the epoch of the Crusades, Barletta was the seat of monastic and knightly orders), while the buildings from the Angevin and Aragonese epochs (and also the presence of a mysterious and imposing ancient monument to the Colossus, called Heraclius, located in the city centre near the church of the Holy Sepulchre) are symbolic evidence of the power and richness of the city. The legend of the famous Challenge of 1503 between French and Italians (Italians who, in truth, defended the Spanish power) reassumes, in some way, the important role that this city has always had in history: that of a privileged theatre of events, a symbolic battlefield more than a real one, where the main European power games were played.
From this historical role the city has borrowed its structure and its nature as a multiform and vital community, still fundamental today in the regional economy. The important development the city underwent in the 1800's only highlighted and amplified these characteristics that are, effectively, the foundations of the modern European identity. So, it is not strange that this city is the birthplace of one of the few Italian artists of the 1800's who knew how to capture the intimate essence of the evolution of the middle class and of the sensiblerie of the century: De Nittis, famous impressionist painter. A view of the whole, unique and even strange, that demonstrates the curious and aware face of today's Barletta, can be found in the gardens in front of the castle, which were recently redone: at a glance one can see the Castle, the Cathedral and the large hypermarket, followed by a profusion of industrial and commercial centres, in an idealised ribbon of history, culture, identity and dynamism.