Melfi is situated on a hill of volcanic origin at the foot of Mount Vulture, in the north-west of the Basilicata region of southern Italy. Already established as a pre–Roman town, Melfi acquired importance in the Middle Ages as the capital of the Normans.
The Old Town of Melfi was entirely surrounded by walls built mostly by Normans and now extending over four kilometers. Further phases in the construction of the walls dates back to the Swabian and Aragonese periods.
The architectural heritage of Melfi was significantly affected by the earthquakes of 1851 and 1930, but the powerful structure of the Norman Castle survived. The oldest part of the castle, of a square shape with corner towers, had its first expansion under the reign of Roger II (1095-1154), who in 1129 built the central part of the complex. This was expanded by Frederick II of Swabia, with the so-called ‘Marcangione’ Tower” and the tank in the back courtyard.
The castle has an irregular polygonal shape with eight towers. The perimeter of the walls, punctuated by massive towers, was built by the Anjou between 1277 and 1281, under the direction of Riccardo da Foggia, and later by the Royal architect Pierre d'Angicourt.
The castle became the residence of Charles I of Anjou [1226-1285], who ordered further construction around the throne room in 1280; then of Giovanni II Caracciolo [1449-1487] in 1460 and Marcantonio del Carretto [1528-1578] in 1531. Del Carretto was step-son of Andrea Doria and it was this Doria family that carried out important work on the building to make it better suited to the needs of a 16th century nobleman.
Today the castle is the seat of the National Archaeological Museum, which exhibits numerous archaeological finds from the surrounding areas.
Among the exhibits is the famous “sarcophagus of Rampolla” "(so named from the village where it was found in 1856), one of the most important examples of the Asian art school and dating from the second century AD. On the sarcophagus is represented a temple with some figures of gods and heroes, with a cover depicting the deceased.
Melfi is a city very rich in religious buildings, many with very valuable artworks.
Among the religious buildings to visit in Melfi is the Cathedral of the Assumption, built in 1155 but rebuilt several times after earthquakes. Only the tower remains of the original building built by the Norman, William the Bad. After the Norman conquest a new cathedral was built to replace the earlier church,and dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the will of King Roger II. The bell tower has a square base, a height of 56 metres and a perimeter of 37 meters.
Inside the Cathedral there are some very ancient and valuable works of art, including an icon of Our Lady of Constantinople, in Byzantine style; a wooden choir dating from the second half of the 16th century by Mastro Giorgio Albanese; and some wooden sculptures with the symbols of the four evangelists.
Visit next the Church of St. Anthony, whose construction took place in 1423 and was restored after 1851. It was badly damaged by the army of Odet de Foix [1485-1528] in 1528, during the siege of Melfi and resisted the earthquakes of 1731 and 1752, but that of 1851 caused severe damage.
In Romanesque and Gothic style it contains some frescoes, a wooden statue of "St. Anthony and Child" painted in gold and a 16th century picture by the Neapolitan school.
In the Church of San Teodoro there is a medium-sized wooden crucifix and a statue of the “Desolate Our Lady”, while the Church of the Carmine in Melfi dates from the 16th century and was once part of the Carmelite monastery. In 1648 the church was completely rebuilt and embellished with frescoes and paintings. The façade is in stone and has two glass-protected niches with statues of St. And San Antonio Irene, and an iron cross on the tympanum.
The church interior has a painting of St. Onofrio, by an unknown artist but probably influenced by the works of Caravaggio (1571-1610). Another remarkable painting here is "The massacre of the innocents" in the late Mannerist style and dating from the 17th century.
In Melfi there are also numerous other churches, some rather quaint including the Rock Church of the Holy Spirit, carved into the rock about 900 meters high in the woods of Mount Vulture. This church holds a statue of the Virgin Mary which is carried through the town during the feast of Pentecost, in memory of the battle between the French and Spanish against Melfi.
The Church of San Lorenzo dating back to 1120 and at that time belonging to the Abbey of St.Hippolytus in Monticchio, is probably the oldest church in Melfi. Octagonal in shape it is supported by the base of a 12th century tower.
There are also numerous civic buildings to discover in Melfi. These include the Bishop's Palace, originally an 11th century Norman building and now in baroque style. Inside there is a gallery with some paintings by Cristiano Danona (16th century). It is also seat to the Bishop's library, which holds some rare documents.
The Araneo Palace has a Renaissance style façade of but the rest of the structure dates back to medieval times. Conclude your tour of the Melfi palaces with the Mandini Palace, in neo-classical style but which merges very well with other aspects of the renaissance style.
In addition to a wealth of historic monuments, Melfi has also maintained a close relationship with the past in its cuisine. The most traditional dish is the "Maccuarnar", a typical pasta dish in Melfi made with a special rolling pin that allows the cook to obtain the precious "macaroni".
No less characteristic are the Lagane di castagna ["of chestnut"], prepared with a particular variety of noodles made from wheat flour. Finally, another typical product of Melfi is the "Pancotto" made with bread, potatoes and turnips, boiled together in the same pot and served with a fried oil, garlic and chilli.
Most notable among the regional main courses is the “Cucinidd”, lamb cooked with bacon, sausage, tomatoes, eggs and thistles.