Altamura is an important historical town situated in the heart of the Puglia (Apulia) region of south-east Italy best known for its cathedral and Museum of Archaeology.
Altamura’s historic centre, with its lovely narrow streets and “claustri” (small, street-facing courtyards) boasts a considerable artistic patrimony. The heart of the old town is the superb Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the only cathedral constructed by the Emperor Frederick II. An outstanding example of Puglia’s Romanesque and Frederick’s Gothic architecture, it boasts one of the richest portals in Puglia. Also of interest is the National Archaeological Museum which houses artefacts from a cave known as Grotta di Lamalunga, including the famous Altamura Man, the fossil remains of a man who lived between 250,000 and 400,000 years ago, and Dinosaur Tracks from the Pontrelli Quarry.
Altamura’s main landmark is the Romanesque cathedral, begun in 1232 by Frederick II and restored in 1330 and 1521–47. It is one of the four Palatine churches of Apulia, the others being the cathedral of Acquaviva delle Fonti, the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari and the church of Monte Sant’Angelo sul Gargano.
The construction is influenced by that of Bari, but also with strong Gothic influences typical of the time of Frederick II. The orientation of the construction was probably changed during the 14th century restoration, to which also belongs the northern portal opening on the square; a second bell tower, the altar area and the sacristy are instead from the 16th century.
Externally, the main features are the rose window, with 15 small columns radially intermingling, and the Gothic portal, set into the entrance portico standing on two stone lions. On the arch of portals are sculpted 22 panels with scenes from Jesus’ life. The interior, with a nave and two aisles, has stone presepe by Altobello Persio (1587).
The medieval walls, erected by Frederick II, rest upon the megalithic walls of an ancient city of unknown name. These early walls are of rough blocks of stone without mortar.
Ancient tombs with fragments of vases and terracottas have also been found, of which there is a collection at the Museo Archeologico Statale di Altamura. There are caves which have been used as primitive tombs or dwellings, and a group of some fifty tumuli near Altamura.
Some thirty thousand dinosaur footprints were recently discovered in Altamura’s territory “contrada Pontrelli”, making it a major site for the study of dinosaurs.
Altamura Cathedral is at the heart of the city and was built between 1232 and 1242 by Frederick II of Swabia, who dedicated it to the Virgin.
The façade, dominated by its two towers, has a portal that dates from the 14th century, and is carved with scenes from the New Testament while the rose window dates from the 16th century.
The rose window in the facade is a rare example of 14th century Apulian style and there is also a Gothic portal, probably from the early 15th century. It is rich with decorations and sculptures, contained in a projecting porch supported on two stone lions, redone in 1533 and guarding the entrance to the Cathedral.
Carved on the arches of the portal are 22 scenes of Jesus’ life from birth until the death and resurrection.
While you are here you should also visit the Altamura Municipal Museum which is an impressive archaeology museum with many artefacts from the region dating back up to 2500 years.
The museum is in five sections arranged on two floors, to cover the paleolithic, prehistoric, archaic, classical and Hellenistic Ages. The Exhibition Hall, with an exhibition of the ‘Prehistory of food’ is open to the public, and in the porch there is a small section with some Roman funeral inscriptions.