History of Acireale


See Acireale guide for highlights and historic monuments

The question about the origins and antiquity of Acireale is rather complex. Because it is also rather debatable we start with the more recent history - see further down this page for the rather complicated discussions about the Origins of Ancient Acireale.

Early history of Acireale

In the early Middle Ages, "Aci" (or "Iachium", "Jaci Castellum", "Jaci") was first occupied by the Arabs and then by the Normans.

With regard to the 'known' history of Acireale, we refer to the studies of M. Donato, who drew a brief but thorough profile of the town. Professor Donato shows that the name of “Aci” actually joins together several villages of an extensive wooded area near Mount Etna, which originally referred to an impregnable “castrum” [fortress] on the sea, a few kilometers from Catania.

Aci Bonaccorsi, Aci Castello, Aci Catena, Aci Platani, Acireale, Aci S. Antonio, and Aci San Filippo formed the hamlets of a "Universitas" (a term that applies to all the people who lived in the hamlets around the "castrum") which were united from their origins.

The history of Acis began with the Norman conquest of Sicily. On April 26, 1092 Count Roger (1031-1101) named Abbot Angerio as Bishop of Catania, and he re-established the Diocese after the Saracen domination. He assigned to the Abbot "Iachium cum omnibus pertinentiis suis.": “lachium” was the “castellum Iachium” with the people who gravitated around it, and the “pertinentiis” were the 'outbuildings', or the so-called "forest of Aci" with its suburbs:

“[…] Similarly, We give to the above said Abbot and all his successors a castle called 'Iachium' with all its  relative outbuildings. I, Roger, also give all the Saracens, at that time who lived in Catania and in the castle of 'Jachio'” [9].

In 1169 the territory of Aci was devastated by an earthquake of great magnitude (tradition tells us that the inhabitants of Aci were distributed across various hamlets that still take the prefix "Aci.")

Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) in 1233 deprived the landowners of their right to Acis and he confiscated the ancient castle of "Acicastello", but in 1266 Charles I of Anjou (1226-1285) returned the castle to the Bishop of Catania. Towards the end of the 13th century, at the time of the Sicilian Vespers, the Castle and the “Terra di Jaci” were granted in fief to Ruggero di Lauria (1250-1305).

History from the 15th century

Then, Alphonso the Magnanimous (1396-1458) in 1420 granted the castle of Jaci to Ferdinando Velasquez for 10,000 florins. From that moment forwards Aci became "a barony in all respects" and Velasquez took the title of “Baron of Aci.”

Around 1434 Aci was again sold by the Sovereign to Giovan Battista Platamone for about 20,000 florins. However, the town managed to escape the feudal rule and it return to the State property, but with Charles V (1500-1558) in need of money, the town again appeared in danger of being sold to some feudal vassal, so Aci only kept its freedom by paying a large annual tribute to the emperor.

In the 16th century "Aci Aquilia" became a more populous, rich and important town than the other "Aci" hamlets, so Aci-Aquilia assumed a prominent role at the expense of the other hamlets. It is in this context that there were various attempts by local historians to "dignify" the “New Town”, linking its origins to the ancient "Xiphonia" and "Aquilia" (see 'ancient origins of Acireale' below).

Acireale from the 17th century to the present

The supremacy of Aci-Aquilia was reinforced during the 17th century and into the next century, when the new town had a long dispute with Catania to control the maritime trade of the coast of Mount Etna. In the 17th century the town was ruled by Princes Riggio until the advent of the Savoy. We should also mention a substantial urban development:

“in the historic period between 1531 and 1642, when Aci-Aquilia was called “Aci Reale", by law of Philip IV of Spain [1605-1665]" [10].

This was a period of economic growth for Acireale, but it suffered a setback during the earthquake of the late 17th century. The town was rebuilt in a typically Baroque style and in 1844 the Diocese of Acireale was cretade, which thus escaped the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Catania.

After an initial phase in favour of the Bourbons of Naples (1837) the town participated in the struggles for independence, finally entering into the kingdom of Italy in 1861 [11].

Origins of ancient Acireale

According to tradition, the development of the city's name would follow this route: "Xiphonia"> "Akis"> "Jachium"> "Aquilia (Vetere and Nova)> “Jaci” (16th century) and Acireale. But this “family tree” of names shows clear ambiguities that studies have increasingly widened.

Let's start with "Xiphonia", which by this plan would be the original source of the name of Acireale. According to a theory that was supported by local scholars for a long time, especially by Lionardo Vigo (1799-1879), Acireale was the direct heir of an ancient lost city called "Xiphonia.”

Truth to tell, the subject was dealt with very casually, but in reality the issue is very complicated. One of the supporting claims apparently in support of the existence of “Xiphonia” was a text by Strabo, who mentioned a number of cities in sequence:

"[...] Ai de Katànes kai Siracouson, Naxos kai Megara ... kai tò tes Xiphònias akròterion (Catania and Syracuse, Naxos and Megara, and the Promontory of Xiphonia) [...]" [1].

However, this passage of Strabo is not significant for the existence of the elusive “Xiphonia” simply because he, according to some critics, did not mention a “city” with this name, but only the “cape”, which was called “of Xiphonia”, and which today is called “Capo Mulini”.

A quote from Stephanus Byzantinus (6th century AD) would seem more convincing, but he in his turn, quoted from Ephorus (330-330 BC), who really spoke about "Xiphonìa Xikelìas polis. Theopompos” [378-300 BC]; or about “Xiphonia, city of Sicily, as Theopompos handed down.”

The material fact is that Theopompos  was the only ancient writer who mentioned “Xiphonia.” Then it was alleged that Silius Italicus (28-103 AD) mentioned the city, but in reality Silius Italicus quoted "Acys", probably referring to the "Akis" River, without reference to “Xiphonia.” These are just some of the reserves  expressed by the critics  against the opinion of Vigo, according to whom an ancient “Xiphonia” existed:

"[...] The thesis of Vigo found a fierce opponent in Holm (and not in him only), who flatly denied the existence of ‘Xiphonia’ at ‘Capo Mulini’ putting it, such as Cluverius, at 'Capo Santa Croce' [...]" [2].

One of the sharpest critics of Vigo was an anonymous contemporary writer F.C. He faced up to “Xiphonia”, completely destroying the theory of Vigo. Referring directly to Vigo, F.C. wrote:

[...] I would dare think that Strabo never named 'Aci Sifonia', and that he did not allude to a city, but to a promontory, which was mentioned, among other things, as a remarkable element situated between Catania and Siracusa. In fact, he mentions the promontory after the rivers, and never among the cities, of which he had already completed the list.

I shall take the liberty of reporting the passage of Book III by Strabo published in Latin by Casalbuono edited in Paris in 1620: 'The cities of Sicily which look towards the Mount Aetna are Messina, Tauromenio, Catania and Siracusa. Between Catania and Syracuse there were some cities, such as Megara and Naxos, which now have disappeared, and they were situated where now flowing into the sea the rivers that flow from Mount Aetna, and slowly conclude their course to their mouths; here there is also the promontory of ‘Xiphonia’].

It seems clear that the Greek geographer Strabo speaks here about the promontory and not the city. And the cape is not located near Mount Aetna or the rivers that flow out from it, but between the major things that we encounter between Catania and Siracusa (...) With regard to Stephanus Byzantinus, he says: '‘Xiphonia’ is a town in Sicily, says Teopompo, but about it there is a complete silence by other ancient authors. I do not seem (to recall) so prosperous and famous a city whose name is reminded only by a single author, and about which no one speaks [...]" [3].

We can conclude this history about "Xiphonia" with the words of Professor Maria Nicotra, who, in presenting the“Collezione archeologica della Pinacoteca Zelantea di Acireale”, wrote unequivocally that the local historians, often driven by parochial reasons, "believed" to have found the site of Xiphonia, from which "Akis" would then be derived, but this assumption joins today to "the sphere of myth":

"[...] This theory belongs for long-time to the sphere of myth. And it is now archaeologically attested (...) 'Acis-Akis' is the true origin of Aci [Reale] (...) This polis is the immediate precedent of the Roman city already amply attested by the sources and it is now clearly identified with 'Acium' (…), quoted in the 'Itinerarium Antonini”, and it was situated on the road connecting Messina to Catania [...]" [4].

With regard to "Akis", which the Romans called "Achium”,  it presumably was named from the "Akis" River, and it was an ancient town of the Siculians, who were accompanied by some Phoenician and Greek traders and who kept the old name of the Sicanian village, and made it a typically Greek town (the Sicanian origins of "Akis" and its etymology are "arrow", or "point" but probably "water". See some information at Aci Trezza history and etymology.)

But the way to get from the Roman "Acium" to the current "Acireale" was still very long and often misleading, and to which a lot of imagination was added to the historical facts. After Roman times, the facts about Acireale were explained more or less like this: because of the incessant earthquakes, the old place where there was once "Akis" and then the Roman "Acium" was abandoned:

"[...] Truth to tell, Aci, called 'Xiphonia' (...) had its first existence at “Capo Mulini”, and many times it was damaged by wars, earthquakes and volcanic lava. Then, as stated by Idrisi (1099-1165), it moved and had its site near ‘Acicastello’  such as  ‘Axis’, ‘Acis’, ‘Acium’, [the Arabs called it ‘Al Yag’, ‘Lyiag’ (‘Li Aci’)], ‘Jachium’ and ‘Giachium’...

... Then from the 11th century until the eruption of Aetna in 1329 described by Niccolò Speciale, the town took the name of 'Aquilia', extending it in the plains of 'Aquilio', that is Ansalone, Gazena and other places. Finally, at the beginning of the fourteenth century it changed the site, occupying the plateau where today Acireale is located [5].

Therefore, according to some local historians, an ancient Aquilia existed and indeed there would have been two “Aquilia”, “Aquilia Vetere” "(Old) and “Aquilia Nova” (New). In this sense, many historical and etymological studies were undertaken to better delineate the aspect of this town.

But did Aquilia really exist? About Aquilia various assumptions arose, and one of the fiercest supporters of the existence of Aquilia was certainly S. Raccuglia [6]. Recently, however, it has been questioned by Salvatore Toti Pennisi, who wrote a very important article. In practice, according to Pennisi, there was never a town called "Aquilia", and rather  there would were two districts, or "hamlets" with this name:

‘Iaci-Aquilia’ [unique among all other cities of Sicily, being divided into several districts, or 'houses' (…) sparsely populated]  (…)  could not be identified as a real town” [7].

In conclusion, the term "Aquilia" did not intend to refer to a town but only a series of "hamlets". Which is widely accepted by contemporary critics; so the prefix “Aci-” is a name of some villages, the territory of which extended and covers the slopes of Aetna near Catania, and that centred round the  “castrum” of  “Acicastello.”

Therefore, until the 16th century Acireale lacked a recognized town and it appeared as an aggregation of hamlets, which formed part of the town of Aci, whose origins lie in the Greek myth of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea [8]. About the myth of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea, see Aci Trezza.

See also the Acireale travel guide.

References

1. Strabo [58-21 BC] (Book VI)

2. See A. Pagano-RV Cristaldi, “Scritti di varia umanità”, Parva, 1967: 180 ff.

3. They initialled [F.C.] in an article in the “Giornale di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti per la Sicilia” [1836: 27 ff.]

4. See M. Nicotra, “Collezione archeologica della Pinacoteca Zelantea”, in “Atti e rendiconti dell'Accademia di scienze, Lettere ed Arti dei Zelanti”, 2007, Vol. VI: 204-205

5. See V. Raciti Romeo, “Sulle origini della città di Aci”, in “Atti e rendiconti dell'Accademia di scienze, Lettere ed Arti dei Zelanti”,  Acireale, Vol IV, 1893: 28-29

6. “Storia di Aci dalle origini al 1528 AD (Xiphonia, Akis, Jachium, Aquilia Vetere”, Acireale, 1906

7. See Salvatore Toti Pennisi, “Nuovi contributi alla storia di Acireale. Il vero significato del toponimo Aquilia”, in “Agorà”, 2001, IV, pp. 20-26 and in “Memorie e rendiconti”, 2001, pp. 7-30

8. On the question of the hamlets see the excellent article by G. Vasta, “Svolta nella dibattuta questione della nascita dei 'quartieri che si nomano Aci' in conseguenza del terremoto e della lava del 1169”, in “Memorie e Rendiconti dell'Accademia di Scienze, Lettere e Belle Arti di Acireale” , Acireale, 2003 , Vol II: 293-309

9. See  V. Raciti Romeo, “Sulle origini della città di Aci”, p. 44

10. See A. Grasso-P. Raneri, “L'evoluzione storico-urbanistica di Jaci-Aquilia”, in “Logos”, 1995, 3, p. 26

11. See M. Donati, “Vicende storiche dei casali dell'Università di Aci”, in “Memorie e Rendiconti dell'Accademia di Scienze, Lettere e Belle Arti di Acireale” , Acireale, 2000, Vol. X: 39-70