History of Cascia, Italy

See Cascia guide for highlights and historic monuments

Does Cascia date from Roman times - or the Middle Ages?

The first challenge for historians looking at Cascia is the challenge of identifying it as the same town as the roman town of Cuscula, a connection long accepted but now generally considered incorrect - and with fairly extensive discussions!

R. Cordella and N. Criniti pointed out that although the link to the ancient town is probably incorrect, the inhabitants of Cascia have other excellent reasons to boast about their city:

"Two confusions still occupy the chapter on the origins of Cascia, and it is good to return briefly to them to avoid misunderstandings (...) It is not a question of the honour of the citizens of Cascia, who do not need to claim some kind of abstract way of antiquity, because they have a real and enviable land, so rich in history and monuments ...

... The first misunderstanding, then, is the indefensible relationship between Cascia and the mythical ‘Cursula’ that a stubborn tradition has always considered inalienable, but that now even the most sagacious local historians has definitively abandoned" [1].

In fact R. Cordella, N. Criniti are perfectly right, because virtually all historians of the 19th and 20th centuries have reiterated that Cascia derives from "Cursula". The following example applies to everyone - the Reverend Richard Connolly, speaking about Santa Rita da Cascia, wrote:

“[...] This ancient and illustrious town is built under the shadow of the Apenninies, at a point in that chain of mountains almost midway between the Alps and the Mediterranean. It is on the borders  of Umbria, seven miles from Norcia, ten from  Leonessa, thirty from Rieti, and twenty-three from Spoleto. It stands on the site of the ancient 'Cursula', which is believed to have been a Roman free-town, that is, its people enjoyed the honours, rights, and privileges of Roman citizenship, and their town was governed by its own laws...

... That Cursula was a town of some importance is attested by its remains, which are still extant, notably the Temple of the Augurs, the Temple of Mars and the House of the Duumviri. We have nothing else than these remains to guide us in inquiring into the history of Cursula, nor can we surmise the epoch from whence to date its existence. We know from Dionysius of Halicamassus [60-7 BC] that it was destroyed, and that a new town rose on the ruins of the original one, but the dates of these events cannot be fixed with certainty [...]” [2].

In reality, as shown by the most acclaimed contemporary studies, the origins of Cascia date back to early Middle Ages:

"[...] The origins of Cascia can be traced back to two castles, one called ‘Castelvecchio of Cascia’, which was ruled by the Counts Guidi, the other called ‘Castelnuovo’, located in Cascia and presumably built between the 11th and 12th century and referred to in some papal bulls of 1103 and 1134. Castelvecchio di Cascia, the first medieval settlement of the area in 1066 was in part donated to the monastery of St. Peter of Florence, and it was later cited as the castle of St. Andrew in Cascia...

Castelnuovo, found on the structure of a former religious building as a fortress near the church, quickly disappeared in the mid-13th century and it was identified as a place around the walls of the church of St. Peter and simply named as Cascia. The castle of St. Andrew in Cascia was fortified by Florence in 1350 and subsequently in 1365 and in 1350; the castle was described as a fortress built with walls and a church...

The Valdarno territory was directly subjected to the Florentine Republic in the 14th century. Florence acquired full control over the whole territory of the diocese of Fiesole and divided it into six leagues (…) Each league had a council with decision-making powers on local government and its rector (…) Among the tasks assigned by Florence to the rural municipalities were street maintenance , the assurance of tranquility against bandits, rebels, forgers, murderers and arsonists ...

The league of Cascia was composed of the “plebato” [parish] of Pitiana and that of Cascia (…) The League of Cascia was governed by a podestà sent from Florence and by a General Council composed of 15 town councillors and by one gonfalonier (…) The council had authority over the whole territory of the league; it was tasked with institutional reforms (…) and had the possibility of imposing new taxes. [...]" [3]

In addition, R. Cordella-N. Criniti have another "sin" that can be forgiven by the people of Cascia, that is the denial of the fact that the first mention of Cascia occurred in a document of 553:

"The other misunderstanding concerns the alleged first mention of Cascia, traced back to 553 AD, that is, to an episode of the Greek-Gothic war, narrated by Agazia of Myrina in his histories. Even here we need to clarify. In the Greek text, the fortress besieged by Narses (…) is not Cascia but Cesena (…) It was the Roman humanist Cristoforo Persona (…) about 1477, who mistook the two localities, and the logographers then have uncritically accepted and perpetuated this error." [4].

Early history of Cascia

According to A. Stalinski, Cascia was in the midst of an important road network:

"Of all the points of intersection, Cascia was certainly the most midpoint. It is no exaggeration to say that the city, at least until the late Middle Ages, assumed the functions of a kind of rotating table of the road system. Here, through the valleys of the rivers Corno and the Tissino, united the roads from the Nera River Valley (Visso and the Apennine passes around Colfiorito) and from the western part of Norcia " [12].

In practice these road networks allowed the rapid movement of the Hungarian Goth and Byzantine armies and then of the Lombards, who settled in the 5th century in Umbria and they founded the powerful Duchy of Spoleto:

"The stubborn quest for autonomy of the Duchy of Spoleto in the course of the centuries preserved the character of the ancient Roman road network" [13].

Thanks to the Lombards some important monasteries grew up around Cascia, which were largely enriched by donations and which economically developed this area. We recall, among the oldest and most prestigious monasteries, that of San Eutizio that Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) pointed to as already existing "Prioribus Gothorum temporibus" [already in the time of the first advent of the Goths], and the Abbey of San Lorenzo, in the territory of Cascia.

History of medieval Cascia

In the Middle Ages, Cascia appeared as a fortified castle, the so-called "Castrum Cassiae", located on the hill of St. Augustine. Around 1213 the city passed under the domination of Foligno, in particular of the Trinci family, and then under the rule of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250) in 1228. This year more or less coincides with the formation of the Commune of Cascia:

"This period also marked the beginning of the decline, slowly but continuously, of the territory. Until the 16th century the territory of the commune of Cascia (Norcia instead declared itself as Guelph) remained constant outbreaks of rebellion against the ecclesiastical authorities, but also of internal feuds " [14].

In fact, Stalinski  identified one of the fundamental aspects of the town of Cascia, that is the external struggles (in particular against the State of the Church) and the internecine warfars that afflict the society of Cascia. In fact, while Spoleto declared itself as Guelph, Cascia, on the contrary and because of territorial reasons, declared itself as Ghibelline. In all, however, the Guelphs were always pretty strong in Cascia:

"In 1264 Cascia was in the good graces of Pope Urban IV (1195-1224), who in a letter sent on March 13 in Orvieto, delivered the city from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Spoleto, because the previous year Cascia defended with weapons the Church's rights against Manfredi (1232-1266). However, this provoked a bitter hate between Spoleto and Cascia and the Pope thinks advisable to transfer to the Bishops of Rieti and Assisi the task of administering the sacraments to the inhabitants of Cascia" [15].

However, the relations between Cascia and the Pope were almost always very fraught. For example, at Cascia the Ghibelline judges refused to pay the contributions to the Papal officials, and Leonessa, faithful to the Guelphs, suffered repeated attacks by the Ghibellines of Cascia. In 1277:

"the inhabitants of Cascia tried to molest their feud called Chiavano, to incorporate it in their commune. Some nobles of Chiavano (...) appealed to Pope Nicholas III (1220-1280). The Pope rebuked Cascia and sentenced the city to pay a fine of 2000 libras of Ravenna" [16].

Moreover, Cascia had difficult relations with Norcia:

"The aversion of Cascia and Norcia was a normal thing. When for reasons of commerce some merchants of Norcia had gone to the fair of Leonessa, they were attacked by some men of Cascia. Those who escaped the attack, took refuge in the castle of Chiavano” [17].

No less serious was the political situation inside the city:

"A contemporary document called it 'a commune full of partisanships and retaliations': “the Guelphs were against the Ghibellines, the nobles and bourgeois against the plebeians, there were quarrels and vendettas between families, popular uprisings, conflicts between city and countryside, fights between factions and political crimes. [18].

Cascia in 1280 won the feud of the Counts of Chiavano and obtained a certain municipal autonomy; the major obstacle to the self-government was still the State of the Church, which Cascia tried in vain to oppose; in fact, in 1404, after a riot broke out just years before:

"the General Council of the City of Cascia (...) proposed Antonio di Iuccio as its attorney, with a mandate to present to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Spoleto the act of total submission of Cascia to the State Roman Church. It is an unpublished document, from which we can easily understand that the autonomy of Cascia was only ephemeral and formal; it is true that it retained its political and administrative structures, but the authority whch commanded in the territory was that of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Spoleto. Certainly this solemn declaration of submission was also a recurring practice, and it was more formal than anything else because in fact Cascia always belonged to the territory of the Church" [19].

On the other hand, despite the Ghibellines of Cascia, the Guelph party was:

"too powerful (...) and protected from the nearby Chancellor of the Duchy, ever vigilant in the State of the Church" [20].

However, the "resistance" of Cascia against the papal domain appeared even after the act of submission, with peculiar techniques, such as the use of coins coming from the State of the Church:

"which prohibited the circulation of these coins. In fact, a presence of so many foreign coins in the second half of the 15th and early 16th century shows the difficult relations between Cascia and the Papal States" [21]

Cascia from the 16th century

Also in the 16th century, internal struggles and the presence of anti-papal elements in the city generated serious consequences for Cascia; for example, the Fortress of Cascia, erected by Pope Paul II [1417-1471] for the control of the city and the territory, was destroyed in 1517 by the will of Leo X [1475-1521], because it became a stronghold of the rebels against the Church.

Beyond the purely political aspects, the city suffered several devastating earthquakes A. Stalinski enumerates the sequence of "violent shocks in 1328, 1461, 1567, 1599-1600, 1606, 1648, 1703, 1719, 1730, 1859, 1903, 1910, 1964 and 1979" [22]. Because of the continuous earthquakes, especially that of 1703:

"this sismic area, including Cascia and Norcia, was historically impacted by frequent and strong earthquakes, and in 1703 it was hit by one of the most terrible and deadly earthquakes that the seismic history recalls" [23].

Some contemporary chronicler wrote that:

"the city of Norcia and Cascia seemed to be irrecoverable, and Pope Clement XI (1649-1721) suggested the possibility to unify them. Urbino also, birthplace of the Pope,  suffered severe damage. The same population of Rome declined by 17000 units compared to the time of Innocent XII, while the affairs of the city languished" [24].

It’s obvious that so much destructions had significant repercussions over the stylistic unity of the city, and B. Toscano is perfecly right when he emphasizes that:

“people who now observe the town of Cascia see (...) that every two different buildings (are out of) scale.” [25].

However, we can still have an idea of Cascia in the 16th century. In fact, there has been handed down to us:

"a map of the 16th century, that belonged to Aldus Manutius the Younger (1547-1597). The code represents in perspective Cascia, Norcia, Castelluccio, the mountain of the Sibyl, and the lake of Pilato, Montemonaco." [26].

Cascia in recent centuries

During the17th and 18th century Cascia remained under the rule of the Papal States until 1797, when the city was conquered by the French under Napoleon (1769-1821). During the French conquest there was a change of the adminstrative boundaries outlined in the Middle Ages by Florence, so the podestà of Cascia was moved to Reggello.

After the fall of Napoleon, Cascia returned to the State of the Church until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name Cascia

We come now to the etymology of the city, which is very uncertain. R. Piccolomini-N. Monopoli point out that:

"about the origin of the name there  still remain conflicting opinions. Some historians trace it to the presence of plants of the same name, others go as far as Gais Cassius (87-42 BC) [from which Cassia> Cascia], whose followers took refuge here after the defeat at Philippi" [5].

Having rejected the second hypothesis, which obviously refers to the fact that Cassius would have taken refuge in "Cursula" (an hypothesis that we have seen when looking at the ancient origins of Cascia as unsustainable), the fact of the matter is that the problem is difficult to solve.

The assumptions are very different, and we mention some of them. With regard to the relationship with the names of some plants, some scholars focused, for example, on the possible similarity between "Acacia" and “Cascia” [6]. For others, the term "cascia" would have a relationship with the Lat. "Capsa":

"ancestor of the medieval Italian term ‘cascia’ [trunk]. The term indicates a wicker basket, which originally referred to the content, then later it indicated the container, the ancestor of our picnic hamper" [7].

For still others “cascia” indicates "a crust stuffed with fresh cheese or ricotta cheese".

We also cannot discard a possible meaning for "cascina" [farm], "a term that dates back to the regional Latin 'casearium' " [8]. In this sense, L. Franceschini said:

"We might add that, in the opinion of certain writers, the old Cascia, Umbria's famous village, as Pliny said, near Norcia, in those days was known as ‘Cascina’ for the state to which it was reduced by the earthquake disaster and wars supported with admirable courage to maintain, against the bullying of others, its autonomy and independence " [9].

The same is confirmed by Leandro Alberti in the description of all Italy (Venice, 1596):

'It should not seem strange that, in the time of Volaterrano, Cascia in Umbria has been called ‘Cascina’ for the small number of people who survived, because of wars and disasters of earthquakes'" [10].

These, however, as we see, are rather general indications, because the term was quite common in Italy. And the same indication of Franceschini refers to very late time in the history of Cascia. We observe, however, among the many assumptions, that the more convincing hypothesis is due to Alexandra Stalinski, according to whom the name could be related to the fact that the area of Cascia, because of its topography, lent itself very well to defense.

There could be an "arx vetera" (old fortress), because, as Stalinski observes:

"Cascia over the centuries had a particularly defensive role. Varro [116-27 BC] used the Latin term "cascum significat vetus' [ ‘cascum’ in Latin means old]. In essence Varro attests to the presence of a rare Latin term, "cascum", present mainly in poetic language. In fact it appears in Ennius [239-169 BC] ("Annales", 14, V-1), in the minor poets such as Marcus Manilius [1st century AD] and Publius Papinius Statius [45-96 AD] and in various 'Atellanae' [dramatic representations], where the name “cascum” indicates the comic character who played the 'old man'...

... In addition, the term refers to the 'cognomen' of the Roman family of the 'Casca' (perhaps of Etruscan origin) and to the city of the Samnites called 'Casinum' which was the 'Forum Vetus' [the Old Forum] of Roman times (...) We must also consider the  semantic deferral  of the Osco-Umbrian term 'ocar', with the meaning of 'fortified hill' (...) With the Roman conquest, the term 'ocar' was presumably translated in Latin as 'arx' (fortress), although 'arx' has a different etymology " [11]

In conclusion, if the assumption of Alexandra Stalinski perfectly understands the nature of the problem, Cascia would mean "ancient fortress [= It. “Castelvecchio”] situated on a hill."

See the travel guide for Cascia for more information.


1. See R. Cordella-N. Criniti, “Cascia: tradizione epigrafica e persistenze antiche”, in “Ager Veleias”, 2010, p. 1

2. See R. Connolly, “Life of St. Rita of Cascia”, London, 1903, pp. 10-11

3. See L. Roselli, “L'Archivio preunitario del Comune di Reggello”, Lalli, 2008, pp. 13-14

4. See R. Cordella and N. Criniti, p. 1

5. See R. Piccolomini-N. Monopoli," Santa Rita of Cascia, "Roma, Città Nuova Editrice, 2007, p. 21

6. See, “Rivista italiana di dialettologia”,  1985, p. 300

7. See“Atti del II Seminario internazionale di studi sui lessici tecnici greci e latini”: Messina, 14-16 dicembre 1995, 1997, p. 324

8. See, “Lingua Nostra”, 1968, pp. 20-29

9. see L. Franceschini,  “Fra’ Simone da Cascia e il Cavalca: studi critico-letterari sull'Umbria nel secolo XIV”,  Roma, 1897, p. 129

10. Franceschini, p. 129, footnote 2

11. See Alexandra Stalinski, “Il ritrovamento di Valle Fuino presso Cascia: analisi storico-culturale intorno ad un deposito votivo in alta Sabina”, Quasar, 2001,  pp. 26-29

12. Ref 11, p. 67

13. Ref 11, p. 60

14. Ref 11, p. 59

15. Giorgetti-Serantoni, p. 35

16. See, A. Fabbi, “Storia e arte nel comune di Cascia, Cascia”,  1975, p. 95

17. Fabbi, p. 143

18. See A.M. Sicari, “Il quarto libro dei ritratti dei Santi”, 1994, p. 67

19. See V. Giorgetti-A. Serantoni, “ I podestà di Cascia nel Medioevo: aspetti e problemi del comune nei secoli XIII-XVI”, Ed. Grafica l'Etruria, 1989, p. 94

20. Ref 19, p. 84

21. See “Annali” dell'Istituto italiano di numismatica, 2004, p. 207

22. Stalinski, p. 15

23. See M. Baratta, “Sulla distribuzione topografica dei terremoti nell' Umbria”, 1898, p. 9

24. See G. Curcio-E. Kieven, “Il Settecento”, Electa, 2000, Vol I, p. 146

25. “Da Spoleto a Norcia ...”, Florence, 1964, p. 255

26. See G. Avarucci, “Il santuario dell'Ambro e l'area dei Sibillini”, Edizioni di Studia Picena, 2002,  p. X