The Hill on which the ancient centre of Castrovillari is located was certainly inhabited in prehistoric times, then in Roman times a "castrum" was built at the peak of the hill, of which there remain some traces in a hollow space beneath the loggias of the “Santa Maria del Castello” shrine.
The town was strengthened with walls, which, over the centuries, gave to the town a reliable defence against the Saracens and Normans, who latter conquered it only after a long siege.
Castrovillari in the early Middle Ages
Towards the end of the 11th century, some medieval documents mention the locality under the name of "Castrum Villarum", or "a fortified place of the villas" (plural), which some scholars thought to refer to the development of a settlement with two centres: the fortress on the Hill of “Santa Maria del Castello”, and the “Villa”, which has no walls.
A phase of expansion for Castrovillari slowly took place during the 12th century when some Jewish communities settled here - they chose the south-western slopes of the hill to build their civilian dwellings, the so-called “palatiate’ houses”, in a quarter called "Giudecca".
Then around 1220-21 San Pietro da San Andrea della Marca, a disciple and companion of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) , founded a monastery here, as part of his work of introducing his Order in Calabria.
Castrovillari in the late Middle Ages
The next process of expansion of the town came in the 15th century when Castrovillari was extended to its northern limit to the “Chain bridge”, with the quarter called "Casale", which was strengthened with battlemented walls, as evidenced by a notarial act of 1483. To pass through the walls was a series of eight gates.
Inside this circle of walls, Castrovillari was a typical medieval town, slowly expanding without any particular building legislation. In this period of the evolving urban shape of the town, the story of Castrovillari unfolded in a tumultuous fashion with two sieges: the first siege was by Robert Guiscard [1015-1085] in 1064 and the second by Ruggero [1031-1101] in 1093.
From the Hohenstaufen, to whom Castrovillari remained very faithful, it obtained a variety of benefits and privileges and the honorific title of the “Swabians New City”.
The chaotic period of the Angevins and Aragonese rule was more difficult until, repressed by a conspiracy of the local barons, Ferdinand I of Aragon (1424-1494), as part of the restructuring of defensive Calabrie, ordered the construction of a more substantial Castle, equipped with four angular towers and deep moats and on whose coat of arms appears the date of 1490.
In the early 16th century there began a long feudal period of struggle for castrovillari, which caused a stasis under the Dominion of the powerful Spinelli Dukes from Cariati, with a brief change of leadership (1579-1610) to the Sanseverino from the Bisignano family.
Between the 17th and 18th centuries the town was the subject of several restructurings and also the repairing of churches and convents and also some new buildings, which however in no way affected the urban form as historically determined in medieval times.
An earthquake in 1638 provoked substantial whanges, and some neighbourhoods of the "Civita" along with other dwellings towards San Giuliano and entire sections of the defensive walls were destroyed.
At the end of the 18th century, the clergy of San Giuliano began to build in the area of the “Olivitello”. With the French occupation in 1806, because of its strategic location at the mouth of the ancient “Via Consolare” on the plain of Sibari, Castrovillari was elevated to the role of one of the four districts of the "Calabria Citeriore", obtaining, after the unification of Italy in 1861, some bureaucratic and administrative functions.
Origins of the name Castrovillari
The first part of the name, "Castro", refers to the Latin word "Castrum", or "fortified village". The second part, "Villari", refers to the socio-economic function of the ancient "Castrum", the territory of which, in Roman times was divided into "Villae" a kind of typical Roman settlement.
The Roman Villae System
"[…] The most distinctive sign in the process of Romanisation, after the social war, was certainly in the rural context, the imposition of the “villae” between the 2nd and 1st century BC, intended to replace, it seems, the small properties (…) The “villa” was a real example of a self-sufficient farm, intended to exploit the land and often directed to monoculture and the production and sale of the ‘surplus’...
...The wide use of enlisted slaves had the double result that they had a lot of cheap labour, and a small army for defensive and offensive purposes (…) The system of ‘villae’ also shows the presence of wealthy landowners, who had a wide range of interests stretching beyond the boundaries of their ‘villae’. The fertility of the Earth and the abundance of water gave good crops, forests nearby gave wood, and summer pasture fed cattle; finally, the Roman roadways allowed trade into the surrounding territories […]" .
In medieval documents the town was called "Castri Villa", or "Fortified Villa", which constitutes the meaning of its name. P. De Leo and L. De Rose, in their important study about Castrovillari, add more interesting things about the first settlement of the ancient populations inside the "Castrum", due to the necessity to defend against the incursions by the Normans.
In Greek the ancient “castrum” was "Nèon Sassionion", and:
"[…] It was erected on two neighbours hills, those of Casale and Civita. Also it is to discard the very weak hypothesis that in 997 Castrovillari was called 'Katzibellos', because the document to which the name make reference dates back to 1081; instead, it is certain that the first reliable sources documenting the existence of the town are the ‘Chronicle’ by Amato from Montecassino (11th century) and that by Geoffroi Malaterra (11th century), both dating back to the 11th century […] " .
See also the Castrovillari visitor guide.
1. see P. Di Leo, L. De Rose, "The ancient and medieval Age", in F. Mazza, "Castrovillari, History, Culture and Economy”, Rubbettino, 2003: 44-45
2. Ref 1, See: p. 47