History of Comiso


See Comiso guide for highlights and historic monuments

The first challenge for historians is to decide on the founding and location of ancient Comiso, a discussion that has become rather heated over the centuries...

Identifying Comiso with ancient Casmene

Following their successful penetration into Sicily, a few years later Syracuse founded some of its colonies, including Acre (Greek "Akrai") and Casmene [the Greek "Kasméne" or "Kasmenai" (644-43 BC) [1], a military colony founded to control the Siciles people who lived between the rivers Anapo and Tellaro:

"[...] 70 years after the founding of their city, the Syracusans founded Acre, in a position that allowed them to subdue Pantalica and to control the whole valley of the river Anapo. Twenty years later, Syracuse founded its second colonial base, or Casmene  (perhaps the present Comiso), and in 599 or 598 near the south coast (...) a third base, Camarina [...]" [2].

From the 17th century a fierce battle" began between scholars to determine where this old colony was situated. Some scholars were inclined to place it in Comiso, others in Scicli. To get an idea of the tone that took on that old "battle" read what A. Busacca wrote:

[...] Maurolico, and Claudio Arezzi, of historical veneration, attest that Comiso had been the ancient ‘Casmene’  (...) However, some people wanted to usurp its glorious title, and they give it to Scicli, but Pietro Carrara di Militello, citizen of Catania, assumed the commitment to sustain the defense of Comiso, and armed with the shield of the most healthy criticism and erudition landed the claims of Cluverio and Perelli, so that the court of reason judged in favor of Comiso, which therefore remains in full possession of his rights and honor of being the old Casmene [...]" [3].

In reality it seems that Comiso can not boast ancient origins, since contemporary studies have now shown that the old "Casmene" coincides with "Monte Casale", located across the road that:

"[...] starting from Syracuse, after Acrille (Chiaramonte) goes south to get to Camarina, on the southern coast of Sicily. Along this road were built three of the four sub-colonies of Syracuse, Acre (Palazzolo), Casmene (Monte Casale) and Camarina "[...]" [4].

Origins of Comiso

In fact Comiso has more recent origins, namely Arabic, although, as we shall see, it was a village in the ancient world that was very popular and rather well known. For example, in the territory of Comiso there have come to light some remains showing:

“the existence of a village dating back to Greek times (the Greek-Archaic cemetery of St. Elijah Margi), which rose to some importance in Roman times (see the water lily mosaic under the current City Hall, close to the famous ‘Diana Spring’) and persisted in the late Roman Empire” [9].

The presence of a thermal building near the Diana Source, dating back to the 2nd century BC, proves that a household, albeit anonymous, has been present around the Diana Source since Roman times. It is thought that this place was populated by inhabitants who escaped the destruction of "Kasméne" by the consul Marcellus (died in 208 BC) in 212 BC.

In medieval times the area is remembered as a set of "fundi" ("farms") and "Villae" called "Fundus Comas", belonging to the Roman noble Rustica. In fact, in 599 during the Age of Gregory the Great (540-604) Pope Gregory wrote to the Chancellor of Syracuse to respect the will of Rustica, who expressed the desire to build a monastery “in fundo Comas” (“in the farm called "Comas") [5].

Early developments of Comiso - the Arabs, Byzantines and Aragonese

The advent of the Byzantines, after the barbarian incursions, gave a new building impulse to the village and the walls and several houses were built, which formed the nucleus of the so-called "Hamlet of Comicio', then called “Jhomiso”.

The evolution of the small town in the Byzantine era was slow but steady, and continued even after the Arab conquest. The history of the city continued with the Aragonese, who assigned Comiso in feud to Federico Speciarius of Messina in 1296. He built a palace in the urban core-castle and other fortifications, which was formed around the village.

Comiso from the Middle Ages

Comiso later became a fief of the Riggio, Chiaromonte, and Cabrera and, from 1453 to 1700, of the Naselli family. They gave a powerful impetus to the economic growth of the town.

However, the earthquake of 1693 heavily damaged Comiso, which was rebuilt soon after according to the baroque town planning criteria. Thanks also to the will and the generosity of the Naselli born in Comiso, the first industrial factories such as a paper mill were built in the 18th century.

In the 18th century the Naselli, to cope with debt, were forced to sell a good portion of their property. Then the town was ruled by the Bourbons of Naples (19th century) and after  the Unification it entered the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Comiso etymology

Comiso derives its name from the Arabic term:

"[...] 'hums', meaning ‘ fifth part’ or ‘part of a tribe’ or even a ‘territory of a conquered nation, which became State-owned’)[...]" [6].

More specifically, some studies by the “Ecole française de Rome” stress that:

"[...] Moving northwest toward the source of the ‘Ippari’ river is the hamlet ‘Yomiso’ or ‘Comiso’, a village named ‘Ar hums’ which  seems to refer to the ‘fifth part that the peasants had to pay to the State.’ It could be a hamlet born on a state-owned land. Its existence in the Islamic period seems to be confirmed by the remains of an Islamic ‘cuba’ (or Islamic mosque with strong symbolic elements, such as the circle and square) and a necropolis [...]" [7].

Comiso in late antiquity was a place known for a thermal building, and then:

“it rose to the historical memory only in the 14th century as a simple Arab name 'hums', which alludes to the practice to confiscate  the fifth part of the wheat harvest. The Norman conquest in the late 11th century caused the abandonment of the site, which appeared in the feudal census in 1336 of Frederick III of Aragon (1272-1337) as a simple ‘Gomisi’ feud, belonging to Frederick Spicianus of Messina" [8].

See Comiso for a detailed travel guide.

References

1. Herodotus (484-425 BC) 7.155.2, and Thucydides (460-395 BC), 6.5. 2

2. See M.A. Levi, "L’Italia nell’evo antico", Piccin, 1998: 112

3. See Antonino Busacca, “Dizionario statistico e biografico della Sicilia”,   Messina, Nobolo, 1858:  35

4. See G. Salmeri," Roman Sicily ", 1992: 14

5. See R. Rizzo, "Pope Gregory the Great and the nobility of Sicily", 2008: 43 and 72

6. See  “Bollettino n. 18”. Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani” , 1995: 289

7. See “Ecole français de Rome” ," La Sicile à L'époque islamique ", 2004 : 99

8. See“Ente Provinciale per il turismo di Trapani”, 1991: 45

9. See O. Garana, B. Pace, “The Sicilian catacombs and their martyrs”, "Flaccovio, 1961: 114