History of Lampione

See Lampione guide for highlights and historic monuments

The small island called “Lampione”, that the Sicilian fishermen called “Scoglio degli scolari” [“Rock of the pupils”] is located southwest of Lampedusa, and is in fact little more than a large rock, however there is slightly more to the geography and history of Lampione than at first meets the eye...

The geographical and natural setting for Lampedusa

Recently (November 2010) a concise and very up to date description of the latest scientific knowledge about Lampione was published:

“[...] Lampione is a small islet off the W coast of Lampedusa (Pelagian Islands) and 110 km off Tunisia, in the Channel of Sicily. Its surface area is 0.021 km2 and the maximum altitude is 36 metres... From a geological point of view, Lampione is composed of dolomitised carbonates belonging to formations of the Tunisian offshore, and its (separation) from North Africa took place 18,000 years years ago[...]" [1].

Early history of Lampione

Some interesting historical data about Lampione has been handed down us by Stefano Sommier, who wrote in 1908:

"[...] The small island, where I could not even go this year because of stormy weather (…) Lampione in past centuries was called 'Scola', 'Schola' or 'Scolla', some names with which we see it indicated near Lampedusa in most of the old pilot books (...) it was also assigned the names of 'Fanale' [Street-lamp]  and ‘Scoglio degli Scolari.’ (…) It is haunted, as Captain Smith says, by seals (...)

In it there are traces of old houses (...) in which Captain Smith found (...) the remains of a tessellated marble floor of Roman times (...). Lampione today is not inhabited and the only sign of man is an automatic lighthouse, from which derives the island name. The lighthouse is accessible by a path that starts from a small artificial docking, suitable only for small boats [...]" [12].

With regard to the Roman presence in Lampione, the data is also established by contemporary studies, which, at the same time,  deny the presence of prehistoric remains:

"[...] On the little island of Lamp, eight miles away, there are two groups of ruins, but not prehistoric remains. An abundance of Punic or Roman potsheards was found [...]" [13].

Even more recently Lampione has been the subject of new and interesting studies on the local fauna with historical references that, once again, confirm the presence, even if "irregular", of Romans on the island:

"[...] Lampione is at present-day uninhabited, but late-Roman ruins document an early human presence, though probably only seasonal ( See Pasta & Masseti 2002)  [...]" [14].


Origins of the name Lampione

The modern name (Lampione) etymologically refers to a kind of lighthouse or lantern for sailors, or, as was explained by O. Pianigiani:

"[...] a very large lantern, which is used on the towers of the ports and sea beaches, and it is also called “Lampione” [ 'Street Lamp'] or 'big lantern'. It is so-called also the great tower of the port, above which the lantern is located  (...) The name comes from the Greek ‘Lampter,’ ‘shine brightly’ [...]" [2].

G. Alessio specified that Lampione:

"can not be derived directly from the 'lampa' (Latin 'Lampa-lampadis'), but it goes back to a diminutive 'lampadio-lampadionis'" [3].

In conclusion, "Lampione" is the modern name of the previous place “big lantern”, which indicated the only human presence on the rock of Lampione.

Mentioning a few names that Lampione assumed over the centuries, there are no specific etymological studies. However, we offer here a couple of possible hypotheses. As Fazello noted, Lampione in the Middle Ages was known as "Scola" (a term which is usually translated as "School"):

“In the midst of the sea, between Cercina and Sicily, are located three desert islands, Lampedusa, Lalenusa and ‘Scola’, which are not far among them" [4].

Lampione was also called the “Scuola dei Portolani” ["School of the Portolans"] which, between you and me, I don’t think seems to have much meaning. As pointed out by S. Sommier:

“In past centuries [Lampione] was called ‘Scola’, 'Schola' or 'Scolla', names by which we see it marked iear Lampedusa on most of the old Portomans" [5].

The modern Italian definition of “Scuola dei Portolani” [“School of the Portolans”] is probably the Italian translation of the expression by which the Arabs indicated Lampione. In fact, in the 12th century Al Idrisi called Lampione the “island of the book”:

“Towards the north [is located] to five miles, a very pretty little island that is called "Gazirat al kitab" ('Island of the Book')" [6].

G.B. Pellegrini writes about the Arab definition: “ ‘Gazirat al-kitab’ or better ‘al kuttab’,  the 'Island of the book' or better the ‘Island of the school’= 'Lampione' (...) See Seybold, 'Analecta' p. 215 (who notes that the island in the late Middle Ages  was called 'Schola', ‘Scola’” [7].

For the Sicilian fishermen, the "Island of the book" and of the "school" became the "Rock of the pupils”, since the word “book”, following the logic, relates to "school" and “pupils”.

Why all this talk of schools and pupils!

At this point, however, perhaps some readers are wondering what is the metaphorical meaning of the terms "Schola" and "pupils".

"Schola" (School) is a collective noun, which implies the presence of many individuals, or "pupils". In our case the "Schola" [School] is metaphorically formed by three "pupils", that is Lampedusa, Linosa and Lampione. These three "pupils" had a key role in the orientation of the sailors who came to the Pelagian Islands; that is the three "pupils"  served as  "Portolans", or as an "orientation" for the sailors. In this sense, the importance of all three islands as "Portolans" was well explained by L. Lamberti, who wrote:

"[...] 8 miles from Lampedusa (...) there is a big rock called ‘Lampione’ (...) Linosa, Lampione and Lampedusa are of great benefit to the sailors who frequent the part of the African coast to the east of which they are located, and particularly for the identification of the Kerkenis Islands.  Lampedusa is also a starting point to get to Tripoli, that is (...) to 52 leagues from this [...]" [8].

This is presumably the hidden meaning of the expression “Scuola dei Portolani”  ["School of the Portolans"] and of “Island of the book” or “School."

However, there may be a second hypothesis, perhaps more convincing, but, as we shall see, it has some slight uncertainty. As Diez noted, the term "Scolla" derives “from the Old High German 'Scolla', German ‘Scholle’, with the Italian meaning of "zolla", or "a lump of earth" [9].

In fact, Lampione is nothing  other than a "rock", “a lump of very hard earth” in the middle of the sea. The modern Italian definition “Scuola dei Portolani” makes sense if it is translated like this: “A lump of very hard earth that was indicated in the ancient Portolans."

In conclusion, Lampione was called “Schola”, "Scolla" and "Scola" because it was merely a "hard lump of earth," or a "rock" in the sea. However, the great linguist Meyer Lübke was in disagreement with Diez:

“Meyer Lübke (REW, 8005) considers impossible the loan-word from the Old High German 'Skolla' against the hypothesis of F. Diez” [10].

Fortunately for us, the stabilizing intervention of G. Rohlfs was decisive in the "rehabilitation" of some Old High Germans terms which, according to Meyer Lübke, could not be present in the Italian language. Rohlfs instead emphasized the presence of Gothic and Lombard terms in Italy since the sixth century AD:

"[...] The German linguist Gerhard Rohlfs dedicated a large attention to the problems of the Germanic superstrate [in the Italian language]  (...) As from 1937 he spoke of the difficulty in distinguishing between the Gothic and Lombard stratum (...) In 1941 Rohlfs then published a short note, in which he reopened and plunged into the problem of the “German doublets”, that is of Gothic and Lombard origin (...) Rohlfs points out that 'There are in Italy certain German elements, which, according to the regions and dialects, survive both in a Gothic and Lombard form, such as “tappo”  [cork] (…)  and ‘zolla’ (a lump of earth)’ [...]” [11].

See also the Lampione visitor guide.


1. "Bonn Zoological Bulletin" (2010, Vol. 57, No. 2, pp. 111-118

2. See O. Pianigiani, “Vocabolario etimologico della lingua italiana” [“”Etymological Dictionary of the Italian language”] , Segati, 1907:  534, 736

3. See G. Alessio, in “Lingua Nostra”, Sansoni, 1951, 12: 44

4. See, F. Thomae Fazelli. “De rebus siculis decadae duae, nunc primum in lucem editae”, apud J.M. Maidam et F. Carraram, 1558: 9

5. See Stefano Sommier, “Le isole Pelagie”, Firenze, 1908: 269 ff

6. See M. Amari, “L'Italia descritta nel 'Libro del re Ruggero'”,  Salviucci, 1883: 16

7. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine”, Paideia, 1972, Vol. I: 296

8. See L. Lamberti,  “Portolano del Mare Mediterraneo, del Mar Nero e del Mar d'Azov”, Livorno, G. Antonelli, 1848: 137

9. See Friedrich Diez, "An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages”, Leipzig, Teubner, 1864, Livorno, G. Antonelli, 1848, p. 465

10. See “L'Italia dialettale”, 1936, n. 12: 221

11. See“Centro Italiano di studi sull'Alto Medioevo”, “Teodorico il Grande e i Goti d'Italia” [“Italian Centre for Studies on the Earl Middle Ages”, “Theodoric the Great and the Goths of Italy”], 1993:  185-186

12. See Stefano Sommier, p. 269

13. See "American Journal of Archaeology”, 1911: 425

14. See "Bonn Zoological Bulletin”, 2010, p. 12