History of Mascali, Italy


See Mascali guide for highlights and historic monuments

Mascali is a small town situated on the slopes of Etna, between Acireale and Taormina, with a long and interesting history.

Mascali in antiquity - Kallipolis

With regard to antiquity, Cluverius identified Mascali as being the ancient settlement of Kallipolis, a Chalcidian colony of Naxos under the control of the tyrant Hippocrates og Gela (died 491 BC). It is safe enough to accept that Mascali was indeed Kallipolis, as Roman writer Pliny tells us that "the island of Naxos was also called Kallipolis" (meaning “beautiful city”) [1].

The same hypothesis was also formulated later by Vito Amico:

“It is asserted by Cluverius and other historians that this town occupies the site of the ancient Gallipoli, one of the Chalcydic colonies, which was in ruins at the time of Strabo” [2].

However the ancient location of Mascali is very uncertain. According to C. Camassa, we must locate Kallipols between Naxos and Catania, while for others it was between Mascali and Giarre. However, there is no definite answer to this question:

“Various sites have been brought forward as candidates for the site of Kallipolis, but it remains unidentified, though recent finds at San Martino south of Naxos are promising in this connection. In general, the fact that, like Katane and Leontinoi, it was a colony of Naxos suggests a location on the coastal plain south of Naxos or on the slopes of Mount Etna...

...in any case, the foundation of Kallipolis should be been as a part of the Chalkidian occupation of north-eastern Sicily. The siege mentioned by Herodotus (484-425 BC) implies that Kallipolis was fortified by Hippokrates” [3].

We know that Kallipolis also survived for some time in Roman times, as it was mentioned by Silius Italicus (25-101 AD) as an ally of Rome in the Second Punic War: "Romana petivit foedera Callipolis" (Kallipolis made a pact with the Romans). However, the fate of Kallipolis, like that of other Sicilian cities of the Ancient World in Roman times, was decided.

We recall that in these areas there was a radical change in the environment, which was a prelude to an environment dominated by forest, that is the habitat in which Mascali was built. Strabo (64 BC-19 AD) clearly told us what happened; he noted that by then:

"the traces of ancient settlements had disappeared, among which 'Kamerina'. Then totally ruined were Himera, Gela, Selinus, Naxos, Kallipolis, Euboia, Kamikos, and other Sicilian cities were in a total state of neglect (...) So Strabo adds that the Romans, having noticed the urban degradation,purchased most of the mountains and plains and entrusted them to horse breeders, to cattlemen and shepherds...These conditions promoted, in addition to slave revolts, like that of Heunus in Henna, also banditry which reappeared with Selouros, called 'the son of Etna’" [4].

In this landscape now dominated by forest historians have found the first signs of the modern Mascali. Sebastiano Fresta writes:

“For centuries this land remained an uncultivated wood, dangerous because of the possibility of fire and used in some places for grazing. The Count Bishops came from Catania to take possession of this Diocese, but, until Bishop Nicola Caracciolo (1512-1568), they had no cure for this area rich in water and for the most part a flat land" [5].

The first mention of a place called "Maschalas", the modern Mascali, was found in a document dating back to Pope Gregory the Great [540-604], of 593, where the Pope, speaking to the Bishop of Taormina, recalled the presence of a baptistery in the monastery of San Andrea, built by the "insolence" of the monks, who did not obey the orders of Pope. He wanted the baptistry to be demolished and an altar built in its place.

We note that Gregory the Great seems very determined and his language was quite threatening towards Bishop Secundinus:

“[...] First, with regard to the monastery of St. Andrew, overhanging "Mascalas", We order that the baptistery, built for the insolence of those monks, is dismantled, and indeed we want that where there is a spring is built an altar (...) which allows the monks to celebrate serenely the glory of God  Moreover, we do not want that your negligence in carrying out the order excites Our mind against You]" [6].

Mascali after the Romans

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the territory of Mascali was subject to the dominion of the Byzantines, and recent researches show that Byzantine art and architecture left an important evidences in Mascali. Then after the Byzantines Mascali was submitted to the Arabs.

We have no Arab documents speaking about Mascali before the year 1000 - the first Arab chronicler who cited the location in relation to its timber trade was Ga'far Abu Nasr al-Ahmad Ibn Dawud, who died in 402 (= 1011 AD) [7]. Later, of course, Mascali was quoted by Al Idrisi (1099-1166) and also by Yakut (1229), who mentioned Mascali in relation to Etna, which he called the "Mountain of Fire":

“’The Mountain of Fire’, located in Sicily, stands out on the coast (…) between Catania and Mascali, not away from Taormina" [8].

Arrival of the Normans

The history of the small town takes a more precise form with the advent of the Normans, and in particular with Count Roger (1031-1101), who donated the land to the Bishop of Catania. A legend passed down to us by G.A. Massa suggests that the city was founded by Count Roger.

Count Roger then gave Mascali to Ansgerio, the prior of St. Euphemia in Calabria and Roger II (1095-1154) in 1124 confirmed the donation to the successors of Ansgerio, with other privileges such as the one forbidding the inhabitants to "lead the pigs in the woods of Mascali, so as not to damage the rights of the monks". Roger II also prohibited trees from being cut without his express permission [9].

The territory of Mascali was rich in monasteries, and S. Fresta said:

"[...] The oldest Benedictine institution in the Etna region dates back to the years between 1088 and 1092, with the foundation of the Abbey of St. Agatha in Catania, Sicily, and the endowment of it to Ansgerio. [...]" [10].

The figure of Bishop Nicola Caracciolo was essential to the history of Mascali:

"Charles V [1500-1558], after knowing the personality of this Bishop and his character and prestige, with the privilege of 12 March 1540, raised the fief of Mascali to the rank of County, investing the Bishop with the title of Count of Mascali. Nicola Caracciolo  participated actively in the Council of Trent, and he had clear ideas about the religious organization of his Diocese...

... He also made a great work of agricultural organizing and demographic expansion that populated the plains and the hill of the great plain of Mascali (...) He developed trade, the economic growth and the organization of this territory that now encompasses five municipalities, that is Mascali, Giarre, Riposto, Sant'Alfio and Milo" [11].

The city and its territory, because of its soil fertility, were for a long time disputed by the local nobility and the Church of Catania. Gradually, most of the territory of the Diocese was fragmented into many properties.

Mascali also saw a remarkable economic boom in the 18th and 19th century, thanks to the exceptional development of the vineyard:

“The annual production reached the 110,000 hectoliters (...) This enormous production of wine impressed all the foreign travelers who visited Mascali (...) In 1827 an outstanding traveler, that is the young Tocqueville, wrote about being “in an enchanted land of Sicily, which will surprise and fascinate you" [12].

"Travels in Malta and Sicily" by Andrew Bigelow

An American traveler, in 1827, wrote:

“Crossing a little river at the mouth of which is Riposto, a village adjacent to Giarre, and which like the latter appears to be in a thriving condition, I entered the fertile district of Mascali. It occupies an extensive tract near the base of Mount Ema, for still the route continued along the skirts of that mountain. The town of Mascali, large but no longer flourishing, was at a short distance to my left. The territory around is exuberantly productive. Exclusive of grain, timber and fruit, it annually yields ninety thousand pipes of wine.

This district extends to the Alcantara, the ancient Onabala, a very respectable stream, which by some is considered the northern boundary of Etna.. But the mountain has disdained to observe the limits it would affix. It has not only pressed over and beyond it, but repeatedly compelled the river to shift its course, and to choose and scoop out a new channel for its waters. The Alcantara at present flows over a bed of very ancient lava.

In the district of Mascali the famous Cold River, 'Fiume Freddo', takes its rise. Its course is short and rapid. I crossed it near its outlet. If all the stories told of the stream be true, it certainly possesses very curious properties. One is, that though its waters be uncommonly cold, and they certainly are so to the feeling, yet they are never known to freeze. It is probable that a different tale would be told had they ever been subjected to the zero frosts of a New England winter” [13].

Bigelow, about the area of Mascali, made the same observations as 11th century chronicler Al Idrisi, who noted:

"Mascali [‘Masqalah’] is a village located on top of a high mountain, and it thrives by the industriousness of its inhabitants (...) Between Mascali and Taormina flows the river called An Nahr al Barid' ('the Cold River', today Alcantara)" [14].

The small town was badly damaged by the earthquake that struck south-east Sicily in 1693 and then again by that of 1928, but it was rebuilt and today, despite many vicissitudes, it has a great territory from the naturalistic point of view, and some researches  have uncovered important examples of art of Byzantine times.

History and etymology of Mascali

With regard to the etymology, various scholars believe that it is of Arab origin. But Santi Correnti notes that it is not necessary to find an Arab origin to all the place names of the Etna area, and:

"in the case of Mascali and Mascalucia there is no need to think about the Arabic term ‘Maskil’ (which means ‘sea place beach’), because the modern Mascali is some distance from  the sea, and even more Mascali, destroyed by lava on November 6, 1928, was off in ancient times (…) The name 'Mascali' derives from the Greek-Byzantine 'mascalis', which means 'flowering branch', and it clearly indicates the fertility of the plain of Mascali, famous for its vegetables and wines, celebrated by Giovanni Meli [1740-1815]” [15].

The assumption proposed by Santi Correnti seems the most appropriate for the environment in which Mascali is, and today it is that which enjoys much of reputation.

Another hypothesis proposes a derivation from "màsculu" [= armpit, with reference to the numerous sinuous recesses that are plentiful in the area]:

“In Campania and Cilento we have 'mascali' and also 'mascula', 'mask', 'mascara' (… ) meaning 'armpit'" [16].

See our Mascali travel information to plan your visit.

References

 1. See G. Camassa, "Gallipoli di Sicilia", in "BTCGI", 1989, No 7, pp. 544-548

2. Vedi Luigi Piale, “Hand-book or new guide to Naples, Sicily and the environs”, 1853, p. 54

3. See Mogens Herman Hansen, Thomas Heine Nielsen, “An inventory of archaic and classical poleis”, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 202

4. See G. Manganaro, “La Sicilia da Sesto Pompeo a Diocleziano”,  in “Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt: Geschichte und Kultur Roms im Spiegel der neueren Forschung,” edited by Wolfgang Haase-Hildegard Temporini, De Gruyter, Berlin, 1988. Vol II, p. 16

5. See S. Fresta, “La contea di Mascali (1124-1860). Documenti e testimonianze,” Catania, Giannotta, 1971, p. 98

6. see" Corpus Juris Canonici ", edited by Aemilius Ludovicus Richter, Lipsiae, 1839, Vol I, p. 715

7. See “Simbolo e realtá della vita urbana nel tardo medioevo”, a cura di M. Miglio-G. Lombardi 1993, p. 100 footnote 17

8. See A. Borruso, “Da oriente a occidente”, Palermo, Officina di studi medievali,  2006, p. 72 and note 20

9. See G. Vecchio, “La cella Trichora di Santo Stefano e l'antico eremo di Dagala del re”, Acireale, 2008, pp. 299-300

10. S. Fresta, p. 97 (see 5. above)

11. Fresta, p. 99-102 (see 5. above)

12. See E. Iachello-A. Signorelli, “Trafficanti e produttori in un'area vinicola: la contea di Mascali tra '700 e '800” in “Il Mezzogiorno preunitario”, a cura di A. Massafra, Dedalo 1988, pp. 901 ff.

13. See Andrew Bigelow, “Travels in Malta and Sicily”, Boston, 1831, p. 423

14. See M. Amari, “Biblioteca arabo-sicula”, Loescher, 1880, Vol I, p. 116

15. See Santi Correnti, “Storia e folklore di Sicilia”, Mursia, 1975, p. 68

16. See M. Cortelazzo-C. Marcato, “I dialetti italiani: dizionario etimologico”, UTET, 1998, p. 275