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History of Melfi, Italy

See Melfi guide for highlights and historic monuments

Early origins

Regarding the foundation of the medieval city, there are some outstanding questions that are not historically based, like the suggestion that Melfi was founded in 1018 by Catapan Basilius Bojoannes (Catapan of Italy from 1017 to 1027), a hypothesis that G. Fortunato considers to be a “legend”:

"It is a legend that Catapan Basilius Boioannes had founded Melfi in 1018, the city was already seat to the merchants of Amalfi, and as Venosa and Lavello for Jewish bankers. He only encircled the city with walls […]” [7].

This is also confirmed by recent studies that prove that Catapan Basilius Boioannes in the 11th century only founded some "kastra [fortresses] of Melfi” [8].

Even with the advent of the Lombards Melfi was fortified because of its strategic location on the edge in the domain of the Byzantines. In the ninth century it came into the hands of the Byzantines, becoming, however, a reason for a clash with the Lombards.

Normans in Melfi

During the 11th century Melfi was for many years the capital of the Normans, and it was here that five ecumenical councils were organized between 1059 and 1101, including that in which the First Crusade (1089) was decided.

The Normans also decided to build a new castle, new walls and the cathedral at this time..

At the end of the 12th century the Swabians came to power and the “Constitutiones Regni Siciliane”were promulgated in 1231. Also known as the "Constitutions of Melfi”, this was a set of laws regulating the reign of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250).

In 1268 the Angevin dynasty replaced the Swabian and in 1350 the town became a feud of Niccolò Acciaioli (1310-1365), then of the  Marzano and finally of the Caracciolo Counts.

The Caracciolo Counts were involved in the famous "conspiracy of the barons" in 1485 against King Ferrante of Aragon (1431-1494), who, after having executed them, took over the feud of the city.

In 1528 in a clash between France and Spain Melfi was sacked and burned, and then later donated by Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) to Andrea Doria (1466-1560). The town gradually lost importance, and only the construction of some palaces made a significant change to the structure of the town.

Over the centuries Melfi was also severely damaged by earthquakes, with those of 1851 and 1930 particularly destructive. At the end of the 20th century Melfi became an important industrial hub and the seat of one of the largest automobile factories in Italy.

Origins of the name Melfi

It seems that the city's name derives from the nearby river Melpes, as quoted by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), who speaks of a river called “Melphes”:

[…]'Proximum huic (Palinuro) flumen […]" or “ ‘Melphes’ River next to Palinuro” [1].

One of the ancient names of the city was also "Melphia". Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), after saying that “Melphia’ existit ante Normannos” ("Melphia existed before the Normans"), points out that it was known in the Middle Ages with the names of 'Melphia' and 'Melfis'" [2].

The ancient site was illustrated with remarkable authority by Pietro Ebner, who asserts that:

“[…[ East of Palinuro a few years ago were brought to light the remains of a village (...) It may be assumed that the mouth of the river Melphes had been a port. The excavations revealed a cemetery on the headland of ‘Molpa’, dating back to the last decades of the sixth century BC, some remains of fortifications with its Acropolis, and the remains of a village of the second century BC...

... In the necropolis some coins were found with the name ‘Pal (Inure)’ and ‘Mol (pa)’ (...) The lack of archaeological remains after the end of the sixth century led scholars to assume that a catastrophic disaster had resulted in the disappearance of the two 'poleis' ["city-states"]" [3].

The coins found in the area, in fact, allow us to go back to an ancient city known as the "Palinurus Molpis," or in Latin "Palinurus ad  Melphem ." The coins show, in Greek letters, the following words: "Pal" on the obverse, and on the other side "Mol" [4].

About the etymology of Melfi, in "L’Italia Dialettale" we read that the name "has the value of 'sinus' (‘concavity’, ‘abyss of the earth’), from a Mediterranean root (‘Melp-‘ Melf’, ‘malf’)” [5]. The historical data confirm this linguistic hypothesis:

“[…] Melfi was located on the main roads of the ‘Magna Graecia’, that connected it both to “ ‘Sinus’ [“concavity”] Paestanus', the Adriatic Sea and Ionian colonies. Only in this way can we explain the presence in the necropolis of that strange mixture of imported materials and local imitations of the models that come here from all over. Although we know little about the topography of the old town (...) it is assumed that it was located at the top, where the Norman castle was built[…] " [6].

See also the Melfi detailed visitor and travel guide.


1. See D. Romanelli," Historical Topography of Ancient Kingdom of Naples, Naples, Royal Printing Office, 1815: 368

2. see L.A. Muratori, “Rerum Italicarum Scriptores”, 1751:  CCXCVI and CCCXX

3. See P . Ebner, "Church, Barons and people in the Cilento ', Rome, Edizioni History and Literature, 1982, Vol. II; 170-171

4. See J.A. Cramer, "A Geographical and Historical Description of Ancient Italy", Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1826, Vol. II: 373 and note “z”

5. See" L’Italia Dialettale", 2000: 149 and 155

6. See" Atti e Memorie della Società Magna Grecia ", La Società, 1966: 200

7. "Badie, Feudi e Baroni della Valle di Vitalba ", edited by T. Pedio, 1968: 174

8. See Beatrice Bonghi," “Vie e Mete dei Pellegrini nel Medioevo euro-mediterraneo. Atti del Convegno del Dipartimento di Discipline Storiche dell'Università di Bologna”, Pàtron, 2007: 180