History of Modica

See Modica guide for highlights and historic monuments

The area around Modica is an ancient prehistoric site and the first inhabitants were the Iberians, who lived in nearby caves, where the remains of furniture and objects in daily use have been found - the Museum of Modica offers ample evidence of this period.

Later, the territory was occupied by the Sicanians, and Modica in Norman times became an almost impregnable fortress. At this time it was ruled, under King Roger II (1095-1154), by Gualtieri (o) di Mohac, to whom the king granted the feud. The Norman conquest laid the basis for the feudal regime and established the spread of castles to protect the roads and the large landed estates.

Modica in the Middle Ages

Following the conquest by the Swabians, Modica was absorbed as Royal state property and then assigned to the family of  the "Mosca". From the Swabians the city passed to the Angevin, and it was under this rule that the famous Sicilian Vespers occurred.

Around 1296* Modica passed by marriage to the dynasty of the Chiaramonte. In fact, Manfredi Chiaramonte (died 1321) married Isabella Mosca in 1286 (the daughter of Frederick, Count of Modica) and prepared the ground for the dominion of the County - he was granted the properties that had already confiscated from Manfredi Mosca, Isabella's brother, by Frederick II of Aragon (1272-1337) [1].

* The exact date has been questioned by scholars. Recently, Antonino Marrone, after analysing the document, concludes that the famous diploma of 1296 dates back to 1335:

"[...] It’s likely that the allocation of the County to Manfred occurred after the cessation of the Angevin raids in summer 1335, when it was already possible to check the loyalty to the King of Aragon by other members of the Chiaramonte family, and in particular by Manfredi (II) Chiaromonte (Captain of Palermo in 1322). [...]" [2].

From 1296 to 1392 there was a massive expansion of the County, which started to control more than 47 estates, and the political and military power of which disconcerted even the reign of the Aragonese. This is a typical example of the feudal anarchy that reigned during the Aragonese rule in Sicily, where in fact the County of Modica was for many centuries the most powerful feud of the island, creating a veritable state within a state.

Under the rule of the Chiaramonte the city experienced a notable increase in building and the patronage of  the Chiaramonte leaves a distinguished mark on the civic and religious buildings of Sicily. The excessive power of the Chiaramonte concluded in 1394 when Andrea Chiaramonte was beheaded for rebellion against King Martin I of Aragon.

The county then proceeded to the rule of the Cabrera under Henriquez-Cabrera, who made Modica a powerful feudal state, very similar to a kingdom, and where the feudal lord enjoyed sovereign authority.

Expansion of Modica county

The County at this time, in addition to Modica, included Scicli and Ragusa, Comiso, Ispica Camarina, Chiaramonte, Monte Rosso, Giarratana, Odagrillo, Pozzallo, Marsa and Murri. In 1366 Malta, Gozo and Gomino were added; then in 1374 the County of Caccamo, Girgenti, Bivona, Naro, Delia, Mussumeli, Gibillina, Favara and in 1375 Castronuovo, Misilmeri, Muscari, Guastanello all fell under the control of Modica. [3].

In 1392 the so-called "mero et mixto imperio" was granted to Bernardo Cabrera:

“"We give you the County, castles and places aforesaid, which you will rule by sovereign powers" [4].

Modica in recent centuries

In the early 18th century, the rule of Modica County went directly to Spain, until it lost its legal status in the early 19th century. Certainly the earthquake of 1693 was a catastrophic event for the city. The reconstruction of Modica took place in the first half of the 18th century, and was re-built in Baroque style, which still constitutes the predominant artistic style of the town.

With the unification of Italy in 1861 Modica lost its role of capital in favor of Ragusa, becoming a town dedicated mainly to agricultural and commercial activities. In recent years, with the increase in cultural activities and enhancement of its significant artistic heritage, Modica is a city with considerable tourist attractions.

Ancient origins of Modica

About the origins of Modica, the discussions among the scholars have been numerous and incongrous. We can say that for many years the best accredited theory has been that of the Phoenician origin of the city, but in recent years it has not enjoyed a very large favor.

Researches about the "origins" are also linked to the etymological problem; so if we don’t agree in principle about the origins, the same etymological problem becomes fundamentally irresolvable and inextricable. In fact, the connection between the origins and etymology has always present in all the studies about Modica.

Let's start with the oldest. Francesco Testa wrote:

"[...] One believes that the name of Modica is commonly derived from an old city called "Motyca" by Ptolemy, or ‘Motuca’. Mugnos believes it of Phoenician origin, with the Phoenician name meaning "Strong Castle" [Italian “Castel Forte”]; although elsewhere he had said that it was so called from 'Motuchin', Captain of the ‘Lindi’ or ‘Geloi’, the founder...

... The Arabs called ‘Motuca’ with the name "Mohac", meaning 'profunditas' [depth] and 'pars Prostans Montis' [opposite to a part of the mountain], and thus they could allude to the site of the city, located precisely in a deep valley with a hill in the middle. Other names were Modica, Motuca, Motye, Mutuca, Mutic, Mothyca, Mohac, Motyce, Modices, Motic, Madica and Mitice [...]." [5].

We parenthesize that "Motuca" was the Latin name of the city.

In the "Documents to serve the History of Sicily" we read:

“Giacomo Maria d’Aquino (...) writes that Modica or Motuca is an ancient town built by the Phoenicians.” [6]

And again G. Buonfiglio Costanzo notes that:

“the Phoenicians obtained the dominion of the sea, as told by Eusebius. They built 'Motuca' and Palermo in Sicily." [7].

The Jesuit Father G. Massa, wrote:

"[...] Filadelfio Mugnos says the founder of Motica was ‘Motuchin’, Captain of the ‘Gelai’, or “Lindi” (...), but then he forgot what  had been written earlier, saying that (...) Motuca was founded by the Phoenicians and the word "Motuc," in Phoenician language means 'Strong Castle' [...]" [8].

Even more recently we read in the “Archivio storico” that Motuca “ derives from the Phoenician word Motuc, or "Castel Forte" [9]. M. Collura says with determination that:

“Modica was a Phoenician and Sicilian city. The Greeks called it 'Motyka' one hundred years after the foundation of Syracuse. Stronghold of the Saracens and Normans, it became a powerful county, boasting the title of ‘Regnum in regno’ ["a state within a state"]” [10].

However, now the Phoenician origin of Modica is not universally accepted by scholars, many of whom suppose that it had been founded by indigenous peoples, such as the Elymians-Sicanians. Although some archaeological finds from Modica would suggest the city was a sort of "emporium" of the Phoenicians [11], there are critical positions that:

"[...] reject the Phoenician origin of Modica, and it is quite conceivable that the city has been one of the major villages of Sicilian or indigenous populations, together with other populations of Greek origin [...]" [12].

Today, therefore, the received opinion is that "Motuca" is of Sicanian and Elymian origins. G. Sergi states that:

"[...] the name of Motye, Motyum, Motyca, Motycanus, has spread from west to east, and the center of the island, and it can only be Siculus, that is an original name of the natives (...) so all the [Phoenician] etymologies fall." [13].

Origins of the name Modica

Although no one today believes in the Phoenician origin of Modica, the etymological research has never really abandoned the Phoenician "track" and the results are, in fact, of confusion and disorientation. G. Nenci, returning recently to the question of the name of Modica, provides us with a scene of this uncertainty:

According to this scholar, the etymological research outside the Phoenician-Punic proved itself unproductive, and the hypothesis of G. Alessio [for whom Modica derives from the Etruscan word "Moutouka" (cistus)] was not convincing. For this reason there was a "return" of the etymological research to the Phoenician area, which has shown itself to be “more intense and methodologically more appropriate" [14].

Interconnecting, therefore, “Mozia” (Mitya) [which was often confused with Modica] and Modica (Mytica), the presence of  the typical Phoenician sequence “MT” implied the research of a possible etymology, which, however, was always elusive:

"[...] More intense and methodologically more appropriate has been the research in the Phoenician-Punic area, and on this way, opened in 1651 by the classic work by S. Bochart, essentially (...) Gensenius, Luynes, Movers, Cogley, and Ugdulena moved in this direction ...".

The consequence of these studies was a real proliferation of assumptions, most of them conflicting with each other. Even if all scholars started from a Semitic context, they got to various proposals, such as:

"[...] 'Metuha' (id est “ 'protensam' propter Chersones longitudinem” (Bochart); 'muddy', a term derived from a Goddess called 'Mot' (De Luynes); 'spinning wheel' (Gensenius, Movers, Ugdulena, Schröder), from a root that indicates 'filter'. It is this etymology that has had more luck [...]" [15].

Other hypothesis, described as "extravagant" by Nenci, then suggested etymologies such as "hand spinning" and "thread"; in this connection Nenci comments:

"It's amazing that in support of the etymology connected with the ‘hand spinning’ and the “thread’ are taken as proofs the suggestion of Diodorus [90-27 BC] (14, 53, 3) to the ‘euthétes polyteleis’ [with particular reference to the textile industries] of Mozia and the weights for the handloom found in the island, as if they were indicative of particular textiles activities in Mozia; when it is known that in all the ancient cities were found plenty of weights for the handloom [...]".

Finally, the same G. Nenci, about the etymology of Mozia (involving similar problems to Modica), proposed a solution that returns to the ancient legend of the foundation, according to which Mozia was founded by Hercules, who called "Motya" the new city in honor of the nymph "Motya" who revealed to him the names of the thieves who stole his ox.

This is therefore the etymology of Mozia, of undisputed Phoenician origin, to which is tied for "similitude" also "Motuca", which, however, does not have a Phoenician origin. Of this fact critics are perfectly convinced.

In this connection Giustolisi observes:

"[...] There are conflicting authoritative opinions which favor a pre-Phoenician etymology. The analogy of Mozia with other places in Sicily, such as 'Motyca' or 'Motyon', hardly reached by the Phoenicians, suggests a different origin. The root 'mt' of this name, in my opinion, can be attributed to a North African element that perhaps has a direct reference to the name of the nymph [called 'Motya'], who, according to the legend trasmitted by Hecataeus (and quoted by Stephen of Byzantium), denounced to Hercules the author of the theft [of his ox] " [16].

Giustolisi, about these remarks, was preceded by Gaetani, who just believed that "Motuca" had a Sicanian origin, and he said:

"[...] Modica, a city located in the ‘Valle di Noto’, is the capital of a county with the same name. It takes its origin from the ancient city of "Motuca", built by the Sicilians, or by the Sicanians [...]" [17].

Therefore, assuming the "Sicanian" origin of "Motuca" and that the Phoenician etymology failed (as above), there stands the attempt to penetrate the meaning  of the "indigenous" term "Motuca."

We found no studies about this topic; however, some recent linguistic studies recorded that the name "Motuca" is a name typically of  Italian area because of the radical sequence "uk-", "ok-". The terms that have this particular sequence are “Al (u) r (c) a”, “Ar (u) (c) ia”, and  “Mot (u) (c) a” [18].

Having established the “Italianity” of “Motuca”, we must now ask ourselves what is its meaning. The term, as we have seen, seems to be of "indigenous" origin; when we use this term in Sicily we must think to the Elymians [“Elymi”] and the Sicanians [“Sicani”]. We also know that many modern theories and ancient historical evidences confirm a "relationship" between the Ligurians and the “Elymi-Sicani.” In fact, according to the ancient tradition the Ligurians moved to Sicily.

Here is the focal point of the possible meaning of the term “Motuca.” In the Ligurian and upper-Italian area:

“[…] the term 'Motic' derives from the root ‘-motion’, with the meaning of ‘manliness’', ‘courage’ (...) and the word is attested in Gaul, especially in the form ‘Motucus’ and also the feminine 'Motuca' […].” [19].

Among other things, this etymology, tied to the concept of "manliness," "strength" and "courage", relates perfectly with the legend of the mythical foundation of the city, which, in fact, according to the myth, was founded by Hercules, the mythical hero, "manly", "strong" and "courageous" by definition.

In conclusion, if our observations are correct, "Motuca" should mean "the strong city," a definition essentially very close to the meaning that the Arabs gave to Modica, calling it "Mohac" or “Castel Forte” [“Strong  Castle”].

See the travel guide for Modica.


1. See E. Di Blasi, “Il paesaggio culturale della Contea di Modica”, “Dipartimento di Economia e territorio dell'Università di Catania”, Atti Asita, Catania, 2005: 1-12

2. See Antonino Marrone, “Sulla datazione della 'Descriptio Feudorum sub Rege Friderico' (1335) ...”, in “Mediterranea”, “Ricerche storiche”, Year I, 2004: 137

3. See F. Mainenti, “Bernardo Cabrera Conte sovrano di Modica”, in “Agorà”, VIII, 2002:  25

4. See G. Modica Scala, “I tribunali della contea di Modica”, in "Archivum Historicum Motycense", 1996, 2:  5

5. “Opuscoli di autori siciliani”, Palermo, 1762, Volume VII: 337-338

6. See,“Società siciliana di storia patria”, 1888, p. CXLVIII

7. See G. Bonfiglio, “Dell'Historia siciliana”,, Venice, 1604, I: 46

8. See G.A. Massa, “La Sicilia in prospettiva”, Palermo, 1709, II: 116

9. See “Archivio storico per la Sicilia orientale”, 1980: 504

10. See M. Collura, , “Sicilia sconosciuta. Itinerari insoliti e curiosi”, Rizzoli, 1998: 168

11. See“Gruppo Archeologico Romano, in “Archeologia”, 1983, numbers 22-23:50-51

12. See“Archivio Storico Siciliano”, 1905, Vol 30: 371

13. See G Sergi , From Alba Longa to Rome ", 1934: 106

14. See G. Nenci, “Sul toponimo Mozia”, in J. De la Genière, “Studi sulla Sicilia occidentale in onore di V. Tusa”, 1993: 144

15. See G . Nenci: 144

16. See V. Giustolisi," Cronia,  Paropo and Solunto”, 1972: 11

17. See F. E.  Gaetani, "Della Sicilia nobile", Palermo, 1759, II:  1-2

18. See “Le radici prime dell'Europa”, edited by G. Bocchi, - M. Ceruti, Paravia B. Mondadori, 2001: 217

19. See “Ligures celeberrimi: la Liguria interna nella seconda età del ferro”. Atti del convegno internazionale, Mondovi, 26-28 April 2002, International Institute of Ligurian Studies, 2004: 24 footnote 70