History of Montalbano Elicona, Italy

See Montalbano Elicona guide for highlights and historic monuments

Before reading the history of Montalbano Elicona you might find it useful to study the etymology of the town (further down this page), because, as you shall see, if a historian starts with the wrong etymologies then misleading historical conclusions can be drawn...

Why Montalbano-Elicona was important

From Antiquity onwards the area of Montalbano was on an important military and pilgrimage route and all military planes of operation, from Antiquity to World War II, had to take account of the crossing of the Nebrodes to ensure their armies had the dual ability to reach Messina, from the south and west, which is the main hub of the island's defensive system.

- In 36 BC Octavian [Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus, 63 BC-14 AD], leading his army from the Tyrrhenian coast to the Etna area, lost his way at Mount Myconius, which Casagrandi and Gabba identified with Mount Helicon, now known as ‘Monte Calvario’ in the territory of the modern Montalbano Elicona.

- In 1061 Count Roger [1031-1101] and his brother Robert Guiscard [1015 circa-1085], moving from Messina with their troops, crossed the Peloritani Mounts and they reached the Tyrrhenian towns such as Rometta, Monforte and Tripi, where, crossing the Nebrodes, they arrived 'ad Fraxinos' and afterwards the plain of Maniace (...)

- In 1154 the Arab geographer Idrisi (1099-1166) cited the road links between Maniace, Randazzo, Montalbano and Tripi [1]

- In 1282 Peter III of Aragon (1239-1285), King of Sicily, having come from Randazzo to Messina, reached the 'locum qui dicitur Argimustus' [the place called ‘Argimustus’] within the territory of the modern Montalbano Elicona."

Origins of Montalbano Elicona and the site of Abacena in ancient times

With regard to Antiquity, Montalbano Elicona is famous for its megalithic monuments, but few attempts were made to identify it with the ancient “Abacena” [Greek "Abakainon"], an ancient city of the Sikels, which scholars, however, now place at Tripi, at close range from Montalbano. In this sense, scholars were always doubtful about the identification of Abacena with Montalbano: "The origin of Montalbano Elicona is obscure and almost unknown, and scholars often doubted whether Montalbano existed in Greek and Roman times, and whether it was the ancient ‘Abacaenum’, such as some claimed without sufficient evidence" [12].

However, because of the proximity of Tripi with Montalbano, it is clear that the ancient site where the city now stands belonged to the territory of Abacena: "During the fourth century BC the area probably was part of the sphere of influence of 'Abakainon', the indigenous city located near Tripi. As confirmed by Diodorus (90-27 BC), ‘Abakainon’ was deprived of a part of its territory when Dionysius the Elder (432-367 BC), with a group of Messenian exiles, founded Tyndaris in 396 BC (...) However it is possible there was a shift of the settlement in classical times (...) toward some coast areas" [13].

Norman times and after for Montalbano

The village of Montalbano Elicona is certainly of Norman origin, although presumably built on an ancient hamlet. In fact, C. Marullo di Condojanni notes that there still exists today near Montalbano a place called "Casale di Montalbano" [14]. Luigi Minissale Pirrotta assumed that Montalbano was founded between 1125 and 1150. Let us add that the dates proposed by Pirrotta coincide very well with the etymology and the widest possible dissemination of literature on the knightly figure of Renaud de Montauban [Rinaldo di Montalbano], which reached its climax in the years between 1150 and 1200.

According to studies by Luigi Minissale Pirrotta, Montalbano was the favourite city of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), who then gave it to his wife Constance, together with Caronia, Oliveri and St. Mary in Taormina. Pirrotta added that, however, shortly afterwards, Frederick II destroyed the town, because of the rebellion of the "Lombardi", but it was rebuilt in 1262 and King Manfredi (1232-1266) granted it "the title of County" to Bonifazio Anglono [15].

After the death of Count Anglona, Montalbano belonged to royal demesne and Frederick III of Aragon (1272-1336) built a magnificent castle (...) Frederick died in 1336, and he was succeeded by his second son, John of Aragon (1350-1396), who was also Count of Randazzo, and after his death King Ludwig of Aragon (1337-1355) and his mother Elizabeth withdrew into the castle of Montalbano in 1348.

With regard to subsequent years, some important information on the population and the city is provided by G. Pantano, who notes that around 1545 "for the census ordered by Charles V, we know that in the town there were 361 'fuochi' (that is houses) and 2411 ‘anime’ [souls = inhabitants]. According to statistics, we estimate that each household was formed by an average of nearly seven members" [16].

In the course of time the county of Montalbano passed by marriage to Philip Bonanno, who became Prince of Montalbano. It remained until 1805 under the Bonanno family. In 1805, the Bonanno, "because of serious debt problems, "sold the city to the Jesuits “at cost of 49000 ounces" [17].

Etmology and the origins of Montalbano

In the current affairs press we read that the name "Montalbano" derived from "Mons Albus" (Italian ‘bianco’= white), with reference to the snow-white (=’bianco’) mountain ("Mons"). In fact even such a great linguist as Giulio Bertoni said that "with regard to colours, we see that ‘bianco’ [white], of Germanic origin, replaced the Latin word 'albus', which survived in only a few names (such as in the French ‘aube’ [dawn] and 'aubepine'; in Genoese 'arba' (with reference to the freshly laundered linen) and in some place names such as 'Alba' (city) and Montalbano" [1].

However, the case of Montalbano Elicona in Sicily is very different. In fact, G. Arlotta [2] writes that: "Montalbano, according to scholars, owes its name to Paladin Renaud de Montauban, while the nearby Mount Calvary clearly recalls the holy mountain in Jerusalem. This double reference to the culture of the Medieval pilgrims and the location of Montalbano halfway between the 'hospitale' [hospice] of Maniace and the S. Filippo del Mela, suggest that in the territory of Montalbano there was a structure of hospitality which here would be a necessary to enable an intermediate stop after a day's march." [3].

G. Cavarra pointed out that “Montalbano derives its name from 'Montauban', the castle of Renaud [Rinaldo] and his brothers" [4]. In fact, Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533),in “Orlando Furioso” (literally “Mad Orlando”) wrote: "Rinaldo came to Montalbano, and here he embraced his mother, his wife, children and also cousins, who first were prisoners]" [5].

It is not surprising, since other Sicilian cities bear the names of knights who fought for the Christian faith, just as Capo d'Orlando and Oliveri. In fact, J. Abel writes: "Capo d'Orlando is so named from [Paladin] Orlando (near Oliveri and there is also Montalbano), the most 'mad' of the paladins of Charlemagne" [6].

We often find similar examples in France. J. Montgomery observes: “The personage who ranks next to him [Orlando] in celebrity is his cousin Rinaldo of Montalbano. Montalbano, or Montauban, is a city on the banks of the Tarn, near its junction with the Garonne. It is said to have been built in 1144, after the date of archbishop Turpin's book, who makes no mention of it or its lord. It is a stronghold; and, even now, an old fortress, in the most ancient part of it, is called 'le Chateau de Renaud'” [7]. Awareness of this relationship between "Montauban" and "Montalbano" was present in many contemporary scholars, such as E. Zanette, who wrote: "Please keep in mind that Montalbano was Montauban, and that this is precisely located in Gascony" [8].

Is Elicona the same place as Myconius?

As we know, Montalbano is accompanied by another name, "Elicona", with reference to the current Mount Calvary. It is a clear name of Greek origin, which the Latin writers called "Heliconius", but, according to some scholars, in some ancient texts it was incorrectly cited as "Myconius". The history of this error was narrated by Ettore Pais, who wrote: "The war of Octavian against Sextus Pompey (67-35 BC), although very important in itself, seemed to his contemporaries exceedingly more important than what it really was. The scarcity of food grains, which could not reach from the Italian islands, because they were intercepted by continuous raids by the Pompeian ships, contributed to make appear it larger in the eyes of the hungry Roman plebeians.

The war between Pompey and Octavian was the subject of a good poem, written by Cornelius Severus (1st century BC), the friend of Ovid (43-17 BC) and by the same Augustus (...) If I am not mistaken, it is from the poem by Augustus that we derive some dramatic descriptions, such as the retreat of Lucius Cornificius [1st century BC] through the valley of the mountains of the Alcantara told by Appian, and Dio, and the description of the eruption of Etna, and the fear of the German soldiers when Octavian was lost on the Myconius mountain (that is ‘Heliconius’) (...) I take this occasion to note that the name 'oros, Mukóviov' (Mount Myconius) that appears in Appian [95-165 AD] (…) is corrupt (…)

We read this ‘Myconius' name in all histories of Sicily, and also in the diligent history by A. Holm (...) Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BC) was the only ancient writer who suspected that this name was not exact, but even he attempted an emendation of it. Yet the emendation is not difficult. Ptolemy (90-168 AD), in the north coast between Mylae and Tyndaris, cited the 'Elikonos Potamou ekbolai' [the delta of the river Heliconius]. This river descended from the mountain which was crossed by Caesar Octavian where today there is the town of Montalbano Elicona. Now who does not see that we must change 'Mikonion oros’ [Mount Myconius] with ‘Elikonion oros’ [Mount Heliconius]?" [9]

If the etymology from "Mons Albus" had its own inner logic due to obvious similarities with the Latin, the stance of those who would like that Montalbano Elicona derives from the Arabic language is absolutely wrong. Frequently we read that Montalbano derives from the Arabic name "Al Bana," to mean "excellent", or from "Ban", a term which was explained as "pars pinguedinis". This hypothesis is widely present and often repeated, so we must enter into the merits of this matter.

In our opinion responsibility for the proliferation of this error lies with two works, one by Francesco Maria Emanuele e Gaetani, a scholar of the 18th century, and another by Francesco Tardia. Francesco Gaetani, as for him, attacked Fazello and Vito Amico, who, however, rightly conjectured a Norman origin of the site: “Certainly Fazello wronged stating that Montalbano had been built by Frederick [II] (…) but fell into error ... saying that the town dates back to Swabian times, or at the most to Norman times. The term 'Albano' is instead of Arab origin, and it is formed by 'Al Ban', meaning 'excellent' or by 'Ban', which in Latin means ' pars. pinguedinis', with reference to the Fountain called 'Terone', which had oily water.”

Francesco Gaetani was convinced he was right because "an Arab chronicler" spoke of Montalbano. Apparently, his speech was perfect; in fact, since the Arabs arrived in Sicily "before" the Normans and the Swabians, and since the Arabs had a word (“Ban”) to indicate the town of Montalbano, it is evident that the name is of Arab origin. However, we must wonder who was this famous "Arab chronicler," to whom Francesco Maria Emanuele alluded. He did not mention his name, however, from the context, we can guess that he was referring to Al-Idrisi. In fact, he wrote:

“It is completely established that Montalbano existed in Saracen times, because one of them spoke of Montalbano in Arabic in the description he made of Sicily." The only Arab writer who made "the description of all Sicily" was none other than Al Idrisi. But Francesco Maria Emanuele forgot an “insignificant” detail, that is Al Idrisi wrote the "Book of Roger" in the middle of the twelfth century, around 1154, and that he "worked" at the Norman court of Roger II. There was no “Arab chronicler” at "the time of the conquest", that is in the 9th century AD, who spoke of Montalbano, simply because in those days Montalbano Elicona did not exist, or existed only an anonymous hamlet scattered in the countryside.

However, Francesco Gaetani was not the "real" individual responsible for this mistake, because he depended on historical data found in a book by Francesco Tardia, whom he mentions in a footnote. What's really incredible in this issue is that F. Tardia, who translated the "Book of Roger" from Arabic, knew when Al Idrisi wrote it: "In 1153 Idrisi's work was offered to Roger II.”

So he clearly pointed out about Montalbano Elicona: "From this passage [of Al Idrisi] we understand the falsity of Fazello’s assumption, who believed that Montalbano had been founded by Frederick II (...) and of Father Amico, who said that it dated back to Norman or Swabian times. In fact it was built by the Saracens (...) Albano is a term of Arab origin and we can interpret it as "Mount excellent", from the Arabic word "Bana" = "excelluit" (excelled), or "Rich Mount" (...) "Pars pinguedinis", with reference to the source called ‘Terone’, for its oily water ".

In conclusion, we have the distinct impression that F. Tardia, although he had the exact date of publication of Al idrisi's book, was not aware of the fact that the evidence of Al Idrisi was a "late" evidence, as he offered his book to Roger II in 1153, and that therefore his proof had no probative value. In fact Al Idrisi simply “Arabized" a pre-existing name, that is "Montauban", which he translated into Arabic as "Munt Alban":

"from Randazzo to ‘Munt Alban’ [Montalbano] there are twenty miles” [10]. For all these reasons, Francesco Gaetani and Francesco Tardia gave credit to an hypothesis that had no scientific evidence [11].

See also our travel guide for Montalbano.


1. See G. Bertoni, “L'elemento germanico nella lingua italiana”, Formiggini, 1914, p. 269

2. "Vie Francigene ...", in “Tra Roma e Gerusalemme ...” ["Between Rome and Jerusalem ..."] , Laveglia, 2005, pp. 815 ff.

3. Arlotta, pp. 864-865

4. See G. Cavarra, “Cultura ‘altra’ …”, Messina, 1982 p. 138

5. "Orlando Furioso", XXX, 93 ff.

6. See J. Abel-E. Mauro, “Il Giardino come labirinto della storia: convegno internazionale”, Palermo, 14-17 Aprile 1984 ", p. 123

7. See J. Montgomery-M. Wollstonecraft, “ Lives (of the most) Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of Italy, Spain and Portugal”, London, 1836, Vol. I, p. 170

8. See E. Zanette, “Conversazioni sull'Orlando furioso,” Nistri-Lischi, 1958, p. 156 note 11

9. See Ettore Pais, “Alcune osservazioni sulla storia e sulla amministrazione della Sicilia ...”, Palermo, Clausen, 1888, pp. 195-196

10. See Al Idrisi, “Il libro di Ruggero”, edited by M. Amari, Roma, 1883, p. 61

11. See “Appendice alla Sicilia Nobile, nuova opera di Francesco Maria Emanuele e Gaetani, Marchese di Villabianca, Patrizio Palermitano”, in Palermo, Stamperia dei Santi Apostoli, MDCCLXXV [1775], Vol. I., p. 260. “Descrizione della Sicilia, cavata da un libro arabico di Scherif Idrisi, corredata di Prefazione e di copiose annotazioni dal Signor dottor Francesco Tardia Palermitano” in “Opuscoli di autori siciliani”, a cura di Francesco Testa, in Palermo, MDCCLXII [1767], p. 244 and footnote, and pp. 362-363, footnote 192

12. See G. Guerrieri, review of Louis Minissale Pirrotta, “Montalbano Elicona, ricerche storiche”, Messina, 1900, in “Rivista storica italiana”, 1902, pp. 151 ff.

13. See B. Campaigna, “ Recenti ricognizioni nel territorio di Rodì Milici”, in “Archeologia del Mediterraneo: studi in onore di Ernesto De Miro” Roma, 2003, p. 157

14. See C. Marullo di Condojanni, , “Casalnuovo-Basicò, Roma, 2007, p.11

15. Guerrieri, p. 152

16. See G. Pantano," Fra 'Bartolomeo da Montalbano ...", in “Francescanesimo e cultura nella provincia di Messina”, 2008, p. 227

17. Guerrieri, p. 152