History of Monte Sant'Angelo

See Monte Sant'Angelo guide for highlights and historic monuments

Monte Sant'Angelo developed from the fifth century onwards in relation to the cult of the Archangel Michael, who, according to tradition, appeared in a local cave. The small town is located on a spur of the Gargano region, with its characteristic medieval district called "Junno" considered to be the oldest part of the town.

The importance of “Monte Sant’Angelo” is dependent on the Shrine of St. Michael the Archangel, one of the oldest places of worship in Christendom, where, from around 1000 AD until the 13th century, there developed a school of sculptors whose Master was the Archdeacon Acceptus.

Archdeacon Acceptus

According to critics Archdeacon Acceptus invented a new formal artistic language. He was a famous sculptor of the Apulia region in the 11th century, the early Romanesque Age. In addition to work in Monte Sant'Angelo between 1039 and 1041, he also worked in the Cathedral of Canosa, where he carved the pulpit, adorned by capitals on pillars, and a lectern supported by an eagle.

Early history of Monte Sant'Angelo

The history of Monte Sant'Angelo began in the late fifth century AD, when a church was built and dedicated to the archangel Michael, who appeared to the Bishop of Siponto here.

The shrine, in the mid-7th century AD, began to fall within the orbit of the Lombards of Benevento. In fact, Grimoaldo (died in 687), the Duke of Benevento, rushed to defend the shrine in the Gargano from the Byzantine attack. This episode was the beginning of the link between the Lombards and Saint Michael - in fact they considered him their national saint, depicting his image on the shields and coins.

Middle ages

Between the second half of the 13th century and early decades of 14th century, the Shrine of San Michele Arcangelo underwent a massive work of transformation, promoted and built by the Angevin kings who had it under their special protection.

By the will of Charles I of Anjou (1226-1285), the connection between the cave and the town was made easier by broadening and extending the stairs and ramps. Charles I was also responsible for building, from 1274, the great bell tower by Giordano and Maraldo of Monte Sant'Angelo.

Today the town  is the most important religious center of the Gargano, and the Shrine receives an increasing number of believers.

Etymology and origins of the name of Monte Sant'Angelo and Mons Garganus

We can say that the mountain, although inaccessible for several centuries, was widely known in antiquity by some writers, historians, geographers and poets under the name "Mons Garganus", and also "Promontorium Garganum”. Strabo [58-25 BC] was among thos who spoke of it [1].

The etymology of the "modern" name of Monte Sant'Angelo is clear, because it simply means "the mountain dedicated to the Archangel Michael”.

However the origin of the name of the ancient “Mons Garganus” is less clear. In the 19th century the term "Gargano" generally referred to the cult of Janus: "[...] The ‘Gargano’, therefore, in itself has the brand of its classical antiquity, because its etymology derives from ‘Javan’, then translated as ‘Janus’ [...]” [2]. However, contemporary studies have proposed a very interesting hypothesis. In this sense, one of the most detailed studies is that of Marco Trotta, who points out by the name of "Gargano":

"[...] the presence of even a pre-Greek god, a giant who had a cult in the Mediterranean and western regions of France, best known because he was often portrayed as the incarnation of Hercules. (...) His image suggests a god worshipped by the Neolithic Age, as evidenced by the same name "Garganus". In Indo-European the root "gar-", refers to terms such as ‘throat’ , and ‘water sinkhole’, but also ‘pile of stones’; while, '-Ganus', the "Gargano" refers to an old name or adjective in person [...] ".

In addition, this mythical "Garganus" was endowed with gigantic strength and his powerful figure identified with the mythical "Hercules", who shared the same boundless strength. There is even a literary "parallel" tradition to the exploits of Hercules, where the giant Gargano “embodied and 'replaced' the Greek hero in his most famous and well known exploits" [3].

Therefore, according to recent studies, the ancient "Mons Garganus" identifies the idea of a powerful creature with Herculean strength. By metaphor we could say that “Gargano” is “Hercules”. As well as "Gargano", the giant was known by very similar names, “which are essentially variants. In fact, the word "Garganus" often reappears as "Caranus", "Recaranus", "Trecaranus" and "Tricaranus," and as "Gargan-tua" in France.

Mario Trotta affirms that Servius (4th -5th century AD] in his commentary on Virgil's Aeneid (VIII, 203), said that “all those with great power in ancient times were called Hercules. ‘Tricaranus’, for example, was “a giant shepherd called Hercules, because he exceeded all others in appearance and courage” [3].

For references to Gargantua and all the French tradition [4], it is said that "[...] the French traditions dating back to Gargan or Gargantua include the name of ‘Monte Gargano’, a  common name for many mountains of France and Italy. François Bouquelot indicates, among others, a ‘Mont Gargan’ (or ‘Mont Gargant’) not far from Rouen, which later received the name of ‘Mont-Saint-Michel’ and ‘Mont-Saint-Ange’. Henri Dontenville recalled that the original name of Mont-Saint-Michel is ‘Mont Gargan’ or ‘Mont de Gargan’ (...)

Even if indirectly, in the first half of the 16th century, the close relationship between with Monte Gargano in Apulia is confirmed by the 'Croniques gargantuines', where the narrator of 'Admirabiles', telling  the route of Grant Gosier and Gallemelle, Gargantua’s parents, seems to identify the mountain of Apulia as the starting point of their journey [...] ".

See also the Monte Sant'Angelo travel guide.


1. Geografia., Books VI-XI), Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), Virgil [70-19 BC] (Aeneid, XI, 247), Horace [65-27 BC] (Odes, IX)

2. See Giuseppe de Leonardis, “Ricerche Etimologiche intorno al Gargano” in “Monografia Generale del Promontorio Gargano” [“Etymological Researchs about the Gargano” in “The General Monographs of the Gargano Promontory”], T. Pansini , 1858:   25

3. “Di Gargano il Monte porta il nome. Un Itinerario Medievale”, in “Culti e Santuari di San Michele nell'Europa Medievale”, a cura di Pierre Bouet, Giorgio Otranto, André Vauchez, Edipuglia, 2007, pp. 209-212.

4. as reference 3, pp. 215 ff.