History of Oliveri


See Oliveri guide for highlights and historic monuments

The small town of Oliveri is in the Province of Messina, in north-east Sicily and an understanding of the historical background of the town makes a visit more interesting.

Early documents referring to Olivieri

When Al Idrisi was just born (1099) the name "Oliveri" is mentioned in a document dated 1100, when Countess Adelasia gave to Gerasimos the possession of a temple in ruins, called Saint Elijah, to build a monastery.

We should also mention a document of 1131, when the Bishop of of Messina confirmed to the Archimandrite of San salvatore some concessions by King Roger II , including the church of Santa Maria di Oliveri. The "Scala Oliverii" was the monastery known as "Santa Elia de Scala de Oliverii". The monastery was built near the "Scala" [road], that is the:

“road that started from the mouth of the stream of 'Oliveri' and headed towards Patti ... The church and the monastery was completely destroyed in the war between Aragon and Anjou" [11].

A third document dates back to November 1141, in which the name "Oliveri" appears written in Greek (Liber-), or "Liviri";  but this anomaly is explained by the fact that the Norman chancellery in certain cases wrote diplomas in Greek. The document quoted some villages such as “Vina”, “Liviri” and “San Pietro” [12].

A fourth document dates back to 1148, relating to Arnaldo, Bishop of Messina-Troina, who "gained the decima of the fishing net of Oliveri ("totam decimam tonnariae Oliverii"), with this diploma dating back to 1148 and Roger II, by granting to the Bishop of Messina the third part “of the decimas on the port of Milazzo, and put an end to the long dispute on the fishing nets of Oliveri between Oliveri, the Episcopal See of Messina and the Monastery of Patti.”

There is also a document dating back to 1178, where was mentioned an "Ecclesiam Sancti Joannis de 'Oliveri'."

Fishing net - the centre of Olivieri industry

With regard to the tunny net of Oliveri, it was very much desired, and for this reason it passed into the hands of many owners. An interesting description of the tunny net of Oliveri was that by Francesco Carlo Amico, who also spoke about the oldest techniques for fishing for tuna:

"[...] This is one of the best tunny nets of the Kingdom, because it is located in a Port before a large gulf called the “Golfo d' Oliveri”; it is a very fertile area, especially when the west winds blow, so the tuna are going there to escape and run into tunny net. Behind it there is the mountain of Tindari, above which there is a site where there is a Rais to guard the land...

... called the 'Rais of the mountain', who observes the tuna when they are in the area of the sea of this fishing net; he is a very expert and warns the sailors of the tunny net with the trumpet, and when he sees a certain amount of tuna, leaves the cabin, and he give the necessary orders to catch tuna ... [...]" [13].

With regard to the term "rais" used by F.C. Amico, we observe that it means "Chef" [Chief] (Bresc), the "rais" were almost all of Arab origin and the trade was handed down from father to son [14].

Briefly summarizing the whole complex matter, we can conclude by saying that the "Feudum Liverij" belonged, along with the much-coveted Olivieri fishing net to the Diocese of Patti, which maintained different privileges over it for several centuries. [19].

The fishing net belonged from the 11th century to the Bishop of Mileto, who, between 1080 and 1090, owned Oliveri and the manufacturing equipments of Bivona, Patti, Mazara and Scibilliana [20].

Around 1320 Ferrario de Abbellis was lord of Aggira, Milazzo and Oliveri [21]; then it belonged to Vinciguerra d'Aragona, who was succeeded by his son Bartholomew, who also owned San Marco, Militello, Roccella Val Demone , Librizzi, Oliveri and Novara, and he was certainly among the most powerful feudal lords of the kingdom.

Next the town passed to the Spadafora, together with the tunny net, and finally to the family of the Paratore, Princes of Patti.

In the 19th and part of the 20th century all economic activity of Oliveri was based on the fishing net; however, today the town has essentially a seaside and landscape tourist destination.

Origins of the name Oliveri

There are two assumptions that circulate today about the etymology of Oliveri.

The first refers to an ancient legend passed down by Godfrey of Viterbo, born about 1120 (died 1196), who wrote that the paladin Olivier, an illustrious Knight of Charlemagne, and Roland stayed in Sicily giving their name to two mountains, or “Capo d'Orlando” and “Mount Oliveri”.

The second assumption, less legendary and more based on the natural features of Oliveri, suggests an etymology tied to the presence of olive groves. We can say that the second assumption better satisfies our intellect, as it pleased a long time ago the great Italian philologist Pio Rajna (1847-1930). Rajna began from G. Pitrè (1841-1916), who wrote that:

"At the end of the 12th century Godfrey of Viterbo stopped in Sicily. There were with him, among other brave captains, Olivier and Roland and two mountains took their name from them. These mountains are known today [in Sicilian dialect] as "Munti Oliveri" and "Capu d'Orlannu" [1].

Pio Rajna then noted:

"With regard to 'Mons Oliverius', it is wrong what is written by Pitrè, that a 'Munti Oliveri' is placed at the mouth of the river which is called "Oliveri" as well. But if there is not really a mountain, there is a village with this name, behind which is a castle on a top of a hill. The town and castle are mentioned by Al Idrisi [1099-1066] (...) I believe that our "Olivier" had nothing to do with the paladin and the name simply indicated that the land had olive trees growing on it; or, in the local dialect, called "Olivere". Presumably it was the sailors, who, sailing along this coast, gave to the name the interpretation of which Godfrey tells us" [2]

The discussion about the paladins entry into Sicily is not a purely literary problem; on the contrary, it allows us to explain the meaning of the name Oliveri. As L. Meyer explained very well, Godfrey of Viterbo read in the chronicles of the life of the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) that:

"he went to Jerusalem, passing through Constantinople. But Godfrey completed the journey of Charlemagne adding what his source did not say, that is, saying that he went to Sicily, Calabria and Puglia. The idea that Charlemagne had gone to Southern Italy became very popular among those lands, because we find it repeated in the 12th century by Godfrey of Viterbo.”

Furthermore:

“it is likely that ‘Capo d’Orlando’ had taken its present name in a period very close to Godfrey’s times. It may have some basis in the silence of Al Idrisi, in whose book, instead of reading ‘Capo d’Orlando’, we read ‘Piccola [Little] Cefalù’ .”

In fact L. Meyer is quite right, because formerly “Capo d'Orlando” was called ‘Piccola Cefalu” [3].

If Al Idrisi, who wrote the "Book of Roger" around 1150, again quoted the ancient toponym (“Piccola Cefalù”) and he did not speak on “Capo d'Orlando”, this means that the new name was imposed after 1150.

Since we know that Godfrey of Viterbo wrote his "Pantheon" around 1186 [4], we can deduce that the new toponym (“Capo d'Orlando”) established itself between 1150 and 1186, that is during the reign of William the Bad (1120-1166), and William the Good (1153-1189). Namely in the period in which the fight against the Arabs was more fierce in Sicily .

In this sense, we must not forget that it was the Normans who "imported" the Carolingian romances into Sicily (these focused on the struggles of the Christians against the Arabs). They were seen in popular imagination almost as the new “paladins”, because “ they took away the island from the Arabs and returned it to the Christian faith - that is, their feat was considered a “new reconquest" [5].

So it is in this historical context that we must put the change of name from "Piccola Cefalu" to "Capo d'Orlando", in honor of one of the most valiant Christian knights of the Carolingian cycle. Roland and his inseparable companion Olivier were seen almost as "saints" - when the pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land:

"they asked God, and after they called to mind the exploits of Charlemagne, Roland, and Olivier and many other heroes who sacrificed their lives to defend the Christian faith...However, it is interesting to note that already in the days of Geoffrey the Carolingian legend was established in Sicily" [6]

This remark of L. Meyer is essential to understand how things actually happened. In reality the two etymologies are not opposite, but they are completely complementary to each other.

Meanwhile, we note that the etymology of "Olivier" has always been interpreted as resulting from "oil" (the Ancients said: "Oliverius ab oleo"). More recently “both Spitzer and Menendez Pidal agree that "Olivier" derives his name from an epithet, "oliverius," based on oliva” [7].

Olivier and Roland

But it is not so much the obvious etymology of Oliver that interests us as the fact that the name of Olivier in the Carolingian epic was always accompanied by that of Roland, since the two paladins of Charlemagne were 'as thick as thieves'.

The name Oliver is attested in Italy from about the year 1000. Some scholars have stressed the fact that the names of "Oliverius" and "Rolandus" were extremely popular among the population, and in some families with two sons, parents often imposed on them the two names of Olivier and Roland. In short, the influence of the legend of the two knights was so much part of popular belief and customs that, where Olivier sprung, Roland was also close. We see the same phenomenon in Spain:

“Recent studies in Carolingian epic nomenclature indicate that between 970 and 1015 there began a vogue in the Midi, which soon spread into Catalonia, to name brothers and cousins Rodlandus, Rollanus, and Oliverius, Olivers” [8].

And Eleonor Webster writes:

“From recent investigations by Madame Lejeune, Paul Aebischer, and others, concerning the mention in legal documents of pairs of brothers or relatives named Olivier and Roland, it is to be inferred that the character Olivier was invented at some date prior to any year in the period from 985 to 1015...According to Madame Lejeune the earliest document signed by persons named Oliverius and Rollandus which is so far known dates between 999 and 1031 and is located in Velay (Haute- Loire)” [9].

We will not go very far from the truth by saying that, when towards the year 1000, it was decided to baptize the two close places, one of which was called in Sicilian dialect, as observed Rajna, "Olivere" (for the presence of a large olive grove ), the local population joined Roland to "Olivere" ( Olivier). In this way appeared the couple "Oliveri" and "Capo d'Orlando.”

Continuing the metaphor of the legend, it is usually said that the first document about "Oliveri" was by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi, who wrote:

"From Patti to Labiry (Oliveri) there are three miles. It is a beautiful and charming farmhouse, with a great castle on the seashore. There is a market, a bathroom, many houses, fertile grounds and perennial waters.”

The name "Oliver" is already mentioned in more ancient times; which shows that the name probably dates to the years around 1000. In a document of 1084 we read that Count Roger gave to Theodosius "20 barrels of tuna from Oliveri" [10].

Other etymological considerations...

Over the centuries Oliveri was ruled by many owners, who settled in the castle. 11th century chronicler Al Idrisi called the village "Labiry", a name that seems to be a translation of a term by which both Oliveri and the Castle were referred, or “Liverij”.

Speaking about one of the first owners of the Castle (Vinciguerra of Alagona), V. Ruffo della Floresta wrote:

"In the granting, made January 10, 1365 by King Frederik III (1342-1377) in Catania in favour of Vinciguerra Alagona, one speaks about a “land” and “castro” of Oliveri (called "Liverij")" [15].

Michele Amari wrote "Labiry" (with 'y'); however, in our opinion, the /a/ of “L/a/biri” could be a conjecture of Michele Amari, who attested that other Arab codex quoted "L.bîrî" and "Lib.rî" [16]. The similarity of “La[i]biry (j)” with “Liverij” is considerable and our impression is that Al Idrisi wrote a name very similar to that of some medieval documents ("Liverij"). Not only the "a" in the Arab codex alternates with the "i", but also the difference between "v" and "b" (“La/b/iri”-“Li/v/iri”) does not appear material.

G. Pivati wrote that "the Arab 'b' is a letter (...) which has many similarities with other letters of this nature, like the 'v' consonant [17].

In conclusion, Al Idrisi wrote “L [i] [v] ery”, ("Oliveri"), or "Liverij". Inter alia, the “j” of “Liveri(j)” is attested as a variant of “y” [18].

See our Oliveri travel guide when planning your visit.

References

1. See Giuseppe Pitrè, “Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane”, Pedone-Lauriel, 1889, p. 241

2. See Pio Rajna, in “Miscellanea”, 1899, pp. 53-54

3. See the ancient toponym mentioned in G. Nania, “Toponomastica e topografia storica nelle valli del Belice e dello Jato”, p. 280

4. See G. Arlotta, “Vie Francigene …”,  in “Tra Roma e Gerusalemme”, Salerno, Laveglia, 2005, p. 825: the “Pantheon” was completed in 1186”

5. See Ettore Li Gotti, “Il teatro dei pupi”, Flaccovio, 1978, p. 27

6. See Lucienne Meyer, "Les Legends des matières de Rome, de France et de Bretagne dans le ‘Panthéon’ de Godefroi de Viterbo", Slatkine, 1981, pp. 174-178

7. See Barton Sholod, “Charlemagne in Spain”, Librairie Droz, 1966, p. 144

8. See Barton Sholod, “Charlemagne in Spain”, Librairie Droz, 1966, p. 143

9. See Eleonor Webster Bulatkìn, “Structural arithmetic metaphor in the Oxford "Roland.",Ohio State University Press, 1972, p. 60

10. See Filippo Imbesi, “Terre, casali e feudi nel comprensorio barcellonese. Dal privilegio di Adelasia alla fine del feudalesimo”, UNI Service, 2009 pp. 77-78. See also F. Imbesi, “Il privilegio di rifondazione del monastero di Santa Maria di Gala”, in “Mediterranea”, “Ricerche storiche”, Anno VI, 2009, pp. 597-634

11. See, Giovanni Crisostomo Sciacca, “Fonti per una storia di Tindari e Patti”, Roma,  2004, p. 95

12. See Michele Fasolo," Alla ricerca di Focerò ", 2008, p. 9

13. See Francesco Carlo Amico, “Osservazioni pratiche intorno alla pesca, corso e cammino dei tonni”, Messina, 1816, pp. 109 ff.

14. about the term “rais”, See the essay by H. Bresc, “La pêche dans l'éspace economique normand”, in “Terra e uomini nel Mezzogiorno normanno-svevo”,Dedalo, 1987: "les noms de 'rays', attestés à la fin du XIII siècle confirment l'origine arabe de nombreuses familles "[the names of the rais declared at the end of the thirteenth century confirm the source of many Arab families], pp. 287 and 288

15. See V. Ruffo della Floresta, “Lotte della città di Patti...”, in “Archivio Storico Messinese”, Messina, 1906, Vol 7, p. 16

16. See M. Amari, “L'Italia descritta nel libro di Ruggero” in “Atti della Reale Accademia dei Lincei”, Roma, Salviucci, 1883, p. 30 and footnote 1

17. See “Nuovo Dizionario Scientifico e curioso, sacro e profano”,  "Letters A-B", Venice, 1746, Tomo I, p. 493

18. Labiry [j]) in Konrad Miller, “Arabischewelt-und Länderkarten”, Stuttgart, 1927, p. 118: (“labiri, j = Oliveri”)   [Sizilien]

19. See V. Ruffo della Floresta, pp. 16-17 Note 1

20. See R. Fiorillo, “Fonti scritte e fonti materiali. L’allevamento e il consumo del pesce nei monasteri medievali del meridione d’Italia”, in “Pesci, barche e pescatori nel Mediterraneo …”, Angeli, 2010, p. 497

21. See V. Amico, II, 116