History of Pelago, Italy

See Pelago guide for highlights and historic monuments

Ancient origins

The territory of Pelago (in the Province of Florence) is a very old settlement, with remains found here that date back to the Paleolithic period [from about 600,000-700,000 years ago to roughly 8000 BC]. Other surveys also suggest that there were various ethnic settlements here before the arrival of the Etruscans

For example, at Altomena strong evidence was found of the presence of the Etruscans, such as pieces of volcanic rock tombs belonging to the Etruscans, a flint arrow of the Neolithic Age, and the remains of a Roman villa [1].

The oldest document that mentions Pelago is in the Florentine State Archives, and is a title by the notary Gozio drawn up in the Castle of Pelago in March 1089.

Early beginnings of Pelago

Turning to historical data we must note that these lands were in part subject to the Counts of Guidi, even if they had to share the control of the territory of Pelago with other nobles and smallholders, as the noble da Quona, with the Cattani nobles and finally with the Monasteries of Vallombrosa and Strumi, to which the Guidi Counts made numerous donations.

For example, throughout the course of the 11th century, various family members conceded estates in Casentino and Valdarno to the monastery of Strumi, so at the end of the century it possessed many lands in Pelago, Falgano, Ghiacceto, Popigliano, Pitiana, Travignoli, Tosina and Ferrano. As a result, towards the end of the 12th century, the major land owner in the area was the monastery of Vallombrosa, which owned lands in Pelago, Reggello, Pontassieve, Fiesole and Rignano.

The castle of Pelago was dominated until the 15th century by the family of the Cattani from Diacceto.

These "Cattani" (from Latin "Capitanei"[=captains]) began to make their fortunes when Florence began its fight against the Counts of Guidi for the conquest of the countryside:

“The first attempts of the Florentines to subdue their troublesome neighbours belonged to the lifetime of Guido 'il Marchese' (...) As Villani related, the rural nobles, whom he designated as 'cattani', collected and harboured outlaws who did damage to the trade and the territory of Florence ...”.

...At first the 'cattani' were followers of the Guidi Counts, but later, “many of the followers of the Guidi ... and of other 'cattani', were now bound to follow the Commune” [2].

The Cattani from Diacceto or Pelago had humanist and prominent personalities who were very close to the Medici family: Francesco Cattani da Diacceto (1466–1522) was an example.

A Florentine from a noble family with close connections to the Medici, Cattani was a pupil of Ficino's whom contemporaries saw as Ficino's successor as the leader of the Florentine Platonists”  [3].

C. E. Trinkaus wrote that “The Cattani family had a villa in the village of Pelago nearby but took its name from Ghiacceto, where Fontius was living in the summer of 1490. On 30 May he was in Pelago, presumably staying at the Ghiacceto Family villa, as his translation of Demosthenes” oration 'De mala legatione' states at the end:

"Fontius was a lover of the countryside, and he lived in Pelago, where he would retire after his return from Hungary in 1490, and where there was for several generations the villa of the Cattani from Diacceto. Pope John XXIII on July 3, 1413 consented to the prayers of Paul Zanobi Cattani from Diacceto, entrusting the Abbot of Vallombrosa with the task of erecting the church of S. Clement in Pelago, and giving it the title of ‘Pieve’ [=Parish Church] [4]

The domain of the Guidi Counts over Pelago was also opposed by the family of the da Quona, known since the 11th century: "The da Quona had many estates (…) and similarly to the monasteries (...) they made use their preeminence (...) to increase their territorial possessions" [5].

The Da Quona, who at the beginning were known as ‘Filicaia’, had Tosina, near Pelago: "Tosina [was] a place near Pelago, where the Filicaia boasted numerous possessions, and the Church of Santa Margherita in Tosina is remembered as an ancient patronage of the da Quona family, name by which they were known at the beginning" [6].

However, the da Quona effectively confined the authority of the Counts Guidi, because they had lands in Pelago, Magnale, Ristonchi and Nepozzano [7].

However, the ancient castle of the Da Quona was destroyed by the Florentines in 1142: "The Florentines eliminated an obstacle to commercial traffic of Florence, because on the road below the Guidi Counts had established a 'pedagium' [=toll] which damaged the trade of the city " [8].

Yet in 1445 the castle of Pelago was recognized by Pope Eugene IV (1383-1447) as belonging to the Cattani, although in reality it was fully inserted in the Florentine countryside. In the modern age, among other economic resources of the past we must recall the traditional production of rustic clothes of wool and, more recently, that of fabrics of flax and hemp, besides the presence of furnaces for the production of bricks.

Pelago in 1808 became a provincial capital. Pelago today is a place where tourism relies heavily upon native cultures and in this sense it organizes important folkloric and cultural events.

Origins of the name Pelago

The ancient name of "Altomena" is of Etruscan origin. According to S. Pieri the Etruscan name was "Artumena" [from the Etruscan name "Artumes-umi"] [9]. The ancient road called “Via dei sette ponti” [=Road of the seven bridges] was also of Etruscan origin and passed various locations, among them Pelago and Diacceto [10].

With regard to the etymology of Pelago, the question is still uncertain, although, in the early 20th century, B. Domenichetti asserted that "the name of this village is derived from a lake that seems to exist in prehistoric times in the valley below, and called in Latin 'pelagus.'" [11].

Even in more recent times, it has been stressed that "Pelago" in Latin means the sea. However, with the passage of time, the hypothesis proposed by B. Domenichetti and others (E. Repetti) was disputed.

In fact, N. Puccioni wrote: "The opinion expressed by B. Domenichetti, according to whom the place name of this village is derived from a lake that would have existed in prehistoric times in the valley below does not seem acceptable, because local traditions about the lake could not exist in the Valdarno (…) I also do not think the idea of E. Repetti is acceptable, according to whom the name could be derived from an old baths now abandoned on a farm very close to Pelago" [12].

However, we must note that E. Repetti was not entirely sure: "I have no evidence or clues about the reason why this village, which is situated on a hill, took the name of Pelago, referring to stagnant water, which seems to me very difficult in a place like this (...) unless Pelago took its name from an ancient mineral bath in a farm very close to Pelago".

Let's say that today the two hypotheses proposed by E. Repetti are widely accepted, so generally it is said that "Pelagus" means "pond", or that it is possible that the village is so named because of a bath discovered near Pelago.

The uncertainties of N. Puccioni and E. Repetti are not unfounded, and, in truth, things are still unclear. However, E. Repetti added some interesting things on the possible etymology of Pelago. In fact, he said that the ancient scribes often confused the word "Lu-cus" (= wood) with "La-cus" (= lake).

For example, E. Repetti, focusing on the name "Villa del Lago", wrote: "The ‘Villa del Lago’ is situated between the mountain of Vallombrosa and Consuma on the left bank of the river Vicano of S. Ellero, in a forest that was owned and reserved for the hunting of the Medici family, transferred to the Bertolini and sold by them to the monks of Vallombrosa (...)

I think it's very difficult to find a 'Lake' in a rugged and mountainous area such as this, although further down is the village of Pelago, the name of which seems to derive from 'pelagus' (...) On the contrary, we suspect that many places of the hill defined as 'Lakes' were instead forests, because the copyists of ancient original manuscripts could easily mistake the 'u' with 'a', transcribing 'Laco' or 'Lacu' instead of 'Luco'" [13]

If the indications of E. Repetti is accurate, it is here assumed as a working hypothesis that the place name of Pelago is not derived from "lacus" [= lake], but by "lucus [= wood]. In this sense, it is easily conceivable that the location was formerly mentioned like this: "[locum] situm 'Penes Lucum'" [=place located near the wood].

Later, due to errors of transcription of the name, "Penes Lu-co" became "Penes La-co" [= wood near Lake]. Then, the last syllable "nes" of “Pe-nes” fell away and so the name became "Pe-laco." With the normal transformation from "c" to "g", according to the rules of the Italian pronunciation, "Pe-la-[c]-o" became "Pe-la-[g]-o", which is the modern name.

We finally remark that the derivation of "Pelago" from "Lucus" [= wood] undoubtedly better meets the topographic features of the area of Pelago, characterized by the presence of ancient forests.

See also Pelago for a guide to visiting the town.


1. See G. Spaterna, “Foglio 107. Monte Falterona”, in “Atlante dei siti archeologici della Toscana”, Roma, 1992, p. 154

2. See L. Eckenstein, “The Guidi and their Relations with Florence”, in “English Historical Review”, 1899, p. 432 (II) and 657 (III)

3. See P. F. Grendler, “The Universities of the Italian Renaissance”, 2002, p. 298

4. See [Florence, Bib. Naz. Cod. Palatino Capponi 77, f. 71: 'Pelagii III Cal. Junia 1490' (Pelago, III delle Calende di Giugno, 1490)] ( and C. E. Trinkaus, “The scope of Renaissance humanism”, University of Michigan Press, 1983, p. 124 nota 12 e p. 125 nota 22)

5. See“L'Ordo Vallisumbrosæ tra XII e XIII secolo: gli sviluppi istituzionali e culturali e l'espansione geografica, 1101-1293 : II Colloquio vallombrosano : Vallombrosa, 25-28 agosto 1996, Vallombrosa 1999, Vol. I, p. 247

6. See A. Labriola, “Beato Angelico a Pontassieve: dipinti e sculture del Rinascimento fiorentino”, 2010, p. 77.

7. See, “Lontano dalle città: il Valdarno di Sopra nei secoli XII-XIII ...”, 2005, p. 152

8. See M. Lopes Pegna, “L'oscuro tramonto della feudalità fiorentina”, 1971, p. 28

9. See S. Pieri, “Toponomastica della Valle dell'Arno”, A. Forni, 1919, p. 57

10. See, “Atlante storico della Toscana”, edited by A. Dué, 1994

11. See B. Domenichetti, “Guida storica di Vallombrosa”, 1903, p. 142

12. See N. Puccioni, “La Vallombrosa e la Val di Sieve inferiore”, Bergamo, 1916, p. 52

13. See E. Repetti, “Dizionario Geografico, fisico, storico della Toscana ...”, Firenze, 1835, Vol. II, pp. 623-624