History of Petralia, Italy


See Petralia guide for highlights and historic monuments

With the advent of the Arabs, Petralia had a period of remarkable economic progress, both because of agricultural innovations introduced by the Arabs and because of trade.

In 1063, after a brave resistance, the city was occupied by Count Roger, who began the period of Norman rule over the city. He fortified the city walls and built a castle, of which some ruins remain.

The city from the 13th century was divided into two parts, Petralia “Soprana” (high) and Petralia “Sottana”, so called because it is located lower than Petralia Soprana. In fact in a document of 1258 two "Petralie" are shown, one called "Superior" and another "Inferior":

"1258 June 26, I Indiction, Palermo. Manfredi (1232-1266), Prince of Taranto  (...) orders to Andrea 'Iudicis Ricardi' [judge of Richard] to assign to Count Enrico Ventimiglia the town and land rents of Petralia Soprana and Sottana" [8].

F. Maurici explains that:

“in the mid-thirteenth century, the city was divided between Petralia superior and inferior … Some local traditions identify the first fortress of Petralia Soprana with the site of the Church of Our Lady of Loreto" [9].

Petralia was always a feudal city, which was assigned in 1084 by Count Roger to his daughter Matilda and then passed to Adelasia (1074-1118). In 1142 the estate passed to William, son of Roger II, then it belonged to William de Muritze before returning to Royal control.

Petralia was ruled in the 12th century by the Countess Guerrera, then in 1201 Gilbert of Monforte was Count of Petralia, and finally the city passed to the Ventimiglia. This family, after losing the county following a rebellion, obtained it again with Francesco Ventimiglia.

From the first half of the 15th century the city passed to the Cardona and then to the Moncada and Moncada-Montalto family, then remained under the rule of the Alvarez-Ferrandina until the abolition of feudalism, which marked the beginnings of modern social and political forms.

Today Petralia is a dynamic small town that knows how to properly value its artistic and natural heritage. It is located in the Madonie Park, offering cultural landscape of great interest to visitors.

Petralia in prehistoric times

The territory of Petralia is included in the “Madonie” region. Regarding the antiquity of the site, we had no evidences of any importance until the studies by P. Mingazzini, conducted in the mid 1930s in the "Cave of Vecchiuzzo". These were taken up again with considerable success in the 1970s with a study by J. Bovio Marconi, who has described in great detail the structure of the cave and the remains found in it:

"The cave consists of a tunnel, 3.5 metres - 6 metres wide and almost straight (...) 25 metres from the entrance the cave narrows and becomes a corridor of 2.30 m, and after about ten metres (…) it expands into a room with a maximum width of 9 m (…) and a length of about 23 m. Overall, the cave is about 83 m in length”...

The cave was probably inhabited at different times and has provided plenty of ceramic material in various styles. The so-called "Diana Style" is present with the monochrome red pottery (types B and C), which in the shapes recalls the Aeolian features. Other styles are present such as the "Malpasso" and "Serraferlicchio" styles. [1].

Ancient Greeks and Romans at Petralia

With regard to Greek and Roman times, we have definite evidences only from the 3d century BC, during the war between the Romans and the Carthaginians. In 254 BC, during the First Punic War, Petralia was occupied by the consuls Aulus Attilius (died 216 BC) and Gnaeus Cornelius.

Petralia offered no particular resistance to the occupation by Rome, for which Pliny (23-79 AD) mentions it among the “decuman” cities, that is among the privileged cities which paid a limited sum of money. According to tradition Cicero (106-43 BC) also stayed here.

Therefore we know that once in this area a town called "Petra" was located; this name is attested, not just by Cicero and Pliny, but also by:

“other literary sources, but they are all subsequent to the intervention of the Romans in Sicily. The interest in this site came from the fact that the ethnic "Petrinos" appears in an epigraphic text that takes in the Elymian area (western Sicily): the so-called 'Entella V decree.' In this area the city of ‘Petra’ would probably be located" [2].

Moreover:

"the late Latin period offers two more evidences of ancient Petralia, even if there is a little doubt that this is always the same city. Solinus (3rd century A.D) recalled that the"waters of the Petra pond are harmful to snakes, but healthy for men"

Cluver tried (...) to identify and locate Petra as being near Bivona based on the “Itinerarium Antonini" quoting the presence of a ‘statio’ or ‘mansio’ called "Petrina" on the path from Agrigento to Palermo.

Doubts about identifying ancient Petra with modern Petralia

According to Cluver the identification of "Petra" with "Petralia" was certain, and it coincided also with "Petra Heliae," which appeared in a document of Count Roger (1031-1101) in 1093 and in a bull of Pope Eugenius (died 1153) in 1151, and he believed that the "Itinerarium Anonini" was proof that Petra = Petralia.

This interpretation was followed by V. Amico; later, at least initially, by A. Holm, who later had some doubts, and by B. Pace. The identification with Petralia, in particular with "Petralia Sottana", has recently been accepted by Schmiedt, who writes:

"In Sicily, I have not found other evidence of the name 'Petron'; this anthroponym is known in Cyprus, in an inscription of the fourth century BC " [3].

However, the location of Petra - Petralia is very controversial. On the issue of the so-called "Decrees of Entella" in which the ancient Petra, identified with Petralia, was mentioned, G. Nenci has made a scholarly study, and we report here its more important parts:

"[...] a single decree is preserved (...) the IX decree (...) the information is in itself very interesting. 'Petro' does not exist and I do not think we can think about 'Petra', both because it is not a localized site, and because no one can say that it is situated in the Entella area, although from the V decree of Entella which mention the ‘Petrini’ (inhabitants of Petra), it can be concluded that it was not very far away and certainly in the Elymian area...

... In my opinion 'Petro' stands for 'Petraro', that is the area known as 'Petraro', where the archaic necropolis is located in the city and from which comes one of the oldest inscriptions of Entella (VI-V century BC) [ ...] " [4].

E. Manni and G. Bejor [5] refuse the identification of Petra with Petralia and they propose respectively Castronuovo (Manni) and Prizzi (Bejor). In the end, as Gargini says, Bejor, in order to maintain the link Petra = Petralia, thinks that the ancient Roman route of the road was different from that in late-imperial age:

“In his hypothesis ... [Bejor believes] the imperial Roman settlement as a direct subsidiary of a more ancient city, clung to a mountain ... In fact in 1954 a Roman milliary* was discovered 'in situ' in the district called 'Zuccarone' east of Corleone, along the road (“trazzera”) that goes from Prizzi to Palermo; we have exactly identified the road connecting Agrigento to Palermo in Roman times, whose route followed the general lines of the modern road...

... On the milliary is shown, along with the name of  Consul Aurelius Cotta, the numeral 57, which allows us to calculate, on the basis of the ‘Itinerarium Antonini’, that the district called ‘Zuccarone’ is located in the north-west of Petrina and it is 20 miles from it" [6].

* a milliary is a 'milestone' that measures distance in terms of 1000 paces

Origins of the name Petralia

With regard to the etymology, many modern scholars (such as V. Amico) thought that the name derived from "Petra oleum":

"because of the mineral oil source in the district called ‘Madonna dell’olio’; others associate it with "Petra Heliae" in reference to a hermit who lived here; finally, it seems that the name derives from “Petra Alite” (rock salt), with reference to a salt mine. In fact, the Byzantines called the town "Petraelejum", from which the Arabs derived "Batarliah" [7].

See also the Petralia travel and visitors guide.

References

1. See J. Bovio Marconi, “La grotta del Vecchiuzzo presso Petralia Sottana” , "Sikelikà", 1, Rome 1979, pp. 29 ff.

2. See M. Gargini, “Petra: riesame della documentazione storica e archeologica”, In “Atti delle II giornate internazionali di studio sull'area Elima”, Gibellina, 1997, p. 799

3. Gargini, p. 800 & 805 note 19

4. See G. Nenci, “Varia Elyma: novità epigrafiche, numismatiche, toponomastiche e culturali dell’area elima”, In “Terze Giornate internazionali di Studi sull’area elima”, Gibellina, 2000, pp. 813-815

5. “Città di Sicilia nei decreti da Entella”, ["Cites of Sicily in the decrees of Entella"], ASNP, III, XII, 1982, pp. 815-840, 821-831

6. See M. Gargini, pp. 799 ff.

7. See F. Figlia, Vincenzo M. Corseri, “Il Seicento in Sicilia: aspetti di vita quotidiana a Petralia Sottana, terra feudale”, 2008, pp . 7-8

8. See, “Documenti per servire alla storia di Sicilia”, 1983, p. 17

9. See F. Maurici, “Castelli medievali in Sicilia: dai bizantini ai normanni”, Sellerio, 1992, p. 346