History of Piazza-Armerina


See Piazza Armerina guide for highlights and historic monuments

The question of the antiquity of Piazza Armerina has produced a series of very important, but also extremely intricate studies. It has been identified as one of the "Hyblai" (a series of important historical sites) in Sicily.

As an aside it should be noted that even in ancient times there was a great confusion about the 'Hyblai', since, according to Pausanias (110-180 AD) there were two "Hyblai" while Stephen of Byzantium (6th century AD) believed there were three. We will not go into the details of the discussion, but we can say that modern historians have established that there were two “Hyblai” [1].

Medieval History of Piazza Armerina

In Norman time a big hamlet was built on the ruins of the Villa that had given its name to the district (see etymology further down).

In a document dating from 1148 a "plateam veterem" (Piazza Vecchia) is mentioned, which presumably is the name of the town destroyed by the Norman King William I the Bad (1131-1166), the remains of which were called "Palatia Vetera," which long ago had been the luxurious mansion of the Roman and Byzantine high officials. In this document, from the Chancellery of Count Simone of Butera, it is said that:

"Simon, son of Count Henry, made a few donations of land near Butera, with all its appurtenances, and also the "plateam veterem" (“Piazza Vecchia” [Old Square]) with the plain of Aymerico and the vineyard of the Countess" [6].

“Plateam Veterem” was populated by a colony of the 'Lombards' who probably came here at the end of the 11th century, and who were among the followers of Adelaide of Monferrato (1072-1118), who married Roger I (1031-1101).

In 1061 "Piazza Vecchia" was destroyed. The destruction by William the Bad was because of the xenophobic attitude led by Roger Sclavo and other Lombards against the Arabs, who arrived in the 9th century in "Iblatasah.” Regarding the Arabs of Piazza Vecchia, apart from the archaeological remains, we know much more from the time when the Normans arrived. At the time of William the Bad, the great protector of the Arabs:

“Roger Sclavo with other Lombards raised a revolt in Sicily, taking possession of land belonging to the State and slaughtering all the Arabs that they met" [7].

Ugo Falcando, the 12th century chronicler of Roger II (1095-1154), told it like this:

"[...]Roger Sclavo with Tancredi and others occupied Butera, Piazza and other cities of the Lombards that his father had ruled. At the same time, excited by the applause and the greed of the Lombards, he commanded that the war had begun, first of all looking forward to the massacre of the Saracens [...]" [8].

The chroniclers tell us some facts, but they do not tell us the real reasons for the bitter hatred against the Arabs of Sicily. We can not necessarily say that William I, known as "The Bad", aimed for a peaceful coexistence with the Arabs but in reality, the Arabs in his court were faithful servants, and he trusted them and all his cohabiters were Arab women, which created a position of envy:

"[...] In general, it seems that the Arab eunuchs who served in the Royal Palace were the trustworthy persons of the sovereign, holding the post of secretary and sometimes that of military commander. And surely the king trusted in them because his knights hated them, while the Knights nursed hatred for them because they enjoyed the confidence of the king [...]" [9].

So, it was for these reasons that the "Lombards" ran amok with unprecedented violence against the servants of William I. At first he was able to defend them, but then the events came to a head and many eunuchs of his court  were even chased and killed.

William I acted against the rebels of the Kingdom with power and ruthlessness. The king rallied the army, arrived in “Piazza Armerina” (Piazza Vecchia), destroyed it and routed the Lombards. Roger Sclavo, escaping from the king with many Lombards, took refuge in Butera. Anyway, the revolt of the "Lombards" against the Arabs was checked.

After the death of William I the Arabs felt insecure, and many of them went away:

"When William I died, all the inhabitants of Palermo dressed in black for three days and women, especially Arab ones, bursted out into sobs, tearing their hair out. Even William II, called the Good, continued a policy of tolerance toward Arabs. When he also died, many Arabs took the mountain track in search of refuge" [10].

With regard to Piazza Armerina, William II rebuilt it, but some miles distant from the place formerly occupied, on Mount Armerino and probably around 1163. The precise identification of the site of "Piazza Vecchia" remains unresolved.

Contemporary studies have shed light on the ancient "Plateam Veterem”, confirming, among other things, why the current name “Piazza” derives from ancient “Palatia" (see etymology below). In particular, P. Pensabene reached important conclusions:

"[...] The preliminary stages and archaeological tests on the site of the Villa suggested a continuity of life; from the early centuries of the empire, when it was a country villa, to the luxurious villa in Late Antiquity, until the medieval settlement, also quoted by the Arab sources, which continued up to the 12th century. Probably during the reign of William II  the village of “Piazza Armerina” was transferred to its present site, with the arrival of people from Northern Italy [...]" [11].

Despite the vicissitudes suffered under the Norman kings, Piazza Armerina remained for centuries a town belonging to the State property, so it enjoyed many privileges, and at least some administrative autonomy under the Sovereign protection.

Piazza Armerina and the Swabians

Under the Swabians, the town, according to studies, had a remarkable development and it was the site of important military orders like the Templars. For these the town became one of the most important in Sicily: there were the  Houses of the Military Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, often located in places which are inlets or along major transit routes.

Many of the houses assigned to the Templars of Messina by Henry VI (1165-1197) were reconfirmed in the late 12th century by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250). It is also interesting to recall that in 1234 Frederick II, after his return from the crusade, contributed to:

"building a house of the Teutonic Knights and the same year he chose Piazza Armerina as the site of the National Court of Sicily" [12].

The presence of these military orders strengthened the sense of autonomy of the town, and after the death of the son of Frederick II, Conrad (1228-1254), Piazza Armerina was one of the main cities of Sicily, which attempted to save its independence as a free Commune.

No less important and numerous were the monastic orders, especially the Franciscans. Moreover, it’s important to bear in mind that Piazza Armerina was practically the only town in the central southern Sicily with Dominicans present.

The town fiercely and successfully defended its autonomy resisted the Anjou; in fact, from 1299 to 1300 it was besieged by the Anjou. The 14th century Aragonese Castle was built by King Martin I of Aragon (1356-1410), who chose it as a summer residence. He put Piazza Armerina among eleven State towns of Sicily.

The last 400 years in Piazza Armerina

The city was now dominated by a few powerful families such as the Trigona, who were great patrons of art, as evidenced by the Mother Church, where among the textile and embroidery work there is also a brocade of gold and silver, offered as a gift around the end of the 16th century by Marco Trigona.

Then the Velardita played a major role, a Sicilian family probably original from Lombardy, and then the Crescimanno. Even the Spanish kings granted it numerous privileges.

In the Renaissance and Baroque age, thanks to the cultural commitment of the Franciscans, Piazza Armerina built a medieval Old Town of great value that is gathered around the baroque style cathedral. The importance of the town grew in the 19th century, when it was established as the diocese of Piazza Armerina (1817).

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic period did not touch Sicily, which was a safe haven of Ferdinand III of Bourbon (1759-1825) under the protection of the English, who also held a garrison in the town of Piazza Armerina. Finally, after the “Risorgimento”, the city went with Sicily into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name

Litterio Villari identified the site of Piazza Armerina with the ancient “Hybla Heraea". Starting with the Arabic name handed down by Al Idrisi (1099-1165), or "Iblatasah", Litterio Villari wrote that Piazza Armerina:

"[...] was called by the Arabs ‘Nahr'al'asl’, literally the “River of Honey”, and we know that an ancient Hybla was linked to the production of a famous honey. We add that the name 'Iblatasah' and its variant 'Iblatanah' are the Arabic translation, adapted to the pronunciation and spelling, of the Greek Ibla 'Elatton' and Ibla 'Elatson' [...]" [2].

However, about the Greek word "elatton" (small) used by Stephen of Byzantium, since the early 1950s, it has been clarified that it was a simple adjective; so we can say that Stephen of Byzantium had in fact spoken of a "Hybla elatton," but the term "elatton" was only an adjective added to the name of the town - in practice there does not exist a toponym called Hybla “Elatton". In this sense, we read:

"The adjective 'elatton' given by Stephen of Byzantium (...) to 'Hibla Haerea,' is entirely a subjective and not an official term" [3].

Instead, according to Villari, the name "Platia" (or "Piazza Armerina") would be the result of a phonetic evolution of the Greek "Ibla Elatton", which became "Iblatasah" or "Iblatana" in Arabic and then 'Placza', 'Plaza', in Latin 'Placia', a connection even encouraged  by Giovanni Alessio, who noticed a similarity between “Platia” and the Greek "Platza" with the Sicilian term "chiazza" (square).

However, this assumption of G. Alessio was not accepted:

"[...] G. Alessio (...) connects 'Plaza', 'Plata' and the Greek name 'Plateia'. The derivation is perfect from the phonetics point of view, but the history and archeology of the place seems to corroborate the thesis of the archaeologist G. Vinicio Gentili, who, with much greater likelihood, put in connection the toponym 'Piazza' (Armerina) with the Latin term ‘Palatia’ [plural= the Palaces], which surely [referred to] the whole complex of the well-known Roman villa of “Contrada Casale”, which at the beginning gave the city its name [...]" [4].

In fact, Gino Vinicio Gentili was very unequivocal in this regard, writing that:

"the old ruins [of 'Palatium'] became the central nucleus of a new township. In some places even the mosaics on the floors were uncovered. The new town, whose intense activity is documented by many coins and glazed pottery, settled in the vast Imperial palatium, retained its name and was called 'Platia' (palatia). Two centuries later it was destroyed by William the Bad.” [5].

The reference to "the vast Imperial palatium" is certainly valid, because the ancient palace looked like a real town with its 60 rooms.

With regard to the current town of Piazza Armerina, it seems that the origins are more recent than the assumptions made by Litterio Villari. And besides, even recent archaeological discoveries confirm the assumptions of G.V. Gentili and the precision of the etymology from the Latin word "Palatia,” which gives us 'Palatia Vetera', the Roman name for the palace-town at this location.

See also the travel guide for Piazza Armerina.

References

1. See G. Manganaro, “Hybla Megala (Heraia) e Hybla Geleatis (Etnea), in “Un ponte fra l'Italia e la Grecia: atti del simposio in onore di Antonino Di Vita”, Ragusa,  13-15 February 1998, Padova, 2000: 151 ff.

2. See Litterio Villari, “Storia della città di Piazza Armerina (L'antica Ibla Erea)”, La Tribuna, Piacenza Vol I, 1973 [ New Ed. 1981]: 326 ff.

3. See “Studi classici e orientali”, Università di Pisa, Istituto di Archeologia, 1951, p. 135

4. See, “Centro di Studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, 1980, n. 14: 442

5. See G. Vinicio Gentili, “The imperial villa of Piazza Armerina”, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, Libreria dello Stato, 1970: 6

6. Vedi C. A Garufi, “Il castrum Butere e il suo territorio dai Bizantini ai Normanni”, in “Archivio Storico per la Sicilia orientale”, Catania, 1914: 160

7. See Ludovico Antonio Muratori, "Rerum italicarum scriptores”, Vol. 7, Part 1, 1928: 248

8. See Hugo Falcandus, “Liber de Regno Sicilie e la Epistola ad Petrum panormitane ecclesie thesaurarium” in “Fonti per la storia d'Italia pubblicate dall'Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo”, edited by G.B. Siragusa, 1897, Vol. 22: 70

9. See R. de Felice," Gli Arabi in Europa ", Bologna, Il Mulino, 1981: 238-239. Published in English, "The Arabs and Medieval Europe", London and New York, Longman, 1979

10. R. De Felice, p. 241-242

11. See Patrizio Pensabene, “Dalla villa Romana all'insediamento medievale”,  in "Kalòs. Art in Sicily", Year 16, No. 4, 2004, pp. 9-11

12. See, M.K. Guida, “L’Icona della Madonna delle Vittorie a Piazza Armerina”, in  “Francescanesimo e cultura nelle province di Caltanissetta ed Enna”: atti del Convegno di studio, Caltanissetta-Enna, 27-29 ottobre 2005, Officina di studi medievali 2008: 183