History of Polizzi, Italy

See Polizzi guide for highlights and historic monuments

Ancient Poliezzi and the city of Sitana

To reconstruct the ancient history of Polizzi, as with many cities of Sicily, we must refere to Diodorus (90-27 BC), and better still, to the annotators of Diodorus Siculus. In fact, the ancient history of Polizzi begins with a doubtful passage of Diodorus, who wrote about a town called "Sitana".

In the 18th century a great local historian, Giovanni Battista Caruso, starting from text from Diodorus, stated without hesitation that the "Sitana" referred to was the modern Polizzi. 

He explained that the consuls Aulus Atilius Calatinus (died 216 BC) and Gaius Sulpicius Patercolus (consul in 258 BC), after conquering Camarina “put siege to the nearby town of ‘Sitana’, a fortified city, which, according to Diodorus, today is called Polizzi". Then Caruso pointed out that Diodorus, a little before, had called ‘Sitana’ by another name, that is "Athens" [1].

After Caruso’s assertion pandemonium broke loose, because almost all the scholars of the time were in disagreement. E. Di Biasi, for example, writing in 1814, said:

"Polybius [206-124 BC] said that the Romans occupied some small towns of the Carthaginians, (...) but he did not quote the names of these small towns. Diodorus, however, cited the names of them, which were 'Sitana', 'Camico' (...) and 'Erbesso' (...) About Sitana, Cluver believed that there was an error by copyists in the text of Diodorus so instead of 'Sittana' we must read 'Ippana'. But Caruso believed that there was no error and that ‘Sitana’ quoted by Diodorus was the city now called Polizzi; but we do not enter into this controversy because of lack of documents " [2].

Recent excavations and Punic artefacts

As J. Mawman correctly stated [4], in the 19th century in the territory of Polizzi there had not been found "monuments of antiquity." However, since 1942 excavations were made by N. Sardo in Polizzi which brought to light some remains of the ancient Punic times:

"The existence of an ancient settlement in Polizzi had been previously supposed on the basis of occasional finds made in the urban area [12], and in particular a storeroom containing coins of several mints in Sicily, dating from the second half of the IV-III century BC" [13].

Furthermore, N. Sardo deduced the existence of an extreme point of Punic influence, until now ignored, in the interior of Sicily. Notable among the remains that came to light were a clay head that reveals the character of the original Punic art” [14].

The strategic location of the site of Polizzi was actually valued in ancient times, as demonstrated by studies of A. Contino, who, after pointing out that “the sites of these ridges played a key role to control the territory,” he added that “a careful exploration of the ridge along the streets in the vicinity of ‘Polizzi Generosa’, allowed me to identify a Classical and Hellenistic necropolis" [15]. Subsequently, the excavations were continued with excellent results by prof. A. Tullio.

Amphora of Polizzi

Among the most significant discoveries is the "amphora of Polizzi," on which various scholars have focused considerable attention:

"The recent discovery from the tomb is the amphora n. 4 from the necropolis of ‘Polizzi Generosa’, depicting the struggle between Hercules and the Nemean lion, found by A. Tullio (...) the neck is decorated in the style called early 'Gnathia' with an ivy spray with white leaves and the representation of the woman and the hero on the secondary side. This pattern refers to the stylistic features typical of so-called "Group of Lentini Manfria". In it we might include the ‘Painter of Polizzi,’ while the ‘symplegma’ (interweaving) of Hercules with the lion is taken from a considerably more ancient iconography."

Starting with other interesting considerations of Tullio, the ‘amphora of Polizzi’ is another demonstration of the connections between the Siceliot pottery decoration  and the 'milieu' proto-Italiot vases, with (...) the persistence (...) of an iconography that had been consolidated over the course of time" [16].

From Norman times in Polizzi

During Norman times Polizzi was built around the castle which had been built by Count Roger (1031-1101) and then it belonged to one of the major Sicilian feudal lordships, that is to the County of Adernò (Adrano):

"a feudal benefit of Adelasia (1074-1118), granddaughter of Roger II (1095-1154), and he also owned Polizzi, Caltavuturo, Sclafani and Caltanissetta" [17].

Thanks to Adelasia, Polizzi became a large and powerful city which experienced a significant increase in population, which also controlled Scillato:

"Among the parchments of the church of Cefalù, preserved in the archive of Palermo, there is one dating back to 1156 which contains the concession made by Adelasia, granddaughter of King Roger, to the Church of Cefalù of a mill near Scillato (...) Scillato was always from the legal and financial point of view under the authority of Polizzi, until a decree of King Ferdinand II (1452-1516)” [18].

With regard to the importance and prosperity of Polizzi, T. Maggio writes:

“Roger's granddaughter, Countess Adelasia of Polizzi, built up Polizzi at a time when it hosted populations speaking Greek, Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. The city's ethnic neighbourhoods were called 'capitanea', for each was headed by a captain and each one had its own 'piazza', place or worship, system of justice and public fountain (...) Polizzi prospered, propelled by water, the creator of wealth (...) Polizzi's cool mountain air, spring water and majestic panoramas drew royal visitors and their cultural entourage” [19].

In 1234 Frederick II of Swabia (1094-1250) granted the town the title of "Generous":

"In November [1234] Frederick II went to Syracuse, where he convened a parliament or General Curia (…) Then in this year  Emperor Frederick II  honored some Sicilian cities with beautiful and proud titles and Polizzi was called 'Generous'" [20].

Polizzi belonged to royal demesne by decree of King Martin (1376-1409) in 1398; however, it was under the control of various "capitanei" (officials); for example, Francesco II of Ventimiglia (died 1338) had been invested with full powers over the city in 1356 by Ferdinand IV, and in 1371 the king granted:

"in perpetuity to Francesco Ventimiglia according to the feudal law, the rent of 500 “onze” on the taxes of the city" [21].

The Polizzi (also called "Palizzi-Palici") were particularly powerful in the city, so that a legend has it that the etymology of “Polizzi” derives from their name. They established a strong faction in Polizzi,  fiercely opposed to the claims of the Chiaromonte who were determined to seize the city.

The phases of the struggle between the Palizzi against the Chiaromonte were told by the chronicler Michele da Piazza. When the army led by Henry and Francis Chiaromonte came to Polizzi, they were confronted by the “Palizzi” with a group of followers. Then there was an alliance between the two families, established by marriage. This was a "technique" used by the most powerful Sicilian families to monopolize power and to have an increasing say in the Crown:

“To increase their power some groups of noblemen choose exogamy (marrying outside a person's own social group), which leads to alliances and thus to the growth of their wealt and military power (...) among these groups there are the Chiaromonte, the Palizzi of Aragon and the Peralta" [22].

Recent centuries in Polizzi

Beyond the undoubted difficulties that the city had to suffer in the clash between the adverse factions, we must also recall that the Renaissance period was crucial for the construction of an artistic heritage among the most impressive of Sicily. The presence of pugnacious and at the same time munificent noble families coincided with an increase in building and works of art in the city, which are today its valuable cultural heritage.

On the contrary, the disappearance of these families and other events such as the waves of plague and famine implied the rapid decline of the city:

"A brief look at the population dynamics of some rural communities during the 18th century shows a decrease in population (from 10 to 20%); Polizzi, for example, that in 1570 had a population of 8343 inhabitants was in 1714 down to 4232” [23].

Polizzi found it difficult to recover from this demographic catastrophe, but the territory is rich in underground sources and agricultural products, also with processing industries stimulating agricultural development, which are now supported by the tourism industry, surely growing thanks to the artistic, archaeological and nature site of this Sicilian town.

Origins of the name Polizzi

With regard to the etymology of Polizzi, Caruso derived the name from "Polisium", that is the "city or temple of Isis" [1]. G. di Marzo presented the problem like this:

"With regard to Polizzi, some writers such as Aretius and Maurolico say the name derives from Pollux, one of the Dioscures, or from a temple of Apollo or from the Palici. Finally Caruso derives its name from Isis, the ancient name of the Egyptians and from the Greek 'Polis' (city), as if in ancient times Polizzi was called  ‘Polis Isidis’ (City of Isis), from which ‘Polisium’ derived” [3].

However, the etymology is also very controversial. Back in 1819 J. Mawman wrote:

“Some have called it ‘Polisium’, from 'Polis Isidis', the city of Isis. At present, however, it can boast of no monument of antiquity.” [4].

In reality the issue is quite intricate, and according to some scholars, the city was of Byzantine origin. In fact, Michele Amari wrote:

"Ibn-el-Athir [5] says that the Muslims had taken a fortress 'that the Greeks [the Byzantines] had made recently, and they called it the ‘City of the King’. 'Recently' here means 880 AD, because before that the Muslims were masters and winners in these regions. With regard to Polizzi, besides this, the site is mentioned by all the warring factions in 882, and the name of this city necessarily had to be of Greek origin, 'Basileòpolis' or just 'Polis'" [6].

Therefore, according to M. Amari, Polizzi was of Byzantine origin, and it was called "Basileòpolis", that is the "city of the King" (Basileus = king). The suggestion of M. Amari was widely accepted by scholars, but F. Maurici writes:

"The identification [of 'Basileòpolis'] with ‘Polizzi Generosa’ was proposed by Amari. It is more likely, however, that the so-called ‘city of the king’ corresponds to the ‘ruqqah Basili’ (Rock of Basil), located by Al Idrisi in the ‘Madonie.’ This identification was proposed by Illuminato Peri [8], who in a previous essay accepted Amari’s equation 'the City of the King' = Polizzi. We also observe that in the years when these events took place Basil I, called the Macedonian (812-886) was Emperor of Constantinople” [7].

According to G. B. Pellegrini, Polizzi is of Greek-Byzantine origin. The Arabs called it "Bulìs," which derives from the Greek word 'Polis' [9][10].

In conclusion, we must assume a place name of Byzantine origin, whose original name was "Polis Basilii" (the City of Basil), which the Arabs translated as "Bulìs", from which derived the modern "Polizzi":

“Polizzi (the local pronunciation is 'Pulizzi'). In Cusa 'Polikè', and from 1131 it was called 'Policium'. The name dates from the Byzantine name 'Basileòpolis' (the city of Basil), in Arabic 'Bulìs' " [11].

See the visitor guide for Polizzi for travel information.


1. See G.B. Caruso, “Memorie Istoriche di quanto è accaduto in Sicilia dal tempo dei suoi primieri abitatori sino alla coronazione del re Vittorio Amedeo”, Palermo, 1742, p. 15

2. See E. Blasi-G. Gambacorta, “Storia Civile del Regno di Sicilia”, Palermo, 1814, Volume III, Book IV, p. 64

3. See G. di Marzo, “Dizionario Topografico della Sicilia”, 1859, Vol. II, p. 377

4. See J. Mawman, “A classical tour through Italy and Sicily: tending to illustrate some districts, which have not been described by Mr. Eustace, in his classical tour”, 1819, Vol. II, p. 541

5. Ibn-el-Athir, MS. A, Volume II, folio 23 recto, and MS. of Bibars folio 62 recto, under the year 368 (881-882)

6. See M. Amari, “Storia dei musulmani di Sicilia”, Le Monnier, 1854, Vol. I., p. 416 note 4

7. See F. Maurici, “Castelli medievali in Sicilia”, Sellerio, 1992, p. 207 note

8. Illuminato Peri (“Uomini, città, campagne,” p. 47)

9. See also G. Alessio, “L'elemento Greco nella toponomastica della Sicilia” [in “Bollettino storico catanese”, XI.XII, 1946-1947]

10. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine”, Paideia, 1972, p. 500 note

11. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Toponomastica italiana ...”, Hoepli, 1990, p. 82

12. See N. Sardo, “Documenti archeologici”, in “Archivio storico siciliano per la Sicilia”,  1942, IX, pp. 3-14

13. See," Kokalos ", 1996, p. 1116 note

14. See “Rivista storica italiana”, 1948, p. 313

15. See A. Contino, in “Himera, I.: Campagne di scavo 1963-1965. A cura di A. Adriani-N. Bonacasa-C. A. Di Stefano-A. Tusa Cutroni,” 1970. V. III, Parte II, p. 40

16. See U. Spigo, “Caratteri figurativi delle officine di ceramica siceliota”, in “La Sicilia dei due Dionisi: Progetto Akragas ...”, Roma, 2002, pp. 279-282

17. See F. Maurici, “Castelli medievali in Sicilia ...”, Sellerio, 1992, p. 106

18. See “Archivio storico Siciliano”,  1880, p. 116

19. See Teri Maggio, “The stone boudoir: travels through the hidden villages of Sicily”, Counterpoint Press, 2002, p. 225

20. See M. Camera, “Annali delle Due Sicilie ...”, Napoli, 1841, Vol. I, p. 163

21. See E. Igor Mineo, “Nobiltà di stato: famiglie e identità aristocratiche del tardo Medioevo : la Sicilia”,  Donzelli, 2001, p. 163 note 26

22. See G. Motta, “Strategie familiari e alleanze matrimoniali in Sicilia ...”, 1983;  in “Economia e storia”, 1983, 4, p. 563. See also  on these aspects of the Chronicle by Michele da Piazza, E. Igor Mineo, pp. 245-246

23. See, “Studi in onore di A. Sapori”,  1957, p. 1227