History of Roccella

See Campofelice di Roccella guide for highlights and historic monuments

Medieval Roccella

At the beginning of the 13th century Roccella was donated to the church of Cefalù by the Count of Collesano:

"who belonged to a family of Southern Italy and  (…) he  sided with Henry VI (1165-1197), then getting from him the title of Count of Alife" [10]: 'We give to our Basilica of Cefalù in perpetuity our estate of Collesano with Roccella and all estates under our jurisdiction' " [11].

Roccella is mentioned later in relation to the assets of Bishop Arduino II, who gave it to the Monastery of Montevergine, and for this reason he was tried:

“[...] Bishop Arduino by Frederick II was expelled from the church, exiled and stripped of all possessions, as he had given Roccella to the Friars of  Montevergine. The Bishop defended himself saying that he had rebuilt the houses belonging to the Bishopric, the Cathedral and he had built several mills, that he had sheltered the mills of Roccella and that he had built the church of Santa Maria di Roccella (...) A donation of this estate had been made to the Monastery of Montevergine by Paolo Cicala, by the will of God Count of Collesano" [12].

Roccella was later confirmed as belonging to the monastery of Montevergine by Frederick II:

"[...] Frederick by the will of God Emperor of the Romans and King of Sicily. With this paper we want to be known to all that the place called Roccella, in which is located the above mentioned grange and all the friars of the monastery are under our protection (...) We give and we confirm these estates in perpetuity to the Monastery of Montevergine, for the sake of our soul and that of our predecessors of happy memory" [13].

These documents often refer also to the economic activities in the "tenimentum" of Roccella and they supply some data on the presence of mills. In fact from the “Tabulario” of the Church of Cefalù of 1205, we can deduce some proofs of the existence of mills at Roccella in medieval times, since the Bishop of Cefalù, Arduino II defended himself by claiming to have repaired the mills of Roccella and to have founded the church of Santa Maria.

In 1385 Roccella passed to the Ventimiglia, who held it until 1418, making it a duty-free port station of great importance. The port station of Roccella, called “Caricatore” [Shipper] was one of the most important of Sicily, and it remained in full operation at least until the 18th century.

We may have an idea of the economic importance of the "Caricatore" of Roccella by remembering that all export sales were made directly by Count Antonio Ventimiglia (1350-1415), and under the protection of the castle the grain of the Ventimiglia family feuds and of all the neighboring estates were piled in Roccella, with a turnover that attracted the Royal Treasury.

In 1392 Martin I (1356-1410) started a clear policy of repression against the Sicilian nobility, in an attempt to restore the rights of the Royal Authority. At the beginning of the 15th century, the "Castrum Roccellae" suffered a heavy bombardment:

“by a siege in 1418 by Viceroies Domenec Ram (died 1445) and Antoni Cordona (Viceroy of Sicily from 1416 to 1419), who administered Sicily for Alfonso V of Aragon (1416-1458), to take away from the Ventimiglia the control of the coast and to demonstrate the military capabilities of the monarchy. Following the events of 1418, the feudal fortress was included in the State property and (was) relegated to a watch tower to defend the fertile agricultural land" [15].

Roccella estate in the 16th and 17th century

During the 16th and 17th century, the estate of Roccella belonged to many different  Lords. King Ferdinand II (1479-1516) gave it to Gaspare de Spes (Viceroy of Sicily from 1479 to 1489):

“who returned it in 1507 to Ferdinand; then the feud was under the control of thae Alliata until 1516 (...) Then it passed to the Ventimiglia, Antonio Spatafora (died 1613), to the family of the Castrone and to Gaspare Grotta [also known as La Grotta Guccio (died 1728)], next to 'primus Roccellae Princeps' [first Prince of Roccella] in 1696 and to Antonio Marzian (17th century), that passed the title to his son Lorenzo" [16].

The current town of Roccella - Campofelice

The above records describe the history of the the Lords of the castle and its estates. Turning now to the current town of Roccella (Campofelice), this was a "New Town" founded by Prince Gaspare La Grutta, belonging to a family of Gela origin, who in 1699 obtained a "Licentia populandi" by King Charles II of Spain (1661-1700) - that is, permission to build the village of Roccella in the feudal estate to reclaim the land.

Therefore, in 1699 Don Gaspare founded  the new settlement (the actual town of “Campofelice”) near to the "castrum". The reasons for the new foundation were also linked to the need to change the poor conditions of the existing site because of the presence of areas of malaria.

According to the documents, he attended to the colonization by building 10 homes, 14 shops and the church [17]. Around 1708 the town changed its name to "Campofelice” [Happy Field].” This name obviously wanted to remind us that the malarial areas were now drained and the land gave good results; that is it had become a "Terra Felix" ("felix" = fertile and productive).

"Campofelice" is the translation of the Virgilian verse "felicia Arva"[=fields]. B. P. di Belsito explained very well that "'felix', before taking a figurative value [happy] had a sense closely related to the vital cycle meaning "fruitful and fertile". Thus, for example, the trees which gave many fruits were called 'felices arbores' (Livy [59 BC-17 AD]) [18].

In 1812, with the abolition of feudalism, the town freed itself from the baronial jurisdiction.

Because of its proximity to the sea and a very long beach, every summer it has many amenities for tourists, although it also has a very active agriculture.

Discovering ancient Roccella

E. Mazzarese Fardella was undoubtedly right when he observed that it is very difficult to reconstruct the outlines of the ancient site of Roccella, as:

“the legal situation of Roccella is very confused by the coexistence of domains of the Count of Collesano and the Bishop of Cefalù” [1].

Without entering into details, it should be said that the documents refer to a "castrum" (fortress) here since 1385, when Count Ventimiglia effectively built a "castrum":

“on the site of Roccella a castle was built by above-said Count Ventimiglia" [2].

Previous to this, the medieval documents relating to Roccella speak about it with terms such as "locum", "grange" and "tenimentum”. For example, in some documents relating to the confirmation of Roccella to the Monastery of Montevergine in the time of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), we read about a “locum de Roccella in quo sita est grangia” [a place called Roccella in which is located the grange] and "tenimentum Roccella" [an estate called Roccella].

These terms, even if having no reference to a "castrum" in the strict sense, do conceptually refer to a fortified place. In particular, this is true for "tenimentum" which, according to studies by A. Settia, indicates the presence of a terreplein and a rather high defensive fence that can not be easily "jumped" by a man of normal height [3].

In conclusion, with regard to the most ancient times of Roccella, we can speak at most of a "fortified site". However, with regard to the earliest times of Roccella the events and identification of the site are not entirely certain. In the time of the Arabs, Al Idrisi wrote about a "fortress" that some critics have identified with Roccella:

“twelve miles from the above-said fortress [understood to be ‘Brucato’] there is ‘Sahrat al Hadid’, a small hamlet with a fortress on top of the cliff, which extends with an abrupt slope on all sides towards the beach of the sea" [4].

Michele Amari, however, was really unpersuaded that the suggestion of Al Idrisi was referring to Roccella:

"[...] I must warn, however, that Edrisi places 'Sakhral el Herir' on the coast between Termini and Cefalù, or, according to the Manuscript of Oxford, 'El-Hedid', which means the 'Rock of Silk', or 'Rock of Iron'; a valid fortress in his day, which is the 'Castrum Roccella' of the Sicilian diplomas of the Middle Ages; and of it remains today some tracks and the name of Rocella...

... This name is also given to a small inland village, also known as 'Campofelice'. But although it is close to Cefalu, which was taken in the same year, and although some manuscripts are in agreement on the name, I do not think that this fortress had been able to contain the large population that they wanted to ransom with 15.000 dinar [...]” [5].

Despite the doubts of M. Amari, however it seems that in fact 'Sakhral el Herir' can be identified with Roccella near Cefalù, and the fortified place was of Arab origin. In the present state of our knowledge it does not seem possible to propose other more reliable identifications [6].

In this same sense is the proposal of G.B. Pellegrini, who derives the name of Roccella from ‘saharàt’ [='rock’]; 'sahrat al-Hadid', 'rock of iron' = Roccella (until the 18th century, then ‘Campofelice di Roccella’) [7]. The "Roccella" name would seem, therefore, to be the "romanization" of the Arabic name:

"[...] The Arabic name obviously refers to the fort that was on top of the 'Rock of Iron', from which even the little hamlet was named, because, in the ruins of those houses, among which a circular room covered by a semi-destroyed hemispherical dome, spared from erosion of the sea and other elements (...) we can see some building structures that confirm their pre-Norman age [...]" [8].

In this sense the comments by Joseph Guerin Fucilla may be of use, who clarifies the meaning of Italian terms such as "roccia", "Roccella" and "rocca", explaining that “perhaps ‘Rocca’ and 'roccia' can mean fortress" [9].

See the travel information for Roccella.


1. See E. Mazzarese Fardella, “I Feudi comitali di Sicilia Dai normanni agli aragonesi”, Milan, Giuffrè, 1974: 28 note 38

2. See A. Mazzarese Faldella, "Il tabulario Belmonte”, Palermo, 1983, doc. 33: 115

3. See A. Settia, “L’apparato delle cinte fortificate medievali. Riconoscimento, salvaguardia, valorizzazione”, in “Oltre le mura”.  Atti del convegno di studi (Montagnana, 18 novembre 2006), Montagnana, Centro di studi sui castelli, 2008 (Quaderno n. 16), pp. 13-29

4. See Al Idrisi," The Book of Roger ", edited by M. Amari, Salviucci, 1883: 28 - 29

5. See M. Amari, "History of the Muslims of Sicily”, Florence, Le Monnier, 1854, Vol. I: 327 note 1

6. For the issue of doubts of M. Amari,  See F. Maurici, "Medieval Castles in Sicily ...", Sellerio, 1992: 208-209

7. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine”, 1972: 328

8. See, Giuseppe Spatrisano, “Lo Steri di Palermo e l’architettura siciliana del Trecento”, Flaccovio, 1972: 168

9. See Joseph Guerin Fucilla, "Topographical Names", in "Our Italian Surnames", 1949:  99 and note 24

10. See E. Mazzarese Fardella, “I Feudi comitali …”: 27

11. See C. Mirto, “Rollus Rubeus: Privilegia ecclesie Cephaleditane, a diversis regibus et imperatoribus concessa, recollecta et in hoc volumine scripta”, 1972: 107

12. See Jean-Louis Alphonse Huillard Bréholles, “Frederici secundi historia diplomatica”, 1852, Vol. II:  920 and footnote 1

13. See Jean-Louis Alphonse Huillard Bréholles, “Friderici Secundi Romanorum Imperatoris, Jerusalem et Siciliae Rex Historia Diplomatica”, Edidit Huillard-Bréholles, Parisiis, 1852, Tomus II, Pars I, pp. 204-205

14. “I documenti inediti dell'epoca normanna in Sicilia”["The unpublished documents of the Norman period in Sicily”], Palermo, 1899, Document No. 75: 186

15. See A. Fiorini, “Il castello di Roccella. Analisi archeologica di un sito fortificato medievale”, in “Archeologia dell’Architettura”, 2004: 86

16. See Raffaele Noto, “ Roccella and its territory ...” in  “Archivio storico Siciliano”, 1980:  82-83

17. See “Archivio storico siciliano”, 1948

18. See Bent Parodi di Belsito, “La cultura della felicità”["The culture of happiness"], in “Il diritto alla felicità…”, 2004: 99