History of Sellano, Italy

See Sellano guide for highlights and historic monuments

The Castle of Sellano is situated on a hill along the main communication routes that run through the valley of the Vigi, linking Valnerina with Foligno, Spoleto and Camerino. These valleys were of considerable strategic importance for the control of traffic from the Tyrrhenian coast to the Adriatic sea, hence numerous castles arose that formed a compact and uniform system in defence of a major line of communication.

In this sense, the castles of Orsano, Cammoro, Sellano, Postignano and Montesanto controlled the whole territory, with numerous farming villages. One of the most powerful castles in the area was surely the castle of Sellano, which was situated in a strategic position to control trade.

Sellano in the medieval period

The name of Sellano suffered a few changes over the centuries, and it was mentioned in medieval documents and until the 16th century as "Castrum Sellani" [Castle of Sellano]. It is with this designation, for example, that it is mentioned in the statutes of Sellano in 1281, when it was subjected to Spoleto:

"The most important act of the city is definitely the submission of Sellano signed in 1281, in which the delegate of Sellano “renewed and confirmed to Spoleto the ancient  jurisdiction, which it had, has and will have in the future on inhabitants of the castle and the town of Sellano". In addition Sellano undertook to accept each year the podesta sent from Spoleto" [4].

The submission to the hegemonic aims of Spoleto was a key event for Sellano, and it was explained accurately by A. Sansi who wrote:

"The podesta sent from Spoleto was given the whole government of the place (...) and he had the authority to make any decision according to the Statute of the castle" [5].

Despite the promises of submission to Spoleto, the citizens provided the village with a statute in 1347, trying to gain some independence from the powerful cities of Umbria [6]. But even this statute made a clear reference to the submission to Spoleto; so, for example, some parchments of Sellano:

"quoted between 1375 and 1486 the payment of the hearth tax [tax on the family] to Spoleto and even the so-called 'honour of the candle' [act of submission to the church of Spoleto], both due (...) to 'the debt of loyalty and submission established by the pacts'" [7].

Hence the birth of violent revolts against Spoleto. In 1397 Spoleto was forced to intervene with arms to stamp out any threat of revolt by the Castle which for some years under Cammoro became a Ghibelline stronghold, following Biordo Michelotti (1352-1398). Spoleto was able to subdue the castle only after the death of Biordo Michelotti [8].

The two statutes we have discussed clearly show the political history of Sellano, as a fortified village fiercely disputed by the most powerful Communes of Umbria (Spoleto, Camerino and the Papal States) that historically followed Spoleto. On the other hand, the ownership by Spoleto of Sellano was confirmed by Frederick II (1194-1250) in 1241:

“We confirm [to Spoleto] the rights which it boasted on some castles, villas and estates. The names of the castles, estates and villas are the folowuing: Sellano with all its possessions] [9]. As far as Sellano is concerned, also it tried its territorial expansionism, and in 1462 "the inhabitants of Sellano tried to occupy Acquafranca" [10].

Throughout the 15th century, Sellano was again at the center of political discord between the Dukes of Spoleto and Camerino,  who tried to extend their dominion over these territories. Around 1474, during the struggles of Spoleto against the State of the Church, Sellano was conquered by the family of the Varano, who ruled it until the end of the 15th century when the city came back under the dominion of Spoleto.

Sellano from the 16th century

Another rebellion broke out against Spoleto in 1522, and it was put down with great difficulty by Spoleto, which, after the surrender by Sellano, set the city on fire.

Finally, Sellano came within the sphere of influence of the Church, whose officials were particularly careful to order and preserve the archives of the small rural town, as the Papal Legates were "fully aware of how good preservation of the Archives contributed to the certainty of law", and consequently of the preservation of the rights which the Papal State boasted on the village [11].

The history of Sellano is very interesting not only from the political but also the geological point of view, because the village was subject to devastating earthquakes, which involved extensive renovations of the urban plan. In recent years the village has been the subject of extensive studies that have reconstructed the geological history of the ancient village:

"We have highlighted two main evolutionary phases of the city, which date from the 16th to the 19th century  (...) The Renaissance style is clearly evident in all the elements that characterize the façades, such as in the mouldings of the doors and windows, cornices and string courses (...) The changes to the castle were implemented in the 16th century, without any distortion, allowing a complete observation of the original structure...

... On the contrary, during the 19th century both the structure and the urban plan of the village were profoundly altered, such as the demolition of the entire portion of the walls around the old center, which changed the relations between the church of S. Maria Assunta and nearby houses and in particular the functionality of the Bell Tower, which was designed as a defensive tower and a part of the walls" [12].

Origins of the name Sellano

With regard to the etymology of the name, even today there are several uncertainties, but overall we can say that the traditional etymology, which suggests the derivation of the name from Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC) [from which would derive  "Sullianus" = Italian "Sellano"], is sufficently acceptable.

It is however necessary to correct the traditional tale according to which Sellano derives "directly" from General Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who during the Civil War of 88 BC against Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) took refuge here, founding a fortress by the name of Sellano. In reality, things are very different, and they involve an appropriate linguistic analysis.

We know that in Latin there was a proper name "S-u-llianus," which had its roots in "S-u-llius", which in turn derived from "S-u-llus" [Latin = S-u-lla]. Now, we also possess some examples of Roman farm-owners [Latin “fundus”] that were called "Sullianus", so we often find the place name "fundus Sullianus" [Farm belonging to Sullianus].

A. Polloni wrote that there are several place names in Romagna called "fundus Sullianus”, 'Sulitano', 'Sulitanus'.  We also have a 'Castrum Sugisani'. Therefore it was assumed the name derived as 'Sullianus' <'Sullius' <Sullus <Sulla" [1].

So it is almost certain that the primitive fortress belonged to "Sullianus", who was presumably the owner of the castle and of some surrounding farms. In fact, the term "Sullianus" was rightly interpreted as a "praedial name", that is as the name of a landowner, because the Latin suffix '-anus', involves the concept of 'belonging', and it identifies the agrarian goods (in fact, ‘-anus’  is mostly associated with nouns like 'fundus’, ‘ager’, ‘saltus’ and  ‘vicus' [cultivated fields]):

"About toponyma, the praedial Latin suffix '-anus' is frequent and recalls the gentilitial of the owner" [2].

Therefore, the etymology of "Sellano" is a "fortified town belonging to Sullianus [= Italian Sellano]." We conclude by noting that "Sullianus" was definitely linked to the Roman "Gens Suillia," [Sullia family clan] which, as Denis Diderot wrote with a vein of humor, was a "Gens" linked to the country life:

“In the opinion of Varro, Pliny and Plutarch, the familes called Asinia, Vitellia, Suillia, Porcia and Ovinia were so called because some of their members  were famous in the art of raising sheeps, pigs and other kinds of cattle, and others became famous for the cultivation of certain vegetables such as beans, peas, chickpeas, and from there derived the family names such as Fabius, Piso and Cicero" [3].

See the guide for visitors to Sellano.


1. See A. Polloni, “Toponomastica romagnola”,  Olschki, 1966, p. 296

2. See C. Beretta, "The Names of Rivers, Mounts, Sites. Prehistoric Linguistic Structures ", Hoepli, 2003, p. 112

3. See “Œuvres de Denis Diderot: Dictionnaire encyclopédique”, Paris, 1821, Vol 5, p. 4

4. See G. Chiodi, “Scelte normative degli statuti di Spoleto del 1296”, in “Gli statuti comunali Umbri: atti del Convegno di studi svoltosi in occasione del VII centenario della promulgazione dello Statuto comunale di Spoleto (1296-1996)”, edited by Enrico Menestò, Spoleto, 8-9 novembre 1996

5. See A. Sansi, “Storia del comune di Spoleto dal secolo XII al XVII: seguita da alcune memorie dei tempi posteriori”, Volumnia, 1972, pp. 119-120, first edition., Sgariglia, 1879

6. “Statutum seu Breve Communis et populi castri Sellani”, 1347

7. See M. G.  Nico Ottaviani, “Sistemi cittadini e comunità rurali nell'Umbria del Due-Trecento”, in “Annali dell'istituto 'Alcide Cervi'”, Dedalo, 1994, No. 16, pp. 99-100

8. Sansi, 1879, pp. 273-274

9. G. Chiodi, p. 196

10. See B. Lattanzi, “Storia di Foligno” , 1994, Vol I, p. 101

11. The task of keeping under observation the local Archive was given to Pietro Torretti, a member of the “Sacred Congregation of Good Government” (See P. Angelucci, “Breve storia degli archivi e dell'archivistica”,  “Sellano”,  Morlacchi, 2008, pp. 143, 145

12. See A. Borri A-.-M De Maria. Piccarretta, “Osservazioni dei danni negli edifici di aggregazioni storiche dell'Umbria”, in “XI Congresso Nazionale “L’ingegneria Sismica in Italia”, Genoa 25 to 29 January 2004"