History of Sperlinga, Italy

See Sperlinga guide for highlights and historic monuments

The raised position of the original settlement at Sperlinga was strategic for the control of the territory and against the incursions of the Muslims, who pushed the population to seek refuge in the caves. The area was definitely controlled by the Byzantines, who presumably also introduced Greek, and they strongly resisted the Arab incursions:

"It is accepted as fact that the Greek had been introduced by the Byzantines, rather than continuously from the Greek Classical Age" [9].

Early history

With the advent of the Normans, various colonies of "Lombardi" settled in Sicily (and in Sperlinga) - that is, people of Upper Italy who merged with local populations, and traces remain in the local dialect of them and their languages. Those which showed marked influences, besides Nicosia, were principally San Fratello (...) Piazza Armerina and Sperlinga” [10].

From 1132 the town belonged to “Rosso Rubeo” from Messina, a prominent figure, that Francesco Torraca (albeit with some hesitation) identified with a poet going back to the times of Frederick II of Swabia [1094-1250]:

"A document published by J.J. Winkelmann [1717-1768] allows us to come to notice of the distinguished gentleman called ‘Rosso Rosso’ (Russus Rubeus) from Messina, Baron of ‘Villa Sperlinga’ and Martini', a loyal yeoman of Frederick II, to whom, in 1222, he lent 2000 florins" [11].

It seems that Frederick II did not return the money, but he rewarded him with some income from other cities of Sicily.

Did Sperlinga fight against the Anjevins?

It seems that Sperlinga, during the War of the Vespers, which saw all Sicily in revolt, did not fight against the Angevins. In this regard, a popular proverb, also quoted by Fazello said: "Quod Siculis placuit sola Sperlinga negavit" [Only Sperlinga would not consent to what all Sicily wanted].

To many it seemed unlikely that Sperlinga had refused to fight against the Angevins, but it seems that Michele Amari had found some documents that confirmed the fact:

"Document No XI (...), until now unpublished, shows that some soldiers of Charles I of Anjou [1226-1285] had for long time defended the castle of Sperlinga, which would have been very difficult without the support of the inhabitants of the town" [12].

The fact is quoted a bit by all the historians, such as the 16th century chronicler Fra’ Leandro Alberti., who wrote that "it is quite true that the French were all slain by the Sicilians except for a few soldiers (...) who escaped in Sperlinga" [13]. For this reason, P. J. Charrin declared:

“Sperlinga must be very dear to all French men travelling in Sicily, because it was the only one that refused to take part in the slaughter of our fellow-citizens during the War of the Vespers" [14].

However, even in contemporary studies there are uncertainties. For example, Corrado Mirto observes that:

"It is completely false the theory by which the inhabitants of Sperlinga were traitors at the service of foreign rulers. The castle of Sperlinga resisted because the Angevin soldiers who garrisoned it put up fierce resistance to the attacks.” [15]. As we can see, the age-old dispute is not yet ended.

Birth of 'modern' Sperlinga

Towards the end of the 16th century the castle belonged to Giovanni Forti Natoli, who in practice founded the new town - the expansion of the feudal village and the birth of Sperlinga dates to this time. Giovanni Forti Natoli in 1597 obtained a "licentia populandi" [ which allowed to build a new town], by a concession made by King Philip III [1578-1621] and the privilege to expand the settlement in the area downstream of the castle. This operation involved the destruction of many rock caves to accommodate the new town.

According to V. Amico, who reconstructed the key moments in the history of Sperlinga, it was at first:

"under the rule of Peter I of Aragon, who took it with extreme violence; then it was ruled by Francesco Scaglione, who sold it to the Ventimiglia Family. Giovanni Ventimiglia sold it to Giovanni Forti Natoli, Baron of St. Bartolomeo and Belice, who founded in 1597 the town thanks to the royal edict. The town was then inherited by his son Francesco, who sold it to Giovanni Stefano Onelo, to whom he gave the fortress in 1656 (...) Giovanni Stefano Onelo was named Duke of Sperlinga in 1666 with a privilege of Charles II " [16].

He was succeeded by Domenico in 1680 as his first-born son. The last Duke of Sperlinga was Giuseppe Oneto e Lanza in 1862, who granted the castle in emphyteusis (a lease that requires the leaseholder to maintain or improve the property) to Baron Nunzio Nicosia, whose heirs sold it to the town of Sperlinga.

Today, after restoration, the castle is the main monument of the city, a popular destination for international cultural tourism.

Was Sperlinga the ancient city of Herbita?

Sperlinga is a very ancient settlement, but it is uncertain whether it can boast a tradition of considerable Classical Antiquity, even though there were strenuous attempts to identify the site of Sperlinga with "Herbita", a very ancient town of the Sikels:

“Nicosia contests with Sperlinga the honour of representing Herbita, a very ancient town of the Siculi, which is first mentioned in history as joining Ducetius, about 446 B.C., when that Siculan prince, urged by the oracle, returned from Corinth to found Cale Acte...

...In 403 it successfully withstood a siege by Dionysius of Syracuse; and immediately after, its ruler Archonides founded Aleesa on the coast, which soon surpassed its parent city in wealth and power. Herbita was despoiled and almost depopulated by the rapacious Verres, and its territory, previously most fertile in corn, was made a desert” [4].

As J. Beloch wrote:

"Herbita is one of the many ancient cities of Sicily which until now had not found a secure identification. Herbita is usually located in Nicosia, or near Sperlinga, but this theory lacks a scientific foundation, unless we consider a spurious Greek inscription (...) falsified in order to demonstrate the existence of Herbita in that place" [5]

However, some contemporary historians are a little less assertive than Beloch, agreeing on a compromise solution by which Herbita would have been situated between Nicosia and Sperlinga. As Ettore Pais wrote:

"Herbita's location is unclear; we cannot assign definitive values to the theories of those who place it in Nicosia or in Sperlinga, but we don’t think that Beloch is right" [6].

However, according to some recent studies [7] Herbita was located in the territory of Gangi and Sperlinga. The small village is located 750 meters above sea level, presumably dominated by the castle of Norman origin, as shown by a privilege of Count Roger [1031-1101] of 1082, in which he gave some estates to the Church of Troina, including a hamlet called "Sperling-u-a":

“I grant the above-mentioned Church of Troina Messina, Cerami and Sperling-u-a (Sperlinga)" [8].

Etymology - origins of the name Sperlinga

The name of Sperlinga derives from the Greek  "Σπήλνγγα" (Lat. "Spelunca" = cave). In the local dialect it was called "Spelunga". According to G. Alessio, the name "was a form of regional Latin, a loan-word from the Greek, 'spelynca' = cave, from the Greek 'Σπήλνγγα' [1].

In his analytical study G. Rohlfs wrote that "to indicate a cave in ancient Greek there are two words related to each other: 'to spelaion' and 'e spelygx' [2].

We should also note a name historically given to Sperlinga, recalling that in a diploma of Peter III of Aragon [1239-1285] (1283), it was known as "Splingi":

"Peter, by the Grace of God King of Aragon and Sicily. To the wise and noble Giovanni da Procida, on the process done against Gualterio from Caltagirone and some of his confederates in crime of the castle of 'Splingi' and the castle of Modica]" [3].

See the Sperlinga travel guide for visitor information.


1. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Toponomastica italiana ...”, Hoepli, 1990, p. 202 ; and G.B. Pellegrini, “Annotazioni linguistiche sui toponimi prearabici della Sicilia”,  in "Siculorum gymnasium", 1986, p. 146; finally, See G. Alessio, “L'elemento greco nella toponomastica della Sicilia”, Sansoni Antiquariato , 1956, p. 44

2. See G. Rohlfs, "Spilinga, Sperlinga Sperlonga "in, “Byzantino-Sicula II. Miscellanea di scritti in memoria di Giuseppe Rossi Taibbi”, Palermo, 1975, p. 473

3. See "Collectio Salernitana," edited by S. de Renzi, Napoli, 1854, Vol. III, p. 166

4. See G. Dennis-J. Murray, “A handbook for travellers in Sicily: including Palermo, Messina, Catania, Syracuse, Etna, and the ruins of the Greek temples”, 1864, p. 286

5. See J. Beloch in “Miscellanea di archeologia ...”, 1907, p. 223

6. See E. Pais, “Storia dell'Italia antica e della Sicilia per l'età anteriore al dominio romano”, 1933, p. 495

7. See Manganaro, “Città di Sicilia nel III e II secolo BC”, in "Siculorum Gymnasium", XVII, 1964, p. 67

8. See F. Aprile, “Della cronologia universale della Sicilia”, 1725, p. 681

9. See C. Palagiano, “La geografia delle lingue in Europa”, 2006, p. 94

10. See J. F. Privitera-B. Privitera, “Language as historical determinant: the Normans in Sicily, 1061-1200”, 1995, p. VIII

11. See F. Torraca, “Studi su la lirica italiana del duecento”,  Zanichelli, 1902, p. 102

12. See M. Amari, “Un periodo delle istorie siciliane del secolo XIII”, 1842, p. 67, note 3 and M. Amari, “La Guerra del Vespro...”, 1843, Vol. I, p. 137 and note

13. See “Descrittione di tutta l'Italia ...”, by Fra’ Leandro Alberti, Venezia, 1581, p. 33

14. See P.J. Charrin, "Voyage pittoresque ...", Paris, Dufour, 1829, p. 58

15. “L'insurrezione del Vespro e la 'Communitas Siciliae'”, in “Archivio storico siciliano”, 2001, p. 34 note 21

16. See V. Amico, , “Dizionario topografico della Sicilia”,  1856, p. 542