History of Valfabbrica, Italy

See Valfabbrica guide for highlights and historic monuments

It is with a document written in 820 AD by Emperor Louis the Pious (778-840 AD) in Aachen that we have the first mention of a village called "Vado Fabricae" (Valfabbrica).

In the document, the Abbot of the Monastery situated "desuper [above] Vado Fabricae" asked the Emperor Louis the Pious for its high protection against the enemies of the monastery (who were many). The Emperor responded to the petition in this way:

"We want to be known to all the faithful of the Holy Church of God and all our subjects that Christian, Venerable Abbot of the Monastery called  'Desuper Vado Fabricae', located in the territory of Assisi, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with all his possessions is under Our protection."

Is the document of Emperor Louis the Pious a forgery?

The document of antiquity written by Louis the Pious has a basic problem - it was recently declared a forgery:

"Among the Umbrian monasteries that arose in the Carolingian age we can not list that of the S. Mary Valfabbrica, since the privilege of Louis the Pious, December 8, 820 is a forgery" [1].

G. Spinelli bases himself on studies by Mario Sensi, who, in his research on the territory of the Benedictine monasteries of Assisi, was not able to find documents prior to 1041 [2]. In fact, M. Sensi argues that this, like the other two diplomas relating to S. Mary of Valfabbrica, is a forgery. That the diploma of Louis the Pious could be a forgery does not surprise us, because dozens of false documents attributed to Louis the Pious were written.

However, we observe that the hypothesis of M. Sensi contrasts completely with that of some eminent scholars. P. Kehr, then director of the Prussian Historical Institute, in the early twentieth century, considered absolutely authentic the diploma of Louis the Pious of 820, which he discovered in the secret Vatican Archives. Luigi Schiaparelli published it in 1927:

"The first document that he published is related to the monastery of Santa Maria di Valfabbrica (diploma of Louis the Pious, December 8, 820, a copy in the Vatican Secret Archive: by Nonantola, envelope 10, already published by Kehr and Lauer" [3].

A. Segre thought it was without fail a genuine document:

“This diploma is written in a beautiful Lombard cursive; it is conforms to the Imperial Court models: it is therefore an authentic document.”

In fact, A. Segre, in his articulated speech of 1901,  wrote:

"[...] the document, belonging to Louis the Pious, was given in Aachen, December 8, 820, it was handed down us as a copy of the 10th century. The emperor granted in it the 'immunity and the right of election to the Monastery of Santa Maria di Val  Fabbrica in the territory of Assisi, behind prayer of Abbot Christian. This diploma is written in a beautiful Lombard cursive, and it is conforms to the Imperial Court models: it is therefore an authentic document [...]" [4].

P. Lauer, then curator of manuscripts of the National Library in Paris, also considered it as an authentic document, and he published

"the text of the diploma, until now known only in summary, of Louis the Pious of 820 related to Santa Maria di Valfabbrica of Assisi" [5].

As we can see, despite recent doubts the authenticity of the document had illustrious advocates.

Valfabbrica in the Middle Ages

Setting aside questions of the authenticity of the diploma of Louis the Pious of 820, the origins of Valfabbrica definitely have their roots in the Early Middle Ages. The history of the monastery founded by the Benedictines soon began to be troubled by quarrels, which were widespread in the Middle Ages, between secular and ecclesiastical institutions that competed for the possession of the fertile Valfabbrica territory.

Hence there also originated the proliferation of "spurious diplomas" during the Carolingian age, since the possession of such rich territories procured substantial revenues to the Monasteries and the Bishops who possessed them.

To escape these constant wrongs, the Abbey of Santa Maria di Valfabbrica sought imperial protection, and in fact Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190) in 1177 placed the abbey under his protection, putting it into the district of Assisi and thus avoiding the Abbey:

"suffering any sort tax raising and violence, especially by the descendants of the Earl of Nocera, Suppolino and Rinaldo, Monaldo’s sons, who stealed to the legitimate jurisdiction of Santa Maria di Valfabbrica some lands and castles of the territory."

On its part, in the early 13th century the Abbey of Santa Maria tried to subdue to its power some castles belonging to Perugia. Hence there arose a conflict that ended in 1209 with the destruction of the castle and the village. After these events, Hugh, Prior of the church of Valfabbrica, submitted to Perugia, which imposed strict terms including the prohibition to rebuild the castle:

"1209, July 12: 'De Castro  Vallis Fabricae. Redificando non est. '"[The Castle Valfabbrica should not be rebuilt].

Abbot Hugh promised for himself and his successors and with the consent of all the inhabitants of the castle of Valfabbrica that they would not rebuild the castle destroyed by the Perusians” [11].

Later, the village and Monastery of Valfabbrica remained under the jurisdiction of Assisi. It is clear that Valfabbrica was at the mercy  of Assisi, Perugia, Gubbio and of the multitude of the Umbrian feudal nobility. For example, during the struggles between Guidobaldo da Montefeltro (1422-1482) and Pope Paul III (1468-1549), Valfabbrica was taken by Assisi and incorporated into the Duchy of Urbino.

Only in 1515 was Assisi able to regain the castle of Valfabbrica. After defeat in the Duchy of Urbino, Valfabbrica entered the sphere of domination of the Church and it was ruled by Papal Legates.

During the Napoleonic period, Umbria became part of the Roman Republic and Valfabbrica was inserted in the Trasimeno Department, and for a while it also included the small village of Casa Castalda has interesting works of art. After the age of the Restoration, the village returned to the State of the Church, where it remained until the Unification of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name Valfabbrica

The etymology of Valfabbrica has been a matter of considerable debate among scholars. According to the etymology that is now almost unanimously accepted, the toponym of Valfabbrica:

"based on some comparisons provided by the Early Medieval terminology and toponymy, probably means that the site [was] marked by a public work, presumably by a strengthened work ('fabrice'), located along  the river Chiascio, in a stretch where it was possible to ford (‘vadum’) the river" [3].

Therefore, the etymology of "Valfabbrica" would mean a "construction built near a ford". In some areas this "structure" (“fabrice”) that allowed the ford of a river was a bridge:

"A document dating back to 887 mentioned along the road of Porretta [Bologna] a "Vadum fabricae” (…) But it is unclear what "Ford of the Construction" means. The key to understanding was provided by a local historian, Luigi Bortolotti, who speaks of a house on the right bank of the stream Setta, called 'The Boat'. The ‘fluvial crossing of the construction’ in reality was a bridge [fabrice = contruction] (...) This bridge had metaphorically the same function as a boat, because it allowed the crossing of a river" [6].

However, in addition to this, there is another valid etymology, according to which the Italian term “Valle”  was not derived from the Latin "vadum", but from the Germanic-Lombard term "Waldum" [= wood]. Moreover, 'fabricae' would mean 'ironworks'. On the basis of this etymology, of which we have several examples in Italy, "Valfabbrica" means “Ironworks Wood."

This etymology was investigated with great learning by A. Gaudenzi, who wrote that, even if it is true that in some place names called "Valfabbrica," the Italian word "Valley" is derived from the Latin "vadum" [=ford], in many other cases it derives from the Lombard term "Waldum":

"With regard to Valfabbrica, Mühlbacher found the oldest mention of it ... in a diploma of Charles the Fat of 887, which confirmed to Guibodo and Volfgunda all the possessions that they had near the church and the monastery of Nonantola, and above all 'Vadum Fabricae' ... . Perhaps the original name of 'Vadum Fabricae' was 'Waldum Fabricae' (Ironworks Wood), which produced a false Italian etymology 'Val di Fabbrica'. However, it should be noted that in other local names it was the Latin 'vadum' which caused the Italian term Val[l]e." [6].

Now, the Lombard presence in the area of Valfabbrica is attested to in the toponymy, as in "Rio della Bionda" (Valfabbrica, Perugia), which is a Lombard name (Binda = "strip of wood" [7].

Among other things, the buildings where the iron was worked in Umbria were very numerous, especially along watercourses:

"With the opening of the 14th century we are witnessing a rapid increase in claim documentary, which demonstrate a broad and widespread use of hydraulic energy in the steel industry in Tuscany, and the multiplication in the region of specialized steel poles, where they worked the iron from Elba, sometimes mixed with the local iron" [8].

We conclude by noting that the massive presence of Lombard settlements in an area that was very rich in woods in the Middle Ages would favour an etymology related to the Germanic language Valfabbrica = Ironworks, nor we can forget that near Valfabbrica there is the small village called “Casa Castalda”:

"Casa Castalda was prersumably found by the Lombards of Spoleto, who have built this fortress in 763 on the ruins of an Umbrian 'villa' that existed before Roman times" [9].

Similarly, the so-called “ponte dei Galli” [Bridge of the Gauls], located along the river Tescio, has its roots in "Wald" [= wood] [10].

It is no doubt that both etymologies have equal merit, but having to choose between the two etymologies, we favour the second hypothesis for valfabbrica, which is particularly relevant to the historical events of the village and the environmental context in which it is included.

See the travel guide and information for Valfabbrica.


1. See G. Spinelli, “Monasteri maschili nella Toscana dell'alto medioevo”, in “Il monachesimo italiano dall'età longobarda all'età ottoniana (secc. VIII-X): atti del VII Convegno di Studi Storici sull'Italia Benedettina, Nonantola (Modena), 10-13 settembre 2003”, p. 375

2. See M. Sensi, “Monasteri benedettini in Assisi”, in “Aspetti di vita benedettina nella storia di Assisi”, Assisi 1981, pp. 30-32

3. See “Notizie”, in “Archivio storico italiano”, Olschki, 1927, p. 321

4. see A. Segre, “Spoglio dei periodici”, in “Rivista storica italiana”, 1900, Vol. XVII,  p. 477

5. See “Pubblicazioni per la storia medievale italiana”, in “Archivio Veneto”, 1904, p. 77

6. See A. Gaudenzi, “ Il Monastero di Nonantola”, in “Bullettino dell'istituto storico italiano”, Roma, 1915,  p. 4

7. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Toponomastica italiana ...”, 1990, p. 273

8. See M. E. Cortese, "L'acqua, il grano, il ferro: opifici idraulici medievali ...", Firenze 1997

9. See F. Fatichetti, “Sul Ducato di Spoleto”, in F. Ronca-A. Sorbini, “ Le antiche terre del ducato di Spoleto: i territori di Spoleto e Terni nella cartografia dei secoli XVI-XIX”, 2005, pp. 1-9, p. 1

10. See D. Dragoni, “Emergenze archeologiche lungo il corso del Torrente Tescio”, in Atti dell’Accademia Properziana del Subasio, Serie VII, nn. 11-12, Assisi, 2008,  p. 396

11. See A. Bartoli Langeli, , “Codice Diplomatico del comune di Perugia, 1139-1237”, 1983, pp. 105-106