Early history of Bastia Umbra

In the Middle Ages Bastia Umbra was a "Castrum", an important strategic and fortified site (see extensive notes about the environment further down this page). This importance is explained by the fact that the city is situated at the confluence of the river Chiascio and near important roads that connect Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto and Foligno.

Thus already in Byzantine times Bastia played an important role, and with the advent of the Lombards:

"Bettona was a Byzantine town and the border, located in the Valle Umbra, was hinged on the fortresses of Bastiola and Bastia, which were opposed to the Lombard Assisi" [15].

The war between the Byzantines and Goths may also directly have involved Bastia, if only as a battlefield. In fact, some local 19th century historians supposed that in 552 AD the battle between Narses (478-574 AD) and Totila (died 552 AD) took place in the Plain of Bastia:

"Narses certainly must have possessed a large army  (…) Narses was encamped in the plain of Sentino and the battle took place perhaps in the plains of Bastia ('in loco quidem plano' [in a plain], Procopius said)" [16].

Bastia Umbra in the Middle Ages

The history of Bastia crossed with that of the major Umbrian towns of the Middle Ages. During the 13th century the city was enlarged (A. Cristofani) and during the war between Assisi and Perugia the ancient "Roman Insula" was literally destroyed. In the early 14th century, the Perusians caused a war which was fatal to Assisi and also to Bastia, which was politically dependent of Assisi.

The local historian A. Cristofani said that the Perusians, led by Cante Gabrielli of Gubbio (1260-1335 circa), were in desperate straits in the attack against Assisi since they could attack from behind the defenders of the “Insula Ronana”, which then was called Bastia":

"The Perusians gave proof of their perfidy, since missing the first jury terms, they destroyed part of the town, ruining the walls and towers; in addition, they purloined from the church of the Friars Minor of Santa Croce the body of Blessed Conrad of Offida, whom they led with other loots in their city" [17].

In essence, the Perusians surely destroyed some of the walls, but Assisi decided to strengthen the site again. Cristofani said that the new fortification was made up of at least 17 towers; according to Cristofani, henceforth the city changed its name, and instead of "Insula Romanesca" was called "Bastia", or "Fortress."

In  modern times in Umbria there formed various “Signorie” [Dominions]. In this sense, in Perugia there emerged, with important consequences for the territory of Assisi and Bastia, some adventurers and soldiers of fortune such as Biordo Michelotti (1358-1398) and Ceccolini Michelotti (born 1353), who obtained from Pope Boniface IX (1350-1404) and his successors, Innocent VII (1339-14069 and Gregory XII (1326-1417), the office of Papal Vicar in the cities and territories of Umbria.

Assisi and Bastia were ruled by Braccio Fortebracci (1368-1424) , known as “Braccio da Montone” and by Malatesta Baglioni (1390-1437), who married Giacoma, daughter of Braccio:

"He agreed with the Pope, who gave him the Vicariate of Perugia, and obtained his “Signoria” in Spello, Bevagna, Cannara, Bastia, Collemancio Bettona and Torgiano" [18].

Bastia was thus conquered by local noble families, in a context of fierce battles against the Papacy.

From the early years of the 15th century the State of the Church played a vital role in the history of Bastia Umbra. In 1425, the Pope ordered the demolition of the fortress, and Bastia in 1431 passed, with the consent of the Pope, to the Baglioni of Perugia, who reconstructed  the fortifications.

In 1524, after a siege that damaged part of the fortress and fortifications, Bastia was taken by Clement VII (1478-1534). In 1535 Pope Paul III (1468-1549), in a plan of reconquest, knocked down the walls of Bastia along with those of Bettona and Spello. In 1537, however, the same Pope Paul III, urged by the entreaties of the population, gave the papal legate, Cardinal Domenico Grimani (1461-1523), his consent so that the inhabitants built new walls (A. Cristofani).

The Papal domain in Umbria had a depressive effect on the democratic government of the Region, which was not only subjected to a rigid centralized system, but also to excessive taxation, which caused serious consequences for this society.

In this sense, we recall in particular the general impoverishment of the region and the drift of workers from the countryside who often went to swell the bandits, who, despite the repression ordered by Clement VIII (1536-1605), raged in Umbria until the Napoleonic Age [19].

With the Restoration the city returned to the State of the Church until to the Unification of Italy in 1861. If considered from a purely political point of view, the small town was constantly dependent on more powerful municipalities, but from an economic point of view it enjoyed a major role over the centuries.

San Vitale - From bandit to sainthood

In this sense, we mention the shrine dedicated to the figure of San Vitale, a native of Bastia Umbra, who was the subject of a popular religious fervor, despite the particular origins of this holiness. In fact, Vitale (died c. 1370) was a bandit from Bastia Umbra, around the fourth decade of the 14th century.

He then received the habit of the hermit,  and he retired to the hermitage of the “Viole”, under the jurisdiction of the Abbey of St. Benedict of Subasio:

“Buried in his own hermitage, where a chapel was erected, the pilgrimage to the tomb of San Vitale continued uninterrupted for about two centuries, and to whom many miracles were attributed” [20].

Origins of the name Insula Romana and Bastia Umbra

The search for the origins of the town has been long and hotlly disputed, but is also a fascinating story - mostly revolving around the possible existence of a lake - so we include it below for your interest

The name is very famous among scholars of Latin literature, because its existence in Antiquity was linked to the solution of a rather garbled problem relating to the biography of the great Latin poet Propertius (47-14 BC), with several Umbrian cities contending with each other to be his place of birth. Let's see how things went....

Usually we read that Bastia Umbra was formerly called "Insula Romana" [Roman Island] or "insula Romanesca" and that it was called "Insula" simply because it was surrounded by the "Lacus Umber" (Umbrian Lake), whose existence was demonstrated by a famous verse of Propertius...

...Except that, already at the beginning of the 20th century, some scholars strongly denied that the famous "Lacus Umber" really existed, which rather changed the story about the town in antiquity, whose name "Insula", among other things, has not been handed down to us from ancient authors, but arises from some very late documents, dating back to the 11th century.

In the great parochial battle that broke out among some of the towns in Umbria (Assisi, Spello and Montefalco) for the distinction of being the birthplace of Propertius, in the end the "Insula Romana", that is the modern Bastia Umbra, took a big risk.

Didi Lacus Umber really exist?

Beyond the strictly historical issues, the same text of Propertius questioned the existence of "Lacus Umber"; in fact some manuscripts, instead of "Lacus Umber" quoted "Imber Sacer" (Sacred Bath), that strengthened the arguments of  scholars who denied the presence of an alleged "Lacus Umber."

About "Imber Sacer", Giulio Urbini, speaking about the church of the “Madonna della Rosa” [in Bevagna], wrote:

"Not far from this church is still preserved the traces of a wide elliptical bath, sunk into the ground, which, according to legend , seems to be a sacred bath, fed by a spring of mineral water, now dried, and which since the 16th century is mentioned as ‘Inversato’ or 'Imbersato', a corruption, according to some scholars, of 'Imber sacer'. It is unclear whether this term is derived from a spurious variant of a text of Propertius, or whether the text has given rise to it" [1].

The first scholar who seriously questioned the existence of "Lacus Umber" was Raffaele Elisei, who wrote:

"[...] The question of 'Lacus Umber' is (...) the most serious difficulty of the whole matter (...) According to Urbini [2], who essentially repeated what was said by others, the 'lacus Umber' would be a real lake (of which, however, we have no evidence)  located around Bastia (...) because the ancient name of Bastia was 'Insula Romanesca', mentioned in the oldest documents (dating from the 11th to the 14th century); if Bastia was called precisely 'Insula' it is because it was located in the middle of a lake ...

... about this imaginary lake we have no evidence; but was there a real lake around Bastia? (...) I do not deny, however, as Antonio Cristofani opines, that the waters of the Chiagio River, in part coming out of the river bed, could flood the land around the village, giving it an appearance of an Island. But is it credible that Propertius gave the pompous name of 'lake' to a muddy marsh? [...]" [3].

Thus, according to Raffaele Elisei, neither documents nor the topography provided sufficient evidence of the existence of "Lacus Umber." These topics were taken up again in the mid-60s by S. Nessi, who explained out the problem like this:

"[...] the location of a lake near Bastia (in the plane near Assisi) has no foundation; this hypothesis is a figment of the imagination, which is based only on the only weak element of the name 'Insula Romana' (the early-medieval name of Bastia) (...) It is really bizarre, the presence of a lake which was unknown to all ancient geographers, to which Propertius would give even the name of ‘Umbro', and which afterwards disappeared in a dense and impenetrable silence ...

... It is more likely that it was a swamp that we find in that site during the Middle Ages (...) The alleged 'lake' formed only in the rainy season, when because of the lack of the surface run-off an expanse water appeared. The other assumptions are without any  topographical, historical and geographical foundation [...]" [4].

Thus "Lacus Umber" was a "figment of imagination", which had no "topographical, historical and geographical" foundation. At this point, it was clear to historians that if "Lacus Umber" did not exist then also the ancient "Insula Romana" (Bastia Umbra) could not exist, being a name which is attested only in some late medieval documents.

For Bastia Umbra the "battle for antiquity" seemed definitively lost. But things soon began to change. In the same year (1963) there appeared an article by G. Maddoli., who got the issue back on track. He stressed, among other things, that "Lacus Umber" was drained in the sixth century AD. In fact, studies have shown that the area between Assisi and Bevagna, where Lacus Umber was located, was subject to intensive reclamation, as part of which the ancient lake disappeared:

"[...] In reality we can’t deny the existence of this lake in Propertius’ time, which was drained only in the sixth century, and without which we cannot explain the ancient name of Bastia Umbra, which was just ‘Insula Romana’ [...]". [5].

The issue was then taken up in minute detail by Emidio de Albentiis, whose thesis on contemporary studies agreed and also explains the possibility of a lake very clearly:

"One of the most controversial passages of the Elegies of Propertius (IV. 1, 121-126) is  linked to the 'vexed question' about the birthplace of Propertius, which was the only ancient literary source which explicitly mentioned the existence of a 'Lacus Umber' ( 124: 'et lacus aestivis intepet Umber aquis'): to correctly locate this lake it is necessary to clarify briefly the context in which it is quoted, and of course we shall come, albeit marginally, to the question of the birthplace of Propertius.

The Latin poet, in a nostalgic description of Umbria,  (...) outlined the landscape of the Umbrian valley between Bevagna and Assisi, his hometown, by inserting 'lacus Umber' between the two cities (...) Knowing the geological history of the ‘Valle Umbra’ and connecting it to the verses of the elegy of Propertius it is quite possible that the vast plain between Bevagna and Assisi was formerly occupied by a lake with stagnant waters, despite the total silence of other literaries and geographical  sources on Umbria (first of all the geography by Strabo) (...)

... In Propertius’ time it is possible that the phrase 'lacus Umber' referred to the unhealthy and marshy area between the two 'Municipia' of 'Mevania' [Bevagna] and 'Asisium' [Assisi], where there were also reclaimed areas (...) Among other things, about  'lacus Umber', Nissen said that, according to Cassiodorus [485 circa - 585 circa AD], King Theodoric [454-526 AD] promoted in the sixth century AD the reclamation of some 'loca in Spoletino territorio' [places in the Spoleto area] (...)

Certainly Cassiodorus seemed to suggest a drainage of considerable effort, and it is also possible that it referred to reclamation attempt at 'lacus Umber' (...) Before describing the historical record of modern times which proves the existence of marshy and lake areas  in the Umbrian valley, there are two other important indices that prove the existence of lake areas.

First of all the ancient name of Bastia Umbra, known as 'Insula Romana', documented in a very late tradition but in a territory in which remains of Roman times were found, prove that this site was inhabited; secondly, evidence is given by some toponyms, for which, for example, there is a small hill, near Assisi, called 'Veduta del Lago' [View of the Lake], in an area where it is impossible to see Lake Trasimeno, but at least part of ‘lacus Umber’ [6].

About this  topic, A. Papi also recalls that "Lacus Umber, near Assisi, was reclaimed by the Benedictine monks in the eighth century" [7].

G. Urbini not only defended the variant "Lacus Umber" and the existence of the lake, but he made reference to an ancient chronicle of Foligno published by Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750) dating back to 1320, where it is written that:

“In September the "Castrum Insulae", situated in the plain of Assisi, was destroyed by the Perusians" [8].

The quote of G. Urbini allows us to see that at the beginning of the 14nth century the '"Insula Romana" was also called "Castrum Insulae" (Fortress of the Island). In this regard we note that already in documents of the 13th century the term ‘Castrum’ alternated with the traditional name (“Insula Romana”, “Insula Romanesca”).

In fact, the term "Castrum" relating to Bastia Umbra appears in some  documents prior to 1320, one dating back to 1232, where it is said that "the ‘balìa’ of St. Paul is located near the ‘balìa’ of 'Castri insulae', that is, next to the ‘balìa’ of Castle of Bastia, as mentioned in the population census of 1232" [9].

The ancient Italian term "balìa" [“balìa Castri Insulae”] referred to Bastia Umbra and denoted a territorial district governed by a "bajulus"[governor]:

"The countryside of Assisi in the 1232 population census was divided in 51 ‘balìe’, that is territorial districts with partial self-government, which suffered over the centuries a number of adjustments. On each ‘balìa’ exercised his power a bajulus, who represented the authority of Assisi" [10].

In a will from 1294 the two names (“Insula” and “Castrum”) appear simultaneously. The will was published 'in Castro Insule', and the testator ordered his burial in the church of San Angelo 'de insula Romanesca'. In 1295 we face the same phenomenon; in front of the church of San Angelo, in the castle, was called the “Communal Assembly and men of the ‘Universitatis Castri Insule Romanesca' [of the town of Castle ‘Insule Romanesca’]" [11].

The document refers to the fact that:

"in Bastia in 1295 the Communal Assembly (...) accepted the request of the Friars Minor (…) which granted them some houses near the castle in order to found a church and a monastery (that is the Church of Santa Croce at Bastia)" [12].

The terms "Castrum" and "Bastia" seem almost synonymous, because they are mentioned together in medieval sources, "Bastia seu Castrum" [Bastia or Castrum]. In this regard, A. Settia spoke of the substantial "coincidence of the two terms":

"The term Bastia (used as an alternative to Castrum) meant ‘new settlement with defensive woodworks’ " [13].

Walled Towns of Europe in the Middle Ages

On this matter R. Bernacchia wrote some things worthy of consideration:

"[...] The spread of walled towns took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. In France, the 'bastides' were new towns, built roughly between 1220 and 1370 on the initiative of kings, Abbeys or Princes. In Italy the term spread later (…) and perhaps because of French influence, even if the old Italian 'bastire', meaning "fortify" (in each case, the term derives from the Germanic 'bastjan' = build)...

... In Provence, we find the form 'Bastide'. The meaning of 'bastia' or 'bastia' is "small fortress of square shape, frequently of temporary nature," but in the Maritime Alps the word means a "cottage for temporary residence." There still are some places that recall these constructions, such as Bastia Mondovi (CN), Bastia Umbra (PG), Bastida de Dossi, Bastida Pancarana (PV) and Bastiglia (MO)....

... These place names usually began to appear in the second half of the 14th century; the common character of these places is their proximity to rivers. In the sources of this time the ‘bastie’ are much more numerous in central and northern Europe, but they were in most cases military installations in wood or temporary shelters for the rural population. [...]" [14].

Bastia Umbra is situated in the northern part of the Umbrian valley, formed by the plain of Assisi, and most of this area is hilly, while other parts are constituted by flat lands along the axis between Assisi and Bettona, where the famous "Lacus Umber" was situated.

In summary, the reclamation activated by the Romans made possible the use of the fertile agricultural plains, but the fall of the Roman Empire allowed the swamp of Bastia Umbra to be created, which continued until the Communale Age.

See the Bastia Umbra travel guide if visiting.


1. See G. Urbini," Spello, Bevagna, Montefalco ", Bergamo, 1913, pp. 60-61

2. the author refers to G. Urbini, “La vita, i tempi e l'elegia di Sesto Properzio”,  Foligno, 1883, pp. 82 ff.

3. See Raffaele Elisei, “Della città natale di Sesto Properzio”,  Rome, 1916, pp. 41 ff.

4. S. Nessi, "Montefalco patria di Properzio. La questione properziana attraverso i secoli", in “Bollettino della Deputazione di storia patria per l'Umbria”, 1963, p. 50

5. See G. Maddoli, “Ancora sulla patria di Properzio”, in “La parola del passato: rivista di studi antichi”,  1963,  pp. 295-301, p. 298

6. See Emidio de Albentiis, “Brevi note di geografia storica sulle conche intramontane dell'Umbria”, in “Quaderni di Protostoria”, Atti dell'incontro di Acquasparta, 1985, “Gli insediamenti perilacustri dell'età del Bronzo e della prima età del Ferro ...” Palazzo Cesi, 1985 , pp.. 193 ff.

7. See A. Papi, “La facciata profetica del Duomo di San Rufino ad Assisi”, in "Episteme", 2002, n. 6., Chapter 6 and footnote 1

8. “La vita, i tempi e l'elegia di Sesto Properzio”, Foligno, 1883

9. See A. Fortini, , “Nuove notizie intorno a S. Chiara”, in “Archivum franciscanum historicum”, 1953, I, p. 30

10. See D. Dragoni, “Emergenze archeologiche lungo il corso del Torrente Tescio”, in Atti dell’Accademia Properziana del Subasio, Series VII, nn. 11-12, Assisi, 2008, pp. 385-415

11. See “Assisi al tempo del Santo. Gli archivi assisani. I documenti” 1959, p. 108

12. See Andrea Czortek, “Frati Minori e comuni nell'Umbria del Duecento”, in “I francescani e la politica “, Officina di Studi Medievali, 2007, p. 258

13. See A. Settia, “ Fortificazioni di rifugio nell'Italia medievale, ricetti, bastite, cortine”, Società Studi Storici,  Cuneo, 2001, pp. 57-96

14. See R. Bernacchia, “Terre pubbliche, dissodamenti e fortificazioni alla bastia  del Cesano ( Secoli XII-XVII)” , Mondolfo, 2007, PP. 3-4

15. See G. Riganelli, “Il corridoio Bizantino nelle vicende storiche dell’Umbria altomedievale”, in “Il corridoio Bizantino e la via Amerina”, 1999, p. 133

16. See , “Analecta Umbra”, in “ Bollettino della Regia deputazione di storia patria per l'Umbria”, Perugia, 1897, Vol III, pp.. 589-590

17. See A. Cristofani, “Delle storie d'As[s]isi libri sei”,1866, p. 125

18. See A. Fabbi,  “Antichità Umbre ...”, 1971, p. 185

19. On the effects of the papal domination in Umbria,  See  R. Paci, “La ricomposizione sotto la Santa Sede…” in “Potere e società negli stati regionali italiani del ‘500 e del ‘600”, 1978, pp. 229 ff.

20. See M. Sensi, “Alle radici della committenza santuariale”, in “Santuari cristiani d'Italia”,  edited by M. Tosti, École française de Rome,  2003, p. 218