The history of Ispica (and of its name) is a fascinating aspect of this Sicilian town, situated on a hill south-east of the island, about 200 meters above sea level and six kilometers from the sea.

Much of the information that tradition handed down to us about Ispica has been subject to important revision in recent years, which has changed the face of the ancient “Ispica” which now has a quite different look.

Studies of Ispica history and origins

So what did scholars from the 17th and the contemporary period say about Ispica? We can start by the name of the city, because from that we can then derive the most important historical facts of Ispica. Huberto Goltzio wrote:

“[...] formerly 'Yspia' or 'Ypsa' was located on the Pachino promontory, whose name is derived from ‘Ispicae Fundus’ ('Ispica Farm’), that then in vulgar tongue  was corrupt in ‘Spaccaforno’. [...]”  [1].

Thus, according to Goltzio, there would have been an ancient town known as  "Yspia," which later would be called "Ispicae Fundus", a name which, in medieval times, would become “Spaccafurnus.” This tradition was perpetuated by all scholars in past centuries. V. Amico told that:

"[...] 'Spaccaforno' is now in the district of Modica (. ..) It was called the 'Ispicae fundus' by Maurolico, Arezio, Baudrand, Pirri, where it was also called 'Hispice fundum'; it was called 'Spaccafurnus' in a bull of Alexander III (1105-1181) in the year 1169, by Gaetani and Maurolico, who believes a word is corrupted by 'Ispicae fundus'; then  it was called 'Spaccafurnum' by Cluverio and Arezio, and 'Spacca furnus' by Fazello [...]". [2]

It 's true that in a bull of Pope Alexander III Ispica was called "Spaccafurnum":

"In a bull of Pope Alexander III, written in year 1169 we find 'Spaccafurnum', scored among the cities included in the Diocese of Syracuse, which proves the existence of that land in the twelfth century" [3].

However, how ancient was this site? It’s clear that the caves of Ispica were inhabited by Sicules since prehistory, and then in Greek and Roman times (as also reflected by the finds of Roman coins), but the new studies, especially those of A. Messina, have clearly and unequivocally demonstrated  a very important fact, namely that the name "Ispica" was "unknown" in ancient times. A. Messina writes:

"[...] The name of Ispica, unknown to the ancient toponymy, is due to the Byzantine locative form "eis Pegàs" (“to the springs”), which is well suited to a site where the springs emerge to the head of the quarry conducted through appropriate horizontal karst water supply. One of these, now dried up and buried, is the "Grotto of the Lady" (...) The source retains considerable traces of a late medieval assiduity [...]" [4].

The real history of Ispica

So what is the "true history" of Ispica? The "new face" of Ispica has come from studies by G. Stefano and S. Fiorilla, who have traced the main stages of the town, providing a historical overview of the area. Meanwhile, the "context" is one of the most dramatic, and characterized by the extreme insecurity of the local populations due to the advance of the Arabs in Sicily.

Faced with this danger, we are present at the phenomenon of a "return" to the so-called "troglodytism", for which people returned to live in caves. Ispica was therefore a "troglodytic  city", characterized by:

"[...] a type of settlement [that] develops in the terraced walls of spurs at the confluence of two quarries and culminates with a brick citadel. The internal road is ensured by winding paths, ramps and steps cut into the rock. It shows some  affinities with the Berber towns of the Tunisian south-east and of the Lybian Jebel Nefusa and it is a deeply rooted settlement, often arising from the  Byzantine 'kastra' and still active today. This category includes the towns of Modica, Scicli, Ragusa but even Ispica and Pantalica [...]" [5].

According to the studies of G. Stefano and S. Fiorilla:

"[...] Cava Ispica was known to travellers since the 18th century and inhabited in some parts up to the early 20th century; it was also devastated by the 1693 earthquake that involved the eastern Sicily. The town was therefore abandoned, like most of the rock settlements of the Mountains Iblei probably due to change in landscape due to the earthquake. According to sources, the oldest city in the area of Ispica is 'Isbarha', which (...) could be one of the centers of the Islamic period, integrated and re-evaluated by the Normans (...) 'Isbarha' had already lost its importance in 1169, perhaps because of the persecutions of the Lombards in 1161 or the earthquake of 1169 or the hostility of the Norman nobility of Modica, interested in local enlargements...

...Already in the Bull of some properties confirmed to the diocese by Pope Alexander III in 1169, 'Isbarha' no longer appears, seemingly replaced by the 'Tenimentum Spicafurni'. By 1282 neither 'Spicafurnum' nor 'Isbarha' are mentioned among the centers that are required to pay the ‘Fodro’ to Peter of Aragon, but only Moac (Modica) and Sicli (Scicli) are mentioned. These data seem to confirm 'Isbarha - Ispica' was abandoned, absorbed by Modica, who gained prominence, while 'Spaccafurnum' was considered mainly for the agricultural potential of the territory [...] " [6]

Recent centuries in Ispica

Coming now to more recent times, before the earthquake of 1693 the village was within the Cava d'Ispica. From here the Sicules, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans had passed through - it is with the Normans that we have the first written documents about Ispica.

The Arab rule lasted until the 11th century, when the entire south-eastern Sicily was conquered by the Count Roger. After the  Swabian and Angevin age, in the 14th century Ispica was a possession of Berengar (or Berlinghero) of Monterosso, who gave it to Queen Eleanor, wife of Frederick II of Aragon (1272-1337).

Frederick 's son, Peter II (1305-1342), granted it to his brother William. It was then occupied in the 14th century by Francesco Prefoglio, and later became part of the County of Modica, and it become the possession of Andrea Chiaramonte (died in 1392).

The Statella were the last lords of the town, which ruled it until the 19th century. This included the perid of the earthquake of 1693 which marked a profound transformation of the town, which was moved to the plains outside the quarry, although the ancient part was not completely abandoned.

The family of Statella marked the history of the town, especially for the construction of many churches. From 1812 it was included in the district of Modica and the province of Siracusa.

In 1927 Ispica was assigned to the new Province of Ragusa and in 1987 it was awarded the title of City. It has a plan that dates from the 18th century, but it has one part that is of medieval shape, close to a cliff where there are the ruins of a fortress, the so-called "Fortilitium".

Origins of the name Spaccafurnus

The etymology of "Spaccafurnus" also deserves  a note. However the term written in this way, according to the vulgar tongue, is deceptive. G. Stefano and S. Fiorilla quote from medieval documents the exact name of "Spaccaforno" (which preceded the modern name "Ispica”). They do not write "Sp-a-ccafurnus" with the "a", but "Sp-i-cafurnus" (with the "i"). Which perhaps could do much to make sense of the etymology of "Spaccaforno”.

"Spica" in Latin is the "ear of wheat." About "furnus”, all ancient and modern scholars have noted that" furnus "is a corruption of the word “fundus", or "country-estate "," arable land ". This means that the "real" medieval name of "Spaccaforno" was just "Spica-fundus", which refers to the concept of a farming area, a "farm" ("fundus")  particularly rich in "ears" (Lat. "spicae").

Indeed, as noticed by G. Stefano and S. Fioravanti, the term "Spicafurni" referred to a territory more than a city. Other historians speak of "Tenimentum Sp-i-ca-furni" as an agricultural area rather than a specific place. For example, L. Catalioto writes that:

"in the nearby barony of Scicli the farmhouse of Cotali dominated that had belonged to Anselm de (...) Landolina. Anselmo was also landowner of the hamlet of Camertino, which was in 'Tenimentum ‘Spica-furni’" [7].

In passing we observe that, from the etymological point of view, the transition from "Spica" to "I-spica” is a very quick step, and perhaps the  “I”  might be a typical initial euphonic “I”, a phonetic phenomenon widely present in the early Italian language and its dialects; it is a linguistic phenomenon that is witnessed in Italy since the 14th century, and this in some terms starting with “S + consonant”, such as, “i-specie” (for ‘specie’), “I-spagnoli” (for ‘Spagnoli’ ["the Spaniards"]), “I-spagna” (for “Spagna”  [“Spain”].

The Latin word "Tenimentum" referred to could indicate either a "possession" or a "country estate" and a "land between certain boundaries." In Arabic "Tenimentum" was translated as "Rahal-Bahari," a term that has many similarities with "Is-Barha," or the old Arabic name of Ispica. With the term "Is-Barha," without further specification,  perhaps the Arabs marked not  any one possession, but "the" possession, or the 'big' “fundus’ that they were working. [8].

See the travel guide for Ispica if visiting the town.


1. See Huberto Goltzio, “Sicilia et Magna Graecia”, 1618, I, p. 12

2. "Dictionary of Sicily", edited by G. Di Marzo, Palermo, 1859, Vol. II: 540 note 1

3. See S. Salomone, “The Sicilian Provinces…”, Ragonisi, 1884: 129

4. See A. Messina, "The Rocky Churches in the ‘Noto’ Valley", 1994: 56). So the etymology of the name "Ispica" derives from the Byzantine expression  "eis Pegàs" ("to the sources")

5. See V. Salerno, “Il territorio Comunale di Modica (RG). Analisi quantitative e strumenti per una carta archeologica”, Tesi di Laurea, University of Siena, Academic Year 2004-2005:  27-29

6. See G. di Stefano-S. Fiorilla, “L’abitato rupestre nella Sicilia Sud-Orientale”, III Congresso Nazionale di Archeologia Medievale”, Firenze, All’Insegna del Giglio, 2003: 510-514, 510

7. see L. Catalioto, “Lands, barons and towns in Sicily in the age of Charles I of Anjou”, Intilla, 1995: 119

8. About the meaning of "tenimentum" See P. Jones, "The “Rollum Bullarum”, in  “Le terre del capitolo della cattedrale di Lucca (900-1200)”, in P. Jones , “Economia e società nell’Italia medievale”, Torino, Einaudi, 1980:283 and footnote 16