Colle San Vitale

Castronovo, lying immediately under the Byzantine fortress of Mount Kassar, has the look of a Byzantine fortress and is now known as Colle San Vitale.  It occupys a narrow position in the rocky crags above the town of the same name, although it is not like the battleship types described under Aci castle.  Certainly there appears to have been a burial place here in 570, for in that year the widow Placidia was laid to rest there under the inscription:


Excavations in the 1920s uncovered pottery from the fifth century BC right up to the sixteenth century AD, suggesting the castle had a long period of occupation.  It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that the site was chosen for its military strength at an early period and fortified by Byzantines and then Arabs.  To this end it may be the castle of Platani captured by the Muslims in 839-40 as it lies above this river and is in the vicinity of the other castles captured around the same time, viz. Corleone, Caltabellotta and possibly Geraci Siculo.  However, it does not seem likely that Castronovo was the same as the Platanum captured by Count Roger Hauteville (d.1101) in 1087 after the fall of Agrigento.  This is because Castronovo had already fallen to him.  The fortress of Mount Kassar seems to have fallen in 857/858.  Platanum is therefore more likely to have been Mussomeli.

In 1077 Count Roger (d.1101) took the opportunity of moving against Castronovo (Castrum-novum) which blocked his path southwards from Palermo towards Agrigento.  Its Muslim lord, Abdu-Beker, had ordered the local miller to be given a flogging, which led him to form a conspiracy with other disaffected citizens of the town.  Consequently they sent a messenger to Count Roger at Vicari asking him to come to their aid.  The Count marched and on reaching the castle found the miller and his accomplices on the mountain above the castle prepared to send a massive rock down onto the fortress and crush Abdu-Beker and his supporters.  As Roger arrived the lord and his men fled the castle with all the possessions they could carry and Roger took over the fortress, well rewarding those who had called him there.

This story shows that the castle was utilised by the Arabs, probably after they had expelled the Byzantines from the district.  After his bloodless victory, Count Roger seems to have passed the castle on to one of his followers, rather than retain it in his own hands.  Consequently it was held by Roger Barnaville in 1094 and his son Rinaldo in 1098.  By 1117 at the latest, and possibly as early as 1108, the castle was back under the control of the Hautevilles, as in that period Count Roger (d.1154) mentioned a church called St Maria of Castronovo on the mountain.  This was mentioned again in a papal bull of Pope Clement III (1187-91) on 13 December 1188.  This suggests that the associated castle was operational and under royal control at this time.  Certainly Roger granted this church to the church of St Maria la Bagnara in Calabria and such a grant implies physical occupation.

In 1154 Castronovo was recorded by Idrisi as Qasr nubu - Mount Kassar.  The Barnaville family seems to have died out before 1117, or it might be possible that they changed their surname to that of their main vill, for in the summer of 1156 the fortress may have been held by one Peter Castronovo who until May 1158 was joint Master Captain of Apulia for King William II (1154-66).  If he did hold the castle he may not have had any heirs for the fortress soon reverted to the Crown.

In 1188 Castronovo was recorded as a town (habitatus) and in 1257 it was recorded as in the royal domain.  With the expulsion of the Angevins in 1282 the castle passed out of royal control and in 1296 Castri Novi was held by Raphael d'Aurea or Doria.  At the time he was vice-admiral of the realm.  Recorded Dorias include Corrado I, Raffaele, Ottobono, Corrado II and Andreolo.  In 1302 King Frederick III (d.1337) was staying within the castle when news was brought to him from Sciacca of Robert Anjou's desire to end the war of the Sicilian Vespers.  This led to the treaty of Caltabellotta.  In the years leading up to 1330 Raphael was still lord of the land.

In 1355 the fortress was recorded as a fee called Castronovo and its land (castrum novum cum terra).  In 1357 Rainaldo Gabriele of Cammarata was ordered to recover the land and castle of Castronovo.  He presumably handed the castle onto Count Manfred III Chiaramonte of Modica (d.1391) who was holding it in 1374.  In 1375 Count Manfred restored the chapel as was recorded in a now lost inscription.  This was recorded in 1743 as stating:

Templum divi Georgi Graecorum, granciae basiliensium S. Stephani de Melia et divi Georgi de Troccolis, restauratum Manfredi Chiaramonte, domino Castinovi, AD. 1375.

Some 16 years later in June 1391, Manfred called the families of Alagona, Peralta and Ventimiglia to him to arrange the running of the country.  However, he died in Palermo in November and his allies falsely informed King Martin (d.1409) that the Chiaramontes were plotting to overthrow him and claimed clemency for themselves for having fallen in with the plot.  The king found their pleas reasonable, especially as Manfred had arrange the marriage of his daughter Constance to Ladislas of Naples, the hereditary enemy of the Aragonese kings of Sicily.  Consequently in 1392, King Martin arrived at Palermo with a powerful fleet and besieged Manfred's son and heir, Count Andrew, in Steri castle.  Andrew capitulated after a month and was executed on the first day of June before his own palace.  As a kind of postscript, young Ladislas of Anjou decided, in view of the Chiaramontes' disgrace, to divorce Constance a month later. The match no longer seemed a convenient one, but the Chiaramonte's never recovered.

Castronovo was then given to Guerau Queralt, but he rebelled and lost the castle in 1397.  In 1401 the castle and inhabited town appeared divided between the upper part or old land (Terravecchia) and the lower part where the current town now stands.  In 1407 Matthew Moncada was given the barony of Castronovo and after 1423 his son and successor, William Raymond Moncada restored the castle.  Queen Bianca of Navarre (d.1441) sheltered here in 1411 while pursued by followers of Count Bernard Cabrera of Modica who wished to marry her to Nicholas Peralta of Caltabellotta, a descendant of the Hautevilles and thereby restored Sicily to being an independent kingdom.  In 1415 King Ferdinand I of Aragon became king of Sicily and Blanche left the island never to return.  The castle seems to have remained in use for more than another 100 years, but by the seventeenth century had been abandoned.

The medieval settlement straddles the 2,460' high hill of San Vitale.  The fortified area runs about 500' from north to south and at its widest is some 130', although it is usually more like 50', reaching a mere 30' in the upper ward.  Starting from the south the defences consist of an outer ward about 150' long and some 50' wide tapering to only about 30' at the south end.  It ended just a few yards short of an ancient building straddling the plateau end.  Traces of wall foundations, no more than 3' wide, remain to east and west running down from the main castle ward.  There is no ditching, but the probably original approach path lies to the east of the ward and feeds directly into the middle ward without entering this lower bailey, which does not appear to have been entered from the middle ward to the north.  Perhaps it was merely a corral of some sort. 

South of the lower ward is the east to west orientated building, some 35' by 25' with an extension of 35'x8'.  It is made of a typical ‘Byzantine' stone mix, with roughly coursed stones between Roman tile levelling layers.  It was originally entered from the south via a large Romanesque doorway which has been infilled by a much smaller portal.  This entrance led into a rectangular chamber which opened to the east into a small square chamber.  This in turn led to more chambers, 2 to the north and one to the south.  All these smaller chambers are additions to the original building making it L shaped.  The masonry is in a similar style.  As a Byzantine funerary inscription of 570 was found built into the wall of this building it has been assumed that it was the church of St George of Greece which was recorded here in 1150.  Yet the fact that the stone was built into the fabric of the church does not show that it comes from it.  In fact the church in the main castle ruins is certainly a church and has the triple apse so favoured by Greek worshippers and this may too suggest that this was a Byzantine church.  However, the repair of the building by the count of Modica in 1375 as related above, would suggest that this building was the church.

The central bailey of Castronovo is an odd mix of buildings and 3 courtyards.  The main buildings are to the south and consist of 2 large blocks.  To the west is a 60'x32' hall block whose ground floor is full of soil.  East of this is the castle chapel, also about 60' long, but only 25' wide and with much inferior wall thickness, about 3' compared to 6'.  Between the 2 buildings was the main entrance into the castle which was partially shielded by the lower bailey curtain wall coming in towards the gate at an angle.  The junction is unfortunately lost.  Possibly it joined to the southwest corner of the church, making the entrance to the middle ward via a dog leg.  The northern block has a fine plinth to the south made of high quality ashlar at the corners, though this has been repaired badly in places, probably recently.  The upper portion of the wall consists of badly laid rubble interspaced with Roman tiles.  There are some loops at this level, but they are badly decayed.  The embrasures are Romanesque and there are remnants of the wallwalk at the summit, reached from steps to the north.  This suggests that the building stands to its full height.  A single window overlooking the cliff to the east is large and rectangular and was once closed with bars.  It has a Romanesque embrasure.  On the other side of the main gateway is the chapel.

The chapel, divided into a separate chancel and nave, is much more impressive than the church of St George at the foot of the castle.  This is some 70' long by 30' wide and lies over a vaulted chamber, some of which has collapsed.  The chancel is some 10' wider than the nave and is partially separated from the nave by a later wall with remnants of a tall, thin chancel arch.  Again the structure is made of loosely coursed rubble interspersed with Roman tiles and containing Romanesque embrasures.  To the east are 3 pointed arches set within an earlier triple semi-circular apse which projects beyond the line of the eastern enceinte.  The main walls are slightly under 4' thick and are generally unmilitary in outlook.  The east end is also heavily buttressed, overhanging as it does the steep scarp down towards the town below where the frescoes that once adorned this chapel are now said to rest in the town church.

Running 70' north from the chancel/nave junction is a rectangular building which has been much ruined - its curtain wall being only 3' wide and its basement mostly filled with debris.  This ends at near right angles to another rectangular structure, this one running east to west and having a 5' thick wall to the north. This chamber is 30' north to south and 55' east to west and has a 30 degree fall of land to the east within it.  A half buried rounded arch in the west wall of this building suggests that much of this slope is actually fallen debris.

At the western end the thick curtain, which projects a few feet beyond the western end of the building, makes an awkward junction with an apparently earlier wall that makes up part of a trapezoid tower.  This odd structure, some 22' east to west by 18' north to south, has been much damaged and rebuilt, but still stands some 20' high in parts.  It also has a pink tinge lacking elsewhere at the fortress.  Unfortunately the west side of this is mostly gone, but there are no surviving apertures in its remains, although there is an offset at first floor level indicating that it was once floored.  A series of 3 rectangular buildings ran southwards from the tower, but these are now reduced to foundations.  At the south end of these 2 crosswalls divided the upper part of the site off from the bulk of the castle to the south.

From the northeast corner of the tower a 5' thick curtain runs northwest for a further 130' and made up the eastern wall of 2 or 3 long chambers of which only traces of the foundations survive.  The wall, which rises to the north, is built of a mixture of high quality rubble stones laid as a poor ashlar and rubble interspaced with Roman tiles.  The more ashlar quality work could well be repairs from the 1980s.  About two thirds of the way along the wall there is a sudden 6' increase in height where there may be a small chamber built into the wall at wall top height, although this could be due to repair works or be the site of steps up due to the height increase of the wall.  This would mean that there was originally a wallwalk on this curtain.  Externally this wall is at least 20' high and contains many putlong holes.

This east curtain leads up to an impressive crag which is climbed by another thin curtain that then runs along the top of the crag.  As there is no return wall to the west it would appear this may have led to another structure.  The positioning of the wall, just east of a rock face low down the crag, may suggest that it covered a stairway, like the one up the boss of rock at nearby Caltabellotta.  As the crag reaches the top of the rise, over 180' beyond the castle proper, the boss of rock dies out into a grass covered slope.  At the top of this rise, on a platform well below the summit of the mountain, stands the ruin of a 21' diameter round tower.  This had a small rectangular building or court on its west side with a 25'x12½' vaulted cistern beneath it, but the north part of this above ground is now gone.  This little fortlet would appear to the heart of the castle, or at least its watchtower commanding views to the north denied to the castle.  Aerial photography would suggest that the tower was connected to the crag via a thin curtain with a 50 degree corner in it.  This is an odd design and it should be noted that at other similar Byzantine castles, viz Caltanissetta and Gagliano Castelferrato, the isolated tower keeps tend to be square and set on their own natural mottes within the defences.  Quite likely this portion of the fortress was built after the fall of the castle in 1075 when it was attacked from above by the miller.  Certainly this would explain the tower being round, rather than rectangular like the rest of the fortress.

From the junction of the east curtain with the probable stairway up the crag, there must have been a gateway of some description which allowed access to the pathway coming up the side of the rock from the NW.  From the short, 30' across north wall of the castle, another wall ran back along the cliff top marking the west side of the fortress.  This wall is merely barely discernable foundations running SE where the ward is widest at the northern end, but becomes far more substantial at the neck of the castle opposite the rhomboid tower, after which it turns directly to the south.  Although it is only 3' thick it is built in a typical Roman fashion and closely mirrors the style of the walling of the Carausian curtain at Pevensey castle in England which was probably built in the 290s AD.

Back within the rectangular court of the main ward a series of 4 rectangular buildings ran alongside the curtain, which reaches a thickness of some 5'.  A flight of steps probably ran up to the wallwalk at the entrance to the upper ward.  The lower courses of these still survive.

Why not join me at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry