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
HIC REQUIESCIT IN PACE PLACIDIA UNIVERA QUAE VIXIT ANN. PLM XXXV PC BASILII VC PER IV INDICTIONE ANN. O XX GIII
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 1086 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.
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
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 N-S 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 E-W 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 SW
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.
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
E-W and having a 5' thick wall to the north. This chamber is 30' N-S
and 55' E-W 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' E-W by 18' N-S, 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 NE corner of the tower a 5' thick curtain runs NW 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.
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
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
Paul Martin Remfry