Montalbano Elicona

No early history of Montalbano Elicona is recorded, but that there was a Byzantine fort here seems likely - certainly the church within the fortress bears several Byzantine features.  Montalbano was first mentioned in the 1130s.  By 1154 Edrisi recorded ‘The fortress (qal'a) of Montalbano, set amidst high mountains which are harsh to climb and descend, has no equal for the number of cattle, honey and other agricultural products'.  Nearly a hundred years later the town is said to have rebelled against Frederick II (d.1250) in 1232.  The rebellion was not successful and before 1240 the castle was included amongst the royal fortresses that were to be kept in repair - Statutum de reparatione castrorum.  Either Frederick or his son, King Manfred (d.1266), apparently gave the castle to one Boniface Lancia.  The likelihood is that it was Frederick who made the gift as the castle was not mentioned in the list of castles exempt from taxation drawn up in 1239.  The defeat of the Lancias with their relative King Manfred in 1266 probably brought the castle back under the royal control of the new Angevin monarch, Charles I (d.1285).  Certainly work was done on the site in 1270 when a cistern within the fortress received an epigraph with that date.

Montalbano then remained in royal hands throughout the fourteenth century when King Frederick III (1296-1337) was a frequent visitor.   The castle was recorded as having a chapel inside dedicated to the SS. Trinity in 1358.  By 1408 the land and castle of Montalbano had passed to Berengar Cruilles.  In 1921 it was passed to the municipality of Montalbano who began restoration on the fortress.

The castle is a most unusual structure in most respects.  It occupies the top of a hill about 3,000' above sea level.  The very summit of the hill is occupied by a castrum bearing some resemblance to that at Calatabiano.  It forms a rectangle about 80' long by 50' wide.  To the north is a pentagonal tower, while to the south, within the bailey is a square tower.  As the north tower is pentagonal it has been assigned to the work of Frederick II (d.1250) in imitation of the keep at Giuliana.  The Montalbano tower appears to be of the same build as the adjoining main rectangle wall, but this has been much rebuilt as is shown by the numerous putlogs in the thin southwest wall.  The south tower is roughly 25' square and seems to predate the main rectangular enclosure as it does not align with it.  The tower was much rebuilt in 2018 and there is a cistern just north of it in the rectangular enclosure.  The base of the tower consists of an irregular rubble build and rises up to the height of the later rectangular enclosure, above which the masonry is much more coursed, being 21st century in origin.

Entrance to the castrum was gained from the southeast from the lower ward and also from the northwest next to the pentagonal tower, where a restored Romanesque archway is set in the much rebuilt wall of the rectangular castrum.  This contains many Roman tiles, but they are not used as levelling courses as seems to be standard in Byzantine work.  The rebuilt portions of the pentagonal tower also has Roman tiles set in a similar irregular manner to the original portions of the castrum, but the main stones are much more orderly than the original sections.  The southwest face of the castrum has been heavily rebuilt and is studded with putlog holes, which suggests that this rebuild is medieval.  The base of the south corner of the enclosure is possibly older, having great uncut quoins and much Roman tiles used higgledy piggledy in the construction.  Alternatively this might be a late and poor quality repair.

All but surrounding the south tower is the main surprisingly rectangular lower bailey.  Such unflanked wards tend generally to be late medieval and non-defensive, viz. the court next to Tretower castlein Wales.  The Montalbano ward is roughly 200' southwest to northeast and 170' northwest to southeast and has been much rebuilt over the last century.  Within is a square Byzantine chapel with apse to the east.  The nave to the west has gone as have most of the frescos, but typical Byzantine architrave doorways exist to north and south (the north one possibly being original) and the Romanesque chancel arch survives in its upper portions, but not its jambs.  Similar architrave doorways with pointed relieving arches are to be found in the walls of the lower ward and at various other castles which are listed under Rometta.  What is strange about the chapel makeup is that there is no Roman tile used in the construction, apart from in the rebuild at roof level.  The bulk of the lower level consists of unlaid rubble with fine quoins.

The chapel may suggest that there was a lower ward during the Byzantine period, although all of the courtyard area has been much altered by the Jesuits in the twentieth century.  Despite this, it is to be presumed that some of the castrum must be as old or older than the church.  Certainly the masonry style would suggest this with much Roman tile being used as filling in the church as well as in the castrum.  However, the tiles are not used as levelling courses in the usual Byzantine manner.  Perhaps then the Byzantine architrave doors are reset, certainly the doors in the interior of the lower ward appear quite modern.  Within the courtyard there are many rectangular window at first floor level which appear original and may be thirteenth century.

In the ground floor of the bailey are impressive crossbow loops over 6' high covering 3/4 of the castle circuit.  Above these are residential windows and although these appear later externally, the interior Romanesque embrasure might be original.  In the upper floors there are shoulder headed doorways which normally date from 1250 to 1350.  The ward walls are made of random rubble and the odd Roman tile here and there seems to be more repair work, than original design.  The deeply splayed crossbow loops also look thirteenth century in design.  Quite possibly the bulk of this ward therefore dates to this period, the castrum above being older.  There is a first floor doorway leading into the internal buildings from the south.  It is a typical ‘Byzantine' architrave entrance and looks of ancient provenance.  Presumably then these Byzantine doorways were reused in the thirteenth century or later.

Within the lower enclosure is another cistern, while entrance seems to have been via a hole in the wall towards the west side of the northern wall, although the current rectangular gateway seems eighteenth century or later.  The inner arch is rounded and looks suspiciously thirteenth century, being similar to those found at say Rhuddlan castle in Wales as well as probably twelfth century examples at Gisors in Normandy.  The curtain is equipped with both battlements and wallwalk.

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


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