Salemi was known as Alicia (Halyciae) in 272 BC when it went over to the Roman side in the war against Carthage.  The town then followed the same history as the rest of Sicily until 827 when it was conquered by the Arabs who gave it its current name of Salemi.  The castle is first mentioned in the 1154 Book of Roger.  This describes Salemi as ‘a castle situated in an excellent position'.  Quite clearly it existed by this date.  A fact that may be corroborated by the epigraphic inscription engraved on the upper architrave of one of the windows of the keep.  This commences with a Maltese cross on a separate square stone and then has the inscription in Lombardic letters IC·N 
······ .  This could be deciphered in many ways.  The most common reading is I(esus) C(hristus) N(azarenus) C(rucifixus) R(ex) I(udeorum) - Jesus Christ of Nazareth, crucified, King of the Jews.  Another common reading is I(n) C(hristi) N(omine) C(omes) R(ogerius) I(nstruxit); which might translate as In the Name of Christ, Count Roger Ordered this.  Considering the spacing and as the IC is obviously linked together, the former reading seems most likely. Alternatively it could be any other acronym and have virtually unlimited meanings.  Regardless of what it means,  and it is meaningless to read too much into this text, at best it only dates some structure in the vicinity to before 1130 when Count Roger (1105-30) became King Roger I (1130-54).  This is due to the architrave does not belong to an original window and therefore was inserted into the tower many years after its completion.

Regardless of its foundation date, the castle must have been well over 100 years old when Frederick II (1198-1250) is alleged to have stayed here.  King Peter (1282-85) certainly resided at Salemi on 25 October 1282, while assuming the Sicilian Crown after the Vespers.  In 1296 the castle was sold by Frederick III (1295-1337) to Blasco Alagona (d.1301).  It was later in the hands of Henry Abbate, though whether father (d.1266+) or son (d.1327+) is uncertain.  From the Abbates the castle passed to Domenica Alvira de Aversa.  For this reason the fortress became known as Sala di Madonna Alvira, a name it kept until the fifteenth century.

In 1325 the fortress was held for King Frederick III (1296-1337) when the Angevins invaded Sicily and took this fortress after their first conquest of Mazara and then swept on taking Sciacca, Caltabellotta, Corleone, Cattolica, Agrigento, Licata, Naro, Terranova, Caltagirone, Scicli, Modica, Syracuse, Noto, Buccheri, Ferla, Palazzolo, Avola, Ragusa, Augusta, Lentini and finally Ursino at Catania.  The castles were eventually recovered and the Angevins repulsed, but the damage done to the kingdom was enormous.

In 1359, during the civil war, the castle was taken from troops loyal to Frederick IV (1355-77), before Frederick himself with Count Francesco Ventimiglia (d.1391) arrived and proceeded to take the castle back for the Crown.  During this confused fighting Richard Abbate of Erice and Trapani was killed here.  In 1375 King Frederick gave the fortress to Atrale Alagona (d.1419) and from him it passed to the counts of Moncada.  On 2 April 1392, King Martin (1392-1409) and Queen Mary stayed at the castle en route from Trapani to their coronation at Palermo.  At this time the fortress was owned by Antonio Moncada (d.1411+), but was confiscated on his rebellion in 1397 and passed to Michael Imbo and then through various hands.  The castle remained inhabited and an inventory of 1630 includes a listing for a painting by Van Dyck.  The Italian tricolour made its first appearance here, placed on the keep by Garibaldi in 1860.  In 1968 an earthquake nearly brought the keep down which necessitated its being wrapped with iron belts to stop its collapse.

The castle stands on a commanding summit with the town of Salemi huddling under its protective walls.  It consists of a simple rectangle with a tower at each corner, although the northeast tower has gone, possibly having collapsed in the seventeenth century.  The 2 southern square towers project boldly to the south, although neither project much to cover the east or west fronts, the easternmost tower actually being slightly flanked by the curtain!  Further, the towers are of different dimensions and styles.  The southwest tower has a single window seat to the west, while the southeastern one has loops to east and west and a single window to the south as well as mural stair in it's inner wall.  The smaller tower only has some internal, modern stairs and has a less elaborate plinthing.  Further the larger tower has a 2 external offsets, while both have several crossbow loops, interspersed with windows on different floor levels.

In the northwest corner stands a boldly projecting round keep of 3 storeys.  This is entered via a curving external stair to the east.  This leads through a recessed doorway into a short passageway from which stairs run up to the next floor and the octagonal interior is reached.  This has 5 loops, one of which is blocked.  Each floor is marked by an external offset and on the summit one merlon survives with a loop looking inward to the castle.  There is no access from the keep to the curtain wallwalks.  The Lombardic inscription above the north window must be a later insertion as the base of this window consists of an older crossbow loop.

Slightly off centre in the internally thickened west wall is a hole in the wall gateway protected by a portcullis.  The south side of the enceinte contains the much reduced hall block, while a further building stood in the northeast corner and is now reduced almost to its foundations.  This has a dog legged mural passage in the northeast corner which led to a building outside the current enceinte.  Loops in the other 3 curtains to the hall show that these used to have buildings standing against them.  The castle masonry varies from laid rubble to well coursed stonework and even some ashlar.

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


Copyright©2023 Paul Martin Remfry