Plaster Plaque of the Old Medieval Town of Atina Italy © Tonino Bernardelli

© Tonino Bernardell

Atina From The Medieval Era 

Following the fall of the Roman Empire came a period known as the Dark Ages.  The Val di Comino suffered repeated invasions and looting by the Barbarians.  Firstly by the Visigoths in 421 and then by the Ostrogoths. Atina’s troubled history continued over the centuries.  In 589 AD the town was laid waste and many of its citizens massacred during an attack led by Zottone the Duke of Benevento.  

Atina or “Atinem” was first documented in the 7th century which was defined as a fortress on the extreme border between the Roman Duchy and the southern territories of the Longobards. It was strategically positioned to defend the southern entrance into the Val di Comino,  the route connecting Cassino with Sora.

In 702 AD it was siezed by the Lombards and became part of the duchy of Benevento. In 774 it was ruled by the Princes of Capua and the Counts of Marsi. In 858 Atina was sold to the duke Guido of Spoleto together with Sora, Arpino and Vicalvi for the help received against Landolfo. From the time when the Longobards were converted to Catholism, there followed a period of reorganisation which was led by the Benedictines of Montecassino. However this progress was interrupted by the arrival of the Saracens in the early 900’s who attacked and looted the area.  Then, in 938, the Hungarians invaded this territory.

From the end of the tenth century Atina formed part of the Lombard Principality of Capua and was ruled by the Counts of Marsi.  Aligerno, the abbot of Monte Cassino  began an ambitious program of rebirth, through colonization and fortification, with the foundation of new settlements throughout the territory.  In the first half of the 11th century, while the town was a fief of Landone, Count of Marsi a substantial nucleus developed in the Colle district of Atina.

In the 11th century, while the city was a fief of Landone, Count of Marsi two significant new settlements developed. One was built on the Hill of Santo Stefano, and another was constructed in the district of Colle delle Torre. Each were protected by circuits of strong fortified walls and watch towers. In another settlement the Church of Santa Maria was built, which became the most important church of Atina.

Note – The remains of the castrum of Santo Stefano can still be seen today.

The fortifications of Cancello were constructed to defend the passage, sited along the old Roman road (Via Sferracavali). This divided the territory of San Benedetto from the State of Alvito. There was a gateway with an iron gate which at one time was used as a customs point. Later it became part of a very strong defense system consisting of the arched gateway and tall fortified walls with two towers. and can be seen on many maps of the early Middle Ages.

In 1140 the Norman King Roger II entered Atina during the military campaign for the re-conquest of the Kingdom of Naples. He granted Atina special privileges and redefined the boundaries. He entrusted the government of Atina to Francesco and Andrea of the family of Aquino.

In 1195, Henry VI of Swabia,  of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, took possession of the Kingdom of Naples. He donated Atina to Roffredo, Abbot of Montecassino. In March of the same year, the Abbot granted the people of Atina a privilege, a royal Charta Libertatium of the the town. However in 1229, following disputes between Emperor Frederick II and the Papacy, Atina was removed from Montecassino. In 1231 a severe earthquake struck the area causing considerable damage to the church of Santa Maria.

In 1248 Frederick gave the castrum of Atina to his loyal subject Adenolfo d’Aquino. Following the fall of the Swabian dynasty and the conquest of the French King Charles I of Anjou and granted the town of Atina to Giacomo di Capua. It was then inherited by the Counts of Cantelmo and became  part of the Duchy of Alvito, however in various ways it maintained a certain degree of autonomy.

The Earthquake and the Building of the New Town of Atina

 On the morning of the 9th September 1349 a catastrophic earthquake hit the Val di Comino which left Atina in ruins once again. The following year the remaining citizens were afflicted by a terrible pestilence. Those that survived vowed to rebuild the town with the help of the Cantlemo family on the original site of the old Roman town.  

The new settlement was built to a triangular plan. The Dukes Palace was built by Rostaino Cantelmo, at the highest point on Monte Massico, on the site of a Roman fortification. The town was guarded by fortified walls.

In the second half of the fourteenth century a new town wall was built guarded by numerous towers. There were three gateways leading into the town: Porta Assunta to the south, Porta San Marco to the west and Porta Santa Maria to the north. Each of the gates was protected by a tower. The Porta Santa Maria is the only original gate that can be seen today together with some remains of town walls and the Torre del Terrappio. Within the town there were two churches: San Giovanni and Santa Croce (which later became renamed as San Carlo). 

Porta Santa Maria

Porta Santa Maria in Atina © Louise Shapcott

Medieval Buildings

Today there is still much to indicate the town’s importance in Medieval times. The elegant 14th century Cantelmo’s Palazzo Ducale which now houses the Town Hall of Atina.  This has a the Chapel of San Onofrio and some interesting frescoes depicting life at court during the Middle Ages.

Medieval Tower of Cancello

In 1411 King Ladislaus of Naples defended his Kingdom from the Angevin troops of King Louis II, led by Muzio Attendolo, at the battle of Roccasecca. At the fortifications at Cancello the French found it very hard to breach the formidible defense line. King Ladislaus put up a heroic resistance before finally being crushed by the French.

The Cantelmo continued to govern Atina in the 15th century, overcoming the difficulties due to the alternation of territorial government between the Angevins and the Aragonese. After the Cantelmo’s the possession of Atina passed on to a succession of feudal lords and barons: to the Carafa family, the Borgia’s, the Navarro’s, the Cardona’s and Matteo di Capua.  In 1595, the year in which the valley was bought by Count Matteo Taverna and entrusted to the Gallio family. During this time Atina was described as being “full of people” with its natives being “suitable and affectionate” and who took pleasure in the “hunting of hawks and goshawks, even breeding enough to sell to others“.  “….. lived in this city or land, people of literature and manner”.

Old Print of Atina by Marianna Dionigi - Archivio Biblioteca di Atina

Under the rule of the Gallio’s the town flourished and developed new churches and noble palaces were built. As the population grew in size the town began to extend beyond the constraints of the medieval walls and there were also improvements to roads such as the Via Sferracavalli. Tolomeo Il Gallio also ordered  the building of a bridge to span the River Melfa. The bridge was supported by five pillars and had four arches. It was built using materials from the remains of old Roman monuments that lined the road in the vicinity of San Marciano.

The population of Atina continued to increase. By 1797 there were 4034 inhabitants.  At the end of the 19th century the urban fabric developed along Via San Nicola and Via Sferracavalli.

Since ancient times there had been small bands of criminal outlaws or brigands in this area. They would prey on unsuspecting travelers during their journeys through the mountainous terrain of the Val di Comino in Ciociaria. However brigandage came to its peak following the Unification of Italy. 

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