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The Island of Lipari

the island of Lipari

The Island of Lipari is one of the most famous and the biggest of Aeolian Islands. The crystal clear sea and the characteristic streets are certainly an important attraction for tourists who decide to spend time in Sicily.

Origins of name – Lipari

The etymology of the name Lipari is uncertain: according to some it would be reconnected to the Greek term λιπαρός (liparós), in the sense of “fat, unctuous” and, by extension, “fertile”. According to others it could derive from the language of a pre-European Sicilian population, and be linked to the free theme, meaning “stone block”.

According to Greek mythology, instead, the island takes its name from Liparo, colonizer of the island. Liparo, son of Ausone (in turn son of Ulysses) joined with a group of warriors to reach the island that will take his name, where he founded a flourishing colony, introducing agriculture and reigning for many years.

Punic wars in Lipari

The beginning of the first Punic war saw Rome suffering greatly due to the lack of a fleet capable of competing in Carthage for maritime dominance and occupation of all strategic points of the western Mediterranean, one of which was obviously Lipari and its archipelago. During the 260 BC 120 ships were built by the Romans and in the same year, before the whole fleet was available, the consul Cneo Cornelio Scipione tried to conquer Lipari. In his harbor (Battle of the Lipari Islands) 17 Roman ships and 20 Carthaginian triremes, under the command of Boode, met with a fatal outcome for the Romans. These lost all the ships and their crews and the same consul following this defeat was named Cneo Cornelio Scipione Asina.

According to Roman usage the defeat was not left unpunished and the following year the consul Caio Duilio returned with all the available fleet, about 100 ships equipped with what today would be identified as a secret weapon: the “crow”. It was a mobile walkway equipped with grapples that, in the vicinity of the opposing ships, allowed them to be hooked and to ensure that the Roman hoplites could transfer and transform the naval battle into the most famous battle of the terrestrial type. The Roman and the Carthaginian fleet arriving from Palermo, 130 triremes strong, clashed in front of Capo Milazzo in what has gone down in history for being the first naval battle won by the Romans.

Not many other facts interest the Aeolian Islands during the Punic wars. The Romans in fact, not yet fully aware of the importance of maritime domination, soon left the Aeolian islands dealing with land battles with the well-known historical events. However, they did not forget the previous Aeolian alliance with Carthage and Lipari was put under siege, at a time of relative calm and, after months of resistance, razed to the ground in 251 BC. Following the Roman custom of incorporating the conquered people without crushing their culture, or perhaps being still alive the memory of the episode of the golden crater that took place about 150 years earlier, or even by virtue of the lack of commitment shown in fighting alongside Carthage, the Liparese were left free men with the right to coin money and with all the customs of Greek origin still alive.

Pax Romana

The Roman period was not particularly brilliant for the Aeolian people who, little by little, slipped into oblivion consequent to the loss of its strategic importance. In fact, the more the Mediterranean became “Mare nostrum”, the less it was of interest to the Romans to maintain this position for purposes of traffic control in the Strait between Sicily and Calabria. So, in a short time, all the customs from Greek democracy based on the “polis” were replaced with the laws and customs of the Romans. The old privileges fall one by one and Lipari becomes one of the 35 decuman cities of the Province of Sicily: we remember here that the latter was the first of the Roman Provinces and as such was governed by a Praetor with the right to “imperium”. As a decuman city, Lipari had to pay tithing to his censor, who responded to the quaestor of Syracuse and the latter directly to the magistrate. It was also required to pay the portorium, a tax of 5% of the value of the exported goods which, at the time, were substantially reduced only to the alum. However, even if it fell into second place from the splendours of the Greek era, Lipari maintained the rank of city with its own government (senate) corresponding to the municipal administration of today, which must be considered as a favorable treatment because it could have ended up at the level of state-owned censorship city (ager publicum). The Roman period was a quiet period but not very flourishing both due to the damage and devastation suffered during the Punic wars and to the volcanic eruptions that, in the last centuries before Christ, were particularly vivid. In this period in fact, among other minor phenomena, there was the eruption of a new crater on the island of Vulcano which gave rise to the promontory now known as Vulcanello (183 BC).

In this period it was probably buried under the pyroclastic flow the port of the city, located in Sottomonastero. The archaeological material found in situ has allowed us to date to II a.C. this event. Little by little, the port structure will be totally abandoned and covered by the mass of the residual floods of the adjacent river, until the Roman republican port structure disappeared, recovered in 2008 during the works to refurbish today’s port.

The Symbol of Lipari

The symbol of the island of Lipari is a decoration from the Baroque period, characteristic of the corners of wrought-iron balconies, to which an important protective power is traditionally attributed. It is represented by two Norman swords that cut through the four winds (depicted in the cardinal points of Arab crescents), joined by a central nail (or “large pin”). The trace of the Baroque decorum that adorned the Spanish shields dates back to the latter.

The Baths of San Calogero

The Baths of San Calogero is a thermal resort located on the island of Lipari, in the Aeolian Islands, in Sicily. The current establishment, which rises a few kilometers from the inhabited centers, probably came into operation in 1872, for the exploitation of thermal springs known and used since ancient times. Since 1975 the plant has been closed and since 2011 has been used as a museum and exhibition area.

The Baths of San Calogero are undoubtedly the most important thermal phenomenon on the island, but not the only one: still today there are springs in the locality of Bagno Secco and in the town of Lipari, furthermore there are others in Pignataro. Even the town of Acquacalda remembers in its name a thermal source no longer identifiable.

painting of San Calogero Baths
Ancient Bath of San Calogero

As for the thermal baths of San Calogero, the discovery in 1984 of an ancient Thólos of Mycenaean origin led archaeologists to assume that these baths were used from the fifteenth century BC about. It would therefore be the oldest thermal building in the Mediterranean Sea. [No source] The first historical document that testifies to the use of the baths, dating back to around 50 BC, is the Bibliotheca historica work by the Greek Diodoro Siculo, which tells how the baths they were very famous and used by many people from Sicily for the treatment of many diseases. Other references are in Strabo, Pliny the Elder and Athenaeum of Naucrati.

The damages of San Calogero Baths

In the fourth century the baths were damaged by a violent earthquake; therefore began a period of decline, which was remedied in 530 by Calogero of Sicily, the future San Calogero, who reactivated the baths to the point that they were later named after him. In the following centuries, however, the island of Lipari entered a period of decline that inevitably involved the baths, so much so that there are no more historical documents on them until 1694. In this year the historian Pietro Campis described the baths as functioning and very useful for many patients, and in 1778 the painter Jean-Pierre Houël depicted the spa and a group of patients.

water at San Calogero Baths
Water at Thermal Station

Between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries the scholars Lazzaro Spallanzani and Francesco Maria Filomena examined the thermal waters, detecting their good healing properties. In 1856, in an appendix to the History of Endemic and Epidemic Diseases of the Island of Lipari, the Liparese doctor Ferdinando Rodriquez described the medical use of the sulphurous water of the Terme di San Calogero for the treatment of skin diseases. However in 1860 the writer Elpis Melena (pseudonym of Maria Esperance von Schwartz) described the baths as in full decay, little used, and more generally judged the entire island of Lipari in a deplorable state.

Ancient Village of Lipari

Until the XVIII century, the community of Lipari’s citizens lived within its walls, no notable traces of houses have remained, instead there are several churches. Among these are those of Santa Caterina dating back to the 17th century, that of the Addolorata, of the Immaculate and the Cathedral of San Bartolomeo, located right in the middle of the hill and surrounded by archaeological finds. The cathedral is the oldest building built by the Normans around the 12th century and then rebuilt by the Spaniards after the destruction of 1544. The present facade dates back to 1861 while the cloister of the ancient monastery is made of material recovered from previous constructions, above all of age Roman, but also from the Middle Ages.

The Castle of Lipari and Archeological sites

Some buildings of the castle are now used as the site of the Aeolian Regional Archaeological Museum which houses most of the material coming from the excavations undertaken after the Second World War.

Lipari Castle
Aerial view Of Lipari Castle

Archaeological excavations carried out since the 1950s by the archaeologist Luigi Bernabò Brea, brought to light a layer of deposits over 10 meters thick, which allowed the history of the place to be reconstructed. The material was well preserved as it was covered with volcanic ash deposited by nearby volcanoes, Stromboli and Vulcano.

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