The abandoned village of Old Cerillae

The ancient Medieval village of Cerillae once stood on a steep promontory, nestled in the beauty of a boundless place, close to the roaring sea and cliffs in the Riviera dei Cedri; but today it is destroyed and abandoned. All that remains of so memory are the ruins of Old Cerillae Vecchia, melancholy reminders to the inhabitants of Diamante and the modern Cirella, certainly, but also to anyone who happens to pass by that place: once there stood an impenetrable fortress, watchful sentinel of the Tyrrhenian Sea, guardian of the arcane place where sea and sky meet.

old Cerillae
View of the island of Cirella from the promontory of Mount Carpinoso

Historical background

Cerillae, as the locals call it, is now a ghost town, with its forgotten lanes and cliffy, melancholy houses. An unreal-looking place, of which time itself seems to have lost memory. Yet the village, until a few centuries ago, represented an important military stronghold; perched on a hill, it stood to protect the coast against incursions from the sea. Even today it retains the semblance of the fierce and unconquerable town, in the Norman-Byzantine style, that it once was.

The earliest settlements of Cerillae date to ancient times; the area was inhabited since the Upper Paleolithic, as evidenced by some archaeological findings. Here lived the Ausonians and then the Phocians, who arrived there after their homeland was conquered by the Persian armies of Cyrus the Great [1]. It is Pliny the Elder who tells of a Portus Parthenius Phocensium in the area [2].

Under the Romans Cirella, at that time a thriving seaport, acquired the status of a town. We have evidence of this in the writings of Silius Italicus, who attests to an early reconstruction after the Second Punic War [3].

“[…] nunc sese ostendere miles Leucosiae e scopulis, nunc, quem Picentia Paesto misit et exhaustae mox Poeno Marte Cerillae”

Silius Italicus, Punica, book VIII, 575

About the event, however, given the vagueness of the historical information provided, there are two hypotheses, both possible: the settlement was destroyed by Hannibal, as an ally of the Romans in the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.; or it was a victim of the repressions by Quintus Fabius Maximus the Cunctator because it rebelled in favor of the invaders. A mention of Cerillae is also found in Strabo [4], who gives us its Greek name Κήριλλοι, and even in the Tabula Peutingeriana. In 649 it is reported that the Calabrian village was already a diocesan seat, as a Romanus Episcopus Cerellitanus attended the synod of Pope Martin I [5].

The settlement of Old Cerillae

The present-day location of Old Cerillae dates back to the 9th-10th centuries, but it is difficult to determine the exact time: compared to ancient historiographical sources, those referable to such a period appear meager and fragmentary, sometimes seeming to transcend into myth. What is certain is that the inhabitants of Cerillae, at the time under the rule of Byzantine Calabria, moved to the promontory of Mount Carpinoso to protect themselves from the maritime raids of the Saracens.

In the third decade of the ninth century, in fact, the Arabs sacked nearby Cetraro, and just a few years later formed the emirates of Tropea and Amantea. In Amantea, in particular, from the time of the conquest in 846, a fortified fortress (Al-Mantiah) was established from which maritime raids directed toward Byzantine territories departed. As a result, on Carpinoso hill a primitive fortification with towers and a wall was erected. This was later extended in Swabian times.

Toward Old Cerillae

The plague and the bombing

Despite its perched position, in the 16th century Old Cerillae was still subject to numerous raids from the sea. Famous were the incursions of the Ottoman pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa in 1534 and of the fleets of Suleiman the Magnificent.

Old Cerillae then had to cope with the plague of 1656-1658 [6] and the March 1638 earthquake that devastated the area. The medieval village, now in decay, then switched hands between different feudal families until it became the possession of the Catalano-Gonzaga family.

In the first decade of the 19th century the definitive and unexpected ruin came from the sea, the cross and delight of this ancient village. Between 1806 and 1807 the troops of Joseph Bonaparte, king of Naples, besieged Old Cerillae to quell a local rebellion, inflicting in all likelihood a substantial damage. There the French established a garrison to control the coast. So that, when a British Navy fleet passed by (1808?) it decided to bombard the town and razed it to the ground. There was now no palace that could be rebuilt, no tower to reassemble, and old Cerillae was abandoned forever. The buildings over time were overgrown by vegetation, stripped of the remaining stones and looted; only in recent years has a careful restoration and archaeological recovery work was established.

old Cerillae
Views from the inside of the Bell Tower of St. Nicholas the Great

The ruins of Old Cerillae

Intriguing is the feeling one gets when walking among the ancient ruins of Old Cerillae; one glimpses there something familiar but now foreign, heterotopic. One can see, among them, what remains of the town castle, remodeled several times over the centuries and now shrouded in wild, swarming vegetation. The fortress was once accessed through an imposing, square-shaped entrance tower, on the front of which the original arched opening is visible. Instead the tower stood on two levels, traces of which remain in the barrel vault of the lower floor and the battlements of the elevation.

The Castle: on the left is the Entrance Tower, flanked by the Rectangular Tower.

The Rectangular Tower and the Cylindrical Tower

Laterally there stood another tower, now called “Rectangular,” which preserves part of the surface of the intermediate floors. A basement level probably housed a cistern or storehouse, that can be deduced from the large holes that supported the wooden slab. On the other hand the second floor was a residential building; the cross vaults of the roof can still be glimpsed. Further, the same architecture was supposed to show the two-level “Cylindrical Tower,” located on the northeast side of the city walls, which possibly housed a small worship chapel in medieval times.

Rectangular Tower of the Castle

The churches of Old Cerillae and the Sovereign Palace

Of Old Cerillae religious architecture, uncertain remains survive, incomplete spaces to be filled and drawn with the imagination. In the church of St. Nicholas the Great, pointed arches project toward the sky, windows look out to infinity from the squat bell tower, and the once mighty masonry looks at stony paths with no more direction. The building was erected in the 9th-10th centuries at the same time as the residential core; however, it was certainly rebuilt later, as some stylistic clues in the architecture betray, and possibly housed wall frescoes, now lost.

Old Cerillae had at least two other houses of worship: there are only a few wall remnants of Santa Maria della Neve and the Church of the Annunziata, located further down the promontory.

A ghostly prospect is what remains, however, of the Sovereign’s Palace: once a place of power, its ruins now remind us of the transience of all things.

old Cerillae
The Sovereign Palace

The convent of the Minims in Cirella

A few hundred meters from the ancient settlement of Old Cerillae stands the more recent convent building of the Order of Minims, dating back to the 16th century.

old Cerillae
Convent of the Minims in Cirella

The convent has a quadrangular plan with a graceful church on the east side and a cloister. The house of worship, dedicated to St. Mary of Grace, has a single nave, once frescoed with Marian depictions.

 Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

[1] Herodotus, Histories, 1, 163, 1

[2] Pliny the Elder, Naturalis historia

[3] Silius Italicus, Punica, libro VIII, 575

[4] Strabo, Geography, VI, p. 255;

[5] F. Ughelli, Italia Sacra, Volume VIII, parte II

[6] [6] This was the well-known “plague of Naples,” one of the most devastating epidemics until then that occurred within the kingdom.

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