Rocca (architecture)

A rocca (literally: "rock") is a type of Italian fortified stronghold, or fortress, typically located on a hilltop, beneath or on which the inhabitants of a historically clustered village or town might take refuge at times of trouble. Generally under its owners' patronage, the settlement might hope to find prosperity in better times. A rocca might in reality be no grander than a fortified farmhouse. A more extensive rocca would be referred to as a castello.

The rocca in Roman times would more likely be a site of a venerable cult than a dwelling, like the high place of Athens, its Acropolis. Though the earliest documentation is not earlier than the eleventh century, it was during the Lombard times that farming communities, which had presented a Roman pattern of loosely distributed farmsteads or self-sufficient Roman villa, moved from their traditional places on the fringes of the best arable lands in river valleys, where they were dangerously vulnerable from the Roman roads, to defensive positions, such as had once been occupied by Etruscan settlements, before the settled conditions of the Pax Romana. Historian J.B. Ward-Perkins made the following observation regarding the rocca at the town of Falerii.[1]

At Falerii ... the inhabitants simply transferred their town back from its Roman site on the open plateau to the old cliff-top site of Falerii Veteres, to which they gave the significant name of Civita Castellana, or "the Fortress Town"; just as in antiquity, security was once again the basic consideration.

Similarly, in Greek-speaking Campania, the inhabitants of Paestum finally abandoned their town after raids by Saracens and moved a few miles to the top of a cliff, calling the new settlement Agropoli (i.e., "acropolis"). Where such fortress villages were sited at the end of a ridge, protected on three sides by steep, cliff-like escarpments, the rocca was often sited to control the narrow access along the crest of the spur.

Locally the term la rocca simply designates the local fortified high place.


Specific examples show the range of structures that may be called a rocca:

  • Rocca Sanvitale, began in the 13th century, mostly completed by the 15th century, is a remarkable fortress house in the town of Fontanellato, near Parma.
  • Rocca Flea is a fortified palazzo in Gualdo Tadino, Umbria.
  • In Valletta, Malta, Casa Rocca Piccola is one of the last remaining unconverted palazzi, that is still lived in today by a noble family.
  • In Sardinia, the Rocca Doria, a stronghold of the Doria of Genoa, gives its name to the commune Monteleone Rocca Doria.

From the earliest stage, when church and rocca were the only stone structures[2] "the distinction between 'castles' and 'villages' is already one of degree rather than kind." (Ward-Perkins 1962:401) Their protective rocca has extended its name to many other small communities:


  1. J.B. Ward-Perkins, "Etruscan Towns, Roman Roads and Medieval Villages: The Historical Geography of Southern Etruria" The Geographical Journal 128.4 (December 1962:389-404) pp 399ff. Ward-Perkins notes the establishment of a villa of Roman pattern as late as ca 780, Pope Hadrian I's recently rediscovered Domusculta Capracorum near Veii, which Ward-Perkins does not take as exceptional but as evidence "that the system of land tenure operating in the territory of Veii at the end of the eighth century was still one of villas and large, open estates on the late Roman model" (Ward-Perkins 1962:402); villages were carved out of the former estate in the tenth century.
  2. Ward-Perkins 1962:401 points out that the familiar "medieval" character of surviving villages, with their cobbled streets and stone houses washed with colorful intonaco, upon examination are invariably structures built in the sixteenth century and later.
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