Isola delle Femmine is an Italian town in North-Western Sicily, approximately 10 km (6 miles) west of the City of Palermo. Administratively, it is part of the Metropolitan City of Palermo.

Despite its name, which can be translated in English as “Island of Women”, the town is located on mainland Sicily. The name of the small town was chosen after the name of the small island that sits just off shore from it when it became an independent municipality from the neighboring city of Capaci in 1854 [1]. The reason for this choice of name was a natural one based upon the combined history of the town and the island, a history that also explains the origin of the Island’s name.

Origin of the City’s Name (Author Alexander A. Grillo, PhD-FOI Associate Director)

The etymology of the name of the island itself is based partly on legend and partly on documented facts. Unfortunately, there are many legends about the origin of this name, most of which have no factual basis and appear to be the fruit of creative imaginations over many centuries. Possibly the oldest legend concerns a letter that Pliny the Younger (born 61 or 62 AD), a Roman lawyer, author and magistrate, was to have written to Emperor Trajan describing a prison for women that he saw on this small island [1]. Pliny was a prolific letter writer and some 247 survive. A quick search of his letters which have been indexed on the internet did not find any references to prisons for women. An important issue with this legend is that there are no reports of artifacts of a prison found on the island in spite of the fact that cisterns dating to the Carthaginian or Punic period, 100-200 years before Pliny’s letter writing era, have been found and still exist on the island along with supporting documentation [1]. The cisterns were used to ferment mixtures of fish scraps, spices and oils into a sauce called garum, a very valued food addition in the Roman era. Finding such a letter among the 247 surviving would give credence to the legend but not finding such a letter would not disprove it because the letter might be one that did not survive. That is one of the problems with legends. This legend of a prison appears to have given rise to many variations, possibly the most imaginative being a story that thirteen Turkish maidens, condemned for serious crimes, were set adrift at sea by relatives only to be shipwrecked on this small rocky island where they lived alone for seven years before they were found by their relatives, having had a change of heart, and brought home. None of these similar legends are supported by any documentation or artifacts on the island.

There is word of another legend that, possibly as late as the 19th century, the island was used as a refuge for women and children when a serious disease spread through the village so as to prevent them from being afflicted by the illness. The source of this legend is not known, but again there are no reports of artifacts of living quarters for such a refuge, and any such use of the island at that date should have been well documented.

A more interesting possible origin relates to a figure named Euphemius. One legend has him a 9th century general and Byzantine governor of the province of Palermo [1] while another claims he was an admiral who killed the governor and declared himself emperor of Sicily. In the latter version, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople sent troops to retake the island. Euphemius then invited Muslims from North Africa to help him battle the emperor’s troops. Euphemius was killed in battle, but the Muslims remained to occupy Sicily for two centuries. What this has to do with the little island in the gulf of Palermo is not explained, but if it was referred to as “island of Euphemius”, this would have been in Latin “insula Euphemii” (genitive or possessive case). Then conjecture is that this gradually evolved to “insula Femi”, then “insula Fimi”, then “Isula di Fimmini” (Fimmini being the Sicilian word for women.) until finally “Isola delle Femmine” (Island of Women in Italian) as Latin morphed into Sicilian and then into Italian; plausible, but still not a proven source of the name [3,8,9,10]. It does seem clear that the people of the area around Palermo, including this town, remember parts of this legend because there is a street in the town named Lungomare Eufemio (Seafront Blvd Eufemio) as well as a Hotel Eufemia. There was even a soccer team called Eufemia.

Another possible origin of the name starts with the fact that a structure was erected from the shore of what is now the city of Isola delle Femmine to the small island with a large net stretched across the narrow water passageway. The purpose of this structure was to catch Bluefin tuna that normally passed through that narrow passage, possibly as part of its migratory path. These large fish can exceed 10 feet in length weighing over 900 pounds. The structure was called a tonnara, a name derived from the Italian word “tonno” for tuna and commonly applied to facilities to process tuna as well as to catch them [4]. Some traces of these processing facilities remain on the mainland. The date of its construction is not known but it existed during the Norman rule of Sicily (1061 to 1189) and likely was built during the Moslem rule (902 to 1061). Legend has it that this tonnara was given the Arabic name for “mouth” or “entrance” which is pronounced as one would pronounce an English word written as “fim”. This word “fim” was Latinized into “Fimis” and then transformed into a word that sounded Sicilian “Fimi”.

In 1176, William II, the last Norman king of Sicily, granted large amounts of land to the Abbey at Monreale, which is located on a hill above this area. This grant was contained in a decree document that not only included statements listing the properties granted to the Abbey but also specified rights and privileges granted for use of the properties. It also included the statement: “… cum omnibus iusticis et pertinentiis suis eidem onasterio concedimus et donamus Tunnarium quoque quae est in insula quae dicitur fimi prope portum gali …” [5,7]. Translated into English this would read: “… with all the responsibilities and appurtenances, to the monastery is granted and donated the Tonnara which is on the island called fimi, near the port of galus .…”. With this decree the Norman king William II, called the Good, gave the first Abbot Teobaldo, bishop of Monreale (who had built a monastery there in 1174), this Tonnara and it referred to the small island by the name “fimi”. The parchment on which the edict was written can be found in the Tabularium of Santa Maria Nuova in Monreale [5,7]. All this was later reaffirmed by an ecclesiastical bulletin of the Archdiocese of Monreale in 1912 which repeated that the decree of 1176 included the Tonnara stating that it was located on the island named Fimi and went on to describe the location of the island with modern names of landmarks in its vicinity [6,7]. Therefore, by the 12th century, the name of the little island was acknowledged to be Fimi. In Sicilian, the word for women is “fimmini”, as stated above. Then, it is quite possible for “Fimi” to evolve to “Fimmini”, and “insula Fimi” to “insula Fimmini”, then to Sicilian “Isula di Fimmini” and then to “Isola delle Femmine” in Italian rather than Sicilian [1,8,11,12,13,14]. In the 12th century, all official state business was still conducted in Latin as was Church business, while the Sicilian language was, in Sicily, the dominate common language until well past the unification of Sicily with the nascent Kingdom of Italy in 1860.

The record then of the small island being called Fimi in the 12th century is well established. The exact origin of that name relies on legend. Either the path from Euphemius or the path from the Arabic word for mouth could have led to Fimi with the Arabic path more likely given the documented existence of the Tonnara. How Fimi evolved into Femmine relies on likely language evolution. Neither of the possible origins for “Fimi” nor the evolutionary language path to “Femmine” associates the origin of the name of the island and then the name of the town with women. Further, it was quite natural for the town, which had been referred to as Tonnara prior to it being an independent municipality, to adopt the name Isola delle Femmine given the historical ties of the ancient tonnara, the island and the village.

Connections to California

Due mostly to economic conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large numbers of Italians emigrated from Italy, many to the United States and especially California. Those from Isola delle Femmine found three California cities attractive due to the good prospects of commercial fishing there as well as the mild climate closely resembling that of their birthplace. This started with immigration to Pittsburg, California followed by Martinez and later Monterey. This immigration continued throughout the 20th century and many, many present and past residents of these cities can trace their ancestors from this small village in Sicily. The parents of famed baseball players Vince, Joe and Dom DiMaggio were born and raised in Isola delle Femmine. Other descendants have found success in many other fields.

In commemoration of the ties of Pittsburg’s Sicilian settlers to fishing, Frank Vitale, a descendent of those immigrants, created a life size bronze Fisherman statue that stands at the Pittsburg Marina with a plaque containing the names of its first Sicilian settlers. In 1992, through the efforts of a few Pittsburg descendants of immigrants from Isola delle Femmine, a sister-city connection was established between these two cities. With the help of the sculptor and those involved with the Sister-City project, a copy of the same Fisherman statue now stands in Isola’s Piazza di Pittsburg. Encouraged by these efforts, an organization named Friends of Isola delle Femmine was formed with the purpose to further cultural and educational exchange between the two cities and to promote understanding by future generations of their ancestry. With the help of this same organization, Monterey became a sister city in 2017 followed by Martinez in 2019. www.friendsofisola.org.

1. STATUTO DEL COMUNE DI ISOLA DELLA FEMMINE (Provincia di Palermo), http://www.comune.isoladellefemmine.pa.it/attachments/article/20/Statuto.pdf (2005).
2. “Euphemius – The Byzantine commander of Sicily”, Amazing Facts on History, https://historyofmedievalindia.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/euphemius-the-bizantine-commander-of-sicily/.
3. “Euphemius (Sicily)”, Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphemius_(Sicily).
4. “Tonnara”, Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonnara.
5. Editto Reale Privilegio di Guglielmo II, Re di Sicilia, parchment n. 15, Carlo Alberto Garufi, ed. Catalogo Illustrato del Tabulario di S. Maria Nuova in Monreale (1902), located at the Biblioteca Regionale Siciliana in Palermo.
6. “Prospetto Storico dell’Archidiocesi di Monreale – Isola delle Femmine”, Bollettino Ecclesiastico della Archidiocesi di Monreale, Monreale, Aprile 1912.
7. The illustrated catalog containing the parchment of the Royal edict of reference 5 and the text of the Bollettino Ecclesiastico of reference 6 were located with much diligence by Orazio Sansonini; this work made the assertions of this article much more compelling.
8. “European Commission, DG MARE, Studies for carrying out the Common Fisheries Policy: Lot 3 Socio-economic dimensions in EU fisheries, Isola delle Femmine case study report”, 2013, http://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/documentation/studies/socio_economic_dimension/files/cs-sicily-6-isola-delle-femmine_en.pdf.
9. Amari, Storia dei musulmani di Sicilia, vol. I (ed. and rev. by C. Nallino), Catania, 1933.
10. Hugh Chisholm, ed. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th ed.) Cambridge University Press, 1911.
11. “William II the Good of Sicilia”, Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_II_of_Sicily.
12. Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge University Press, 1992.
13. “William II, King of Sicily”, Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/644121/William-II.
14. “Chronology of the Abbey at Monreale”, http://www.duomomonreale.it/indexdaae.html?option=com_content&task=view&id=250&Itemid=325&lang=en.