The island of Ustica is in the Tyrrhenian Sea about 67 km north-west of Palermo and 95 km north-west of Alicudi. It occupies an area of about 8.65 km² with a circumference of 12 km. The island’s distinctive natural feature is the presence of numerous caves that open along the high and steep coastline, as well as numerous rocks and shoals all around the island. Water resources are scarce on the island. Geologically, Ustica is akin to the Aeolian Islands and of volcanic origin; there are, in fact, hill reliefs that represent the vestiges of ancient volcanoes (Punta Maggiore, 244 m; Guardia dei Turchi, 238 m) and divide the island into two slopes.
Ustica is said by many to be the capital of activities related to the exploration of the abyss. Numerous relics have been discovered and recovered in its seas, and Italy’s first underwater itinerary has been created in the wonderful setting of the Marine Reserve near Torre dello Spalmatore.
The thousand-year history of this small Mediterranean island is less well known.
The earliest traces of life on the island date back to the Copper Age or Eneolithic (3rd millennium B.C.) and are in the famous caves Grotta Azzurra and the adjacent San Francesco Vecchio. A few fragments of terracotta pots show that even then the main concern of the inhabitants of Ustica was to collect what little water the dripping produced and still produces in the summer months inside those natural cavities.
Ustica must have been inhabited continuously from the Eneolithic period until at least the end of the Middle Bronze Age (12th century B.C.), a period in which the island achieved a lively seafaring dynamism.
Everything suggests that in that period Ustica was finally present on the Tyrrhenian routes either actively or as an intermediate port of call between Sicily and Sardinia or southern Italy.
Ustica was perhaps an intermediate pole between the two spheres of commercial influence as well as a connection pole in the routes that linked the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean with the West and the Tyrrhenian, partially influenced by the Mycenaeans.
Evidence of human presence on the island disappears until the late Hellenistic period (4th – 3rd century B.C.), when Ustica becomes important due to its favourable geographical position as a link between Sicily and the Tyrrhenian coast of the Italian peninsula. Being one of the routes of the Roman ships that transported Sicilian grain, Ustica was then populated in a non-superficial manner. The site where the most data on this period were collected is the Falconiera, which has become an interesting excursion destination.
With the first century of the Christian era, it seems that defensive concerns ceased and the occupation of flat areas for residential purposes increased on the island. The last underwater archeological discovery on the seabed surrounding the island is associated to this period of great development and prosperity for Ustica, which lasted until the crisis of the Roman Empire (5th century A.D.).
Thanks to an investigation and survey campaign, a wreck datable to the beginning of the 5th century A.D. was identified near Punta Alera (southern coast) on a seabed of approximately 18 m. Numerous fragments of cylindrical African amphorae and a large lava stone millstone were located. What can be seen is only a small part of the wreck and its cargo, which is well concealed both under the sand at the base of the slope and underneath falls of rubble from the coast. It was presumably a vessel from North Africa that was sailing up the Tyrrhenian Sea en route to Rome or the Gulf of Naples. The ship must have been in the vicinity of the island or perhaps attempting to move away from it due to a strong sirocco wind.
After this period of great economic development, we know that Ustica was in Arab hands at least until the 10th century, when the Norman conquerors arrived and founded a church and a monastery of Cistercians, presumably in the area of ‘Case Vecchie‘.
From the 14th to the 18th century, the Saracens raged on the island; the Spanish attempts at repopulation failed and the few inhabitants were taken prisoner by the Barbary pirates and sold into slavery.
In 1763, the Bourbon government organised the repopulation of Ustica by transferring about a hundred families from the Aeolian Islands, joined by a few from Palermo and Trapani. The island was equipped with two watchtowers (S. Maria Tower and Spalmatore Tower) and a fortress (the so-called ‘Saracen Castle’ on the Falconiera), as well as a garrison of 250 soldiers. The settlement was established around Cala S.Maria and in 1771 Ustica became a municipality.
Ustica was a penal colony under the Bourbons and a place of imprisonment for Arab soldiers captured by the Italians in the Libyan War (1911). During Fascism the island also housed political internees, including Antonio Gramsci, and it remained a land of exile until 1961, when it became a prestigious and sought-after destination for tourists who were particularly fond of nature and the sea and not very inclined to worldliness.
In addition to the underwater archaeological sites already mentioned, there are others at the dock of Santa Maria where the remains of a Hellenistic-Roman shipwreck can be found, at the Scoglio del Medico and the Secca della Colombaia.
Furthermore, two underwater itineraries created by Sebastiano Tusa at Punta Falconiera and Punta Gavazzi add value to the island, providing the opportunity for an exciting visit among the remains at the site of discovery.