Today Santo Stefano di Sessanio is one of the hundred most beautiful villages in Italy and is also one of the jewels of the Gran Sasso- Laga National Park.
The Sextantio name is referred to a Roman village, located where the actual cemetery is, situated about 6 miles from Peltuinum, the biggest centre of Navelli (plain).
The first settlement dates back to the year 1000 and its foundation was due to the presence of a Benedictine monks community on Campo Imperatore.
In 1308 we have the first documentation of the existence of Santo Stefano di Sessanio as a fortified village. The urban enclosure structure is due to defence reasons, typical of the feudal era; The subsequent structure, rather evident in the settlements scattered throughout the countryside, comes from their agricultural economy.
The current urban arrangement dates back to medieval times, when the battlement phenomenon was developing: a landscape characterized by high dwellings, surrounded by a fortified perimeter wall that nowadays can be considered one of the most historic and topographical feature of Central Italy.
Between the end of XIII and the beginning of the XIV century the wide Baronia di Carapelle feudal dominion was forming and included, amongst others, Santo Stefano for its strategic role: it was the first centre of the Baronia, bordering the Contado aquilano, and thus useful to control the route from Barisciano. In 1415 the feud was given to Antonio Tedeschini Piccolomini, Count of Celano.
The Piccolomini family maintained the village for over 150 years, until 1579; Then Costanza, the Innico Piccolomini only daughter, handed the Baronia di Carapelle to Francesco de ‘Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1579. He dedicated the village to Santo Stefano I, a Roman pope who died in 257, and to whom his father Cosimo I titled – in 1561 – a religious knighthood order in memory of the victory of the Frenchmen at Marciano della Chiana on 2nd August 1544 (the day of the saint’s celebration) during the Siena war. The Medici Family, at the foot of the medieval observation tower erected at the highest point of the slope, drew a defensive perimeter of wall-houses (external houses compared to the housing unit whose walls coincides with the walls of the village itself) characterized by an elliptical shape. They also opened the main gates to the village.
The Medici family memory is today alive because of the many architectural evidences which can still be appreciated; their coat of arms (six balls into an oval field) stands on the eastern door and on numerous buildings decorated with double-arched windows and loggias, dating from their domination; Several of these are “vaulted” and under the arches, a maze of lanes leads to the tower, from whose top you can enjoy the view of the village below till the Gran Sasso and Maiella tops. In those years Santo Stefano reaches its peak as the hub of the Florence Signoria for the flourishing trade of wool – produced in this area and worked in Tuscany – sold all over Europe. It was the famous black wool (called carfagna) that droves many Florentine merchants to increase their business in these areas.
This bond, first with Florence and then with the rest of Europe, was based on the merchant’s importance of the local economy raw material: the wool. This would explain how in these territories with such a poor agriculture, villages of remarkable consistency and prosperity were born. Still today we can admire the quality and the architectural pattern of some buildings.
After two centuries of Medici’s possessions, in 1743, Santo Stefano di Sessanio became part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies as a private asset of the King of Naples. In 1810, after the passage to the King of Naples, the Baronia territory was divided into five districts, including the Santo Stefano one. As a result of the Unification of Italy and the privatization of the Tavoliere delle Puglie lands, the transhumance millennial activity ends and a decaying process of the village begins due to the emigration phenomenon and population decrease.
During the Second World War, the village was used as a privileged observation point by German troops who settled their headquarter in the “Captain’s House”. The Tower allowed to see the movements of troops for many kilometers, thus renewing its original function. Depopulation continued even after the end of the Second World War, drastically reducing the resident people number. Today, the village has about 120 inhabitants, mostly elderly. In the seventies of the twentieth century there was a significant decline in the economic activities of the area, worsen by the unfavourable geographical position.