Rocca (literally: "rock") is an Italian term meaning a high, fortifiable stronghold, usually located in smaller towns, beneath or on which the village or town clustered, within which its inhabitants might take refuge at times of trouble; 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 highplace of Athens, its Acropolis. Though the earliest documentation is not often 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 villas, 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. "At Falerii", J.B. Ward-Perkins notes, "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 Calabria, 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 (ie "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, begun 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 "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:
- Roccacasale is located in the Province of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo.
- Rocca di Papa in the region called Castelli Romani in the hills surrounding Lazio has given its name to its comune. Twelfth-century documents name the Castrum Rocce de Papa ("Rock Castle of the Pope"), because here lived Pope Eugene III.
- Rocca Sinibalda, a comune in the Province of Rieti in Lazio, is located about 50 km northeast of Rome.
- Rocca Canterano, Rocca Priora, Rocca Massima, Rocca di Cave, Rocca Santo Stefano, Rocca d'Arce are also in Lazio.
- Rocca Grimalda in the Province of Alessandria, Piedmont was a nest of bandits in the eighteenth century. Rocca Canavese, Rocca Cigliè, Rocca d'Arazzo, Rocca de' Baldi are also comuni in Piedmont.
- Rocca Pietore is in the Province of Belluno in the Veneto.
- Roccaraso is a town and comune of the Province of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.
- Rocca Susella and Rocca de' Giorgi are in the Province of Pavia in Lombardy.
- Castelvecchio di Rocca Barbena is a comune in the Province of Savona in Liguria.
- Rocca San Casciano is a comune in the Province of Forlì-Cesena in Emilia-Romagna.
- Rocca San Giovanni is a comune and town in the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo.
- Rocca d'Evandro is a comune in the Province of Caserta in Campania.
- Rocca Pia s a comunein the Province of L'Aquila in the Abruzzo region.
- Rocca Imperiale is a town and comune in the province of Cosenza in Calabria.
- Rocca di Urbisaglia is a 16th-century military fortification in Urbisaglia, in the Marche.
- 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.
- 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.