Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN    entry May 2008

Archaic Units of Measure and Coinage (below)

Italians still have to put up with a few old or foreign units of measure such as the “barrel” of oil and the 21-inch (pollice) TV screen, and snobbish Italian Sunday-sailors still speak of “knots”. Italy, however, was one of the 18 original signatories of the Metric Convention in Paris in 1875, so people here have been “metrified” for a long time. That leaves a few holdouts such as Yours Truly, the USA and Burma. (I admit I have trouble thinking in “millimeters of rain”. (I know, I know—I can’t even spell “meter”.)

This is a French clock from 1800 with the old 12-hour system as well as the new revolutionary system of metric time. Unlike the meter, decimal time never made it out of the Revolution. To my knowledge, the new time measurement made absolutely no inroads in Naples in spite of the presence for nine years of the French under King Murat during that period. (Metric time didn't fare much better in France, either.) That's fine with me; imagine referring to the film High Noon as High Five.


With the adoption of the metric system, dozens of delightful units of measurement were put out to pasture (up on the north 40, I think —about 16 hectares!) in Europe. The geopolitical crazy quilt that was the Italian peninsula until unification into a single nation in 1861 had correspondingly disparate systems of measurement. The units of measure used in the Kingdom of Naples (or the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) were particularly rich; some were old Roman holdovers, and others developed quite pragmatically through the Middle Ages, being used right up until unification. I was made aware of that the other day when I came across a reference in an old document to the Teatro nuovo in Naples, built in 1724; the theater had boxes that were so-and-so-many “palms” wide. I had to look it up. One “palm” was equal to about 0.26 meters. Spread your adult fingers as wide as you can; from tip of thumb to tip of pinkie is about right. That’s why they called it a “palm”. (Horses are still measured in the English-speaking world in “hands.” Horses measure us in “hooves”.)

Here are some other units of measure from the old Neapolitan system. The list is not exhaustive and ignores the changes in unit value from time to time and the fact that the same term might have variations depending on how and where it was used (in the same way as the English system speaks of “statute mile” and “nautical mile” or “US gallon” and “imperial gallon”).

  • acino: a measure of weight = about 0.45 grams (or 0.016 ounces). The word, itself, means a single “grape”; thus, it was used for light weights.

  • barile (barrel): a measure of liquid volume still used to measure petroleum, although today's Joe Six-Pack doesn’t know how much “one barrel” is except that it probably looks like a barrel. In old Neapolitan usage, one barile contained 60 caraffe. One caraffa was about 0.72 liters (about ¾ of a quart). (Today's 1 barrel of oil = ca. 160 liters = ca. 42 US gallons/ca. 35 imperial gallons. And it depends on the brewery, but Joe's surname in the metric system is about two liters.)

  • botte: A maritime unit for tonnage of vessels. It was based on the botte, a wine container. Roughly, one botte = about 500 liters; it contained 12 barili  (see above). For purposes of measuring wine or vegetable oil, two botti (i.e. 1000 liters) made up one carro (wagon). One botte was subdivided into the salma and the staio in the same way as English measurement still speaks of gallons being divided into quarts and pints. One salma was ca. 160 liters and, itself, was subdivided into 16 staia.

  • braccio (arm): Unit of linear measurement = about half a meter. There was also a longer maritime braccio equal to ca. 1.6 meters.

  • miglio (mile): a Neapolitan mile was 1,000 paces; that is, 7000 palms or about 1850 meters (ca. 6,070 feet, curiously close to the English nautical mile of 6,076 feet).

  • lega (league): not common in Naples, but if found it probably referred to the Spanish unit (legua)= ca. 2.6 miles. The unit was abolished in the Spanish empire (which Naples was part of) in 1568.

  • canna: The standard unit of linear measurement in commerce (measuring textiles, for example) and construction. It was just over 2 meters and was divided into 8 palmi (see above).

  • cantaro: Unit of heavier weight common in maritime usage = about 90 kilograms (almost 200 pounds). It was divided into rotoli (plural of rotolo, see below).

  • libbra and oncia (pound and ounce): Units of weight. There were 12 ounces in the pound. The subdivision of the ounce was the trappeso.
  • passo: The pace. A unit of linear measurement = about 7 “palms” (above); i.e., just under 2 meters. There was an older maritime passo, somewhat smaller.

  • piede: Foot. Approx. one English foot or 1/3 of a meter.

  • rotolo: Unit of weight, somewhat lighter than 1 kilogram or a bit more than 2 pounds.

  • tomolo: A unit of measure for dry volume such as grain = ca. 55 liters (about one and one-half bushels).  

  • trappeso: The smallest unit of weight in the old Neapolitan system and defined as the 1/1000 part of a rotolo or 1/20 of the acino.


  • Carlino. These were silver and gold coins minted for the monarch, Charles of Anjou, starting in 1278 in Naples at the beginning of the Angevin (from Anjou) dynasty. The coin was called a “carlino, ” a diminutive of Carlo/Charles. The silver carlino used by the Bourbons in the 18th and 19th centuries was one-tenth of a ducato. Smaller coins than the carlino were the tarì, grano, tornese, and cavallo. These were silver or bronze. At the time of the unification of Italy (1861), the Neapolitan ducat was the unit used to convert to the new Italian currency. The exchange was 4.25 lira to 1 ducat. (Very roughly, that would be a unit of about 10 euros, today.)

Finally, if “I love you a bushel and a peck…,” how much do I love you in cubic furlongs?

You may not use a calculator.

            to science portal          to top of this page

 © 2002- 2023