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Map of Sicily
Ond'io ti priego che, quando tu riedi
vadi a mia bella figlia, genitrice
de l'onor di Sicilia e d'Aragona
e dichi 'l vero a lei, s'altro si dice.
I beseech thee,when you return to the world
go to my beautiful daughter, mother
of the monarchs of Sicily and Aragon
and tell her the truth lest she's heard otherwise.
- Manfred of Hohenstaufen in
Dante's Purgatory, Canto III, 114-117
"History is written by the victors," said Hitler. What he did
not say, so far as we know, is that what "official" or
"accepted" history omits is at least as significant as what it
explicitly states. This is hardly a novel idea. In fact, it forms the foundation
of a new book that has received much critical acclaim:Vanished Kingdoms
- The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies (Penguin
2011). Sicily's complex history is considered at some length in two chapters,
Aragon and Sabaudia (Savoy). Interestingly, the author includes
Italy among existing states which look as if they could - in theory - be
divided to reflect something of a former existence, a theory well-grounded
in Italy's current social and political realities. That would be a drastic
"solution" to the country's problems, perhaps no solution at all.
But the fact that Aosta, Alto Adige (South Tirol) and Sicily are already
semi-autonomous regions, while the separatist Lega Nord party seeks
to liberate "Padania" (Lombardy, Piedmont and Venetia) from Italy,
renders the idea less bizarre than it might otherwise seem. Advocates of
actual secession are already being placated by the promise of federalism.
The Kingdom of Sicily lasted 730 years, to be succeeded by a Kingdom
of Italy that survived just 85 - not much longer than the ill-fated Soviet
Union (the focus of another chapter in Davies' book) or even the lifetime
of the average Sicilian. Questions of excessive Italian regionalism, the
lack of patriotism, the impact of Fascism
and the Second World War
on national identity, class warfare, and certainly the grander questions
of ethnicity and the meaning of history, lie beyond the scope of this article.
But that doesn't mean that they are not relevant to it.
Sicily is one of the world's most conquered places, and each subsequent
ruler made at least some effort to smash the slate of his predecessors to
shards and leave to his successors a new one bearing a more edifying inscription
favourable to himself. The Greek rulers of ancient
Syracuse come to mind, and so does the word coined to describe them: tyrants.
But beginning late in the Middle
Ages, in the wake of Sicily's Norman-Arab-Swabian "Golden Age"
(already in its death throes by 1260), the Inquisition and a series of "foreign"
rulers found it in their best interest to revise history just a little bit
more. Indeed, it seemed to worsen as centuries passed, reaching a virtual
boiling point by the middle of the nineteenth century with the controversial Italian unification
movement or Risorgimento.
Let's begin our brief journey in the present, working our way backward.
You won't be made to visit archives and libraries; a simple walking tour
will suffice, but it's not the "typical" tour offered by guide
books and licensed
tour guides. The first stop is a historical square in central Palermo,
behind the cathedral, a few steps beyond the Punic
walls of Via Candelai, down the street from the Romanesque-Gothic
church of Saint Augustine.
On one side of Piazza Monte di Pietà is a large grey building
erected in the eighteenth century. The date (1866) prominently if deceptively
displayed on the stout tower actually refers to the year the clock was installed.
This was the national bank of the Kingdom of Sicily until 1816, and its
regional headquarters from then until 1860 (when Sicily was part of the
Kingdom of Naples or the "Two Sicilies"). It still houses a bank
- a private one.
Above the entrance, carved into white marble, is a simplified interpretation
of the coat of arms of the House of Bourbon of the Two
Sicilies, descended from the kings of France and Spain. In the escutcheon
(small shield) in the centre of this complex design is the traditional coat
of arms of the dynasty, three fleurs de lis. Here, however, it is not very
distinct. That's because the simple "Cross of Savoy" was carved
into it, but not deeply enough to completely obscure the fleurs de lis.
Perhaps somebody thought it prudent to avoid completely defacing the fleur
de lis, considering the possibility of a Bourbon restoration. (See the photograph
and inset.) Incidentally, the figure in the medallion suspended from the
chain encircling the entire oval shield is San Gennaro (Saint Januarius),
the patron saint of Naples; the chain is the Bourbons' Order of Saint Gennaro,
which, like the Constantinian Order, is still bestowed
Another vestige of the Bourbon era is a marker still standing outside
the walls of the Norman Palace across from Piazza
Indipendenza. Erected in 1826 during the brief reign of Francesco
I, this bears inscriptions indicating the distance of various cities
from Palermo. The Bourbons' fleur de lis is visible at the top. The three-legged
trinacria, an ancient symbol of Sicily, appears
in relief below the inscriptions. This symbol officially "vanished"
after 1860 along with most other "regional" ones.
So how did the marker survive?
Essentially, it was overlooked and forgotten. For some time it was obscured
by buildings constructed before 1900. It was made obsolete with alternate
systems of measurement - and eventually the metric system - introduced in
Sicily by the Savoys. Then the automobile came
along, altogether obviating the need for mounted royal couriers. Across
the street from the marker, the yellowish row of low buildings dating from
the time the marker was erected housed offices and services for the royal
couriers; the riders of this "pony express" were military officers
authorised to transport official correspondence.
Oddly enough, the Bourbon state was not particularly revisionist, nor
were the kindred dynasties of Austria and Spain that ruled Sicily immediately
before them. (This briefly included a Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo II, from 1713
to 1720.) On the contrary, each earlier dynasty looked to the past to justify
rule in the present; to mimic democracy, the Savoys' ministers held a rigged
referendum which saw 99% of voters (property-holding males) confirming the
annexation of Sicily following an undeclared war against the Kingdom of
the Two Sicilies. It is also worth noting that, contrary to popular perceptions,
it was Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies, not his cousin Carlo Alberto of
Savoy, who granted the first "modern" constitution in the pre-unitary
Italy, in 1812; an important distinction is that Carlo Alberto's Statuto
(of 1848) lasted longer. However, it would be inaccurate to describe any
of the various Italian states of the nineteenth century as especially "enlightened"
Nevertheless, Sicily had witnessed a number of ephemeral parliaments
and constitutions over the centuries. There were sophisticated legal codes,
such as the Constitutions of Melfi - revolutionary
for their time - and even the rudiments of common law.
Though none of this approached the significance or permanency of England's
Magna Carta, what existed in the various Italian states north of
Sicily never even came remotely close to it.
By the eighteenth century, it was rarely a question of the monarchs themselves,
who for the most part left politics and policy to their politicians, ministers
and bureaucrats. Yet history has left us with a perception of some kings
being better than others, and for the common man life didn't improve much
from one decade to the next. This is one reason why many Italians - and
perhaps most Sicilians - viewed the events of 2011 commemorating
Italian "unification" with a cynical eye.
If Sicily was a police state under the Bourbons, it was no better under
the Savoys, whose government ruthlessly suppressed a series of pro-Bourbon
revolts between 1861 and 1866, exiling many captured dissenters and partisans
- who they called "brigands" - to die in concentration camps in
Piedmont in northern Italy. Press censorship, poverty and other factors
worsened after 1860, eventually prompting the mass emigration of millions
of southern Italians between 1880 and 1920, whereas earlier emigration was
from what until then had been the comparatively poor north of Italy - regions
that included Piedmont, Lombardy, Venetia and Tuscany (not that Italians
in any part of the country were particularly affluent or literate).
After 1922, matters worsened under Fascism,
a regime many Italians found palatable because in many respects it was little
different from what most of them had known for generations. The regime eventually
claimed the Savoys themselves among its victims, but one of the worse effects
of Fascism and the Second
World War was that most older Italians, ashamed to acknowledge the facts
or recount these to their children, ensured that very little of Italy's
history after 1920 was taught in the schools until about eighty years later.
For this reason and others, many younger Italians (under 30) boast a
greater knowledge of this history than their parents do. The harsh facts
were artfully overlooked during the national festivities marking 150 years
of Italian "unification" in 2011, though several regionalist political
parties and historical organisations published books and held conferences
dedicated to the subject, including (perhaps ironically) a few in public
"state" settings such as the University of Palermo's Palazzo Steri. They were not, for the most part, arguing
against unification per se, but protesting the longstanding revisionism
inherent in the Risorgimento as it is still taught in public schools.
Without digressing, one might ask whether the people of a place whose
continuous history dates from at least 1,000 BC (BCE) should be forced into
accepting any series of "facts" and supposed "truths"
concocted during the middle of the nineteenth century, themselves revised
beginning in 1946 - for the new Republic sought to obliterate the memory
of the Savoys as zealously as the Savoys had sought to cancel any trace
of the Bourbons. That effort, too, was doomed to failure; obviously, the
millions of tourists and pilgrims who visit Rome each year are more interested
in the Colosseum and the Vatican than in anything concerning the kings or
presidents of the united Italy.
Italy is full of Leftists and pseudo-Marxists, but how many of them know
that Karl Marx referred to Giuseppe Garibaldi as
"King Vittorio Emanuele's carriage driver" because the general
supported what his contemporaries viewed as a socially reactionary state?
Helped along by the infamous Inquisition, the
Roman Catholic Church exercised its own brand of architectural revisionism
in Sicily, but it was more nuanced than what was practiced by the island's
Baroque kings. A few of many examples can be seen in the Gothic portico
of Palermo Cathedral where, incidentally, some inscriptions commemorating
the House of Bourbon were never removed - perhaps because the "Savoyard"
authorities of the upstart Kingdom of Italy had no direct control over the
ecclesiastical seat of the Primate of Sicily (only in 1929 did they sign
the treaties regulating the relationship of the Holy See and the Kingdom
Here we see a few religious vestiges of the twelfth century and, truth
be told, they may be a bit older than that.
In the column to the left is an inscription,
in Arabic script, of the first sura of the Koran: "God is Allah and
Muhammad is his Prophet." Was this column previously part of the Great
Mosque the Normans found on this site in 1071? It's quite possible.
That mosque had been built on the site of an earlier structure, a large
Byzantine basilica, and it is possible that the mosaic icon of the Theotokos
(Mother of God) in the niche above the arched portal was preserved from
that church. It is, of course, equally possible that it was created for
the reconstructed cathedral during the twelfth century. However, its style
- which differs from the icons in Monreale
and the Palatine Chapel - argues for an earlier
date. This icon is quite similar to one in Taormina.
We cannot know precisely why the bishops of Roman Catholic Church (as
it became known after the Great Schism of 1054)
chose to leave these details in tact, having redesigned the entire interior
of the cathedral, but we should rejoice that they did. Other treasures,
like the Magione Basilica, were restored to their
original glory following centuries of concealment by plaster and stucco,
while mikvehs (ritual baths) of the Jews
of Siracusa and Palermo
have been discovered.
History may be written - or just revised - by the victors, but ephemera
can sometimes be corrected. In restoring the monuments, we may also restore
a bit of the truth while defining an authentic Sicilian identity.
The modern era:
• The Pursuit of Italy - A History of a Land, Its Regions, and Their Peoples by David Gilmour (2011).
• Terroni - All that has been done to ensure that the Italians of the South became 'southerners' by Pino Aprile (2011).
• The Force of Destiny - A History of Italy Since 1796 by Christopher Duggan (2008).
• The Dark Heart of Italy - An incisive portrait of Europe's most beautiful, most disconcerting country by Tobias Jones (2004).
• A History of Sicily by Moses Finley and Denis Mack Smith.
• Italy and Its Monarchy by Denis Mack Smith.
• The Bourbons of Naples and The Last Bourbons of Naples by Sir Harold Acton.
• The Fall of the House of Savoy by Robert Katz.
• The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (historical fiction, Sicily's all-time bestseller).
The Middle Ages and the shaping of multicultural Sicily:
• The Normans in the South (1967) and The Kingdom in the Sun (1970) by John Julius Norwich.
• Frederick II - A Medieval Emperor by David Abulafia.
• The Sicilian Vespers - A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century by Steven Runciman (1958).
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written
for various publications, including this one.